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

Maybe it is never possible to hear the end

The Khanty people are fond of telling fairy tales, especially in the evenings. When, in the forest camp, they are going to bed, an old man continues to tell stories as long as somebody is still awake. One of my friends told me that, as a girl, she tried not to fall asleep while the old man was telling stories, but she never succeeded in hearing the end. Maybe it is never possible to hear the end, because what one usually calls or translates as “a fairy tale” or “a story” actually means “a way” or “a way as destiny”. My good friend and teacher Leonti Taragupta once told me about this.

Natalia I. Novikova, “Self-Government of the Indigenous Minority Peoples of West Siberia: Analysis of Law and Practice”, from People and the Land. Pathways to Reform in Post-Soviet Siberia, ed. Erich Kasten, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2002, pp. 83-97

Illustration: Enso

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

The important thing is to keep the feeling the story has

FIGURA ANDINA_HN

In the new book I have included some very old stories which I wrote from memory, the way I heard them a long time ago. Memory is tricky – memory for certain facts or details is probably more imaginative than anything, but the important thing is to keep the feeling the story has. I never forget that: the feeling one has of the story is what you must strive to bring forth faithfully.

Leslie Marmon Silko (from the Pueblo of Laguna, in Nuevo México) in a 1979 letter to the poet James Wright, in L. M. Silko and J. Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, edited by Anne Wright, Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, pp. 69-70
Illustration inspired by an Andean drawing

How…

ESTANDARTE_HN

… how stories give shape and substance to the world and how they give it meaning and value; how they bring us close to the real world by keeping us at a distance from it; how they hold people together and at the same time keep them apart; how they are both true and not true.

J. E. Chamberlin and Levi Namaseb, “Stories and songs across cultures”, Profession, 2001, p. 25
Illustration inspired by a Turkish banner

Russian and foreign classics worked best

costa de marfil_mancha

A striking number of political prisoners who wrote memoirs –and this may explain why they wrote memoirs– attribute their survival to their ability to “tell stories”: to entertain criminal prisoners by recounting the plots of novels or of films. In the world of the camps and the prisons, where books were scarce and films were rare, a good storyteller was highly prized.

Lev Finkelstein says that he will be “forever grateful to a thief who, on my first prison day, recognized this potential in me, and said, ‘You’ve probably read a lot of books. Tell them to people, and you will be living very well.’ And indeed I was living better than the rest. I had some notoriety, some fame . . . I ran into people who said, ‘You are Levchik-Romanist [Levchik-the-storyteller], I heard about you in Taishet.’

Because of this skill, Finkelstein was invited, twice a day, into the brigadier leader’s hut where he received a mug of hot water. In the quarry where he was then working, “that meant life”. Finkelstein found, he said, that Russian and foreign classics worked best: he had far less success retelling the plots of more recent, Soviet novels.

Anne Appelbaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, London: Allen Lane, 2003, p. 352
Illustration inspired by a popular drawing from Ivory Coast

We keep our lives in order with the stories

Kalevala

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

To make their voices sweet

cilindro-homo-narr.jpg

 

[In the island of Bali] the normal way to bring out the dormant saktí [magic power] is to undergo mawintén – the initiation ceremony of priests, magicians, dancers, and actors, to give them luck, beauty, cleverness, and personal charm that enable them to be successful. Story-tellers and singers of epic poems (kekawin) have magic syllables inscribed in their tongues with honey to make their voices sweet. The ceremony is performed by a priest who, after cleansing and purifying the person through a maweda [recitation of mantras accompanied by ritual actions and significant gestures], writes invisible signs over his forehead, eyes, teeth, shoulders, arms, and so forth, with the stem of a flower dipped in holy water.

Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937, p. 340
llustration inspired by a mesopotamian drawing

To throw shadows to the fire

peces

To tell a story is to throw shadows to the fire. In that very instant, everything that the word reveals is consumed by silence. Only those who pray given their entire soul know the meaning of that burning, that fall of the word into the abyss.

Mia Couto, La confesión de la leona, from the Spanish translation by Rosa Martínez-Alfaro, Madrid: Alfaguara, 2016, pág. 79
Illustration based on a Buddhist image.

Not a simple message

CIRCULO ZEN

January 16, 1969

It is a Zulu performance, and after the performance, I am expressing an opinion about the symbolism in one of the stories we heard. The Zulu performer stops me, and explains to me that the meaning of the story is the totality of performance, not a simple message. Performance is the thing. The Zulu performer explains to me, “If I am to tell you what this story means, I must tell it again”.

Harold Scheub, The poem in the Story: Music, Poetry and Narrative, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, p. 119
Illustration: Enso