The virtues of a story

The anonymous 14th century Irish saga Altram Tige Dá Medar, “The nurturing of the house of two milk-vessels” tells the moving story of Ethne, a young woman of the sidhe, beings similar to humans who are immortal and live inside the barrows and tumuli or Ireland. After being shamed by Finbarr, the brother of his foster-father, Aengus, Ethne can only feed from the milk of two cows brought from India which she herself has to milk. Centuries later, Ethne, who has reached humanity, and hence mortality, by means of her conversion to Christianity, dies in the arms of Saint Patrick. The conclusion of the saga is this as follows:

And Patrick ordered that there should not be sleep or conversation during this story, and not to tell it except to a few good people so that it might be better listened to, many other virtues for it, as is said in this elegy:

Let the grave of generous Ethne be dug by you

in the churchyard over the green-watered Boyne.

After the maiden of the sunny knowledge

Aengus’s host will not be joyous.

I and Aengus skillful in weapons,

two whose secret intention is not the same,

we had not on the surface of this earth

any beloved like Ethne.

I shall leave these virtues

for the story of Ethne from the fair Maigue.

Success in children, success in foster-sister or brother,

to those it may find sleeping with fair women.

If you tell of the fosterage

before going in a ship or vessel,

you will come safe and prosperous

without danger from waves and billows.

If you tell of the fosterage

(before going to a) judgement or a hunting,

your case will be (prosperous)

all will be submissive before you.

To tell the story of Ethne

when bringing home a stately wife,

good the step you have decided on,

it will be a success of spouse and children.

Tell the story of noble Ethne

before going into a new banqueting house,

(you will be) without bitter fight or folly,

without the drawing of valiant, pointed weapons.

Tell to a king of many followers

the story of Ethne to a musical instrument,

he gets not cause to repent it,

provided he listen without conversation.

If you tell this story

to the captives of Ireland,

it will be the same as if were opened

their locks and their bonds.

A blessing on this soul

that was in beautiful Ethne’s body;

everyone who has this elegy

he shall win the goal.


Let them be written in our schools,

her generous miracles, and let them be seen.

Her body let it be laid out in this world of ours,

in the churchyard let it be buried.

Lilian Duncan, “Altram Tige Dá Medar”, Ériu, vol. 11, 1932, pp. 224-225

Illustration inspired by the image of a Japanese kamon

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

Wisahkitchak must still be looking for that coyote

Only one narrator ever attempted to explain to me why all the [Cree] stories begin: ‘Wisahkitchak was walking.’ This narrator explained that because they were growing up, he could tell his child audience the beginning of the story.

In the beginning, Wisahkitchak was sitting. Where he was sitting, there was nothing. There was only a piece of dirt. Wisahkitchak blew on it and it grew bigger. He wondered how big to make it. This piece of dirt was the world itself. Then Wisahkitchak made a coyote, Wisahkitchak told the coyote to run around the edge of the world and come back. He came back and told Wisahkitchak how big the world had become. This happened many times.

Wisahkitchak kept blowing. He didn’t have enough. While the coyote was gone, Wisahkitchak made more animals, mostly game animals and birds. Then he sent the coyote for what might be the last time. Wisahkitchak got tired of waiting for this little coyote. Then Wisahkitchak got up for the first time. He got up and went off walking to look for the coyote.

This is the beginning of the story and end. The rest of the stories about Wisahkitchak branch off on his travels; this story is the roots. Nobody has ever heard that Wisahkitchak stopped walking so he must still be looking for that coyote.

Plains Cree, Alberta (Canada). Regna Darnell, “Correlates of Cree narrative performance”, in R. Bauman and J. Sherzer (eds.), Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 p. 465, note 7.

Illustration: blossoming plum branch

Biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying

The development of human language plays a complex role within this process of adaptation. It seems to have developed from signalling among social animals; but I propose the thesis that what is most characteristic of the human language is the possibility of storytelling.

It may be that this ability too has some predecessor in the animal world. But I suggest that the moment when language became human was very closely related to the moment when a man invented a story, a myth in order to excuse a mistake he had made – perhaps in giving a danger signal when there was no occasion for it; and I suggest that the evolution of specifically human language, with its characteristic means of expressing negation – of saying that something signalled is not true – stems very largely from the discovery of systematic means to negate a false report, for example a false alarm, and from the closely related discovery of false stories – lies – used either as excuses or playfully.

If we look from this point of view at the relation of language to subjective experience, we can hardly deny that every genuine report contains an element of decision, at least of the decision to speak the truth. Experiences with lie detectors give a strong indication that, biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying. I take this as an indication that lying is a comparatively late and fairly specifically human invention; indeed that it has made the human language what it is: an instrument which can be used for misreporting almost as well as for reporting.

From Karl Popper, “Karl Popper, Replies to my Critics” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, La Salle, Illinois, 1974, pp. 1112-1113, cited by George Steiner, A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 404.
Illustration inspired by a colonial painting from Bokkeveld, Western Cape, South Africa

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


They will listen the night through to recitations from this work


There is a Singhalese translation of the greater part of the [Játakas], which is exceedingly popular, not on account of the peculiar doctrines of Buddhism contained in it, for these are but incidentally referred to, but from its being a collection of amusing stories which they believe to be unquestionably true. …

Not a few of the fables that pass under the name of Aesop are here to be found; and the schoolboy is little aware, as he reads of the wit of the fox or the cunning of the monkey, that these animals become, in the course of ages, the teacher of the three worlds, Buddha.

Each Jákata begins with the formula “yata-giya-dawasa,” which is the exact equivalent to our own, “in days of yore.” … One tale, after the usual manner of eastern compositions, presents the opportunity for the introduction of several other stories that are only slightly dependent on the principal narrative. The Singhalese will listen the night through to recitations from this work, without any apparent weariness; and a great number of the Játakas are familiar even to the women.

Robert Spence Hardy, A manual of Buddhism, in its modern development. London: Williams & Norgate, 1860, pp. 99-101
Illustration inspired by a jar from Damascus

Liu Jingting was a master in storytelling



The pockmarked Liu from Nanjing had a dark complexion and in his face there were lots of scars and pimples. He was careless and indifferent about his looks, as if he were made from clay or wood. He was a master in storytelling. He told one session of storytelling a day. The price was a tael of silver. Even if you came ten days ahead to make an appointment and pay the fee, you could not be sure he would be free …

I once heard him perform in the plain style of telling (without musical accompaniment) the tale of ‘Wu Song fights the tiger on Jingyang Mountain”. It was very different from the version transmitted in books. His descriptions and illustrations went into the finest details, but he also knew where to cut the thread and make a pause, and he never became talkative. His voice rang out like a big bell. Whenever he came to an exciting point, he bellowed and raged so that the noise seemed to make the house fall down.

At the point where Wu Song arrives in the inn and orders wine, there is nobody in the inn. At the sudden outcry of Wu Song, the empty jars and pots send out a ringing sound. Thus he would add colour to every interval, and he did his utmost in his care for detail.

Only when his hosts were sitting quite attentively and cocking their ears to listen, would he begin to tell. But if he noticed some among the servants whispering to each other, or if the listeners were yawning or showing other signs of sleepiness, he would stop immediately, and nobody could force him to start again. Every evening when the tables had been wiped and the lamps snuffed, and the simple tea bowls were passed around in all calm, he would slowly begin to tell …

Zhang Dai, 1597-c. 1684, witnessed Liu Jingting’s performance in 1638 and wrote about it in his work Recollections of Tao’an’s Past Dreams, Tao’anmengyi. Quoted by Vibeke Bordhal and Jette Ross, Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in Yangzhou Tradition, Boston: Cheng &Tsui Company, 2002, p. 62
Illustration inspired by an Assyrian motif

Tying up the myth


Very little of the atmosphere of story telling can be provided on a printed page. A few interesting remarks of one informant may be mentioned. In a native setting of the upper Cowlitz river, according to Mrs. Mary Eyley, stories that were very long would be told in two or more successive nights. In times gone by it was the custom to make a halt, perhaps when the auditors were disappearing or dropping off to sleep, saying something such as: … “Now I will tie up the myth,” implying that the myth was like a canoe, and had to be moored to a log or tree along the river until the next night’s myth journey. When story telling was in order the next evening the raconteur would perhaps say, … “Now I will untie the myth,” and the narrative would proceed from where it had halted.

Continuing the simile, should the raconteur wander from the main stream of the narrative or diverge into a side channel of gossip or other irrelevance, one of the auditors might admonish by calling out, … ‘Your myth might float away.’ It is also of interest to note that each sentence or perhaps even each phrase of the narrative was concluded with an affirmative semi-ritual call of ‘i’…!‘ literally ‘Yes!’ from the auditors, who if awake were expected to respond regularly in that somewhat fatiguing manner. In these sceptical, degenerate, modern days the myths are often received by a merely smiling or even relatively unresponsive audience.

Klikitat (sahaptin), in Melville Jacobs Northwest Sahaptin Texts, New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.
Illustration inspired on engravings from a cave in the island of Götland.