One arts marketing phrase I have always hated, and thankfully I seldom see it these days, is “…illustrates what it means to be human..” I often dislike the rationale that something tells a universal story as a justification for programming the classic works. The themes may be the same, but the context in which they are presented determines how easily people can relate to and receive the material. Sometimes new stories have to be told in order to remain relevant.
There is a pretty fascinating essay in Harpers about storytelling which illustrates how core stories get reframed to suit the needs of different times and cultures. People have been researching the linguistic DNA of stories like Red Riding Hood and have discovered some of them are incredibly old. Variations on a theme split and converge across geography. Other times, the same story persists relatively intact for a very, very long time. While the context of the stories differs in order to emphasis different cultural values and mores, there is an argument to be made for the commonality among humankind. (my emphasis)
The results provided a new resolution to decades of debate regarding the origins of “Little Red Riding Hood.” An ancient story preserved in oral traditions in rural France, Austria, and northern Italy was the archetype for the classic folktale familiar to most Westerners. On a separate limb of the tree, the story of the goats descended from an Aesopian tale dated to 400 ad. Those two narrative threads merged in Asia, along with other local tales, sometime in the seventeenth century to form “Tiger Grandmother.
Tehrani and Silva discovered that some had existed for far longer than previously known. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” for example, were not just a few hundred years old, as some scholars had proposed—they were more than 2,500 years old.
Another folktale, known as “The Smith and the Devil,” was astonishingly ancient. Multiple iterations—which vary greatly but typically involve a blacksmith outwitting a demon—have appeared throughout history across Europe and Asia, from India to Scandinavia, and occasionally in Africa and North America as well. “The Smith and the Devil” became part of Appalachian folklore, and it’s a likely forerunner of the legend of Faust. Tehrani and Silva’s research suggests that not only are these geographically disparate stories directly related—as opposed to evolving independently—but their common ancestor emerged around five thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age.
Anthropologist Jamie Tehrani says that when he is reading bedtime stories to his children, it occurs to him that the stories are older than the language he is using to relate them.
For those in the arts and cultural sector that don’t necessarily feel that the work they do is particularly valued in society, there is some anecdotal evidence that points to storytelling being something of core value in society. In 2014 anthropologists working with the nomadic hunter-gatherer Agta of the Philippines conducted a survey.
To their surprise, storytelling topped the list—it was even more prized than hunting skills and medicinal knowledge. When they asked nearly three hundred Agta which of their peers they would most like to live with, skilled storytellers were two times more likely to be selected than those without such talents, regardless of age, sex, and prior friendship. And when they asked the Agta to play resource allocation games, in which they could keep bags of rice or donate them to others, people from camps with talented storytellers were more generous, giving away more rice, and esteemed storytellers were themselves more likely to receive gifts. Most profoundly, Agta with a reputation as good storytellers were more reproductively successful: they had 0.5 more children, on average, than their peers.
“There is an adaptive advantage to storytelling,” says Migliano. “I think this work confirms that storytelling is important to communicate social norms and what is essential for hunter-gatherer survival.”