Repetition and historical writing 2

Share this...

Well, a post on repetition simply had to have a follow-up… Actually though some really interesting ideas have come out of conversations around this blog post, so a second one seemed called for. And maybe a third?

Statues at Delos, Cyclades, Greece
Some of the connections which emerged were:

  • Links to Mesopotamian writing, especially in the areas of magic and medicine
  • The fact that much ancient writing was intended to be read aloud rather than silently
  • The Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
  • A human tendency to use repetition as a calming influence over disturbance: “there, there”
  • Mantras which are specifically intended to be repeated many times

A couple of things before going back to another ancient source. Firstly, the William Wordsworth link can be found in later editions of Lyrical Ballads in his notes to The Thorn. Among many other things, he says:

There is a numerous class of readers who imagine that the same words cannot be repeated without tautology: this is a great error: virtual tautology is much oftener produced by using different words when the meaning is exactly the same… There are also various other reasons why repetition and apparent tautology are frequently beauties of the highest kind. Among the chief of these reasons is the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion. And further, from a spirit of fondness, exultation, and gratitude, the mind luxuriates in the repetition of words which appear successfully to communicate its feelings…


Secondly, I have been reading a book set in the Punjab area of what was then north-west India, now Pakistan, in which the author deliberately mirrors the Hindi/Urdu pattern of repeating words for emphasis, for example “good-good, nice-nice” or similar. Many languages in the Semitic family do the same. This is a level of reflecting a source language which I have not attempted in my own writing.

So, back to the ancient world, and in particular the mythic poetry from the city of Ugarit (on the coast of modern Syria). There is a very common pattern used here where a series of lines is repeated several times over – for example they might appear first in a dream, then in the morning when the dreamer recounts the dream to another, then a days later when the action itself occurs. For example, in the Tale of King Keret we have this pattern:

  1. The chief god El appears in a dream to Keret and after a brief series of questions gives him a series of instructions for obtaining a wife
  2. Keret wakes up and carries out the first stages of the required actions
  3. He goes to the required city and issues demands which recapitulate the dream again and gets the ride he wants (Hurriy)

But… in the second stage there is a crucial change where Keret goes beyond the requirements El set up, and while en route to the city makes a rash vow to the goddess Athirat if the quest turns out well – rash firstly because the scale of the vow would probably have bankrupted a real king of Ugarit, and secondly because it shows a certain lack of faith in El’s declarations!

By the time Keret comes back successfully from the final stage with Hurriy, either he has forgotten the vow, or else he decides that since things turned out well it was not necessary to fulfil it. Either way, the departure from strict repetition is noted by the gods and things start to go wrong.

This sort of pattern, where departures from exact repetition signal looming disaster for the party concerned, can be found in a wide variety of ancient literature. One can easily imagine an eager audience listening out for the crucial action left out or put in, and being alerted to expect some serious consequences. The basic principle can be found in a number of fairy tales and folk stories, often where the third time of asking brings about the change.

So let’s see what comes out of this particular repeat – nothing disastrous, I hope…

Share this...

One thought on “Repetition and historical writing 2”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.