The World’s Second or Third Oldest Profession?: Storytelling

Last night, on the way to a book launch for an author friend (Justine Graykin’s release of Archimedes Nesselrode, which she describes as a “palate cleanser” for grittier works of fiction–so it’s a handy thing to read if Elisha Barber left you feeling a little unsettled), I had a nice chat with my carpool partner about storytelling. He advanced the claim that storytelling, so vital to the human psyche, was likely one of the oldest professions.

The list of early occupations, when people started to specialize, likely includes hunter, gatherer, shaman (in a dual role as both healer and priest). After this comes farmer, warrior (who might also be a hunter), administrative professional, potter, basket-maker, tanner. . .The question in my mind is, who, at the start, were the storytellers? Was it, in fact, a specialized occupation in the paleolithic, or rather, was it a facet of everyone’s life?

Before that question, though, I should note that there are numerous psychological studies about the utility of stories and how strongly we are drawn to them. I think this relates to the biological principle of the Theory of Mind. All animals develop some sense of the flow of their world–where and when they are likely in danger. Higher predators take this sense further, constructing an internal narrative predicting what other animals will do. Hence the cat who, seeing another cat heading for a door, sneaks around a piece of furniture to pounce on it, correctly predicting the cat’s arrival there. Storytelling is an especially elaborate Theory of Mind, one that has often become completely detached from its usefulness as an evolutionary mechanism (although there are also those who argue that hearing the right kinds of stories still prepares people for action).

We often envision an early man (yes, most likely a man, though it’s now believed that women also took part in group hunting activities), returning after a successful hunt and telling those who remained behind all about it. Gary Paulsen said in an interview, “When I write a story, the hair goes up on my neck. I taste blood. I put bloody skins on my back and dance around the fire and tell what the hunt was like.” In spite of that vivid description, then, the earliest stories might well have been the ancient equivalent of answering the question, “How was your day, dear?”

At some point, before or after this, comes the stage of explanation, of what has been handed down to us as myth. That same hunter, now unsuccessful for many days, comes to the shaman to ask what’s happened to the animals. And the shaman will tell him a story, probably involving Platonic models of the animals, who exist beyond this realm, or other beings inherent in the land and in the life they live, who must be approached in certain ways–worshiped, sacrificed to, honored in the hunt.

But neither of these tellers of tales is a professional, dedicated to that line above all others. The figure of a lore-keeper, a scroll-keeper, one who holds the memory of the clan, appears often in fiction–when might such a person have developed in the real world? It’s hard to say–but I suspect their prevalence in fiction has much more to do with authors than with anthropology: because we love what we do, we incorporate it into our work–less out of hubris than out of the belief (real or imagined) that it is just as exciting to others. Hence the large number of authors as protagonists for stories.

Another writer friend once imagined us back at that campfire by the cave, assuming that our drive to tell stories was so strong that we would have been tale-tellers even then. I remarked that, given the age and health of many members of the group, chances were that most of us would be dead. Yeah, I know, way to spoil a pretty vision, E. C., just had to bring the historical perspective into it.

I am delighted to live in an era where story-telling is so highly prized that people like me (as well as scriptwriters, game developers, playwrights, comic artists and other narrative professionals) can be paid for what we do. I am also amused to live in a time where our profession is, in some sense, returning to its roots–the idea that any member of the tribe has a forum in which to tell his or her tale. That forum, that world-wide campfire, is right here, on-line. And you don’t even have to don your bloody skins to participate!

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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