Sand stories

The areas of bare sand characteristic of central Australia provide a natural drawing board permanently at hand. Since any continuous conversation is generally carried on by persons sitting on the ground, marking the sand readily becomes a supplement to verbal expression.

Walbiri often contrast their own mode of life with that of the white Australian’s by remarking with pride, “We Walbiri live on the ground” […]. They regard sand drawing as part of this valued mode of life, and as a characteristic aspect of their style of expression and communication. To accompany one’s speech with explanatory sand markings is to “talk” in the Walbiri manner.

[…]

Both men and women draw similar graphic elements on the ground during storytelling or general discourse, but women formalize this narrative usage in a distinctive genre that I shall call a sand story. A space of about one to two feet in diameter is smoothed in the sand; the stubble is removed and small stones plucked out. The process of narration consists of the rhythmic interplay of a continuous running graphic notation with gesture signs and singsong verbal patter. The vocal accompaniment may sometimes drop to a minimum; the basic meaning is then carried by the combination of gestural and graphic signs. The gesture signs are intricate and specific and can substitute on occasion for a fuller verbalization.

Walbiri call stories told by women in this fashion by the term for any traditional story about ancestral times, djugurba. They point out that only women tell stories in this manner, although all Walbiri are familiar with the method. While the technique is elaborated most systematically in narrations of events ascribed to ancestral times, women also use it in a more fragmentary way to convey personal experiences or current gossip. As a mode of communication it can be activated in narration generally, irrespective of whether the content is supposed to refer to ancestral times or the present. A “proper” djugurba, however, is thought to refer to ancestral events.

The social context of storytelling is the casual, informal life of the camp, unhedged by secrecy or ritual sanctions. The women’s camps are a common location. […] Even in the hottest weather the women tend to sit close together; without changing her position or making any special announcement, a woman may begin to tell a story. Occasionally an older woman can be seen wordlessly intoning a story to herself as she gestures and marks the sand, but ordinarily a few individuals in the group will cluster around the narrator, leaving whenever they wish regardless of whether the story is finished or not. At any time the narrator herself may break off the story and go on to perform some chore, or evengo to sleep in the process of narration.

[…] Each woman had a fund of stories that she may have learned from any female kin or from her husband. When asked, women sometimes suggested that tales should be transmitted from mother to daughter, but in fact there are no specific rights over these stories; as women said, “everybody” teaches them these tales.

Walbiri children do not tell sand stories as a pastime, but at the age of about five or six they can make and identify the basic graphic forms used in narration. […] A small child or baby may sit on its mother’s lap while she tells a sand story; the observation of sand drawing is thus part of early perceptual experience. Sand drawing is not systematically taught, and learning is largely by observation.

At the age of about eight or nine, a child can quite readily tell narratives of his or her own invention. As a girl grows older, she becomes increasingly fluent in storytelling and may use the sand story technique (largely without gesture signs according to my observation) to communicate narratives about personal experiences or that she has herself invented. She may occasionally tell such tales to other girls or younger children. Older boys are more reluctant to use the technique since it is identified with feminine role behavior.

Nancy D. Munn, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1986, pp. 58-64

Illlustration inspired by Bushman rock paintings in the Cederberg, South Africa

An intricate business is storytelling

[Saint] Patrick then said, “This is an intricate tale. The sister of Aillén, son of Eogabál, has fallen in love with Manannán, and the wife of Manannán has fallen in love with Aillén.”

“What word other than ‘intricate’ could describe such a tale,” said Benén, given its plot?”

Thus the old saying “an intricate business is storytelling” comes from this.

“Manannán gave his own wife to Aillén, and Áine seduced Manannán,” said Cailte.

Anonymous Irish writer, c. 1200, from A. Dooley and H. Roe (trans.),Tales of the Elders of Ireland: A new Translation of the Acallamna Senórach, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 111.

Illustration inspired by the ceramic bowls of the Hausa people (Nigeria)

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

Biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying

The development of human language plays a complex role within this process of adaptation. It seems to have developed from signalling among social animals; but I propose the thesis that what is most characteristic of the human language is the possibility of storytelling.

It may be that this ability too has some predecessor in the animal world. But I suggest that the moment when language became human was very closely related to the moment when a man invented a story, a myth in order to excuse a mistake he had made – perhaps in giving a danger signal when there was no occasion for it; and I suggest that the evolution of specifically human language, with its characteristic means of expressing negation – of saying that something signalled is not true – stems very largely from the discovery of systematic means to negate a false report, for example a false alarm, and from the closely related discovery of false stories – lies – used either as excuses or playfully.

If we look from this point of view at the relation of language to subjective experience, we can hardly deny that every genuine report contains an element of decision, at least of the decision to speak the truth. Experiences with lie detectors give a strong indication that, biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying. I take this as an indication that lying is a comparatively late and fairly specifically human invention; indeed that it has made the human language what it is: an instrument which can be used for misreporting almost as well as for reporting.

From Karl Popper, “Karl Popper, Replies to my Critics” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, La Salle, Illinois, 1974, pp. 1112-1113, cited by George Steiner, A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 404.
Illustration inspired by a colonial painting from Bokkeveld, Western Cape, South Africa

And as she tells she spins

AMARU_HN

At last one sister cries, who nimbly knew

To draw nice threads and wind the finest clue,

“While others idly rove, and gods revere,

Their fancied gods! they know not who or where;

Let us, whom Pallas taught her better arts,

Still working, cheer with mirthful chat our hearts;

And, to deceive the time, let me prevail

With each by turns to tell some antique tale.”

She said; her sisters like’d the humour well,

And, smiling, bade her the first story tell;

But she awhile profoundly seem’d to muse,

Perplex’d amid variety to choose;

And knew not whether she should first relate

The poor Dircetis and her wondrous fate.

The Palestines believe it to a man,

and show the lake in which her scales began;

Or if she rather should the daughter sing,

Who in the horary verge of life took wing;

Who soar’d from earth, and dwelt in towers high,

And now a dove she flits along the sky;

Or how lewd Naïs, when her lust was cloy’d,

To fishes turn’d the youths she had enjoy’d,

By powerful verse and herbs; effect most strange!

And last the changer shar’d herself the change.

Or how the tree which once white berries bore,

Still crimson bears, since stain’d with crimson gore.

The tree was new; she likes it, and begins

to tell the tale, and as she tells, she spins.

“In Babylon, where first her queen for state

Rais’d walls of brick magnificently great,

Liv’d Pyramus and Thisbe, lovely pair!

Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated from the Latin by Dr. Garth and others, Vol. I, London: Stanhope Press, 1812, pp. 141-142. This translation by Eusden, corresponding Book IV, 35-55
Illustration inspired by a drawing from the Quechua Andean tradition

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.

A good storyteller possesses a full knowledge of the story

dragon_caligrafia

[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

huevo-bosquimano-decorado

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

 

 

A definition of fairy tale

Dragon serpiente

Fairy tale: indicating to us the possibility of impossible occurrences under possible or impossible conditions. (Goethe)

 Translated by W. Mieder in “Fairy tale allusions in modern German aphorisms”, in D. Haase (ed.), The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions, Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1993, p. 150.
Illustration based on a mix animal from the imaginary of the ancient world.