No one can know for sure when storytelling began. In the beginning human memory and creativity were all we had to keep the stories alive. This meant storytellers had to find creative “tools” to get their listeners engaged in the story allowing the listeners to remember it.
The earliest known record of oral storytelling is found in Egypt, when the sons of Cheops entertained their father with stories. Oral storytelling varies amount the different indigenous communities/cultures around the world. Although there are 3 general themes that seem to run through all communities’ stories. First are the stories that reflect the wisdom and knowledge of the communities earlier people. Secondly, there are the mechanisms that keep our ancestors alive and finally, they can offer a sense of tranquility and understanding about our world and fears. Stories can also be used as an excuse for failure, but I’m not really going to look at this area of storytelling here because it is self-explanatory.
Oral storytelling is generally divided into two main groups: Mächen and Sagen. Both of these words are German and have no exact English translations. Mächen loosely translates to “fairytale(s)” and takes place in a separate world of nowhere-in-particular, at an indeterminate time in the past. They are clearly not intended to be understood as true.
Sagen is roughly translated to “legend(s)” and are supposed to have actually happened, very often at a particular time and place. They draw much of their power from this fact. When the supernatural intrude (which they often do), it does so in an emotionally straining way. Many UFO stories and stories of supernatural beings or events belong in this category.
Mo matter what type of story you are talking about they are kept alive by being told again and again through many generations. The material of the story undergoes several changes and adaptations during the process of time but the core values stay the same.
The invention of the written word had a huge impact on storytelling. The cave paintings located in Southern France are 30,000 years old and appear to be the first form of “written” storytelling, but since little is known about them all I will tell you is that they are pictures of mostly buffalo (or mammoths) and humans in a sequence suggestive of a timeline for a group of people. The oldest surviving tale is the epic, Gilgamesh, relating to the deeds of a Sumerian King and the oldest copy is dated from 700 BC.
By writing a story down you are creating a consistent version of the story and this allows you to focus on other aspects of the story and it allows multiple people to see the same version of the story. Did you know that Aesop lived in 500 BC but his fables were not written down until around 200 BC? That means his stories were told orally for 300 years before someone decided to write them down on paper. It makes me wonder what unknown changes were made between Aesop’s death and the time they were written down. Are the written stories better or worse than the originals that Aesop had created? We will never know because the written version is the only version know today.
I would like to take this moment to point out that one of the most popular and well-known texts was passed down orally for generations before it was written down. I am talking about the Old Testament of the Bible. I hold this text in very high regard and in no way wish to dishonor it. I simply want you, the reader, to see the impact writing had on storytelling. Can you imagine the memorization skills and ability you would need to be able to remember the Old Testament? How would you have the mental space to evaluate what you have memorized once you are done? The people who can do this have to put a great amount of time and devotion into it and will only do it if symbolizes something of great value. But, by having the stories written down you are able to shift the portion of you brain that was focused on memorization onto other areas of storytelling, such as the meaning behind the words. Writing has allowed stories to become an even greater educational tool than it was before writing. Allowing you to imagine new perspectives with greater ease and help you to reinforce family and cultural values to your children.
In recent years I have notice that social media (Facebook, twitter, instagram, snapchat, google +, tumblr, ect.) is having a bigger and bigger impact on storytelling. I love social media and think it is a fabulous way to stay in contact with people and share photos, I am not some old fart who opposes technology, I want to make that clear. But social media should not be anyone’s main format for storytelling. With oral and written stories your imagination is the limit, while social media limits you to an arbitrary number of characters. I believe social media can have some usefulness with storytelling if used correctly. To me, storytelling should still be done orally or in written formats such as poetry, songs, novels, chants and dancing ect., and social media should be used to inform others about your work and where to find it.
But, even with the creation of writing and social media humanity had continued to use storytelling as the primary form of passing on values, ancestry, and entertainment. We have just added more formats (radio, books, movies and songs).
So, storytelling has a history almost as long as humans and our futures are intertwined. Humans will decide the fate of storytelling. Humans decide the stories that are and are not told. Readers are the ones with the knowledge of stories, so we need to lead the way in keeping storytelling relevant for future generations. Tell your kids stories so they can learn new things and become empowered to tell stories of their own to others, passing the tradition of storytelling on.