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Comparative work that aims to identify narrative parallels is a fundamental and longstanding branch of classical scholarship (and of Homeric studies in particular), including such foundational works such as The East Face of Helicon (West 1997), Ariadne’s Thread (Hansen 2002), and numerous articles (see bibliography for a partial listing). This branch of inquiry, however, still harbors a fundamental gap in its methodological tools: it lacks a systematic examination and classification of the types of alteration that narratives typically undergo as they are retold and disseminated. This paper presents one case study from a larger project working to categorize the patterns of narrative evolution in multiple variants of Sanskrit fixed-text oral tales in an attempt to offer insights which may be applied to the development of oral literature in archaic Greece.

While we call the process of narrative change “evolution,” and it should—like all evolutionary processes—be governed by discernible rules and principles, the range of possible outcomes that may be expected as a narrative alters over time has never been efficiently categorized. Utilizing three versions ofthe tale of Cyavana and Sukanyā (from the Åšatapatha Brāhmana, the Jaiminiya Brāhmana, and the Mahābhārata) this paper breaks down each variant motif by motif, analyzing the nature of every alteration introduced. Every innovation is then classified according to type: “improvements” (the replacement of a dull motif with a more exciting one, e.g., a curse bestowing “disharmony” is changed to one inflicting “constipation”), “omissions,” “inversions” (e.g., a “good” character changed to a wicked one, or a wicked act transformed to a boon), “hyper-explanations”(a previously unremarked-on situation is given an elaborate causation), and “reassignments”(one character’s role is transferred to another), as well a several others. Results from the larger study are also introduced to clarify the widespread use of these types of alteration, and the applicability of their characterizations.

Adopting the methodology of Tigay, 1993, “On Evaluating Claims of Literary Borrowing,” the three versions of “Cyavana and Sukanyā” are then evaluated according to a standard set of criteria used to determine the likelihood that two narratives stem from a common source. These criteria state that legitimate parallels should have: (1) Multiple shared motifs that are (2) heterogeneous, unpredictable, and non-trivial, and (3) occur in the same sequence. They should also (4) have specific, peculiar and significant shared details, and (5) comparable characters, settings, and theme. Although all three versions of the “Tale of Cyavana and Sukanyā,” a tale of May-December romance between a princess and an ascetic, are clearly intended to be faithful retellings of a single narrative, they diverge dramatically, and nearly all of the criteria are significantly challenged(the most distinctive elements are rarely shared between versions; minor male characters have their roles given to minor female characters; names and locations are changed, etc.). Narrative sequence, however, proves remarkably durable. Furthermore, by applying the lessons learned from the breakdown of the transformations of each individual motif, a pattern emerges regarding the relative fixity of various elements of narrative. Finally, the paper offers support for a number of the transformations proposed by comparative articles listed in the bibliography.

Using a different branch of the Indo-European tradition to draw conclusions about the development of oral literature in Greece may have its pitfalls. However, given the contributions that comparative work on other oral traditions has made to the study of the Homeric epics in the past (e.g. Lord 1960, de Vet 1996, Hansen2002), the author’s hope is that a systematic, evidence-based exposition of the principles that govern the process of narrative evolution will provide comparativists (and their critics) with more accurate diagnostic and evaluativet ools.


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