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

Where stories take us

Stories transport us, we say. They take us out of ourselves. They make us forget, for a moment, the humdrum and the mundane. We like to think they carry us into distant and exotic places that are “purely imaginary.”

Such attitudes may explain why Kuranko [in Sierra Leone] storytelling is prohibited during the daytime (one risks death in the family if one breaks the ban), and why stories belong to the night (when work is done, and one enters the antinomian world of dreams and darkness).

Yet it would be a mistake for us to construe the imaginary as a negation of the real, for experiences that we disparage as “mere” fantasy or dream are integral to our “real” lives as night is to day. This is why it is important to explore not only the ways in which stories take us beyond ourselves, but transform our experience and bring us back to ourselves, changed.

Michael Jackson, The Politics of Storytelling: Variations on a Theme by Hanna Arendt, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2013, pp.143-144

Illustration inspired by a Japanese textile drawing

And as she tells she spins

AMARU_HN

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

NETSUKE HOM. NARRR

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

The narrator would never recite the entire story in immediate sequence

indonesia

The Nyanga epic is not a text performed only at certain times or on highly esoteric ceremonial occasions. There is nothing secret about it; it is to be heard and enjoyed by all the people. Normally a chief or headman or simply the senior of a local descent group, in order to entertain his people and guests, would invite the bard to perform a few episodes of the epic in the evening, around the men’s hut in the middle of the village. Large crowds of people, male and female, young and old, would come to listen or rather to be participant auditors. […] The interesting point is that the narrator would never recite the entire story in immediate sequence, but would intermittently perform various selected passages of it. Mr. Ruerke, whose epic is presented here, repeatedly asserted that never before had he performed the whole story within a continuous span of days.

Daniel Biebuyck and Kahomb C. Mattene, The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic), Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, pp. 13-14

Illustration inspired by shamanic instrument from Indonesia

Two ways of becoming a storyteller in Iran

lesotho-2

[In Iran] [t]he steps a man takes to become a storyteller vary from person to person. […] The storyteller usually learns his craft from a master storyteller. As a student (shagerd), he takes lessons from a master (ostad) whom the student pays for lessons and for providing material. The master himself is a practicing storyteller. The student works alone with his teacher. The stress in training is on rote memorization of the material. The student is taught the literary work Shanama [the “Epic of the Kings”, by Ferdowsi, 940-1020 AD], line by line. […] In addition to the literary work, the student must also copy and learn the tumar, which he receives from his teacher. This tumar is a story outline in prose of the episodes making up the stories he will tell. The student also learns philosophy and religion, and poetry from poets other than Ferdowsi. The period of time of training varies from individual to individual. […]

A storyteller may enter his profession on his own without having gone through more rigorous training. He may simply be attracted by the craft of storytelling, go to hear a number of storytellers, learn from listening to them how the stories are told, pick up the literary work and memorize it, then go off on his own to practice his new trade.

Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 198-199

Illustration inspired by rock art paintings in Lesotho

A Spanish closing formula

cratera_HN

 

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