Oral Storytelling, Ancient Myths, and a Narrative Poem
The Magic of Oral Storytelling
Oral storytelling is an old, widespread, and much loved tradition in many cultures. The tradition appears to be experiencing a revival in some parts of the world, including North America. It's sometimes a performance art that involves interaction between the storyteller and the audience. At other times, it's a spontaneous communication within a small group of people. The event is used to entertain the listeners, to teach or reinforce information or cultural values, and to share memories. It can be very enjoyable for both children and adults.
An oral story is frequently presented as prose but may take the form of a poem or a song instead. A performance may include engaging acting or elements such as dance or music. Ideally, the storyteller presents his or her ideas in a way that stimulates the listeners to visualize or otherwise imagine the story in their own mind. The presentation and interpretation combine to create the story.
Myths and traditional stories are often shared orally. In this article I describe oral storytelling. I also describe some Ancient Greek myths that I used as the basis for a narrative poem told by an oral storyteller. The myths describe the beguiling creatures known as Sirens, a gifted musician named Orpheus, and the beautiful lyre music that protected sailors from entrapment by the Sirens.
According to the story in Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus was bound to a mast to prevent him from responding to the song of the Sirens, as shown on the vase above. His crew put beeswax in their ears so that they were unable to hear the Sirens.
Storytelling as a Performance Art
Some storytellers use only the power of their speaking voice to transmit their message. Others add movements and special effects created by their voice. Some use props as part of their presentation. Singing, chanting, music, and dancing are other methods used to convey an idea, information, or mood. Some storytellers include photos, paintings, or short videos as a background to their talk.
One of my former colleagues became an oral storyteller when he retired. He used only his voice to maintain his audience's interest, which he did very effectively. He was a drama teacher, which probably helped his performance. Additional elements in a performance can certainly be useful, but I think that it's important that they add to the story instead of distracting the listeners and weakening the overall effect.
The video below shows the wonderful potential of an oral storytelling performance that uses no props or additions beyond what the storyteller's body provides. The narrator's personality and acting skills and the audience participation create a very enjoyable experience. The video ends before the story is finished, but it's worth watching.
Diane Ferlatte Tells the Story of Brer Rabbit's Dance
Diane Ferlatte is an award-winning oral storyteller from California.
Performance Benefits and Disadvantages
Oral storytelling has both advantages and disadvantages compared to writing stories. Telling a story orally allows voice, facial expression, posture, and gesture to contribute to the tale in a way that written words can’t do. The immediacy of an oral presentation is missing in a written one that is read later. The narrator often receives feedback from their audience and can modify their presentation as they progress. The audience may even participate in the story or its creation. Sharing a tale orally can be a rich form of communication.
For people used to writing a story and then carefully editing their creation, telling a story orally could be daunting. During editing of written work, a storyteller can delete parts that seems inappropriate, unnecessary, or clumsy, correct errors, and add points that they forgot. Oral storytellers don't have this luxury, at least with respect to deleting what they said.
Storytellers that work with large audiences in a formal setting almost certainly rehearse their story before its presentation. During a performance it may be hard to compensate for mistakes or make adjustments due to audience reactions, however. An experienced storyteller may be able to deal with these situations creatively. They may even enjoy the challenge.
The Story of the Kildare Lurikeen (Leprechaun)
Michael R. Kasony-O'Malley is an oral storyteller, author, and educator from Ohio.
Traditions, Memories, and Connection
Storytelling enables people to keep the traditions, values, and memories of their culture alive. Written stories can do this, too, but oral ones allow the narrator and the audience to share memories and ideas as a group and in some cases for questions to be asked and answered.
Storytelling doesn't have to be done on a stage or in front of a large audience. It can be informal and spontaneous. Even two people—the storyteller and the listener—are enough for a storytelling session. I fondly remember the bedtime stories that my father told me. I loved the characters that he created and the adventures that they experienced.
In some cases, such as when an older person is sharing memories from the past with a younger relative, they may prefer to share it orally instead of writing it down. Sharing a story in oral form can provide a human connection that is missing or at least delayed in written work. It can sometimes be a healing process.
World Storytelling Day is held every year on March 20th. This date is the time of the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the autumn equinox in the Southern Hemisphere. The day is a celebration of the oral storytelling tradition.
Storytelling Festivals, Events, and Websites
Storytelling festivals, competitions, and conferences are held each year in North America as well as in other parts of the world. Links to the websites of three storytelling societies are given at the end of this article. The first site includes a calendar of events for the United States. The second includes similar information for Canada and the third for the UK. All of the sites contain useful information about storytelling.
Oral storytelling is a versatile art with many functions beyond entertainment. The stories that are told are not always fictional. On a recent visit to the National Storytelling Network site, I discovered articles about oral versions of African-American folklore and the use of storytelling to form a bridge between countries currently involved in a tense relationship. An additional article described the oral presentation of personal history by the residents in a seniors home. Telling the stories could be a good experience for the residents and could build a sense of community in the home. Another article described a story project in which cancer patients described their lives.
The Myth of the Sirens
In some parts of the world, myths are a frequent theme of oral stories. While the myths are not always viewed as literally true, they may still impart important truths or ideas about life to the listeners.
The tale told by the storyteller in my poem below is based very loosely on the Ancient Greek myth of the Sirens and the stories of Orpheus. The Sirens were beings that sang an irresistible song. Their music lured sailors to their death by shipwreck on the island (or islands) inhabited by the Sirens. There were often said to be three of the beings, but the reported number varies.
In classical art, Sirens are often depicted as beautiful women. In the time of the Ancient Greeks, however, they were said to either have the head of a woman and the body of a bird or the upper body of a woman (with or without wings) and the legs of a bird.
The Sirens were believed to have originally had the form of a woman. Their form was changed by a goddess either to enable them to complete a task by flying or as a punishment for a misdeed. As is often true in mythology, the stories that have survived vary in their details.
Orpheus, Jason, and the Argonauts
Orpheus was a legendary musician and poet who was said to produce exquisite and magical lyre music. The music charmed and calmed animals—including fierce ones—and protected humans from the Sirens. The latter abililty is highlighted in a myth from Ancient Greece described below. In some legends Sirens play lyres, too, but their music was no match for that of Orpheus.
Jason led a band of heroes called the Argonauts. The group went on a sea voyage to search for the Golden Fleece of a ram, which was a symbol of kingship. They travelled on a ship called the Argo. The term Argonauts means "Argo sailors". Although their story has been enhanced over the years, the basic ideas come from ancient times.
Jason was the rightful heir to a throne, but his uncle had claimed the throne instead. The uncle gave Jason the task of finding and delivering the Golden Fleece, believing that Jason would be killed during the difficult journey. After many adventures, however, Jason succeeded in his quest. He needed the help of a sorceress named Medea, though. She put a spell on the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, causing him to sleep. Jason took the fleece and used it to claim the throne.
During their voyage, Jason and the Argonauts encountered the Sirens. Luckily. Orpheus was on board. He played beautiful music on his lyre that drowned the song of the Sirens and kept the men safe.
Another story about Orpheus describes his visit to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice, who has died. He finds her and returns to the upper world in front of her. Against the order of the god Hades, he turns to look at Eurydice before she has fully emerged from the underworld. As a result, Orpheus loses his wife.
The lyre is a plucked string instrument that is handheld. The ancient lyre looked like a small, u-shaped harp. It was played in different cultures and in multiple historical periods. The number of strings varied. The lyre in my poem contains seven strings, as in the photo above.
Lyres are still played today, although they often have a modern design and are sometimes known as lyre harps. They are usually plucked but are sometimes bowed. Some musicans try to create historically accurate versions of lyres based on the remains and illustrations that have been discovered.
The sound of a lyre varies and depends on many factors, including the materials used to make the lyre, the instrument's size, and the tension of the strings. We can never know exactly what the lyre sounded like to Ancient Greeks, but in my poem I imagine a sound like that in the video below—rich and resonant.
The Sound of a Lyre
The Story of Huw and the Sirens
The path of ages on her face
and misted eyes for secrecy
In a gnarled voice of power
the storyteller spoke
The eager words rejoiced
at freedom to create,
released into the wild
to weave their fantasy
Dragons roared above
and flew with mighty wings
over caverns full of gold
and treasure from the past
The listeners looked in awe
at depths of gleaming jewels
They felt Huw's growing lust
and heat of dragon fire
Then a haunting melody
sung by eternal youth
echoed through the caves
to lure humanity
Bewitched by pulsing sounds,
compelled to seek their source,
Huw found the ocean shore
but saw no singer there
Pulled in by rising waves
and current of the song,
dragged down to depths of fear
and life without a breath
Sirens circled round their prey
before him and behind
and spun a web of sound
to trap him in their midst
A warrior at heart
Yet Huw could not respond
Conquered by the sound
from women of the deep
With deafening shrieks of hate
disguise of beauty shed,
their beaks and talons raised
to pierce his heart with spite
Then music of the lyre
played by an unseen hand
stayed the path of pain
and pushed his fear away
The music soared in joy
drowning raucous cries
replacing threads of woe
with gossamer of love
The melody of the strings
lifted Huw from grief,
returning empathy and breath
while carrying him to shore
The dragons slept in peace
and dreamt of ancient times
lulled by the lyre of care
and alchemy of sound
Huw took but seven jewels
in memory of the lyre
tempered greed with love
and left the rest untouched
The clan in celebration sang
of battles fought and won,
of dragon gold and sea,
of sirens and the lyre
The smell of roasting food
a feast for young and old
warm hearth and golden mead
good friends and company
The storyteller stopped
but still her tale lived on
with giddy dance and love
and laughter in the air
The words swirled round the room
continuing to create
She smiled at them with love
and called them to her care
The coffee shop restored,
dark screens of devices mute
The listeners slowly stirred
and clapped as she arose
The storyteller left
in company with words,
faint music at her side,
soft laughter in her wake
Each listener resolved
to hear her talk again
and enter other worlds
in the storyteller's dreams
Questions & Answers
What are the differences between oral and modern story telling?
Sometimes there are no differences. A modern story can be told orally. The effectiveness of the performance depends on the same factors involved in telling traditional stories. Most stories today are told in a written form, however, or in a visual form on television, in movies, or on the Internet.
The themes of modern written stories may sometimes be different from the themes of stories that are told orally. Some stories aren’t designed to be presented by voice, acting techniques, or props. Instead, the goal is to use written words to create thoughts or emotions in the reader’s mind. An oral presentation of the story may be less effective or even inappropriate.
© 2016 Linda Crampton