The evolution of four stories
As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by the way stories travel. For centuries they have followed human migrations, shifting with the landscape and the evolution of cultures.
At a storytelling festival, I told one of my favorite selchie stories. The selchies drop their skins on land and appear in human form. One night a young man captures a selchie and hides her skin. She adjusts to life on land, bears children, learns wifely skills. But she never forgets the sea. When she finds her skin, she pulls it on and dives back into her natural element.
When I finished the story, an indigenous teller approached me to share one of her own. In her version, the sea/land woman is an orca. I was thrilled when she recorded the story for me. It’s a gift I still carry with me, every time I move.
The motif of the animal bride has variants all over the world. So does its gender opposite, in which the husband is the shape shifter.
The stories travel and shift for a reason. They carry with them the deep expressions of human longing, of our uncertainties and fears.
Lapham’s Quarterly has a remarkable map that traces four story journeys: “Telling Tales: The evolutions of four stories”. Hasaim Hussein follows Pygmalion (“A man falls in love with his female creation” from 250 BC in a lost text by Philostephanus to 1999 in Los Angeles, in a film by Robert Iscove, She’s All That.
Another story on the map is Leviathan (“A mythical sea monster terrorizes the deep”). Hussein finds its beginnings in the Baal Cycle in 1350 BC and follows its metamorphosis to the popular movie Jaws.
Willa Cather, in her 1913 novel, O Pioneers!, wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
We go on repeating them because only when we experience or witness them do we really understand their lessons. And their lessons are universal.