I just finished a paper that had everything to do with the spoken or sung tale and how in it would be preserved important concepts such as the basics of religion or traditions. Much of what modern Heathen reconstruction focuses on is these traditions -- anything from the Norse Eddas and so on. At one point, before there was even the ability to have written a word down edgewise, there were only those spoken tales shared by elders or bards at community gatherings.
Now, just like little kids playing a game of telephone, the message/story probably changed from tribe to tribe, from generation to generation. Memory and understanding become completely vital in the preservation of these important concepts.
But memory fails. And I wonder if that fact was exploited when these tales were able to be written down. Can we really reconstruct the relgions of old based on the memory of the last person to tell the tale before it was written down in physical form? What if, during the turbulent times when Christianity rose as a world-wide viewpoint and basis of religion, a drunken heathen told the story to a group where a clever Christian monk sat? As the heathens around the drunken bard corrected him, maybe the monk refused to record those remarks?
My paper was on Beowulf, and a bunch of papers have been written on how that story really would remain the same but for a few details, if the Christianized bits were taken out. (Note the demonization of giants and elves somewhere in the middle of the poem...lol...not entirely relevent to the plot progression in the epic, but indeed a hint at how memory and opinion go hand in hand.) I think it is one of the easiest ways to see how such legends could've been ways that religion was preserved. The plot is linear, and understandable. They teach it in some High School classes, if I remember correctly. But it is the fact that this was once a story told, not written, that intrigues me the most.
I wonder what it would be like if all the original details had been remembered just as they were?