[Electronic Antiquity]


Current Editor
Terry Papillon, Terry.Papillon@vt.edu
Volume 1, Number 8
April 1994

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Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece,
Rosalind Thomas (Cambridge, 1992),
pp. xii & 201

Reviewed by Barry B. Powell, 
Department of ClAssics,
University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Madison 53706,
e-mail: powell@macc.wisc.edu

A central distinction in cultural history is made between literacy and orality, one or the other decried or celebrated according to one's political persuasion, but what is literacy, really, and what is orality? In T.'s Chapter 1, 'Introduction', she addresses the problem of definition, and a strength of her book is to explain how difficult it is to find satisfactory definitions. Of course, literacy implies the transmission of information with the aid of writing, and orality without the aid of writing. That is simple, but such specific issues as the relation of oral poetry to its written counterpart, as in the case of Homer, are surprisingly tangled. When one hears a memorized version of a text orally composed, then committed to writing, is this orality or not? Is a person literate if he can sign his own name? Or must he be able to decipher a text of 'average complexity'? What about the differences between the ability to read and the ability to write? How can we ever claim that ten percent of such and such a society was literate, or anything similar, when we can never be sure what literate means?

In the second chapter, 'Literacy and Orality', T. explores these issues in some depth. Do members of oral and literate societies think in fundamentally different ways? What are the effects of literacy on a given society? Did alphabetic literacy in ancient Greece change the way they thought? In well-known studies in the sixties, Ian Watt and Jack Goody, followed by Eric Havelock and Marshal McLuhan, argued that alphabetic writing did change the way people thought, that it made possible rationality, democracy, philosophy, historiography, and other essential tools of modern civilization. The argument has since then suffered many refinements, but has not found favor among cultural relativists, with whose conclusions T. shows sympathy. After all, think of the many cases where literacy has failed to modernize its practitioners- -Buddhist monks, for example, who write prayers on water (but not in alphabetic writing, surely, and how is such behavior different from that over which Egyptian Thoth presided, god of magic and writing?).

T. reviews the enormous modern literature on the effects and uses of literacy in non-European societies in modern times and the history of literacy in the European Middle Ages, developing her theme that literacy is no single thing and that it brings upon different societies different effects, depending on preexistent tendencies. The discussion is interesting, but harmed by T.'s tendency to mean by 'literacy', alphabetic literacy, and to speak (against her own admonitions) as if literacy were a single thing (only the effects it brings are different). But the effects of imposing writing on illiterate societies in modern and medieval times are not analogous to writing's effects on a society which has evolved such indigenous traditions as Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphic, the West Semitic and Aegean syllabaries, and the Greek alphabet. Each of these systems of writing was invented to fulfill specific needs, but sometimes turned out unexpectedly to fulfill others, including with the Greek alphabet the need to express philosophical and historiographical thought. Increasing focus in scholarship on the uses of writing, rather than on 'literacy', a point T. emphasizes, assumes implicitly the necessity of approaching writing historically.

In Chapter 3, 'Oral Poetry', T. turns to the thesis of Parry-Lord, whose research has defined the terms of all debate on orality/literacy. She gets off on the wrong foot with the tendentious statement 'that the Homeric poems are essentially the product of an oral tradition of poetry and of more than one poet (called "Homer" for convenience)' (pp. 30-31). Though serious scholars sometimes advocate such views, they misrepresent the Parry-Lord thesis, which she is trying to elucidate. There is nothing in the thesis to prevent Homer from being the actual name of the singer who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. Nor are the poems 'the product of an oral tradition', but the record of a performance given by a master working in such a tradition. There really is a difference here, and a big one: poets, not traditions, create poetry. Nor does Homer come at the end of the tradition, any more than a stone falls into the end of a river. Homer made use of traditional techniques of oral song-making, but the tradition in which he partook, and to which he contributed, did not end just because several performances were recorded in alphabetic writing.

Depending too much on M. Jensen and far too much on R. Finnegan, T. goes on to complain about Lord's belief that the oral poet does not memorize anything, but Lord is right in this, in spite of Finnegan's examples from African oral literatures. Though oral singers may claim to memorize certain kinds of texts word for word, there can be no way of knowing if they do without a written text for verification. We are used to hearing that the Vedas were composed around 1200 B.C., then passed on word for word for hundreds of years until recorded in Devanagari script sometime in the 6th century B.C., but there is no evidence that the text was in fact unchanged over this long period and, on clear reflection, it cannot have been. Yugoslav bards, too, insist that every performance of a given song is exactly the same, but it never is. Memorization requires the repetition over and over of a fixed text until its performance responds exactly to a fixed version, but there are no fixed versions in oral society or even the concept of a fixed version. Memorization implies a dichotomy between author and performer: Sophocles made a written version of Oedipus Rex, and actors memorized it. Homer, by contrast, was creator and performer at the same time, and he did not work from a written text. An oral bard may practice when alone or in the hills, but he is free to present any version he pleases during performance. Passages repeated word for word are an interesting feature in oral style, but they do not imply memorization any more than does the use of a certain epithet in a certain place in the line with a certain metrical value. T. speculates beyond the evidence in thinking that 'the monumental poet worked on Achilles' speech in Iliad 9 particularly carefully, then committed it to memory'.

T. likes to give equal credit to every view, but she is curiously naive about the social conditions in which Homer must have lived. Those who wish to place a stylus in Homer's hands, which T. finds plausible, speak as if Apollonius, Vergil, Milton, and their worlds are useful parallels for understanding the genesis of the Homeric poems. Are we to believe that in the mud- brick huts of Lefkandi, vel similia, Homer toiled to get down his song, scribbling now this word now that, going back to work up a good parallel 500 lines earlier, rolling and unrolling long papyri, scratching out and amending and recopying over the guttering flame of a wick in oil, building subtext and verbal reminiscence, storing his rolls on a shelf for the night, then pulling them out and revising until at last he stood before the people and sang his memorized song? Scholars (like David Shive, whom T. mentions) want to get Homer into his study with his ink pot and papyrus, then leave it at that, problem solved. I'm not sure why some scholars enjoy this reconstruction--I suppose they want Homer to be just like us--but it is worth pointing out that in 2,000 years of prealphabetic literacy there is not a single certain example of a poem 'composed in writing'. All these early poetic texts-- Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the exploits of Ramses II on Egyptian temples, Egyptian love songs from the 18th Dynasty, the Song of Songs--are best understood stylistically as having been composed orally, then taken down in the partially phonetic scripts of the ancient Near East. We will need overwhelming evidence to show that Homer could have lived in conditions of literacy like those of Apollonius, Vergil, and Milton. The miracle is that Homer was recorded at all in an age when writing was known to few, but this is a miracle we can live with and even understand.

T.'s discussion of formulas is equally uncritical. Surely there are fixed phrases in Homer ('swift-footed Achilles'), and whole fixed lines ('When rosy-fingered Dawn . . .'), then much else which seems 'formulaic' on the basis of structural similarities and verbal correspondence. If after that everything gets fuzzy, as Hainsworth and others have shown, and the what is and what is not a formula eludes us, we should also remember that every line falls within the bounds of a rigorous metrical pattern. This pattern does not exist to enable the bard to 'memorize' his text, but to compose it. Apollonius and Vergil chose dactylic hexameter for their poetry because Homer had used it, but Homer's needs were practical. Through analysis we can recover some of the mechanics of composition before a live audience--caesurae correspond in some way to breaks in units of composition smaller than the line but greater than the word--but we should not be surprised that formulaic analysis reached a dead end twenty years ago. Homeric Kunstsprache is a special language with its own internal rules as resistant to mechanical analysis as ordinary spoken language. Computers cannot translate English into Russian, and we cannot decide where 'formulas' begin and end, but this interesting fact hardly invalidates the Parry-Lord model of Homeric composition. T. rejects G. Kirk's fantastic notion that long, orally composed texts could have been transmitted orally without revision for generations before being written down 'just as Homer created them', but passes over G. Nagy's equally unsubstantiated claim that the Homeric oral text gradually became 'crystallized', then was written down in the 6th century.

Summing up, she argues that 'Poetry holds a central place in archaic Greece precisely because it was memorable and structured enough to be one of the few effective forms of preservation' (p. 51). If only poetry did preserve poetry! In the ancient world only writing preserved poetry, and in the weakest part of the book, Chapter 4, 'The Coming of the Alphabet: Literacy and Oral Communication in Archaic Greece', she turns to this central topic. Hampered by no direct knowledge of nonalphabetic systems of writing and shaky on the history of writing, T. nonetheless does her best to assess the nature and the effects of the revolutionary alphabetic Greek writing, which appeared in Greece sometime around 800 B.C. Her errors of emphasis and interpretation are perhaps typical of classicists, but certainly Phoenician was not a 'clumsy' writing; letter forms are of limited importance in solving questions of origins in the history of writing; and why is it 'culturally chauvinistic' to attribute an inventor to the Greek alphabet? If one wishes to record the elements of human speech with graphic signs, the Greek alphabet was superior to earlier writings, its astounding success in the last 2,000 years ample proof of its utility (the alphabet is today used by half the literate people in the world). The Chinese may be capable of rational thought, as T. claims, but they did not invent natural philosophy or historiography or democracy, and when T. writes that 'The Phoenician alphabet also has letters corresponding to sounds', one wonders if T. knows what happened in Mesopotamia around 3400 B.C., when someone stumbled on the phonetic principle. Nor has she grasped that the revolutionary feature of the Greek alphabet was not the introduction of vowels, which are common in earlier writings, but the isolation of graphic signs that represent phonemes in natural language. She is quick to decry Hellenocentrism, but falls its victim: throughout this chapter, by 'writing' she almost always means 'alphabetic writing'.

Her discussion of the earliest examples of alphabetic writing is superficial. The earliest alphabetic writing is not from Pithecusae, but Lefkandi, and most early graffiti do not consist of proper names, which are surprisingly uncommon and almost always explicable as belonging to larger expressions. She cites approvingly A. Johnston's notion that the alphabet was invented to mark property, but the theory is unsupported by the evidence that T. herself adduces and would be unparalleled in the history of writing. T.'s own statements deny it: 'writing was at first used as a straightforward counterpart to speaking' (p. 64). In fact T. does not understand the topic of alphabetic writing, and for this reason is unable to assess accurately other scholars work on this topic. Such misapprehensions matter less when T. moves away from the early period, and she is good on the early public uses of alphabetic writing for the recording of laws and the making of lists, and on the ways in which oral evidence continued to support written testimony. But why does she doubt the revolutionary effects of written law on Greek society? Denying unfounded claims made for universal literacy among the Greeks, and citing the continuing importance of the scribe, she speaks as if writing in Greece was somehow the same as it was in the ancient Near East, as if nothing had changed with the invention of the alphabet. This is not true.

In Chapter 5, 'Beyond the Rationalist View of Writing: Between "Literate" and "Oral",' T. turns to uses of alphabetic writing not related to the need to communicate information. Such uses are always important in the history of writing, because of writing's awesome power, but no people ever made less use of these possibilities than the Greeks. T. cites the interesting corpus of curse inscriptions, often written on lead, but what is surprising about written curses when the function of alphabetic writing, on her own admission, was to record the spoken word? Sometimes alphabetic letters are used as if they possessed immanent power-- some abecedaria probably fall into this category--but these usages are rare in the Greek tradition and in no sense parallel to what we find in the ancient Near East or in Islamic and Eastern countries today. T. notes that the Greeks wrote on gold, lead, wood, papyrus, stone, and pottery--you could say the same for us--but does not mention that they failed to write on wet clay, the preferred substance for three thousand years in Mesopotamia and in Bronze Age Crete and Greece itself. T. seems unaware that the Greeks must have possessed from the moment of the alphabet's introduction a primary medium on which they wrote, and that gold, stone, ceramic, and lead bases for inscriptions do not reflect common usage, but the durability of the surviving medium. The primary medium can only have been papyrus, on which was preserved the enormous body of Greek literature which has survived into modern times, hardly a surprise when the Greek word for papyrus, byblos , is the same as the Phoenician city whence, or near whence, came the model for the alphabet itself. T. is accurate in her understanding of the primacy of the spoken word over the written text, and in describing the function of alphabetic writing as a mnemonic device for the recollection of what was to be presented orally--witness the absence of 'silent reading' through the classical period, at least. She is quite good on public inscriptions of the classical period, noting that they were more memorials to decisions taken than administrative documents intended for consultation: they, not copies in archives, were considered the official and original document. She well characterizes the false assumptions that we bring to our thinking about the use of archives in the ancient world--where none existed in Greece before 507 B.C. (in Athens), and for a century after they were haphazard and ill-organized at best.

In Chapter 6, 'Orality, Performance, and Memorials', T. turns to questions of performance and the relation that performance may have had to written texts. She underlines the instability of oral traditions and reminds us of how stories of the past are constantly recast to suit the predilections of the present (those who see in Homer descriptions of the Bronze Age, please take note!) In Greek literature, interest was focused on the legendary past until Herodotus wrote on a war of his father's generation. Thus did whole centuries--from the writing down of Homer in the early 8th century B.C. to the Persian Wars--simply disappear from memory. Discussing the function of poetry and its ability to preserve kleos , T. usefully reviews the major issues. We learn about the poet's role as vatis , about the inestimable loss of music and dance that accompanied poetry, and the importance of performance to our understanding of Greek poetry (if we only knew something about it!). What is the relation between a written text as it has come down to us and a text performed in ancient times? Did Sappho compose her poems orally, then commit them to writing, or create them in writing as we would do today? As for Herodotus, she cites evidence that he must have delivered his story piecemeal, then revised it to incorporate audience response and criticism. Plato's Seventh Letter tells us how the oral tradition is always preferred to the written, to which it is but an adjunct. In the ancient world the relations between written text and 'published' text was never the same as it is today.

Chapter 7, 'Literacy and the State: The Profusion of Writing', addresses the relation between writing and politics. She is on firm ground in describing writing in the Greek polis, where it was used surprisingly little for administrative purposes--there was no state bureaucracy in the Greek world before Ptolemaic Egypt, an extraordinary fact when one remembers that in Mesopotamia writing began in service to bureaucracy and was so used exclusively for 600 years. Official uses of writing in the archaic and classical periods seem mainly restricted to inscriptions on stone of laws, lists, and treaties; other kinds of documents appear toward the end of the classical period. In the Hellenistic period, archives were more extensive, but records of any kind were far less systematic than historians presume; there was not even a systematic vocabulary for referring to written documents and their preservers.

As case examples, T. picks Sparta and Athens. The dearth of public writing in Sparta is striking; only foreign treaties were publicly recorded. Athens is just the opposite. From 460 B.C. on, a wide range of documents were recorded: treaties, temple accounts, decrees, the famous tribute lists and other lists (including those of traitors and debtors). Still, these were not archives in a modern sense, and these documents were often destroyed or changed, and many forms of document were not represented. T. is at her best in describing the perplexing and chaotic relation between the stone monuments and lost public archives in Athens. How are we to explain the differences between Sparta and Athens in their use of public records? T. qualifies the usual answer to this question, that Athens' radical democracy demanded openness and freedom from secret and arbitrary interpretations, by pointing to Crete, where written documents, laws and decrees, did not go with democratic practice. T. tends to work this way: she finds an exception to a general rule, or even a qualification, and then proposes that the rule is invalid. But to observe that written law is subject to interpretation and manipulation does not deny that written law was in Greece a radical departure from rule by silent conspiracy. Athenian democracy could not have carried on as it did without its traditions of public display of documents more or less intelligible to citizens, and to think so would deny the uniqueness of Athenian political forms. Alphabetic writing may not create democracy, but it was the sine qua non of the democracy of the Athenians.

Who could read and write in the ancient Greek world? T. turns to the abundant evidence surviving from the Egyptian bureaucracy, where professional scribes carried out functions requiring literacy and literacy in itself seems not to have been a factor in one's class alignment. Egyptian practice is always interesting, but as T. herself admits, much of it must depend on pre-Hellenic Pharaonic models. Unfortunately, Alexandria does not tell us very much about fifth- century Athens.

In the concluding 'Epilogue: the Roman World', T. points out how the transition from oral to written has not been an issue in Italy. There traditions of writing were imported directly from the Greeks, especially during the Hellenistic period. T. has interesting remarks about the rhetorical tradition in Rome and the relation between written texts and versions presented orally before a live audience.

T. has written an interesting book, her arguments expressed with admirable clarity, its compass of pleasing brevity, with an elegant bibliography. The book is designed to be used as a text book in ancient history courses in the U.K., and for this purpose it succeeds admirably. She successfully describes the ambiguous realities that lurk behind the easy concepts of 'literacy' and 'orality', and her descriptions of the use of writing in Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries is excellent. But T.'s habit of giving everybody equal time, even Martin Bernal, has unfortunately prevented her from coming closer to the realities of early literacy and orality in ancient Greece than she might have, and the student will take away from this book a skewed sense of the relation of Homeric studies to the questions she addresses. She has not understood that writing is a technology for thought parallel to but independent of spoken language, and that the structure of systems of writing make certain kinds of thought possible, others impossible. The genius of the Greek alphabet was always its closeness to spoken language, of whose enormous resources alphabetic writing made use to reach sublime heights of poetic expression in recordings of Homeric and later poetry. Alphabetic writing made possible the refinements of philosophic thought from which has grown modern science. No earlier writing could accomplish either goal, because the spoken language was kept at a far remove from written expression. In short, the problem of literacy is more intractable than T. makes out, and orality, which must always be defined against literacy, remains as murky as ever. The greatest virtue of her book is to outline the issues that remain to be solved.

Barry Powell
e-mail: powell@macc.wisc.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 8 - April 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606

DLA Ejournal Home | Electronic Antiquity Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search ElAnt and other ejournals