Notes from Youville: Storytelling: A Natural History

'Their story, yours and mine -- it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them'—William Carlos Williams


Throughout human history, our lives have been enriched by the tales we’ve shared with one another. Even today, with so many advanced, high-tech entertainment options, we still find pleasure in the simple act of telling and hearing stories with friends and family. When and how did our tale-telling habits begin?  

Because storytelling is likely as old as language itself, we can’t say for sure when the first storyteller enchanted his first audience. The question, “When was the first story,” unanswerable by science, demands its own story. But some experts believe that such unanswerable questions may have been precisely what led to our first storytelling efforts. Our ancient relatives (the theory goes), at a loss for how to explain some nagging, unknowable aspect of their condition, one day resorted to imagination to explain it, and storytelling was born.

In its earliest forms, storytelling likely involved many facets, including music and dance. These early tales were community events, binding people together and forging cultural identities. Both the storyteller and audience members contributed to the story, the storyteller adapting his tale to the audiences and the audiences shaping the tale through their responses. Early narratives also existed in the form of paintings on the cave walls of our ancestors. In tribes and cultures throughout the world, the stories served many purposes: religious, educational, entertainment, and cultural bonding to name a few. 

Two of the oldest, most celebrated works of western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey, likely began as oral traditions. These epic poems are believed by some scholars to have been entirely memorized by one of history’s earliest storytelling geniuses, Homer, a blind poet living around the 8th Century B.C. All 12,110 lines of the The Odyssey were likely recited to captive audiences, utilizing epithets (“the rosy-fingered dawn,” “the wine dark sea”) and other poetic devices to aid in memory. 

Long after people began writing down their stories, oral storytelling remained very much a part of life. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales depicts a group of pilgrims en route to Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrims soon agree that the best way to pass the time is through a storytelling contest, and what follows is each pilgrim’s colorful effort to tell the best story of the group. Such storytelling contests were typical for the day, with a master of ceremonies presiding and the promise of a prize to the winner.

Such events still take place today. Since its beginning in 1973, the annual Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., has evolved from just a handful of story enthusiasts to a great, nationally recognized festival. Story lovers of all backgrounds gather in this self-styled storytelling capital of the world, sharing yarns and competing for the honor of “Best Tale.” 

On a wider scale, every year on the spring equinox, countries in the northern hemisphere let their creative juices flow for World Storytelling Day. Begun just two decades ago in Sweden, their storytelling celebration quickly became global, with each country recognizing the same storytelling theme each year. (In 2013, the theme will be “Fortune and Fate.”)

Health Benefits

Can storytelling actually be good for our health? Some doctors believe the answer is Yes. A recent study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrated the curative effects of storytelling on patients with hypertension. For these patients, simply hearing stories from other hypertension patients had a greater impact in lowering blood pressure than the addition of medication in a previous test group. Hearing the stories seems to have given these patients a unique, personal perspective on the disease, providing a sense of connection with fellow patients.

Thomas K. Houston, author of the study at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, remarks of the findings, “Storytelling is how we make sense of our lives. That natural tendency may have the potential to alter behavior and improve health.” 

Roles of Storytelling

Stories can serve different purposes in different contexts. For professional storyteller and author Norah Dooley, “Knowing and telling your stories to your children or grandchildren is possibly one of the most important things one can do.” According to modern storyteller and historical impersonator Guy Peartree, the purpose of storytelling is similar to that of writing: “To let the voices of our culture and imagination speak.” 

In all instances, no matter what the context, stories have the power to preserve moments long past, as well as to communicate who we are and how we see the world. There’s no telling what effects our stories will have on others, or what new stories await us in the future.


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