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

Sand stories

The areas of bare sand characteristic of central Australia provide a natural drawing board permanently at hand. Since any continuous conversation is generally carried on by persons sitting on the ground, marking the sand readily becomes a supplement to verbal expression.

Walbiri often contrast their own mode of life with that of the white Australian’s by remarking with pride, “We Walbiri live on the ground” […]. They regard sand drawing as part of this valued mode of life, and as a characteristic aspect of their style of expression and communication. To accompany one’s speech with explanatory sand markings is to “talk” in the Walbiri manner.

[…]

Both men and women draw similar graphic elements on the ground during storytelling or general discourse, but women formalize this narrative usage in a distinctive genre that I shall call a sand story. A space of about one to two feet in diameter is smoothed in the sand; the stubble is removed and small stones plucked out. The process of narration consists of the rhythmic interplay of a continuous running graphic notation with gesture signs and singsong verbal patter. The vocal accompaniment may sometimes drop to a minimum; the basic meaning is then carried by the combination of gestural and graphic signs. The gesture signs are intricate and specific and can substitute on occasion for a fuller verbalization.

Walbiri call stories told by women in this fashion by the term for any traditional story about ancestral times, djugurba. They point out that only women tell stories in this manner, although all Walbiri are familiar with the method. While the technique is elaborated most systematically in narrations of events ascribed to ancestral times, women also use it in a more fragmentary way to convey personal experiences or current gossip. As a mode of communication it can be activated in narration generally, irrespective of whether the content is supposed to refer to ancestral times or the present. A “proper” djugurba, however, is thought to refer to ancestral events.

The social context of storytelling is the casual, informal life of the camp, unhedged by secrecy or ritual sanctions. The women’s camps are a common location. […] Even in the hottest weather the women tend to sit close together; without changing her position or making any special announcement, a woman may begin to tell a story. Occasionally an older woman can be seen wordlessly intoning a story to herself as she gestures and marks the sand, but ordinarily a few individuals in the group will cluster around the narrator, leaving whenever they wish regardless of whether the story is finished or not. At any time the narrator herself may break off the story and go on to perform some chore, or evengo to sleep in the process of narration.

[…] Each woman had a fund of stories that she may have learned from any female kin or from her husband. When asked, women sometimes suggested that tales should be transmitted from mother to daughter, but in fact there are no specific rights over these stories; as women said, “everybody” teaches them these tales.

Walbiri children do not tell sand stories as a pastime, but at the age of about five or six they can make and identify the basic graphic forms used in narration. […] A small child or baby may sit on its mother’s lap while she tells a sand story; the observation of sand drawing is thus part of early perceptual experience. Sand drawing is not systematically taught, and learning is largely by observation.

At the age of about eight or nine, a child can quite readily tell narratives of his or her own invention. As a girl grows older, she becomes increasingly fluent in storytelling and may use the sand story technique (largely without gesture signs according to my observation) to communicate narratives about personal experiences or that she has herself invented. She may occasionally tell such tales to other girls or younger children. Older boys are more reluctant to use the technique since it is identified with feminine role behavior.

Nancy D. Munn, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1986, pp. 58-64

Illlustration inspired by Bushman rock paintings in the Cederberg, South Africa

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