The best books on ancient oral traditions

Patrick Nunn Author Of The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World
By Patrick Nunn

The Books I Picked & Why

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture

By Lynne Kelly

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture

Why this book?

I had been immersed in oral cultures for more than two decades when I read this book by Lynne Kelly and it was like a curtain being lifted for me. Suddenly I found affirmation that oral traditions indeed had meaning and purpose but – more than this – that they were supplemented in this by art, by dance and performance, by poetry and music. Lynne’s clever and readable book has had a lasting impact on me and the research questions I endeavor to answer. Everyone interested in human pasts should read it.


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When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Paul T. Barber

When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth

Why this book?

When I first read this book, not only was I struck by its central theme that ‘myths’ have meaning but also by the fact that it is our problem that we cannot today recognize myths for what they once were. All oral traditions evolve through time, sometimes over thousands of years and across hundreds of generations of retelling, but if their core is sufficiently memorable, then it can remain recognizable. It is up to us to unpack the stories we hear today, to learn how they changed through time, and try to see whether there is an empirical core in their hearts. This book is a must for anyone interested in learning more about the meaning of ‘myth’ rather than romanticizing it.


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Oral Tradition as History

By Jan Vansina

Oral Tradition as History

Why this book?

The second edition of this book is the one I read, more than thirty years ago, and it taught me a respect for oral traditions that I had not then fully rationalized. Literate people often disparage those who can neither read nor write, suggesting they could not possibly have any useful knowledge to contribute to a literate world. This is what I have termed ‘the arrogance of literacy’ and is something Vansina, following decades of familiarity with African oral traditions, shows to be baseless. Orally communicated knowledge was key to survival and to understanding one’s place in the world. This is a pioneering study that should never be forgotten.


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Hawaiian Mythology

By Martha Warren Beckwith

Hawaiian Mythology

Why this book?

First published in 1940, Hawaiian Mythology is an astonishingly comprehensive compilation of native Hawaiian stories and beliefs that, had it not been for the systematic – even dogged – efforts of people like Martha Beckwith may have never survived to today. This is a book to dip into, especially if you find yourself in Polynesia. The stories are factual, often unembellished, which allows you a glimpse into the soul of Pacific peoples. This book also explores the connections between (remote) Hawaii and other island groups in the western Pacific whence its people came, bearing oral memories that seeded the geography of Hawaii and directed the nature of its human occupation, probably hundreds of years before Europeans even knew the Pacific Ocean existed.


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Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Barbara Bray

Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

Why this book?

This unique book is based on the written records from the early 1300s – more than 700 years ago – of the Cathar heretics living in the village of Montaillou in southern France.  Determined to stamp out hereticism, the Inquisition in the person of the Bishop of Pamiers spent considerable time in Montaillou, writing down a huge amount of incidental information about the way people really lived at the time in such places, what their worldviews entailed, how they behaved and why.  Le Roy Ladurie peppers his analysis of this community with masses of direct quotes from its residents.  I once imagined ancient history could never authentically come to life but this book proved me wrong. 


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