Themes in oral poetry

The basic building blocks of oral poetry are formulas. But a poet needs more than words to compose a song. He needs stories and incidents -- he needs themes.


The term 'Theme' is used to denote a general incident or story or description with a specific structure, which the poet uses as is, or as he cares to elaborate it, in order to facilitate his telling of the story.

What themes do is aid the poet in the telling of the story.

For instance, all he needs to remember is the general outline of a theme for marshalling the armies; each time such an incident comes up he can recall the general outline of how to discuss such an incident and then concentrate his efforts on elaborating it for the specific context in which he is inserting it.

Thus you can have themes concerned with general stories or specific people (The Trojan War; The War against Thebes, The Anger of a Hero - Achilles or Weleagros; The Return of a Hero - Agamemnon, Menelaos, Odysseus; The Journey of a Son - Orestes, Telemachos, etc.) as well as themes which deal with descriptions of, for example, the marshalling of armies, a hero's knowlege of how to fight, a hero's shield (Achilleus, Hector), the councils of the gods, etc.

One of the most striking example of Homer's use of themes is to be found in his description of the manner in which the heroes arm themselves. There is a basic sequence: greaves -- breastplate -- sword -- shield -- helmet -- spear. We find this order observed in all four of the major arming scenes:

(1) Paris 3.328-338

(2) Agamemnon 11.15-55

(3) Patroclos 16.130-154

(4) Achilles 19.364-424

Moreover, towards the beginning of each passage, the following three lines appear:

First he placed along his legs the fair greaves linked with

silver fastenings to hold the greaves at the ankles.

Afterwards he girt on about his chest the corselet.

And in each case, except that of Achilles, some particular observation is made about the breast plate.

This material has been used for many years by Professor Tom Sienkewicz in his courses at Howard University and at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at

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