Myths are cephalopods

Memory is the best portable library, and  a man’s head the best conveyance for oral mythology. The use of a book is to record for posterity, and to elevate lowly thoughts to the lofty mind of men who have learned to read. Myths are cephalopods.

By wandering, I have got to understand wanderers, and to realize their ways of learning and teaching and thinking. […] I know of my own knowledge that men migrate and travel; I have learned that they have done so from the beginning of history, before books were. I know that tales and traditions which men remember travel with them, and spread from their mouths, through ears to other minds. I know of my own knowledge how myths travel. They travel with men.

John Francis Campbell, My Circular Notes. Vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1876, pp. 199-202.

Illustration inspired by a rock art painting in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

The reader must not think this is too savage a thing

These people [the taíno] had a good and elegant way to remember past and ancient events; and this was by means of their songs and dances, which they called areyto, which is the same that we call to sing while dancing. […] Sometimes, they mixed the singing with a drum made with a round log, hollow and concave, and as thick as a man […]. And thus, with or without such lousy instrument, in their singing (as has been said) they tell their memories and past histories, and in these songs they relate how their past chieftains died, and who they were and how many, and other things they do not want to fall into oblivion. […]

This style of dancing resembles somewhat the songs and dances of the peasants, when in summer, tambourine in hand, in some parts of Spain men and women rejoice; and in Flanders I have seen the same form of singing, in which men and women dance in many circles. […] Thus […] in this [Hispaniola] island and in the other islands (and even in large part of the mainland) this way of singing is a representation of the history of past things or a remembrance of them, be they wars or peace, so that with the perpetuation of such songs the feats and events that have taken place are not forgotten. And, in absence of books, these songs remain in their memories, so they are remembered; and in this way they recite the genealogies of their chieftains and of the kings or lords they have had, and the deeds they performed, and the bad or good periods they have gone through or endured; and other things they want children and adults to learn and be well known and firmly engraved in memory. And towards this end they perpetuate these areytos, so that they may not be forgotten, especially the famous victories won in battle.

[…]

The reader must not think this is too savage a thing, since the same custom exists in Spain and in Italy, and I think it must be the same in most parts where Christians (and even infidels) live. What else are the ballads and songs that are based upon truths but part and remembrance of past history? At least those who do not know how to read, learn by means of the songs that that king Alonso was in the noble city of Seville, and it came to his heart to go and lay siege to Algeciras. This is what a certain ballad tells, and it actually was the case: that from Seville king Alonso XI departed when he conquered that city, on the 28th day of March of the year of 1344. So in the present year of 1548 this ballad or areyto has been around for 204 years. We know from another ballad that king Alonso VI gathered the parliament in Toledo to make justice to the Cid Ruy Díaz in front of the earls of Carrión […] Thus these and other memories much older and modern circulate among people, not having disappeared from memory, and those who sing and recite them do not know how to read. Hence, the Indians in these parts do well in having the same precaution, as they are unlettered, and they use the areytos to sustain their memory and fame, since by means of such songs they know things that happened many centuries ago.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557), Historia general y natural de las Indias, Madrid: Imprenta de la Real Academia de la Historia, 1851, pp. 426-429

Illustration inspired by a door lock from the Bamana People of Mali

An intricate business is storytelling

[Saint] Patrick then said, “This is an intricate tale. The sister of Aillén, son of Eogabál, has fallen in love with Manannán, and the wife of Manannán has fallen in love with Aillén.”

“What word other than ‘intricate’ could describe such a tale,” said Benén, given its plot?”

Thus the old saying “an intricate business is storytelling” comes from this.

“Manannán gave his own wife to Aillén, and Áine seduced Manannán,” said Cailte.

Anonymous Irish writer, c. 1200, from A. Dooley and H. Roe (trans.),Tales of the Elders of Ireland: A new Translation of the Acallamna Senórach, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 111.

Illustration inspired by the ceramic bowls of the Hausa people (Nigeria)

Wisahkitchak must still be looking for that coyote

Only one narrator ever attempted to explain to me why all the [Cree] stories begin: ‘Wisahkitchak was walking.’ This narrator explained that because they were growing up, he could tell his child audience the beginning of the story.

In the beginning, Wisahkitchak was sitting. Where he was sitting, there was nothing. There was only a piece of dirt. Wisahkitchak blew on it and it grew bigger. He wondered how big to make it. This piece of dirt was the world itself. Then Wisahkitchak made a coyote, Wisahkitchak told the coyote to run around the edge of the world and come back. He came back and told Wisahkitchak how big the world had become. This happened many times.

Wisahkitchak kept blowing. He didn’t have enough. While the coyote was gone, Wisahkitchak made more animals, mostly game animals and birds. Then he sent the coyote for what might be the last time. Wisahkitchak got tired of waiting for this little coyote. Then Wisahkitchak got up for the first time. He got up and went off walking to look for the coyote.

This is the beginning of the story and end. The rest of the stories about Wisahkitchak branch off on his travels; this story is the roots. Nobody has ever heard that Wisahkitchak stopped walking so he must still be looking for that coyote.

Plains Cree, Alberta (Canada). Regna Darnell, “Correlates of Cree narrative performance”, in R. Bauman and J. Sherzer (eds.), Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 p. 465, note 7.

Illustration: blossoming plum branch

Maybe it is never possible to hear the end

The Khanty people are fond of telling fairy tales, especially in the evenings. When, in the forest camp, they are going to bed, an old man continues to tell stories as long as somebody is still awake. One of my friends told me that, as a girl, she tried not to fall asleep while the old man was telling stories, but she never succeeded in hearing the end. Maybe it is never possible to hear the end, because what one usually calls or translates as “a fairy tale” or “a story” actually means “a way” or “a way as destiny”. My good friend and teacher Leonti Taragupta once told me about this.

Natalia I. Novikova, “Self-Government of the Indigenous Minority Peoples of West Siberia: Analysis of Law and Practice”, from People and the Land. Pathways to Reform in Post-Soviet Siberia, ed. Erich Kasten, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2002, pp. 83-97

Illustration: Enso

They had neither books nor histories

They had neither books nor histories; they only committed to memory songs and ballads about their ancestors’ feats, and the members of those families knew them. They had male teachers for this [called faycanes], and female teachers [called harimaguadas] to teach the girls the songs.

About the aboriginal people of Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands, from Historia de la conquista de Gran Canaria(1484) by Pedro Gómez Escudero, extracted in A. Tejera Gaspar, Las religiones preeuropeas de las Islas Canarias, Madrid: Ediciones del Orto, 2001, pp. 69-70

Illustration inspired by a Lesotho rock painting

Where stories take us

Stories transport us, we say. They take us out of ourselves. They make us forget, for a moment, the humdrum and the mundane. We like to think they carry us into distant and exotic places that are “purely imaginary.”

Such attitudes may explain why Kuranko [in Sierra Leone] storytelling is prohibited during the daytime (one risks death in the family if one breaks the ban), and why stories belong to the night (when work is done, and one enters the antinomian world of dreams and darkness).

Yet it would be a mistake for us to construe the imaginary as a negation of the real, for experiences that we disparage as “mere” fantasy or dream are integral to our “real” lives as night is to day. This is why it is important to explore not only the ways in which stories take us beyond ourselves, but transform our experience and bring us back to ourselves, changed.

Michael Jackson, The Politics of Storytelling: Variations on a Theme by Hanna Arendt, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2013, pp.143-144

Illustration inspired by a Japanese textile drawing

Biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying

The development of human language plays a complex role within this process of adaptation. It seems to have developed from signalling among social animals; but I propose the thesis that what is most characteristic of the human language is the possibility of storytelling.

It may be that this ability too has some predecessor in the animal world. But I suggest that the moment when language became human was very closely related to the moment when a man invented a story, a myth in order to excuse a mistake he had made – perhaps in giving a danger signal when there was no occasion for it; and I suggest that the evolution of specifically human language, with its characteristic means of expressing negation – of saying that something signalled is not true – stems very largely from the discovery of systematic means to negate a false report, for example a false alarm, and from the closely related discovery of false stories – lies – used either as excuses or playfully.

If we look from this point of view at the relation of language to subjective experience, we can hardly deny that every genuine report contains an element of decision, at least of the decision to speak the truth. Experiences with lie detectors give a strong indication that, biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying. I take this as an indication that lying is a comparatively late and fairly specifically human invention; indeed that it has made the human language what it is: an instrument which can be used for misreporting almost as well as for reporting.

From Karl Popper, “Karl Popper, Replies to my Critics” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, La Salle, Illinois, 1974, pp. 1112-1113, cited by George Steiner, A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 404.
Illustration inspired by a colonial painting from Bokkeveld, Western Cape, South Africa

The primary teaching of a story

costa de marfil_luna

By listening one could always learn something new, and something which would last a lifetime. Duncan says, “Traveller storytellers knew they were telling something that would be remembered years after they were gone,” and “this is the way with all Travellers;”“they gave you the tale which would never be forgotten so they will never be forgotten.” The primary teaching of a story thus is the respect of memory for the teller when he is gone.

Linda Williamson, about her husband, the storyteller Duncan Williamson, who was one of the Travelling People of Scotland, in Linda Williamson, “What Storytelling Means to a Traveller: An Interview with Duncan Williamson, one of Scotland’s Travelling People”, Arv: ScandinavianYearbook of Folklore, vol. 37, 1981, p. 75
Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing from Ivory Coast

 

And as she tells she spins

AMARU_HN

At last one sister cries, who nimbly knew

To draw nice threads and wind the finest clue,

“While others idly rove, and gods revere,

Their fancied gods! they know not who or where;

Let us, whom Pallas taught her better arts,

Still working, cheer with mirthful chat our hearts;

And, to deceive the time, let me prevail

With each by turns to tell some antique tale.”

She said; her sisters like’d the humour well,

And, smiling, bade her the first story tell;

But she awhile profoundly seem’d to muse,

Perplex’d amid variety to choose;

And knew not whether she should first relate

The poor Dircetis and her wondrous fate.

The Palestines believe it to a man,

and show the lake in which her scales began;

Or if she rather should the daughter sing,

Who in the horary verge of life took wing;

Who soar’d from earth, and dwelt in towers high,

And now a dove she flits along the sky;

Or how lewd Naïs, when her lust was cloy’d,

To fishes turn’d the youths she had enjoy’d,

By powerful verse and herbs; effect most strange!

And last the changer shar’d herself the change.

Or how the tree which once white berries bore,

Still crimson bears, since stain’d with crimson gore.

The tree was new; she likes it, and begins

to tell the tale, and as she tells, she spins.

“In Babylon, where first her queen for state

Rais’d walls of brick magnificently great,

Liv’d Pyramus and Thisbe, lovely pair!

Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated from the Latin by Dr. Garth and others, Vol. I, London: Stanhope Press, 1812, pp. 141-142. This translation by Eusden, corresponding Book IV, 35-55
Illustration inspired by a drawing from the Quechua Andean tradition