“We became listeners, taken back to childhood and revelling in the excitement and pleasures of a good story.”
We explored the world of storytelling and questioned together:
What makes a good story or a good storyteller?
What wisdom have we lost in the proverbs, folktales and superstitions told by our ancestors?
The Oral Tradition
‘When looking at storytelling and its origins, I was struck how stories have been transmitted through centuries and generations without losing their form and meaning.’
We learned that stories are not told simply for entertainment and that there are different types of stories.
One type is where ancient wisdom is passed down from generation to generation in story form. Over thousands of years, these stories have saved communities from natural disasters and allowed people to work more harmoniously with nature.
Onge tribe of the Andaman Islands
‘I was amazed to discover that the Onge tribe of the Andaman Islands have stories that tell of a "huge shaking of ground followed by a high wall of water” while, over 1,000 miles away, the Moken people of Thailand’s Surin Islands tell tales of the Laboon, a furious god of waves that consumes and destroys, to avoid the tsunami’s destructive wrath. Using this wisdom, both tribes fled to higher ground and survived the 2004 Tsunami.’
Another type of story is more subtle, where you are invited on a journey to spiritual wisdom, with interaction between different elements and hidden meanings, often involving the secrets of life and death.
In studying different mythologies, we discovered recurring themes and messages which kept being repeated quite independently from one another, but which were unmistakably connected.
‘It was fascinating to realise how various parts of stories are strung together by cause and effect, which ultimately lead to a change. This mechanism helps us to remember the stories and is why stories are an important vehicle to transmit messages, preserving them for thousands of years.’
The tales express a universality, experienced throughout the existence of humankind, and which resonates equally strongly today. Similar themes are to be found in different societies, highlighting that cultures and traditions are but colourful variations created by local conditions.
Statue of Gilgamesh Kadumago, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
We read the Epic of Gilgamesh - a poem from ancient Mesopotamia, considered to be the earliest surviving notable piece of literature and the second oldest religious text.
‘An important moment for me was during a reading of Gilgamesh, finding its particular force still very much alive. I felt honoured to be reading the ideas of this ancient text, big ideas written in simple words and through the words, how the characters became alive in front of us.’
Our storytelling study transported us back to a land of myths, legends and magic where all human frailties are laid bare, but ultimately goodness prevails. The human predicament has not changed since the times of Gilgamesh - there is an essential truth emanating from and belonging to humankind.
The Act of Storytelling
Performed stories are not fixed (like written tales), but are endlessly creative, able to adapt to place and people and yet still retain that kernel of the story.
The story, told without the aid of writing, only survives by being told. It must have its own weight and quality to it and only that which is essential is passed on.
We sensed this is what makes myths so powerful.
“As a Storyteller, I sometimes experience the sudden sense that I am engaging in something which has a life of its own - stories for which I am only a conduit, but which exist in their own right, beyond me. In hearing these stories, I am connecting with their vast histories. The feeling is akin to standing by an old tree, wondering about those in ages gone by, who have stood at this very same spot.”
‘In being able to tell these stories myself, I feel as though I am feeding its life force, keeping a story alive in a moment in time.’
We experimented with telling and listening to stories as a group.
“It came as a great shock when I was called into the present moment to tell a story, placing new demands on my memory, improvisation skills, and consideration for my audience. And yet, despite my struggles, I tasted a kind of fleeting freedom, an active living space - both within and without.”
The experience compelled us to learn more about the journey taken by the great storytellers of oral traditions: of the many years spent in study and imitation in the hope that, eventually, they might achieve virtuosity in the moment.
“It was clear that being a good storyteller goes beyond memorising a set of characters and events, or even using specific techniques. It is to do with bringing alive the story, first in the mind of the teller, and then in the moment of telling. To be in touch as much with one’s own self, as with the audience to whom the story is told.”
It was a fascinating study and we all bonded as a group through the experience, brought together by that timeless mystery and universality that is storytelling.