In the USA, April 27th is National Tell A Story Day and the event is a day in which as many stories as possible from all across the country are told by people of all ages to link their creators together and for them to inspire each other with their tales. Whether read from a book, recollected from memory, inspired by myth, legend or folklore or simply made up on the spot, National Tell A Story Day is a day for all stories and libraries across America now participate in the annual event. Storytelling is now being considered an art form, but raconteurs and tale tellers have been spinning yarns the world over for thousands of years, using storytelling mediums from rock carving and musical instruments to majestic totem poles and exotic shadow puppets to share and pass on culture, experience and religion to whoever chooses to watch or listen. Stories and tales are told to amaze and fascinate, to bring people together and inspire them and on National Tell A Story Day we explore some of the most fascinating ways in which stories have been told around the globe.
The Pacific Northwest encompasses the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and the Yukon, as well as the American states of Oregon and Washington, and the masterfully-carved and totem poles which can be seen across the region offer arguably the best insight into the seemingly infinite stories of Native American culture and everyday life. Vancouver's Stanley Park is home to one of Pacific Northwest's most impressive collections of totem poles and every single one of these majestic wooden objects tells a unique story about the native clan which carved it.
The Haida, the Nuxalt, the Kwakwaka'wakw, the Tlingit, the Tsimshian and the Salish people are the six native tribes who created totem poles in the Canadian part of the Pacific Northwest and the figures most commonly depicted on the carvings are those of sacred and revered local animals, including the thunderbird, the orca, the shark, the eagle and dozens more. Each of these animals represents a particular element of a clan's history and lineage, as well as creation myths and tales of the ancestors, and the totem poles act as a means of visual storytelling through woodcarving.
All over the jungles of what are the Central American nations of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, temples and step pyramids created by the world famous Maya civilisation are encrusted with frescoes and murals depicting gods and kings alongside mystical hieroglyphs. It took over four hundred years for experts to decipher the Maya glyphs and when the code was cracked, a whole new world of pictographic stories was uncovered, including creation myths and legends, stories of the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars as well as how chocolate was seen as a gift from the gods.
Long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Maya had created folding manuscripts made from cloth harvested from the fig trees of the Central American jungle. The manuscripts were some of the most comprehensive records of Mayan mythology, culture, astronomy, business and everyday life and each of those that survived the Spanish conquest became known as a codex. Today, replicas of the surviving codices can be seen in museums throughout Mexico and Guatemala, showcasing arguably the best remaining examples of Maya visual storytelling on earth.
West Africa is globally famous for its colourful and vibrant traditional entertainment and one of the region's most enduring and popular mediums is a form of oral and musical storytelling still exists today, known as either Griot or Jali. Griots or Jalis first rose to prominence in the fourteenth century during the Mali Empire, which encompassed parts of present day Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and other West African nations, and these musical historians and storytellers were part of the entourage of each regional 'Jatigi', or 'Warrior King'.
Villages and settlements throughout the Mali Empire had their own officially-appointed Griot or Jali and the storytellers would tell their tales with the aid of a traditional stringed wooden musical instrument known as a Xalam or a Komsa. The stories told by the Griots and Jalis included musically-accompanied accounts of anything from myths famous battles to births, marriages and tales of how the legendary King Mansa Musa, tenth Sultan of the Mali Empire and acclaimed as the richest man who ever lived, accumulated his mind-boggling stashes of gold.
In the Arabic world, storytellers known as Hakawātī are one of the most beloved forms of public entertainment. Historically, Hakawātī would set themselves up on street corners to tell their tales but in modern times their art of storytelling has been revived and in cafés and coffeehouses across the Middle East, such as Damascus' five hundred year-old Al Nawfara Café, these Arabic storytellers dazzle customers and travellers from all over the world.
The Hakawātī use their public storytelling expertise for anything from retelling stories of the victories of legendary Muslim heroes such as Saladin and Baybars - complete with scimitars and swords as props - during the Crusades, to Islamic folktales from the world-famous 'One Thousand and One Arabian Nights'. During the Ottoman Empire era, satire became one of the most popular elements of the Hakawātīs' storytelling and they regularly poked fun at imperial politicians and authority figures and when fasting ends during the holy month of Ramadan, one of the most popular activities is attending a traditional Hakawātī storytelling.
Before Tibet was brutally and controversially annexed by China in 1951, wandering Buddhist storytellers would travel solo across the length and breadth of the former country's kingdoms and territories. Known as Lana Mani or Bhuchen, these travelling oracles lived an almost nomadic lifestyle as they went from place to place with hand-painted Tibetan Buddhist scrolls, or Thangka, recounting tales from the Buddhist epics, preaching the cosmic law and order of the Dharma and extolling the virtues of Buddhist ethics, moral conduct, compassion and good karma. Image Credit: KhadakTravel
The name given to the wandering storytellers of Tibet, Mani Lama, is taken from the ancient Buddhist Sanskrit mantra 'Om Mani Padme Hum', with 'Mani' referring to the jewel and 'Padme' referring to the lotus flower, two key symbols in all forms of Buddhism. In addition to inspiring and influencing many of the stories told by the Tibetan wandering storytellers, the phrase can most commonly be seen embellished on special Mani stones at Buddhist temples and monasteries across the former Tibet, Bhutan as well as India's Ladakh region and Tibetan refugee camps and centres including Tashipalkhel, in the Nepalese city of Pokhara.
On the Indonesian island of Bali, Wayang Kulit is a form of theatrical storytelling using shadow puppets which recounts tales from the great Hindu epic texts, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as those from pre-Hindu Balinese literature. Dating as far back as the first century AD and literally meaning 'Shadow Leather', Wayang Kulit is renowned as one of the most immersive and exotic forms of storytelling in the world in addition to being one of the most popular types of entertainment for Balinese locals and tourists alike.
Wayang Kulit is performed by a single individual known as a Dalang, or 'Shadow Master', accompanied by a group of traditional Balinese and Javanese 'gamelan' musicians playing drums, bamboo flutes and xylophones. The Dalang sits behind a roughly four-by-eight metre screen using a collection of sometimes up to one hundred different shadow puppets to act out scenes from Hindu myth and legend, and a performance is always opened and closed by the Kayonan, a shadow puppet who acts as the narrator of the stories.
The storytelling traditions of China are as rich and vibrant as the culture of the nation itself and in Fuzhou, capital of the eastern province of Fujian, Fuzhou Pinghua is a type of folk entertainment which dates back over one thousand years to the Song Dynasty. Fuzhou Pinghua was especially popular right up to the early twenty century. In recent years, however, Fuzhou Pinghua has seen somewhat of a resurgence and a handful of around thirty storytellers still practice the ancient art today at venues such as Jade Leaf Storytelling Theater, which in 2013 was opened in an abandoned workshop. Image Credit: ChinaDaily
Famously described as 'a living fossil of ancient Chinese art', Fuzhou Pinghua is performed by a single storyteller on a podium using five specific props; a chopstick, a paper fan, a cymbal, a piece of wood and a jade ring. Performances always open with the storyteller striking the cymbal with the chopstick to bring attention to himself as he begins recounting famous tales from Chinese literature and mythology, such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. Image Credit: ChinaDaily
For the Aboriginal people of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, storytelling acts as one of the cornerstones of an entire culture. Tjukurrpa very loosely translates to The Dreaming, a term used to describe the Aboriginal view of the world and everything in it, and the oral and visual forms of this worldview are known as Dreamtime stories. Dating back well over 65,000 years, this concept is one of the oldest forms of storytelling in the world and every single Aboriginal Australian has their own Dreamtime stories which represent their individual view of the universe.
Caves and rock grottoes across the Northern Territory and Western Australia, such as those in Arnhem Land, the Kimberley region and the world famous Kakadu National Park, showcase some of the most fascinating rock paintings and rock art on the planet. Often represented by totemic renderings of animals, these spellbinding paintings recount the millions of Dreamtime stories of how the ancestors such as Altjira, the sky god and the Rainbow Serpent, travelled across the land creating mountains, rivers, oceans, trees and creating the sun, the moon, the stars and the milky was as well as all of the world's other natural features.
Seen today in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and other large Japanese cities, a type of street theatre known as Kamishibai is one of the oldest in the Far East. Kamishibai literally means 'Paper Theatre' and was first recorded as far back as the eighth century AD, when monks at Japanese shrines and temples would use 'Emakimono' pictorial scrolls to tell stories passing on Buddhist wisdom and mantras. Japan's 'Paper Theater' street storytelling was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s, acting as a form of affordable entertainment during times of immense economic hardship. Image Credit: TokyoBling
The Kamishibaiya, or 'narrators', use a wooden, miniature stage-like device to wind images on as they tell their stories and despite a decline in popularity after World War II, this uniquely Japanese form of pictorial storytelling is experiencing a rebirth. Tokyo's Asakusa district is one of the most renowned places for Kamishibai and the medium is also credited with being the early forerunner of and inspiration for Japanese manga and anime. Additionally, Kamishibai gave the world its first comic book superhero in Ogon Bat, an ancient, golden-masked god of justice with superhuman strength and the ability to fly, who protects the innocent from his fortress in the Japanese Alps. Image Credit: AkiSato (Flickr)
Culture vultures and sports fans the world over will be familiar with the iconic ceremonial dances of the South Pacific, including the Maori Haka and the Tongan Sipi Tau. While the most common, and correct, assumption is that these rituals are either war cries or battle challenges, the dances are also a form of cultural expression and storytelling. In the tropical paradise islands of Fiji, a style of ceremonial dance and storytelling art form called Meke is one of the main ways in which Fijian myths and legends are passed down from generation to generation.
While the dances are performed on a regular basis for tourists and travellers at cultural centres such as Viti Levu's Pacific Harbor Arts Village, the Fijian tradition of Meke storytelling remains as prominent a fixture in the islands' cultural heritage today as it has done for thousands of years. The ceremonial dance is performed by a group, or Matana, of men or women who synchronise their movements to a harmony played by an orchestra known as a Vakatara. Some of most important stories in Fijian culture are regularly acted out during Meke performances, including how the serpent god, Deigei, created Viti Levu's famous Sigatoka Sand Dunes by calling in a tidal wave and how Kadavu Island was once fought over in a titanic struggle between Dakuwaqa, the Fijian shark god, and Kadavu, the octopus god.