The Art of Storytelling

Jan 15th, 2017 | By | Category: Articles, Books, Books for Pagans

master_visualThis is an excerpt from Georgia Through Its Folktales by Michael Berman

Storytelling is as old as humankind. Long before stories were recorded, they were entrusted to storytellers. Why did our ancestors tell stories? Historians believe storytelling was used for a number of purposes: to teach history, to settle arguments, to make sense of the world (through Creation Myths), to satisfy a need for play and entertainment, to honor supernatural forces, to communicate experiences to other humans, and to record the actions and characteristics of ancestors for future generations (through legends).

Some of the books of the Bible, such as the Song of Songs and the Book of Job, were written in dramatic storytelling form and we have documentation of storytelling from many cultures. Records of storytelling have been found in many languages, including Sanskrit, Old German, Latin, Chinese, Greek, Icelandic and Old Slavonic. The origins of storytelling, however, are even more ancient.

One of our earliest surviving records is found in the Westcar Papyrus of the Egyptians in which the sons of Cheops (the pyramid builder) entertained their father with stories. The epic tale, Gilgamesh, which relates the story of a Sumerian king, is frequently cited in history texts as our oldest, surviving epic tale.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism made use of storytelling for teaching purposes. Hindu storytellers used story cloths from The Ramayana to illustrate their narratives. The Ramayana, the great epic tale of India, is part of the Hindu scriptures for Rama, who is believed to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Within the Buddhist faith, Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, incorporated storytelling in his teachings. The Jataka or birth tales are stories of previous incarnations of the Buddha. There is evidence that early Christian prophets used stories in their preaching too, but little more is known. In Judges 9:7, Jotham tells the people of Shechem a tale to point out the wickedness of their ruler. The Hasidic Jews also used storytelling in introducing their rituals and beliefs to young children. In the New Testament Jesus Christ used the parable form in his teachings. Even today, storytelling remains a part of Christian services, especially for young children and for use in Sunday schools.

In fact, all the major religious traditions have made use of metaphorical stories to communicate their teachings – the stories from early India, Greek fables, Zen, Sufi, and Hasidic tales – as they have long been recognized as a means of bypassing the set attitudes and limitations of the conscious mind. Stories not only entertain; they can also alter our experience so as to facilitate
growth and change. From an educational point of view, storytelling engages the imagination, promotes language development, encourages reading, teaches people about other cultures, and helps them to understand both themselves and others.

When we listen to a story the heart rate changes, the eyes dilate, the muscles contract, and in a safe way, we really do confront witches, overcome monsters, fall in love, and find our way out of dark forests. Storytelling uses the left brain’s functions (language, a story line, sequences of cause and effect) to speak the right brain’s language of symbolic, intuitive, imaginative truths. For example, the small bird sits on the shoulder of the boy lost in the woods and tells him how to go home. The left brain says, “I understand the words, but birds don’t speak.” The right brain says, “What did the boy say back to the bird?” It understands these impossible developments as facts. In this way storytelling helps the brain to integrate its two sides into a whole, which promotes health and self-realization.

As people listen to stories, they form images in their minds that are stored in the memory as symbols. Studies have shown that humans retain only 20% of what they read, but they recall 80% of symbols, which helps to explain why stories can have such a powerful impact on us.

Storytelling traditionally begins with a “Once upon a time…” opening and then a storyteller’s silent pause to gather his / her thoughts. The traditional openings, of which there are many, were “rituals” that served as a signal that the teller was suspending “time and space” as we know it and transporting the audience to a world of imagination and play. (In Georgian tales, the convention generally employed was “There was, there was, and yet there was not”.) Such openings not only served to identify the teller, but also to establish the audience’s commitment to accept for the moment that imaginary world and its “rules”. Similar “rituals” also signal the end of the story and their return to reality. However, many adults today have forgotten these “rules of the game”.

Buy the book – Amazon US Amazon UK Indiebound

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Comment