The Legacy of the Epic Singers

- In Homer's footsteps in the 20th century

Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Montenegro, 1933. In the market town of Bijelo Polje lives the Muslim village butcher and small farmer Avdo Medjedovic. The rest of the world would probably never have taken notice of the old man in the mountains if Milman Parry had not appeared in this village one day, inspired by the idea of solving Homer's mystery by researching the epic singing traditions of this region.
Professor Parry comes from America, from Harvard University, with two aluminium record phonographs in the luggage of his Ford V-8, which allow him to carve even several hours' worth of chants into the soft metal. After two years of adventurous field research, his vision comes true. Avdo Medjedovic, illiterate like most of the other epic singers in this area - Muslims and Christians, Serbs, Bosnians and Albanians - recites heroic songs to him that come to 13,000 verses, accompanied on his one-stringed knee violin, the gusle. Not only the length of the epics, but also their themes and formulas conjure up memories of the Illiad and Odyssey.
What is special: These epics are not memorised from an existing model, but are poetised ad hoc, composed at the moment of performance! Milman Parry wants to understand how something like this can work. He does experiments: Avdo Medjedovic is to re-sing word for word an epic he did not know before and only gets to hear once from a "colleague". His new version, which Parry documents with his phonograph, is a good half as long as the original! No element is missing - but what has been added has truly "Homericised" the poem.
When Milman Parry returns to the USA in 1935, he has collected over 12,000 epics and folk songs, the recorded records weigh tons. Shortly afterwards, Parry dies at the age of 33 - a shot is fired from the pistol he had carried for his safety on his expeditions.
Parry's assistant Albert Lord took over the processing of the collection, among others Bela Bartok worked on the transcriptions of the sound documents. In 1960, The Singer of Tales - Milman Parry's and Albert Lord's well-founded account of orally transmitted poetry - is published. They conclude that Homer (like Avdo Medjedovic) was an oral master poet of his time and not the forefather of all writers. A shock for the scripture-fixated self-image of the Occident.The poets were once the mythical memory of a peasant culture. But in fact it is written and printed material that gives Yugoslav traditions a new ugly, fanatically distorted face. Epics have been misused there in nationalist-religious and ethnic trench warfare not only since yesterday. Radovan Karadzic, the war criminal, psychiatrist ... and poet also invoked Serbian Orthodox heroic myths to pursue the eradication of Bosnian Muslim culture.

In addition to the audio recordings, the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature includes countless transcriptions, interviews, photographs, research objects and reports, including a field diary by Milman Parry. Film documents are sparse. The Albanian author Ismail Kadaré used Parry's research as a model for his novel Dosja H (The File on H.). These materials would be the basis for a partly documentary, partly fictional reconstruction of Parry's expedition to Yugoslavia in the 1930s.

- The parallel world of oral poetry
Milman Parry's and Albert Lord's pioneering fieldwork in Serbo-Croatian epic-singing traditions set out to answer the two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old Homer question: How did the Iliad and Odyssey come to be, and who exactly was their creator? But despite the well-founded argumentation of the Parry school, the dispute among philologists about the mythical poet's literacy continues; after all, for some, their own worldview is at stake.
But Lord's The Singer of Tales also triggers worldwide studies of oral traditions and has its share in the folk revival of the 50s and 60s, the forerunner of the world music wave. Whether medieval epic, African griots, Finnish ballads or Central Asian heroic songs, the interest in poetry passed down orally is penetrating all corners of the world. Even in Europe, in Albania and Kosovo, epic song still exists in its authentic oral form, albeit severely decimated by war. Myth without a future?
The Homer question, if it were Homer himself who could ask, would hold up a mirror to the dominant written culture, and the image in it would be similar to colonialism.

- Memory and the sea of media

Milman Parry's story takes place at the dawn of the media age. While he captures the voices of the epic singers on aluminium, the Nazis march in propaganda stride and the assassination of Yugoslavia's Alexander I is filmed in Marseille, the cinema premiere of a regicide.
Marshall McLuhan, prophet of the global village, sees his bestseller The Gutenberg Galaxy as a supplement to The Singer of Tales. The world of writing and printed matter is coming to an end, the Gutenberg Galaxy is collapsing. A secondary orality emerges in the web of cyberspace.
Plato, in turn, has Socrates rail against the new medium of writing: "This skill will make souls forgetful, because they will no longer practise reflection. (...) From outside, thanks to foreign signs, things will be called into their memory, not from their own they will remember." As if he were standing in front of a PC.
The cultural being human is born from language, signs and memory. The way these are stored and passed on changes the content, the form, the thinking, the power relations, and thus in turn language, signs and memory.
Odysseus' last voyage through the sea of media.

Manuskript zur Sendung


Cast & Crew

Uli Aumüller
René Pandis
Christian Gaul, Wolfgang Condrus
Editorial Jounalist
Frank Kämpfer