Storytelling is a uniquely human trait that has a profound effect on how we live and act. Elizabeth Svoboda writes about the power of narrative as an agent of personal transformation in this Aeon essay.
Our storytelling ability, a uniquely human trait, has been with us nearly as long as we’ve been able to speak. Whether it evolved for a particular purpose or was simply an outgrowth of our explosion in cognitive development, story is an inextricable part of our DNA. Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.
One of the earliest narratives to wield such influence was the Old Testament, written down starting in the seventh century BCE and then revised over the course of hundreds of years. When we think of this first section of the Bible, we tend to recall its long sequences of ‘thou shalt nots’, but many of the most gripping Old Testament stories do not contain an overtly stated moral. While the Old Testament certainly reflected the values and priorities of the culture from which it emerged, those values came embedded in powerful tales that invited readers and listeners to draw their own conclusions. When Eve ate the fruit from the Garden of Eden’s tree of knowledge, bringing God’s punishment upon herself and Adam, the image powerfully illustrated the fate that may await anyone who ignores a divine order. Noah, who carried out God’s cryptic command to build an ark, survived the great deluge that followed – and personified the rewards in store for one willing to conform to God’s will. It was no coincidence that, steeped in stories like these, the ancient Hebrews emerged as a unified society of people devoted to God and his commands.
The Homeric emphasis on conquering cities by trickery is mirrored in later Greek battle strategy
Meanwhile, in ancient Greece, a formidable oral storytelling tradition was taking hold – one in which epic stories such as Homer’s Iliad andOdyssey were passed from generation to generation, each storyteller adding tweaks as he saw fit. Though the characters in these epics were larger-than-life figures, often possessed of superhuman abilities, it was still natural for people to identify with them. Epic heroes rarely conquered their foes with ease. Like Homer’s Odysseus, who endured a painful and protracted journey to return to his homeland, they faced hardship head-on and persevered against great odds.
One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit, sacrifice, and selflessness, especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. ‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life; a way of thinking under stress,’ wrote William Harris, the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again.’
In their quest to lead a good life, generations of Greeks looked to the epics for inspiration, giving rise to ancient hero cults that worshipped the exploits of characters like Achilles and Odysseus. The historian J E Lendon points out that the Homeric emphasis on conquering cities by trickery is mirrored in later Greek battle strategy, underscoring the tales’ impact not just on minds, but on cultural norms and behaviours.