Oral Tradition of Storytelling: Definition, History & Examples

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  • 1:05 Definition of Oral…
  • 2:21 History of Oral Storytelling
  • 5:22 Examples
  • 6:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
As old as man himself, the oral tradition of storytelling is a hallmark element of the human experience all over the world. Explore the healing powers of story through a definition, discussion of history, and examples. Then, put your new expertise to the test with a quiz.

Definition of Oral Storytelling

''Once upon a time, there lived a man named Nob. He dwelt in a cave in an area of the world where his close neighbors also lived in caves. They woke with the sun and the birds, hunted in the forest, cooked together as a tribe at twilight, and slept with their wives and children at night. When he hunted, Nob felt the last pulse of the deer on its throat; he felt the last warmth of the sun on his back and wondered about his own eventual sunset. Nob could see his own beginning when he looked in the face of his youngest son, but he also saw his future in the lined face of the Old One.''

In the quick snapshot of this story, we see how Nob naturally views his life on a kind-of continuum. He sees his own story as having a past, present, and future, which is a shared characteristic of the human race. We simply think in terms of narrative and are so often obsessed with the question, 'What's going to happen next?'

At its essence, oral storytelling is a story spoken to an audience. Throughout history, it's taken many forms including songs, poetry, chants, dance, masks, and so on. A good story is at heart a seducer, and the storyteller and audience build a unique dialogue and interaction as they participate in the creation of living art. Traditionally speaking, a storyteller has been associated with a healer, a spiritual guide, a leader, a cultural secret keeper, an entertainer, and a jester; and the storyteller can either seek to console or amuse.

Dr. David Leeming, in his book Storytelling Encyclopedia: Historical, Cultural, and Multiethnic Approaches to Oral Traditions Around the World, asserts that storytelling and our obsession with narrative is a characteristic of every culture throughout all of time. The oral tradition of storytelling is expansive, inclusive, and one major hallmark of the human experience that transcends any time, cultural boundaries, and technological boundaries. Humans tell stories, and we somehow wouldn't be humans or connected to each other if we ceased this life-giving and culturally-affirming action.

History of Oral Storytelling

Since this manner of storytelling predates the printing press or even various other recordings of history, it's next to impossible to isolate the very first instance a storyteller gathered an audience. The oral tradition and its sheer pervasiveness throughout cultures defies one given starting point.

After cave paintings and what we know of archaic forms of story through ancestral dancing, we see how various myths emerged from all cultures. One of the common threads among these myths around the world is what we know of as archetype: a pattern, situation, character, or symbol that reoccurs in the human psyche. So, examples of this might be the damsel in distress, the hero with a fatal flaw, loyal retainers, the creature in the night, water as a symbol for change, and so on. Myths have laid the foundation for the archetypes we've come to expect somehow in every story.

Common myths around the world include the European myths of Zeus, Hera, and the other gods used to explain natural occurrences, such as drought or infertility. Indian myths include Vishnu, Siva, and Devi. We also see from American Indian myths evidence of sky gods and trickster higher beings.

Zeus and Hera

A key figure central to the dispersion of stories is the storyteller, and this figure has worn many faces and roles throughout history. Some cultures associate story with so much power that a storyteller is essentially a being with special spiritual insight and powers; this would be the equivalent of a medicine man or a healer in a tribe. Other storytellers were vagabonds, people of the road, who simply traveled around and collected stories like treasure.

Some of the best evidence we have for the existence of the oral tradition is the emphasis placed on storytelling as literature develops. At the beginning of the Indian epic, Mahabharata, Vyasa says, ''If you listen carefully, at the end, you'll be someone else.'' We also see a similar sentiment about the power of story in Irish-Celtic myths regarding the Tuatha de Danann, where a truly great story would speak different truths to different members of the audience depending on what they needed to hear.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance periods, the 'romance' emerged, which is also a form of archetype. This period included tales such as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Oral storytelling is the storytelling of the people, so as more storytellers had the ability to travel, it became popular to collect folklore and folktales. We see this in the works of the Brothers Grimm.

In our contemporary times, despite our accessibility to story through our e-readers and apps, many have tried to revitalize the tradition of oral storytelling by hosting conferences and storytelling clubs. These venues provide the space and audience for storytelling and celebrate an age-old tradition.

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