The Storyteller’s Old Magic

There’s power in names. The names we’re given, the names we choose for ourselves. The titles we earn and the ones we think we out grow. To name something is to pin it down, collate it, categorise it, accept or dismiss it.  And also to place it in context – a text – a story.  Stories give us meaning, tell us who we are, explain things, entertain us so we forget the shadows, or show us the shadows and let us survive them. It is why story tellers have been revered for, well, forever.


It’s no accident spell is a special word. Once writing was a hidden skill. To interpret signs made by others was a sacred secret. Revered. Those who could remember, read, spell back and curse your enemies or bless your descendents or relate the history of your people were important. Rulers deferred to them, the people feared and admired them. Children started on decades of training to be them.

And by some, those early magical scribes were not much thought of. Socrates was not much impressed with literacy, but he lived in an age when poets and story tellers memorised the entire Iliad and Odyssey – an age when to know a work was to be able to recite it by heart. Although he wasn’t much impressed with poets either. But anyway, it is why fairy tales persisted and still do and it’s a situation that still exists in some cultures, and even in the West 100 or 50 years ago.

Now the story tellers of other times are the old women of those fairy tales. And we relegate their knowledge to children. And in a further debasement of these wise women, we make them into characters, when they were women with the power of the tell. We make them ugly and scary or ugly and a joke, when once, perhaps, they were the source of all knowledge.

There is a story that all the knowledge of the world was held in 12 books and an old woman, the last of her lineage, arrived at the city gates and offered the books to the ruler for a vast sum. The ruler refused, because the city was happy and wealthy and had no need of such knowledge. The old woman said fine, and burnt half the books. The next year she returned and offered the same ruler the six books for double the price. The ruler laughed and said why, we’re doing well and now you only have half the knowledge. She burned half the books again. For another year she returned and the city was a bit different and the ruler considered her offer and said, with the plague and the drought we could do with that knowledge, but now we can’t afford to pay. Would you give us the books? The old woman refused and burned two of the remaining three books. Another year later she appeared and the city was in turmoil, people were dying and leaving and the ruler was desperate. She named her price for 1/12th of all knowledge in the world. He paid it.

When I remember where the above story comes from, I’ll let you know. But it’s a metaphor for how there was once a Golden Age and how humanity has fallen so far from knowledge, there is only 1/12th left. Or less.

2 thoughts on “The Storyteller’s Old Magic

  1. In many ways we could be perceived to be in a golden age now. All human knowledge is at our fingertips (I type this with a single digit on an iPhone). Rather than being set on fire, it is uploaded to a server for all to browse. We’re in a technological golden age. Now more than ever has technology embedded itself in our lives, and in such varied ways. We are in an era of enlightenment and wonder and creative riches.

    But, yes, if we were to apply the metaphor in the tale to modern times, it would apply best to the arts. As you allude to, it’s the arts – the artists, the storytellers – which keeps having a flame put to it. 

    I am away from university life now, so “the arts” is something of an abstract concept for me (there may be several problems tucked in that statement). But if it’s an abstract for me, what of the man or woman who does not write or study paintings or seek out experimental literature in his or her spare time? 

    The age doesn’t feel very golden, does it?

    Great post and a great tale, fairy or otherwise. 

    • Thanks for your comments! It’s the myth of the suffering artist – even in the golden age of communication our storytellers are somehow shortsheeted.
      And agreed, the developed world is in a kind of info-tech age of wonders, where ‘content’ is king. And grumply types from Socrates onwards have always bemoaned such ‘modern’ times, like those people who complain about the lack of [insert attribute here] in young kids today. Yet, there are those like Rene Guenon, who says it is not knowledge or wisdom, but information. And we browse it, not partake in it. We consume it, not know it. Sometimes I think Guenon was right, and other times I say, whatev’s dude, you’re not looking hard enough! There is wisdom to be found and don’t confuse the message with the means.

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