The history of storytelling. Or a story for Mother’s Day 😊
One thing that distinguishes us, humans, from animals is storytelling. From Homer’s recounting the tales of Ulysses to listening to your wife’s account of how her day went, we spend, have spent and will continue to spend, vast amounts of time listening to or telling stories.
This fact recently, and may be naively, dawned on me a few days ago. Stories all embody two central elements of humanity: the notion of time (what has already happened and what has yet to happen) and the desire to share (by telling or being told). I felt like Mr. Jourdain in Moliere’s comedy “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” who had said prose all of his life without ever realizing it. So I decided to dig further and deeper and compose this modest essay (in several instalments), an ode to storytelling throughout the ages.
Before we embark on this fascinating journey, I want to tell you…a story! I am sure like most parents you have tried to put your children to sleep by reading them from a book. I can remember sitting by my beautiful daughter’s bed and reading her passages of the…Hobbit (by J.R.R. Tolkien…if you don’t know who he is and what he wrote, shame on you J).
I am not quite sure what convoluted twists of thinking once convinced me that you could put a child to sleep by reading a book full of dragons, orcs and trolls. That is for another essay, I suppose…
But suffice to say, I did make that decision. And she seemed to enjoy it. Obviously, my ultimate aim was to put her to sleep. Therefore, I would slow down the pace, making the words ever heavier, lowering the tone of my voice, as if to say, “sleep my little angel, go to sleep”. Silence. That moment when you are about to close the book and leave the room with a last loving look at your progeny. Then, Camille would utter a single word: “Continue!” Very matter of fact. “OK you got my attention, I really like what I hear, and I am interested about what’s going to happen next”. CONTINUE! Not an injunction. A soft request. “Please continue”. One request you certainly cannot turn down.
From these tender nights until today and until I no longer able to walk this earth, the word “story” will always be associated, in my mind, with the word “continue”, the plea from a 5 years old child in the darkness of her room, listening to her father trying to put her to sleep with tales of gremlins. Continue!
Let us begin!
If you google the word “story”, lots of definition are provided to you. But here is my favorite (and the one I believe to be most accurate):
“A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader”
We may want to make a note to ourselves: some thing(s) seem(s) to be missing? What about pictures? What about paintings? What about movies? What about music? But that being said, it pretty much encompasses what comes to our minds when we are confronted with the word “story” as in “let me tell you a story”. Let us begin with a question: Can you imagine the first story that was every told?
The history of storytelling. The very first story ever told…
Tens of thousands years ago, somewhere in Africa (most probably) a primate almost human proceeded to tell the very first story ever told. May be around a fire in a cave. The recipient(s) of this “story” was/were other almost human primates. I can only guess as to the exact way this went on or what the story was about. Nor will I dare to conjecture about how the story was receivedJ. But one thing is sure: there was a first story ever told.
As I said in the prologue, our desire (impulse? Need?) to tell stories is one very important thing that makes use different from animals. The process by which we (humans) evolved to conscious beings is very much a mystery and may remain a mystery for a long time [just a note to all the religious folks out there, I am a hard-core atheist]. But the minute we crossed the barrier that separates us from what we call animals, even ever so slightly, communications with our species became paramount and communication very quickly included storytelling.
I can hear the skeptics: “Philippe, how can you be so sure our ancestors started telling stories earlier rather than later?” I am no anthropologist, linguist or historian, so I will modestly offer this simple explanation: language (in whatever primitive form it may have been articulated in those days) embodied the desire to first communicate about the “here and now”. As it slowly evolved, the temporal realm of “conversation” drifted (for lack of a better word) to include references to the past and the future. Regardless of the purpose, discussing the future or the past, involves a great deal of storytelling. I rest my case J
Let us pause for a moment and reflect: here we are discussing “storytelling”…yet what about “storylistening”? There is no storyteller if there are not those willing to listen to the stories. I will assert that there is no difference in terms of intellectual or emotional involvement between he/she who tells a story and she/he who listens to it. Storytelling/listening is a two-way street…or soon enough you are preaching in the desertJ. My daughter Camille was as much involved in “listening” to my reading the Hobbit as I was reading it…and in some ways, much more than I was since I already knew the story and she was discovering it.
Language allowed us to communicate. It also allowed us to tell stories (and with this came the first “alternate facts”) [as we now call them]: was the mammoth being slaughtered that day “THAT” big or “that” big? Obviously when story telling had sufficiently developed into a practice, if not an art, we saw the birth of oral tradition. “I know someone who heard it from someone who heard if from someone who said that this is what happened”. By that time, the mammoth was not alone, it was 10 times the size of normal mammoths, as it turns out there were hundreds of mammoths, very angry at that, and the hunters only escape with some meat to eat because of their courage, strength and smarts J [“Honey, why are you coming to the cave so late?” “Honey, you are not going to believe what happened!”]
For our ancestors, the world was full of threats and enigmatic events (the sun, the moon, oceans and their tides, storms, clouds, seasons, earthquakes, etc etc]. Who then started making up stories about all of that? Someone did. It continues to this day. [Newsflash: the earth is not 6000 years old!].
Spoken language is the most direct form of telling stories. It is the most imperfect form of transmitting a story from one person to the next, one group or person to the next, or one generation to the next. Some parts get left out, distorted, embellished, or outright re-invented. But our ancestors then invented a new form of communication (kinda the twitter of the time): drawing. Wow!
The Lascaux caves (in Dordogne, France) are the precious receptacle of thousands of drawings, dated around 20,000 years ago, on the cave walls and ceiling, of a variety of scenes, primarily animals herds and hunts. If you do not know about Lascaux, check it out because it is truly astonishing. Lascaux is all about storytelling and one of the first examples of transmissible story throughout the ages (all the way to us today). [Obviously today we would need to fact-check those stories…]
I have digressed. Back to the very first story ever told. If I write “who told the very first story?” I am quite sure that most of you will have form this image of a strong male homo sapiens, thumping his chest, recounting the tale of the day’s events when he, and his pals, chased 100 gigantic mammoths…I have news for you. The very first story ever told was by a mother homo sapiens, trying to put her child to sleep, with soothing words. “Don’t you worry little child, them mammoths are not that big and they are far far away! You go to sleep now”. Happy Mothers’ day!