Memory is the best portable library, and a man’s head the best conveyance for oral mythology. The use of a book is to record for posterity, and to elevate lowly thoughts to the lofty mind of men who have learned to read. Myths are cephalopods.
By wandering, I have got to understand wanderers, and to realize their ways of learning and teaching and thinking. […] I know of my own knowledge that men migrate and travel; I have learned that they have done so from the beginning of history, before books were. I know that tales and traditions which men remember travel with them, and spread from their mouths, through ears to other minds. I know of my own knowledge how myths travel. They travel with men.
John Francis Campbell, My Circular Notes. Vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1876, pp. 199-202.
Illustration inspired by a rock art painting in the Eastern Cape, South Africa
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
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.
The truth is that the [Ainu] people must make much of memory in a land where there is not written language. They must commit everything important to memory. To such a community old traditions are a history, a literature, a philosophy, a science, a scripture, a code. In other words, folk-tales are a learning, a religion, a law – culture itself. In order to live as an independent Ainu, it is necessary to know an outline of the legends and traditions of his community; and especially it is so for those who command others.
Ainu, Kindaichi, Ainu Life and Legends, Tokio: Board of Tourist Industry, Japanese Government Railways, 1941, p. 60.
Illustration inspired on the art of the Ashanti people of Ghana.