Oral Tradition Journal at Harvard University

Oral traditions are creative: they romanticize and sensationalize otherwise mundane events. The memory of a historical but probably minor conflict between the Mycenaeans and Trojans over commercial interests—access to the straits of the Hellespont that connected the Black Sea to the Aegean—evolved over time into an extensive cycle of myth about a ten-year siege of Troy triggered by the abduction of the most beautiful woman in the world. Oral traditions are also fluid. The poet of one version of this mythic cycle, later called the Iliad, took full advantage of this fluidity to make dramatic changes in his inherited material both in small details and in larger themes. He brazenly substitutes the nymph Charis for Aphrodite as Hephaestus’ wife; the crafter of the shield of Achilles could not be married to the matron goddess of Achilles’ dire foes! He adds the motif of hunger to the paradigmatic tale of Niobe thatAchilles relates to Priam; like Niobe, Achilles and Priam must remember to eat, even though they are both worn out with weeping. Contrary to the tradition, he gives the wife of Meleager the name Cleopatra. As a morphemic inversion of the name of one of the Iliad’s central characters, Patrocles, this name-change buttresses the paradigmatic value of Phoenix’s tale of Meleager: both Cleopatra and Patrocles succeed in bringing their sulking heroes back onto the battlefield. Homer refashioned his inherited material in order to have it better serve his particular narrative; this was his prerogative as an oral poet.

The Homeric scholar Milman Parry (1902-1935) appreciated the tension between inherited and innovative epic material better than most, having conducted a detailed investigation of the Greek epic tradition from its smallest to largest components (from formulae to type-scenes to larger themes), and having determined that their traditional nature betrayed their oral composition and transmission. But little could Parry anticipate that his own life and death would become the material of a creative and fluid oral—and eventually written—tradition, romanticized and sensationalized by both his admirers and critics.
— Read on journal.oraltradition.org/the-myth-of-milman-parry-ajax-or-elpenor/