Oral tradition

Writing and power

For centuries, most of humanity was illiterate; even in peoples who had developed writing systems, most of the population was illiterate. Writing systems, created for political and administrative reasons, were used by educated minorities/elites, generally associated with the (religious and/or political) powers. Reading and writing was both a luxury and a blessing. The scribes were held in high esteem, and their instruction provided them with considerable social and economic recognition. The possession of written products –books, codices, manuscripts– was another elusive luxury for classes and social groups of average or scarce resources.

The visibility that writing provides to a civilization becomes clear if it is compared with the invisibility to which the illiterate societies are relegated. Little is known about the intangible culture of the peasants, minority groups, women and children, slaves, sick people, and all those who, in different territories and at different times, never wrote; all we know about them is the little that can be inferred from their material remains or from the (written) account of those who could (or wanted to) write something down about them. Such groups are virtually non-existent for history and culture, and only contemporary efforts in the social sciences are managing to rescue minimal fragments of those realities, as valuable as any other. Rada (1996: 26) says:

People who did not enter the world of literacy, that is, that did not register the knowledge through the alphabet, that did not assume the new "alphabetical mentality" as professor Eric Havelock call sit, were considered a backward segment of humanity. The indigenous populations of North America or Australia were considered uncivilized. Our libraries did not collect their knowledge because it was not written. Since it was not written, it had no value: since it was not in the books, it was not reliable. In this way we have lost much of the accumulated knowledge of most of humanity.

On the other hand, the written speech –usually created by dominant hands– reflects, extols, and perpetuates the voice of the conqueror, of those who can write down or print out their version of events, their opinion, their nuances, and their ideas. In this way, silence accentuates the invisibility of the dominated and the vanquished peoples, and of those who have no form or space to make their reality, their struggle and their memories endure.

Writing preserved for posterity the traditions of a small group of people, their events, their pride and their fears. It did so on the Mesopotamian clay tablets, the agave codices of the Mayas and the Aztecs, the Chinese silk scrolls, the Roman bronzes, the European codices, the Nordic and Persian stones, the Rapa Nui woods, the Inkan quipus, the Timbuktu parchments, and the Asian bamboos. The important part of humanity that had no access to this tool kept alive their cultural heritages and the memory of their acts through the use of oral resources, unstable (although effective) channels of transmission and communication based on the correct use of voices and memories.


Quoted bibliography
  1. Rada, Juan F. (1996). "The metamorphosis of the word: libraries with a future". FID News Bulletin, 46 (12), pp. 26-29.