The History Of Storytelling

Storytelling has had a more significant impact on human history than we generally realize. An examination of storytelling's history reveals why.

Griot. Raconteur. Bard. Jongleur. Skop. Spinner of yarns. Rabbi. Named by a thousand words, storytellers have shaped our societies and the way we think for all of recorded history, and before that to the days of cave paintings, and before that into some shaded depth of time that we have only the barest sense of today. But only humans tell stories. Though primates share many of the same behaviors that we have, they lack the imagination and the desire for stories that we possess.

Children crave stories, and will spontaneously make them up if they can't get them any other way. Every culture that exists or has been known to exist had a strong storytelling culture, one all their own that shaped and was shaped by the people. Stories are used for entertainment, for teaching, for passing on old knowledge and wisdom. In certain Native American cultures, stories are so integral to the people that every question is answered by a story.

So why is storytelling so important to us? And where is our storytelling drive leading us?

The Caves

At the turn of the 20th century, some French children made an incredible find in the Pyrenees Mountains - drawings of extinct animals in caves. The 35,000-year-old paintings on the walls of the Lascaux Caves are our earliest recorded evidence of storytelling, and since Lascaux we've found dozens of other examples.

To primitive man, storytelling was magic. There was little separation between what was spoken and what happened - to him, it seemed logical that if we could describe a great hunt and bring it home, in all its vividness and glory, to those who did not participate, then it should be possible to tell a story about a hunt and see it happen later. When it did not always work, they decided that perhaps drawing the story would help.

The caves of Lascaux and others from the same period are not only our first storytelling art, but also our first visual art, our first cartoon, and our first narrated slide show. The technologies we use today are new, but the methods for storytelling are ancient.

Different stories, or different ways of telling the same stories, shape distinct cultures. A people's stories are often similar to those of other cultures, but distinct in themselves. Your culture's stories became part of your self-identity. It's possible that culture is rooted in storytelling.

With storytelling came cultural and societal bonding. When we invented stories, we invented gods, heroes, villains, and magic. The roots of psychology, of lecture-style teaching, of religion, all lie within stories.

The First Civilizations

Civilization arose many thousands of years after storytelling, with the development of agriculture and a more sedentary lifestyle. Families settled to farm; farms grew into hamlets, villages, towns, and at last the first cities. And with the rise of cities came the first professional priests, and the first professional storytellers.

Gilgamesh is the first written epic, and the first short stories were written down over 4000 years ago in Egypt. As apparently a fully-developed body of literature suddenly sprang out of this, it's clear that oral storytelling had much longer than that to develop.

In the East, the same pattern is seen in China and India, with ancient stories written down long after they were apparently first composed. Already, one can see common themes across the different civilizations, such as catastrophic floods that wipe out entire civilizations and peoples in single days, or creation myths, or fables explaining how things came about. According to researchers like Joseph Campbell, this is partly evidence of common experiences and partly evidence that stories had spread widely long before they were written down.

Not only had the most ancient of stories and story forms been developed by the time they were written down, but genres had differentiated, though some were specific to their own cultures. Epic tales like Gilgamesh and some of the stories of the gods were one form, sung or spoken to rhythm by professional storytellers similar to bards. The more formal tales of the gods were told at religious ceremonies through hymns and lectures.

Later stories from the ancient world, such as the legends and myths of the ancient

Greeks and Romans as well as the religious veddas of ancient India essentially were similar in purpose, though more sophisticated and reflective of their originating cultures.

There was one common theme through most ancient tales, no matter where they were found in the world: they were at heart didactic, stories expounding on morality and teaching about the pleasures of a morally good life while describing the misery that followed ill deeds. As you can imagine, this contributed greatly to stories shaping their culture.

The Dark Ages

The Dark Ages in Europe were not shared by the rest of the world. The Middle East, for instance, was experiencing a brilliant renaissance equivalent to any in history; and China and India were experiencing stable, growing cultures punctuated by periods of war with the Mongols and the same plagues that devastated Europe. During this time period storytelling matured and changed, shaping cultures while being shaped by them.

Drawing on ancient Greek traditions of live theater, mystery plays were invented by the Catholic Church. These were a dramatic method for telling the didactic morality stories the Church wanted to spread. And since the common people generally could not read and generally could also not understand the Latin in which services were commonly conducted, mystery plays were often the only method for ordinary people to hear the stories of the Bible, outside of stories told by the fireplace by grandmothers and other storytellers.

This is more important than it sounds. As previously mentioned, stories spread across a wide territory tended to change and reflect the societies they had landed in; though hundreds of cultures had a flood story, each flood legend was distinct to that culture. By allowing and even encouraging mystery plays (which traveled from town to town), the Catholic Church ensured that the same story was told in the same way to all people throughout the Catholic World.

While illiteracy was common in Europe, it was quickly becoming uncommon in the Near East. Oral storytelling still had its place, as many of the ancient tales were shared around the fireside even though Islamic teachings frowned upon them. But the teachers and leaders of Islam encouraged all Islamic converts to learn to read, at least in order to read the Quran. This, like mystery plays in the West, encouraged a homogeneity of culture that bound together most of the people who followed Muhammad. Again, stories transformed cultures.

The legacy of the Middle Ages is the maturing of the story form, both oral and written. Ultimately, these stories matured into the flower of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a master of transforming ancient stories into new tales that could then be shared with common and noble people alike.

The New World

In the Americas, many stories were recorded by central American cultures in stone and on perishable mediums like hides and a form of paper. Unfortunately, the Jesuits, who came to America determined to convert the natives to Christianity, understood how important cultural stories are to preserving that culture; they and other Catholic priests burned all of the perishable documents left by the Central Americans, and broke up the stones recording others. Between that, cultural disintegration through slavery and warfare, and the active preaching of the Jesuit priests, much of the culture of the Aztecs, Mayans, and related cultures was lost.

Yet because of pictograms, we do have an idea of what some of the lost stories were. More flood stories. Tales of bloody sacrifice and heroic deeds. Even stories of red-haired hairy-faced men from across the Eastern ocean, which may have influenced the Aztec reactions to the European conquerors.

Quetzalcoatl was almost a Jesus figure to the Aztecs and some of the other affiliated Native peoples. He created man, according to legend, by descending to the underworld and gathering the bones of the ancient dead; by anointing them with his blood, he created the Aztecs. He was, among other things, the patron of goldsmiths, and was depicted as a red-haired and bearded man; and when he left the Aztecs by sailing east across the ocean, he told them he'd return in a one-reed year. So when Cortez, a red-haired man with a beard, sailed across the Eastern ocean in a one-reed year with his crew and demanded gold - well, what were the Aztecs to think but that it was Quetzalcoatl returned to them? Though they soon learned better, this mistake cost the Aztecs dearly; a small contingent of less than a hundred men, who could have been easily overwhelmed, conquered a great civilization almost single-handedly.

No story could tell you the power of stories better.

In the Americas, the culture of the Native American cultures lives on today through oral stories told at pow-wows, over campfires, at any time. The power of stories is revered, and a storyteller holds an important place in all their cultures.

Our Time

Today, most of the industrialized world is peopled by literary cultures. Stories are mostly recounted in books, in movies and other film, and online. Only at home, the traditional root of stories, and at special festivals and a few other events do you find stories commonly told.

One of the main venues of storytellers today is the stand-up comic stage. Though not all comics are storytellers, enough are to keep the comedic story tradition alive. And this is especially true for storytellers in the American South, where storytelling traditions are kept alive in more isolated communities throughout the Appalachians and rural communities.

You can also find storytellers at a variety of cultural venues, such as at Native American pow-wows, at some Latin festivals, and at many rural festivals in the South and West. In much of the less-developed world, you can still find local storytellers - griots and grandmothers - who sometimes travel to tell tales, and often tell them at their own community celebrations. Stories are told today for a variety of reasons. Instead of just teaching lessons (though this still makes up an enormous part of the storytelling tradition), tales are often told just to entertain, or to engender pride in one's culture and history, or just to educate in history and tradition.


Sadly, with the rise of technological storytelling devices, the cultural prominence of storytelling as an art form is transforming. Traditional storytelling is dying out, replaced by video, the Internet, mass-market books, radio, and other forms of new media. You can still experience oral storytelling at storytelling festivals, and there are many organizations throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe that promote storytelling and help to train new storytellers; but few people can make a living at it.

Storytelling will never die out. Mothers and fathers will always tell bedtime stories to their children; and stories will always be an important part of our culture. But much of the traditional place of stories has been taken over by Hollywood; the same thing may be happening in India, China, and other parts of the world where mass media is gradually becoming the normal form of transmission of culture. The question of how much we will lose when traditional storytelling gives way completely to modern media has yet to be answered.

Yet the Internet may be able to preserve much of the individuality of the oral story, though of course the spontaneity and gradual changing of the story that's always been part of the art form may be lost. Through venues like blogs, fan fiction, and small internet magazines that grow (and disappear) like mushrooms, today's storyteller, seeking a worldwide audience, may be able to find one on the World Wide Web.

© High Speed Ventures 2011