The Advent of Storytelling — A Brief History

Written By: Barnali Sarkar

Have you ever wondered about the story behind storytelling? Or how did it all start, particularly before the discovery of the written word or even a spoken language for that matter? As a writer I often resort to imagery and paint pictures with words but how did storytellers do the same in ancient times? Let us lift the diaphanous veil shrouding the depiction of stories from times past and see how it has evolved over centuries.

The history of storytelling can be traced back to thousands of years as it has been used to convey messages, depict a way of life, and also as a means of communication and entertainment. But if we look at the earliest forms of storytelling, we realize that it was primarily visual. Back in those days, cavemen used stones, wood, clay, and other natural materials along with gum and pigments from trees and flowers to draw and paint about life and survival in their times. We can find a common thread that strings cave drawings, pictographs (rock paintings), petroglyphs (i.e., rock carvings from 1300 to the late 1680s), and hieroglyphics. And all of these forms of visual representations not only effectively tell a story but also depict a need to communicate. 

The figurative cave paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the mountains of southern France are the earliest known cave drawings in the world. These paintings depict prehistoric and Upper Paleolithic life more than 30,000 years ago and represent an era when people used to communicate without a spoken and written language.

The ancient Greeks carved messages and painted on the walls of tombs and buildings. Their stories were primarily communicated only through oral storytelling for years. But the Greeks took the art of storytelling to new heights. They are the first known civilization that developed writing and used it to tell stories and write poems. In the 700 B.C., when the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first printed story was carved on stone pillars, its popularity crossed boundaries and traveled from Mesopotamia to various parts of Asia and Europe. And the Greeks redefined oral storytelling when they wrote poems for storytellers to remember and recite or perform the Epic of Gilgamesh in its entirety. 

Researchers from the Durham University and the University of Lisbon have found records of tales dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The origins of these tales are a story unto themselves as they are even older than the earliest documented literary records. For instance, Jack and the Beanstalk has its roots in a collection of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure and represents a time more than 5,000 years ago. Records show popular stories Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be around 4,000 years old while The Smith And The Devil, a folktale revolving around a blacksmith who sold his soul to the Devil to acquire supernatural powers goes back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.   

Fairy tales originated in France in the 17th century. Danish experts credit renowned author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) with writing the first fairy tale, Tællelyset or The Tallow Candle, in the form of a six-page manuscript when he was a teenager. It was written in ink and historian Esben Brage dated the document to a time around the mid-1820s. Charles Perrault’s Tales of Olden Times (1697) and the Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57) are believed to be the first collections of fairy tales. But interestingly, the original fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm were not intended for children. In fact, it was written for adults as the plots often bordered on the fringes of being dark and horrific. As these stories transcended centuries, the gruesome or frightening bits were removed or revised to make them more suitable for children but I’ll leave that story for another day.

Today the methods of storytelling have undergone a sea change. But the desire to hear or tell and share stories remains unchanged. As social media platforms take over our lives in a big way, and we apply filters and effects to those Facebook and Instagram pictures, we are actually telling a story through a picture. So have we really progressed much or come full circle and gone back to the basic storytelling days of yore? And what about the quintessential storyteller? Is it all about the narratives and stories or do storytellers wield a magic wand when they narrate a story? I’ll let you ponder over it. Or you can read my next blog on storytellers and see if we’re on the same page.


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