The dispeller of worries


In Malay, pengiluar lara, ‘Dispeller of Worries’, is the praise-name for the storyteller who possesses the art of enthralling his listeners. In the course of centuries, the Malay storyteller developed and refined his art until it became the very expression of the swift movement of the prince’s horse; the snake’s winding coils; the heavenly nymph flying through the sky, bright and golden. Inimitable are the images that are strewn across Malay tales.

Jan Knappert, Mythology and Folklore in South-East Asia, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 195

Drawing inspired by a rock art painting of Kakadu, Australia

Storm Fools


You could be sitting in your lodge in a winter camp in a storm, snow blowing, and all of a sudden –’cause we didn’t knock on doors– all of a sudden the door flap parts and in crawls this guy with snow all over his hair and coat, shaking the snow off, and it would be a storm fool who’ just come out of the storm. [These storm fools] wandered about from camp to camp telling stories, bringing news. They were definitely regarded as medicine people, elders. They were seen as just a little mad –that’s why they were called “storm fools”.

Ron Evans, metis storyteller quoted by Dan Yashinski, Suddenly they heard footsteps, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006, pp. 29-30
Illustration: motive traditional chinese painting

One kind of bribery in particular


From the childhood memoirs of Egyptian writer Taha Hussein (1899-1973), who went blind when he was three years old:

One kind of bribery in particular he found most entertaining and diverting and it caused him to neglect his duty shamefully. This kind was of stories, tales and books. If any pupil could tell him a story or buy him a volume from the man who travelled round the villages hawking books, or could recite to him an episode of the story of ‘Alzir Salim’ or ‘Abu Zaid’, he might be sure of anything he wished in the way of favour, companionship and partiality.

Taha Hussein, An Egyptian Chilhood: The Autobiography of Taha Hussein, translated by E. H. Paxton, London: George Routledge & Sons, 1932, p. 57
Illustration inspired by an ancient Andean textile

Making the familiar material relevant to the audience


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.

A good storyteller possesses a full knowledge of the story


[In Iran] whether a man comes to storytelling through formal training or whether he trains himself, he will list the same things as significant for succeeding as a storyteller. A good storyteller is described by storytellers and audience alike as well versed (vared) in his material. He feels that he must be in possession of a full and complete knowledge both of the literary source and of the tumar. A storyteller also prides himself on having in his memory a considerable body of lyric poetry.

»The audience is familiar with the storyteller’s repertoire, and a storyteller will not perform material which is unknown to his audience. The audience, he fells, will never come back every day and pay to hear a story it has never heard before (balad nistand). In short, the valued aspects of being a good storyteller are those which are most reflected in the training to become a professional storyteller – memorization of texts and command of familiar material.

Mary Ellen Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 199-200.

Illustration inspired by the drawings of MinaLima for the book by J.K. Rowling Fantastic Beasts and where to find them.

The world of stories is unending


Narrative performances varied on another dimension as well – that of explicitness and length. An admired narrator could spin a story to any length desired by filling in detail, but could also convey the essence of a story in brief. [. . .] Those who already knew the stories would have them brought to mind by the details that were given. The assumption that a part stands adequately for the whole remains alive, and people who credit one with knowledge of the stories sometimes act surprised that one has to ask about a detail that had not been given. [. . . ] A story ends, as a story and an event, but the body of narrative and the world of stories is unending.

Dell Hymes, “Discovering Oral Performance and Measured Verse in American Indian Narrative.” In “In vain I tried to tell you”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981, p. 322
Illustration inspired by ostrich egg decoration of the Bushmen people



Who gives much tribute of words


[S]hé-mutúro wábinwa/who gives much tribute of words: this is not a praise, nor is it to criticize the individual who speaks too much, but refers to one who gives tribute in words, one who is helpful because of his skill as a judge and speaker.

Daniel Biebuyck and Kahomb C. Mattene, The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic), Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, p. 80 note 143  
Illustration inspired by a kamon, a symbol used by the samurai

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

Telling a story

Budista 1

Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it. A person who can ‘tell’ is one who is perceptually attuned to picking up information in the environment that others, less skilled in the tasks of perception, might miss, and the teller, in rendering his knowledge explicit, conducts the attention of the audience along the same paths as his own.

Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape”, World Archaeology, vol. 25, 1993, p. 153
Illustration based on a Buddhist image



Storytelling and meaning


It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication the last word which we expect from the ‘day of judgement’.

Hanna Arendt, “Isak Dinesen, 1885-1962”, in Isak Dinesen, Daguerrotypes and Other Essays, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. xx; Arend’s essay on Dinesen was first published in 1968.
Illustration based on a Buddhist image.