An intricate business is storytelling

[Saint] Patrick then said, “This is an intricate tale. The sister of Aillén, son of Eogabál, has fallen in love with Manannán, and the wife of Manannán has fallen in love with Aillén.”

“What word other than ‘intricate’ could describe such a tale,” said Benén, given its plot?”

Thus the old saying “an intricate business is storytelling” comes from this.

“Manannán gave his own wife to Aillén, and Áine seduced Manannán,” said Cailte.

Anonymous Irish writer, c. 1200, from A. Dooley and H. Roe (trans.),Tales of the Elders of Ireland: A new Translation of the Acallamna Senórach, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 111.

Illustration inspired by the ceramic bowls of the Hausa people (Nigeria)

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

Epics come from the other side of life

Huevo Tierra

 

The nvet songs we sing [those that are within the epics] are composed by people. For example, if something happens to you, good or bad, you can compose a song that tells about that. Epics are not made up or composed. Epics come from the other side of life [that is, from the world of the dead]. Only a mbom nvet, an old mbom nvet like myself, can bring epics from the other side of life. And the little singers, the small fry, take advantage of this and tell the epics that others like myself bring from the other side of life. That is, the things that have happened, those haven’t yet happened and those that have already happened. But I don’t perform all my epics. I perform something, something, something. Because if I unfolded a big epic here, before dawn we would all be tied [as imprisoned criminals]. That’s why I play good and smooth epics.

From an nvet epic song by Eyí Moan Ndong, in Ramón Sales Encinas, Eyom Ndong, el buscaproblemas y Mondú Messeng: epopeyas de Eyí Moan Ndong, Barcelona: CEIBA, 2007, p. 118
Illustration inspired by traditional folk motifs

The tree that tells stories.

arbolito

On the Lower Klamath is a very old, immense tree, which has given an account of the first world and people. This tree itself is one of the first people metamorphosed; no one knows what its age is. Sorcerers go to it yearly, hold converse, put questions, receive answers. Each year a small stone is added to a pile in which there are thousands of pebbles, apparently. This pile stands near the tree; no one is permitted to count the stones in it. The pile is sacred; once a stone is placed with the others, it must stay there forever.

This sacred tree has told tales of the first world, –the tales known to the Weitspekan [Yurok] Indians and revered by them.

Jeremiah Curtin, Creation Myths of Primitive America, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000 [1898], p. xxx.
Illustration inspired on a South African contemporary textile.