Week 3: The Preliterate Mind of Ancient Man
This week we leave the Bible to explore a very difficult topic: what consequences follow from the illiteracy of ancient man? This is important because most of the Hebrew Bible was written (!) at a time when the Israelite culture was wholly oral, and the gospels recorded oral traditions which had been passed down during the previous 40 years.
1. Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982), chapter 3. (link) (The pages are now in the correct order!)
An excellent discussion of the characteristics of thought and expression in oral cultures (at least until the last eight pages, which are informative if not fascinating). Pay particular attention to the implications from the fact that some thoughts (second-nature to us) were simply unthinkable for ancient man.
2. JSB, Leviticus 16.
This chapter describes the atonement ritual in which the scapegoat is sent into the desert (16:20-22), background for a reference in Frankfort.
This is the great classic essay on the concept of mythopoeic thought, arguing that the mental life of ancient man was based on an entirely different relationship with the world than the one which developed as a consequence of literacy and then Greek philosophy. Because this relationship is so foreign to us and because the resulting cosmologies have so often been described as “primitive” (in fact, they simply rest on different assumptions than ours), we have an almost impossible task when we try to put ourselves in the mindset of ancient man.
This is a fairly challenging text to absorb so, if you can, attack it more than once. Try to summarize in your own words the argument being made. Chapter 8, which is optional, surveys the progression from mythopoeic thought to philosophy; it’s worthwhile at least skimming to see how the great transition occurred.
3. Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982), first part of chapter 6. (link)
A short discussion of the impact of orality on the way stories are structured, with relevant discussion of The Iliad.
4. Homer, The Iliad, Book One. (link).
We’ll discuss primarily the relationship of the gods to men, and among themselves, so pay particular attention to these aspects of the text.
You may find useful this set of notes.