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The History of Storytelling: Part II: Traditional Storytelling

Part II- Traditional Storytelling

For Part I of this articles series, click here.

Stories were not originally intended for entertainment- they were the best method our oldest ancestors had to mass educate the people of the tribe or clan. It was only by making the stories entertaining that the messages stuck. Thanks to the inventiveness of the earliest African griots, our ancestors avoided the dangers of the environment around them, and survived to leave the continent, spreading farther and farther with each changing generation, until eventually they spread across the entire world. And, with each generation, another story keeper memorized, told, and added new tales to the collective consciousness of mankind.

Stories can be  self-fulfilling prophecies. All the evidence you need to understand that idea is to look at the impact something as seemingly whimsical and insignificant as Star Trek: The Original Series. A science fiction television show that barely lasted three seasons ended up having a profound impact on 20th century society. Some viewers were inspired by the imaginary technology of the future and turned it into the real life technology you are probably reading this post on, while others were inspired by the social messages the themes advocated to take a stand in a time of social and cultural strife.

Fables, legends, and myths of the earliest humans eventually became those of the ancients, then the middle ages, the ages of trade, exploration, industry, and now the modern digital age. Much like a game of telephone, over the years parts of the original stories have been changed for cultural reasons or skewed in translation for one language to another (and, yes people, this even includes the bible). As a result, some cultures have different versions of the same story, or the story ends differently based on the lesson that the specific society wanted to emphasize.

Mythology

As mentioned in the first article of this series, the cultures of Mesopotamia are the first credited with the writing down of stories. These tales of mortals and gods were referred to as epics, and within these stories, we find the beginning of one of the most important elements of storytelling that has become a staple of fantasy and science fiction through today- the hero’s journey. This is the tale of an average, and yet remarkable, person who goes on a quest, usually with the help of a mentor and a ragtag group of people, to complete a task for the betterment or himself or his people. There is also a separate heroine’s journey, and just like sexism intended, they are both different based on the gender, and one is considered to to be intrinsically better than the other (which you can read about here and here.)

 

 

Images lovingly stolen with respect from sources that talk about this way better than we do- Joseph Cambell and Mythcreants.com.

 

 

The earliest hero’s journey stories were  written in long form poetry. Examples range from Epic of Gilgamesh, Mahabharata, Beowulf, and the related stories of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. The hero in each story is forced to make choices and conquer obstacles, often put in their way by angry gods, on the way to their objective. The mythology and beliefs of the culture played an important role in these epic stories, and that is because mythology was an extremely important aspect of daily life in the ancient world. Before human beings began to understand enough science to explain the mysteries of our world and universe, mythology served to answer the big questions about human existence, nature, and creation. Every time a child asked “Why?” mythology was there with an answer. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to man, creating the birth of civilization. Maui caught the sun and hung it in the sky for the mortals to have light. The Great thunderbirds of the Americas were the source of the fierce storms that hit the United States every spring. Before humans had enough technology to understand the science behind the forces of the universe, everything was attributed to magic. 

In these stories men and women often crossed the gods, or were lusted after by gods, or got tricked by gods… and then, cursed by gods. How they hell was the moral of these stories not “DO NOT TRUST THESE BATSHIT GODS”? (Then again, I’m kinda coming from the bias end of the pool here, as I write a story about angry gods and their human playthings.) But again, the point of these stories was to provide an explanation for things human beings had not figured out yet.

Legends

While myths recount the stories of the gods and their human playthings, legends are more specifically written about the heroes themselves. These stories are not full-fledged epics, but they are adventure stories that take a partial truth and exaggerated it to grandiose proportions. The exploits of real-life figures may have been the initial inspiration for these stories, but the figures they were written about were rarely anything like the caricatures they became.

Legendary figures exist in every culture, and every era. As an American, and a history teacher, this was an issue I dealt with constantly. One of the reasons I loathe teaching American History is because I have to wade through the bullshit. The hardest part of teaching US history is the reteaching I have to do. By the time students get to their junior year (age 16-17), which is when US history is traditionally taught in high school, they have been indoctrinated by these legends which are regarded as fact. The worst part is that they have already been through a watered-down version of US history in their 8th grade year (age 13-14) of middle school, and yet many of these bullshit, propaganda stories aren’t questioned or corrected.

Presidents like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, JFK, and Reagan have become larger than life figures. The amount of elevation given to the Founding Fathers (note the lack of recognition to any mothers) is nearly vomit inducing, especially when you actually read about their personal exploits. Alas, every society needs heroic figures, despite how counterproductive they tend to be.

Folk Tales

These are the closest to the original oral traditions of storytelling. Theses stories were passed from generation to generation, shared among the community until they became a part of the culture. Once these cultures integrated writing, they wrote the stories down. In some cases, the folk tales have never been written down, and remain oral histories or stories relayed to the community or to children from the storytellers.

These stories were meant to teach a lesson, and that is why they are often attributed to children. The lessons were meant relate to real life, even if the content of the story was fantastic, to impress upon the people the importance of choice and consequences. These folk tales became the roots for the fairy tales and fables that defined our childhood.

Although, the difference between the original stories and the Disney-fied versions, is that the fairy tales and fables that were inspired by these cultural folk tales were much more gruesome. Karma was quite the bitch in these original stories. Cinderella’s step sisters chopped their own feet to fit into the shoes. Mulan is haunted by PTSD, and kills herself. Mermaids were vicious predators who preyed on sailors, not save them.

The Appeal of Lore

As a history teacher, this is my biggest pet peeve with the way the social studies are taught. When we teach history as memorized facts, and not as stories passed from one generation to the next, the context disappears. When history becomes legend, and the origins are lost, we gain a heroic figure, but we lose the gruesome, violent, or dark truth of its inspiration. This is why despite the cliched anecdote that “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” we ironically never learn from history. It isn’t the fact we need to learn and pass on, it is the message and the meaning behind the story in which we find the fact.

Storytelling in the root of culture. It is where the foundation on which a culture is built and from where its traditions stem. Every religion has a holy text filled with parables used to teach the scriptures associated with their teachings. The practice of storytelling was our first form of history. Prior to written language, oral storytelling was the only way to pass on information from one generation to the next. Humans have come to depend on storytelling, not only as a form of entertainment, but as the purest form of passing on knowledge. Without storytelling, we would not have history. We not would have a past to learn from.

Write on young savior,

Craft Creative Research-a-torium Resources Sass

The History of Storytelling: Part I: The Invention of Story

As modern humans, convenienced by information available at our fingertips, we take for granted a time when communication and access to knowledge was not instantaneous. The knowledge of history, technology, food and medicinal resources, was once proudly guarded information, determined to be the property of a privileged few.

According to a recent study by Marshall Poe, a professor of the history at the University of Iowa, the history of human communication can be divided into six stages. These stages of development are organized as: oral (speech), manuscript (handwriting), print (presses), audiovisual (recordings, radio, film), internet (hosting, posting), and digital (pdf).

Using these six stages, we can examine each of the unique ways that humans have ever interacted. Each one has become a integral in the way humans pass information along to others, or most importantly, to the next generation. This has always been the most effective way of ensuring survival of future generations. But, while Poe’s categories neatly summarize all stages of communication throughout our history, human beings have been telling stories long before most of his stages came into existence..

“Without a single word, this ancient artist who painted the walls of Lascaux was able to record one of the first stories of the human experience, and with every generation that has passed since, we have never stopped.”

Early Storytelling

The caves of Lascaux, France are one of the most significant archeological finds ever to be uncovered. They are not, however, open to public view. If exposed to the elements, these irreplaceable works of art would be destroyed very quickly. That is why they have been sealed off, made accessible only to the scientists and historians that are allowed to study them. Discovered in 1940, the ceiling and walls of the cave interior are painted with immense portraits of ancient animals that once roamed Europe alongside our ancestors. The incredible thing about these paintings is that they are sophisticated. The artist drew them in such a way that represents movement and dimensions. Many of the animal drawings feature shading  and have been depicted with multiple legs, representing the motion of the animals as they ran, and their three-dimensionality. In addition to the archaeological significance that this find represents by providing evidence for our ancestors’ intelligence, it also represents their need to record and preserve their daily lives. Whether this was just an early attempt at expression, or an early attempt to record history to pass on to later generations, it serves as one of the earliest examples of storytelling.

The boss-ness that is the Lascaux cave art.

Without a single word, this ancient artist who painted the walls of Lascaux was able to record one of the first stories of the human experience, and with every generation that has passed since, we have never stopped. These original stories may not be as complex as we modern humans are used to, with all our fancy story elements, and our literal and figurative language, but they served the most important function of a story. This image was able to explain what a day in the life of an ancient Europeans looked like. This moment in history represents a greater monument in human development, providing evidence of one of the first moments in which humans began to demonstrate critical and analytical skills beyond those needed for survival. This is evidence of the earliest moments of human consciousness.

” The history and beliefs of a culture became legends, the trial and error of generations became lessons, and the technological advancements led to surplus, riches, and war, which were recorded as history.”

Human beings may have been telling stories long before language and writing, but the inception of both led to an explosion of culture. Pre-civilization societies determined record keeping to be one of the most important jobs. This meant that they held their cultural history and knowledge in as high a regard as collecting food. This makes sense, being that the sharing of the collective history of their people was tantamount to survival. By passing on the knowledge of animal migrations, dangerous areas, medical practices, and the crafting of technology, they increased the chances of survival of their children, their people, and their culture as a whole. Storytelling was the ultimate form of self-preservation.

Often, a select few individuals were tasked with the responsibility of learning, memorizing, and retelling the stories of the tribe or clan. This was vital in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, the birthplace of humanity, where geography was known to play a huge role in isolating groups of people within miles of each other (which is why Africa has the most genetic diversity on the face of the planet). According to Reference.com, over three-thousand distinct tribes are known to inhabit Africa, speaking two-thousand known languages. And those are just the ones we know about, since much the inner continent is still very remote, and may still keep hidden people, languages, and stories that we have yet to uncover. That means, that since the birth of vocal communication, just in Africa alone, storytellers, known in these cultures as griots, were memorizing thousands of collective histories in thousands of languages.

A modern day griot recites a story to the children of the village.

Over time, pictures became pictographs. Pictographs became symbols. Symbols began to represent words, and not ideas. Then eventually, sounds and not words.

Indus script that probably tells the sickest, most epic story we’ll never know.

Crossing the Red Sea, much like our ancestors did when they left Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula,  we come to  South-Central Asia, where the birth of writing occurred. The earliest archeological evidence of writing can be found in Uruk on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern Iraq, and in Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus River in modern India. Cuneiform, the famous wedge-shaped writing system that is the first known in history, was deciphered by George Smith and Henry Rawlinson. The Indus script on the other hand, remains completely unknown to us since no codex has been discovered that would allow the translation of the symbols into another known language, as was the case with hieroglyphics in Coptic and Greek by using the Rosetta Stone. Once translated, scholars were able to read the earliest literature ever written, the great Mesopotamian works: Atrahasis, The Descent of Inanna, The Myth of Etana, The Enuma Elish, and the famous Epic of Gilgamesh.

Cuneiform text, probably a receipt for goats.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is particularly fascinating as a story, since it is one of the best known examples of a story archetype that is shared by nearly all the great societies and civilizations of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas: an epic flood story in which the gods wash clean the earth to start again. The truly awe-inspiring aspect of the flood story mystery is how these cultures, who have no historical evidence of contact until the last few thousand years, not only share the same base story idea, but also share them with cultures in the Americas, that at the earliest evidence we can find, did not have consistent contact with Europe or Asia until after 1000 CE.

“…since the birth of vocal communication, just in Africa alone, storytellers, known in these cultures as griots, were memorizing thousands of collective histories in thousands of languages.”

While these incredible, larger than life stories discuss the cultural beliefs of the earliest civilizations, other written artifacts from this time serve a purpose more like the paintings of Lascaux. Most of the written documents of this time were not for public circulation. These stories were recorded for posterity, but for most common people of the Mesopotamian region, they would have still be told orally. Literacy has only been commonplace for the last few centuries. But, whether the everyday merchant class of the Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, or Nineveh knew it or not, they were preserving snippets of the story of the everyday life of ancient Mesopotamians through record-keeping. Granted, most of the documents preserved from the first known civilization are basically contracts and receipts … for like…. goats (Seriously, there is an inordinate amount of livestock transactions in Sumeria), but like the cave paintings, they give us a glimpse of the story of ancient life.

The Presentation of the heart of the dead by Horus,Thoth, and Anubis to Isis and Osiris for judgment on entering the afterlife. (FYI, if you were bad, that croc-hippo-cat gets to eat yo’ heart.)

Whether images, symbols, or letters, these written marks began to grace the walls of public spaces, the surface of burial monuments, and scrolls of vellum and paper.  The history and beliefs of a culture became legends, the trial and error of generations became lessons, and the technological advancements led to surplus, riches, and war, which were recorded as history.

Read on young saviors,

Pep Talks Savvy

Always the Write Time

A pep talk from Savvy:

I’m here today to deliver a spoiler about life as a writer. Something that all those articles promising you time optimization never mention. In the FRIENDS theme song, when no one told you life was gonna be this way *clap clap clap clap*, this was one of the things no one told you about. You ready?

There’s no such thing as the “perfect” time to write.

There, I said it.

This month has been Camp NaNoWriMo, which for those of you who don’t know is like National Novel Writing Month’s lite edition. Like NaNoWriMo proper, which takes place every November, the goal is to write as much as you can in 30 days. However, the camp versions, which take place in April and July, are the “lite edition” in that you can set your own goals. As long as it is at least 10K, it can be whatever length you want. You can use the time to edit old work, start something new, or heck, be like me and do both because you walk on the wild side.

As I reach mid month with one new project and one old, both in need of some love, I’ve found myself thinking once again, as I often have, about what constitutes the right atmosphere for getting the most writing done, and one step further, when is the best time to write. The problem is, there is literally no answer for this that I can discern for myself, let alone share with you, and here’s why:

What we forget as writers is that we’re also people.

We are people who have lives, and wives, and kids, and boyfriends, and coworkers, and sick grandmas, and deadlines to be met, and inner demons that like to go, nah you suck too much to write today, NETFLIX INSTEAD. All of these interconnecting relationships that one has to deal with and the demands placed upon us make it difficult to pinpoint what conditions work best for us to write. And so, the idea that one person with a quick fix article can tell you “write between 7am and 8am with exactly 1.5 cups of coffee and sunlight streaming in your window” is just ludicrous. The person telling you that doesn’t realize that maybe you work early and can’t write then, or maybe you have a baby keeping you up at all hours, so that ‘optimum hour’ for writing is legit the only hour in which you can catch shut eye.

So rather than sit here and give you a recipe for exactly when you should be sitting down to write, I’m gonna be real with you and say the one thing you maybe don’t want to hear, but that you need to hear: Just write when you can.

Routine works really well for some people, and if you exist in a time and space that allows it, of course it can be helpful and beneficial! I don’t ever mean to discourage what works for people, because as I said, we’re all very different beings. But this article isn’t really for those of you with perfectly planned lives and foolproof routines (even though I still love you). This is for the rest of us. Those of us for whom writing happens not at all for a whole week and then comes bursting out of us in a two hour binge write on our free Tuesday night. This article is for the you who is jotting notes for your story on your phone at the bus stop, and having to get through the rest of your day only to punch out one or two hundred words when you get home from an exhausting day. This irregularity does not invalidate you as a writer, it just validates your humanity.

As long as you are writing whenever you can, and recognizing that making time for your story is a priority, you are doing the right thing.

Tolkien took twelve years to write Lord of the Rings. J.K. Rowling took about seven to write the first Potter book. One of my favorite quotes I recently discovered sums up perfectly the advice I hope most to give to writers…

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” —Confucious

Make time where you can, and use it as best you can. Take the time you need to tell your story, but don’t EVER give up until it’s told. Remember to take care of yourself and the people in your life, and know that your story is waiting for you when you’re ready. Happy Camp NaNoWriMo, and remember to keep writing.

Carry on my wayward writers,