Monday, January 21, 2013


Long, long ago...

The oral tradition of storytelling is the one of the oldest traditions of civilization. Storytellers were not just entertainers, but teachers and historians. Some stories were based on actual historical events some were complete flights of the imagination and designed to teach—perhaps a moral, or teach the listeners critical thinking and sound decision making. Stories also reminded the listeners of bygone lessons from history, religion, and lessons of everyday life. Stories were guides to planting, hunting, fishing, and creating things for the community.

Then there were the legends or myths. They were designed to explain the unexplainable like creation, how land was formed, how the oceans stayed in their boundaries, how thunder came about, or lightning happened. There weren’t any scientists so people used things of their world—personifying animals or creating superhuman heroes doing great deeds to give an explanation. At the heart these heroes produced good results for the community but usually at great cost. These legendary stories encouraged the listeners to think and figure out how to do things or make sense of what was unknown to them and to appreciate sacred things. Many legends held subtle morals on what would happen if one person, or group of people, stepped away from what they held sacred and that one’s actions could affect the community for years to come.

There are many oral legends told around the world. Some have been captured in written word. The authors wrote down the oral tales of generations past and perhaps added their embellishments to fit the new audience. Think Homer—these weren’t new tales but a retelling of the old. Aesop’s tales and the brothers Grim. All tales retold from ancient times. Entertaining tales but with instruction at the heart of the story.

Many Native American tribes still have tales from old. On the surface they entertained, but below the surface were lessons to be learned. I’ll share one with you.

Medicine Bear

“Long, long ago, in the beginning times, bear was a great healer. He knew all the plants, roots, and barks that would cure sickness and heal injuries. Bear was the first medicine man. The people honored and respected Bear. 
Ah, but then came the summer of little rain. The crops did not grow and the rivers and streams were drying and there were no fish. The game animals were scarce 
In their hunger, the people abandoned their sacred ways and hunted bear for food. But, when they tried to cook him, his ashes went into the sky and became mosquitoes.”

The legend explained the unexplainable—how mosquitoes came about. The storyteller who thought it up as a parable, had great imagination and wisdom, and knew how to tell the tale so the lessons would be remembered.  It does entertain but there are lessons below the surface of the tale.  When we abandon our beliefs and turn our backs on what we hold sacred, no good will become of it.  

The tale also reminded the listeners the consequences of their actions could be felt for generations to come. You can bet every time a mosquito bit the listener they would remember the rest of the tale and why pesky mosquitoes were around.

One of my favorite tales from Aesop’s tales is the dog and the bone. It makes you laugh and so it entertains, but the underlying lesson is all about being content with what one has and how foolish it is to desire more. Another lesson is about coveting (craving what belongs to another) what others have.

Many hurtful consequences come from such a desire and when you lose sight of what is important in your own life. Like the foolish dog, you often lose it all.

  • Do you have a favorite fable or tale? What do you like about it?


Tamara said...

Great post! I've always loved fables, and I love how important story-tellers are, even to today's culture.

On a totally different topic--that is an awesome idea...just disabling the anonymous postings I mean...I'm really tired of reading mildly perverted advertisements on my blog!! I don't know why I didn't think of this. Now I just have to figure out how to do it.

As for my favorite fable, I've always LOVED the Emperors New Clothes. SO true to life!! I know a ton of people who would swear the emperor was dressed in the finest fashions. :)

Anne Gallagher said...

I heard a Native story once, thunder and lightning happens when Mother Earth and Father Sky are having an argument. He is lightning, her tears are the rain, and the thunder is both of them yelling.

~Sia McKye~ said...

anne, I've heard that variation as well. Another one tells of the Thunderbird whose wings bring the strong wind, his voice the thunder, and lightning from his flashing eyes. I really do enjoy myths and legends. Oral stories are a favorite of mine as well.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Tamara, you do it in the settings. I had to do it. I could not believe how many spammers were hitting my blog each day!

I also liked the Emperors clothes.

James Rafferty said...

Hi Sia,

I think the literary power of many stories from the bible is often overlooked. One of my favorites is the situation where Jesus comes upon a woman accused of sins and encourages the ones without sin to throw the first stone; the crowd dissipates. The lesson still resonates to this day.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Never heard the bear one before.
Not sure when it began, but there is one about a frog and a scorpion crossing a river. Sorry, that's the only one I can think of right now.

nutschell said...

i loved fables when i was a kid--and fairtyales, too of course. Happy to have been introduced to medicine bear!

Liz Fichera said...

Love this post! I'm also very fond of Native American stories and legends. There are so many of them where I live. Thanks for sharing Medicine Bear!

P.S. Thanks also for the kind comment you left on my blog. I'm doing better this year. Hope your year is off to a great start. :)