Oral Epics Today: Death, Survival, and Change
Author: Reichl, Karl
Affiliation: University of Bonn

In my paper I want to discuss two contrary developments in various traditions of oral epics around the globe: the death of oral epic and the survival, sometimes tenuous and sometimes vigorous, of oral epic traditions. The twentieth century has seen the disappearance of a number of strong and flourishing epic traditions. In former Yugoslavia, where Milman Parry and Albert Lord have collected a rich harvest of oral epics in the first half of the twentieth century, no traditional Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian epic singer is known today. All we have is stage performances of memorized texts. Similarly, the performance of narrative tales with inserted songs (hikâye) by Turkish minstrels has practically come to an end. Only a handfull of minstrels can still tell a tale. This is also true of other epic traditions among the peoples of Eurasia. While Russian bylinas or Finnish-Karelian runos could still be collected in the middle of the twentieth century, these forms of oral epic poetry have today become extinct. On the other hand, some epic traditions have survived into the twenty-first century. On the Balkan peninsula, for instance, in a small area of present-day Kosovo, a vigorous oral epic tradition in Albanian can still be found. The Turkic epic-cycle of Manas is enjoying great popularity among the Kirghiz (both in Kyrgyzstan and among the Kirghiz of China) and is still attracting young singers to devote their time and energy to the acquisition of a singer’s art. This continuing life of an oral epic tradition is not without changes and innovations. Today griots can be heard to perform epics like Sunjata not only in West Africa, but also in other countries (especially the United States) and, what is even more important, on the internet. Not all performances follow the pattern familar from the ethnographic descriptions of Africanists. In some areas epic singers have adapted their repertoire to the tastes of modern society, as for instance when Rajasthani singers perform the Pabuji-epic to restaurant guests in the big towns of Northern India. Among the Karakalpaks, a small Turkic-speaking people of Uzbekistan, the last traditional epic singer (jirau) died in 2006; yet young singers are trying to keep the art of the jirau alive by re-enacting the traditional singers’ repertoire in their typical performance manner. The question facing the scholar in today’s situtation is how best to deal with the disappearance and the transformation of oral epic traditions and how to encourage the continuation and survival of an ancient art. There is no easy answer to this question; I will attempt to give a few tentative suggestions along the lines of UNESCO’s intangible heritage programme.