The History of Storytelling
It isn’t often that my love of history overlaps with that of photography, but when it came to teaching in my free facebook group Your Brand Story about telling stories for our business, and why it is powerful, I realised that here was a chance to expand on the history of stories with a blog. So here it is…
Some of my story memories
I remember being amazed when I studied Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey at A level, at how old the stories were, they had been told for centuries before being written down during Ancient Greek times. But also that they were still good stories, and that the comedy plays written then were still funny! Before that I had learnt about Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales, about a group of travellers telling each other stories every evening on their journey to pass the time. I like the idea of the medieval minstrel travelling around singing songs and telling stories wherever he went too.
Then of course we get the printing press and stories could be written down, printed, and far more people could have access to them. Once that master story-teller Shakespeare’s plays were printed, it allowed him to become famous, and still studied in schools today!
And I can escape into story books and find friends amongst the pages… (Some of my favourites from over the years are in the photo above).
People have always told stories, and listened to them. Stories entertained, taught lessons, and recorded what had happened.
Now we read and watch them as a form of escapism and entertainment, but they also connect us with each other and our past.
Early history of stories
Storytelling has been part of our culture worldwide for thousands of years, since long before recorded history. The earliest rock paintings date back to the prehistoric period in Europe, 30,000 years ago, and up to about 40,000 years ago in Australia. The images told stories, and/or helped storytellers to remember the story.
Stories were passed on orally for generations before they were ever written down.
Natural phenomena were explained through storytelling, ideas about the creation of the world, stories about various gods were told orally in several civilisations. The storytellers themselves were well regarded as leaders, teachers, healers, and entertainers. The ability to remember a story and re-tell it effectively and memorably was needed. Songs, poetry, dance and chants were used to tell stories as well as speaking them.
Stories emerged as a way to keep and remember what happened, rather than boring facts, preserving the emotions and sequences of the events. Histories and cultures, customs, good manners, morals, warnings, and more, were passed on through stories even when writing and literacy weren’t possible.
Think about nursery rhymes now – we don’t need a book of them to read to our children, we heard them so often when we were small, that we remember them to sing to our own children and so on through generations. Stories were passed on that way too.
The Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed around 3000BC, using pictures as one of the world’s first writing systems. They were used for religious documents and to line tombs with messages. Drawings were an effective way to tell stories.
There were other oral traditions around the world too, for example with the native American Indian tribes, and with the indiginous Aboriginal tribes in Australia, both sharing oral myths of their creation stories to make sense of their world, and teach lessons to children.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest story we know to have been written down. It is a poem from Ancient Mesopotamia, about a king of Urak, who reigned c.2100BC. Various versions and edited versions from older texts have been found, the oldest being tablets surviving from c.1800BC.
Early written stories
The Ancient Greeks (c.800BC-c.300BC) were the first known civilisation to develop writing as we know it now, and to use it for storytelling. With its advent, and something more suitable to write on, stories that had been passed on orally for thousands of years could be written down, copied, and shared over a much wider area – and passed down to us.
The Greek poet Homer’s origins are a bit of a mystery, since he lived before the Greeks started dating history with the start of the Olympic games in 776BC. But he has been dated to somewhere between 750BC all the way back to 1200BC when the Trojan War had occurred (the subject of the Iliad, followed by the Odyssey). The two poems contain early Greek history, myths and legends.
It seems to be generally thought that he lived around the 8th century BC, and put together stories that had been passed on orally for the four to five centuries since the Trojan War, into the two epic poems. They use methods such as repeating themes and phrases that indicate they were taken from an oral storytelling tradition, and/or were designed to be learnt and repeated orally.
Scholars also differ as to when the poems were written down – Homer himself may have dictated them, but possibly more likely they were passed on orally for a further couple of centuries, and written down first in the 6th century BC.
The poems may indeed be an amalgamation of various authors and storytellers passing the stories on, not by one single person!
Another early storyteller Aesop, seems to be slightly clearer! He lived in the 500sBC, though his fables also had far older oral origins. They were ethical tales, and proverbs, short stories with a meaning and lesson to them. Some had come from beyond the Greek culture, and have similarities with Buddist stories from India of the same period.
Aesop’s stories weren’t written down until the 200sBC – for three hundred years they were remembered and passed on from generation to generation. Then they were loved enough to be written down and reproduced, and we still know his Fables today.
The Bible’s Old Testament is another example of older orally told stories being put together. The different books of the Old Testament were written down at different times probably between 1200BC and 165BC, by different people, and all originally written in Hebrew. They were only put together not long before the birth of Jesus.
These stories were historical, telling the tales of the Jewish people that were passed on between generations, beginning with the creation myth and history that changed and passed into legend as it was retold over centuries and then more reliable, more recent history. So archaeology is able to confirm many of the events mentioned, though not all, and some events actually refer to a variety of real events that have amalgamated over time into a single event, or possibly for ease of retelling orally. They’re also thought to be edited versions of older stories which can explain why they don’t always fit the historical events we now know from archaeology.
A few of the Old Testament stories have parallels in the Ancient Mesopotamia text of the Epic of Gilgamesh mentioned earlier. The story of the flood for example, follows the Gilgamesh flood tale. They probably both drew their material from a common tradition about a flood in Mesopotamia.
The New Testament books were composed in the second half of the first century AD, but weren’t stories as such. The four gospels tell the story of Jesus, not as biographies, lessons or for entertainment, but to show his significance to early Christians. Plus a selection of letters written by early church leaders, answering questions and providing guidance to other early church communities.
The advent of the printing press is the next milestone, in Germany around 1440AD by the goldsmith Gutenberg. It built on a variety of other inventions, but it mechanised it all, and added moveable type, making it far quicker and cheaper to print books. (The Chinese had been printing books by 868AD during the Tang dynasty, with block printing). Gutenberg printed pamphlets and calendars, and one book: the Bible. Around 180 copies of it, around 60 on vellum, and the rest on paper – some of each still survive.
The press itself and the trade of printing with it spread from German to Italy, to Paris, and to England in 1476 by William Caxton.
Caxton printed over 100 books between 1476 and his death in 1492, the first major one of which was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1477. Plus others of Chaucer’s works too, English histories and religious books. He translated various manuscripts of stories into English, one of the biggest being Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ in 1485: stories of King Arthur. And in 1484 he published his translation of Aesop’s ‘Fables’. Incidentally he was also the first to commission woodcut illustrations of the stories to print in his books.
With mass printing, the correct authorship of work now became important.
Ideas as well as stories could spread quicker and easier through printed books – the works of Luther and Calvin in the early 1500s meant that the Protestant Revolution could happen so much quicker and be more widespread.
The first official newspaper appeared in 1605 in Strasbourg, and the idea quickly spread across Europe. Stories! Real and perhaps not so real even then!
Shakespeare (1564-1616) is probably the best known storyteller, through the continual publication as well as performances of his 37 plays.
He knew his audience, and knew how to entertain them. He understood that successful storytelling meant involving the audience and connecting with them. He made his stories memorable through helping his audience experience them, and his work was relatable to everyone.
This genre of storytelling came to England from France shortly after Shakespeare’s time, but went back to the oral storytelling tradition. They were written down after having been told for generations.
They became stories that were written for children, with a lesson or moral to them. For example the tale of Hansel and Gretel was meant to scare children off from wandering alone into the woods.
They show how myths, legends and stories could be used so effectively to teach, to explain, to record, by engaging their audience and connecting with them.
The Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) were German, and were the first to collect and publish a range of fairy tales from Germany, in two volumes of 1812 and 1815. Later editions (they got to 7 editions before their deaths) were edited and rewritten to appeal more to children, taking out much of the violence and sex! They included famous ones we know today, such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty.
As they collected their tales, they studied the origins of the stories. They believed that many of these fairy tales actually went all the way back thousands of years to the birth of the Indo-European language family, so further back than classical mythology.
Although it was thought that the Grimms were wrong, they were only writing down stories from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, recent research concurs with the Grimms. Some of their folk tales go back to that oral story telling tradition before the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Egyptians, even way before! So far back, that different cultures around the world know the same types of stories: they have developed from the same original story. Common ancestors of different cultures told the same stories.
Beauty and the Beast, and Rumplestiltskin have been dated to 4,000 years ago – so 2,000 BC. Jack and the Beanstalk is rooted in stories from before the split between Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split 5,000 years ago.
And a tale called The Smith and The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pack with the devil in return for supernatural abilities, is estimated to date back to 6,000 years ago – to the Bronze Age!! The basic plot is the same, in stories from Scandinavia, across Europe, and all the way to India.
I think that is amazing. Humans have indeed always told stories.
Back to my rough chronology of storytelling though. Technology breakthroughs led to photography in the early nineteenth century, and telling a story through a photograph or series of photos, and then later on in the century to printing them in books. Photography had a big impact on story-telling, allowing it to become visual again.
Then in the twentieth century came television, and films at the cinema – a modern way of gathering together to hear a story, that reflects the old oral storytelling tradition.
And now we also have the internet, and social media. It is even easier to write and tell stories now, and we can share them (and photos) with anyone online.
I hope you enjoyed that brief-ish history of storytelling. I loved doing the research, and am astounded at just how old many of them are.
The medium may have changed, but the core of the story, telling a sequence of events in an exciting way, has always been there. Stories still capture our attention, enthrall us, entertain us, and educate us.
…Read my next blog on The Power of Storytelling for our businesses here.
PS. If you’d like help with creating your brand, purchase my workbook: Create Your Brand Workbook: 20 Essential Steps to creating your beautiful stand-out brand.
Another workbook will follow soon all about using stories and storytelling in your business, let me know if you’re interested and I’ll tell you when it becomes available.
PPS. Are you in my free Facebook group Your Brand Story yet? For tips, chat and trainings on growing your brand, visibility and business, and getting better brand images. Click the photo to come over and join us:
The History of Storytelling