We are a storytelling species. Not only do we weave stories about our own lives (which is known as narrativisation: the process of presenting and interpreting experiences, events, and scenarios in the form of a narrative; that is, a story), we also create, tell, and retell stories of an epic, mythic, and fantastical nature. Moreover, the individualised and archetypal aspects of storytelling can blend into each other – actual life experiences (at both the situational and psychological level) are often enriched with meaning in the light of story archetypes, while story archetypes themselves seem to have originated from the sort of meaningful narrativisation that individuals, groups, and societies applied to lived, real-life experiences.
Our urge for narrativisation and storytelling is distinctive, deep-rooted, and ubiquitous. As Terry Pratchett so eloquently expressed it in his novel The Globe: “The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.”
Stories are also multifarious and permeate all aspects of our lives. News, history, gossip, daydreaming. All involve a story. In this essay, I wish to explore the origin of storytelling and try to arrive at a conclusion as to why, as a species, we have such an ingrained impulse to tell stories and narrativise our lives.
When Did Storytelling Begin?
The oldest written story that is known to exist is The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem that is based on the deeds of the historical King Gilgamesh, who ruled over Sumerian Uruk (modern-day Iraq) in 2700 BC. The oldest versions of this story date back to 2000 BC, which is when the Sumerian empire – the oldest empire in the world – still existed (the empire flourished between 4500 – 1900 BC). The most ancient version of this text was written in Sumerian cuneiform, one of the earliest writing systems. The Sumerians invented cuneiform itself, with the name “cuneiform” literally meaning “wedge-shaped”, as the writing is distinguished by wedge-shaped marks made on clay tablets. In the late fourth millennium BC, cuneiform began as a system of pictograms and over time, this pictorial representation of meaning became more simplified and abstract. Geoffrey Sampson, Professor of Natural Language Computing at the University of Sussex, posits that Egyptian hieroglyphics were likely influenced by Sumerian cuneiform.
The first complete version of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains the flood myth, dates back to 1300 – 1000 BC, and was written in Akkadian, a type of Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia that dates from 2800 BC – 500 AD. The Akkadian cuneiform script in which this version is written is an adaptation of Sumerian cuneiform. It should be noted that the oldest account of a flood story dates back to 1646 – 1626 BC and came out of the Babylonian empire, which goes to show just how old plagiarism is.
Regardless of which version is the oldest or which flood story came first, we can say with conviction that the first written account of a story is over 4,000 years old. However, this, of course, doesn’t mean that this is when storytelling began. This is simply when, as far as our records show, this is the time at which humans first inscribed a story, thereby preserving it and allowing it to be read in a fixed form by others. Undoubtedly, humans were telling stories before they wrote them down. But what compelling evidence, if any, do we have that points to earlier signs of storytelling?
It is not clear when humans first began telling and retelling the kinds of narratives found in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Myths, fairy tales, trickster stories, hero stories, stories of gods and supernatural entities, and epic fictional adventures are ancient and universal but just how old are they? Again, the answer is not palpable.
Arguably, storytelling itself is indicated by some of the earliest forms of cave art. Take the famous Lascaux Cave, for example, located in the Pyrenees Mountains in Southern France, which is 15,000- to 17,000-years old. This cave contains a remarkable display of Palaeolithic cave paintings, including depictions of animals, such as horses, red deer, stags, bovines, felines, and what look like mythical creatures. There is also a single human figure represented, a bird-headed man. Many archaeologists believe that the cave was purposed as a centre for hunting and religious ceremonies. Upon examination, the cave paintings portray a simplistic series of events, with rituals and hunting practices carried out.
Could these cave murals, then, be a manifestation of the innate human desire to weave a narrative? Were these Palaeolithic hunters and artists trying to tell a story here? It’s certainly up for discussion. It’s fascinating to consider – of course, with an extremely speculative outlook – what the motives were of these ancestors of ours; what drew them to paint and draw, so prolifically, scenes of animals and hunting on those cave walls? On the one hand, you could assert that the cave art merely shows what held the most value to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, with the paintings perhaps reinstating the primary importance of the hunt to the tribe.
On the other hand, some archaeologists posit that the images constitute stories, with one image in particular lending credence to this claim. In the cave, there is an image of a disembowelled bison seemingly interacting with a bird-headed human figure to the left of the animal. Some suggest that the bird-headed figure is a shaman, an idea that can be traced back to the French archaeologist Henri Breuil who played a pivotal role in the interpretation of the ancient art found in both the Lascaux Cave and the Chauvet Cave. He opined that ‘The Sorcerer’, an enigmatic cave drawing of a human-animal hybrid figure found in the Chauvet Cave, was representative of a shaman. Whether or not the bird-headed figure of the Lascaux Cave is a shaman, the point remains that action and reaction involved in the scene depicted may be a sign of storytelling. In the Lascaux Cave, we can also see animals interacting with each other, which could also indicate the artist telling some story.
Storytelling could, however, reach back even further in history than the age of the Lascaux Cave. Also in France, the equally well-known Chauvet Cave – or “cave of forgotten dreams”, as it’s been dubbed – is between 30,000 and 32,000 years old, and features art that may tell a story of a volcanic eruption. Like the Lascaux Cave, the art also depicts scenes (animals interacting with each other) and seems to be based on themes of survival. However, a prevailing theory put forward by Breuil states that the images found in these caves played a role in what is known as ‘hunting magic’. This theory suggests that the prehistoric people who communed in this cave may have believed that creating images of their prey, as a kind of ritual, would help them to overpower them and guarantee a successful hunt. This is known as magical thinking. It involves believing that one’s thoughts, wishes, or actions can influence the course of events in the physical world, without a plausible link of causation. Since our ancestors depended on a successful hunt for their survival, they may very well have employed magical thinking in an attempt to better the outcome of their hunts. (Evidence of religious ideas dates back several hundred thousand years, so assuming magical thinking in our Palaeolithic ancestors isn’t out of the question.)
Not all archaeologists may be able to agree on whether these examples of ancient cave art point to storytelling humans. But such a conclusion is by no means implausible. And it is quite intriguing to imagine such hunter-gatherers convening in caves to tell stories in the form of murals or orally. No one knows exactly when human language originated, although various experts estimate it emerged 50,000 to 150,000 years ago. This means our Palaeolithic ancestors (who lived up to 12,000 years ago) could have had a rich oral tradition of storytelling or, at least, the ability to tell stories to each other.
In The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, fairy-tale expert Jack Zipes states that humans have been telling stories as soon as they had the ability to speak and possibly even before that, by using a kind of sign language. According to Zipes, these stories were intended to mark an occasion, set an example, or warn about some danger. But, in his view, they were also an attempt to explain the inexplicable in the form of fairy tales or tall tales (these are stories with unbelievable elements, involving exaggeration or imagination, and are told as if they were factual). We do not currently have any recorded evidence of these stories yet Zipes, nonetheless, presents the possibility that very early storytelling could have featured fairy tales.
Why Do We Have the Urge to Tell Stories?
Now that we have some sort of timeline in regards to the birth and development of storytelling, it’s worth asking a deeper question: why do humans seem to possess this need for storytelling? We are the only species, so far as we know, that creates and tells stories. It is one of the many attributes that defines and binds us as a species. So where does this urge come from?
An evolutionary perspective will be relevant in helping us to answer this question. Storytelling may have evolved because it gave our ancestors some sort of evolutionary advantage – and this can hold true even if telling stories isn’t adaptive today in our modern, technologically advanced world. One hypothesis propounds the idea that stories have a stress-relieving function. Human life has always been stressful. In the Pleistocene Epoch, the causes of stress may have centred on getting attacked and eaten by a wide range of predators. And while we may not experience such acute, life-threatening stress in the modern age, we still commonly suffer from chronic stress in the form of paying bills and looming work deadlines. For both our ancestors and humans today, the function of stories could offer us a way to temporarily escape the stressful and anxiety-inducing nature of the external world. By absorbing ourselves in imaginary worlds – or any other sort of story or narrative – we can distract ourselves, entertain ourselves, and direct our attention away from reality, helping us to relax us in the process.
Another hypothesis suggests that storytelling evolved for reasons related to sexual selection. The idea here is that being adept at storytelling will help you to attract mates. As someone who is able to weave a compelling narrative, you can capture someone’s attention and use your words in this way in the name of seduction. Similar to birds that sing to attract mates, humans may have discovered that the skill of storytelling can enrapture and enamour potential mates – and this is why storytelling may be so pervasive today. This trait helped our ancestors to procreate, so storytelling became a common sexual selection strategy, just as singing is for a variety of bird species.
There’s also the idea that storytelling evolved as a way of binding us as a species. Creating a shared history and mythology could help to reinforce group identity and, in turn, promote group solidarity, the sharing of resources, and other forms of cooperation. During particularly trying times in our evolutionary history, such as severe periods of scarcity – where we nearly disappeared as a species – or in the midst of the last ice age, group cohesion would have been of paramount importance in our continued survival. It’s entirely plausible that storytelling developed as a way of promoting tribal cohesiveness, allowing us to successfully battle through desperate situations and environments.
Of course, more than one of these explanations could be at play in the evolution of storytelling. According to one study, published in Nature Communications, this seems to be the case. After examining different cultures from all over the world, the anthropologists behind the research found that storytelling helps to enhance social cooperation and teach social norms, while also benefiting individual storytellers, improving their chances of being selected by potential mates, receiving support from the community, and being the recipients food, which, subsequently, will give their offspring an evolutionary edge. The researchers note, however, that this study is inconclusive. There is perhaps evidence yet to be discovered that will lead to a more convincing explanation. Moreover, if we wanted to single out one hypothesis as having the most explanatory power, how do we decide which one that is?
It’s also entirely possible that storytelling is merely an evolutionary by-product that serves no function and carries no advantage. It may have just been something that we were capable of doing as a result of developing the sort of brain necessary for language, which itself is evolutionarily adaptive. Once discovering the ability to tell stories, we continued to enact this capacity, perhaps purely out of enjoyment and the sense of meaning it afforded us (a point I will address later); although, this result of storytelling – improving our lives as such – may underscore that it is advantageous after all.
In terms of whether storytelling benefits us today, it’s worth highlighting how it’s never been easier to both tell and consume stories. In this digital age, the internet means we can consume and share stories with incredible ease. But as Laura Maguire asks in an article for Philosophy Talk: “Are we now consuming the story equivalent of refined sugars in quantities that are unhealthy? Should we be trying to wean ourselves off story? Or is there something essential we still get from weaving tales?”
Our penchant for refined sugar makes evolutionary sense. In times of scarcity, individual humans most likely to survive were those that craved sweet food more strongly than others. Craving sugar used to serve an evolutionary advantage when high-caloric foods were in short supply and our ancestors needed boosts in energy. However, now it’s easy and convenient to consume refined sugary products, which makes our sweet tooth – once adaptive – now maladaptive. Biological evolution is a slow, gradual process and it cannot keep up with the rapid changes that we as humans make to our societies and lifestyles. Similarly, while storytelling may have been adaptive in the past, in a completely different context, the way it manifests today in the information age may render this urge maladaptive. The psychological impact of our exposure to the 24-hours news cycle could support this notion. Nevertheless, I would maintain that our inherent desire for storytelling and narrativisation still benefits us as a species to this day, in spite of other negative outcomes related to overexposure, overconsumption, and the proliferation of unhealthy or unhelpful storytelling.
Storytelling and Narrativisation Imbue Our Lives With Meaning
The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl argued that humans are driven by a ‘will to meaning’. We are constantly in search of some personal meaning and, according to Frankl, when we lack such meaning, we suffer; but, if we can carve meaning out of our lives in some way, we will be able to achieve fulfilment. And this is where storytelling and narrativisation come into the equation. Because in many ways, these forms of human expression serve the process of meaning-making. By adding a narrative structure to our real-life experiences, by imbuing our life with a storyline, we can gain a sense of what our purpose is, what direction our life is going (and what our preferred direction is), and how we can best grow from our suffering. For Frankl, some of our richest experiences of meaning bloom out of our free and chosen responses to the hardship that we will inevitably encounter. Narrativisation, undoubtedly, plays a part in the meaningful ways in which we transfigure suffering.
Frankl also emphasised that we can garner personal meaning by doing something that goes beyond oneself, such as being of service to others. Based on the hypothesis and research stating that storytelling improves group solidarity, we can see here how telling tales can instil meaning in our lives, by affirming the importance of helping others in the community. Countless myths also follow the template of the ‘hero’s journey’, as elucidated by mythologist Joseph Campbell. This is the classic and archetypal story of a hero overcoming great adversity and growing from it, as well as benefiting the community to which he returns. These sorts of myths can, likewise, help individuals navigate real-life adversity in a way that is highly meaningful and rewarding.
While the idea of each of us having a ‘personal journey’ may sound cliché, self-important, and maybe a little cringeworthy, it is pretty much an inescapable fact that we are drawn towards narrativising our lives in terms of a journey. We think of ourselves as the protagonist interacting with other characters who are crucial to our storyline, as well as there being a beginning, middle, and end to our life. This seems to depend on us having a subjective sense of self, the ‘I’ or ‘me’ that constitutes personal identity. According to the cognitive scientist Bruce Hood, the self is an illusion, a remarkably persistent and convincing illusion that arises when the brain combines past experiences, current events, and future aspirations and tries to create a coherent narrative out of them. Hood maintains that who we are is a fabricated story, first woven during childhood and then shaped further by our subsequent relationships and interactions with others. Albeit illusory, the self helps us to make sense of the world and offers us tangible benefits in the way we think and act (e.g. in the formulation of goals and how we relate to others), which ultimately aids our survival.
The self – the idea that we have an identity that is distinct and consistent across time – emerges out of the storytelling powers of the brain and, as a result, turns our whole life into a story. And like fictional stories, we can interpret our own life experiences as comedy, tragedy, or heroic adventure, with ourselves and others taking on the different roles central to each type of story, as well as switching roles from time to time. Shakespeare was well-aware of the theatrical nature of our existence and famously encapsulated this sentiment in a monologue from his play As You Like It, delivered by the melancholy Jacques:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Shakespeare, though, was not the first thinker to draw this comparison between the world as a stage and people as actors. For instance, the ancient Roman poet Juvenal wrote in his “Satire 3”: “All of Greece is a stage, and every Greek’s an actor.” And in 1511, the Dutch philosopher Erasmus ponders the following in his work The Praise of Folly: “For what else is the life of man but a kind of play in which men in various costumes perform until the director motions them off the stage.” This juxtaposition between stories and human existence is not just an act of creative imagination – it is a keen insight into a universal human experience. Furthermore, this narrativising urge is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is sometimes difficult to separate the world from the narrative. The distinction between a story and reality can often become blurred. We walk around, day-to-day, with a narrator sitting in our heads, an inner monologue that constructs storylines about situations, events, experiences, and people that, for us, are as real and impactful as anything else.
Of course, our narrativising powers mean we can take a step back from this inner narration and take it in a direction that better serves us. We can also create a story about this inner narration (e.g. I am not the inner narrator or I will overcome the negative narration in my head), in which case, we may call this a kind of meta-story (a story about a story). Meta-storytelling shows itself in other ways too. For example, you may read a particular work of fiction at a specific juncture in your life and incorporate this story into your own personal journey, using it (perhaps mindfully or more subtly) to add a meaningful direction to your storyline. Here, again, we see the blending of story and reality.
At every level, the psychological, individual, familial, communal, societal, and global, the story that we tell ourselves has a major impact on how things actually turn out. It’s vital, then, to recognise the types of poisonous storytelling that lead to harmful outcomes – for both the individual and others – and to challenge such narratives. This must also be coupled with an awareness of the kinds of narratives that are based on wisdom, meaning, and growth. These are the sorts of stories that need retelling.
The human need for storytelling doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, so it’s worth making the most out of this very strange and unique power that nature has afforded us.