Traditional Narratives – Why a Story’s Origin Isn’t Important

I said last time that the origin of a traditional narrative is not a particularly interesting or useful question. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s easy to understand if you think about your own stories. Every one of us has stories we can tell about interesting or unusual things that we’ve experienced. If you’re like most people, you know a few stories about things that happened to your parents before you were born. And possibly a few from your grandparents, although most likely not very many. The more generations back you go, the fewer stories you probably know. Why don’t you know those stories? Obviously because nobody told them to you. Even extremely interesting stories don’t tend to get passed down once there’s nobody alive who remembers the people who experienced them. They don’t become sacred history.

The principle here is that narratives are only passed on if they are in some way important to the living people who hear and tell them. An interesting anecdote that happened to somebody you know is important because of the relationship you have with that person. A sacred story – a myth – is only passed on as a sacred story if it is relevant to the lived reality of the people telling and hearing it. Just being old doesn’t make it sacred. When considering myths, therefore, the question that needs to be answered is not how did this story get started, or what historical basis it might have, but what does it mean to the people for whom it is sacred.

Now, this is all assuming we’re talking about an oral narrative. Written texts are a little different. A text that is considered sacred may contain passages that are not especially important to current readers, because the sacred character of the text as a whole precludes changing or removing them (c. f. Biblical genealogies for many modern Christians). With a written text, the question to be considered is what did this story mean at the time it was added to the canon – which may or may not be the same as the time it was first told, or even first written down. Oral traditions, however, do not have the kind of connection with a greater whole that would keep then in the “canon” once they are no longer relevant to modern listeners.

So when you find that certain myths are present in many different cultures all over the world, that’s an indication that certain ideas are relevant to the lives of people in a huge variety of natural and cultural environments. And that’s a very interesting finding, because it may be telling us something about the way the human brain works, if we’re just clever enough to figure it out.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Anthropology, Folklore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *