What do you understand by the term oral literature

What do you understand by the term oral literature

The term "oral literature" describes the enormous corpus of artistic, cultural, and historical expressions that have been passed down orally or via song as opposed to through written language. It includes a vast range of formats and genres, such as folktales, myths, chants, songs, proverbs, riddles, and epic poetry. For millennia, this dynamic and varied form of communication has been an essential component of human civilization, helping to preserve and transmit the knowledge, morals, and creative traditions of communities all over the world.

What do you understand by the term oral literature

Orality and Literacy:

At its core, "oral literature" denotes narratives, songs, and other forms of creative expression that are transmitted orally, primarily from generation to generation, rather than through writing or print. It stands in contrast to written literature, which is stored and transmitted through written texts. The term "oral literature" underscores the fact that stories and knowledge have been conveyed through the spoken word long before the advent of written language and continue to be vital in many cultures.

Dynamic and Evolving:

Oral literature is not stagnant but dynamic. It evolves with time and is shaped by the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which it is performed. Each performance or retelling carries the potential for variation, adaptation, and reinterpretation. This adaptability allows oral literature to remain relevant across generations and adapt to changing circumstances.

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Oral Traditions Worldwide:

The concept of oral literature is a global one, encompassing a wide variety of traditions, from the epic poems of ancient Greece (such as the Iliad and the Odyssey) to the oral histories of Indigenous peoples in North America, the storytelling of griots in West Africa, and the ballads of European folk traditions. In each case, oral literature serves as a means of preserving cultural identity, passing on wisdom, and providing entertainment.

II. Characteristics of Oral Literature


One of the most defining characteristics of oral literature is its performative nature. These narratives, songs, and rituals are meant to be spoken, sung, chanted, or enacted. The oral tradition often involves skilled performers who possess the knowledge and skills required to deliver the material effectively.

Communal Sharing:

Unlike written literature, which can be read individually, oral literature is often shared within a communal setting. It fosters a sense of collective identity and belonging, as it is frequently presented in gatherings, festivals, and ceremonies. In this way, it binds communities together and reinforces shared values and beliefs.

Fluidity and Variability:

Oral literature is not bound by fixed texts. Instead, it is characterized by fluidity and variability. Each storyteller or performer may introduce slight variations or personal touches to the narrative. This variability allows the oral tradition to adapt to the specific needs and interests of the community and the circumstances of the moment.

Use of Mnemonics:

In the absence of a written text, oral poets and storytellers often employ mnemonic devices, such as formulaic expressions and repetitive structures, to aid in the memorization and transmission of their material. These devices help ensure the accuracy of the narrative and its faithful transmission from one generation to the next.

Cultural Relevance:

Oral literature is deeply embedded in the culture from which it emerges. It reflects the values, beliefs, and historical experiences of the community. As such, it often serves as a repository of cultural knowledge, a means of preserving and transmitting history, cosmology, and ethical guidelines.

Multimodal Expression:

Oral literature can encompass a wide range of modes of expression, including spoken word, music, dance, and visual art. It is a multifaceted form of storytelling that engages the senses and emotions, creating a rich and immersive experience for the audience.

III. Significance of Oral Literature

Cultural Preservation:

Oral literature plays a crucial role in preserving and transmitting the cultural heritage of societies. It carries forward the stories, myths, and traditions that shape a community's sense of identity and belonging. In many cases, it serves as a living archive of a people's history and worldview.

Social Cohesion:

The communal nature of oral literature fosters social cohesion and collective identity. Through shared storytelling, communities come together to celebrate their common heritage and reinforce their values and beliefs. This sense of belonging is vital for the overall well-being of the community.

Education and Learning:

Oral literature is an educational tool that imparts knowledge and wisdom. It is often used to teach moral lessons, convey historical events, and instill cultural values. In this way, it serves as a primary means of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next.

Entertainment and Aesthetics:

Beyond its educational and cultural functions, oral literature is a source of entertainment and artistic expression. 

What do you understand by the term oral literature-The beauty of oral storytelling, poetry, and song lies in their ability to captivate and move the audience emotionally, providing enjoyment and aesthetic pleasure.

IV. Examples of Oral Literature from Different Cultures

To illustrate the concept of oral literature, let's explore examples from various cultures:

Homer's Epics (Ancient Greece):

Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" are foundational works of Western literature, originally transmitted orally. These epic poems recount the heroic tales of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus. They were performed by skilled bards who memorized the lengthy narratives and recited them to enthralled audiences.

Sundiata Epic (West Africa):

The Sundiata Epic, also known as the Epic of Sundiata Keita, is a West African oral tradition that recounts the story of Sundiata, the founder of the Mali Empire. This epic, preserved by griots (oral historians and storytellers), embodies the history and cultural heritage of the Mandinka people.

Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories (Australia):

The Aboriginal peoples of Australia have a rich oral tradition known as Dreamtime stories. These narratives describe the creation of the world and its features, along with the moral and spiritual lessons embedded in these tales. They are shared in ceremonies and rituals.

Hawaiian Hula (Hawaii):

Hawaiian hula is a form of oral literature that combines dance, chant, and storytelling. Hula performances convey the history and mythology of the Hawaiian islands. Through movements, gestures, and songs, hula dancers recount the stories of their culture.

The Mahabharata (India):

The Mahabharata is one of the longest epic poems in the world and a foundational text in Hindu literature. It was traditionally recited and memorized by bards and storytellers. This epic narrates the great Kurukshetra War, encompassing philosophical, moral, and historical elements.

Native American Creation Stories (North America):

Indigenous cultures across North America possess a rich tapestry of creation stories, often passed down orally. These narratives explain the origins of the world, the relationships between humans and the natural world, and the moral teachings of each tribe.

V. Challenges and Preservation of Oral Literature

Erosion of Oral Traditions:

In a rapidly changing world, many oral traditions are under threat of erosion and extinction. The proliferation of written and digital media, globalization, and social changes can lead to the neglect of oral literature. Consequently, numerous cultures are struggling to preserve their rich heritage.

Documentation and Recording:

Efforts have been made to document and record oral literature to ensure its preservation. This involves transcribing and archiving performances, often with the consent and collaboration of the community from which the material originates. Digital technology has significantly aided these efforts.

Cultural Appropriation and Misrepresentation:

The appropriation and misrepresentation of oral literature by outsiders is a concern. When non-members of a culture exploit or misinterpret its oral traditions, it can lead to the distortion of cultural identity and the spreading of inaccuracies.

Language Endangerment:

Many oral traditions are closely tied to specific languages, and the endangerment or extinction of these languages poses a significant threat to the survival of the associated oral literature. Language preservation efforts are often intertwined with the preservation of oral traditions.

Balancing Tradition and Adaptation:

There is an ongoing debate within communities about how to balance the preservation of traditional oral literature with the need for adaptation to contemporary contexts. Striking this balance is vital to ensure the continued relevance of these traditions.


A diverse and ever-evolving representation of human creativity, culture, and history is found in oral literature. For thousands of years, theatre has been a fundamental component of societies all over the world, acting as a tool for identity creation, education, entertainment, and cultural preservation. Oral literature, spanning from the epic poetry of ancient Greece to the storytelling customs of Indigenous peoples, has had a profound impact on human existence.

What do you understand by the term oral literature-Although there are obstacles facing oral literature in the modern world, such as the threat of cultural appropriation and the deterioration of traditions, efforts are still being made to capture, preserve, and chronicle these priceless traditions. 

Oral literature preservation is an investment in the cultural diversity and richness of our common global history, not just a way to protect the past. We gain an appreciation for the tremendous and enduring power of spoken word when we comprehend and value oral literature.


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