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Traditional Storytelling

Storytelling traditions vary all over the world, yet have many things in common. This section is an attempt to gather information on customs of the oral tradition world-wide. Many people today are rediscovering the pleasures of telling stories, after their culture has lost most of its traditional storytelling, yet cannot easily find out much about the countless millennia of oral traditions with all their wisdom and techniques. I hope this site will help you discover and appreciate something of the central role which traditional storytelling has played in most cultures, and in some places still does.

Your help will be welcome if you know or come across any facts or resources to add, current or historical. To begin with I'll be adding bits and pieces as I can, mainly from the perspective of musical commentators. Later on we'll have overviews and this page will split into various areas - this is a big subject!

One thing to bear in mind is that in many old traditions storytelling is synonymous with song, chant, music, or epic poetry, especially in the bardic traditions. Stories may be chanted or sung, along with musical accompaniment on a certain instrument. Therefore some who would be called folk musicians by foreign music enthusiasts are just as accurately called storytellers - their true roles are more profound, as their names reflect: bards, ashiks, jyrau, griots amongst many more. Their roles in fact are often as much spiritual teachers and exemplars, or healers, for which the stories and music are vehicles, as well as historians and tradition-bearers. For instance bakhshi, the term for bard used in central Asia, means a shaman / healer who uses music as a conduit to the world of the Spirit. You can see photos of some of the above people in the Gallery and hear some of them on world music recordings. Also see the Musical Instruments for Storytelling page, for descriptions and discussion.

For genuine initiates of these bardic disciplines, they draw directly on the conscious creative power of the Divine and transmit it through the words they speak and sing. This is not the same as merely 'being creative' or 'feeling inspired', and involves considerable spiritual training. Different cultures and religions have different ways of describing this, though in general the practice is highly secret. For example, for the West African culture of the Manding, who call this power nyama,

“It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe. While nyama molds nature into its many forms, the nyamakalaw (handlers of nyama) can shape nyama into art. The nyamakalaw spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills that are passed down from generation to generation. The nyamakalaw are the only people in Mande that can use magic and are often skilled as sorcerers, blacksmiths, leather workers or bards.”

The World of the Mande: History, Art and Ritual in the Mande Culture, and Caste Systems in Mande Society, Anthropology/Africana Studies 269 and Anthropology/Africana Studies 267, Prof. Mandy Bastian (Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA) 1997-1999

But this section isn't only for the bardic traditions of storytelling - all other less formal traditions are part of the picture too, from hearthside informal telling or street tellers engaging passers-by, to traditional dramatic presentations, so if you can offer any details at all send them to me, Tim Sheppard.

Many traditions have spread across neighbouring countries because of old patterns of migration, empires, or religion, so this site is organised by geography. An alphabetical list of countries covered so far is also provided, but for the full picture do read the regional introduction on each page.

Storytelling Traditions By Area:

Africa
Asia and Middle East
Australasia and Oceania
Europe
North America
South and Central America

Countries covered so far, in alphabetical order:

Albania
Armenia
Australia
Azerbaijan
Cambodia (Kampuchea)
China
Ethiopia
Finland
Gambia
Guinea
Herzegovina
Iceland
India
Iran
Japan
Jewish
Kazakhstan
Kenya
Ladakh
Laos
Mali
Mauritania
Mongolia
Montenegro
Morocco
New Zealand
Romania
Sakha Republic (Yakutia)
Senegal
Serbia (Yugoslavia)
South Africa
Swaziland
Tanzania
Thailand
Tibet
Turkey
Turkmenistan
Transylvania
Uganda
Vietnam

General Resources

The World of Storytelling, by Anne Pellowski.

This book is a prime source of information on storytelling traditions around the world, and includes a useful multilingual dictionary of terms. The revised second edition has extra material. The book covers types of storytelling, including bardic, folk, religious, theatrical, library, and campfire; styles of telling, including gesture and voice, musical accompaniment, use of pictures and objects, openings and closings; the training of storytellers, including inherited positions, apprenticeships, and informal training. All these elements are compared and contrasted in cultures around the world, to give an excellent overview with lots of detail.

'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994. [Now available in a new revised edition.]

A very large and thorough celebration, by many experts, of the musical traditions and styles of the world. As noted in the introduction above, storytelling traditions are often intimately bound up with music, so this is also a treasure trove of hard-to-find and up-to-date information on the keepers of the oral tradition worldwide.

'The Singer of Tales', Lord, Albert Bates. 2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00283-0 (paperback). Also Epic Singers and Oral Tradition, Lord, Albert Bates. Cornell University Press 1991. ISBN 0-8014-9717-5 (paperback).

Academic studies of epic-singers, bardic storytellers, and the nature of the oral tradition, covering the Kalevala, South Slavic, Homeric, British, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Central Asiatic and Balkan epics. You can view on-line five video clips of a lecture by Lord on the themes of Performance and Performer: The Role of Tradition in Oral Epic Song, along with detailed text extracts from The Singer of Tales and The Singer Resumes the Tale, here.

'Traditional Epics', Guida M. Jackson. OUP 1994.

A huge book covering 1400 epics from all over the world - definitely the most comprehensive reference available, though the entries are mainly confined to the history and summary of the epics themselves rather than the traditions of telling them. Includes useful geographical, chronological, and genre indices, plus a long bibliography.

See the Cultural Traditions of Storytelling section of my storytelling web-links page for sites giving information on various specific places.

There is one place in the West that you can usually see oral tradition-bearers from various cultures around the world. Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival, in south Wales in early July each year, makes an effort to bring such people who are still practising ancient traditions of storytelling. Ashiks, griots and many more have graced the lush green fields of Wales, itself once the home to great Bards. International storytelling festivals are springing up in various countries, but many showcase storytellers in the modern revival rather than from the ancient traditions.

© Tim Sheppard 2003-12. Last updated 19/10/12.

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