Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cloning the sacred

This past weekend was the 27th annual Sharing the Fire Storytelling Conference sponsored by the League for the Advancement of New England Storytellers. One of the keynote speakers, Valerie Tutson, spoke quite passionately about the need to give oral narrative the same weight as written narrative in schools. At one point in her speech she prefaced a telling of The Cowtail Switch by explaining that the version she tells is not the version she learned from her teacher, which is not the version commonly found in books which was written down without attribution though with good intent. The name of the original Liberian storyteller and the context in which it was told has been lost. I found this question of story context just as thought provoking as the main points of her keynote.

I began to wonder what happens to stories when:
  1. they are taken from the oral tradition, where they have tremendous meaning imparted by their cultural context
  2. they are written down and standardized in books
  3. those texts are stored in libraries, where the stories gain another kind of context and meaning, one of academia and (one would hope) cross-cultural wonder
  4. the stories are eventually relearned and retold by storytellers who (through no fault of their own) can't have the deeper cultural context
  5. the stories are then uploaded to the internet, to a teller's page, a school project or some other form
  6. and again, the stories are relearned, now by someone thousands of miles away with even less context. At that point the stories are being told entirely without their cultural context; they have an entirely different life than in point 1.
Some people have very strong opinions one way or another about telling stories outside of your own culture. For instance, some Native American storytellers believe that no one who is outside of their culture should tell Native American stories, to do so is a violation of sacred bonds. Other people believe that stories belong to everyone, regardless of cultural roots. I am somewhere in the middle on this one, but for the sake of this essay, let's take as a given that stories are told and retold, often outside of their original context. I'm interested in how they change and if their original intent can be maintained, particularly when a story is learned off of the internet where it is so easy to strip all context from it.

So, can the sacred experience of hearing a story, rich in cultural meaning, be cloned when the story is learned from the internet without any of the accompanying cultural meaning and context?

The obvious answer would appear to be "no" since deep context is so vitally important for the creation of the sacred. You need to know why this story in this moment told this way is sacred.


There is a school of thought that the act of creation - whether it's woodworking or gardening or cooking or storytelling - is in and of itself sacred. If these stories are told with integrity of intent, even if the teller doesn't know who the original teller was or when in the cycle of the year this story was told, if she tells the story with the intent of communicating something of herself and of the truth she finds in the story, I suspect the sacred nature of the story is retained. The sacred is present in her reverence for the story and audience, and in the audience's reception of the story. The telling and hearingn are the sacrament. I suspect its sacred nature is retained even more so if she says something like, "I learned this story from my teacher (or a book or the internet). I have made it my own and I'm giving it to you." The act of sharing this creative moment with her listeners empowers them to create themselves (double meaning intended). It invites them into the creative process, the sacred moment. It creates context and meaning, even if she learned the story from the internet.

Imagine a storyteller finds a story on a website. She reads it and is deeply moved by it, even though it isn't from her culture. She learns the story, puts her own spin on it, and tells it. At the performance some of her listeners are in turn deeply moved, maybe even a few descended from the same culture as the story. Those listeners in turn look the story up, discover their own deep connection to the story and begin to explore its meaning in their own lives. They create meaning. The act of telling and listening created the sacred space for self-discovery and shared creation.

Perhaps with the incredible array of story information available to us now context becomes more academic and intent can fill some of the void. We create new context by telling old stories with new audiences and doing so with genuine intent to share the world all of our human commonality.

While I deeply believe we should understand as much context we can for stories, I also know that the shared experience of storytelling is in and of itself a sacred moment. It is foolish to try to stop stories from changing; it is human nature to change what we find. Instead we can embrace these new stories and new moments, and strive towards a vision of shared creative experience. We may not be able to clone the sacred moments of the past, but we can create evolving sacred moments now and into the future.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
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1 comment:

  1. You have nailed it! Excellent - this really should evolve into a keynote some day.



True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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