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.


Seal sleeping in the sun in Kaikoura, New Zealand

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.

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Karen Chace - April 2, 2010

Hi Cathryn,

This is my first visit and all I can add is “wow!” You are one busy lady. I love this post and the chart you shared from Telling Tales. It really is fascinating how tales travel. People are always amazed when I share how many variants of Cinderella I tell and how many there are from around the world.

In my bi-monthly newsletter I have started a new section, featuring blogs of note, I would love to highlight yours in the next issue. Let me know if that would be okay.

Thanks again for sharing this delicious information.

storyroute admin - April 3, 2010

Knowing your extraordinary work and long, deep contribution to the storytelling world, I’d be honored to have my blog join the ranks of others featured on your bi-monthly newsletter. Thank you so much!

One of my tasks this week is to finally getting around to creating links to the blogs and sites that stand out for me. Now that I’ve rooted around on Storybug and your other blog, I know a couple I’ll be adding to the links. Wow! Impressive work, Karen.

AareneX - May 4, 2010

I would love to hear the orca variant someday…(hint, hint)

storyroute admin - May 4, 2010

Alas, the story is no longer in my mental filing cabinet, and the cassette disappeared in one of my many moves. I’ll put this on my to-scout-around-for list and keep my fingers crossed.

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