"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturay Science: Oral Histories

Did you ever stop to think about how much of what we know about the past comes from oral tradition? Because, of course, most people, until quite recently, couldn't write. Just think about how long things like the Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, all those epics, not to mention the myths, legends, and teaching stories, must have been around before anyone wrote them down.

It turns out some people were really, really good at remembering their stories:

Without using written languages, Australian tribes passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations through hundreds of generations as high-fidelity oral history. Some tribes can still point to islands that no longer exist — and provide their original names.

That’s the conclusion of linguists and a geographer, who have together identified 18 Aboriginal stories — many of which were transcribed by early settlers before the tribes that told them succumbed to murderous and disease-spreading immigrants from afar — that they say accurately described geographical features that predated the last post-ice age rising of the seas.

I suspect the accuracy of the collective memory of the Australian natives in this case has a lot to do with their highly refined sense of place:

“Dreamings” are a particularly Australian thing that finds parallels in other cultures but has a distinctly unique flavor. Marett discusses Dreamings quite clearly as a phenomenon that has to do with the spiritual and the eternal, most commonly expressed in the Daly region, the focus of this study, as “that which derives from the eternal, uncreated, springing out of itself.” This is pretty much in direct opposition to Western thought, which has difficulty dealing with the idea that something just is, and has been. It is symptomatic of the unified conceptual framework of the Aborigines that the meaning can be danced as easily as verbalized, and the dance will probably carry that meaning more clearly than the words.

Aboriginal ritual springs from the need to acknowledge and clarify the relationship of the group to the land, which includes origins, traditions, and the relationship of the living to the dead, the dead having gone back into the land with the potential of being reborn.

So think twice before you dismiss legends and folk tales as mere fictions. Because they're probably not.


Pieter B said...

This is so cool!

Hunter said...

It's the sort of thing that has fascinated me forever -- history, myth, oral traditions, folklore, language, all of that complex of things that details who we've been, if you can figure it out.

Blame Joseph W. Campbell, whose work I've been reading forever. Well, that and a degree in psych.