Becoming Human

Almas Almatov, Kazakh zhyrau

Almas Almatov, Kazakh zhyrau at Beyond The Border, 1996

What do you learn from your stories? Do you live by that? Do the truths and wisdom in your tales actually make you a better person, or is that just something for your audiences?

Traditionally, the storyteller’s role has been to teach us how to be human. Universal truths emerge out of folktales; spiritual truths out of wonder-tales. We yearn to understand ourselves and one key way is to understand others.

Stories tell us about others: what they did, what the consequences were, what they learned, and how they changed. This gives us hope and fore-knowledge that we too may either do the same or avoid it, depending on the story.

Traditional tales may not give factual accounts about real-life events but nevertheless, as the old storytellers’ dictum goes, “Every word is true; it just never happened.” Their more archetypal world rings so true because we recognize all the universal forces at work that we see in ourselves and others.

Personal tales demonstrate more specific and particular experiences than traditional tales, but we hope all stories will have meaning and relevance for the audience at the right time and place. And so we find stories endlessly fascinating because we never quite solve the puzzle of the human condition and who we really are. However, for all this storytelling to be more than just entertainment or comforting hope, personal change does need to happen somewhere.

Storytellers often see striking changes in the audience for the duration of the telling, and sometimes hear later about certain people having shifted into a new understanding or behaviour. We find it deeply rewarding when we get such confirmation that we have brought wisdom in story-form and it has touched hearts and evoked growth. This is the ageless role of the storyteller; there will always be great need for us.

However what about our own growth? We tend to tell tales we need to hear ourselves; we explore and inhabit them during our telling, absorbing their message and mystery. Traditionally the storyteller is often a teacher, a healer, a repository of wisdom and communal knowledge. And so the training of storytellers has always been slow, long, and often something of a spiritual path – becoming human.

Years ago I had the privilege of being in the presence of the chief Zhyrau (bard) of Kazakhstan, Almas Almatov, when he told the ‘zhyrau’s story’:

When God created Man, he sent down an angel to put a brain into each person he had made. But just after the angel started the Devil came along and stole half of the brains. So the angel put some whole brains into people, but had to share the rest out by putting in half-brains instead. Unfortunately the Devil came back and stole more of them, so the angel had to give quarter-brains to the rest of the people. The people with whole brains were the Zhyrau, and ever since then they have helped everyone else to become whole too.

Now this isn’t as self-serving as it may sound! – the zhyrau are humble indeed and, as initiates into the Mysteries, undergo many years of intensive disciplines. They not only bear the tradition of their epics and learn sophisticated entrancement techniques to prepare their audiences’ receptivity, but they are deeply trained spiritually in order to deliver their tales in an inspired state, as in bardic traditions the world over. They do have a claim to be a little more ‘whole’ than many.

The idea of the healing power of stories has been taken up in a practical way by many recently, but it’s not a new one. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India, a carefully chosen story is considered the appropriate medicine for psychological suffering. In various ancient collections of tales you will find statements of the wonderful blessings given to those who merely hear the sacred stories. For instance at the end of The Twenty-Five Tales of a Vampire (a small section of the Sanskrit 11th century Ocean Of Story), this blessing is given by the demon:

“This string of tales shall become famous and honoured on the earth, as conducing to prosperity! Whosoever shall read even a verse of it, or whosoever shall hear it, they shall immediately be freed from their curse. And demons of all kinds shall have no power where this shall be recited.”

Near the beginning of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, we are told the tale can dissolve karma itself:

“Whoever hears this, and understands even a small bit of it, escapes the deeds he has forged by deeds of good or evil.”

And at the beginning of the Mahabharata:

“If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.”

Have you listened carefully enough to the tales you tell to become someone else? Are you receptive enough, and your stories profound enough, to be lifted above your assumptions and conditioning and bring you to sip the cup of wisdom?

I once interviewed the great storyteller and harper, Robin Williamson, and I recommend reading it all here since it’s relevant, but here’s a little of what he said:

“The longer you live, and the better sort of a life you have, then the better sort of a storyteller you’re going to become. If you wanted to be a dancer you’d have to create a dancer’s body. If you want to be a really good storyteller I think to a certain extent you have to create a storyteller’s life. You start off your life with a “Once upon a time…”, and go off on the adventure. The magical thing to me seems to be that those who seek an adventure generally seem to get it, don’t they?”

So my question to you is, what transformation and wholeness is your storytelling adventure leading you to? Are you allowing she who is Wisdom to teach you how to become human?

4 comments

  1. Tarkabarka says:

    Lovely post! 🙂 And very true. The storyteller has to be aware of his/her own humanity and what it entails before helping others. Otherwise, a performance can turn into a self-healing session that gets awkward…

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Tales of colors
    MopDog – The crazy thing about Hungarians…

  2. MCV EGAN says:

    Sometimes I write for the reader and sometimes I write to grow…good food for thought your questions #AtoZchallenge ☮Peace ☮ ღ ONE ℒℴνℯ ღ ☼ Light ☼ visiting from http://4covert2overt.blogspot.com/

  3. robin bady says:

    What a wonderful post!

    When people ask me what kind of stories I tell, I say that the stories are the ones I need to hear and feel the most connected to. Stories are my teachers, as are my audiences.

    Thank you so much for writing so clearly what I needed to read/hear today.

  4. Arlee Bird says:

    You present some interesting ideas here. I do put myself into a story that I’m writing or reading. I think that everything I write about is the story of me to some degree even though it might not appear so to a reader.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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