Oral Tradition: Definition, Significance, Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. Oral Tradition in a Nutshell
  2. Why Oral Tradition Matters
  3. Examples of Oral Tradition
  4. Oral Tradition vs Written Tradition
  5. Oral Tradition and Cultural Preservation

Let's set off on a journey into the fascinating world of oral tradition. This form of storytelling that has been passed down from generation to generation, has a richness and depth that is as diverse as the cultures it springs from. Our exploration will help you understand the definition of oral tradition, its significance, and give you a few intriguing examples.

Oral Tradition in a Nutshell

When we talk about oral tradition, we're referring to the cultural material and tradition transmitted orally from one generation to another. It's in the stories our grandparents told us, the songs our parents sang, and the folktales we tell our children. So, let's dive deeper and unwrap the layers of this incredible form of preserving culture.

The Definition of Oral Tradition

Oral tradition, put simply, is the method by which information is passed from one generation to the next in the absence of writing or a recording medium. This is done through speeches, songs, chants, and other forms of spoken word. The definition of oral tradition encapsulates cultural knowledge and tradition that keeps communities connected and their history alive.

Key Aspects of Oral Tradition

  • Orality: This is the primary element—information is conveyed through spoken words, often in a structured and rhythmic manner.
  • Memorization: Since oral tradition is passed down without any written records, the ability to remember accurately is vital.
  • Repetition: Repetition aids memorization. It also adds rhythm and structure to the narrative, making it easier to retain and recall.

Types of Oral Tradition

Oral tradition takes on many forms, depending on the culture and the type of information being conveyed. Some of the most common forms include:

  1. Folktales: These are stories passed down through generations, often involving mythical creatures or moral lessons.
  2. Proverbs: Short sayings that express a general truth or piece of advice.
  3. Songs: Traditional songs often tell a story or convey important cultural beliefs.
  4. Oral Histories: Individuals' stories about the past, told from their perspective.

Understanding the definition of oral tradition brings us closer to appreciating the richness of our cultural heritage. As we delve into why oral tradition matters and offer examples, you'll see how this ancient practice still resonates in our world today.

Why Oral Tradition Matters

Why should we care about oral tradition? What's the point of remembering old stories and songs when we can just Google anything we want to know? Well, there's more to oral tradition than just ancient tales. It's a living, breathing connection to our past, and it's crucial to understanding not just where we came from, but who we are now.

Preserving History

Oral tradition plays a significant role in preserving history—especially for societies without a written language. Long before the invention of writing, people were telling stories, creating a vivid picture of their culture, values, and history. These narratives, passed down through generations, provide a glimpse into the past that would otherwise be lost.

Imparting Values

Oral tradition is not just about recounting history—it's also about teaching values. Folktales often come with a moral lesson, while proverbs and sayings provide guidance for life. The process of sharing these stories and lessons fosters a sense of identity and belonging among community members.

Encouraging Community

Storytelling has always been a communal activity. It's about gathering around a fire, sharing food, and bonding over shared narratives. This aspect of oral tradition fosters a sense of community and belonging—it's not just about the stories themselves, but the experience of sharing them.

Keeping Culture Alive

Finally, oral tradition is a vital part of cultural preservation. Every story, song, and proverb passed down through generations adds to the rich tapestry of a culture. It's a living link to our ancestors and a gift to our future generations.

Understanding why oral tradition matters gives us a newfound appreciation for those old stories and songs. They're more than just entertainment—they're a vital part of who we are.

Examples of Oral Tradition

Now that we've established why oral tradition matters, let's dive into some examples. These instances aren't just historical artifacts—they're living traditions, still being practiced and passed down today.

Fairy Tales and Folktales

When we talk about oral tradition, fairy tales and folktales are probably the first things that come to mind. From Cinderella to the Three Little Pigs, these stories have been told and retold countless times, often changing with each telling. But they aren't just for kids—they carry important messages about life, morality, and community.

Mythology and Legends

Think about the Greek gods, the Norse sagas, or the legends of King Arthur. These aren't just exciting stories—they're part of a rich oral tradition that tells us about the values, beliefs, and history of ancient cultures. They're a window into a world that would otherwise be lost to time.

Proverbs and Sayings

"Look before you leap." "The early bird catches the worm." These phrases might sound cliche, but they're part of our oral tradition. They're bite-sized pieces of wisdom, passed down through generations. They might not tell a story, but they carry important lessons about life.

Songs and Ballads

Music is another form of oral tradition. Folk songs and ballads tell stories, preserve history, and express cultural values. They're often passed down orally, changing and evolving with each generation. Next time you sing along to a folk song, remember—you're participating in an age-old tradition!

These are just a few examples of oral tradition, but they're everywhere once you start looking. Every story told, every proverb quoted, every song sung—it's all part of the rich tapestry of oral tradition.

Oral Tradition vs Written Tradition

So, we've talked about examples of oral tradition, but how does it compare to written tradition? Both are ways of passing down knowledge, but they have some key differences.

Flexibility vs Stability

Oral tradition is like a game of telephone—it changes with every retelling. That's part of its charm: it's flexible, adaptable, and personal. On the other hand, written tradition is more stable and precise. Once something is written down, it doesn't change—unless someone edits it, of course!


Oral tradition doesn't require literacy—it's accessible to everyone, regardless of education or social status. In contrast, written tradition requires the ability to read and write, which can limit its reach. However, in our digital age, written information is becoming more and more accessible.


Written tradition has a clear advantage when it comes to preservation. Books, documents, and digital files can last for centuries, while oral tradition depends on people to keep it alive. But remember, just because something is written down doesn't mean it's permanent—books can be lost, documents can be destroyed, and digital files can be deleted.


There's something special about oral tradition. It's a direct link to our ancestors, a way to connect with the past. Written tradition can also create a sense of connection, but it's a different kind. It's the difference between hearing a story from a loved one and reading it in a book.

In the end, neither oral nor written tradition is better than the other—they're just different. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and they complement each other in important ways.

Oral Tradition and Cultural Preservation

Now that we've compared oral and written traditions, it's worth delving into the unique role of oral tradition in preserving culture. Simply put, oral traditions are the lifeblood of cultural preservation, safeguarding a community's history, values, and beliefs in a way that feels immediate and personal.

The Living Memory

Oral tradition serves as a living memory for many societies. It's a way to keep the past alive, to remember who we are and where we came from. For example, in Indigenous cultures around the world, stories passed down through generations serve as a vibrant record of their history and worldview. It's not a rigid, unchanging account, but a dynamic, evolving narrative that reflects the community's journey over time.

Oral Tradition as Social Glue

Oral tradition also acts as a social glue, bringing people together and strengthening community bonds. Picture a group of friends gathered around a campfire, sharing stories and songs. In that moment, they're not just passing the time—they're building a shared identity, a sense of belonging. This social aspect of oral tradition is something that written tradition often lacks.

Keeping Cultures Alive

For many cultures, especially those without a written language, oral tradition is a vital tool for survival. It enables them to preserve their heritage and pass it on to the next generation. In this way, oral tradition isn't just about the past—it's also about the future. The stories, songs, and customs that we share today will shape the culture of tomorrow.

So next time you hear a folk tale or a family anecdote, remember: you're not just listening to a story. You're partaking in a timeless practice that has shaped human cultures for millennia, a practice that safeguards our collective memory and forges our shared identity. That's the power of oral tradition.

If you enjoyed learning about oral tradition and its significance, you'll love exploring the workshop 'Storytelling in Illustration' by Arielle Jovellanos. This workshop delves into the art of visual storytelling, which is deeply rooted in the oral tradition. Learn how to create compelling narratives through illustration and enhance your storytelling skills in a unique and engaging way.