Storytellers Throughout History

by Kendra Bonnett on February 3, 2012

Story #6 – Women’s Memoirs, StoryMap: The Neverending Writing PromptTM – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

I’ve become fascinated with storytelling, and as I think about it, I believe it’s an art form I come to naturally. Although cave art is at least 60,000 years old (the oldest evidence being some ochre paint found in a rock shelter in northern Australia), it’s the oral tradition that’s usually considered our earliest form of storytelling.

I’ve been telling stories almost since I could talk. I used to sit in the backseat of my parent’s car and entertain myself by telling stories.

Sometimes I drove my mother to the point of distraction with my incessant talking. Finally, she’d say…“Kendra, stop talking for 10 minutes.”

Rather than immediately obey, I’d have to ask, “Why?”

“Just because.” She always stopped short of adding, “…because I said so.” I think she used to say something like, “I just need you to be quiet for a little while.”

I’d usually shrug my shoulders and go off in search of someone else to talk with…someone else to wear out with my stories and questions.

1870 painting, The Boyhood of Raleigh, by John Everett Millais: A young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother listening to a sailor's tales.

1870 painting, The Boyhood of Raleigh, by John Everett Millais: A young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother listening to a sailor's tales.

So this morning I started thinking about the history of storytelling, and decided to make a list of examples. Here’s what I came up with. If any of you think of something I missed, please add it in the comments.

  • Aesop’s FablesWhile the true origin of these ancient Greek tales (c. 300 BCE) is in question, tradition attributes them to a slave storyteller named Aesop. Like “The Tortoise and the Hare,” most are animal stories with a strong moral message.
  • “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”–This is just one of the 1000 stories Scheherazade told to the Persian Sultan Shahryar in exchange for her life. She was clever because she never ended a night of storytelling by finishing her story. She left the sultan hanging, forcing him to grant her another day’s reprieve just so he could hear the rest of the story. This went on for 1001 nights, during which time Scheherazade gave birth to three sons and Shahryar fell in love and made her his queen. The stories were collected between the 8th and 12th century.
  • The Decameron–As Giovanni Boccaccio’s story goes, in mid-14th century Italy, at the height of The Black Death, a group of 10 young people escaped the dangers of plague-ridden Florence for an abandoned villa in the country and entertained themselves each evening by taking turns telling stories.
  • Canterbury TalesIn the late 14th century, possibly after being inspired by The Decameron, Geoffrey Chaucer framed a story around a group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket. The pilgrims told their tales as part of a storytelling contest.
  • The tradition of the bard–Can’t you picture him, lyre in hand, wandering the great hall in the castle of Richard the Lionheart or King Henry VIII singing his stories. The bards of old literally must have sung for their supper.
  • Painted story robes–We know that Native Americans have a long tradition of oral storytelling. The tribes on the Plains also depicted their stories on hides and buffalo robes…stories about spirits, bountiful hunts, inspirational leaders, great battles, and their travels.
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales–Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected the stories told in their native Germany, published their first volume of 86 stories in 1812; by the 7th edition (1857) they had amassed 211 stories. From the first, these stories were called children’s tales, and while considered fairly innocent today, the first edition was filled with so much violence and sexual innuendo, the brothers were forced to tame them down.
  • “The Ugly Duckling”–While the Danish author Hans Christian Anderson wrote everything from poetry and travel sketches to novels, we remember him for his many wonderful children’s stories. He published his first volume of Fairy Tales in 1835.
  • Ghost stories–I think of ghost stories, and I picture Scouts sitting around a campfire sharing their tales of monsters, murder and things that go bump in the night. Can’t you see young campers, positioning flashlights under their chins in order to cast ghoulish shadows on their faces, telling stories…eager to reach the point where they could shout, “Boo!”
  • Little Orphan Annie–Radio today pales by comparison with the richness of the music, variety, comedy and live news coverage coursing the airwaves of the early 20th-century. I envision Depression-era families huddled around the radio listening to The Shadow…“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Both Little Orphan Annie and The Shadow debuted in 1930.
  • Soap operas–And speaking of radio, The Guiding Light began in 1937 and migrated to television in 1952. It was a powerful beacon to generations of stories and dedicated listeners. My mother and grandmother almost never missed The Guiding Light, As The World Turns and The Edge of Night. I can still hear my grandmother saying, “You children be quiet and don’t bother me while I’m watching my stories.”
  • Family stories–Of all the stories I treasure, my favorites are the ones my mother used to tell me about her adventures growing up in a small town in Illinois during The Depression. I think it was the freedom she had to roam and explore that captivated me most. How I wanted to do some of the things she did. Two nights ago I was talking with my friend Jim. We were trading tales of our childhood. We talked until the early morning hours and ended by lamenting that kids today don’t have the freedom we had. “I’m glad I grew up when I did,” Jim said. I nodded. And then it hit me…it’s all relative, isn’t it. Life goes on. The world changes. But the stories continue.

Tell a Story Every Day

By now you know that I love to tell stories–both recounting my own experiences and inventing new ones. I’ve been doing this my entire life, but recently I’ve added a new twist. The first thing I do when I wake up is challenge my brain to get into story mode and prepare me for the day’s writing. I tell myself a story.

This time of the year, when it’s cold and I’m struggling to keep my barn warm with nothing but the heat of a big wood stove, I’m up at 5:30 stoking the fire. I load the stove around midnight so by 5:30 all that remain are embers. I end up nursing the fire each morning…a few squares of cardboard cut up from a discarded box, a sheet or two of used printer paper (my recycling program), some sticks of kindling (scraps of wood left over from remodeling my house) and a special dry log (one that’s been on the woodpile for at least a year). One by one, I add the ingredients, careful not to load it up too quickly and extinguish my flame. With each addition, the fire gets a little stronger. As I wait for the fire to blaze, I tell myself a story. This takes no more than 5 or 10 minutes.

For inspiration on those mornings when I have no stories rattling around in my head, I reach for my copy of StoryMap: The Neverending Story Prompt (TM) and look for a character or a place to get me started. It’s a great way to get your creative juices flowing.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sherrey Meyer February 8, 2012 at

Kendra, love the list of storytelling modes. Made me stop and think about how many of them I have actually experienced. :)

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