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

To avoid intrusions from the unseen world

A ritual more commonly found among [Malay professional] story-tellers is the opening ceremony which precedes a performance […]. Thus [several of the story-tellers] interviewed commence performance with a simple ceremony, the common elements of which are the preparation of a dish of offerings, usually consisting of betel leaf and areca nut etc. and sometimes including a small amount of money, known as a perekas [literally, hardener of the vital essence][…]. With most story-tellers, an opening ceremony is held to ensure harmony during the performance and to avoid intrusions from the unseen world. 

Amin Sweeney, “Professional Malay Story-Telling: Some Questions of Style and Presentation”, Ann Arbor: Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, The University of Michigan, Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia, no 8, 1974, pp. 60-61 

Illustration inspired by a buddhist image


No strands of unsolved mystery left hanging 

The conclusion [of the story] describes restored harmony, with a closure such as am o wa’i hug ‘that’s the end’ or am o wa’i at hoabdag ‘that’s the center of the basket’. The latter is a figure for the return to harmony necessary for a story to be considered complete, suggesting that all details woven into the story have been treated and no strands of unsolved mystery left hanging. 

Dean and Lucille Saxton, O’othham Hoho’ok A’agitha. Legends and Lore of the Papago and Pima Indians, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, second printing, 1978, p. 371 

Illustration inspired by a tradicional Latvian drawing

All spit into the fire

[By evening] [t]he women have eaten their evening meal informally round the fires and are just chatting. In a hut three girls are sitting by candlelight, one of them, who has been to school, writing a love-letter for her friend to her lover in town.  […] In another hut some children have persuaded Mamujaji, an elderly woman, to tell them tales. She begins,

Ngano-Ngano (a story, a story).’

They reply, ‘Ngano.

‘Once upon a time,’ she continues, but before she gets further they again interject,

Ngano.’ Then she goes on,

‘There lived a boy who had sores all over his body.’

‘Ngano,’ they repeat whenever the speaker hesitates or takes breath.

‘One day when the girls went to fetch grass…’

This is the beginning of a story about a bird who gives away the girls who kill the boy. A marked characteristic is the frequent occurrence of a song and refrain, during the telling of the tale, in this case, ‘Phogu, Phogu ya Vorwa, &c.’ (‘Bird, bird of the south’), so that what with the interjections and singing of the chorus of the refrain, the listeners appear to take as active a part in the story as the narrator herself. At the end of each tale there is a long-drawn-out ‘Ngaaano’ and all spit into the fire.

    In the small villages of today storytelling has almost completely died out. Where there are only one or two present a story loses most of its charm, and there are many young men and women who know practically no stories, more particularly among Christians, whose parents prefer them to learn their lessons rather than tell them stories.

E. J. Kriege and J. D. Kriege, The Realm of a Rain-Queen: A Study of the Pattern of Lovedu Society, London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1943, p. 29

Illustration inspired by a petroglyph of the Pueblo Indians of North America

Everyone has to listen and to narrate

Everybody tells stories [among the Akamba], but there are degrees of skill and ability in the art. Similarly, everyone listens to stories, although children have to be present when a story is being told. Adults do not tell stories among themselves.

The time must be after sunset, for the Akamba say that ngewa ityi muyo muthenka (“stories are not interesting during the day-time”), o kuyananiwaa muthenya (“stories are not narrated during the day-time). People are no longer working in the fields or herding in the plains. Families are together after the day’s work, and when the exchange of news is over and the pots are bubbling, when the mills are silent and cattle are no longer mooing after being milked, then it is time to tell stories. The people are sitting round the fire; the children stop playing, and wait expectantly. If one child has to go to another house to fetch something, the story-teller waits until the child comes back and is ready to listen. Grown-ups must refrain from unnecessary interruptions.

Grandparents usually have more stories to tell than other people, and next to them are the  parents, and the older brothers and sister of the children. But younger members of the family have also to learn to narrate, which they do by repeating some of the stories after a few months, or by relating them to other youngsters when they go to visit relatives. If a person does not know stories and how to tell them, other people laugh at him. So everyone has to listen and to narrate. […]  

The narrator puts life into the story to make it appeal. If there is a moral to be learned, a good story-teller does not labour it: the story will lend itself to that purpose, if it is properly told. […] The narrator never mentions [the] lessons [to be learnt from a story]. He simply tells the story which dramatizes the lessons.

John S. Mbiti, Akamba Stories, Oxford: Clarendon  Press, 1966, pp. 23-25

Illustration inspired by the drawing of a shaman’s drum


Shakespeare’s debt

We shall never know just how much Shakespeare owed to an older England, already passing away in his time, of storytelling and ballad singing. It is possible that some of his plots that we trace to books, and that he perhaps verified in books, first came to him from fireside storytellers.

Frank Walsh Brownlow, Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens, London: The Macmillan Press, 1977 p. 122.

Illustration inspired by initial letters in medieval manuscripts

The virtues of a story

The anonymous 14th century Irish saga Altram Tige Dá Medar, “The nurturing of the house of two milk-vessels” tells the moving story of Ethne, a young woman of the sidhe, beings similar to humans who are immortal and live inside the barrows and tumuli or Ireland. After being shamed by Finbarr, the brother of his foster-father, Aengus, Ethne can only feed from the milk of two cows brought from India which she herself has to milk. Centuries later, Ethne, who has reached humanity, and hence mortality, by means of her conversion to Christianity, dies in the arms of Saint Patrick. The conclusion of the saga is this as follows:

And Patrick ordered that there should not be sleep or conversation during this story, and not to tell it except to a few good people so that it might be better listened to, many other virtues for it, as is said in this elegy:

Let the grave of generous Ethne be dug by you

in the churchyard over the green-watered Boyne.

After the maiden of the sunny knowledge

Aengus’s host will not be joyous.

I and Aengus skillful in weapons,

two whose secret intention is not the same,

we had not on the surface of this earth

any beloved like Ethne.

I shall leave these virtues

for the story of Ethne from the fair Maigue.

Success in children, success in foster-sister or brother,

to those it may find sleeping with fair women.

If you tell of the fosterage

before going in a ship or vessel,

you will come safe and prosperous

without danger from waves and billows.

If you tell of the fosterage

(before going to a) judgement or a hunting,

your case will be (prosperous)

all will be submissive before you.

To tell the story of Ethne

when bringing home a stately wife,

good the step you have decided on,

it will be a success of spouse and children.

Tell the story of noble Ethne

before going into a new banqueting house,

(you will be) without bitter fight or folly,

without the drawing of valiant, pointed weapons.

Tell to a king of many followers

the story of Ethne to a musical instrument,

he gets not cause to repent it,

provided he listen without conversation.

If you tell this story

to the captives of Ireland,

it will be the same as if were opened

their locks and their bonds.

A blessing on this soul

that was in beautiful Ethne’s body;

everyone who has this elegy

he shall win the goal.


Let them be written in our schools,

her generous miracles, and let them be seen.

Her body let it be laid out in this world of ours,

in the churchyard let it be buried.

Lilian Duncan, “Altram Tige Dá Medar”, Ériu, vol. 11, 1932, pp. 224-225

Illustration inspired by the image of a Japanese kamon