The Power of Stories

Humans tell stories. We are all natural storytellers even if we never write a book or call ourselves writers or directors.

We even see patterns and create stories even when none exists. Watch this film.

Do you see a story? This film was used in the 1944 experiment of “Apparent Behavior” by Fritz Heider & Marianne Simmel. The film is essentially geometric figures moving about but we attach personality and conflict and story to the figures.

Not only are we natural storytellers we can’t help it. We turn things that aren’t stories into stories.

But why? Why do humans tell stories?

Before we had the technology to tell stories – let’s say the printing press or Netflix – stories were told and retold and travelled through centuries and across continents. Researchers have concluded some of our well-known fairy tales are up to 6000 years old.

The ancient roots of stories we are still telling must provide some clues to why we tell stories – and the same stories over and over. Some people believe we tell tales to teach us morals but I think it is more complicated. Every tale we discuss at the Brisbane Fairy Tale Ring has in some way changed the way I see the world.

Vasilisa the Beautiful was our tale last month. In this Russian tale, Vasilisa’s dying mother gives her a doll. When the child’s mean stepmother and step sisters give her onerous chores the doll helps out. When they send her on an errand to collect fire from the terrible Baba-Yaga, Vasilisa and the doll survive to destroy the step family and marry and thrive.

The words in the story that immediately resonated were; “Do not grieve and do not weep, but close your eyes and go to sleep. For morning is wiser than evening.”

When I have a rough day it is a relief to go to bed because tomorrow is another day. But on a deeper level, when we dream we grow. When we stop and meditate, or reflect and rest we understand and we are wiser.

As I study further, I understand that Baba-Yaga is no ugly wicked witch. She is the crone, the keeper of wisdom who understands the cycles of life and in fact, Vasilisa is on a journey of discovery about herself and the world.

Clarissa Estes has a wonderful chapter about this story in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves. She spends some time picking apart the tasks Baba-Yaga gives Vasilisa. For instance, Vasilia must sort mildewed corn from corn and poppy seeds from dirt – the sorting of this from that. The intuitive tasks we undertake to sort difference, to make decisions. To discriminate between what draws us and what we need. This has caused me moments of pause since I read it.

You could say most people don’t pick apart stories in such a way, but consider the social media discussion about Game of Thrones or the books clubs, or English classes. We spend time thinking about and talking about the stories in our culture. Because the ‘why’ this story and not another story and what it means to us is fun to talk about.

We also unconsciously absorb stories. They are part of who we are and they do things to us whether we know it or not.

So, I think stories can help us make sense of life. That is perhaps part of why we want stories.

Something Reynolds Price wrote inspires me: A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.

In trying to imagine having nowhere to live, I imagined that even sleeping rough you have stories in your life.

The Storyteller in my collection The Dark Poet is a man who understands the need for stories and the power of stories. He plucks people’s stories from them and heals people in his telling.

We all need stories.

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