Examples of Oral Tradition

, Staff Writer
Updated December 1, 2020
breaking a wishbone as examples of oral tradition
    tradition of breaking wishbone for good luck
    Used under Getty Images license

Oral tradition is information passed down through the generations by word of mouth that is not written down. This includes historical and cultural traditions, literature and law. Explore some oral tradition examples like legends, proverbs, folktales, and customs.

Oral Tradition Examples in Legends and Folklore

Legends and folklore can include stories and oral traditions from ancient times along with the newer urban legends that you might hear. Check out a few different oral legends you might be familiar with.

  • Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey were passed down through oral tradition by poets before becoming written.
  • The story of Atlantis is an oral tradition in Egypt that found it’s way into an epic poem.
  • Big Foot is an urban legend of a half-human, half-gorilla creature.
  • Camelot and the legend of King Arthur spread through oral tradition in the 9th century.
  • The Chupacabra is a gargoyle-like creature that attacks livestock.
  • El Dorado is a South American legend about a chief of a mythical tribe that covered himself in gold dust.
  • The Fountain of Youth is a mythical fountain where those that drink the water stay young forever.
  • Griffins are a legendary mythical beast made of half eagle and lion.
  • The oral tradition of Johnny Appleseed grew out of the real-life Johnny Chapman’s life.
  • The Loch Ness monster is a mythical sea creature that resides at the bottom of Loch Ness. Nessie is part of Scottish folklore.
  • Greek and Roman mythology started through storytelling and brought about characters like Hercules, Medusa and Pegasus.
  • The legend of Robin Hood started as an English ballad.
  • William Tell is an expert marksman Swiss folk hero that started through oral tradition.
  • Yeti, or the Abominable Snowman, is similar to Big Foot, but a large white snow monster found in the Himalayas.

Oral Traditions in Customs

Customs are also a form of oral tradition passed down through the generations. Explore several general oral traditions found around the world.

  • the tradition of blowing out candles at birthday celebrations
  • the custom of not wearing white to a wedding, unless you are the bride
  • the custom of celebrating the bounty of the harvest at a festival.
  • the way babies wear white at christenings
  • the different rituals found for new members of a fraternity or sorority
  • throwing a baby shower for a mother-to-be or bride-to-be
  • having bachelor or bachelorette parties before a wedding

Oral Traditions in Beliefs That Are Superstitions

The world is full of different oral superstitions that have been passed down through sayings and stories. Dive into a few interesting superstition oral traditions.

  • Find a penny, pick it up and all day long, you'll have good luck.
  • A black cat crossing your path will bring bad luck.
  • Friday the 13th is seen as a day of bad luck or a superstitious day.
  • You can cross your fingers for good luck.
  • When you break a wishbone the person with the bigger portion is supposed to have good luck.
  • You can knock on wood for good luck.
  • The act of finding a horseshoe can bring good luck.
  • Blow out all of the candles on your birthday cake with one breath, and your wish will come true.
  • Make a wish upon a falling star, and it will come true.
  • Animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Oral Traditions in Beliefs About Weddings

Weddings are full of different traditions and superstitions that have been passed on orally through the ages. Just a few wedding day gems you can enjoy include:

  • It's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding.
  • The bride wears white to symbolize chastity.
  • In Sweden, gold and silver coins are placed inside a bride's wedding shoe.
  • In Norway, the bride wears a silver crown with charms to ward off evil spirits.
  • Czech newlyweds are showered with peas instead of rice to promote fertility.
  • Hindu tradition states that rain on your wedding day is good luck.
  • The fourth finger was chosen for engagement and wedding rings because it was once believed that it contained a vein that led to the heart in Egyptian mythology.

Oral Traditions in Prose and Literature

Prose and literature are full of myths, stories and riddles that started through oral traditions of different cultures. Learn about these different types of oral traditions.

  • Old and new jokes are rarely written down and easily get passed from one person to another.
  • Riddles were used as an important educational tool and to spread knowledge.
  • Rhymes are a common oral tradition tool for legends, tragedies, hymns, and myths.
  • Tall tales typically start from real, local heroes that get distorted through storytelling.
  • Ghost stories are a common oral tradition by storytellers in front of a fire.

Oral Traditions in Proverbs and Adages

Proverbs and adages are old well-known sayings and common sense sayings told through the ages. These are typically given as advice to others. Dive into some fun examples of proverbs and adages.

  • A watched pot never boils.
  • If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
  • Necessity is the mother of invention.
  • Don't judge a book by its cover.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
  • The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • Good things come to those who wait.

Oral Traditions in Songs

Some of your favorite traditional tunes come from oral traditions. Explore a few song oral tradition examples.

  • For He's a Jolly Good Fellow has roots in the 18th century.
  • Found a Peanut has unknown origins but goes back to the 1940s.
  • Frere Jacques is a French nursery rhyme.
  • Jack and Jill is another French nursery rhyme tied to King Louis XVI.
  • London Bridge is an English nursery rhyme with roots dating back to 1230.
  • Mulberry Bush is sung as part of a children's game.
  • Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall is a famous counting folk song.
  • Ring Around the Rosy is a nursery rhyme that possibly arose from the great plague.

Oral Traditions in Dances

Many times traditional native dances are never written down. They are just passed down through the ages. Explore some famous dances with origins in oral tradition.

  • Hawaiian hula is a native Hawaiian dance with distinctive movements, instrumentals and chants.
  • Polka is a Czech peasant dance form.
  • Square dancing finds its origins in 17th century England.
  • The Waltz was first practiced in Germany.
  • Two-step is a ballroom dance that mixes other styles with unknown origins.
  • Western line dancing is a mix of folk and square dancing.
  • Round dances of Native Americans work to bring communities together.
  • Flamenco dancing is centuries old with mysterious roots.

Finding Oral Tradition Examples

As you can see, there are all kinds of different oral traditions and folklore expressed in different ways. Learn more about cultures by checking examples of culture.