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

Myths are cephalopods

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

The reader must not think this is too savage a thing

These people [the taíno] had a good and elegant way to remember past and ancient events; and this was by means of their songs and dances, which they called areyto, which is the same that we call to sing while dancing. […] Sometimes, they mixed the singing with a drum made with a round log, hollow and concave, and as thick as a man […]. And thus, with or without such lousy instrument, in their singing (as has been said) they tell their memories and past histories, and in these songs they relate how their past chieftains died, and who they were and how many, and other things they do not want to fall into oblivion. […]

This style of dancing resembles somewhat the songs and dances of the peasants, when in summer, tambourine in hand, in some parts of Spain men and women rejoice; and in Flanders I have seen the same form of singing, in which men and women dance in many circles. […] Thus […] in this [Hispaniola] island and in the other islands (and even in large part of the mainland) this way of singing is a representation of the history of past things or a remembrance of them, be they wars or peace, so that with the perpetuation of such songs the feats and events that have taken place are not forgotten. And, in absence of books, these songs remain in their memories, so they are remembered; and in this way they recite the genealogies of their chieftains and of the kings or lords they have had, and the deeds they performed, and the bad or good periods they have gone through or endured; and other things they want children and adults to learn and be well known and firmly engraved in memory. And towards this end they perpetuate these areytos, so that they may not be forgotten, especially the famous victories won in battle.

[…]

The reader must not think this is too savage a thing, since the same custom exists in Spain and in Italy, and I think it must be the same in most parts where Christians (and even infidels) live. What else are the ballads and songs that are based upon truths but part and remembrance of past history? At least those who do not know how to read, learn by means of the songs that that king Alonso was in the noble city of Seville, and it came to his heart to go and lay siege to Algeciras. This is what a certain ballad tells, and it actually was the case: that from Seville king Alonso XI departed when he conquered that city, on the 28th day of March of the year of 1344. So in the present year of 1548 this ballad or areyto has been around for 204 years. We know from another ballad that king Alonso VI gathered the parliament in Toledo to make justice to the Cid Ruy Díaz in front of the earls of Carrión […] Thus these and other memories much older and modern circulate among people, not having disappeared from memory, and those who sing and recite them do not know how to read. Hence, the Indians in these parts do well in having the same precaution, as they are unlettered, and they use the areytos to sustain their memory and fame, since by means of such songs they know things that happened many centuries ago.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557), Historia general y natural de las Indias, Madrid: Imprenta de la Real Academia de la Historia, 1851, pp. 426-429

Illustration inspired by a door lock from the Bamana People of Mali

They had neither books nor histories

They had neither books nor histories; they only committed to memory songs and ballads about their ancestors’ feats, and the members of those families knew them. They had male teachers for this [called faycanes], and female teachers [called harimaguadas] to teach the girls the songs.

About the aboriginal people of Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands, from Historia de la conquista de Gran Canaria(1484) by Pedro Gómez Escudero, extracted in A. Tejera Gaspar, Las religiones preeuropeas de las Islas Canarias, Madrid: Ediciones del Orto, 2001, pp. 69-70

Illustration inspired by a Lesotho rock painting

The primary teaching of a story

costa de marfil_luna

By listening one could always learn something new, and something which would last a lifetime. Duncan says, “Traveller storytellers knew they were telling something that would be remembered years after they were gone,” and “this is the way with all Travellers;”“they gave you the tale which would never be forgotten so they will never be forgotten.” The primary teaching of a story thus is the respect of memory for the teller when he is gone.

Linda Williamson, about her husband, the storyteller Duncan Williamson, who was one of the Travelling People of Scotland, in Linda Williamson, “What Storytelling Means to a Traveller: An Interview with Duncan Williamson, one of Scotland’s Travelling People”, Arv: ScandinavianYearbook of Folklore, vol. 37, 1981, p. 75
Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing from Ivory Coast

 

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

The storytelling pocket

NETSUKE HOM. NARRR

And then the cold winter nights, Granny went into her little compartment, tent, in the barricade, and it was storytelling. I was very young then, but I remember my granny well. There were wonderful stories told round the little fire. I remember my daddy sitting around the fire in the middle of the floor, just a stick fire in the middle of the tent, a hole in the roof and the smoke going straight up through the hole. A little paraffin lamp, the cruisie turned down, home-made by my father.

Granny would tell a story, Father would tell a story. Maybe a few travellers passing by would stop and put their tent over in the “Tinker’s Turn’, a place across the burn from the wood where we stayed. […] They would also tell stories and have a little get-together. Our tent was a stopping place for travellers who came down to Argyll, and there was always time for a story.

Now Granny would stay with us all winter in that big barricade with her little compartment. […]

Now Granny was a an old lady, and every old traveller woman in the bygone days never carried a handbag. But around their waist they carried a big pocket. I remember Granny’s –she made it herself, a tartan pocket. It was like a large purse with a strap, and she tied it around her waist. It had three pearl buttons down the middle, not zip in these days. Granny carried all her worldly possessions in this pocket.

Now, Granny smoked a little clay pipe. And when she needed tobacco, she would say, “Weans, I want you to run to the village for tobacco for my pipe.” And she’d give us a threepenny bit, a penny for each of us and a penny for tobacco. The old man used to have a roll of it on the counter, and he cut off a little bit for Granny for her penny. We came back and our reward was, “Granny, tell us a story!”

She sat in front of her little tent, and she had a little billy-can and a little fire. We collected sticks for her, and she’d boil this strong, black tea. She lifted the can off, placed it by the side of the fire and said, “Well, weans, I’ll see what I have in my pocket for you this time!” She opened up that big pocket by her side with the three pearl buttons. I remember them well, and she said, “Well, I’ll tell you this story.” Maybe it was one she’d told three nights before. Maybe it was one she had never told for weeks. Sometimes she would tell us a story three-four times; sometimes she told us a story we’d never heard.

So, one day my sister and I came back from the village. We were playing and we came up to Granny’s little tent. The sun was shining warm. Granny’s little can of tea was by the fire: it was cold, the fire had burned out. The sun was warm. Granny was lying, she had her two hands under her head like an old woman, and her little bed was in front of the tent. By her side was the pocket. That was the very first time we’d ever seen that pocket off Granny’s waist. She probably took it off when she went to bed at night-time. But never during the day!

So my sister and I crept up quietly and we said, ‘Granny is asleep! There’s her pocket. Let’s go and see how many stories are in Granny’s pocket.’ So very gently we picked the pocket up, we took it behind the tree where we lived in the forest and opened up the three pearl buttons. And in that pocket was like Aladdin’s Cave! There were clay pipes, threepenny pieces, rings, halfpennies, pennies, farthings, brooches, pins, needles, everything and old woman carried with her, thimbles… but not one single story could we find! So we never touched anything. We put everything back inside, closed it and put it back, left it by her side. We said, ‘We’ll go and play and we’ll get Granny when she gets up.’ So we went off to play again, came back about an hour later and Granny was up. Her little fire was kindling. She was heating up her cold tea. And we sat down by her side. She began to light her pipe after she drank this black strong tea. We said, ‘Granny, are you going to tell us a story?’

Aye, weans,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you a story.’ She loved telling us stories because it was company for us, forbyes it was good company for her to sit there beside us weans. She said, ‘Wait a minute noo, wait till I see what I have for you tonight.’ And she opened up the pocket. She looked at me and my little sister for a while, for a long time with her blue eyes. She said, ‘Ye ken something, weans?’

We said, ‘No, Granny.’

She said, ‘Somebody opened my pocket when I was asleep and all my stories are gone. I cannae tell ye a story the nicht, weans.’ And she never told us a story that night. And she never told us another story. And I was seventeen when my granny died, but eleven when that happened. Granny never told me another story, and that’s a true story!

Duncan Williamson, The Horsieman: Memories of a Traveller 1928-1958, Edinburg: Canongate Press, 1994, pp. 6-8

Illustration inspired by a japanese netsuke

When the eloquent voice and gesture of some grey wrinkled old man…

burkina

In these distant islands [the Hebrides], where men live slowly, and live long, probably because they do not live fast, –in queer rude hovels built of turf and boulders, where men of fourscore years have spent the most of their quiet lives, –in these quiet still pools in the current of life, old thoughts accumulate like gold-dust in a Sutherland burn, and there they are preserved.

There on winter nights children, with wondering eyes and mouths agape, sit in the ruddy light of the peat-fire, under the grey canopy of smoke, and listen breathless to these weird old myths. They cease to be ragged, bare-legged lads and lasses, with shock heads of dark or flaxen hair, unkempt and unshorn; they hear how the bold herd fought the dragon, and won the princess and the kingdom, and their spirits are up and doing like him. Potatoes and milk, wooden noggins and good horn-spoons cease to exist; while the golden basin and the giant’s stores are spread before them by the eloquent voice and gesture of some grey wrinkled old man.

And when the story ends, and the fire burns low, and they coil themselves up to rest in their cribs lads and lasses dream on, and so they dream till they grow up, and grow old, and the old tale becomes a part of their quiet lives. The child’s dream of romance is the bright spot in a dull round of hardship and toil, and the man never forgets it while he lives.

John Francis Campbell, “On current British mythology and oral traditions”, Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 1869-1870, vol. 2, pp. 331-332
Illustration inspired by a drawing on a pumkin from Burkina Faso

Now form an intrinsic part of his life

rockart_SA

As has been stated, [among the Skidi Pawnee of North America] these traditions, along with the rituals, are regarded as personal property. They have been paid for by the owner, and consequently, according to his belief, now form an intrinsic part of his life. As he tells them he gives out from himself a certain part of his life, levying a direct contribution upon its termination. Thus, as one middle-aged individual exclaimed, ‘I cannot tell you all that I know, for I am not yet ready to die;’ or, as an old priest expressed it, ‘I know that my days are short. My life is no longer of use. There is no reason why I should not tell you all that I know.’

George A. Dorsey, Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. for the American Folk-Lore Society, 1904, p. xxii
Illustration inspired by a rock art painting in the Northern Cape, South Africa