This post is about the importance of ritual openings and closings for storytelling; signals of other-worldliness, our willingness to leave disbelief and worries behind, and open up to the heart of story .
Storyteller: I’m going to tell you a story.
Storyteller: It’s a lie.
Storyteller: But not everything in it is false.
(Sudanese ritual opening in Livo (1986: 188)
Telling stories to a new group can be nerve-wracking. Inviting the audience in, as a traditional Sudanese teller might, encourages them to imaginatively participate in the story. Some new audiences haven’t been sure when I’ve come to the end of a story. Is it that I’m not slowing down enough, or lowering my voice to signal the end? I need to start confidently, too.
“Under the earth I go. Upon the oak leaf I stand. I ride the filly hat was never foaled and I carry the dead in my hand.” (Celtic ritual opening)
Such rituals give me a frame for stories from particular cultures.
In Storytelling: Process and practice, Livo and Reitz list many ritual openings and closings. These rituals are often quirky rhymes that signal the story world, where anything is possible. In the past I’ve used –
“We do not really mean … We do not really mean … That what we say is true.” (Ashanti ritual opening)
“Once there was and was not …” (Armenian beginning)
“ … And so they achieved their heart’s desire. May you thus achieve your heart’s desire.” (Accompanying ending)
“Now I’m ready to tell my story. And if you don’t listen, your ears will turn green and fall off.” (Beginning) “ … and I’m glad to see you still have your ears.” (Ending)
Folktales, themselves, usually have formulaic beginnings. As soon as we hear “Once upon a time … ” we’re ready to travel into that make-believe world. Idries Shah (1991:105) begins the tale, The Three Riddles , like this – “There was a time, and there was not a time, when the sky was green and the earth was a thick stew…”
There’s whimsy, too, in this opening to the The Three Little Pigs. “Once upon a time when pigs spoke rhyme, and monkeys chewed tobacco, and hens took snuff to make them tough, and the ducks went ‘Quack, quack, quacko!” (Haviland 1972: 22)
I met up with Scots Traveller & Storyteller Duncan Williamson several times in Scotland. When I saw him telling to children, he always involved the audience. Here he is playing the Mouth-Harp.
Connecting with his audience, was second nature to Duncan. ” This story I’m going to tell you was my granny’s favourite – I hope you enjoy it. Now I’m going to tell ‘The Taen-Awa’ the way my granny told it to me: if you find any fault in it then I can’t. “(Williamson 1995:45)
And off we go into the story! The teller takes the audience far away on a journey and must bring the listeners safely back to reality again; home safe and sound –
“There was the cradle and John looked in … there lying in the cradle was the bonniest wee baby … his blue eyes … lying smiling up at his mammy. ‘There Mary, there’s your true baby.” (Williamson 1995: 64)
“So everyone was pleased, and lived happily ever after.” (Steel 1983: 60)
“The wedding lasted from one Monday to the other Tuesday, and the whole land was in great joy, and if the strings of the fiddle hadn’t broken they would have been dancing yet! (Shah 1991: 228)
And lastly, here’s what we take away, when the stories are over and it’s time to leave – my favourite traditional closing from Armenia – “Three Apples fell from heaven. One for the teller, one for the listener, and one for the one who took it to heart.”
All text, except quotes, and photos by Meg. Story Twigs …! by Meg Philp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
CROWLEY, Daniel J. ‘The Art of Bahamian narration’ in MACDONALD, Margaret Read, ed. (1999) Traditional storytelling today: an international sourcebook. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn.
HAVILAND, Virginia (1972) The Fairy tale treasury. Ringwood, Vic.. Penguin Books Australia.
LIVO, Norma J. (&) REITZ, Sandra A. Storytelling : Process and practice. Littleton, Colorado. Libraries Unlimited, 1986.
SHAH, Idries (1991) World tales: the extraordinary coincidence of stories told in all times, in all places. London, Octagon Press.
STEEL, Flora Annie.(1983) Tales of the Punjab. New York, Greenwich House.
WILLIAMSON, Duncan (1995) The Broonie Silkies & Fairies: Traveller’s tales. Edinburgh. Canongate.