The important thing is to keep the feeling the story has


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


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



[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




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


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



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  

Nobody could doze

Amuleto sumerio


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 [1938], pp. 11-13

Illustration inspired by a Sumerian amulet of a frog 3500 BC

To tell only part of the story


Quite often, [in Aboriginal Australia,] fragments [of stories] would be told, referring to places or to characters without expanding on the actions or following through the story-line. A child travelling through the country of some close relative (mother, father, grandparent, for instance) might be told the name of special site and of its spirit-presence, or a wife might be given such information on her first visit to her husband’s country. These items could probably be expanded later into more complete accounts. They were a vital part of the overall process of teaching and learning and knowing about myth-stories and their context in any given region.


Roland M. Berndt and Catherine Berndt, The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1989 p. 9
Illustration inspired by a design of the Haida people