Storytelling is so intertwined with any culture that you could almost say that culture is storytelling! In this article, we’ll dive deep into why storytelling matters in any culture, its role, and what that means for our lives as members of society and storytellers of various kinds!
Storytelling Plays a Huge Role in Culture
The role that storytelling plays in any culture is fundamental.
Storytelling reinforces values in any culture and is the mechanism by which the stories of a particular culture are passed on to future generations.
These stories are told in many forms, including fable, folktale, myth, and legend.
The importance of storytelling in culture becomes clear when one realizes that most books, newspapers, magazines, videos, plays, news broadcasts, social media discussions, and so on consist of someone telling a tale in some form.
Related: Why Books Are Important
In non-literate cultures, oral storytelling is the primary way cultural knowledge is passed from person to person.
Storytelling brings people together to entertain each other, to learn from each other, and often to teach young people about life and their world.
Storytelling shapes the reality of the world in their minds.
Storytelling has been important in all cultures since the dawn of history to bring people together.
The ability to tell a story is one of the defining characteristics of our species.
Storytelling Shapes a Culture
Many cultures have relied on oral and folk tales and stories to pass knowledge from one generation to the next.
Cultural mythology helps shape the cultural identity of a group of people. It fits with the values and beliefs of the group. It’s often done with rituals or ceremonies that relate to the stories.
Whether storytelling is the essential part of a culture is up for debate.
But the answer to the question of whether storytelling is a product of culture or a creator of culture, I believe, is both.
Storytelling Takes Different Forms in Different Cultures
Some cultures use stories that are more like parables, where a moral or lesson is learned at the end of the story that almost dictates to the listener how to integrate it into their mind and life.
Other cultures, however, focus more on entertainment.
In India, as in many cultures, there’s the tradition of the bards (‘Bhats’). A profession that was passed down through families.
Descended from an ancient line of storytellers for royalty, these days the bards memorize a vast number of stories and tell them to audiences and tourists, either for a small fee or for garlands of marigolds that they wear as a token of appreciation.
The bards’ stories include mythology, folklore, love stories, and even things that resemble modern novels.
How Storytelling Impacts Culture
Storytelling has a profound impact on culture because it shapes beliefs and ideas.
Stories create a shared understanding of the world inside and outside culture.
If the shared understanding is that violence is acceptable or valuable, or that stealing is good (an extreme example, I know!), it can foster cultural norms that are accepted over time.
In ancient Egypt, the ruling pharaohs were the intermediaries between the gods and the people.
This helped them wield absolute power.
In our time, news and movies, novels, and television shows play a very strong role in how people see things. They shape the entire culture.
Not least because of the emotional impact of their stories and narratives.
Specific Cultural Storytelling Examples
The indigenous Ainu people of Japan’s Hokkaido island had to develop a strong tradition of storytelling to pass on their culture.
When repression started against the Ainu in the second half of the 19th century, they could not record their history in written form. Instead, they passed it on through oral history.
Without this tradition, the history of the Ainu would have been largely erased.
In West Africa griots (hereditary storytellers and singers) have kept the histories of tribes and African folktales for centuries through oral storytelling.
A griot served as a trusted advisor to local nobility, as well as a record keeper of births, death, marriages, and cultural traditions.
They are a vital part of African culture and its oral storytelling tradition.
The Way Storytelling Reflects a Culture
Storytelling reflects a culture because stories can be reactions to culture, sometimes critically, or convey a different way of thinking or being.
Because storytelling is a sophisticated form of communication, stories are often used to convey elements of culture that cannot be described simply.
Stories say and explain things that aren’t obvious.
Storytelling is used to address issues in society that cannot be discussed directly. As was the case in the Soviet Union.
Authors like Bulgakov used allegories in works like The Master and Margarita to criticize Stalin’s regime.
Storytelling reflects the collective wisdom and formation of a culture.
In this sense, I believe that storytelling serves as a “bank of wisdom” for cultures.
How Storytelling Differs From Culture to Culture
Although there’s a universality to storytelling as identified and explored by literature professor Joseph Campbell in ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces‘ (his seminal work, which inspired The Hero’s Journey story structure), there are significant differences in the way storytelling is expressed in different cultures.
In many so-called “primitive” societies, stories are memorized and passed from person to person as a cultural tradition that forms a significant part of the community’s socio-cultural identity.
Stories are often used to elaborate the culture’s worldview and give meaning to the community’s life.
Greek mythology is perhaps one of the best-known types of storytelling culture.
Greek myths were retellings of the world’s creation, the origins of various important figures, and their lessons for humanity.
Native American culture used storytelling as a way to shape tribal identity, using stories that were often in the form of allegories.
In Japan, there’s a centuries-old tradition of storytelling.
In recitation contests and skill exercises, puppet shows, written texts, Kabuki (dance and drama), and in Nō drama (“skill-entertainment”), the Japanese have a wide range of storytelling forms.
In Australia, Aboriginal legends are very important to indigenous cultures. Although they aren’t necessarily written down, they exist as stories and songs passed down from generation to generation.
In Brazil, storytelling has a very fluid and improvisational form. It’s about the partnership between the storyteller and the audience. Traditional storytelling there has a rich mix of trickster and enchantment tales. It is reflecting the diverse heritage of the country.
Stories are told around a fire at night. The storyteller often has an audience cheering him on and responding to the story. This leads to a storytelling form that’s less linear and more influenced by the moment.
The Way Storytelling Transcends Cultures
Joseph Campbell’s classic work on cross-cultural mythology, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” explores what he calls the “monomyth.”
Although, as Campbell explains, the word comes from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
Campbell makes the point that the fundamental human story is universal.
Variations of it that we find in history and culture are superficial; in the bones, we see the same themes and images, characters and events, and endings.
The lesson is that no matter where we come from or what culture we’re born into, the human condition is an experience that crosses all borders.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a fantastic diversity of narrative forms in different cultures.
The diversity of narrative forms, metaphors, and devices is a beautiful testament to human imagination and creativity!
The Connection Between Storytelling and Mythology
The connection between storytelling and mythology is very strong.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines mythology as:
“A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictional.”
Oxford English Dictionary
A myth (from the ancient Greek μῦθος “mυθos, “word, speech, legend, story”) is a sacred narrative that explains how the world and humanity came to be as they are today and how society was to be organized.
In other words, mythology is the set of stories and traditions that make up the cultural identity of a particular culture.
For example, in Indian mythology, Lord Rama (worshipped as a god in many parts of India) is a legendary hero and the main character in the epic sacred text and epic poem “Ramayana.”
The story describes how Rama battles a demon king, Ravana, to rescue his wife, Sita.
It gives an understanding of the gods, politics, religion, and so on at that time.
Another example would be the ancient Greek Epic poems, which tell many cultural stories.
National Cultural Myths
Stories play an important role in national mythmaking.
For example, Hollywood and U.S. cinema – sometimes called the ‘Dream Factory’ – is a powerful myth machine that’s been highly influential in shaping the stories people believe and tell.
Not least, “The American Dream” – the idea that with hard work (in other words, following the “ideal”), anyone can make it.
The “Gunfighter” myth tells us that America is a land of opportunity and freedom, where anyone can make their own way and must be willing to defend their country and way of life.
This myth was partly created by the popularity of stories about the Wild West, cowboys riding across the prairie, and stories about the Old South, and the American Civil War.
In the former Soviet Union, romantic stories about the 1917 Russian Revolution and the founding of the Soviet state were popularized and embodied in legends and folklore.
In Britain, the legend of King Arthur (though perhaps of Welsh origin via the epic poem ‘Y Gododdin‘ dating from around AD 594), has been in the consciousness of the English since the early 12th century.
This legend and that of Robin Hood have been constantly retold in folktales, novels, and films.
It’s a central part of British culture.
The story of the Crusades is another British cultural myth, reflecting the belief that King Richard I the Lionheart was a quintessentially British hero who embodied the fighting spirit of the Anglo-Saxon people and defended the Christian ideal during the Third Crusade.
How Language Influences Storytelling
The way language affects storytelling is mesmerizing.
In how someone speaks, or a language grammatically puts things together or treats things, there’s a whole history of a culture.
When you speak the language, even if you don’t know or understand the history, you choose to participate in the history of the culture.
And in its ‘living being.’
This is one of the reasons why I love the work that Xiaomanyc does on his YouTube channel, by the way.
Language sometimes has a very subtle influence on storytelling.
Many words have meanings from a time when the language was different.
An excellent example of this is Sanskrit and Hindu terminology. Indian languages adopt many words from Sanskrit that have changed their meanings over time.
The Sanskrit word for religion is dharma, which means to uphold or sustain.
It often means duty or righteousness in serving others and society.
The form of language can have a significant impact on the narrative.
For example, oral mythologies are determined by form: the structure of the words and the sounds they make – the poetry’s rhythm, meter, etc. Oral storytelling is often very poetic.
A writer can tell a story based purely on imagination without making each word fit a rhythm.
In filmmaking, storytellers use editing to direct and influence how the audience experiences the story’s progression.
In any film, the pace of editing also significantly changes and influences the story, its impact, etc.
Storytelling in a Culture Evolves Over Time
The way storytelling evolves in culture depends on many external and internal factors.
The external factors include introducing new technologies, changes in socio-political circumstances, wars, etc.
Internal factors include the ease with which a story can be retold or its meaning and element of truth.
If there’s a strong current of change in society, storytelling will evolve to reflect that.
For example, in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s, storytelling became more “adult.”
Even stories that you might assume are set in stone evolve.
These can be things from ancient times, such as Homer’s tales of the Trojan War. Or the adventures of Robin Hood, for example.
Today’s stories about the war on terrorism are still evolving.
What a Culture’s Storytelling Tells Us About That Culture
Storytelling is a revealing way to study a culture because the stories a culture tells give clues about that culture’s significant times, customs, philosophy, and so on.
Stories of culture are like palimpsests (a manuscript that’s been erased and overwritten).
They are layers of information that give us insights into what a culture is like.
You can know a culture through the stories it tells. That’s why it’s worth reading or listening to them!
It’s partly about the stories themselves and partly about the way the stories are told.
If there are many stories about the “hero” and very few stories about the “scapegoat,” then you notice these themes more and more.
Examples of Strong Storytelling Cultures
I can’t think of a culture that doesn’t have a storytelling tradition.
However, a few come to mind when I think of a strong cultural heritage of storytelling.
Among them –
has a long tradition that probably first became known around 700 AD and has evolved since then. As in many cultures, stories are based on mythical creatures, monsters, legendary heroes, and spirits.
Japanese storytelling tradition consists of two main branches – oral and written.
One immediately thinks of the tradition of “kamishibaiya” (paper theatre). Kamishibai developed as a street performance style in the Edo period (1603-1867), and these were mainly traveling storytellers.
There were various storytelling schools, with different schools associated with different cities and quarters of the capitals.
With Westernization came an increased focus on the written word, which led to the development of the genre known as “shishosetsu” (autobiographical narrative).
Nowadays, many people love manga (Japanese comics) and anime (Japanese cartoons, usually animated manga).
Some of the most famous are ‘Ranma 1/2‘, ‘Sailor Moon’, and ‘Ghost in the Shell. ‘
There are also computer game spinoffs that have been developed and have their subgroups.
is characterized by stories that tend toward allegory – stories told to express moral values symbolically.
In India, storytelling represents the concept that we cannot fully understand reality, that the way we perceive things is only part of understanding them, and that the stories we tell aren’t a true retelling of events but a retelling of our experience of them.
The Hindu epic ‘Mahabharata’ is probably the most famous Indian epic.
Modern Indian storytelling and literature are known for their ‘chhayavaadi’ (romanticism) stories that rely heavily on symbolism and allegory.
Some of the most famous examples are the works of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, such as ‘Chokher Bali’ and ‘Gora.’
We shouldn’t forget Bollywood, which pumps out over a thousand films annually.
Bollywood has its conventions.
The dialog and vocal style is very distinctive, and the narrative includes a lot of genre conventions, such as an interplay of good and evil, retribution, the cycle of life, and so on.
India also has an exciting storytelling culture in the form of the Bhakti movement. It uses musical storytelling – the tradition of ‘kirtan’ (chants) or ‘katha’ (fables from the past), where chanting is accompanied by instruments such as drums and tambourines.
The musical instruments and chanting symbolically represent the characters in the story.
Gaelic Storytelling and Its Ancient Roots
There are various theories about where the early Gaels came from – some say they were native to the area, and others say they were migrants from Asia.
The Gaels (also known as Goidels or Celts) settled the lands now known as Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Belgium, and as far away as Iraq.
Each tribe had its own stories passed down from generation to generation.
The concept of “Seanchaidh,” an encyclopedic collection of stories, developed around the early 1700s and is said to reflect the concerns of its time. Seanchaidh means “the scholar” – it conjures up images of long beards, smoke-filled rooms, and damp riverbanks.
Seanchaidh stories were written down and kept in book form and often included very funny and mischievous stories.
Today there’s a modern revival of Gaelic storytelling.
“An Leabhar Mòr” (The Big Book) celebrates Gaelic language, poetry, calligraphy, and art.
I believe the epitome of fairy tales lies in the Irish tradition.
They tell of humans and human-like creatures doing extraordinary things.
I remember visiting an old Irishman living on the Isle of Man, an author and teller of fairy tales, who spent hours telling us stories of the Sidhe, the Daoine Sidhe, the Irish fairy folk.
The Selkie, or seal folk, are also common in Irish fairy tales, as is the goddess of death and destiny, the Morrígan.
Celtic stories influenced English writers such as Sir Walter Scott, William Butler Yeats, and Emily Brontë.
How to Use Cultural Storytelling in Your Work
Almost anyone can bring cultural storytelling into their work.
For example, many writers need at least a degree of worldbuilding in their stories. Knowing the connection between storytelling and culture makes you better positioned to build your story worlds.
Arguing against a good story grounded in a strong culture is hard!
I’m writing a novel in which storytelling and the society’s culture play a big part – not just in constructing the plot, etc.
Or you may not plan to write a novel, but cultural stories can transport you to another world. Whether it’s J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the Old West of Larry McMurtry’s novels, simply the depiction of worlds you can lose yourself in and let your imagination rip.
Another suggestion: put yourself in a place where you can explore your story and develop yourself as a storyteller!
It may lead to wonderfully creative work!
Businesses and organizations have cultures and can incorporate storytelling into their workforce and communications. Organizational culture is a discipline in its own right.
Other Cultures – Mass Media, Tech, Social Media
There are, of course, many other types of cultures and subcultures. Among them are media culture, social media culture, tech culture, etc.
These are all fundamental growth areas for storytelling in that the expansion of these spheres into our lives is accompanied by an expansion of the stories they tell – to which we all now have access through the Internet.
However technical or dry the activities of such cultures may appear, I’d argue that they’re no less human and subject to storytelling than any other culture.
Good stories work well in all places and situations!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are stories important for cultural change?
Stories are essential for cultural change because people share them, tell each other, and have conversations about them.
They’re something that people experience emotionally, on a subconscious level, in a very direct way.
How does storytelling affect our lives?
Stories affect how we think about the world, how we think about ourselves, and how we interact with others in this world.
We tell stories about ourselves as individuals, our relationships with others, and how we should or shouldn’t behave in this situation or that.
Why are stories important to people?
Stories are essential to people because they help make sense of the world and our place in it.
A well-told story can put things in perspective for us. We like to feel that we’ve our place and role in life and think the world has meaning.
We tell stories about our ancestors and where we came from because they give a sense of belonging to a larger whole.
Why is oral storytelling important?
Oral storytelling is important because, in many oral cultures, there was no written language. Storytellers kept people’s stories, history, and mythology alive for generations.
Today, oral storytellers still play an essential role by telling stories in schools, at public events, etc. On stages and the Internet worldwide.
The Moth is an excellent example of people engaging in storytelling events and practices.
Why is storytelling an important part of education?
Storytelling is integral to education because it sparks students’ imaginations and curiosities and puts them in touch with their emotions and the world, its cultures, and people.
Educational storytelling helps students learn tricky facts and learn things they didn’t know before.
Learning digital storytelling is critical for children today, in my opinion.
What role does literature play in preserving culture?
Literature preserves culture because it’s an echo chamber of culture.
It reflects the cultural beliefs, attitudes, and lives of people within that society, thus becoming archeology and a cultural archive.
Why is indigenous storytelling important?
Storytelling is essential not only for the preservation and continuation of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples but also because it opens a window to understanding other cultures and ways of thinking.
Native stories can bridge the gap between our culture and others, promoting cultural exchange, mutual understanding, and empathy between peoples and nations.
Can storytelling catalyze cultural change?
Storytelling can undoubtedly be, and is, a catalyst for cultural change.
We’ve seen how stories spread like wildfire on the internet and can significantly impact popular culture.
Stories influence the stock market by making or breaking reputations.
Stories help us frame our beliefs and put things in perspective, thereby changing the direction of the culture based on what’s popular and “in.”
It’s not all positive. Fabricated online narratives fuel the actions of certain groups in society, including extremist groups.
But despite malign influences, there’s huge potential for storytelling to play an essential progressive role in the future.
Especially education and documentaries, which have grown in number.
Most serious documentary filmmakers see their films playing a role in how we look at ourselves and our world.
What’s the role of storytelling in religion?
Any discussion of storytelling and religion is controversial!
Many religions have their foundational stories in sacred texts – so when you change the story, you change the religion itself, as far as most believers in most religions are concerned.
What’s the story of the world?
When I saw this question, it made my brain buzz! How can I even begin to answer it?
Should I say that everything is the story of the world – that there’s no separation between man and the world? That the entire universe is a story? And what’s the story of that story?!
But if I were to answer in a narrow sense, I’d say that the story of the world for me is one of life and creativity as a powerful and living force.
As far as the eye can see, life and culture are constantly being created, and there’s nothing more beautiful and inspiring than that story!