I have heard people say they are suspicious about the accuracy of traditions that are passed down by word-of-mouth. Anyone familiar with the “telephone” game knows that in any given crowd if one person passes a sentence to another person and so forth, that the resulting sentence by the 10th or 20th person sometimes bears no resemblance to the original. By this reasoning, a lot of people have discounted ancient oral traditions as being unreliable.
The passing of oral tradition, in reality, however, usually came with stringent safeguards. Nicholas Wade, in his book, The Faith Instinct, says,
“there are two reasons why some hunter gatherer religions may still reflect the ancient forms.
One is that many preliterate or primitive peoples place great importance on carrying out rites exactly as their forebears did. The justification of their rituals is that this is how they have always been performed. So religious practice is handed on with as much fidelity as possible. Among the Klamath and Modoc Indians of the northwest coast of America, certain myths may be recited only in the presence of three people who know the story, and can check the rendition for accuracy, and the myths may not be told by children less they garble them. These rules are reported to keep the myths intact over many generations.”[i]
(It is important to note the word myth as used here means “a traditional story, account, or history” as opposed to the other meaning of myth which is “a false belief”.)
This is very insightful. Kids aren’t even allowed to recite the traditional accounts. When the accounts are recited by adults a number of others have to be present to ensure the accuracy of the recital. This looks like pretty good security. This practice is not new; it is ages old.
I find this very reassuring. Sure, unchecked retelling of events is going to get garbled as it passes from person to person, but I always thought it was foolish to think that people didn’t realize this and put safeguards in place to ensure accuracy.
Wade’s insights about how modern tribes ensure accuracy shows that oral traditions can be reliably transmitted.