Have you ever gone camping? When you camp, you’re usually in a place where there isn’t wifi or cell reception, or even electricity. You have to figure out ways to entertain yourself that don’t involve movies, TV, or the internet. If you haven’t been in that situation, take a moment to imagine what you would do. You could take a walk and explore nature, read a book, or play a board or card game.
But what about when it gets dark? If you’ve been camping, you know that once it’s dark, you can’t really do any of those things easily. Instead, you might build a fire and take turns telling stories– stories about your past, characters you’ve made up, or even ghost stories.
If you’ve had this experience, then you know something about the topic of today’s episode. Today, we’re going to talk about how people entertained themselves, and learned, before there was electricity for things like lights, cellphones, and TVs. Before there were many books. And, in some cases, before there was even writing. Although humans have had writing for thousands of years, until the last few hundreds of year, most people in the world couldn’t even read. Books were also expensive and hard to find for a very long time, so even if you could read, you probably wouldn’t own a lot of books.
Instead, people told each other stories. People have probably been telling stories to each other for as long as they’ve been talking. Since humans have always lived in groups, the really good stories would be told over and over again. They would be passed down from parents or grandparents to children, generation after generation. And over time they would change. Each person who told the story might add their own details, while keeping the basic plot and characters in place. Every culture in the world has stories that are passed down orally, which means they are telling them by speaking and by memory. Some stories are written down later, but many never are.
Today we call this “oral tradition.” The “oral” part means it’s spoken–not written down– and the “tradition” part means it’s something that people pass down from generation to generation over a long time. But this is just a modern way of talking about something that people have been doing for tens of thousands of years.
We also just call it “storytelling.”
As you probably know, people still do this, any time someone tells a story from memory, without reading it from a book. Maybe it’s one that they’ve made up. Maybe they heard someone else tell it. Maybe their great-great-great- grandmother was the first to tell it, and it was so good, the family has been telling it to their children ever since.
Many religious stories were passed down as oral traditions for hundreds of years before being written down. Many people today still memorize and re-tell them, even though they’re written down. The Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, the Hindu Vedas – all of these religious teachings were passed down by people who memorized them and re-told them to the young in their families or communities. They wanted to keep the stories about their beliefs and morals alive.
Families have their own stories as well. Some families have stories about a great-grandparent or aunt or other ancestor who did something exciting or remarkable, and these stories might be passed down orally too.
Often, traditional stories would start out as real history. Imagine listening to a live Bedtime History podcast while sitting around a campfire! A war would be fought, or a king would rule wisely and make sacrifices for his people. People who lived through the actual events would tell their families about them. As time went on, the children would grow and tell the stories to their children and grandchildren.
Different storytellers would add things. They might change things in order to teach a lesson. A god might come into the story to help the wise king, or punish a bad ruler. A war might last ten years instead of two and start because of a quarrel between the gods. Magic and miracles would make their way in.
These stories would grow more exciting and fantastic over the years. There would be arguments between gods and people. Heroes would go on daring voyages and fight evil monsters. They would become stronger or larger than real-life people. They were a lot like the superheroes you find in comics or movies now. In fact, gods and heroes that started out in traditional stories do come up in modern superhero movies – Thor and Loki from the Marvel universe were originally Norse gods! Just like in the Marvel-universe, the same characters would come up again and again. They’d have their own habits and personalities. They would repeat the same mistakes. People would get to know them as if they were real.
But these stories didn’t just talk about history made by humans. Many traditional stories tell about the land and our planet as well. They tell people how to find food or water and survive where they live. Sometimes, stories talk about meteors, floods, and volcanic eruptions. Many of you have probably heard the story of Noah’s ark and the flood in the bible. This isn’t the only story about a flood though. The ancient Mesopotamians, who lived in what is now Iraq, had a story about a giant flood too. It’s part of the story of the hero-king Gilgamesh. The ancient Chinese, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and many other cultures also have flood stories.
Some traditional stories talk about specific natural events in Earth’s past. The Klamath people, a Native American tribe from the northwestern United States, have a story about how a specific mountain lake formed. The story tells about a god who lived under a mountain, who wanted to marry a woman from a nearby village. When she refused him, he began raging, throwing rocks and fire out of the mountain. Finally, another god helped the village people by pushing the mountain god and his fire back down under the ground, leaving a deep crater that became a lake.
Stories like this give us an idea about how long oral traditions can be passed down. The lake, which is in Oregon, is now called Crater Lake. Scientists have discovered that the eruption that created the lake happened over 7 thousand years ago. It hasn’t erupted again since, which means this story may have been passed down from generation to generation for a very long time!
Often, a person in a community had a job to memorize and tell stories. These storytellers, sometimes called bards or rhapsodes, did their best to make the stories interesting and exciting. Sometimes, they would dance, wear masks, act out the action, or clown around while telling the stories.
You may be wondering how on earth a storyteller could remember so many stories without writing them down. Today, we are very used to having things written down. Reading and writing are part of school, and we’re told they are very important skills. And they are. But in the past, before writing was invented, and then before most people could read, memory was just as important. People had to be able to remember a lot of information just to be able to survive – to find food and water, and make shelters. Stories helped them do this, and they also helped people learn about their culture’s history and beliefs.
Still, some stories that were passed down orally were very long! Many of these stories were told as poems. They are often called epic poems. For the most part, the stories that went into these poems weren’t told all at once, and one bard probably wouldn’t memorize all of them. But still, many did memorize poems as long as books.
Telling the stories as poems made them easier to memorize, because poems have a regular rhythm. Sometimes they were even set to music. They would also repeat certain lines over and over. For example, an epic poem might always describe the sunrise on a new day with a particular line, such as:
Dawn stretched her rosy fingers over the sea.
A line like this might be in several different stories, and be repeated many times in one story. All this would help others remember as well, so they could go on to tell the stories later.
Many stories have been collected and written down as epics. A Finnish epic poem called the Kalevala was told for hundreds of years before being written down in the 19th century. It tells the traditional Finnish myth of the creation of the earth and the life of the first man.
The most famous epics are probably the poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, from ancient Greece. The Iliad tells the story of a war the Greeks fought over a woman named Helen, who was said to be the most beautiful in the world. It focuses on the hero Achilles, who must put aside his argument with a friend in order to help win the war. The Odyssey tells the story of the journey another king, Odysseus, took to get home after the war. Both of these poems are hundreds of pages long.
But that’s nothing compared to the longest epic poem! That title goes to the Mahabharata, from India. It tells the story of a war between two royal families that took place in the 8th or 9th century BCE, and was written down in the 4th century BCE. Can you guess how long it was? The length of a poem is usually talked about in terms of number of lines. The Mahabharata is over one hundred thousand lines! As a book, that’s close to one thousand pages.
Every culture on Earth has its own set of stories that has been passed down over hundreds, if not thousands of years. The Australian Indigineous people have traditional stories about their coasts being flooded as the last ice age ended about 10 thousand years ago. Stories of a Swahili hero-king named Liyongo have survived since the middle ages. Many fairy tales that you likely know, like Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel come from German stories that were passed down orally for a long time before being written down. These are just a few examples – there are hundreds more!
Take a few minutes to think about someone important to you who’s lived a lot longer than you. Maybe a parent or grandparent, a neighbor or a teacher. Take some time soon to sit down with them and ask them to tell you a story about what things were like when they were young. You might ask about an important event that they lived through, or how they played when they were children, what their house was like or if they had any pets. You never know what you’ll learn! Maybe when you get older, you can tell your children or grandchildren these stories. Or, you might like them so much, you decide to write them down. You will be continuing the oral tradition, but more importantly, you will hear some wonderful stories and be entertained and learn from them, too!
Nunn, Patrick, 2018. The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World. Bloomsbury Sigma, London.