The Oral Epic : From Performance to Interpretation book cover
1st Edition

The Oral Epic
From Performance to Interpretation

ISBN 9780367761318
Published July 27, 2021 by Routledge
282 Pages 40 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

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.

Table of Contents


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

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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.