“But how do you remember it all?” It is the question I am asked most often about my craft. I have answered it in this column at least twice. With two different answers of course, both of which are true. Today as I sat down to write this months FTC for you I realised I am going to give you a third answer.
“What is it about Three?” Is one of the questions I am asked most often about my material: “Why does everything happen in threes”; “Why is three the magic number?”
The observant among you may well have put three and three together and realised the answers to these questions are linked.
The thing is, folk stories, stories that stay alive by being told, heard, remembered, and told again do have a survival mechanism that has evolved in them. It came to my attention last night when I was reading Jo a bedtime story. I had chosen the tale of the Goddess Inana and her descent in to the Underworld. This is one of the Sumerian stories that was found on 5,000 year old clay tablets from the dawn of writing. A deeply significant tale of power, sacrifice, loyalty and resurrection. Having performed it on tour nine years ago I am re-learning it for a zoom gig in September. It is around twenty minutes in total but I only have to learn about 7 minutes of it. Here’s the trick: every element is repeated at least three times, sometimes quite cleverly.
Before Inana descends in to the Underworld she gives her minster, Ninšubur, a set of very specific instructions concerning the ritual mourning she must perform, including some quite shocking procedures, and a richly metaphorical request for help she must make to Inana’s father and two grandfathers. The story follows Inana down while Ninšubur waits. After three days have passed and Inana has not returned, that specific sequence is reprised as Ninšubur puts on the dress of a servant, covers herself in ashes and performs the series of lacerations to her eyes, nose, ears (in public) and buttocks (in private) as directed previously. She then makes the requests to all three ancestors. Father Enki grants the wishes of Ninšubur and produces the necessary help so we don’t hear the request sequence again, but we don’t need to; we’ve heard it six times by now. We have only experienced the mourning ritual twice though. Don’t worry, it’s coming up again soon.
After Inana has been restored to life she comes back from the Underworld accompanied by the Anuna, who are described variously as the “Judges of the Underworld” and as “Demons”. They are not just up for a jolly in the land of light but have to maintain the cosmic balance by taking back someone to fill Inana’s place in the realm of the dead. The first person they encounter is of course Ninšubur, waiting patiently by the gate. The Anuna are about to take her below when Inana stops them: “This is my minister of fair words, She did not forget my instructions…” and continues to run through the litany of mourning that Ninšubur executed, lacerations both public and private, the visit to the houses of the three gods and concludes “She brought me back to life. How could I turn her over to you?”. So we hear the same words three times but in very different contexts, first as impending imperative, second as action and third as both praise and a defence before the Judges, each repetition carrying a different emotional charge.
Much as musicians listen out for departing audience whistling one of their melodies, storyteller’s know we have got something right when someone quotes an oft repeated line back at us. After I’ve told The Field of Genies I enjoy hearing “Who gave you permission to do that then?” echoing across festival fields; those who have heard The Padisha’s Daughter Who Married a Donkey Skull find themselves approaching taps with the words “What fountain is this?”; and any audience that has made me run around at the end of The Hedgehog And The Devil will get up to leave afterwards with the words “Off we go again then” on their lips.
And there you have it, at the risk of repeating myself, repetition within a story makes that story easier to remember and the stories that have triple repetition are more likely to be told because they are more easily remembered.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk