A thunder-clap in human history

Greece had not needed the alphabet to create literature — a fact that scholars realized only grudgingly, beginning in the 1930s. That was when Milman Parry, a structural linguist who studied the living tradition of oral epic poetry in Bosnia and Herzegovina, proposed that the Iliad and the Odyssey not only could have been but must have been composed and sung without benefit of writing. The meter, the formulaic redundancy, in effect the very poetry of the great works served first and foremost to aid memory. Its incantatory power made of the verse a time capsule, able to transmit a virtual encyclopedia of culture across generations. His argument was first controversial and then overwhelmingly persuasive — but only because the poems were written down, sometime in the sixth or seventh century BCE. This act — the transcribing of the Homeric epics — echoes through the ages. “It was something like a thunder-clap in human history, which the bias of familiarity has converted into the rustle of papers on a desk,” said Eric Havelock, a British classical scholar who followed Parry. “It constituted an intrusion into culture, with results that proved irreversible. It laid the basis for the destruction of the oral way of life and the oral modes of thought.”

— James Gleick, The Information

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