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The Father of Oral History

ISSUE:  Summer 1985
Herodotean Narrative and Discourse. By Mabel L. Lang. Harvard. $20.00.

Herodotus was the “Father of History.” The title was given to him by Cicero, who lived in the first century before Christ, four centuries after Herodotus published his Histories on the rise of the Persian Empire and its war with Greece. Cicero also regarded Herodotus as a blatant liar who told tall tales without an ounce of shame, and in that he was merely accepting the verdict of the ancient world. Herodotus was an oral historian who could spin a good story, though before he died, he took a step into the future and committed his researches to writing as a single work with a unified theme. Herodotus’ tales were logoi, and there is a difference in Greek between logos and mythos, the word from which we derive “myth.” A logos is a tale that might be produced before a critical audience, whereas myths were entertaining stories with no claim to historical accuracy. The distinction is important. In his own lights, Herodotus produced a true vision of the past. But unfortunately for him, his great successor was Thucydides, who was scientific and rigorous in his analysis of sources, or so he tells us, and, with some exceptions, scholars have taken him at his word. The comparison damaged Herodotus.

In the last few years, however, we have come to appreciate oral historians, and Herodotus’ reputation has acquired a fresh luster. In part, this is thanks to greater academic interest in the structures of popular folk literature: for instance, the ballads of Mrs. Brown of Falkland, who was really Anna Gordon and learned her ballads in the northeast of Scotland before 1759, when the region was largely nonliterate, are built up of formulaic structural units, all of which appear in Herodotus. Admittedly, the labels are different: what is “annular patterning” in Mrs. Brown’s ballads is “ring composition” in the world of Herodotean studies. The comparison is valid, but it was not made until this generation. The change of heart is due in part to the impact of Claude Levi-Strauss’ structuralist theories but also to Alex Haley’s Roots, which dramatized some of the research done by Jan Vansina, David Henige, and others into the transmission of oral history.

How oral history was transmitted in archaic Greece is a tantalizing question, but a researcher in the field soon runs out of evidence. Where did Herodotus get his information? Classical scholars once upon a time used to resurrect a clutch of early chroniclers known to us only by their names and a few miserable fragments and set these up as Herodotus’ sources, but many of them seem not to be early enough to have done Herodotus much good. No writer can plagiarize from another writer who has not yet published! In any case, Herodotus quotes only one of these insubstantial sources, the geographer Hecataeus from Miletus on the Asia Minor coast, and, apart from him, the written sources he names are poets like Homer and Pindar. The sources he prefers to name are called simply “the Egyptians,” “the Spartans,” “the Persians,” or the like, as if these ethnic groups had identifiable oral traditions of their own. Yet any researcher who wants to discover in archaic Greece the equivalent of the griot whom Alex Haley found in Gambia must be willing to skate on thin ice. Herodotus quotes numerous oracles in his Histories which bear no similarity to the oracles that have survived inscribed on stone. Where did he get them? We hear of officials called “remembrancers” in ancient city states, and “holy remembrancers” in temples, but they seem to have kept mundane records: inventories and registers of property. Perhaps some of them bore comparison with Haley’s griot. In any case, Herodotus somehow managed to tap the folk memories that existed in archaic Greece before writing history became a literary occupation, but we do not quite know how.

The structuralist approach to the problem produces more satisfactory results, and Mabel Lang concentrates on it. Herodotean Narrative and Discourse began as the Martin Classical Lectures which Lang, who is Professor of Greek at Bryn Mawr, gave at Oberlin College, and they appear here in print, with a good clutch of appendices that bulk as large as the four lectures, thereby marking a difference between the 20th century and Herodotus: his Histories also began as lectures; but when he committed them to writing, he did not have the luxury of appendices or footnotes.

The lectures follow a logic that is as abstruse as the structures of oral discourse themselves. First, a chapter titled “Narrative Transitions” deals with not only the ways that oral narration hangs together but with the speeches and dialogues that Herodotus assigns his characters: how they serve to clarify motives and flesh out the psychology of the movers and shakers of history. The second lecture compares the patterns of discourse found in Herodotus with those found in Homer, who is generally agreed to have been a sort of corporation of oral poets. The Homeric comparison continues into the third lecture, where Lang can find significance in simple observations. How do the questions, rhetorical or otherwise, that Herodotus’ characters ask compare with Homer’s? “Homer’s questions invoke the Muses, while Herodotus skillfully uses questions in a spirit of scientific inquiry whereby partial knowledge can be made to increase understanding of the whole.”

Then there are the Herodotean alternatives. Before the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., when Athens, with some small help from her little neighbor, Plataea, defeated a Persian expeditionary force that grew larger with each successive generation of historians, the Athenian general, Miltiades, urged his commander to attack with the words, “It is up to you to decide whether Greece will be enslaved or free.” Ten years later, before the decisive naval battle of Salamis, the Athenian Themistocles urged the Spartan admiral to engage the Persian fleet with the same words. The right choice could decide the course of history. This is the subject of Lang’s last lecture: “Look to the End.” “It is right to look how every affair comes out at the end,” said Solon, who was one of the Seven Wise Men of ancient Greece. Herodotus approved. One of the basic structures of oral composition, which Herodotus shares with Mrs. Brown of Falkland, is that in which the topic sentence at the start of a story looks forward to the conclusion, and the tale comes round in a circle. And so, I suspect, did Herodotus’ historical perspective.

A generation after Herodotus, Thucydides taught the ancient world what scientific history was all about, and by comparison Herodotus seemed a naive, untrustworthy writer with a nice, readable style. But turgidity is not the hallmark of reliable history writing, and Herodotus’ reputation has been rising in recent years in post-Rankean historiography. Lang has done a good deal to put the Father of History into perspective, and though this book will appeal more to the specialist than the general reader, it is a worthy contribution to its field.


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