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

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Klamath or Modoc, Oregon, North America; from the unpublished Klamath and Modoc manuscripts of Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906) Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, NAA 2348

No marked departures from the traditional plot are countenanced

FIGURA hohokam

It can be safely asserted that there exists no aboriginal tribe in the world where the narrating of myths is not confined to a small number of specifically gifted individuals. These individuals are always highly respected by the community, and they are permitted to take liberties with a given text denied to people at large. In fact they are sometimes admired for so doing. While unquestionably the accepted theory everywhere is that a myth must always be told in the same way, all that is really meant by theory here is what I have stated before, namely, that the fundamental plot, themes and dramatis personae are retained. In short, no marked departure from a traditional plot or from the specific literary tradition is countenanced. The liberties that a gifted raconteur is permitted to take with his text vary from myth to myth and from tribe to tribe and, within the tribe itself, from period to period.

Among the Winnebago, the right to narrate a given myth, that is, a waikan, belongs, as I have already indicated, either to a particular family or to a particular individual. In a certain sense it is his ‘property’, and as such often possesses a high pecuniary value. Where the myth was very sacred or very long, it had to be purchased in installments. The number of individuals, however, to whom it would be sold was strictly limited, because no one would care to acquire the right to tell a myth out of idle curiosity nor would it be told by its owner to such a one. What actually occurred was that a waikan passed, through purchase, from one gifted raconteur to another.

This meant that its content and style, while they may have been fixed basically and primarily by tradition, were fixed secondarily by individuals of specific literary ability who gave such a waikan the impress of their particular temperaments and genius. That they would attempt to narrate it as excellently and authentically as their most gifted predecessors had done stands to reason. The strict conformists and ‘classicists’ among the raconteurs would manifestly try to preserve the exact language of a predecessor. However, fidelity was not demanded of him. In fact, an audience generally preferred and valued a raconteur in terms of his own style and phrasing, that is, in terms of his own personality. We must never forget that we are not dealing here with narratives that were written down. Every narrative was, strictly speaking, a drama where as much depended upon the acting of the raconteur as upon his actual narration. This may seem an unnecessarily elementary point for me to stress, but it is frequently forgotten.

On the narrative tradition of the Winnebago , a Native American of the Great Lakes region; Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, New York: Philosophical Library, p. 122-123
Illustration inspired by a drawing from The Hohokam 

Now form an intrinsic part of his life


As has been stated, [among the Skidi Pawnee of North America] these traditions, along with the rituals, are regarded as personal property. They have been paid for by the owner, and consequently, according to his belief, now form an intrinsic part of his life. As he tells them he gives out from himself a certain part of his life, levying a direct contribution upon its termination. Thus, as one middle-aged individual exclaimed, ‘I cannot tell you all that I know, for I am not yet ready to die;’ or, as an old priest expressed it, ‘I know that my days are short. My life is no longer of use. There is no reason why I should not tell you all that I know.’

George A. Dorsey, Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. for the American Folk-Lore Society, 1904, p. xxii
Illustration inspired by a rock art painting in the Northern Cape, South Africa

Stories go to work on you like arrows



I think of that mountain called Tséé Ligai Dah Sidilé (White Rocks Lie Above In A Compact Cluster) as if it were my maternal grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.

(Benson Lewis, age 64, 1979)

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, p. 38

Drawing of Anansi, the spider from the Ashanti people

Wisdom sits in places



Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their name. You must remember what happened in them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will se danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you.

Dudley Patterson, Cibecue Apache elder

Dudley Patterson, Cibecue Apache elder; Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, p. 127

Illustration inspired by a drawing of the Huichol people of Mexico

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