MEMORY (continued)

Contents
of this section

Judaic Tradition
Christian Tradition
Islam
The Celts


Judaic Tradition

Memorisation plays a different part in the study of the written Torah than it does in the study of the oral Torah.  The written Torah is taught through reading.  The transmission of the text, teaching of the Scriptures, and public readings, must all be done from a book?  Even if these activities eventually result in the memorisation of the text, and in fact many rabbis do know the text by heart, it is specified that the written Torah must never be copied from memory.  On the other hand the oral Torah is taught through representation from memory, even though written notes may be used as a mnemotechnic device, and even though, at an early date, the Mishnah, and then the Talmud, was committed to writing.  The masters of the oral Torah, the Tannaim (teachers), were like living memories, capable of reproducing an impressive number of traditions. Their knowledge, often mechanical and lacking in reflection, was used as a reference source by the rabbis and colleges. A famous example is Natronai Ben Havivai (8th cent) who wrote down the entire Talmud from memory before immigrating to Spain.

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Christian Tradition

The role of memorisation seems much less important, although from the 4th cent. there are references to religious schools where the Psalms, the words of the apostles, prayers, and passages from the Old Testament, were learned by heart.  In the Divine Office, for instance the use of the breviary, even though required to be recited aloud, served as a substitute for memorisation. Thus blindness could relieve a monk of the obligation of reciting the hours save for what he knew from memory.

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Islam

In Islam, which is the religion of the word as much as the religion of the book, memorisation was essential from the beginning. The words of the Prophet, which repeated the Archangel Gabriel's reading of the archetypal book, were transmitted orally by a group of the companions of the Prophet and by the specialists in memorisation before the Qu'ran were finally written down. From the time of the third Caliph, writing made possible the fixation of the tradition, but it never did away with recourse to memory. In effect to read the Qu'ran in its primitive form, it was necessary to know its contents.  Later writing and memorisation continued to be closely related practices. The Qu'ranic schools (madrasahs) were tied to a mosque. Before being written down in texts such as that of the al-Bukhari, this tradition was transmitted orally. The information it gives about the acts and words of the Prophet are used to regulate daily life down to the smallest details, in profane as well as in religious matters. This tradition represents the Prophet himself, sitting in a mosque and teaching the Hadiths.  His words are repeated three times by all those present, until they are known by heart.

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The Celts

The Celts where the specialists, the Druids, ran their own schools, in which the main subject was committing myths and legends about their heroes to memory.  According to an Irish judicial treatise the Ollam (the highest ranking scholar) was considered the equal of a king: he could recite 350 stories: 250 long ones and a 100 short ones.  'As for the tenth ranked Oblaire who makes do with the left-overs at a feast, and whose escort is small, only seven stories will suffice'.  The druids were the only ones among the Celts who could write, refused to use their skill for the purpose of worship'.

'They say', wrote Caesar, 'that they learn a great number of verses by heart; some spend 20 years at their school.  They believe that religion forbids the use of writing for this purpose, unlike any other purpose, such as public recording, or private stories, for which they use the Greek alphabet.  It seems that they established the usage for two reasons: on the one hand, they did not want their doctrine to spread among people: on the other hand, they do not want those who study to rely on writing and neglect their memory, since it often happens that the use of texts has the effect of reducing efforts to memorise by heart and weakens the power of memory'. From the Gallic Wars 6.13)

The Celts of Ireland were not conquered by Rome.  Apart from some memorial stones in the south of Ireland inscribed with inscriptions scratched into the edges in Ogham script, the native literary traditions do not commence until the 6th cent. AD.  As elsewhere in the Celtic world transmission of learning was oral.  But it is believed that use was made of a sort of aide memoire, in the form of wooden wands or sticks bound together like a fan with words scratched on them in Ogham script.  

 Georges Dumézil 1898-1986), French philologist and historian, is best known for his remarkable research in the field of Indo-European mythology.  Dumézil based his analyses on a structural comparison of religions within the Indo-European field, and he concluded that all religions (Hindu, Celtic, German, Iranian, and so on) are rooted in a common ideology which embraces rites, myths, and social organization. In his view, all socio-religious activity can be divided into three functions: the spiritual, the military, and the productive; these are hierarchically distributed and dominate an undifferentiated mass of labourers. This theory was of crucial importance, for it helped to explain many obscure aspects of Indo-European mythologies.Dumézil commented on the testimony as follows: 'knowledge is re-incarnated in each generation, in each student; it is not received as a deposit; it assumes a form which, even while retaining its meaning and its essential traits, rejuvenates it and in certain measure actualises it.' It is this flexible dynamic and adaptable character of oral memory that is threatened by writing.This is apparent from recent testimonies as well, such as that of a native of New Guinea (Humboldt Bay) who told an ethnologist: 'in putting down our myths and legislative rules you just kill them.'

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