Stories in Our Bones

I once heard that, somewhere in the world, there is an indigenous people whose name for human being, when literally translated, is “featherless storytelling creature”.  I love the image this apocryphal tale conjures up so much that I have often shared it with audiences and workshop participants, sometimes adding that though I presume (on the available evidence) that we are all featherless, I know that we are all storytellers.

From when I first started storytelling and working with stories, I have been curious about our fascination with stories. Story seems to be a universal human phenomenon – from our dreams and daydreams to the entries in our journals; from the anecdotes we tell about ourselves and our families to literary masterpieces; from traditional wonder tales to Hollywood epics.  The narrative form is deeply embedded in our lives and in our culture, so deeply embedded that I have often wondered how this evolution in our consciousness came about.  Where did this uniquely human mode of expression come from?

The question is complicated by the fact that few of us come from an unbroken tradition of oral storytelling.  If the contrary were the case, it would be easier to trace the ancestral roots of our stories and the lineage of our storytelling tradition.  But we live in literate societies in which the power of the spoken word has largely been displaced by the ubiquity of the written word (typographical in my youth and now electronic and digital) and visual image.  Nevertheless, it seems important for modern day storytellers to understand something of the ground we are standing on.

Since most of us now derive our knowledge of oral storytelling from written sources, we can turn there. The literature is vast but if we pick our way through it selectively, there are some key landmarks to be found on the trail back through time.  The existence of a vibrant oral culture in northern Europe as late as the mid-nineteenth century is revealed by collections of folktales such as those published by the Grimm brothers in Germany, Asbjørnsen and Moe in Norway, and Alexander Afanasev in Russia. These stories were collected either directly or at one remove from oral sources – country folk and servants of the well to do – though where and when the stories themselves originated remains a mystery.  We should also be aware that, in the case of the Brothers Grimm, the sexual content of many of the stories was expurgated when they were originally published to conform to a moralistic sensibility (though, perhaps surprisingly, as Maria Tatar reveals in The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales[i], violent scenes were often more graphically rendered by the editors in successive editions).

In other words, though the stories themselves spring from an older oral tradition, the collections were undoubtedly products of their age: a time of urbanisation, industrialisation and strident nationalism.  Indeed, it is quite possible that their immediate popularity represented something of a reaction to the effects of modernity’s assault on traditional ways of life.

Although it would be naïve of us to think of the stories collected during this golden age of European folkloric studies as somehow pure and unadulterated, we can still rely on their cumulative effect to get a strong sense of the folk cultures from which they were drawn. They reflect the ancient forested landscape of northern Europe in which it was still easy to believe that the human and the more-than-human worlds conversed with each other; they are stories of common people and stories of kings, queens and nobles seen through the eyes of the common people; they are stories of wee folk and giants, wizards and witches, hard times and good fortune, unlikely heroes and dastardly villains.  They are tales of “Once Upon a Time” that still resonate in the psyches of contemporary men and women.  Here, for example is how a famous Brothers Grimm story, The Shoemaker and the Elves [ii], begins:

A shoemaker, by no fault of his own, had become so poor that at last he had nothing left but the leather for one pair of shoes. So in the evening, he cut out the shoes which he wished to begin to make the next morning, and as he had a good conscience, he lay down quietly in his bed, commended himself to God, and fell asleep.

The contrasting courtly tradition of the bard and the troubadour takes us back to mediaeval times.  For example, the Arthurian stories of the Mabinogion (based on fourteenth-century written sources) in Wales and the twelfth-century chivalric romances of Chrétien de Troyes in France are both widely believed to be based on much earlier oral stories and verses.  Unlike folktales, these are stories of kings, queens and nobles as seen through their own eyes (or perhaps as they would like to have been seen). They are tales of the heroic deeds of a ruling warrior class, largely divorced from the common people as a translation of the beginning of Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide[iii] so clearly demonstrates:

One Easter Day in the Springtime, King Arthur held court in his town of Cardigan. Never was there seen so rich a court; for many a good knight was there, hardy, bold, and brave, and rich ladies and damsels, gentle and fair daughters of kings. But before the court was disbanded, the King told his knights that he wished to hunt the White Stag, in order to observe worthily the ancient custom.

The same is true for the Icelandic Sagas and for the eighth-century Old English epic, Beowulf and even for the Ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey, attributed to the legendary poet Homer, and dating back as far as 800 years BCE.  The lines that begin Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf [iv] set the scene for a heroic tale.

When he heard about Grendel, Hygelac’s thane

was on home ground, over in Geatland.

There was no one else like him alive.

In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth,

high-born and powerful. He ordered a boat

that would ply the waves. He announced his plan:

to sail the swan’s road and search out that king,

the famous prince who needed defenders.

As do the opening lines of The Iliad[v]

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus –

that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans


to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls


deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies


carrion food for dogs and birds – 


all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.

Scholars have shown how the language and structure of these long verse epics reflect the tropes, rhythms and cadences of oral language. None of them, it seems, was the original literary product of a single creative mind.  Rather, they represent crossovers between oral and written forms.  In each case an author (or even several authors) of genius wrote down stories they were familiar with, stories that were originally told or sung by unknown scops and bards.  Sometimes, as in the case of Taliesin in the Mabinogion and Demodocus in the Odyssey, they even included themselves as characters.

Even restricting the search to evidence from the European tradition, we can trace the roots of storytelling back about 3,000 years.  If we cast our nets a little bit wider to include Asia and the Middle East, we can add at least another 1,000 years. The oldest known written story (based, it is believed on a series of oral legends and poems about ancient Sumerian kings) is the epic of Gilgamesh; it too is a story of kings and heroes. Inscribed on eleven clay tablets and discovered in the ruins of Nineveh in 1853, it is believed to date back as far as 1,700 BCE and its eponymous hero is thought to have been an actual ruler in Akkad around 2,700 BCE.  The prologue gives us a very immediate sense of how close this civilisation felt itself to be to the beginning of things:

I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world.  He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood.  He went on a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, returning he engraved on a stone the whole story.[vi]

We should not assume, because the surviving early written stories are heroic and courtly epics, that the common people were not also busy telling each other all manner of tales.  Until relatively recently, writing was the preserve of the few; scribes, poets and singers lived by the patronage of those rich enough to pay for their services.  Naturally, they recorded the stories their patrons (often illiterate themselves) wanted to hear – stories about their own ruling warrior class.  But everything we know about human nature suggests that folk of all kind have entertained and amused themselves throughout history with gossip, riddles and jokes, tales about their families and ancestors, fables about animals and the natural world, stories about their kings and queens, and creation myths of how things came to be.

Indeed, it is quite possible that some of these unrecorded oral stories have stayed in our collective memory for many generations, mutating over time and spreading across the world as people travelled and traded with each other.  Such would explain the appearance of similar folktales in many different cultures; even today, we know that nothing travels farther or faster than a good story.

These few pointers follow the trail of storytelling back 4,000 years in the history of humankind as far as the early Bronze Age and there, it runs cold.  But our species’ connection with story seems to be so profound that surely there must be something else, something that might explain the origins of story itself.  I had the chance to explore this question more deeply when I met one of my great heroes, radical anthropologist, linguist and author, Hugh Brody – a man who has spent much of his life living and working alongside hunter-gatherer communities in the Arctic region and in southern Africa.

He explained that, in those communities, story is still the primary means of attributing significance and meaning to their experience of the world. Hunter-gatherers (the condition in which our species existed for 99% of its 2.5 million year history since the Early Stone Age) live in close and symbiotic relationship with their environment.  To survive, they must learn to make sense of it in all its richness and complexity.  Abstract logic and reason will not tell them at which waterhole, break in the ice, berry tree or succulent plant their prey will appear on a particular day.  Instead they rely on visions and dreams of what might happen and on stories of what they know to have happened before.

We can get a glimpse of this for ourselves in an extraordinary Inuit film Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner made at the turn of the millennium (and available on DVD). All those involved creatively in the making of the film: writer, director, and non-professional actors were members of Inuit communities living in the High Arctic of northern Canada.  It tells the story of Atanarjuat and his cousin Oki, who do battle over the beautiful Atuat. Oki attempts to murder Atanarjuat and his brother.  Atanarjuat escapes, helped by his own extraordinary strength and by advice from the supernatural. With great humour, skill and cunning he lays a trap for Oki who is transformed, not by Atanarjuat’s plans, but by another moment of magic.

In 2002, Hugh wrote a review of the film for an on-line newsletter, Open Democracy [vii] in which he paints a wonderfully rich picture of the place of storytelling as it still is in hunter-gatherer societies and as it must have been since time immemorial.

Inuit watching Atanarjuat will not see a symbolic reality. They will see, rather, the enactment of an old story, a myth that has been passed down from generation to generation. Some of them – including the film’s director Zacharias Kunuk – will have heard this story, or some version of it, as they lay in snow-houses or tents or houses built of sod and whalebone, with the glow of an oil lamp or candle the only light. Elders have told the story over and over to their children and grandchildren.

And these elders are experts at storytelling, for their lives as hunters depend on the detail of stories. They know just the right word, use the perfect bit of hesitation, the exact imitation of the sound of a bird, or of the wind. They gesture in the shadows to evoke the movement of a seal or the thrust of a harpoon. They tell the story in their own way, to best effect. So that those who hear can do the same in their turn.

Great oral traditions produce great stories. Great storytellers keep these stories alive, make them real. And into the heart of such stories – the ones that survive through generations – are worked the steps each of its tellers will follow. The details, the riches of the narration, vary. But a central drama, a set of themes, becomes fixed – fixed, because these are themes at the heart of being human. So the story becomes mythic, and the footsteps become the trail leading to and from the wonders and mysteries of the world.

Hugh told me that it was only with the arrival of agriculture in the Late Stone Age, which is reckoned to have begun about 9,500 BCE, that humans developed the kind of analytical thinking needed to develop and exercise systems of control over their environment.  Today, we can access both forms of sense making: story and logic (or mythos and logos as the Greeks called them).  But whilst the capacity for logic is firmly imprinted in our minds, the need for story lies deep in our bones.

Storytelling actually defines our species: we really are, even in our literate and post-oral times, featherless storytelling creatures.

About the author

Dr Geoff Mead is a storyteller, writer, and consultant. He performs and teaches storytelling across the UK and as far afield as Spain, Japan and Canada where he was the guest international storyteller at the 2010 Toronto Storytelling Festival. He is the founding director of the Centre for Narrative Leadership – a not-for-profit community of practice for storytellers who take their work into organisations. His new book Coming Home to Story (about the role of the storyteller today) will be published by Vala Publishing in November 2011. He will be performing at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in October this year

This article has been submitted for publication to Storylines the journal of the Society for Storytelling


[i] Tatar, M (1992) The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Princeton Univeristy Press, Princeton, New Jersey

[ii] From The Complete Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Pantheon, New York (1980) p197

[iii] From Four Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes, Gutenberg Project http://www.gutenberg.org/files/831/831-h/831-h.htm Downloaded 18th November 2010

[iv] From Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, downloaded on 19th november 2010 from http://www.beowulftranslations.net/hean.shtml

[v] From Homer’s Iliad, Book One translated by Ian Johnstone, downloaded on 19th November 2010 from https://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/homer/iliad1.htm

[vi] From The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N.K.Sandars, Penguin Classics (1960), Penguin, London, p1

[vii] See Open Democracy 13th February 2002 from which both the summary of the film’s plot and Hugh Brody’s review were downloaded on 18th November 2010 http://www.opendemocracy.net/arts-Film/article_448.jsp