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
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
[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
“Papago songs are handed down from singer to singer more carefully than were the epics of Homer. A man dreams his own songs, and he gives them to his son; but before he was born, there was already a body of magic by which the ancestors ruled their world. This collected mass of song and story I have sometimes called the ‘Papago bible.’ Like much of the unwritten literature of our Southwest [of the United States], it is half prose and half lyric […].
”In every Papago village there is and old man whose hereditary function is to recite this ‘bible.’ The accepted time for the recitation is those four nights in winter ‘when the sun stands still’ before turning back from that southern journey in which, it seemed, might take its light away forever.
”On those nights –four nights, for everything holy goes by fours– the Papago men gathered in the ceremonial house. […]
”The men sat cross-legged, their arms folded, their heads bowed. This was the position required by propriety, as sitting upright in a church pew was required by our Victorian ancestors. No one must interrupt the speaker by a question or even by a movement. No one must doze. If he did, some neighbor would poke the burning cigarette between his sandaled toes. If the speaker saw it, he stopped suddenly and there was no more storytelling that night.
”The storyteller had, perhaps, worked years to memorize the whole complicated mass of prose and verse. The prose he sometimes elaborated with illustrations and explanations of his own, but the verse was fixed. The words and tune of every song were ‘given’ by Elder Brother; also the exact point were it entered the story. An old man has refused to tell me a story because he had forgotten the tune of one song and so was unable to tell the story complete. Nevertheless, variations have crept in and the ‘bible’ according to one village is not quite that according to another.
”The ‘Papago bible’ would require a volume in itself […]”
Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press 1968 , pp. 11-13
Illustration inspired by a Sumerian amulet of a frog 3500 BC