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.

Life as wandering storyteller would be nice.


Telling stories to anyone who will hear them as stories, who doesn’t know you, who doesn’t expect literature. Life as wandering storyteller would be nice. Someone says the word, and  you tell the story. You never stop, day or night, you go blind, you lose the use of your limb. But your moth still serves its function, and you speak whatever is in your head. You have no possessions, only an infinite, every-growing number of stories.

Nicest of all would be if you could live on words alone and did not even need to eat.

Elias Canetti. Notes from Hampstead. The Writer’s Notes: 1954-.1971, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998, translated by John Hargreaves, pp. 29-30.
Illustration based on Bushman rock art from the South of Africa.