Tag Archives: Storytelling

The Sun! The Sun! Ra, Ra, Ra!


You know those things that seem like a good idea at the time? “I’ll do a set about the sun” I said. “ The research will be easy” I said. “There’s Amaterazu from Japan, Apollo from Greece, Ra from Egypt, I’ll just read up on them, find one or two more, job done!” I said.

With a legendary character, say Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, there is a natural starting point with their birth and an obvious chronological order for the events of their life to unfold in, providing a generally consistent narrative thread. Their story mostly is presented as just that, all neatly packaged up in one place from beginning to end and helpfully titled with their name.

The problem with the Sun is that its birth is not the beginning of its own story but merely a passing event in the great story of creation from which the teller swiftly moves on. Other parts of their development are often tied in to the workings of the cosmos in a similar way and are found amongst the stories of their parents, creators or siblings. Sun goddesses are particularly beset with pushy Moon gods, usually their brother or husband, or both. This means that the Sun’s story is often scattered, like the shards of a broken pot in an archaeological site, through the episodes of a mythology.

In several countries their mythology is only preserved in a corpus of songs or poems which never actually tell the story as it was, but only allude to a now forgotten narrative in deliberately obscure ways. Here it goes beyond archaeology and becomes detective work. One is no longer trying to assemble fragments of broken pot but solve a mystery… using a cryptic crossword in a foreign language.

Even where scholars have gone before and collated the disparate elements it isn’t always easy going. Each author has their foibles. One will try to illustrate every deity by comparison to their Greek counterpart, another to the Egyptians, yet another with chapter and verse references to the bible. None of these are useful unless you have studied the mythology they are clearly obsessed with in as much detail as they have. In addition their various anecdotes, comparisons and academic diversions, though fascinating to the casual reader, have the same effect to the storyteller as if the ceramics expert, having glued the pot back together, smashed it up again and handed it to the historian in a bag full of other random bits of pot from completely different digs.

It should be simpler in Egypt. Ra is the creator of all things as well as being the sun and there is only one sun isn’t there? Maybe, but there would appear to be more than one spirit of the fiery orb. Horus also lays claim to the title, as does Osiris. Hathor, Sekhmet and Bast are just three of the goddesses that go by the name “The Eye Of Ra” which makes them the sun too. It seems that most cities or areas had their own divine wrangler of the heavenly yellow orb and to avoid (or settle) conflict a fair number of them were absorbed in to the official versions of how things were. The end result of this is that Hathor, Horus and several others work with Ra as specialists in a sprawling department of solar affairs. There are so many of them that they dispense with the traditional chariot and use a barge to get across the sky. Horus and Sekhmet handle security while Osiris takes over completely for the night shift as they make their way through an underworld full of giant snakes hell bent on having them as hot, hydrogen flavoured snacks. Poor Ra. “I’ll create a world” he said, “I’ll be the sun” he said. I expect it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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Filed under Sun, Sun goddesses and gods, Uncategorized

Thoughts From The Road


I’m just back off tour. As with any journey there are some things that stick in ones mind. The colour draining from the face of the landlord when he realised he had completely forgotten that I was coming and had done no publicity at all. Thankfully I had, and a good turn out of old friends and internet contacts saved the night.


One thing that particularly made an impression on me this time was the extraordinary fact that the person who talks most during a performance is the one who is keenest to tell me how much they enjoyed it. How they enjoyed it when I could barely hear myself over their almost constant stream of interjections I don’t know, I’m all for a bit of interaction, its part of what keeps the show fresh and I often incorporate a good heckle into later performances, but some parts of stories require the audience to be absorbed in the narrative which is hard when someone won’t just be quiet for a couple of minutes. I suppose he was just excited by the newness of the experience, caught up in the moment and in a way I should be glad: Mr. Talky is at least engaging with the performance. At the far end of the bar there’s a couple of blokes who are just having a conversation. One has his back to me, he has consciously decided he is not going to acknowledge that something different is happening in his local. I do sympathise, I have talked the landlord in to breaking convention and booking some storytelling. The landlord has no real idea what it is going to be like. Mr Chatty and his pal have come down for a drink and a chat like they always do, it must be strange for them to find me orating away in the corner of what is practically their living room. It is not a theatre after all, it’s a pub with the bar right there in front of me. I’m pushing the boundaries of performance, we’re back in to pre-Shakesperian times. It’s not that there are no conventions but that there are conflicting conventions and it’s my job to unify them, and the audience. Pretty much all the seated customers are listening intently, the two guys on a table up by the end of the bar amaze me as they are right next to Mr. Chatty but keep their eyes on me the whole time, following every word and neither give up and fall in to talking themselves nor offer Mr.Chatty the opportunity to ‘step outside’. Occasional elements of the a story spark some memory or in-joke and suddenly the English Teacher sitting at this end of the bar is having a conversation with Mr. Talky across twelve feet of oak and beer pumps which makes it impossible for Two Excellent Beards to hear anymore so they start talking too, and I am now using my best theatrical projection to continue the story for the twenty odd people who are sitting nearest to me (and the two guys up by Mr.Chatty who are still somehow unfazed, though each wearing a look of slightly more intense concentration). Usually the assorted talkers do go quiet for a bit here and there, as a room full of hardened drinkers are slowly charmed by the poetry of the Finnish Kalevala or get drawn in bit by bit to the exploits of the Norse Gods. Mr. Talky has momentarily over-ridden his mouth and even Mr. Chatty down the end falls silent and looks over his shoulder, won over by a finely woven web of words or the spell of an ancient adventure cast anew.

Shows where the audience have self-selected and especially where they have paid as well are much easier and often more fun as I can play with the stories a little more when the audience are already with me. Nevertheless it is on the difficult pub gigs where I have to win the customers over and make them into an audience that I know I am really doing my job, not just preaching to the converted, but taking the stories to a new audience, giving the folk back what a fast paced, modern, consumerist culture has taken from them. I hope I stick in their mind as much as they do in mine.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Cheers!


I’ve got a 40 pint bucket of a yeasty sugar mix bubbling gently in my office. If all goes well it will transform over the next month in to 40 pints of cheap but very drinkable beer. The best thing about it is that I can honestly say that it is part of my research for work. A new year brings a new tour, “The Nectar Of The Gods”, in which I shall be looking at the place taken in mythology by the fermentation of alcoholic beverages.

My old favourites the Norse Gods have a couple of adventures on the subject. In one, the truce between the Aesir, the gods of Asgard, and the Vanir, the ‘shining ones from beyond’ is sealed by all of these divine beings spitting in to a cauldron. Odin makes Kvasir, a man of great wisdom, from the resultant holy goo and sends him off in to the world to do good. Two dwarves kill him, mix honey with his blood and brew a sublime mead that can bestow a magical ability to speak with great skill and weave words together in rhythm and rhyme.
The giant Suttung steals the three cauldrons, putting them under guard of his daughter Gunlod in a cave deep under a mountain. Odin then embarks on a long and arduous journey to retrieve the Mead Of Poetry for the gods. In another Norse tale there is no ale for a feast and no cauldron big enough to brew it so Thor is despatched to the land of the giants to fetch an appropriate brewing vat.

The theme of not having the necessary equipment seems common in the North. The Finnish epic “The Kalevala” contains a section in which the wedding beer will not start its fermentation. It appears they know about barley, hops and water but not yeast. A magic virgin despatches a squirrel, a marten and a bee on quests to bring back pine cones, bear spittle, and honey respectively. Even when they finally get the bubbles to rise the beer itself refuses to have a beneficial effect unless someone sings about how marvellous it is.

In the cuniform tablets of the ancient Sumerians we find a hymn to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, which also contains the full recipe and instructions. Similarly, in the epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu comes to Uruk it is not the eating of bread that civilises him but the drinking of beer. No story that I have come across recounts the amazing discovery of leavening bread with yeast. Despite all the associations we, as modern people, have with grain goddesses, there are relatively few deities of bread and apparently no existing recipes from the earliest writings. It is also an interesting point that the instigators of agriculture were not growing wheat but barley. It is not surprising then, that some archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the driving force behind the spread of agriculture was not food supply but the discovery of the delights of beer! Certainly the mythological record accords far more importance to beer than bread.

The journey into the origins of the myths about beer has lead me to the possibility that the amber nectar may be behind the greatest shift in human society we have yet experienced: the move from nomadic hunting and gathering to a settled agrarian society with cities and all that they bring. With my foaming bucket of barley and hops I am following in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors (except for the pinecones and bear spit), and I look forward to a very civilised March before I head off on tour in April, May and June.

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To Sleep, Perchance To Dream


I’m quite visual as storytellers go. I stand up to do my tellings and move about quite a bit using hand gestures and even elements of mime to emphasise or elucidate a point. Photographers are always annoyed because all they get are a series of vaguely orange blurs. Nevertheless I have always had the occasional member of the audience who likes to listen without the aid of their eyes. These rare individuals will sit back, often stretching out their legs, hands folded over midriff, eyes closed, chin on chest, and let their imaginations provide the pictures. Whilst appearing to be asleep they are in fact the person in the room who is most deeply involved in the story.

Our ability to translate the words we hear in to pictures projected on some figmental screen in the virtual cinema of our occipital lobes is the very root of imagination. It is quite literally where dreams are made. Nowadays we are rather inclined to underuse this phenomenal effect, opting instead for a continuous feed of external images through magazines, televisions, computers and smart phones. I think this is a shame as our inner cinematographers, set designers and artists are all quite exceptional at their jobs if given a chance.

As part of a workshop I ran for Poole museum service recently I used the following exercise. Having previously handed out some stories for the participants to read through a few times I asked them to sit in a comfortable position, relax and close their eyes. I then asked them to bring to mind a picture that they had in their head from the story. I went to each one in turn and asked them, with eyes sill closed, to tell the rest of us what they saw in their mental picture. After a general description I asked them to zoom in on one part or item in their scene and relate this detail. The results were wonderful. The closer they went, the more they saw. Textures and colours sprang to life as they turned their attention to them. “A gateway” became “An arch of carefully chiseled, yellow stone with the iron spikes of a raised portcullis sticking through a slot in the roof and the names of the guards scratched in to the wall”. Try it for yourself sometime, you don’t have to speak the words, just have a good look in to a picture you have in your head and see how high resolution it is.

Of course, now and again, the person at my performance with their eyes closed is just very tired. Sometimes so tired they actually are asleep. It doesn’t happen often but when it does this is fine too. For many people storytelling is associated with bedtime. The whole point of storytelling is to transport the listener to another plane of existence, to move them beyond the mundane world to a limnal place on the borders of the land of dreams, once in a while you are bound to lose one over the edge. How often do we give ourselves the chance to drift gently over Lake Slumber into the Land Of Nod with our minds eye being fed a stream of fantastic images via our ears? In fact I quite like it if the occasional audient nods off, it lets me know I have been taking the rest of them in the right direction. Storytelling is the one art form in which your audience falling asleep is not an insult, indeed, If I have relaxed them to the point of sleep then I think that qualifies as a job well done. The sleeper is like someone who has taken the coach trip in to the forest but wandered off from the guided tour to have their own adventure, a scout in the borderlands of consciousness. If we are lucky they may come back with a new story to tell.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Dom Hugh Dies Again


I’ve told you about my storyteller’s “ready bag” before. It got quite a work out this week at Wickham Festival. On Sunday night at about 12.30 I was rummaging around in the bottom for something I could do easily but I hadn’t done the year before. You see, I’d set myself the task of giving my regular visitors fresh tales, or at least no repeats from 2014, for the whole four days of the festival. Come my last set and with no throat left after shouting over a succession of overloud bands on the nearby second stage during Saturday afternoon, I was very much after something that would leap from my lips with gay abandon and not take too much shaping or remembering. So, shoulder deep in my ready bag, fishing around amongst the fairy dust and crumbled fragments of legends, I finally laid my hand on a dead medieval monk. Always good for a laugh! Although he had been down there for some time, I resurrected him (briefly) and set him to work.

Dom Hugh of Leicester is a comic tale from the middle ages in which the eponymous monk makes unwelcome advances to Mrs. Weaver until she decides the only way to get him to leave her alone is to agree to satisfy his desires. After she has made the arrangements she informs her husband who is quite shocked until she mentions that the plan is for Mr. weaver to hide in the chest at the end of the bed, leap out and scare Dom Hugh so much that he never comes back. All goes to plan until the husband improvises and wallops Dom Hugh with a club. Dom Hugh falls to the ground stone cold dead.

To avoid blame they drag the ecclesiastical corpse to the monastery and prop him up against the wall. When Dom Hugh doesn’t turn up for prayers a search is made and when he won’t answer the bishop’s questions about his absence the Bishop whacks him with his crozier and down he goes: stone cold dead. Again. The guilty bishop tries to lay the blame off on the weaver using the same trick and after killing Dom Hugh for the third time the weaver loads him in to a sack with the intention of dumping him in the river. Meanwhile a couple of thieves who have stolen a side of bacon from the mill are making off under cover of darkness with their booty also in a sack. When they see Mr. Weaver they drop the pork and run. Naturally Mr. Weaver swaps his ex-mendicant for the savoury sack-full and heads back home. The robbers return and lug the lifeless cenobite to their house and hang up their prize. When they open it for some breakfast there is Dom Hugh, stone cold dead.

Not wishing to get hung themselves they decide to return the stiff to the mill from which they think they brought it. Thus the Miller finds himself repeating the horror of discovering a very dead monk instead of rashers. Mrs. Miller comes up with a plan to tie Dom Hugh on to a stallion and send him after the bishop when he goes on his rounds in the morning riding on a mare. The stallion, who is usually kept in a field on his own, is very excited by the possibility of meeting the bishop’s mare and gallops down the lane towards her. The bishop is terrified to see the man he thought he had killed charging towards him, the thoughtful Millers having given him a saucepan helmet and a broom for a lance, so he sets his men at arms on the hapless cadaver who drag him to the ground and beat him until he is stone cold dead. Since this time everyone knows how Dom Hugh died they finally bury him, and it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if that was what the Weavers had done in the first place!

You’d be forgiven for thinking this tale type is particular to the middle ages but it crops up, a bit like Dom Hugh himself, all over the world and across many centuries under titles like “Old Dry Fry” and “The Thrice Killed Corpse”. Stretched out over 20 minutes, with a bit of joining in, it is thankfully as amorally amusing to tent full of festival goers in modern day Wickham as it was to the Yorkists of Tudor times. I think I’d better dig that monk up and stick him back in the bag.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Send In The Lifeboats


One of the facilities provided to us by our brains is the ability to recognise patterns. Obviously I don’t just mean when we are watching midsummer murders with Bob from down the road and he suddenly points at the screen and says “My aunt Betty’s got those curtains!”. No, our pattern recognition includes everything we sense. It gives us a shorthand for managing our interaction with the world based on our experiences rather than having to process everything as a new thing all the time.

It is such a big part of our operating system that our pattern recognisers can get a bit carried away, joyfully offering us faces and animals when we are simply looking at clouds or burn marks on toast. Entertaining and free flowing conversations are the result of our internal librarians coming up with stories that have a similarity to the one that has just been told… and so are the stultifyingly dull ones. The tricky bit for most of us being when the librarians come back from a trip to the hippocampus looking apologetic with only a single, dusty, hand written post-it note, leaving us the option of blurting out what’s scribbled on it in the hope that it will trigger a response from someone else, or standing there silently looking like a rabbit in the headlights while the conversation dies, gasping, at our feet.

I see this ’empty shelf syndrome’ happen quite often after a Talesman performance when the conversation has come round to the fascinating similarities between stories from different parts of the world and someone suddenly discovers the only thing indexed in their frontal cortex that fits with the pattern is the old adage that, when it’s all boiled down, there are only seven stories. Now you’d think that I would be able to launch in to a discourse from there but I’m afraid that shelf in my head was just as much in need of a J cloth and a squirt of Pledge as anyone else’s. Thankfully our pattern recognition includes stalling dialogue and everyone sends out the communication lifeboats of witty interjection and wholesale embarrassment is avoided. Personally I hadn’t explored the root of this widely distributed myth of the reduced lexicon until today. I suspect that since I make my living from finding fresh tales to serve up every few months the mere suggestion that there might be a limited supply sends my subconscious in to denial.

The fabulously named Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch would appear to be the original author of the “seven plots” concept in the early half of the twentieth century. Fortunately for me his list takes the form of man versus seven adversaries including himself:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

This clearly falls down on the basis of sexism and also fails to consider that humans might co-operate or do anything other than fight with stuff. Other cataloguers have come up with lists from 4 to 36 plots long, mostly confining themselves to literature or theatre. The most widely known today being Christopher Booker, who has also pegged his socks on the line at the number seven after taking 35 years to write his book. I suppose it will be only polite to give it a read sometime but at 25 quid a throw it won’t be anytime soon. Meanwhile the net has already nicked his list and shared it around. It begins with 1. The Quest and 2. Voyage and Return which, I don’t know about you, just sound rather similar to me. The best of the short lists in my opinion runs to eight thus:

  1. Cinderella: fulfilment after hardship
  2. Achilles: the Fatal Flaw
  3. Faust: or the debt that must be paid
  4. Tristan: the Eternal Triangle
  5. Circe: or the Spider and the Fly
  6. Romeo and Juliet: Boy meets Girl and whatever follows
  7. Orpheus: the Gift that’s Taken Away
  8. The Indomitable Hero: they keep on going whatever the odds

(It is sadly un-attributed in all the versions I found this time round, if anyone knows the original author please let us know).

However, as with all the other lists it misses out the “how it got it’s name” stories. These are not my favourite tales as they rarely have a proper plot. The general form being “Once upon a time a giant tripped over and where his knee dented the ground a pond formed. It is still called Giant’s Knee Pond”. It’s not much of a story but any list that doesn’t cover it is not a complete list of all the stories there are… and if they missed this widely used folk tale what else have they missed?

In the world of folk tales, academics identify stories by the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, a combined work that gives a number to each element of the stories, such as “Transformation to horse (ass etc.) by putting on bridle”, which will be familiar to those of you who came to see “The Dark Arts” tour and is Tale Type D535 in case you were interested. The Aarne-Thompson list Includes several different “How it got it’s name” variations and the index gets to 2500 without counting the decimals. That should see me right for work for some time so I expect I’ll stick with them… and next time I see the pattern of the conversation swinging round to the number of stories in the world I’ll have something on the shelf for my librarians to fetch.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Giants and Revenge


As I explained in December I am researching for my spring and autumn tours at the same time, themed “Giants” and “Revenge” respectively. All very straight forward… until you come across a story that sits in the part of the Venn diagram where the two circles overlap and could be used in either set. The most surprising of these is probably the most well known story of the big people going.

This tale is turned in to pantomimes on a regular basis and is a staple of children’s literature. As with any well known trope from olden times it has started coming under fire from modern ethical watchdogs. It’s easy to see why too. The problem being that the protagonist, one “Jack”, who is established early on as somewhat easily led, can appear as rather racist. After a giantess lets him in to her husband’s castle and feeds him, the ungrateful simpleton repays this kindness by stealing from the giants not once, but three times! Whilst trying to escape justice after his third larceny he brings about the death of his understandably enraged victim. It is presented as un-premeditated but I think it would still attract a charge of murder if it came to court. One would hope that even UKIP supporters would see that this is a bad way to treat people from other lands who are a bit different from us and most definitely not the model for a foreign policy.

So where, I hear you ask, does the overlap with the revenge theme come in? Well, in my usual fashion I have been hunting through my library, comparing different versions and digging out the earliest manuscripts. In the case of Jack And The Beanstalk (which in case you hadn’t realised is the story in question) this takes us back to 1807. At this time the story contained an encounter with a fairy when Jack reaches the top of the beanstalk. This fairy tells a chilling story of Jack’s kind and generous father who was tricked, robbed and murdered. The perpetrator of the deed, whilst burning down their manor, spared the infant Jack and his mother on the condition that she never tell Jack about his father. The wicked murderer come arsonist is, of course, the giant and the fairy points out quite distinctly that the giant’s wealth was taken from Jack’s father and is rightfully his.

This episode, which is conspicuous by its absence from the majority of later re-tellings of the tale, casts Jack’s behaviour in a very different light. No longer a wayward, sizeist, thug, Jack is the true avenger, reclaiming his ancestral rights and handing out the ultimate punishment to the original villain of the piece. The worrying bit is not just that the story has been reproduced so often without this justification for Jack’s criminal spree, but that doing so has done nothing to harm it’s popularity, many of us falling into despising the giant based on heresay and rooting for his downfall with no hard evidence that he has done wrong to anyone.

Fascinatingly the fairy also admits that she was influencing Jack when he exchanged his cow for a handful of beans, which explains how he goes from being laughably gullible at the beginning of the yarn to a cool master of negotiation, concealment and escape by his first encounter with the giants.

So, it always pays to do your research, even when you think you know the story, possibly especially then… and I had better get back to mine, there are giants and avengers to sort out and they keep getting mixed up!

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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