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

Liu Jingting was a master in storytelling

SERPIENTE

 

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

Making the familiar material relevant to the audience

CATFISH_HN

The storyteller does not recreate some else’s work but rather creates his own interpretive version in the process of telling the story. Through the use of such devices as analogies, the storyteller imbues the familiar material with meaning relevant to his audience and puts his own particular stamp on the stories.

Mary Ellen Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 212
Catfish. Illustration inspired by the ceramics of Mimbres Culture, Nuevo Mexico.

Tales by the mile

mujeres

From our encampment near the shore of this famous lake [Lake Urmia] to the city or Mârâgâ [Maragheh] is eighteen miles: we made this march at night. Moollâh Adeenah, the story-teller of his majesty, was one of our party. The Elchee [ambassador] asked him to beguile the weariness of our road with a tale.

‘How many farsekhs* long do you wish it?’ was his reply.

‘At least five,’ was the answer.

‘I can exactly suit you,’ said the Moollâh; ‘you shall have Ahmed the cobbler.’

I could not help laughing at this mode of measuring a tale; but I was assured it was a common custom, arising out of the calculation professed story-tellers were compelled to make of the leisure of their hearers. All further remarks upon this usage were put an end to, by Moollâh Adeenah desiring us to be silent and attentive; his wish being complied with, he commenced as follows:

‘In the great city of Isfahan lived Ahmed the cobbler, an honest and industrious man…’ [the retelling of the story takes 19 pages ]”.

* 1 farsekh = c. 3 miles = 5 kilometres

Sketches of Persia, from the journals of a traveller in the East, London: J. Murray, 1845 , p. 252 (first published in 1827).
Illustration inspired by Bushman rock paintings in the Cederberg, South Africa

 

 

Stories are the houses we live in

Kalevala

Stories are the houses we live in. They are the food we set on the table, consume, and absorb into the blood. Stories do not exist fully, however, except in the physical presence of those who tell them. Later, mysteriously, they maintain this physicality when they well up to our inner eyes and resound in our inner ears in the process we call memory. Storytellers are thus the architects and masons of our universe. They build arcs of invisible stone that span huge banquet rooms. They also build the commonplace rooms that shelter us routinely. Whether in grand or humble style, storytellers serve us the spiritual food we live by, both the plain truths and the more delicious lies.

Who are the storytellers, then? … [In fact,] we are all both storytellers and story hearers. We must be both these things if we are to navigate the world in which we live, each part of which … is partly our own making. Barring some terrible trauma, these twin faculties of storytelling and story hearing are inalienably ours from a very early age. Throughout life these faculties remain at the core of our intelligent being, shaping our thoughts, calling us back from error, and guiding us incrementally toward whatever our future may hold.

John Niles, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999: 64-65
Illustration inspired by the logo of the Kalevala Society

Nothing to fear during the performance

 

Pez dentado

Before Keldibek began a performance of Manas he told the herdsmen that they might come to the camp without fear because their cattle would go home by themselves, and no one –neither man nor wild beast– could steal even the last sheep whilst he was singing Manas. But when he began to sing, the yurt trembled, a mighty hurricane arose amid whose murk and din supernatural horsemen, Companions of Manas, flew down so that the earth shuddered beneath their horses’s hooves.

Kirghiz; quoted in Hatto, “Kirghiz”, en Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry. Volume I: The Traditions, edited by A. T. Hatto, London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, p. 305; Manas is the national epic of the Kirghiz people, and tells the exploits of the eponymous hero and his descendants.
Illustration inspired by a drawing of a fish found in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.