Singers of Tales across the Centuries

Highlights on the history of oral storytelling from a Italian/European/Mediterranean perspective

Telling stories is an essential part of human life. We start doing it when we are babies, articulating our first insecure words. We keep on doing it for all our life, until we are old, our repertoire expanding as we gather new experiences. In human history, there have been people who have been telling their stories as their job and I am going to talk about them.

The Dawning

It is not possible to know exactly what our ancestors’ life was like at the very beginning of human history, but we can reconstruct part of it thanks to archeological findings.
This is how we know that more or less one million years ago the human brain evolved and increased its dimension. Researchers think that this lead prehistoric hominids to develop not only a more sophisticated intelligence but also a uniquely human “mimetic ability”: a kind of intelligence which allowed our ancestors to mimic past and present events (Donald, 1991). Cave paintings supported the development of their communication processes: not having a common language yet, these cavemen probably communicated mimicking actions, maybe emitting sounds, and pointing at painted images to clarify what they were referring to.

Logic has us thinking that these paintings were not realized for the sake of art or decoration (it seems unlikely at this stage of human evolution). Moreover their communicative purpose seems to be confirmed by the fact that they are usually found in wide spaces, that could host a small assembly of people (Hilliard, 2004).

Some of the most known cave paintings are those found in Cheveux, France. These images are among the oldest (they were realized between 47 000 and 31 000 years ago) and best preserved. They depict animals, like bears, aurochs, insects, horses, and show them mating, running, fighting, hunting. According to Porter Abbott (2002), “narrative is the representation of an event (action) or a series of events”. If we agree with him (and Gérard Genette), we can understand why Cheveux cave paintings are often described as the earliest example of narration. What is most important is that these paintings worked as a vehicle of information for the whole tribe. Knowing how animals behaved was important in order to survive. Sharing information about the world around them was essential for the life of prehistoric hominids. Then “[it] was the word” and cavemen started to communicate verbally. Proofs of this process are practically non-existent. Nonetheless psychologist Jerome Bruner (2002) attempted an explanation: if ontogenesis might replicate the phylogeny, we can hypothesise that the Homo Sapiens started using language as soon as he could master a basic form of reference (referenza a distanza), arbitrariness and grammatical functions ( grammatica dei casi), exactly how it happens for children.


Enter a captionThe development of a verbal mean of communication, combined to a familiarisation with fire (Wiessner, 2014)

The development of a verbal mean of communication, combined to a familiarisation with fire (Wiessner, 2014), led humans to the establishment of an oral storytelling tradition: stories were still means of instructions on survival techniques but they became also entertainment. Likely after sunset, in a cave, around the fire, these men and women used to gather and tell each stories.

According to Gottschall (2013), this entertaining nature is yet again another reason for considering stories decisive for the survival of the human species. “Throw your mind back in into the mists of prehistory, ” he writes.  “Imagine that there are just two human tribes living side by side […] competing for the same finite resources. […] One tribe is called the Practical People and one is called the Story People. […] Most of the Story People’s activities make obvious biological sense.

They work. They hunt. They gather. […] They have a surprising amount of leisure time, which they fill with rest, gossip, and stories – stories that whisk them away and fill them with delight. Like the Story People, the Practical people work to fill their bellies […] but when the Story People go back to the village to concoct crazy lies about fake people and fake events, the Practical People just keep on working.” And the story ends with the Story People prevailing, because “the Story People are us” (Gottschall, 2013:19,20).

Cave paintings were part of tribal rituals, as the presence of animal remains in the caves suggest, and we can imagine stories joined them in the rituals as soon as hominids became able to communicate. The stories which marked special occasions were probably told by shamans or anyway individuals whose storytelling role was acknowledged by the rest of the tribe. Their repertories were made of stories which had their origin in an event lived by someone in the tribe, but then developed as an autonomous artifacts. These tellings concurred in creating a sense of identity in the tribe, preserving a memory of the lives of its members.

With time these stories started having structural and recognizable characteristics, and their narrators developed specific abilities who allowed them to create and perform them: these narrators became the first “singer of tales”, forefathers of all storytellers (Bruner, 2002:111).

Epic Tellers and their Muses

When talking about oral storytelling, Homer’s “Odyssey” has a particular relevance. It is by studying its content and form that scholars were able to reveal many secrets on ancient epic tellers. In ancient Greece, storytellers were named ἀοιδόι( aoidòi) from the verb ὰείδειν( aeidein) or ᾄδειν ( adein), “to sing”, since they used to accompany the telling with music.


In the “Odyssey”, two ἀοιδόι make their appearance: Femios (Φήμιος Τερπιάδης) at Ulysses’s court in Ithaca, and blind Demodocos (Δημόδοκος) in Alcinoo’s palace. The story narrated is set in the first half of the XII century B.C. They tell stories on recent history (the Trojan wars, for example, which are also the subject of the “Ilyad”) and on Ulysses himself, but also on gods’ and goddesses’ adventures and loves. There are two sentences in the “Odyssey” which deserve special attention. The first is a line of Ulysses who praises Demodocos by saying ” I praise you above all mortal men, one taught by the Muse, Zeus’ daughter, or perhaps by Apollo” (VIII, 488). The second is voiced by Phemius who says “ the god has filled my mind with every kind of song ” (XXII, 357). These two lines suggest that in this place and time storytellers had the double role of performers and composers of epic tales.

Moreover, these sentences acknowledge a special relationship existing between the teller and the spiritual world, specifically the Muses and the gods. About this, Florence Dupont (1994) writes “the roots of oral narrative are not […] artistic but religious. The teller’s spoken word […] is part of the relationship men have with gods and, like sacrifices, defines their identity as civilized beings” (Loretelli, 2010:92). This feels like a thread linking Greek epic to its ancestral tribal and shamanic version.

Like the one of those primitive cultures, that of Homer is an oral culture. The alphabet starts spreading in the Mediterranean area around VIII B.C. but for many centuries writing is considered less important than the spoken word. It is used only for practical reasons (laws, names on tombs, and so on) and mastered only by slaves. Ancient Greece is mainly oral, philosophers spread their ideas through public speaking and debates, and so do politicians and leaders.

While theatre (another form of storytelling originating from the seed of shamans’ rituals in the caves) develops on stages, epic tellers travel and perform everywhere there is someone willing to listen. The public does not join the teller at the beginning of the story and waits until the end to leave, on the contrary: while the singer tells the tale, there are people coming and going. Some stay for the whole performance, some stop for a while and then leave. The public is allowed to shout suggestions to the teller, participate, ask questions. The teller answers, weaving the external contributions into his/her telling. It is the narration that adapts to the public, and not the opposite (Loretelli, 2010).


Vates and Aretalogi

As in Ancient Greece, so in Ancient Rome verbal creativity belonged to the world of orality. The spoken word was still considered more prestigious than the written one. Values and shared knowledge were transmitted not through writing, but through voice and gestures (Thomas, 1989 ).

Once again, writing was considered an instrument to serve higher goals, and it was delegated to slaves. Original stories were written but in order to be read aloud. Oral stories were transcribed to be preserved. The two forms co-existed peacefully (Loretelli, 2010). The Greek legacy was strong. The only authentically Latin verse was the saturnio, all the others were Greek. Most of the authors received a Greek education. It is no surprise that there was some kind of continuum in the passage from one ancient culture to the other.

However, languages are different and so are names. In Ancient Rome professional storytellers were referred to as poetas (poets) and often called ‘vates’.
Vates comes from vaticinare, ‘giving auspices’, and that is exactly what vates used to do: they used to ‘predict’ the future, and they used to give their answers singing in verses (Benedetti, 2003). How come this word started being used to refer to poets? Among 47 and 45 B.C., Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro writes “De Lingua Latina”, where he collects his linguistics theories regarding etymology and morphology of the Latin language. In it we find two references to the origin of the word vate. The first: “Those who speak predicting the future (also known as fatidici) are called vaticinari, because they do so vesana mente (being “out of their mind”);

It is acknowledged the traditional special relationship between singers of tales and gods. Together with the composer abilities of the “foretelling vates”, maybe it was this that made the word vates shift its meaning to comprehend the “poet vates” (Benedetti, 2003). “Poet vates” were acknowledged the role of shamans, of human beings connecting the physical world and the world of the spirit. It was a strong role in Ancient Rome as it was in Ancient Greece. According to the scholar Enrico Campanile (1977) poets have always been invested with a magical role in society. Then, as time passed by, some kept it (like in the Indian tradition) and some lost it (like in Ireland, where Christianity superimposed its rituals on pagan traditions).


Next to the temple- aretologi were the secular- aretologi (and it is not clear if one preceded the other or they developed simultaneously). These itinerant storytellers of antiquity were “part of a large group of itinerant entertainers and rogues who earned a living by practicing their assorted skills in the town and villages of the Roman empire” (Scobie: 1979, 233). Together with storytellers, in this group we find jugglers, snake-charmers, fire-eaters, musicians, exotic dancers, astrologers and fortune tellers. Aretalogi was not the only word for them: they were also called fabulatores.

These performers belonged to a common world of the taverns and circus, but sometimes made their entrance in noble palaces, to entertain guests at banquets and make people laugh. Historian Svetonius records their presence at the court of Emperor Augustus: “he [Augustus] used to introduce [at dinners] musicians or actors or even common players from the Circus, and more frequently, storytellers ( aretalogi)”; and also, “if, as often happened, he [Augustus] could not get back to sleep after it had been broken, he achieved his end by summoning readers or storytellers ( fabulatores)”.

With the exception of Svetonius’ record, we do not find other references to aretalogi and fabulatores in Roman texts, nor in chronicles nor in romances which include descriptions of parties and dinners (like Petronius’ “Satyricon”). This makes us think Augustus’ taste was quite unusual. The only other trace of these people we have in Latin literature is a sentence Pliny uses opening a letter: “Pay a penny and hear a golden tale”. This was probably a catch-phrase used by street storytellers to attract paying listeners (Scobie, 1979).
As we said, the spoken word was well and alive in Ancient Rome, and co-existed with the written one. As time went by, literacy increased constantly, peaking during the Empire Age. Storytellers kept travelling and telling their stories, but they now had the aid of written sources. Apuleio’s “Metamorphoses”, for example, also known as “The Golden Ass ”, was composed around the year 180 and it included fables collected from the voice of storytellers. This book soon became an important resource for the repertoire of other storytellers, leaving lasting traces all over the Empire (Dupont, 1994).

Storytellers went on living and performing, travelling dirty roads, collecting stories and performing for riches and poor alike. Centuries later we find them still travelling, but they have changed their name again.

Jokers and Peasants

Written and oral word still co-existed during the Middle Ages, but they followed increasingly separate paths. Romances started making their appearances at the European courts at the end of XIII century, and in the Anglo Norman world even before that. These are the times of the Arthurian cycle and the chansons du geste.

These literary works show several features belonging to oral telling, in their form and in their content. Authors are obviously inspired by the stories that have been circulating for centuries in Europe thanks to itinerant storytellers. What is changing is that they are starting to experiment with new techniques, trying to deliver that same power of oral narrative using only written words (Loretelli, 2010).

Therefore, on one side we have court writers who write their stories inspired by the oral tradition enlivened by itinerant storytellers, and on the other side we have itinerant storytellers learning those written stories and performing them for their public.
These tellers travelled all over Europe, making stories and languages travel with them from place to place. They would perform for courts of noble and rich people, but their most numerous public was that made of common people they met in towns’ and villages’ squares. During the Middle Ages, the square was a place of entertainment, animated not only by storytellers, but also by jesters, tightrope walkers, peddlers, fortune tellers, palm readers, panhandlers (some real, some fake), preachers, false pilgrims, barkers and charlatans (Camporanesi, 1982).

It is likely that these performers mixed different abilities when making a show, and in the Italian area they were known as giullari, ‘jokers’. Most of them were analphabets. However, their repertoires included poems they managed to learn by heart, and also fabliaux, stories on the lives of saints, lais, and after XIII century chansons de geste. The latter were sometimes learnt by heart and performed respecting the original texts, but more often retold in their own way. The same happened with romances, who were usually read aloud in the courts: the tellers used to divide them in episode and tell them as separated elements, heavily reworking the original text in order to achieve the best (and most remunerative) live performance possible (Loretelli, 2010).

Giullari aimed to make people laugh, and this lead them to be loathed by the Church. At least officially. Unofficially, they entertained religious men as well. As Elide Casali (1982), writes: “Since the origin the Church has manifested a refusal and condemned laughter and fun which, being inspired by the Devil, can not have place in a spiritual life. However, even if they were condemned ideologically as ministri satanae (ministers of the Devil), the giullari never failed to amuse priests and members of the clergy with their shows11” (Casali, 1982:2). It is interesting to notice that from now on storytellers are no longer recognized as links to the spiritual words: now priests cover that role.

When Middle Ages dawned, stories kept roaming the roads. They lived in villages, in the words of elders. They would capture the imagination of children and adults alike and light up the night, while the tellers shared past events (reinforcing tribe identity), remembered loved ones who had passed away, educated the young ones.

Those tellings changed and evolved constantly, making it possible to find different versions of the same story in very distant countries (and giving folklorists material to dig in for centuries). At a certain point these tales were transcribed and crystallised in time. The most famous collections are probably that of the German brothers Grimm, published in 1812 and those of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, published in the 1880s and 1890s. For Italy, it has to be mentioned Italo Calvino’s “Fiabe italiane”, published for the first time in 1956.Popular storytelling is linked to the survival of oral tradition. It faded in some countries and it stayed alive in others. When in 1973 anthropologist John M. Foley travelled to Serbia, he was able to attend the show of a guslar, an epic tales singer, who told the story of a battle fought at the beginning of the century while playing a string musical instrument (Loretelli, 2010). The same happened to Milman Parry and Albert Lord when they visited Jugoslavia in the 1930s.

In those areas, oral storytelling (and the epic genre) had a long life. Other areas where not as lucky, and the oral tradition faded until it died. In the XX century, an active attempt to revitalize the lost oral tradition would transform into a cultural movement aiming for a “storytelling revival”.

Reviving Storytelling

At the end of the 1960s, in the United States, a small group of people started gathering to tell each other stories. They were actors and intellectuals, people keeping an eye on new ways of expressions and ready to experiment new art forms. They enjoyed telling stories to each other, and this is what they started doing in the 1960s, soon enough turning it into an annual tradition. They started organising open floors (or stories swaps), and interest and participation grew. These men and women understood that sharing stories (traditional ones or personal ones) was a way to collectively weave an identity able to include all the different cultures present in the United States, the multicultural country for definition. Moreover, it was a way to somehow honor the heritage of the Natives cultures and give them space to live and grow.

For sure, it is not a coincidence if this need for a return to (or the rebirth of) oral tradition was first felt in a country so diverse and often conflictual. Starting from those informal gatherings, a cultural movement spread all over the United States, took root in the UK in the 1970s, than in all Northern Europe in the 1990s, and from there travelled to the Southern countries and Eastern Europe (Balbi, 2013).

This cultural movement has been called “Storytelling Revival” or “Storytelling Renaissance”, a name which highlights its aim to bring back the art of telling stories orally and its link to a past tradition which was interrupted. From the very beginning, artists have started organising themselves in companies, associations, and national federations, like the FEST – Federation of European Storytelling. This lead to the building of a network which keeps on growing. Collaborations among storytellers are easier today than they were in Ancient Rome or in the Middle Ages. Thanks to technology, meetings can be held online and events organized via emails. Knowledge and know-how runs through the wires and the waves of the internet, but it is on stage that oral storytelling really expresses itself.


Following the National Storytelling Association’s Jonesborough Festival in the United States, Europe has been provided with events such as Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival in Wales, Alden Biesen International Storytelling Festival in Belgium, the International Storytelling Festival of Kea in Greece, the Fabula International Storytelling Festival in Sweden, and Festival Internazionale di Storytelling Raccontamiunastoria in Italy. Interest towards storytelling is on the rise. Its applications in healing processes and education are studied in universities. There are more and more people attending festivals every year, and new storytelling associations sprouting all over Europe.

Supporters of the Storytelling Renaissance define storytelling as “the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination”. It is this space for the imagination of the audience and the physical presence of teller and listener, and of listener with other listeners, that characterize storytelling as a unique form of entertainment among the ones available today.

This might be the beginning of a new era. As Dan Yashinsky (2004) writes: “It is time to dream a fresh myth. […] If we only ever hear and repeat our own story, if we fail to open our ears to new and different voices, the consequences will be both dangerous and extreme. We need a myth to teach us how to listen in a new way to the earth, to each other, to our children, to our dreams. The hero of our new myth could be called, simply, Listener” (Yashinsky, 2004: 175).


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About the Storyteller: Serena Zampolli is an Italian storyteller and researcher. She is an active member of a storytelling group in Genoa, Italy and is the founder of a storytelling association in Venice. This article is an edited excerpt from the beginning chapter of her Phd Thesis. You can find out more about Serena at her website.