The Evolution of Storytelling: How we came to understand ourselves and our world
“Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. What is it about stories—what are their particularities—that enables them to work as they do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question, because human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both propose and foreclose.” — Arthur Frank, Letting Stories Breathe
Idries Shah remains one of the foremost contemporary authorities on stories, their function, value and dissemination. In 1979 he published a remarkable volume of 65 stories, entitled World Tales. These were collected from around the world – some from ancient sources, others from contemporary ones. Yet they all shared one common factor: each tale could be found in varying forms within the same framework across disparate cultures that appeared to have no connection with one another.
In his introduction to this collection he asks, “How can it be that the same story is found in Scotland and also in pre-Columbian America? Was the story of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really taken from Wales (where it has been found) to the ancient East; and, if so, by whom and when?”
Stories, he says, are a “form of culture that remains when nations, languages and faiths have long since died. There is an almost uncanny persistence and durability in the tale which cannot be accounted for in the present state of knowledge. Not only does it constantly appear in different incarnations which can be mapped – as the Tar-Baby story carried from Africa to America, and medieval Arabian stories from the Saracens in Sicily to the Italy of today – but, from time to time, remarkable collections are assembled and enjoy a phenomenal vogue: after which they lapse and are reborn, perhaps in another culture, perhaps centuries later: to delight, attract, thrill, captivate yet another audience.
“Such was the great Panchatantra, the Far Eastern collection of tales for the education of Indian princes; the Jataka Buddhist birth-stories believed to date back two and a half thousand years; the Thousand and One Nights, known as ‘The Mother of Tales.’ Later came the collections of Straparola,Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, and a dozen others which now form the very basis of the classical literature of Europe and Asia.”
He concludes that, “there is a certain basic fund of human fictions which recur, again and again, and never seem to lose their compelling attraction. Many traditional tales have a surface meaning (perhaps just a socially uplifting one) and a secondary, inner significance, which is rarely glimpsed consciously, but which nevertheless acts powerfully upon our minds.
“Working for 35 years among the written and oral sources of our world heritage in tales, one feels a truly living element in them which is startlingly evident when one isolates the ‘basic’ stories: the ones which tend to have travelled farthest, to have featured in the largest number of classical collections, to have inspired great writers of the past and present.”
With this in mind, we will look at the some of the stories we have touched upon in our exploration of the human journey, and what motivated them.
How did we come to tell stories?
“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Jonathan Haight The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
To understand where stories came from, we need to travel back at least 500,000 years in time, to long before the birth of our own species, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, which evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago.
Our earlier ancestor Homo erectus evolved about 1.5 million years ago. As the name implies, erectus was the first hominid to walk upright, leaving arms and hands free not only for carrying and toolmaking but also, importantly in this context, for making gestures. We know that the earliest portable representations of the human figure were created by H. erectus. It has been suggested that a small quartzite figurine from Morocco, known as Tan-Tan, dating from between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago and at least 99 percent naturally occurring in its shape and form, may well have been safeguarded by our hominid ancestors. Because of their emerging self-consciousness, they were able to recognize that it resembled the female form and hence was most likely infused with meaning that was of a magical or religious significance. Though also largely natural, a tiny piece of volcanic rock known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram,found in Israel’s Golan Heights, was deliberately modified to represent the female form by Homo Erectus somewhere between 800,000 years and 300,000 years ago.
Erectus travelled the world, from Southern Europe to China and Indonesia. Some scholars suggest they had sufficient skill to construct seaworthy crafts capable of carrying 20 people, the minimum required to found their island settlements. They were hunters and stone toolmakers. A large collection of shells, very similar to each other and dated at about 500,000 years old, appear to be their tools, some of which were engraved with geometric designs.
Evidence from the erectus settlements, such as at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, suggests not only that erectus controlled fire but that their settlements were planned. One area might be used for plant-food processing, another for animal-material processing, and yet another for communal life. We’ll never know exactly how these early hominids communicated, but it is obvious that they did. It is certain that they handed down experiences and knowledge, aided by facial gestures and vocal sounds. In this way, mimesis would eventually have led speech to emerge as the dominant mode of communication.
Scholars disagree as to whether Erectus had language; a sufficiently elaborate mimetic language may have sufficed, though Daniel Everett, professor of global studies at Bentley University, and author of How Language Began points out that, lacking a FOXP2 gene, they would not have been able to make the same range of sounds as we do. Still, “They had what it took to invent language – and language is not as hard as many linguists have led us to believe.“ He said. “Homo erectus spoke and invented the Model T Ford of language. We speak the Tesla form, but their Model T form was not a proto-language, it was a real language.”
Like us, homo erectus used fire – so they very likely were the first ancestors to gather around a fire, cook, eat – and share stories that passed on knowledge crucial to survival: stories related to hunting, and the spirit world.
Our early ancestors did not always have the ability to speak, however, let alone tell stories. When compared with other primates, our larynx – or voice box – lacks two elements that other primates have: a vocal membrane – small, ribbon-like extensions of the vocal cords – and air sacs. The absence of these tissues, according to researchers, resulted in a stable vocal source that was critical to the evolution of human speech.
In human infants, the larynx sits up high in the nasal cavity, so babies can drink and breathe at the same time. At around three months of age, the larynx descends lower in the throat, making choking more of a hazard but speech possible (the register of male voices lowers when the larynx drops again slightly during puberty).
Based on discoveries of ancient hyoid bones, which are the bones that provide support for the larynx and anchorage for the tongue and other muscles required for speaking, researchers believe that as long as 300,000 years ago our ancestors had the ability to speak as we do now.
No other primate has a larynx low enough to produce sounds as complex as those our ancient ancestors made, and as we do today. There are now roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world using an estimated 800-plus phonemes, the building blocks of language, all of which are available while infants are learning to select and use the sounds they will need to communicate in their own individual environment – i.e. those that their mother and their caregivers use.
Complex speech enabled cultural development, since it meant individuals could verbally share ideas and concepts. Neanderthals, whose hyoid and larynx is almost identical to those of early modern humans, also used symbolism and had what we would call religious ideas. They buried their dead with grave offerings, painted cave walls, wore ornaments and played music, so likely told stories too. However, Neanderthal speech is thought to have had fewer vowels and consonants due to the hampering shape of their nasal cavity, which was adapted for living in cold climates.
One hundred thousand years ago at Blombos Cave on the South African coast, one of humanity’s first workshops flourished. It processed a liquified ochre-rich mixture – used for multiple purposes, including religious, medicinal, and for group identification – and stored it in abalone shells. Production involved a multi-step process, starting with a recipe for mixing the ingredients before applying heat. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of the production toolkit. Ochre was used in prehistory for thousands of years, in Africa, the Middle East, Australia and in Europe. Given its longevity, we can only imagine that stories would have conveyed its importance from generation to generation and enabled knowledge of its preparation to be passed on. Through these stories, experiences would have been shared, describing not only why but what and how something is done, and importantly, what steps to avoid.
Sharing our lives through gossip
We have always wanted to share experiences, to learn from and about each other, to tell our friends and family the latest news. A good percentage of what reaches us through the media is, for want of another word, gossip: chat about those like or unlike us, their lucky breaks and their misadventures. The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar compared gossip to the grooming that primates engage in as a means of bonding; there is a sense of closer connection to those with whom we share spontaneous and often personal stories.
As anyone knows who has established residence in a new country or state – or even taken on a new job – local anecdotes, the frequent content of this kind of chatting, reveal potentially useful information about how a local culture and society operate. “Gossip allows you to test the waters – it enables you to know what community morality is,” says psychologist Maury Silver. “It makes it possible for a newcomer to probe the boundary lines of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.” Of course, people consciously trade information, converse on specific topics, or participate in negotiations, but social scientists have found that everyone is hardwired to pay attention to gossip, and to participate in it. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 65 percent to 80 percent of conversations are gossip. “We’re the descendants of people who were good at this,” said Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. “In prehistoric times, people who were fascinated by the lives of other people were more successful.” Silver and fellow psychologist John Sabini note that gossip essentially involves “codes of conduct and moral rules embedded in concrete stories”.
The First Stories
“The world we experience as ‘out there’ is actually a reconstruction of reality that is built inside our heads. It’s an act of creation by the storytelling brain.”
― Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better
Paleolithic people had stories to tell. From about 40,000 years ago, and for approximately the next 25,000 years — a period 12 times longer than the Common Era — they conveyed these through images painted on cave walls, carved on ivory tusks, engraved and etched on stones and shells, and did so, as far as we can tell, all over Europe, Asia and Siberia, and, to a lesser extent, Australia and Africa.
These images, whether depicted on rock surfaces or as three-dimensional figures, were almost certainly created by shaman – men and women who functioned as a channel of intercession between their community and the spirit world. As healers, diviners and savants, they would return from vision journeys not only with solutions and insights that would benefit individuals and the whole community, but with stories of their travels that would stimulate, heal and inspire group connection, cohesion, collaboration and purpose, and sometimes answer questions about the group’s origin and destiny.
We describe several sites in the Paleolithic section of this website and give ample evidence to show that behind the caves that held these images, and behind the images themselves, were stories.
Imagine the stories that accounted for the often almost inaccessible entrances to these ritual spaces, such as the one we quote from the paleontologist Herbert Kühn, from his book On the Track of Prehistoric Man.
Today, we know about sound waves, but back then echoes, reverberations and other auditory illusions may have inspired stories. As travelers, moving in small bands, approached a deeply hidden ritual site, imagine the tales they told each other to explain unfamiliar subterranean echoes (of clapping, stamping, drums and flutes) becoming louder and louder. Reflect on the fact that the 14,000-year-old image of “The Sorcerer” at Les Trois Frères, was deliberately created, “four meters above the floor in an apparently inaccessible position only to be reached by a secret corridor climbing upwards in a spiral,” and consider the impact and the story behind this enigmatic figure suspended above those who entered the space below. There would have been stories that explained natural events like earthquakes, meteor strikes, thunder and lightning; and stories relating to the power of the Sun, first harnessed to reflect the summer and winter solstices at Lascaux around 17,000 years ago.
As the scholar and Paleolithic archaeologist Alexander Marshak notes: “The storytelling skill, helped [Paleolithic man] to see and recognize process and change, to widen his references and comparisons, to ‘understand’ and to participate in them in storied terms, and it enabled him to tell and foretell them. One assumes, then, that the kind of stories a man tells . . . helps him to unify the extraordinary diverse phenomena and processes of his life; and since a story is an equation, a cognitive form for abstractly structuring and dealing with process and relation, the uses and complexities of the story form would change as the culture became more complex.”
Above Ground and Below: The ubiquitous structure of our first stories
As religious historian Geoffrey Parrinder said of the myth, “its inner truth was realized when the participant was transported into the realm of the sacred and eternal.” For the ancients, this transcendent capacity was perhaps more evident, since there was no division between the supernatural and natural – the supernatural was natural.
The structure of the cave: its arched roof, narrow passageways and deep caverns below were part of, and built into, Paleolithic people’s idea of, and belief in, a three-tiered cosmos. Unsurprisingly, given the length of human pre-history, this neurological underpinning is common to all human beings, so the interpretation of it is consistent: Along with our normal, everyday world, a dangerous Underworld and a limitless, light-filled, “heavenly” Overworld are envisaged in almost all cultures, from Paleolithic times to today.
Throughout the continents of America, Africa and Australia, as well as in Siberia and Central Asia, shamanic vision journeys tell of entering an underworld or experiencing supernatural flight to a spirit world above. The Tungus shamans of Central Asia descend to the underworld through a narrow hole to cross three streams, where they encounter the spirits. The South American Tapirap shamans change into birds and fly through the cosmos; the North American Inuit shamans transform from humans into birds and then fly. The shamans of Panama’s Cuna tribe send spirits back into the sky. The San of southern Africa believe in a world above, where the spirits reside, and another world underground or underwater, which is below our everyday world.
It meant that, once inside a cave, Paleolithic people would have experienced a profound and immediate connection with the spirit worlds above and below. The overall effect created was of a multi-sensory experience: “Through dancing, music, imitation of animal sounds and dramatic revelation of already existing paintings, vision seekers stocked their minds with emotionally highly charged mental images. The caves were alive with the sounds and visions of potent spirit animals,” say anthropologists, Lewis-Williams and David Pearce. Behind it all were the tales, memories and myths that inspired the images and motivated the group.
Many of our contemporary places of worship, with their domed ceilings and underground crypts, reflect the spaces within which humanity took the first steps in its search for a deeper understanding. This same cognitive pattern is evident in thousands of our stories — whether in Greek myths, in Christian prayers, in how the experiences of prophets and saints are described, and in the adventures of our modern popular heroes. The religious historian Mircea Eliade observed this and concluded that “Probably a large number of epic ‘subjects’ or motifs, as well as many characters, images, and clichés of epic literature, are, finally, of ecstatic origin, in the sense that they were borrowed from the narratives of shamans describing their journeys and adventures in the superhuman worlds.”
Recall that in Exodus – a word which, incidentally, is from the Greek Exodos, which literally means “the road out” (3:10) – Moses is sent by God on High to liberate the captured Israelites from Egypt and lead them out of enslavement to a promised land, “flowing with milk and honey”; he later had to go way up and then come way down from Mount Nebo on the top of Pisgah to present the Ten Commandments. The articles of religion for today’s Methodist and Protestant Churches — that’s an estimated 880 million adherents worldwide — reflect this same cognitive structure; they state that “Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.”
Stories Move Out of the Caves
The change in climate at the end of the Ice Age ushered in the Neolithic (New Stone) Era. As we describe in this section of the website, warmer weather meant that food supplies increased and populations grew, such that some form of hierarchy was perhaps inevitable. Shamans remained the key storytellers, though their position altered from that of a specialist facilitator who was part of an egalitarian group, to a more prestigious priestlike role, with control over the group’s experiences, beliefs and worldview. The problems changed, so the stories that explained them and embedded their solutions had to change too.
The shaman and elite chiefs were faced with a threefold problem that went something like this: how do we placate and honor the spirit world in this new and vast environment – after all, we don’t want a return to the Ice Age! And how do we avoid anarchic rebellions between individuals and groups now that the population has exponentially increased? And, most importantly, how do we maintain and secure our own position in society? Their insightful solution involved at least two stories: the first would emphasize the importance of the dead — as we know from early burial sites, people were already emotionally attached to those who had died and were concerned about the afterlife. The second would ensure that everyone unequivocally knew that their religious obligation was to participate in the construction of monumental stone structures within which the community, under the direction of shaman-priests and elite chiefs, would honor and connect with the dead and the spirit world. Thus the behavior of thousands was controlled. As the archeologist Professor Michael Parker Pearson pointed out when talking about Stonehenge, building these monumental structures required everyone “to pull together” in “an act of unification.” “It’s the labor that counts” says Pearson. “We are looking at an age when devotion was really important. This is just one of a whole series of spectacular earth-moving and stone-moving events that Neolithic people were not just capable of, they wanted to do it. I think that is the missing part of the equation: that is, if you have the will you can move mountains. And they clearly did.”
Behind all their effort were stories that propelled, motivated, and inspired this amazing period. We know this because these early farmers left a trail of monolithic structures in their wake, from the 11,000-year-old “first” temple, Göbekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey to Stonehenge in Britain which was finally completed about 4,500 years ago. Stories were carved on these giant megalithic structures, on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe and Nevali Çori, or represented in the looming bulls’ heads protruding out of the domicile walls at Çatalhöyük — and carried on from there. Images were transported along with their stories and the beliefs they enshrined. Symbols such as spirals — thought to represent the trance state —travelled to Malta and to the passage tombs of Gavrinis in France, Newgrange in Ireland and beyond.
Archeologist Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh writes:
“The great advantage of all this symbolic reference through physical artefacts was that, unlike speech, dance or ritual enactment, which is transient, the physical symbolism with which they surrounded themselves was always there, always reminding them, teaching their children. They had learned what the psychologist Merlin Donald (1991, 1998) has called ‘external symbolic storage’ …Above all, these ideas about their world were systematic, categorical, discriminating, ordered. Such a systematic and symbolically rich world-view was ideal for providing the cultural underpinning that could be shared by all those in the community, for they lived in and by and through the symbolic references in their settlements. And finally, such a systematic and readily symbolised world-view was infectious, readily communicated and easily learned by others who had the same cognitive skills and the same need to cope with their new way of life.”
We can only wonder at the stories that stimulated and maintained such devotion over more than 6,000 years and over such vast distances.
The age of massive stone monuments would eventually come to an end with the advent of metallurgy. Metal would make people think about new ways of interpreting the same age-old questions – who are we and where are we going? Stories would be modified accordingly.
The oral tale
“Bless me, Apollo, bless me, Artemis;
and greetings, all you girls!
Whenever any poor and homeless stranger
Comes here and asks you,
“Girls, who is to you the sweetest of all singers?
Which one gives you most pleasure?”
All of you must answer him,
“He is a blind man and he makes his home in rocky Chios;
all his songs will be the best forever.”
Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo 6th century BCE
For most of our human history storytelling was oral. Myths were spoken or sung by diverse storytellers who could select and modulate their narrative to best suit a given audience, emphasizing some aspects and ignoring others. In ancient Greece, for example, the aoidoi, or bards, created poems on traditional epic subjects when they performed; and at some point professional poetry reciters, known as rhapsodes or “stitchers of songs” would perform, stitching together a narrative of tales from ancient poets such as Homer or Hesiod. Sometimes accompanied musically by the lyre, their performances became part of the Panathenaic festivals, at which prizes were awarded; and inscriptions reveal that rhapsodes continued to perform through the third century AD.
The earliest of those myths most familiar to us are thought to stem from the Bronze Age Aegean civilizations that flourished for almost 2,000 years until about 1200 BCE. A disastrous period known as the Bronze Age Collapse followed in which, within 50 years, four major civilizations were destroyed. The Aegean islands were particularly hard hit. There the destruction was so severe it virtually obliterated any memories of the great Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. Things were so extreme that the survivors fled to the hills, their buildings destroyed, their culture, including their writing system and literacy, lost. They were left with, at best, a dreamlike memory of their past. It is from the ashes of this past that an oral tradition survived to give us the myths and legends of Ancient Greece – the gods, goddesses, heroes, monsters, and nymphs that continue to captivate our imagination and inspire our dreams today, more than 3,000 years later.
Such tales explained all that was unknown: the origins of the world, birth, death and natural phenomena like meteors, earthquakes, and the change of seasons. And they played a vital role in the transmission of cultural, historical, and mythological knowledge, while providing a primary means of entertainment, education, and preserving the collective memory of the community.
Performers had to rely on memory, as well as maintain fluency, flexibility and creativity, so, unsurprisingly, repeated phrases, stories or tropes were highly valued. In the 1960s The Singer of Tales by the American classicist Milman Parry was published posthumously by his student Albert B. Lord. Parry’s task was to establish whether Homer’s epic poems had oral roots. In the process of his research, he found that oral storytelling from every culture he studied had certain distinctive features which enabled the oral poet to compose or recite at the speed of speech.
Parry noted that oral poets had traditional ways of describing everything and everyone who might appear in a heroic story. They would use consistent epithets to describe characters, natural occurrences, or objects. We can see this in Homer’s Iliad, where the Dawn is “rosy-fingered,” Achilles is “swift of foot” even if he has not left his tent in days, Zeus is “cloud-gathering” even when the sky is clear; Greek ships remain swift despite having been stuck on a beach for years; elite female characters – mortals or goddesses – have white arms and well-braided hair. Because of the constraints of the epic meter, known as the dactylic hexameter, the poet would have these metrically-fitting phrases at his disposal when needed, and as a mnemonic aid to himself and his audiences.
Another traditional oral narrative technique that is prominent in the Iliad is the use of lists or catalogs. To evoke the massive scale of the war, for example, the poem reaches to encompass the world and gestures towards all the many people and events that are omitted from the narrative. For example, in Book 2, the poet laments his lack of ability to tell such a vast story:
“I could not tell nor name the multitude,
not even if I had ten tongues, ten mouths,
a voice that never broke, a heart of bronze …
I catalog only the captains and the ships they brought….
A very long, detailed list follows, describing numerous city states and the lives and deeds of their eminent captains who come to Troy in their many, many ships.
This brings us to what the classicist Emily Wilson describes in her recent translation of the Iliad as perhaps the most beautiful technique drawn from the oral poetic tradition—the extended simile. “Similes, like catalogs,” she says, “allow the narrative to contain far more worlds within itself than we might expect, including domestic activities in peacetime, vivid descriptions of animal behavior, and thrilling evocations of fire, snowstorms and winds. Often these images create a sense of shifting scales from small to vast or from the human to the divine.” When, for example, the Achaean troops rush to their ships:
Just like huge ocean waves on the Icarian Sea,
when East Wind and South Wind rush down together
from Father Zeus’s clouds to whip up the sea,
the whole assembly rippled, like a large grain field,
undulating under the fury of the storm,
as West Wind roars in with force, all ears of corn
ducking down under the power of the gusts—
that’s how the shouting men stampeded to their ships.
Comparisons frequently bring together an action in the heavens or the distant past and a present phenomenon familiar to the audience listening to the poem. Occurring throughout both Homeric epics, passages like these give the listener or reader a feeling of connection to others and to a cosmic order that author Angus Fletcher tells us “triggers our pituitary … prompting a rise in our blood oxytocin” even when reading silently and alone. The Iliad calls upon our courage and gives us the “heated strength to stare down death.”
One can imagine that audiences became spellbound, when the bard began with the invocation:
“Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath
Of great Achilles, son of Peleus,
which caused the Greeks immeasurable pain
and sent so many noble souls of Heroes
to Hades, and made men the spoils of dogs,
a banquet for the birds, and so the plan
of Zeus unfolded – starting with the conflict
between great Agamemnon, lord of men,
and glorious Achilles.”
In a manner similar to the experience of a young child when she hears “Once upon a time …” on hearing Homer’s words, our brains prepare, we are alert to experience what a story can provide, and by listening expose ourselves to the sound of the language, allowing it to communicate to the tonally sensitive areas of our brain through the inflections and higher harmonics of the voice.
Fletcher compares the Iliad’s opening lines with those of Genesis:
“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said Let there be light : and there was light.”
He notes that both “boom with God Voice.” However, “the God Voice of the Iliad is huge but human. It’s not a divinity aloof. It’s a vaster version of ourself, an ‘Almighty Heart’ that echoes our emotional response to the spectacle of war and death.”
In Homer, as in Greek mythology in general, the gods are seen to be intricately involved in human concerns; they come down to be part of the action, breed with humans, cause and often foretell what is to happen. Foreknowledge played a key role in Ancient Greek Theatre, too. Fletcher notes that putting the audience in “the position of foreknowledge stimulates a powerful sensation of cosmic irony In the ‘perspective taking network’ of our brain’s prefrontal cortex, giving us a God like experience of looking down on Oedipus’s mortal tragedy from above. …It reduces activity in our brain’s deep emotion zones, acting as a neural shock absorber against the traumatic events before us. And it also does something else: it primes us to increase our self-efficacy – we have more confidence in our ability to reach our goals, and of overcoming aspects of ourselves, for example fear, that stand in our way.“
The two extant Homeric epics (there were originally ten) both concern the great defining moment of Greek culture, the Trojan War. Whether or not this war really took place, or occurred as the Greeks narrate it, we don’t know. A war did take place at the time around a city that quite likely was Troy, and that city was utterly destroyed, but beyond that we know little. Nevertheless, we know that the Greeks saw the Trojan War as the first moment in history when they came together as one people with a common purpose. This unification, myth or not, gave the later Greeks a sense of national and cultural identity. If you spoke Greek and had the same epic values, it meant that you were the same as all the other Greek-speaking peoples.
The Greeks had no sacred text but, for them, these epics took on a stature equivalent to it. Like the foundational literature we speak of in the next section, the epic poems of Homer were among the first things they wrote down around 725 BCE. The poems created a world connecting the Greeks to a heroic past and became the center of their cultural tradition and the basis of their moral behavior. They embodied who they were. Children were taught Homer, not history, and so through myth, memory and poetry the Greeks created a unique identity and culture. They told of heroes who were twice as strong, powerful and steadfast as any normal person and this ideal became the foundation on which a Greek youth would base himself. These epics established a code of honor based on shame – where valor and the adherence to duty in the face of overwhelming odds were all important. Heroism is all the greater because a Greek will fight until the end; even though he loses, he will not lose his honor.
To these early Greeks actions were of paramount importance. The world was a place of conflict and difficulty where human value and meaning were measured by effective action. Two very important words are repeatedly used throughout Homer’s epics: honor (timé) and virtue or greatness (areté). The latter term is perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in Ancient Greece and means something like achieving, morally and otherwise, one’s greatest potential as a human being. The reward for great honor and virtue is fame (kleos), which is what guarantees meaning and value to one’s life. Dying without fame (akleos) is generally considered a disaster, and the warriors of the Homeric epics commit the most outrageous deeds to avoid dying in obscurity or infamy (witness Odysseus’s insistence on telling Polyphemos his true name, even though this will bring disaster on him and his men; or Hector insisting that he will face the enemy ahead of his soldiers, even though he expects that he will be killed, his son slain, and his wife Andromache taken captive.)
The Written Word
When the Heavens above did not exist
And earth beneath had not come into being –
There was Apsû, the first in order, their begetter,
And demiurge Tia-mat, who gave birth to them all;
They had mingled their waters together
Before meadow-land had coalesced and reed-bed was to be found –
When not one of the gods had been formed
Or had come into being, when no destinies had been decreed,
The gods were created within them:
Lah(mu and Lah(amu were formed and came into being….
The intersection of oral and written storytelling happened first in Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago, about 2,500 years before Homer was first written down. Originally scribes used this new technology only for book-keeping, recording inventory, or for the equivalent of today’s text messages. But once the first scribes in Ur realized that writing could be used to record their most valued epic stories, their excitement likely matched our own when portable computers came on the scene. They could hardly have predicted the transformations that would occur over time once oral and written technologies merged.
As we show in the Mesopotamia section of this website, once oral stories become written literature we no longer have to rely on speculation. We read from the clay tablets on which they wrote their myths, poetry and biographies, that the people of Babylon believed in a pantheon of gods; from the Enuma Elish we learn what their relationship was with these gods and how and why this changed over time. From the later Epic of Gilgamesh, we can glimpse their concerns and values, as we join the eponymous hero and delve into themes of heroism, friendship, sexuality, mortality and the search for immortality.
Martin Puchner, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, found, after decades of research, that, whenever societies develop writing, oral storytelling initially intersects with writing technologies to produce foundational texts. This happened in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in India and China, and in the more recent Olmec and Mayan cultures. These are the stories that identify a culture; tell of its members’ origin, their place in the world and their destiny. The Mesopotamians had The Enuma Elish, the Egyptians The Pyramid Texts, the Indians the Vedas; Jews the Torah, Christians the New Testament and the Mayans the Popol Vuh.
Major religions cycle and recycle the same scenarios as do the rest of the world’s storytellers. As we noted already on this site, while Jewish scholars, poets, and intellectuals were exiled in Babylon, bereft of king and temple, they began to collect and create from oral and written sources what we know today as the Old Testament. The oral traditions surrounding them included myths, memories and ideas from Persia, where Zoroastrianism flourished; from Greece; and from Mesopotamia, where the epic tales we mentioned, the Enuma Elish and The Epic of Gilgamesh, were in circulation.
Some of these tales would have been circulating orally and for at least 1,500 years prior to the time they were set down on papyrus by these Jewish scribes. Stories included the Story of the Flood, the stories of the Tower of Babel and of Sodom and Gomorrah; they included the story of Moses, the unifier of the Jews whose infancy bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the Akkadian king Sargon who unified Sumer. Both were found in a reed basket, and both were brought up by royal strangers.
Many of these traditions and cultures share stories based on a world long gone—a world in which people had very different lifestyles and presuppositions than do we. There were many virgin births in the ancient world. The Babylonian God Tammuz was the only son of the god Ea. His mother was a virgin, by the name of Ishtar. Horus of Ancient Egypt had the title of “Savior” and was born of the virgin Isis. Even Plato was said to be born of the union of a virgin and a god.
Presentism, or applying a contemporary meaning to the understanding of the peoples of the ancient world and believing in this misunderstanding, is seriously mistaken. The designation “Son of God,” was in wide general use in the world of two millennia ago, the title granted for people of great accomplishment, just as we now use metaphorically the term “star” for someone prominent. We know it is fanciful, since the lead actor in a film is not a real star and is not high above us, millions of light-years away. After Julius Caesar was posthumously made a god in 43 BCE, his son Octavius became another Son of God. The Emperor Qianlong of China was the “Son of Heaven.” Still today, Sai Baba, who died in India in 2011, is believed by millions to be The Son of God.
Once written down, epic tales can become a fixed narrative of events that people take literally, even though, for example, the two versions of Genesis or the three different versions of the Synoptic Gospels often contradict each other, and lead to other complications as well. As religious historian Geza Vermes points out in his book The Nativity – Passion – Resurrection, if Jesus is the long-expected Jewish Messiah, he had to be descended from the House of David through the paternal line – hardly possible if he is literally the Son of God, born of a virgin!
Until Christianity took over the Roman world in the late 4th century, foundational narratives that we might call religious were shared across cultures and time, as were metaphors, honorific titles and accolades. In the early Christian world we see a similar absorption of stories most familiar to the people to whom the “Good News” (The Gospels) was announced.
The Persian sun-god Mithra had a large following in Rome, particularly among the military. At midnight, the first moment of December 25th, the Mithraic temples would be lit up, with priests in white robes at the altars, and boys burning incense, much as we see in Roman Catholic churches at midnight on Christmas Eve in our own time. Mithra, his worshippers believed, had come from heaven to be born as man in order to redeem men from their sins, and he was born of a virgin on December 25th. Shepherds were the first to learn of his birth, just as shepherds are said (according to “Luke”, alone among the evangelists) to have been the first told of the birth of Jesus. At sunrise, the priests would announce: “The god is born.” Then would come rejoicing, followed by a meal representing the Last Supper which Mithra ate with his disciples before his ascension into heaven.
Of course, there are still sane voices who have an understanding of the truth to be found. The Rev. John Shelby Spong writes of the Gospel of John:
“The good news of the gospel, as John understands it, is not that you—a wretched, miserable, fallen sinner—have been rescued from your fate and saved from your deserved punishment by the invasive power of a supernatural, heroic God who came to your aid. Nowhere does John give credibility to the dreadful, guilt-producing and guilt-filled mantra that ‘Jesus died for my sins.’ There is rather an incredible new insight into the meaning of life. We are not fallen; we are simply incomplete.”
The foundational literature of a culture can become the holy writ or sacred texts of that community. In the 7th century CE the Prophet Muhammad noted this when he referred to both Jews and Christians as the “People of the Book,” meaning the people of the Abrahamic tradition who received revelations from God just as he received the revelations that would be included in the Qur’an.
From the traditional point of view, “God’s words” were “spoken” directly to Muhammad, as they had been to the Old Testament prophets before him. Today, through the lens of history, brain science and neuroscience we can understand this in a different way. As we write in God 4.0: the Nature of Higher Consciousness and the Experience Called “God,” “A more modern understanding of his revelations might be that at those times, Muhammad experienced a transcendent state of higher consciousness that enabled him to understand a Reality ‘beyond words.'” “I cannot recite” would then indicate that the experience is impossible to put into words. As a Messenger of Allah, he would recite as much as he could through allegory and metaphor. Like Jesus, Muhammad saw a way to transform both society and the individual, and, through imagery and the richness of Qur’anic Arabic, he could address both. But, as Karen Armstrong has emphasized, “There was no question of a neutral simplistic reading of the scripture. Every single image, statement, and verse in the Qur’an is called an ayat (‘sign,’ ‘symbol,’ ‘parable’), because we can speak of God only analogically.” Idries Shah points out that the Qur’an is to be experienced on many levels, “each one of which has a meaning in accordance with the capacity for understanding of the reader.”
Unlike factual text or legal documents, which benefit from being inscribed, a story once written down – even one rich in analogy and metaphor that holds within it multiple levels of meaning – can, over time, become believed to be literally true, offer “right” or “wrong” answers, and stipulate ways of thinking or belief as well as modes of behavior, many of which apply only to a particular time, culture and conditions.
One reason for this is that our brains want always to simplify – select what is easily grasped and reject the rest. We desperately seek – and inevitably find – a moral in a story, so we can say “Yes, understood – I got that! The lesson is …” and move on. When this happens, a tale loses its ability to enrich and extend our consciousness. Conversely, when we are familiar with an open-ended story it can, in a sense, remain with us, providing a different, richer understanding and worldview as we experience life, and encounter events of a similar structure. Some stories, particularly those selected by the late Idries Shah, are designed for just this purpose, and are in use by thousands of people today.
To quote Robert Ornstein again from our book God 4.0 – “You gotta believe” is a better motto, really, for a sports team than it is for a religious organization. Transcendence of ordinary consciousness is not this kind of belief but a discovery and a development inside our minds of a different kind of knowledge. It is not intellectual or emotional, either, but the development of a conscious insight. “You gotta perceive.”
By Sally Mallam
“The gift of story is wisdom”
― Will Storr, “The Science of Storytelling”
To refer back to our introduction – as Idries Shah concludes from over three decades of study, “specific stories survive because they hold an inner significance which is rarely glimpsed consciously, but which nevertheless acts powerfully upon our minds.”
We can consider this further in relation to the story of Moses. In another of Shah’s works, he expands on his point, using this story as an allegory to convey the journey of these kinds of stories both through time and psychologically within our minds – stories can, he says, be understood as a “Moses basket” where “The people, like the Nile, carried the basket. The people of understanding, like the Egyptian princess, could find and care for the content.”
With many tales of this genre, the characters’ interchanges and actions stand for our own thought processes. The 13th century Sufi Jellalluddin Rumi says in his famous work the Mathnavi, “People say that these are stories which happened long ago. But naming ‘Moses’ serves as an external appearance. Moses and Pharaoh are two of your entities.” And in his definitive work The Sufis, Shah confirms this, saying that “Moses” symbolizes “a guiding thought, which transforms something apparently inanimate and inert into something ‘as fragrant as musk’ — something with what might almost be called a life of its own.” And Rumi warns us to recognize and foster this perception: “Do not seek from within yourself, from your Moses, the needs of a Pharaoh.”
Again, stories were told, retold, changed and revised according to the time, the place, the people and the circumstances. The concern was never whether events were factually true – they did not represent history; that was never their function. The ancient world gave no importance to authorship or ownership of stories and had no conception of copyright. Oral stories were absorbed into the mythologies of different places and cultures, and versions of them, now written down, followed the same tradition. The Gospel of Mark, for example, was probably written to strengthen the faith of the early Greek Christians in the face of persecution. “Its themes of travel, conflict with supernatural foes, suffering, and secrecy resonate with Homer’s Odyssey and Greek romantic novels. Its focus on the character, identity, and death of a single individual reminds one of ancient biographies. Its dialogues, tragic outcome, and peculiar ending call to mind Greek drama,” says New Testament scholar Dennis R. MacDonald in “Early Christian Literature,” an article included in The Oxford Study Bible – Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, edited by Suggs, Sakenfeld and Mueller.
All three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, hold that there was a Creation in which God “created” it all. But these dicta were produced a millennium or more before the last 600 years of science, before the language and understanding to convey the insights behind them was available. They were never intended to be taken literally.
It is no matter, then, that there are two Creation stories. Many early Christian fathers understood their allegorical nature. Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd century wrote: “I believe that every man must hold these things for images under which a hidden sense is concealed.”
Maimonides (Moses Ben Maimon, 12th Century, Cordoba), one of the most celebrated Rabbis, agreed. He wrote the following about Genesis in his work The Guide for the Perplexed:
“We must not understand, or take in a literal sense, what is written in the book on the Creation, nor form of it the same ideas which are participated by the generality of mankind. Otherwise our ancient sages would not have so much recommended to us, to hide the real meaning of it, and not to lift the allegorical veil, which covers the truth contained there. When taken in its literal sense, the work gives the most absurd and most extravagant ideas of the Deity. ‘Whosoever should divine its true meaning ought to take great care in not divulging it.’ This is a maxim repeated to us by all our sages, principally concerning the understanding of the work of the six days.”
Eight centuries have passed since this great polymath wrote these words. It may be time for us – the generality of mankind – to learn more about this unique form of literature, its function and how to approach it today.
The Science of Storytelling
“Stories are actually a form of technology. They are tools that were designed by our ancestors to alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, kindle creativity, spark courage and meet a variety of other psychological challenges of being human,” ― Angus Fletcher, Wonderworks
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between experiencing something and reading or listening to something. When you read a word such as “lavender,” “cinnamon” or “soap,” not only the language-processing areas of your brain are activated, but also those devoted to dealing with smells. In his fascinating book Louder Than Words, psychologist Benjamin Bergen makes a convincing case that in many situations, “we understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes”. Studies that compare fMRI imaging during visual, motor, and linguistic tasks reveal similar brain activity when we perceive objects as when we imagine them; similar results are found when we mentally visualize a motor activity, such as shooting a basketball, and when we hear a description about that activity.
A study published in February 2012 at Emory University found that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, called the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a description of texture, but only if a metaphor is used. As science writer Annie Murphy Paul wrote in her essay “Your Brain on Fiction,” “while metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, phrases matched for meaning, like ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands’ did not.”
According to Will Storr, “Analysis of language revealed the extraordinary fact that we use around one metaphor, every ten seconds of speech or written word”. In his book The Science of Storytelling, he points out that “Neuroscientists are building a powerful case that metaphor is far more important to human cognition than has ever been imagined. Many argue it’s the fundamental way that brains understand abstract concepts, such as love, joy, society and economy. It’s simply not possible to comprehend these ideas in any useful sense, then, without attaching them to concepts that have physical properties: things that bloom and warm and stretch and shrink.”
We all experience the effects that stories can have on us: some scare, some inspire, some move us to nostalgia or sorrow, stir empathy, motivate us to action, and so on. Angus Fletcher, who is both a neuroscientist and professor of literature, suggests that stories have always had such purposes. He describes a story as “a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology.”
We’ve been a social species, whose survival has depended upon human cooperation, for hundreds of thousands of years. But the acceleration of socialization over the last 1,000 years, according to developmental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood, has left us with brains that are “exquisitely engineered to interact with other brains.”
Studies have shown that stories offer a unique opportunity to engage in “theory of mind” – our ability to understand and empathize with another’s mental state. Fletcher’s own experimental work includes a 2016 study into the psychological effects of “free indirect discourse,” a form of narrative that draws attention away from the narrator, instead slipping in and out of characters’ experiences and consciousness. The study found that readers of the latter tales not only offered more empathic responses to a follow-up questionnaire, they also showed a greater understanding of behaviors and moral choices they didn’t identify with. As Fletcher says: “Our brains grow by being able to enter into other minds and imagine ourselves as other people. …literature gives you direct access, it literally allows you to leap into the mind of Jane Austen or Homer or Maya Angelou etc., and just go.”
One of the most interesting details, shared in the graphic above, comes from a Princeton University Study, which demonstrated that the brain of a person telling a story and the brain of a person listening to it can synchronize. The link that is possible between a storyteller and their audience, what the paper describes as ‘speaker–listener neural coupling’, can be clearly seen in this image. The authors found that the greater the anticipatory speaker–listener coupling, the greater the understanding.
In his intriguing book Wonderworks Fletcher identifies 25 narrative “tools” or “inventions” that trigger traceable, evidenced neurological outcomes in the reader/listener/viewer. He points out that although the science is in its infancy, early findings reveal that “combined with the established areas of psychological and psychiatric research, they produce an intricate picture of how literature’s inventions can plug into different regions of our brain — the emotion centres of our amygdala, the imagination hubs of our default mode network, the spiritual nodes of our parietal lobe, the heart softeners of our empathy system, the Gods-Eye elevators of our prefrontal neurons, the pleasure injectors of our caudate nucleus, the psychedelic pathways of our visual cortex—to alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, sharpen intelligence, increase mental energy, kindle creativity, inspire confidence, and enrich our days with myriad other psychological benefits.”
We’re selecting here one invention the results of which reflect the findings that Ornstein presents in God 4.0. Fletcher calls this “The stretch” and describes it as follows:
“The taking of a regular pattern of plot or character or story world or narrative style or any other core component of story — and extending the pattern further. … The stretch is the invention at the root of all literary wonder: the marvel that comes from stretching regular objects into metaphors, the dazzle that comes from stretching regular rhythms of speech into poetic meters, and the awe that comes from stretching regular humans into heroes.
“And the stretch is also the invention at the root of the plot twist. The plot twist takes a story chain and stretches it one link further.…
“The stretch is a simple device, but its effects on our brain can be profound. It’s been linked in modern psychology labs to a shift of neural attention that flings our focus outward, decreasing activity in our parietal lobe — a brain region associated with mental representations of self. The result is that we quite literally feel the borders of our self dissolving, even to the point of “self annihilation. … or what the early 20th-century-founder of modern psychology, William James, described more vividly as a spiritual experience.”
“These experiences are the mystic mental states that sages from days immemorial have preached as the highest good of human life. And in the case of literature, at least, the good really exists. The stretch has been connected by modern neuroscientists to significant increases in both our generosity and our sense of personal well-being. Which is to say: fictional plot twists, metaphors, and heroic characters dispense a pair of factual benefits. By immersing our neural circuitry in the feelings of things bigger, they elevate our charity and our happiness, spiriting us closer to a scientific Shangri-la.”
We saw this when we looked briefly at Homer; we noted a similar experience evoked in audiences attending the theater in ancient Greece. And it is a key to foundational literature – where the wisest of storytellers, through imagery and the richness of their languages and through the multileveled structure of their stories, provide a beacon for those open to a new understanding of humanity’s evolutionary process and who might hope to see themselves as part of that transformation.
Back in 1972 in The Psychology of Consciousness, Robert Ornstein described pioneering studies of brain activation using an electroencephalograph (EEG). One study compared subjects’ brain activity while reading two types of written material: technical passages and folk tales. There was no change in the level of activity in the left hemisphere, but the right hemisphere was more activated while the subject was reading the stories than while reading the technical material. This finding was explained by considering the nature of the material. Technical material is almost exclusively logical. In stories, on the other hand, many things happen at once; the sense of a story emerges through a combination of style, plot, and evoked images and feelings. “Thus, it appears that language in the form of stories can stimulate activity of the right hemisphere” said Ornstein and added that “The storyteller himself is one of the most important elements in traditions, in using language to make an end run around the verbal intellect, to affect a mode of consciousness not reached by the normal verbal intellectual apparatus.”
The idea and implication that certain stories were designed to develop a higher perceptive capacity in us was introduced to the western reader by Idries Shah in the late 1960s. Ornstein, familiar with Shah’s work, recognized that the activation of the right hemisphere as found in EEG studies revealed neurobiological evidence of this. He pointed out at the time that “because we now lack a psychological framework for these nonlinear time experiences means not that they should be ignored entirely; but we must develop a new framework if we are to incorporate them into contemporary science.” Over the past two decades, neuroscientists have begun using additional devices to look inside our heads, as we experience all sort of things. By connecting their latest research with archeology, religious history and psychology, Ornstein was able to complete our understanding of this framework, which he describes in his final work, God 4.0, published posthumously in 2021. He describes the circumstances and what actually happens neurobiologically when our brains are activated each time we understand a problem, or understand it anew. Along with other processes, this instinctive brain reaction forms the foundation of the insight behind the “higher” perceptions referred to by Shah. It can be understood as a continuum from breaking through the mental barriers that constrain small daily insights, to breakthroughs in artistic and scientific creativity, and onwards to a transcendent understanding, the activation of a “second network of cognition.”
There is an irreplaceable corpus of teaching stories and narratives whose purpose is the precise development of this latent faculty – and it is latent in all of us. The material was selected by Idries Shah specifically for these times. It stands uniquely beyond entertainment – although its stories are entertaining – and beyond therapy – it operates when the person is balanced, straightforward and sincere. It has been described as an advanced psychology (i.e. an advanced study of the mind or soul) – since it offers a comprehensive curriculum through which this cognitive capacity becomes one’s own, running in parallel to our normal state of consciousness.
An alternative perspective on life develops, along with a more comprehensive understanding which results in actions being motivated more by an intuitive capacity than by the self-centered approach to action through normal conscious behavior.
Examples of these tales and narratives and more on their instrumental nature can be read in the two pieces that follow: A Unique form of Literature by Robert Ornstein and, of course, the piece that we also include here entitled The Teaching Story: Observations of the Folklore of our ‘Modern’ Thought written by Idries Shah.
For those interested, the works of Idries Shah referred to here are available from Amazon or through The Idries Shah Foundation. https://idriesshahfoundation.org. For works by Robert Ornstein please visit Amazon or https://robertornstein.com .