The art of storytelling

By S. K
Fri, 08, 19

These stories were passed from one generation to another, and no doubt a lot was added or subtracted during the process....


Children watching cartoons, TV programmes or playing games is a common sight nowadays. Even before they learn to speak, children are exposed to the adventures of Dora and other heroes who somehow keep saving cities or cruel queens’ told and retold in animated flicks.

But it was not always so. There was a time when children were regaled with stories for entertainment by the grandmothers and mothers, or by village elders or storytellers who would set shop under a tree with the villagers clustered around, hanging on to every word and expression of the storyteller.

These stories were passed from one generation to another, and no doubt a lot was added or subtracted during the process. Stories depended on a place’s culture, heroes and religion. Parents told stories from their own religion to impart morals to their children. The custom diminished in the west with the advent of the printing press - something the great Mughal King Akbar rejected as the books it produced were not beautiful enough. Before the invention of the printing press, handwritten books could be afforded only by the super rich. But after this great invention, common people were able to afford books, so learning spread and people became able to read stories themselves. Writers became revered as we all love a good yarn and reading culture developed.

A good story

Any story that makes us happy or sad, excited or depressed, and give us ‘sight beyond sight’ is worth reading. Reading is sheer delight, and stories should not be judged strictly on logic.

History of storytelling

Stories that we love - Aladin, Scherazade, The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Dastan-e-Amir Hamza - have been handed over from generation to generation. Their origins, however, are lost in the mist of time. We don’t even know how and when people started making stories. Perhaps it all started when a member of a community returned from some faraway land, or about how a villager killed a ferocious man-eater... who knows? All we can guess is that it could have been a heroic venture told around the village fire, or the story of some jinn, fairy or spirit told by grandmas to entertain kids during long winter nights that started the trend.

Before man learned to write, storytellers were a greatly sought after breed. A great storyteller was a real artist with great facial expressions and a well-modulated voice. He had to have a good memory, too, to retain old and new stories. Such a man was feted by nawabs, rajas, sultans and kings.

The oldest tales

In the history of storytelling, the oldest written tale is The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story was carved on stone pillars for all to see, which spread the story around very quickly, and soon spread from Mesopotamia to other parts of Europe and Asia.

Written about 1500 years before Homer’s Illiad, the story was discovered in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets,and tells of the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the hero king of Uruk, and his adventures. It was one of the most beloved stories of Mesopotamia. According to the tale, Gilgamesh is a handsome, athletic young King of Uruk city. His mother was the goddess Ninsun and his father the priest-king Lugalbanda, making Gilgamesh semi-divine. But Gilgamesh wasn’t popular among his people, and to learn why, you must, of course do some due diligence and read the story yourself.

Egypt is famous in the history of storytelling for the ancient Egyptians enjoyed storytelling as one of their favorite pastimes. Their stories are spun around the acts of the gods to great adventures and magical events. Among the most famous stories is a collection Tales of Wonder or King Cheops and the Magicians in which each of Khufu’s sons speaks in turn, telling their own tale for their father’s entertainment.

Native American cultures are rich in myths and legends that explain natural phenomena and the relationship between humans and the spirit world.

Native American cultures are numerous and diverse. Their most common myths are the creation myths that tell a story to explain how the earth was formed, and where humans and other beings came from. Others may include explanations about the sun, moon, constellations, specific animals, seasons, and weather. This is one of the ways that many tribes have kept, and continue to keep, their cultures alive; these stories are not told simply for entertainment, but as a way of preserving and transmitting the nation, tribe or band’s particular beliefs, history, customs, spirituality and traditional way of life.

Types of stories

Stories are of different kinds. Some are called “hero stories”; these are stories of people who lived at one time, and who were immortalized and remembered through these tales. Then there are “trickster stories”, stories about spirits who may be either helpful or dangerous, depending on the situation. There are also tales that are simply warnings; they warn against doing something that may harm in some way. Many of these tales have morals or some form of belief that is being taught. This is how the things were remembered.

Gods and goddesses in storytelling

Who knows Zeus and Co. really existed as super humans and became immortalised by the storytellers of that time? We have all grown up reading about the Titans and the Olympians, but other countries have their fair share of gods and goddesses and their stories. Then we have the Indian mythology with which even our young people are familiar with since they watch Bollywood. Hollywood movies have made the Norse stories popular; Loki and Thor, anyone? Norse mythology is the body of myths of the North Germanic peoples, stemming from Norse paganism and continuing after the Christianization of Scandinavia, and into the Scandinavian folklore of the modern period. Regardless of which country these stories belong to, we enjoy them all!

The importance of storytelling

Storytelling conserves the oral language from previous cultures, while introducing it to the language of the present generation. The benefits of storytelling are many and varied. Presenting ideas and thoughts in a pleasurable way, it helps in bringing people together, making them part of a warm and personal shared experience. It also institutes a positive attitude towards stories and books. Children and students get motivated to read on their own after having a good session of storytelling. The rich and varied language patterns presented to the listener in a satisfying format, gives the opportunity for people of all ages to interact on a personal level.

Some famous storytellers


Perhaps the world’s most talented storyteller was the legendary Persian Queen Scheherazade, of the Arabian Nights. After marrying a king with an unpleasant habit of marrying and killing a new wife every night, she began to tell her husband fantastic stories, ending each one on a cliffhanger so he would not kill her till he had heard the next instalment. By the time she finally finished her tales, the king had fallen in love with her and spared her life.

Her stories were passed down through centuries, were written down and are still read and told today. Remember Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sinbad and Aladdin and his magic lamp?

Grimm Brothers

Grimm’s Fairy Tales are full of wicked stepmothers, witches, demons, goblins and assorted monsters. Reflecting the hard and cruel life the people in Central Europe in 18th century, some of these stories collected mainly from Germany were so horrifying that religious leaders and educators forced the Grimm Brothers to modify the tales, removing the forbidden topics.

Today most of the Grimm Brothers tales have been further altered to remove any violence and gore. Some all time favorites are “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White”.

Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen of Denmark was said to have been an ugly child. As he had no friends, he was forced to play alone. His fantasy world and imagination was fuelled by books, which revolved about famous men who had risen out of poverty to fortune and fame. After his father’s death, Hans moved to Copenhagen at the age of 14. While he travelled around the country, he acted in plays, and told stories to children. He still had not made it big even after turning 30. When he penned down the tales that he had told the children, this ugly duckling became a swan of the literary world at that time. Some of his famous stories are The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, and The Princess and the Pea, which still delight children of all ages even today.

Charles Perrault’s stories

Charles Perrault’s lived in France in the 17th century. He wrote children’s fairy tales based on well-liked folk tales and was one of the first French authors who wrote mainly for children. Stories such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Tom Thumb,” and “Puss in Boots” are world famous.

Joel Chandler Harris

Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus Tales from southern United States is still told today for their pure entertainment value. Though the tales have created substantial controversy about racism, they will always remain popular with masses.

Aesop’s fables

Many children will recall being read the fables of Aesop as a child, but it’s not known if the famous Greek storyteller ever really existed. The first known collection ascribed to him appeared in the 4th century BC, but was destroyed by the 10th.

The Tales of Genji

One of the classic works of Japanese literature and sometimes described as the world’s first novel, The Tales of Genji was penned by a Japanese noblewoman called Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century. She may have written it chapter by chapter, reading each one to her circle of aristocratic women.

Homer’s Odyssey

Greece’s most famous storyteller is Homer, who wrote the epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. The works feature many of the characteristics of oral poetry, such as repeated formulaic metaphors, which formed the backbone of the Greek poetic tradition.

When storytelling culture started declining in the west, along came JK. Rowling.... Harry Potter series reacquainted children and adults to the magic of reading Odyssey

Keep reading!


“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” So begins The Divine Comedy, one of the world’s great works of literature, written by the Italian author Dante at the start of the 14th century.