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

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

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

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

 

The important thing is to keep the feeling the story has

FIGURA ANDINA_HN

In the new book I have included some very old stories which I wrote from memory, the way I heard them a long time ago. Memory is tricky – memory for certain facts or details is probably more imaginative than anything, but the important thing is to keep the feeling the story has. I never forget that: the feeling one has of the story is what you must strive to bring forth faithfully.

Leslie Marmon Silko (from the Pueblo of Laguna, in Nuevo México) in a 1979 letter to the poet James Wright, in L. M. Silko and J. Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, edited by Anne Wright, Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, pp. 69-70
Illustration inspired by an Andean drawing

We keep our lives in order with the stories

Kalevala

These are all the matters we need to know. It’s too easy to become sick, because there are always things happening to confuse our minds. We need to have ways of thinking, of keeping things stable, healthy, beautiful. We try for a long life, but lots of things can happen to us. So we keep our thinking in order by these [string] figures and we keep our lives in order with the stories. We have to relate our lives to the stars and the sun, the animals, and to all of nature or else we will go crazy, or get sick.

Words of a Navajo storyteller, recorded by Barre Toelken and included in his book The Dynamics of Folklore, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979, p. 96
Illustration inspired by the logo of the Kalevala Society

To make their voices sweet

cilindro-homo-narr.jpg

 

[In the island of Bali] the normal way to bring out the dormant saktí [magic power] is to undergo mawintén – the initiation ceremony of priests, magicians, dancers, and actors, to give them luck, beauty, cleverness, and personal charm that enable them to be successful. Story-tellers and singers of epic poems (kekawin) have magic syllables inscribed in their tongues with honey to make their voices sweet. The ceremony is performed by a priest who, after cleansing and purifying the person through a maweda [recitation of mantras accompanied by ritual actions and significant gestures], writes invisible signs over his forehead, eyes, teeth, shoulders, arms, and so forth, with the stem of a flower dipped in holy water.

Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937, p. 340
llustration inspired by a mesopotamian drawing

ningákaniak. weaving the story

 

NINGAKANIAK

 

Ningákaniak = That’s the edge or rim of the story, always used at the end of a story; this image seems to be taken from hat [or basket] weaving.

Klamath or Modoc, Oregon, North America; from the unpublished Klamath and Modoc manuscripts of Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906) Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, NAA 2348

Where stories go after being told

arbol_huichol

The story went into the forest, the thoughts into one’s own mind.

Closing formula of Maithil storytellers, Nepal; Coralynn V. Davis, Maithil Women’s Tales: Storytelling on the Nepal-India Border, Urbana & Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2014, p. 1
Illustration inspired by a drawing of the Huichol people, Mexico

 

Not a figure of speech

ancestro

 

If, then, the griots, active today in towns and villages of the Sudan, are still carrying on all the popular culture of African tradition and making the ‘illiterate’ masses perfectly civilized and cultivated people who are conscious of themselves and respectful of others, we must fear what will happen when their voices are no longer heard, for their sons and [grandchildren] now attend the European school and the family profession is no longer handed on.

As for the loss resulting for Africa and for the world we can only measure its importance if we are also aware of the importance of this heritage. For too many foreigners and African who are modern and ignorant, it is only a question of a few unimportant tales. […] However, on looking closer in certain areas of Africa, a very diversified literature is to be found, including different categories [and not only ‘tales’]: epics, cosmogonic myths, adventures, popular comedies, love poetry, oratory poetry (funeral, war, marriage, praise), ritual dram and religious songs, not to mention of course all the sayings, tales and fables, riddles and proverbs. All this forms a whole just as vast in importance and quality as the mediaeval literature of our ‘douce France’. [….]

Every person of French culture should be asked to think for a minute about what a voice this would create and the fresh spring which would be dried up, if by misfortune, this ancestral heritage were lost and with it faith, history and poetry, grandeur, wisdom and experience. It is only after such reflection that one can wonder whether in the name of economic development and European-style education it is right to deny the African of today his foundations in his fundamental original culture.

Theodor Monod said in 1934, not without humor: ‘The African did not come down from a tree yesterday’. Hampaté Bâ warns us today: ‘with the death of each old man, a library is burn’ and it is not a literary figure of style that he means!”

[As far as I know, this is, with its context, the first instance in which this much-repeated sentence was put in print, surely in the French version of the journal, which was published simultaneously to the English one. Kesteloot’s short article deals with the epics of West Africa. The English version is somewhat pedestrian, the last sentence meaning “he doesn’t mean it as a figure of speech” –Ed.]

 

Lylian Kesteloot, “The West African Epics”, Présence Africaine, vol. 30, 1966, pp. 201-202
Illustration inspired by a sculpture representing an ancestor from Indonesia