Narrative poetry

We have noted that hymnic and praise poetry both have a natural tendency towards narrative, towards telling of the accomplishments of the deity or of the mortal patron and his forebears. The Indo-European chieftain, as will appear more fully in Chapter 10, did not simply want to be flattered with praise of his good qualities: he wanted to be famed, remembered in future generations, and fame was won above all by battle. The deeds of great warriors were celebrated after their deaths in poems that found acclamation not only with their families but with a wider public.

Of the Gaulish Bards we are told that they 'sang the brave deeds of outstanding men in heroic verses to the sweet notes of the lyre'. Lucan writes that

105 Rowland (1990), 419, 422, 429-35 ~ 477-86, = Koch-Carey (2000), 352 f., 364, 367-9; Il. 24. 719-76; Cath Finntraga (ed. K. Meyer, Oxford 1885), 995-1034; Tain (l) 3440-63, 3470-85, 3491-550, 3556-95, cf. (I) 3106-42. See also the laments for kings of Leinster in Campanile (1988), nos. 5, 11, 14-15.

106 Hervarar saga 14 = Hunnenschlacht 33 Neckel-Kuhn.

by their praises they send down the ages the brave souls of those killed in war; Aelian, that they take as the subject of their songs the men who have died nobly in battle. The Goths 'used to sing of their forefathers' deeds with melody and lyres'. The sixth-century Lombard king Alboin's liberality, bravery, and success in war were celebrated in song throughout Bavaria and Saxony. In the late eighth century the blind Frisian bard Bernlef 'knew well how to tell forth with music the deeds of the ancients and the battles of kings'. An Irish Saint's Life records that Aengus king of Munster had fine musicians who would sing before him to the lyre 'the deeds of heroes'.107

Heroic narratives were recited to armies before battle to spur them to valour. Tacitus says that the Germans, when going to fight, would sing of 'Hercules' first of all brave warriors; the implication is that the bards recalled a series of past heroes. They no doubt included the illustrious Arminius, who died in 19 ce and according to another passage of the same historian 'is still sung of among the barbarians'. Of the Coralli too, a Thracian-Danubian people, it is related that they roused their men to battle by singing of their ancient leaders' deeds, and we hear the same of the Visigoths before the battle of Hadrianople in 378. There is evidence for the like practice among the British.108 In Ireland prose sagas took the place of verse narratives. Fergal, on the eve of battle in 722, bade a musician entertain the company with harps and pipes and poems and talk and royal stories of Ireland; he declined, but another was called on and 'set about telling the battles and combats of Leth Cuinn and the Leinstermen, from the destruction of Dind Rig, in which Cobthach Coel Breg was killed, up until that time'.109

Such lays would be accurately described by the Homeric-Hesiodic phrase K\ea avBpwv or KXeia nporepwv avdpwnwv 'renowns of (former) men'. Achilles is found singing these in his cabin (Il. 9. 189, cf. 524), and Demo-docus sings them to the Phaeacians (Od. 8. 73). In Vedic the cognate word sravamsi 'renowns' is similarly used meaning 'deeds of renown' (of Indra, RV 3. 37. 7; 8. 99. 2), while samsa- 'appreciation' is combined with narim 'of

107 Timagenes ap. Amm. Marc. 15. 9. 8 (FGrHist 88 F 2); Luc. 1. 447-9; Ael. Var. hist. 12. 23; Jordanes, Getica 43; Paulus Diaconus, Hist. Langobard. 1. 27; Vita Liudgeri (MGH Scriptores ii. 412); Vita S. Ciarani de Saigir 14 (Charles Plummer, Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Oxford 1910), i. 222).

108 Tac. Germ. 3. 1, Ann. 2. 88 (for German battle songs cf. also Tac. Ann. 4. 47, Hist. 2. 22, 4. 18); Val. Flacc. 6. 93 f.; Amm. Marc. 31. 7. 11; A. O. H. Jarman, YGododdin (Landysul 1988), lxxxi, xcv.

109 J. N. Radner, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin 1978), 68/9 f. (§178); cf. J. de Vries, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 75 (1953), 246 f. In the Cath Finntraga the poet Fergus Finnbel repeatedly raises a hero's spirits during combat by praising him and reminding him of his previous victories (351 ff., 637 ff., etc.).

men' both phrasally and as a compound noun (nârasâmsa, 'praise-song') or adjective.110

It is a reasonable supposition that narrative poems about past warriors were an Indo-European institution, going back at least to Level 2 (MIE). But on what scale? Can we posit an Indo-European epic genre, that is, a tradition of narratives extending over hundreds or thousands of lines? Such traditions exist in early Greece, in classical India, in early medieval England and Germany (if we may take the Hildebrand fragment as evidence), and among the South Slavs and Albanians. On the other hand, in large parts of the Indo-European territories there is no sign of them. It is quite conceivable that they evolved independently in different lands from small beginnings. Once heroic narrative existed at all, there was nothing to stop poets expanding it to any length that their audiences would bear. However, if we ever reach Chapter 12 we shall see that different epic traditions—particularly the Greek and the Indian, but not only these—show numerous parallel features that are most naturally explained as common heritage and that would seem to presuppose an archetypal tradition of narrative in an ample style, requiring some hundreds of lines at least for the relation of a coherent story.

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