And as she tells she spins


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

The storytelling pocket


And then the cold winter nights, Granny went into her little compartment, tent, in the barricade, and it was storytelling. I was very young then, but I remember my granny well. There were wonderful stories told round the little fire. I remember my daddy sitting around the fire in the middle of the floor, just a stick fire in the middle of the tent, a hole in the roof and the smoke going straight up through the hole. A little paraffin lamp, the cruisie turned down, home-made by my father.

Granny would tell a story, Father would tell a story. Maybe a few travellers passing by would stop and put their tent over in the “Tinker’s Turn’, a place across the burn from the wood where we stayed. […] They would also tell stories and have a little get-together. Our tent was a stopping place for travellers who came down to Argyll, and there was always time for a story.

Now Granny would stay with us all winter in that big barricade with her little compartment. […]

Now Granny was a an old lady, and every old traveller woman in the bygone days never carried a handbag. But around their waist they carried a big pocket. I remember Granny’s –she made it herself, a tartan pocket. It was like a large purse with a strap, and she tied it around her waist. It had three pearl buttons down the middle, not zip in these days. Granny carried all her worldly possessions in this pocket.

Now, Granny smoked a little clay pipe. And when she needed tobacco, she would say, “Weans, I want you to run to the village for tobacco for my pipe.” And she’d give us a threepenny bit, a penny for each of us and a penny for tobacco. The old man used to have a roll of it on the counter, and he cut off a little bit for Granny for her penny. We came back and our reward was, “Granny, tell us a story!”

She sat in front of her little tent, and she had a little billy-can and a little fire. We collected sticks for her, and she’d boil this strong, black tea. She lifted the can off, placed it by the side of the fire and said, “Well, weans, I’ll see what I have in my pocket for you this time!” She opened up that big pocket by her side with the three pearl buttons. I remember them well, and she said, “Well, I’ll tell you this story.” Maybe it was one she’d told three nights before. Maybe it was one she had never told for weeks. Sometimes she would tell us a story three-four times; sometimes she told us a story we’d never heard.

So, one day my sister and I came back from the village. We were playing and we came up to Granny’s little tent. The sun was shining warm. Granny’s little can of tea was by the fire: it was cold, the fire had burned out. The sun was warm. Granny was lying, she had her two hands under her head like an old woman, and her little bed was in front of the tent. By her side was the pocket. That was the very first time we’d ever seen that pocket off Granny’s waist. She probably took it off when she went to bed at night-time. But never during the day!

So my sister and I crept up quietly and we said, ‘Granny is asleep! There’s her pocket. Let’s go and see how many stories are in Granny’s pocket.’ So very gently we picked the pocket up, we took it behind the tree where we lived in the forest and opened up the three pearl buttons. And in that pocket was like Aladdin’s Cave! There were clay pipes, threepenny pieces, rings, halfpennies, pennies, farthings, brooches, pins, needles, everything and old woman carried with her, thimbles… but not one single story could we find! So we never touched anything. We put everything back inside, closed it and put it back, left it by her side. We said, ‘We’ll go and play and we’ll get Granny when she gets up.’ So we went off to play again, came back about an hour later and Granny was up. Her little fire was kindling. She was heating up her cold tea. And we sat down by her side. She began to light her pipe after she drank this black strong tea. We said, ‘Granny, are you going to tell us a story?’

Aye, weans,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you a story.’ She loved telling us stories because it was company for us, forbyes it was good company for her to sit there beside us weans. She said, ‘Wait a minute noo, wait till I see what I have for you tonight.’ And she opened up the pocket. She looked at me and my little sister for a while, for a long time with her blue eyes. She said, ‘Ye ken something, weans?’

We said, ‘No, Granny.’

She said, ‘Somebody opened my pocket when I was asleep and all my stories are gone. I cannae tell ye a story the nicht, weans.’ And she never told us a story that night. And she never told us another story. And I was seventeen when my granny died, but eleven when that happened. Granny never told me another story, and that’s a true story!

Duncan Williamson, The Horsieman: Memories of a Traveller 1928-1958, Edinburg: Canongate Press, 1994, pp. 6-8

Illustration inspired by a japanese netsuke

When the eloquent voice and gesture of some grey wrinkled old man…


In these distant islands [the Hebrides], where men live slowly, and live long, probably because they do not live fast, –in queer rude hovels built of turf and boulders, where men of fourscore years have spent the most of their quiet lives, –in these quiet still pools in the current of life, old thoughts accumulate like gold-dust in a Sutherland burn, and there they are preserved.

There on winter nights children, with wondering eyes and mouths agape, sit in the ruddy light of the peat-fire, under the grey canopy of smoke, and listen breathless to these weird old myths. They cease to be ragged, bare-legged lads and lasses, with shock heads of dark or flaxen hair, unkempt and unshorn; they hear how the bold herd fought the dragon, and won the princess and the kingdom, and their spirits are up and doing like him. Potatoes and milk, wooden noggins and good horn-spoons cease to exist; while the golden basin and the giant’s stores are spread before them by the eloquent voice and gesture of some grey wrinkled old man.

And when the story ends, and the fire burns low, and they coil themselves up to rest in their cribs lads and lasses dream on, and so they dream till they grow up, and grow old, and the old tale becomes a part of their quiet lives. The child’s dream of romance is the bright spot in a dull round of hardship and toil, and the man never forgets it while he lives.

John Francis Campbell, “On current British mythology and oral traditions”, Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 1869-1870, vol. 2, pp. 331-332
Illustration inspired by a drawing on a pumkin from Burkina Faso

A Spanish closing formula



And to celebrate they ate grouse and they took a plate and struck my nose. And seeing that, I smeared my shoes with oil and run back to my own soil.

Juan José Orga Díaz, master farrier from Frama, Potes, Santander; Aurelio M. Espinosa, Cuentos populares de Castilla y León, vol. 2, Madrid: CSIC, 1988, p. 199   
Illustration inspired by a classical Greek krater

The most enduring


Is buaine port ná glór na-éan,

Is buaine focal ná toice an tsaoil.

A tune is more enduring than the song of birds,

and a tale (or word) is more enduring than the wealth of the world.

(Irish proverb)

(Irish proverb, in Robin Gwyndaf, “A Welsh Lake Legends and the Famous Physicians of Myddfai”, Bealoideas, vol. 60-61, 1992-1993, p. 245)

Illustration inspired by a Japanese drawing

Life as wandering storyteller would be nice.


Telling stories to anyone who will hear them as stories, who doesn’t know you, who doesn’t expect literature. Life as wandering storyteller would be nice. Someone says the word, and  you tell the story. You never stop, day or night, you go blind, you lose the use of your limb. But your moth still serves its function, and you speak whatever is in your head. You have no possessions, only an infinite, every-growing number of stories.

Nicest of all would be if you could live on words alone and did not even need to eat.

Elias Canetti. Notes from Hampstead. The Writer’s Notes: 1954-.1971, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998, translated by John Hargreaves, pp. 29-30.
Illustration based on Bushman rock art from the South of Africa.

This tale is now a totally new concept


When I returned from Berdichov after Chanukah in the winter of 5570 (1810), the Rebbe told me that he had a story to tell.

He said, ‘This tale has only been told once before, and this was before Solomon’s temple was built. The only ones who understand it were the prophet who told it and the one to whom it was told. Even the other prophets could not fathom it.

Although this story has already been told once, it is now a totally new concept. Many things have changed since it was last told. It was told once before in accordance with that time, but now it must be told in accordance with the present” (Rabí Aryeh, editor, Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom, Jerusalén: Breslov Research Institute, 1973, p. 340).

Rabí Aryeh, editor, Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom, Jerusalén: Breslov Research Institute, 1973, p. 340.
Illustration inspired by the art of the Pazyryk culture.

The tale is, you know, like a young sapling.


The tale is, you know, like a young sapling. It grows, develops, you prune it, graft it, clean it, it will grow leaves, twigs and fruits. A new life develops, like that of humans as well. Who knows what it will be? This is how the tale is. Once I began a tale about a young lady, that she found a box. She picked it up, looked what is inside, she opened it. It was a dragon. He grabbed her and took her. What happened after: I told it for a week. This is how the tale goes: as we want it, only it has to have a basis, afterwards anything can be added. (Reflections of Hungarian storyteller Ferenc Czapár, fisherman).

Linda Dégh,  Narratives in Society: A Performer-Centered Study of Narration, Helsinki, Academia Scientarum Fennica, Folklore Fellows Communications no 255. pág. 44. 1995.
Illustration inspired by the art of the Maya culture.