1st Edition

The Oral Epic From Performance to Interpretation

By Karl Reichl Copyright 2022
    282 Pages 40 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    282 Pages 40 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book focuses on the performance of oral epics and explores the significance of performance features for the interpretation of epic poetry.

    The leading question of the book is how the socio-cultural context of performance and the various performance elements contribute to the meaning of oral epics. This is a question which not only concerns epics collected from living oral tradition, but which is also of importance for the understanding of the epics of antiquity and the Middle Ages which originated and flourished in an oral milieu.

    The book is based on fieldwork in the still vibrant oral traditions of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and Siberia. The discussion combines fieldwork with theory; it is not limited to Turkic epics but branches out into other oral traditions.


    Part I: Settings

    1 How to Identify an Oral Epic

    Oral: shades and grades

    The challenge of native classification

    An African interlude

    The Uzbek dastan

    2 The Singer

    Epic singers: types and terms

    How to become an epic singer

    The chain of transmission

    Creativity and innovation

    3 Introducing Performance

    The ethnography of communication


    Part II: Performance

    4 Voice



    Shamanic voices

    5 Gesture

    Conventional gestures: the Karakalpak jïraw

    Stylized gestures: the Kyrgyz manaschï

    Gesture and inspiration

    Gesture, miming, stage props

    6 Oral Epics as Songs

    Song as vehicle, song as music

    ‘Riding the song’: the singing of the Kyrgyz epic Manas

    Music and metre: some examples

    7 Voice and Instrument

    Gusle, qobïz, horse-head fiddle

    Lute, dutar, dombira

    The interplay of song and instrument

    Part III: Interpretation

    8 Words, Music, Meaning

    Meaning and expression

    What’s in a name?


    Leitmotifs in Siberian oral epics

    Expression and convention

    9 The Singer and the Tale

    Point of View

    Mythological epics, sacred time

    First-person narration, shamanic traces

    The narrator’s presence in the narrative

    10 Performance and Interpretation

    Visualization and imaging

    Aria and recitative

    From context to text


    A Notes on Oral Epic Traditions

    B Audio/Video Examples

    C Discography


    Karl Reichl is Professor Emeritus of the University of Bonn (Institute of English, American and Celtic Studies). He has had visiting professorships at Harvard University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, the University of Madison at Wisconsin, and the Karakalpak State University in Nukus. His main research interests lie in medieval oral literature and in contemporary (or near-contemporary) oral epic poetry, especially in the Turkic-speaking areas of Central Asia.