Why do we tell stories?

IMG_0080That’s easy – to entertain. To lull our children to sleep. To give people a way of occupying their minds on long plane journeys. And, of course, to make a living, if you happen to be the writer of that novel picked up in the airport bookshop.

It’s not as simple as that, though, is it? Because if you’re a writer, you can’t help writing, whether or not your stories ever get published. The urge to tell and listen to stories goes deep into our psyche and is common to all human societies, no matter how ancient.

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This was brought home to me forcefully – and wonderfully – on a recent visit to Arnhemland in the Northern Territories of Australia, a region of 37,000 square miles which has been returned by the Australian Government to its Aboriginal owners, the Yolngu. To visit this beautiful, wild (and very humid) landscape you need a special permit; or you book, as we did, with Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris, the only safari company allowed to operate there.

Our guide took us on boat rides through the Cooper Creek billabong, gliding through powder blue water lilies under dense sawpalm forests and swamp paperbarks, past fields of wild rice, landing us in places where we scrambled through thick grass and over stones to vast overhangs in the rock face, shelters frequented by Aborigines for thousands of years.

IMG_0082And wherever they stayed, there are rock paintings: figures of men and women, spirits, birds, wallabies, fish, serpents – shapes delineated not separately but on top of each other, the same surface used over and over again with older layers of yellow and terracotta-coloured ochre fading under the more recent (still in terms of hundreds of years!).

This is because the paintings weren’t made for their own sake: they were done to illustrate stories. The man (art was strictly a male thing) telling the story would draw as he spoke, as if the rock face were a blackboard – and the teaching image that evokes isn’t far from the truth. Adults and children may have enjoyed the stories but that wasn’t their primary purpose: as Roberts and Parker put it in their book Ancient Ochres: The Aboriginal Rock Paintings of Mount Borradaile, ‘Dreaming stories… explain and enshrine all patterns of living and behaviour, from codifying domestic and inter-clan socio-economic arrangements to delineating what is edible.’IMG_0083

A scary story about the Rainbow Serpent, for instance, woken from his sleep by the screaming of a hungry child, whom he promptly devours along with its mother and the rest of the clan, highlights two important lessons, according to our guide. First, when moving around the land gathering food, it’s good to be as quiet as possible; second, mothers need to give their children plants that will satisfy their hunger, not cause them to cry more (as was the mother’s mistake in the story).


The formidable Rainbow Serpent

Sadly, apart from a magnificent representation of the Rainbow Serpent on this overhang (clearly an important painting, since – uniquely in this area – it bore not a trace of other story tellers’ drawing over it), we found no illustrations of this particular legend. Though if there had been, we wouldn’t be allowed to see them anyway, since Aborigines are careful about giving away cultural secrets. They don’t mind our seeing these historic drawings because we don’t know the stories that go with them. Without the words, the images mean nothing.

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Wallabies

Well, they knew a thing or two, these ancient peoples. While literary critics down the ages argue over the ‘moral obligation’ question, whether the purpose of stories – children’s, especially – should be to foster virtue and good behaviour in their readers, for the Aborigines, there were no two ways about it. Stories carried a vital lesson about survival in their environment: listening well could make the difference between life and death.  

If that isn’t a ringing endorsement for the writer’s and storyteller’s art, I don’t know what is.