The Sacred Work of Storytelling

Nearly two weeks ago, the sun disappeared (at least if you were in the direct path of the eclipse). For a few minutes, the air grew cooler and the birds grew quiet. I couldn’t help but think about how ancient people must have viewed an eclipse. They may have wondered if the sun would come back. Their worry may have made them anxious enough that they came up with elaborate rituals to appease the Sun and make sure he (or she) didn’t abandon them altogether.

But who came up with the rituals, the story, the cosmography, that explained why the sun disappeared and what must be done to ensure it always returned? Priests, you say? Priests may have performed the rituals, but the person who created the myth the rituals were built around was undoubtedly the tribe’s bard or storyteller. She or he might not have had the position officially, but they were the members of the tribe with the imagination and the gift with words to explain the phenomenon.

The word religion comes from a Latin word that means"to tie or bind". And that’s what religions do—they tie the events of the world together and make sense of them. They also bind people together in a shared experience, even if that experience is a re-enactment or ritual connected with the story created by the storyteller. Storytellers make sense of the world. And that’s why I believe we will always have need of them, not matter how sophisticated the world is.

Just look at the rabid following of The Game of Thrones series. It keeps gaining momentum and attracting more viewers (and readers). We dissect and analyze the episodes and return to them over and over, trying to figure out this world George R.R. Martin has created. We want to know the "why" for all the details in this world and we want to make sense of the events that take place. Martin, the storyteller, has created a grand myth, an imaginary world that people discuss as if it were totally real.

That’s what writers do, and that’s why storytelling is so important. The worlds we create as writers connect people. In making sense of imaginary worlds, we help people make sense of the real world. (Which at times is proving to be just as horrific and terrifying as anything Martin has created.)

Despite the multitude of fans, there are plenty of people who consider TGOT escapist fiction and therefore, silly and unimportant. But I would argue the series isn’t trivial or a waste of time because it binds us together and gives us a story that we share. As we reflect on the meanings of the myth, we reflect on our own values and what is important to us. We are forced to confront questions of good and evil and what is involved in making those distinctions.

A recent study showed that reading fiction tends to make people more empathetic in their choices. Experiencing things from the viewpoint of a fictional character teaches us to get outside our own world viewpoint and look at things in a new and more empathetic way. Maybe storytelling can’t change our turbulent, chaotic and violent world, but it can help us make sense of it and connect us in meaningful ways.

Storytelling is ancient and at the heart of the very essence of what it means to be human. So next time you get totally discouraged and want to give up writing, remember that the work we’re doing as writers is sacred and essential.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

13 thoughts on “The Sacred Work of Storytelling

  1. “I couldn’t help but think about how ancient people must have viewed an eclipse.”

    Haw! Gosh, one need not look at “ancient people:” look at the superstitious geniuses in the USA’s “Bible Belt” and their reaction to the latest eclipse—- it’s like The Enlightenment never happened.

  2. A beautiful post, Mary! I love this line: “Experiencing things from the viewpoint of a fictional character teaches us to get outside our own world viewpoint and look at things in a new and more empathetic way.” This is powerful. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Jennifer. I should probably focus more on writing than being philosophical about writing. But I feel passionately about this.

  3. I never gave it a thought as to how the ancient people or the early Indian tribes had thought about the eclipse. It had to frighten them. Thank you for brining that to our attention.

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