Winnipeg storyteller Mary Louise Chown and I created the original version of these notes for a workshop in Toronto in 1999
(back to Articles index)
Storytelling is one of the world's most ancient healing arts. In traditional Siberian societies storytellers undergo a similar initiation to that of spiritual healers, and are highly respected as carriers of spiritual knowledge. Traditions point to the fact that storytellers have the power to call and direct spirits—for example the teller must not refuse to tell when asked (since the story spirits would be offended), the story must be completed whether or not human beings are listening (in order to put the evil spirits back in their places), and if the teller needs to take a break, the heros must be left resting. I've heard that in some areas people leave food outside for the hero's horse! The characters in the story are live spiritual beings, who can teach and heal human beings.
The healing powers of story are being rediscovered in the west as well. Psychotherapists have long understood the value of telling one's own story. Listening to a live storyteller is also a profound healing. Traditional tales contain important lessons, and they also teach us to see alternatives, rather than staying stuck in a problem. (The hero always gets out of a tight spot!) Hearing a story can help us to drain or blow energy from negative images, usually through laughter. Evil creatures are shown to be strong but stupid. All of this can effect physical as well as psychological structures.
When we listen to a live storyteller, we form images on the screen of our inner eye. This very process of image formation aids neurological development of the brain—which is why children like to hear stories so much. Children whose TV diet is augmented with live storytelling learn faster and also show less tendency to violence, since they have learned to create alternatives and ways of getting unstuck from the body's discomfort.
One of the most important healing powers of story comes from the energy raised collectively by tellers and listeners. I think this comes from the sound (like music) more than the words or lessons, and it also has to do with collective image formation—everybody concentrating on the story at the same time.
For me, the storytelling traditions of Siberian peoples led to an interest in shamanism—through the magic tales, images of shape-changing, and voyages to other worlds. Shamanism is an ancient spiritual practice of cultures the world over, in which a human being journeys in an altered state of consciousness, often accompanied by drumming or other music, to worlds beyond those we see with our eyes. Their goals are divination, healing by retrieval of parts of the soul which have been stolen or shocked from the body, and accompanying the souls of the dead to the next world. Something like shamanism existed in Europe before Christianity, and we see those images still shining through in stories. In the indigenous cultures of Siberia they are closer in time. Shaman's stories have made for some of the world's most exciting and transformative oral literature.
Storytelling about shamans takes on a special meaning when we realize that storytelling is in itself a healing art. I see shamanic elements as the transformative elements, with imagery specific to cultures which have practiced shamanism. Images of deep transformation are placed in the context of a journey that takes place at once in the outer world, and in the inner world of dream or vision. The inner world is reflected in an outer story.
Here are a few of the elements which signal a shamanic story:
There is an urgent problem to be solved. A shaman usually enters an altered state of consciousness—distinguished from other such states by the fact that the shaman enters it with a strong intent to help others, and stays in control of the journey. As in the heroic journey, the initiate may resist the call, since the life of a shaman is so difficult.
Initiatory journeys involve getting to know the maps of spiritual geography, the upper and lower worlds and their inhabitants. Initiates experience death and rebirth, and naked bones are a common image. In the initiatory journey the new shaman also comes to terms with her/his spirit helpers, who may appear at first as terrifying adversaries. In the outer world, the initiate is usually very ill.
Healing journeys are undertaken to find parts of a human soul which have been either stolen or shocked out of the body. Shamans either go to other worlds or send their spirit helpers.
Journeys for information (divination). Both shamans and non-shamans use many divinatory practices, such as reading the movement of a pendulum, the cracks in a bone charred in the fire, or the arrangement of 41 pebbles, to access intuitive information unavailable to the rational mind. Many shamans also do clairvoyant readings without any divinatory aids. They may also go into an altered state, using the drum, to find answers to questions.
Shamanic Selection: Signs that a person has a shamanic fate often show up in stories. They include heredity, special marks on the body (like a caul), early prophetic dreams and visions, illness, a lot of sleep, unusual behaviour, lack of normal fear. Often the person selected seems to be the least likely one.
A shamanic image par excellence, shape-shifting shows the shaman's intimate relationship with animals, special strength, agility and wisdom, and the ability to go beyond oneself to help others.
Drumming, singing, poetry. Riding on the drum.
Helping spirits. Often a shaman makes an alliance with animal or ancestral spirits. Other helpers include a wise old man or woman.
Evil spirits show up as a shaman or hero's opponents. They may represent everything from the forces of nature in their destructive mode, to discontent ancestors, or jealous people. Sometimes shamans battle with evil spirits, sometimes they negotiate and sometimes they trick them into giving up the stolen soul.
If a hero/ine makes a journey to worlds in the sky or under the land or water, or to the land of the dead, this is a sure sign of a shamanic story. The ways they cross the borders show some of the ways we may cross from everyday to spiritual reality.
Siberian and other shamans are traditionally very competitive with each other, going to great lengths to display their superior strength. They may compete by fighting in the form of their spirit animals, or by showing off their abilities in song, drumming, dance and storytelling. Any battle involving the use of magic could represent a shamanic competition.
Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam, ed. 1997 Shamanic Worlds: Rituals and Lore of Siberia and Central Asia. Armonk, NY: North Castle Books. (a collection of articles written by indigenous Siberian scholars.)
Eliade, Mircea 1972 Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press. (an early classic on shamanism.)
Halifax, Joan. 1982 Shaman: The Wounded Healer. London: Thames and Hudson. (introduces the idea of the wounded healer plus a series of shamanic themes common throughout the world. Beautiful photographs.)
Harner, Michael. 1980. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper and Row. (describes the author's work with the Jivaro and the development of his experiential workshops.)
Meade, Erica Helm. 1995 Tell it by Heart: Women and the Healing Power of Story. Chicago: Open Court (excellent book on the author's use of story in therapeutic practice.)
Nicholson, Shirley, ed. 1987. Shamanism. Wheaton, Ill. Theosophical Publishing House. (a great collection of articles by major authorities on traditional and new forms of shamanism throughout the world.)
Stone, Kay. 1998. Burning Brightly: New Light on Old Tales Told Today. Broadview Press
(about storytelling and tellers in Canada. Interviews, and reflections on telling the Grimm's tales.)
Yashinsky, Dan. Dan has several wonderful collections of tales told by Canadian tellers:
Tales for an Unknown City. (McGill-Queens)
The Storyteller at Fault (Ragweed Press)
Next Teller: A Book of Canadian Storytelling (Ragweed)
Ghostwise: a Book of Midnight Stories (Ragweed)
Magazines and Journals
Appleseed Quarterly. The Canadian Journal of Storytelling. (published by Storytellers School of Toronto. 791 St. Clair Ave. Toronto M6C 1B7. (416) 656-2445
Shamanism. (Journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies) PO Box 1939, Mill Valley CA 94942 USA (www.shamanism.org) Articles on experiential and indigenous shamanism, plus information on the Foundation's activities.
Shaman's Drum. PO Box 97 Ashland OR 97520 USA (email@example.com) Experiential and indigenous shamanic practices.
Shaman (Journal of the International Society for Shamanistic Research) Molnar and Kelemen Oriental Publishers PO Box 1195. H-6701 Hungary. Scholarly articles about indigenous shamanism.
(back to Articles index)