How were ancient texts passed down orally?

As you likely know, “back in the day” stories, poetry, and religious texts were passed down from generation to generation.

My big question is “how”. Does anyone know how this was done historically? Or how you would do it yourself today?

I do some verbatim memorization for fun and have a process/formula I’m comfortable with. I’m really curious what sort of procedure I could build if I was limited

Thank you!


Well, I for one wasn’t around back then, but…

Google dactylic hexameter or iambic trimeter and so forth. That’s basically how you can make assumptions about how they structured the information to be memorized. You can have a look here to compare to English: Rhythm and Meter in English Poetry

You can also just google things like “what verse meter is the iliad” and you’ll get this answer…

Or have a look here if you are more interested in the Mahabharata, etc.

It’s a bit similar to knowing that a 52-card deck requires 17 loci when using a PAO system, or how the measure in a song helps to recall the lyrics. But aside from information being pre-structured, they used memory palaces which we know from primary sources.

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Yes , they did.

Also, in 5 century BC, some famous historical figures like Socrates , were against the written word because it would corrode human oral traditions and and the passing down of oral, semantic and factual memory.

@hazelface ,

Have a look here to see this element of rhythm that makes memorization easier… this is what I mean by “pre-structured.”

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@hazelface, I like to think we could get back to a place where we passed information orally to the next generation. But I think this has been supplanted by so many information storage devices that convenience has won out over knowing a few things well.

I think much of the oral transference of information was done communally. I haven’t researched out as much as I’d like but there are many examples of tribes and families that share stories at festivals and regular meetings so that others who have good natural memories become the next storytellers. The technique of encoding in rhythmic syllables is one form of a pleasurable mnemonic system and there are many others you can use to apply to help build a better artificial memory.

What kind of system do you use to do verbatim memorization? I’m trying to do that also and like to prioritize the value of each small technique.

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Some wonderful responses here! Thank you for them.

@bjoern.gumboldt, you said there were primary sources for using memory palaces for this in ancient times. Do you mind citing which ones you meant? I didn’t realize memory palaces could be used for verbatim text, though how you’re describing it makes that concept make a lot of sense.

@thinkaboutthebible, this video explains it How To Memorize Verbatim Text - YouTube . Sometimes I doubt its efficacy, but one thing it’s really really good at is keeping track of where you are at in memorizing something and keeping your brain from running around in two many circles unproductively.

This question has inspired me. I’d like to try to memorize some stuff (I have things in mind) without reading/writing being part of the process (except maybe to make a recording). Last night after writing this I wrote an app (not meant for other people to use and likely will never be published, sorry) where I can press a key and record myself speaking a line and then later play it back and jump back/forward to other lines. So far I’ve used this to memorize one verse of something. Going to try it for a whole piece!

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They didn`t memorized the texts verbatum. Just main ideas.

Well, if you add alliterations, pars pro toto, and other stylistic devices, you start to see how the whole thing is more of a crossword puzzle when it comes to recall. it’s less of a “where did I leave my keys”-situation and more of a "2 down, 6 letters, first one ‘S’, four and five an ‘E’ "-thing.

I wouldn’t say verbatim in general though, the information has to be structured. Shakespeare’s sonnets are composed of 14 lines, each written in iambic pentameter and most with the traditional rhyme scheme of the English sonnet: abab cdcd efef gg. Compare that to a Dada Poem and you know which one is going to be the tougher one.

It’s not quite as bad as what @AttiLa-24 is saying but of course things don’t always have to be verbatim. It’s not like every Sanskrit text has some numbers sequence worked into it using katapayadi. You have cases where you know from various transcriptions that whole paragraphs changed order within a text.

Bottom line, it’s nice if you can structure the information yourself or if you get prestructured information. Obviously, knowing and recognizing stylistic devices helps a lot with memorization if that is the kind of text you are dealing with.

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Little expectations management before I start looking… I’m not talking about an ancient book called “10 ways to better memory palaces” when I say primary source. We don’t know because somebody translated a user manual that was teaching memory techniques.

What we do have, are passages (in the Vedas for example) that are written in a memory palace kind-of-style if that makes sense. It’s the duck test basically… If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Could also just be a highly unlikely coincidence… like I said before…

…it really does look a lot like a duck. :wink: Wouldn’t make much sense either if it only got invented by the time you were then able to write about how things could be passed down by not writing them down. But hey, like with most that archeology and paleontology stuff… it’s a lot of educated guessing. Just don’t mention that last part too often, some people tend to get offended.

Yes you are right. But you are not considering one important thing. These works were transferred to the memory of the poets who created them.
I myself have written about 200 poems, and I remember most of them.

Therefore, most say that the Greek poets placed one image per locus, which only reflected the main idea of ​​the verse.

Bill Gates also remembers a lot of codes written by him, but this does not mean that he remembers everything.

Thank you!

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Hi there,

Check out the works of Albert Lord…He spearheaded the way of Orality by using Yugoslavian bards and their recall of songs.

Lord is a VERY good start…not many improved upon him…Check out Walter Ong also. :slight_smile:


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In both older and current cultures we see stories, songs, poetry, and a variety of knowledge passed down orally. Some of these, like Homer, were eventually written out and passed down using the written word. Texts, once extant, were generally passed around by copying out or mass printing, but generally were not memorized and passed along via orality or memory techniques. Obviously there are examples of people memorizing large portions of text personally, but this has generally not been the major mode of passing knowledge from one generation to the next.

Dr. Lynne Kelly’s text book Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2015) does a solid job of covering some of the techniques in the archaeological and even contemporary records on this score.

We have modern anthropologists attesting the oral methods you describe from several peoples around the world. Kelly’s book, based on her Ph.D. thesis, does a good job of summarizing many of these. She and Dr. Margo Neale also recently published Songlines: The Power and Promise (Thames & Hudson, 2020) which covers current Australian Aboriginal tribes which use these oral techniques for knowledge transmission as well. The techniques do vary from culture to culture, but on the whole they tend to share many features.

As others have mentioned, Walter Ong’s work, and the book Orality and Literacy (Routledge, 1982) in particular, will provide some additional context.

On your question of practicality, I’d recommend Kelly’s book Memory Craft which currently outlines the broadest number of mnemotechniques out there and provides some advice about which methods are best/better for particular applications. Following this, if necessary, you might focus in on the methods you’re interested in most and hone in on other texts, audiobooks, or posts here in the forum.

Everyone’s abilities and needs are slightly different, so experiment a bit to see what appeals to and/or works best for you.