Ever wondered where our fascination with, and addiction to, stories comes from? They are as much a part of us as our DNA. Children tell them quite naturally, but our need for them is mysterious. ‘At any given moment,’ Christopher Booker writes, ‘all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will . . . have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story.’ It is, he states, ‘one of the most important mysteries’.*
We are surrounded by stories – everyone has their own story and we are all part of other people’s stories, as well as being part of the bigger historical story of the human race – the whole world is a web of interlocking narrative.
|We are all part of each other's stories|
Which is exactly how our ancestors saw it. Not just human history and interaction, but the landscape as well. Those weren’t hills on the horizon, they were the bones of some ancient god fallen in battle or the breasts of some nurturing earth goddess. Science and geography have robbed us of much colourful stuff when it comes to the landscape. Stories were how our ancestors related to the physical earth – they even used them to find their way around. Primitive people often told stories that were a memorable way of passing on directions to particular places. ‘Follow the dead body of the snake killed by Argon, cross the sacred water where Isis found her drowned lover, walk quietly through the Unicorn forest, past the mouth of the dragon to the eagle rock’ – is a whole lot more interesting than saying ‘follow the winding path into the valley, cross the lake, through the wood, past the cave to an overhanging rock with an eagle’s nest on it’. It gives a whole new slant on giving directions to your house.
|The songlines of Australian first nation culture connect landscape with story |
I’ve just come back from New Zealand where the stories associated with the landscape are still present in the place names. The whole of New Zealand is a landscape of mythology – much of it violent and bloodthirsty.
|Maui, fishing up New Zealand|
The land was apparently created when Maui (a god common to the Pacific islands) quarreled with his brothers (who were jealous of his mother’s favouritism) and hauled a big fish from the bottom of the ocean – the fish became North Island and Maui’s canoe became South Island – the beautiful whale-watching town of Kaikoura is supposedly the thwart of his canoe and Hawkes Bay is the hook that caught the fish.
|Paikea the Whalerider|
The Maori explain how some of them came to New Zealand with the Pacific island story of Paikea. Paikea’s brother Ruatapu was jealous and plotted to kill him and his other brothers. Ruatapu went to sea with them and sank their canoe – drowning them all. But Paikea saved himself because he sang an incantation that brought a big whale up from the depths to carry him on its back to the nearest land. So the legend has it that Paikea rode to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Where his wife came from, I haven’t yet discovered, but he must have had a mate in order to populate the islands! There aren’t a lot of women in these myths.
Some of these stories are quite recent. The airport at Wellington, the capital city, is on a spit of land that was created in 1660 by an earthquake and then raised another 1.5 metres in 1855 by another big quake that rearranged the entire landscape. Mount Victoria, which overlooks the airport and the bay is called in Maori Tangi te Keo. Tangi means mourning, or cry and Te Keo is a bird which embodies the spirit of a mythical character called Whataitai.
|Tangi Te Keo|
Whataitai and Ngake were the 2 spiritual guardians when Wellington harbour was only a lake. Ngake was restless and longed for the sea. Eventually he forged a channel through the earth to join the lake to the ocean, creating the Cook Strait, but Whataitai got stranded and became the isthmus of land where the airport is now. Ngake still mourns for him and the Te Keo bird’s cry is Whataitai’s voice. It’s a very romantic story to explain how the features of the land were created.
|Wellington Airport on its isthmus, from Tangi Te Keo.|
This connection between landscape and story isn’t just something our ancient forebears indulged in - in modern times we’ve named our entire solar system after mythological figures from stories – Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, Neptune etc – depending on their attributes; Jupiter, the mighty giant; red Mars for the god of war.
Stories are how we see the world and how we see each other. In the ancient world we used them to give meaning to the world around us, to explain things that we didn’t understand. We used them to remember landscapes, people and events. We still use them like that.
Myths were also created as a way of connecting the world of dreams we sank into at night with the daylight world of waking experience. Dreams are mysterious even now, but to our more distant ancestors they were even more puzzling. In our imaginations, writers – like shamen – dream things into existence as stories.
|First Nation American female Shaman - Edward S. Curtis|
Myths and fairy-tales are potent things. They use ‘deep narrative’, the story-patterns that underlie all the other stories – what James Joyce called ‘whatsoever is grave and constant’ in human experience – and they are the most powerful narratives. If your writing can tap into these sources it will meet some fundamental need in the reader and become addictive.
Personally, I find mythology fascinating and I’m currently working on a new collection of poems based around the myths of a particular group of North American first nation people. They had a shamanistic culture and it’s been interesting to try to look at the world through their eyes. It’s almost an impossible task, because you can’t unlearn the whole of Western culture in the last 150 years. But in their literature you get just a glimpse of a people for whom the whole world was composed of stories and for whom dreaming was just as real as the waking life. To go to sleep, or go into a shamanistic trance, was to go through a door into another world. Love it!
*Christopher Booker The Seven Basic Plots
Kathleen Jones is a poet, novelist and biographer, both traditionally and independently published. You can find her books on Amazon at her author page
I think that's where I realised that all our creation myths grow from the land we live in - so in New Zealand stories grow from the chaos of earthquakes and volcanos, while in Australia the aboriginal people believe in a Dreamtime - in a world of land, before thought or people.