A brief history of storytelling

A brief history of storytelling2003-11-0136Association Newsfalse

For as long as there have been languages and words people have told stories. Even before then, people told stories using images, signs, and sounds. Storytelling is the oldest form of narrative communication known to humans. Every human culture throughout history seems to create stories as a way of making sense of the world. Stories help us understand complexities. Storytelling and human emotions are closely linked from the time of infancy and strongly influence every aspect of our lives. We tell stories everyday. Most of them are short descriptions of daily events or the interesting and funny things we learn about from others.

The National Council of Teachers of English defines storytelling as "relating a tale to one or more listeners through voice and gestures." The joy of creating stories, or poems, singing ballads, reading, or listening to these stories also is a great pleasure of being human. When we read or listen to a story we instantly form mental images of the characters and actions in our mind. People in radio or television and playwrights go a step further in storytelling by physically setting the scenes. Presenting dramatic plays is an ancient form of storytelling that the Greeks and Chinese developed. In all kinds of storytelling, there is the story, the listener, and the teller. The teller is the person who makes the story an event but only if he or she can engage the listener. Telling a good story is more than just memorizing the words; the storyteller needs have an understanding and mastery of inflection to bring the words and characters to life.

Storytelling is used to: teach history, settle arguments, make sense of the world, satisfy a need for play and entertainment, honor supernatural forces, and record the actions and characteristics of ancestors for future generations. Storytelling is natural and easy and entertaining and energizing. Stories can enhance or change perceptions. Ideal stories are short and have a simple plot and are constructed with a beginning, middle, and end.

Many traditional stories are relevant to our lives today. They remind us of our history and heritage and often carry universal life messages that have withstood the test of time. Stories can tell us about a truth even if the story is fictional. Stories take us on journeys in our imagination and feeling. All people tell stories about the world around them. Some of those stories have come to us because one person told them to someone else, who told them to another person. When a story is passed down from generation to generation through storytelling it is known as oral history, preserved only in the memories of those who have heard the story. Storytelling keeps the present in touch with the past, reaffirms values, and passes on wisdom in an entertaining and memorable manner.

Stories began with humankind's special gift of imagination. The power of our imagination depends on the sophistication of the society in which we live. The more words we have at our disposal the better our imagination will work. Words are mental pictures we have learned to associate in our imagination with specific things and ideas, either by vocal sounds, writing, or sign language.

Ancient prehistoric drawings and paintings on cave walls or rocks of animals, people, and symbols were early forms of communicating and storytelling. This type of communicating evolved into pictographs and later ideographs such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics. They told of encounters with ancestors and of imaginary adventures. Anything people did not understand they rationalized with an invented story. Finally, around 5,000 years ago, the Sumerian tribes in southern Mesopotamia developed the first primitive phonetic sound writing called cuneiform, giving humankind a much greater ability to communicate and preserve the stories and ideas of the previous generations.

Eventually some imaginative storytellers invented supernatural beings (gods) that have special powers to control certain phenomena, to explain various things they did not understand or could not explain—such as thunder and lighting. Some storytellers, to make a greater impression on their audience, even claimed to have talked with their gods. This elevated them above others in their community and permitted them to exert greater influence on their fellow beings. This gave them a sense of power. By telling stories they soon realized that they could influence, dominate, and even frighten others.

Storytelling, both positive and negative, is one of the most powerful of all human capabilities. Some early Americans who could be called storytellers include: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and John Adams who created the United States' democratic philosophy. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Malcolm X, Black Elk, Cesar Estrada Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr. are a few examples of storytellers in our recent history. Plato was one of the greatest storytellers. Adolf Hitler was a prime storyteller of the 20th century and is a good example of the immense power that storytelling wields when paired with the total intolerance of any opposing ideas. Storytelling can motivate people to do wonderful good deeds or despicable evil deeds.

We see or hear storytelling everyday without realizing it. Companies spend billions of dollars each year on advertising, trying to communicate their stories and influence us to purchase their products. Governments use storytelling (propaganda) to arouse their citizens. The news media have been a powerful storytelling influence on people since the invention of the printing press. The telling of stories from person to person is an activity shared by people of all cultures, from the most primitive to the most highly civilized. However, as other forms of communication developed and gained popularity, oral storytelling as a community activity lost its importance, and in some cultures, unfortunately, disappeared altogether. Maybe poetry slam is the vehicle that again brings storytelling alive within today's culture.

The Association of College Unions International is a culture that has a rich history of storytellers. Who was your storyteller in your college union and student activities professional development experiences? What story have you shared today? Join us as we "share our stories" at ACUI's 84th annual conference, Feb. 27 to March 1 in Washington, D.C.

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Updated Nov. 9, 2012