Re: how reliable is the oral tradition ?

Rod Hagen (
Tue, 29 Nov 1994 10:33:02 +1000

> In article <>, lettej@ERE.UMontreal.CA (Lette
Jean) writes...
> >
> >Hello,
> >
> >Societies which do not have writing rely mainly on "oral tradition" to pass
> >knowledge from one generation to the next. These teachings (practical
> >knowledge, religion, myths, legends...) end up being studied by
> >anthropologists, are used in textbooks to characterize the "primitive"
> >society being studied and are highly respected by some who consider them
> >to reflect some kind of "primal" knowledge (lost by modern society...).
> >
> >Question: I would be curious to know if there are any studies published
> >which looked at how reliable the oral tradition is in passing "teachings"
> >from one generation to the next, and how much distortion occurs over the
> >years. Can we assume that the legends taught by the elders today are at
> >least similar to those taught 100 years ago. Human nature being what
> >it is, wouldn't it be somewhat surprizing ?
> >
> >Thank you for your input,
> >
> >Jean
> >Internet:

Some of my own experiences working in Australia suggest that many myths
etc today are "at least similar" to those of a hundred years ago. Some
years ago I undertook an examination of sacred sites and associated
mythology around Alice Springs and found substantial congruity with
information obtained by Spencer and Gillen at the turn of the century.

One of the difficulties in undertaking diachronic studies in these
situations though is that the body of myth is so great (At least in the
Aboriginal situation), and the levels often so varied, that you are never
quite sure whether perceived "differences" are due to change or simply
different frames of reference.

I'm always a bit worried about those looking for "primal knowledge" on the
one hand or "reliability" on the other. Societies and their circumstances
change. Myth, to remain vital, needs to maintain some contemporary
relevance. The search for "eternal verities" in myth seems similar in some
ways to the "record it before they die out" philosphy that many
anthropologists in Australia focused on in times gone by.

The search for "reliability" implies (or is often used to impliy) that
changes in myth somehow lessen them. Understanding myth as part of a
living dialectic between people and their social and spiritual world seems
much more interesting and much more important to me.

Rod Hagen