Why We Tell Stories: A Myth
Have you ever wondered why people tell stories? Tales are repeated over generations and spread across countries, and most people don’t stop to think why they are so popular. The answer lies in the history of the first story that was ever told on Earth.
A long, long time ago, in the very first village, there lived a very poor woman named Calliope with her two children. They were so poor they had nothing to eat, and the children got skinnier and skinnier as the days went on. A strong wind could have blown them right over. And they had neither toy nor game to play with, but only what they could find in the woods. Calliope, despite being poor, was very clever and so she sought the help of the gods. She prayed for salvation for her and her children, because they would soon starve if nothing changed. That night, as she and her children slept in their hut with nothing but each other for warmth, she had a dream. The gods who watched over the village spoke to her in the dream and told her to go to the cave in the middle of the forest. At the back of the cave, they said, she would find a solution to her poverty. The next day Calliope set off with her children to seek out the cave. No one from the village had ever reached the back of the long, dark cave, but the woman was brave and didn’t want her children to starve, so she set off into the small dark tunnel.
She and her children walked and walked until they stopped to rest for the night. Barely any sunlight could be seen from the entrance of the cave because it was so far behind them. Where they stopped it was as black as a raven’s feather. Calliope’s children began to complain. “Mother,” they said, “we are bored. There is nothing to do in this cave. Find something to amuse us.” At this moment the first story was almost invented by Calliope, but she found another solution. “Come,” she said, “help me clear the ground of rocks so that we may lie down to sleep. If you stay busy you can escape from boredom.” Her children did as she told them, and they were no longer bored as they busied themselves with cleaning.
The next day they walked until they were too tired to cover any more distance. By this point there were few remnants of the sun’s rays left in the cave, and it was as black as the pupil of an eye. Calliope’s children again were troubled. “We miss the village,” they cried, “we miss the children we used to play with and the sticks that were our toys. We long to see the sun and the grass.” They wept and wept. Calliope was unsure of how to cure their sadness when she could not provide any of the things they wanted. “Help me clear an area on the ground for sleep,” she suggested, but they continued to weep as they worked. The children were still sad and pulled at their mother’s sleeves for an answer to their cries. It was at this moment that the inspiration for storytelling almost made it into Calliope’s mind. But instead she said “Go to sleep, my children, and visit your friends in your dreams. There will be plenty of sun and grass if you fall asleep. If you dream you can escape sadness.” Her children did as she told them, and they had pleasant dreams of the village.
On the third day they walked farther than ever before, and collapsed onto the hard ground when their legs were stiff with soreness. No sunlight made it to them from the faraway entrance, and the cave was as black as a murderer’s heart. Calliope and her two children stopped for the night, and, as they sat staring into the darkness, fear came and gripped the children’s hearts in an icy and tight embrace. “Mother,” they whimpered, “we are afraid.” Their mother tried to soften their worries. “There is nothing here that can hurt you,” she replied, “no wolves or thieves are hiding here.” But still the children shook and their breaths came quickly. “We are afraid of such nothingness. We are afraid this is all there will ever be for the rest of our lives. And then death, the eternal nothingness, will be upon us.” Calliope bade them to clear the ground of rocks, but they continued to shiver as they worked. She told them to go to sleep, and in dreams they would be less afraid. Her children lie there wide-eyed in the darkness and were consumed with fear. “We cannot sleep mother!” they wailed.
Calliope knew that there was no way to ease their fear with reason, so she reached in the opposite direction and instead employed her imagination. In that dark cave, with no audience but her own two frightened children, Calliope created the first story. She invented characters and places, and told of events that had never occurred in the outside world. But in the blackness of the tunnel all that she spoke of existed while she described it. She had no name for what she was telling, and no real reason to suppose that it would help her children. But she poured out the tale all the same, and when the story was over, she and her children fell asleep immediately. So, using fiction they escaped fear.
When they started out again the next day they soon hit upon a vertical flat stone. It seemed to be the back wall of the cave, but after pushing against the rock it fell over and revealed the outside light. The cave had led them back to the village. When they returned, people saw their dirty clothes and asked them where they had been for three days. Calliope sat down in the center of the village and as people brought her family bread and milk she told the story of their voyage through the cave. The listeners sighed and smiled along with the account, and they forgot to be bored or sad or afraid. In the following days, word spread of Calliope’s talent for storytelling. She and her children had plenty to eat in the years to come as villagers came with money or food in exchange for the blissful escape of one of her beautiful stories.