The craft of fashioning stories that resonate with the deep self would be as old as humankind and perhaps pre-dates language. The craft of story telling was birthed when our caveman ancestors, huddled around smouldering fires. When the flames and darkness had worked their magic, they gestured and yodelled out the first tunes which later perhaps evolved into the first pantomimes.
Pre-literate people of every ethnicity distilled their wisdom in ways we take for granted and disregard. Using jokes, songs, dances, camp-fire anecdotes, toasts at weddings and other ceremonies and eulogies, ie in simple familial and tribal settings, they disseminated the values and mores of their culture, the intellectual, spiritual, physical, group and integral aspects of their experience. Specific ways of being were transmitted, absorbed, refashioned and updated through these stories.
In time, story-telling became a craft for the skilled. There were specific times and seasons for stories, tales were carefully chosen, to be told in exact words, particular tones of voice, with precise imagery, settings, facial expressions and gestures. The plots - every beginning, unfolding and ending was calculated to convey a meaning or experience which could be enjoyed as it was being understood.
Fig 2: Wampanoag Story teller, Annawon Weedon
How stories are used as medicine
The ancients knew that the craft of story telling could not be studied using just the rational mind. It had to be assimilated by living with those who knew, breathed and taught the craft, but more importantly it had to be internalised through long apprenticeship and personal experience. This is crucial, as it is in the mundane everyday world that we come to know and use the wisdom that stories can give us.
A master storyteller takes a lifetime to learn his craft, to build it's nuances and gifts into his being. The story he tells must be part of his psyche, integrated into the ethos of his culture and the woof and weft of his soul. It must come from the inside.
Though a master story teller is a consummate performer, mastery, glibness, working the audience and other stage tricks are not enough. They are stunts that enhance, set the tone and mood, but they are just that - gimmicks. The best story tellers speak not for money or fame or to please, but because the story possesses them in some way and demands to be 'told' at this time, in this place, to these people, in this way.
When he gets into the spirit of the story, he becomes a conjurer, adept at the rites of showmanship and stage craft but he is also able to bend movement, diction, language and plot, to weave a spell, call up an image, to progress a plot, to plant a seed, to evoke wonder and the beginnings of change and wisdom in the hearts of his audience.
A true story teller can "read" his audience, delve into his voluminous repertoire and select stories that are just right for that situation. To be able to make this choice requires a vast cache of tales, each different in range and quality, but each internalised and deeply loved. This type of repertoire is more diverse and complex than mere story collections and compilations, for it involves knowing not just the story details, the bare bones, but the ancestry of the story, the changes in its trajectory over time, its potential to heal or perhaps even harm and a finely honed capacity to use it judiciously.
Fig 4: Traditional Indian story teller - Geeta Ramanujam, founder of Kathalaya
Pre-literate societies knew that not everyone was equipped to acquire the story teller legacy. Elders would agree on who the initiate should be and then protect and guide them through the long years of apprenticeship to ensure that the tales did not become trivialised, modified, misused, fall into the wrong hands or be appropriated by the well meaning but ignorant, so that the potency and charge inherent in the tales, was correctly transmitted. Then, after a long period of training, the 'chosen' one, would learn not just the structure and mechanics of the craft, but the ethics, preparations, attitudes, blessings, pecussions, insights and healing knowledge which were to accompany the telling of each tale. Finally, but most importantly, the initiate would be schooled in the art of listening.
Fig 5 - Hip-hop improvisation fused with cinematic story telling
Among many traditions across the world, story telling was a part of the healers medicine kit. This fact was known to the griots of West Africa, the bards of Avalon, the Curanderasand cantadoras of Latin America, the mesmemondoks of Hungary and story tellers across the world. So how did the process work? In every healing tradition that valued the art and craft of storytelling, the essential realisation to master was that stories dredge up the psychic contents of both the personal and collective unconscious. Learning the art of story telling is an expensive process - intellectually, spiritually and in terms of time consumed. The gatekeepers of stories in traditional cultures, would exact from their initiates, adherence to a particular way of life; a specific set of disciplines and attitudes and many years of study, engaging not just the rational mind, but circuitpous, spiral layerings of knowing from the unconscious. Why? Because when two people come together to exchange the gift of story, they also exchange the gift or relationship and are handling a very potent force - archetypal energy. This energy changes us and transmits to us a recognizable integrity, endurance and responsibility.
Fig 6 - Bards - ancient and modern
Fig 7 - A Cantadora in action
Stories are studded with instructions which when correctly mined and loved, guide us through the complexities of life. To put it another way, they help us raise the "submerged archetype" and set the inner life into motion.
Today, stories are used as healing agents by psychologists and psychoanalysts. In the Jungian tradition, the patient uses dream material to discover the plots and themes that underpin their lives. They learn to read their physical and body sensations, looking for clues to their own unacknowledged stories and knowings. In doing so, they establish contact with the unconscious.
If appropriate, they may extend their work to interactive trancing and the use of active imagination, both tools to help map their psychic journey. They learn to investigate their personal storylines, enquiring deeply into the mythic substratum of tales that inform their lives. On identifying their guiding myths, their personal mythology, they then excavate the instructions they need for their current psychic development.
Among other methods in their support tool kit, they could use 'crafting' or craft making to assist them. Craft making involves the use of the eye, the hand and the imagination (which is inspired by or informed by the unconscious). The craft object fashioned could be a talisman - a ribbon stick, an altar, a personal sculpture, a mask, a doll, a dream catcher, a memory box, the possibilities are dictated by the lesson to be mastered and the materials at hand. Craft and art making commemorates the seasons of the soul - special significant milestones in one's journey through life, which if unnoticed, lie as sleepers in the psyche, waiting for the opportune moment to erupt and disrupt. When examined and and acknowledged, they unleash power and strength and help us live authentic lives.
In a world, where objects may be bought and sold in the market at a fraction of the real cost involved in making them, the process of craft making may seem like a selfish indulgence and a waste of time. To adopt this view is to sell oneself short. Craft, art and story making are sequences which acts as a marker of one's own understanding and as a map for those who come after us. They are ways of feeding the soul in a manner which guarantees restoration, re-envisioning and above all - healing.
URLS: (photo references)
1. 'Keeping the oral traditions alive in Minnesota: Black Master Storytellers Festival', Eliana Gramer and Larisa Peifer
2. Wampanoag Storyteller, Annawon Weedon
3. Storytelling across the Diaspora, Mmofra foundation
4. 'SuperEverything* merges hip-hop improvisation with cinematic storytelling', Kevin Holmes
5. 'In the tradition of live storytelling', Deepika Arwind, The Hindu
6. Traditional story teller images in the 'Gallery' of TimSheppard.co.uk