Tales to daylight

In my native place, Pool Ewe, Ross shire, when I was a boy, it was the custom for the young to assemble together on the long winter nights to hear the old people recite the tales or sgeulachd, which they had learned from their fathers before them. In these days tailors and shoemakers went from house to house, making our clothes and shoes. When one of them came to the village we were greatly delighted, whilst getting new kilts at the same time.

I knew an old tailor who used to tell a new tale every night during his stay in the village; and another, an old shoemaker, who, with his large stock of stories about ghosts and fairies, used to frighten us so much that we scarcely dared pass the neighbouring churchyard on our way home.

It was also the custom when an aoidh, or stranger, celebrated for his store of tales, came on a visit to the village, for us, young and old, to make a rush to the house where he passed the night, and choose our seats, some on beds, some on forms, and others on three legged stools, etc., and listen in silence to the new tales; just as I have myself seen since, when a far famed actor came to perform in the Glasgow theatre. The goodman of the house usually opened with the tale of Famhair Mor (great giant) or some other favourite tale, and then the stranger carried on after that. It was a common saying, ‘The first tale by the goodman, and tales to daylight by the aoidh,’ or guest. It was also the custom to put riddles, in the solving of which all in the house had to tax their ingenuity. If one of the party put a riddle which was not solved that night, he went home with the title of King of Riddles.

Besides this, there was usually in such gatherings a discussion about the Fein, which comes from Fiantaidh, giant; the Fiantaidh were a body of men who volunteered to defend their country from the invasions and inroads of the Danes and Norwegians, or Lochlinnich. Fiunn, who was always called King of the Fein, was the strongest man amongst them, and no person was admitted into the company who was less in height than he, however much taller. I remember the old black shoemaker telling us one night that Fiunn had a tooth which he consulted as an oracle upon all important occasions. He had but to touch this tooth, and whatever he wanted to know was at once revealed to him.

From a letter by Hector Urquhart to John Francis Campbell, dated March 1860; John Francis Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1860, vol. I, págs. vi-vii

Illustration inspired by a japanese netsuke


A process of continual fictionalization

Our social and personal lives are a process of continual fictionalization, as we internalize the other-we-are-not, dramatize them, imagine them, speak for them and through them. The accuracy of this fictionalization is never guaranteed, but without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all. One of the things fiction did is make this process explicit—visible. All storytelling is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you. And if fiction had a belief about itself, it was that fiction had empathy in its DNA, that it was the product of compassion.

Zadie Smith, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction”, New York Review of Books, October 24 2019, p. 8

Illustration based on a Haida amulet (great blue heron and human), kept in the Royal British Columbia Museum

An inheritance from the deep past

This is what we’ve inherited from the deep past, […] the innate ability to tell and understand stories, which came from our interactions with a demanding natural environment; and the neural programs that enable us to read and write, which also came from that environment.

Margaret Atwood, “Literature and the environment” in Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004-2021, London:  Chatto & Windus, 2022, p. 145

Illustration inspired by the drawing of a South African fabric

The subject is recitation

[In the Kalevala] all objects and creatures are part of a vital continuum in constant mutual communication. It is a world never silent. It seems almost to be kept alive by the noise. Inanimate objects vibrate with a sort of pantheistic tremor. The walls and floors and roofbeams of the house rattle and creak and sing in anticipation of the bride who will come. Nothing stands still; even the dead are not dead, merely elsewhere. All this sound and movement was originally conveyed, of course, by an uninterrupted chanting voice; the sonic descriptions must have provided perfect opportunities to rouse the auditors to stay focused on the narrative winding thread. Recitation was not only the medium of the Kalevala poems, it was their abiding subject. The words and the music that accompanied them embody supreme magic.

Geoffrey O’Brien, “Magic Sayings by the Thousands”, New York Review of Books, November 4, 2021, p. 36

Illustration inspired by the logo of the Kalevala Society

The song and the hero create each other 

When the disguised Odysseus, at the climax of the Odyssey, prepares to shoot down the intruders who are robbing him and courting his wife, he strings his great bow “just as the man skilled in the lyre and in song stretches a gut string around a new peg” and plucks the weapon to produce a musical note. With that superb simile, Homer fuses the deeds of which he sings with the art of the singer. The song creates the hero, but the hero also creates the song. 

James Romm, “A Journey into Homer’s World”, New York Review of Books, September 23, 2021, p. 51 

Illustration inspired by the pottery of the Mimbres People, New Mexico

‘Squeeze’ is our slang for ‘tell’ 

“Listen,” he said, “if you’re an American, you must have seen lots of movies, yes? Read a lot of books? Read novels a lot?” 

I nodded again. 

“Good. I think we may be able to have a good business relationship.” 

The parkhan [boss] grinned widely at my bewilderment. Then his mood shifted and he became very serious and intense, peering at me directily with only a hint of a mocking smile around his dark eyes. […] 

“Now listen,” he said seriously. “Can you squeeze a novel?” 

I said, “What do you mean, ‘squeeze’?” 

He said, “You know, ‘squeeze’ is our slang for ‘tell.’ Can you tell us novels, narrate the stories, same with movies? We have no storyteller here, and we need stories. Life is empty without a good story to keep you going every day. Can you do that?” 

Alexander Dolgun and Patrick Watson, Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1974, pp. 141-142 

Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing

The best way to tell a story

Hence the occurrence of the word polytropos, “of many turns,” “many circled,” in the first line of the Odyssey is a hint as to the nature not only of the poem’s hero but of the poem itself, suggesting as it does that the best way to tell a certain kind of story is to move not straight ahead but in wide and history-laden circles. 

Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic, New York: Vintage Books, 2018, p. 33 

Illustration based on a mix animal from the imaginary of the ancient world

After imposing silence 

And thus busy with different tasks, Goodman Robin, after imposing silence, would begin the story about the stork, or about how Renard the fox stole the fish; or how he got the washer-women to beat the wolf when he was learning how to fish; of how the dog and the cat went far away; about the Lion, king of the animals, and how he made the ass his lieutenant and wanted to be king of everything; about the crow, and how croaking she lost her cheese; about Melusine; about the werewolf; about Anette’s hide; about the drunk monk; about the fairies and how he often spoke with them familiarly, even in the evening as he passed through the hedgerows and saw them dancing near the Cormier fountain to the sound of red leather bagpipe. 

Noël du Fail, Propos rustiques, Baliverneries, Contes et discours d`Eutrapel, edición de J. Marie Guichard, Paris: Librarie de Charles Gosselin, 1842, pág. 43. The book was originally published in 1548

Illustration inspired by Andean drawing

The spoken word acquired unique clarity at night 

For preindustrial peoples, obscurity suited storytelling. In both Western and non-Western cultures, the recitation of myths and folktales long enjoyed the aura of a sacred ritual, traditionally reserved for night’s depths. Darkness insulated hearts and minds from the profane demands of ordinary life. Any “sacred function,” averred Daniello Bartoli in La recreazione del Savio [1659], “requires darkness and silence.”

Within early modern households, ill-lit rooms gave added force to the resonant tales of storytellers. These men in much of Ireland bore the title of seanchaidhthe, and in Wales, cyfarwydd.

The spoken word, in the absence of competing distractions, acquired unique clarity at night. Darkness encouraged listening as well as flights of fancy. Words, not gestures, shaped the mind’s dominant images. What’s more, sound tends to unify any disparate body of listeners. Not only is sound difficult to ignore, but it promotes cohesion by drawing persons closer together, literally as well as metaphorically. Coupled with the dim light of a lamp or hearth, the act of storytelling created an unusually intimate milieu. And too, nighttime lent a dramatic backdrop to local tales, many of which dwelled on the supernatural.  

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, London: Phoenix, 2006, pp. 179-180 

Illustration inspired by a drawing found on a Greek pottery

Each narrative can contain more than one message 

[For the Yanyuwa of the north of Australia,] Liwingkinya [a spot with painted images] is nyiki-nganji, or kin, to Walala [a lake]. These two places are bound to one another through story, song, and human activity and marks of that activity can be seen in the rockshelters.

The oral traditions that still hold Liwingkinya have survived by not being frozen on the printed page but by repeated telling and singing. Each narrative can contain more than one message. The listener too is part of the event; a good listener is also expected to bring different life experiences to the story of these places each time they are spoken or sung about and all people then learn different things as these places are reanimated by speech and song. These songs and stories compel the listener to think about ordinary experiences in new ways.

For Yanyuwa men and women who know their country, singing and story-telling is the most valued form of expression, an art that encompasses a kind of truth that lives beyond the restricted frameworks of positivism, empiricism, and what the West might call common sense. 

J. Bradley, A. Kearney and L. M. Brady, “A lesson in time: Yanyuwa ontologies and meaning the Southwest Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Australia”, in Oscar Moro Abadía and Martin Porr (eds.), Ontologies of Rock Art: Images, Relational Approaches, and Indigenous knowledges, London & New York: Routledge, p. 126 

Illustration inspired by a sculpture representing an Indonesian ancestor