What follows is an excerpt from a new book – for release in 2013. I will begin by just giving a very simple description of my notion of the word mythtelling rather than storytelling. It is less about genres – folklore, myth, legend – and more about a wider, holistic, not-entirely human perception of community.


I use the word mythtelling rather than storytelling sometimes to indicate that many stories are more than folklore – more than the intelligence of the village figuring their place out in the world. Mythtelling has a wider context, that the stories may come from a rock, cloud or deity. It’s not meant as a form of pretension, but to highlight this less anthropocentric emphasis.

The first road maps of England used to include detailed sketches and information about forests, lakes, rivers and mountains. They were not just negligible blurs between service stations. I would hope that mythtelling restates that attention within story. That we are not entirely caught up in the twin-lane highway drama of the human characters, but keep an eye for the lucid twinkles of ravens eye, or the bright sap on the crust of a rowan trees bark. To mention it constantly would make it self-conscious, but it will come up occasionally as a gentle re-orientation.

A Protean Era

With the revival of the storytelling tradition and a simultaneous focus on the bio-regional, it seems appropriate to recognise that local story can be just as nourishing as a plate of fresh vegetables from the garden or a haunch of venison from a nearby forest. It is a form of soul food. This book is about that very thing. Just as the farmers market is growing happily against the onslaught of the supermarket and allotments have waiting lists for the first time in a generation, I am suggesting that the vitality of localised myth can be just as crucial to the health of our own inner-ecosystem. In this next section I will move between both the gains involved in this immediate knowledge, and acknowledging the wider pantheon of story that is now readily available. It may be a frustration that I will not promote one entirely over the other, but I hope as we go my thoughts will become clear.

Story orientates: and not just to the immediate, geographical landscape but to wider, eternal concerns: concerns of the soul. It’s for this reason we sense the resonance of a Russian epic right down in the gut, that we laugh out loud at the bawdy intelligence of a Wolverine tale from Labrador, despite having been raised in an different time and space. I would call that nomadic recognition – past the cultural flavours and directly to the energy that lives behind it. It’s the power of truly vital image; we are shot clean of everyday reference and abide in its almost electrical refreshment, that, for a moment, hangs above specific fields of cultural association. However, for most there has not always been such a wide field of reference. Many human groups throughout history, have, for the most part, enjoyed a geographically specific relationship to the stories they tell. Of course a certain amount of cultural diffusion can be present, but is often waywardly pulled into the local over time. This generation spanning, steady telling I would call slow ground. It’s a localised cosmos that roots you steady in it. It confirms you, your thinking, your rituals and your tribe, establishes place, and reveals with a slow drip drip drip, the mythic energies you stand upon.

This slow ground is becoming rapidly fragmented in what many call a Protean age. Proteus is a shape-shifting god of the sea – mutable, able to swiftly change position. With the ludicrously intense barrage of information that we daily face, a kind of mimic of the nomadic leap becomes far more common parley than this slow ground. We multi-task to the last, digesting intestinal-wrecking amounts of stress in the bargain. The TV show, jerkily cutting from camera to camera, illustrates this malaise in a way we all understand. It seems to be revealing some great restlessness of spirit, way down inside.

The Other Place

The cardiologist Pim van Lommel has spent the last twenty years studying patients who have survived cardiac arrests and had near death experiences. In these moments before total death – maybe five or ten minutes – there is nothing happening within the brain that can create these frequent reports of out of body experience, a life review – every single thought and action you ever committed, including how it impacted others, visitations from dead relatives, tunnels of light. At this point, the patient is clinically dead.

His studies have convinced him that consciousness – the element that can provide this phenomena – is not actually localised to the brain or body. It actually exists in a place beyond normal time and space, and we are receivers rather than the sole guardians of that consciousness.

Storytellers, mystics, ecstatics of all varieties, have long insisted on a place outside of normal time and space – what some call eternity, in my tradition The Other World. As I studied Lommel’s findings I started to wonder if nomadic recognition is a result of a story actually showing us that, at its deepest depth, its consciousness is not local. The slow ground is the societal and personal material we bring to it through our life experience, but its nomadic sense is that its true origination point is not in this world but the Other.

In language I have used in other books, the nomadic is forest consciousness – liminal, experiental, un-shackled, and the slow ground village consciousness – grounded, collectively approved, handed down. Initiation is the business of creating a life that stands at a constantly shifting crossroads between the two – to choose one entirely over the other is failed initiation.

The Commons of the Imagination

A major factor of nomadic recognition within storytelling – this experience of possibly unknown but somehow emotionally recognised image – is then the move back to slow ground to root it in the discipline of crafting and telling the story. The performative. It re-finds its ground by the labour of telling – it grows roots. It cannot entirely replace the origination point of the story, but stories are living beings, origination points are a birthing but not an ending of it. Slowly the story becomes settled visually in the inner-landscape of the teller and the listeners. That inner-landscape will not be the same for everyone. Although the experience can very deep, we are seeing different locations, geographies, visual triggers. The image-net is wider. James Hillman talks about “the return to Greece” not as a physical journey to the Mediterranean but as a revival of pantheistic consciousness. That is the trade for learning of these stories.

They have entered a cross-culture commons of the imagination. They abide not in a particular gully or narrow mountain range (except for a very few listeners) but have ended up in the wide, rainbow’ed vista of collective information. From this commons many apprentice storytellers wander excitedly through, gathering a bulb of Hungarian folklore here, a herb or two from Tibet over there. My own pockets have bulged on occasion.

Of course, this all seems like a snapshot of so much that is wrong with modern life. That the specific and vital becomes the generic and jumbled.

As Tom Waits says; “a song needs an address”. We en-soul something by naming it, a detail anchors it in more than a floating intelligence. By taking the original localised references out of the story have we somehow robbed it of its soul? Yes and no – I cannot go along with that entirely.

I would suggest that what is needed within this collective information is a greater connection to one’s own roots. I would do away with the rainbowed, new age picture of everything as one, and more the image of a sea port, or desert meeting place, or crossroads inn, where cultures and travellers swap stories, recipes, opinions, songs – and all leave deepened by the exchange but also confirmed in their own ground.

My concern within myth is that the collective commons is overwhelming the local – we end up with storyteller’s floating several feet above their own ground, constantly enthralled with the exotic, wider picture.

Anthropologist’s correctly point out that we miss much local nuance in this wider embracing. How do we grasp the role of the duck in a Seneca love story? Or approach any real knowledge of ritual colours in a Dagara folk tale? Only through a possibly dry academic approach can we get near an appraisal. Well true enough, on one level. If the story is entirely conceptually bound to that tribe or place. But what if it also has a travelling spirit? A spirit that is bound up in the telling of the story, there in the room, more than being entirely anchored in a historical context. That it is a kind of animal.

As we live through a period where all ideas around culture and community change radically, could it be that these stories are floating far from their original homes because we desperately need their information?, that their story is still unfolding? The wind that carries them is just as much a part of the cosmos as an oak tree. Many of us will have experienced a strange recognition of something very deep whilst staring at a photograph of Geronimo, or the intensity of Mirabai’s poetry. It may be wise to claim them as spirit-relatives for awhile.

There is damage in all of this it’s clear. It’s a complex situation, but I believe caution is needed when myth is described as only rooted in history, culture and geography. Myth on a deep level really isn’t all about history, rather a truly animistic present. But we also may relate to a sense of numbness when presented with yet another anthropological marvel of folk tales from some far off place. The sheer velocity of availability dulls the mind. Sometimes, as the poet Olav Hauge reminds us, we just need a sip of water, not the whole ocean.

In all of this scope – of firebird feathers, and Tuvan blades, of African genies and the hooves of Mongolian steeds riding briskly through a star-lit desert – it can be easy to get a little dismissive of the local. Surely nothing of note happened right here? And sometimes that can seem to be the case. We look around at inner-cites, or remote stretches of Lincolnshire fields and think the old stories, if there ever were any, have long fled. But nowhere is bereft of story, if we have some patience and an enquiring spirit. This book is about finding some slow ground for those nomadic leaps to land upon.

I sometimes think of the old East Anglian tale of “The Peddler of Swaffham”: a story of a man’s long journey across half the country because of a dream of fortune, only to find that that the very dream-gold is buried in his back yard. Journeys are good, voyages better, but I write this in the hope we do not neglect the gold that is in our very backyard.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

© 2012, martin shaw. All rights reserved.

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  1. Daniel Deardorff says:

    I like the notion that the term mythteller is less antropecentric than storyteller. Mythteller also emphasizes that we are working stories that are created collectively over long stretches of time. I’m always shocked when people ask “did you write that story?” Even after I’ve explained what I’m doing and why, people tend to think in terms of authorship. The image you invoke of the storyteller filling a shopping cart full of myths from the oral traditions of the world is slightly horrifying. You and I have spoken about being chosen by a story. There is great difference in being chosen from one’s amassing a vast collection of tales. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach this practice of readying and preparing oneself to be chosen by a story; this preparing I think is central to the practice of the mythteller.
    One last thought you’ve provoked is about the myths of place. The image of a myth as an animal is hugely important. I would add that myths are migratory, and as happens with all migratory creatures the range may expand and change. I’m also a big fan of the polygenesis of myth–not to say that diffusion doesn’t happen, of course stories travel and are exchanged–the idea that very similar stories arise in separate times and places seems quite evident to me. Perhaps the commons of imagination is the natural habitat of the mythic image.
    Thanks for this feast of ideas.

    • martin shaw says:

      A pleasure – I am preparing in the epilogue of another book – my telling and commentary on the Grail epic Parzival, what i’ve called ‘foundational stones’ towards mythtelling. Not as utterly definitive but simply as pointers towards further study and awakening by the reader. Here is a tiny segment from the part on story as beasty. I will place the whole section in essay form here at some point soon. Some lovely and probing thoughts in your comments – especially the migratory aspect. It relates entirely to nomadic recognition – most nomadic routes follow a migratory pattern.

      A story is a spirit-being, not repertoire, allegory, or a form of psychology. If a story decides to be told by you, then here is a couple of suggestions for establishing a significant level of respect. One, feed it. Literally feed it. Leave it a glass of something lovely – maybe a shot of Ardbeg whisky and an oat biscuit and good honey. Leave it in the same place every time so the stories know where to go to receive the gifts. Building a small wooden story hut with delicate engravings could be a start. Two, study it. Look at as many versions of the story throughout culture as you can find. If it talks about a whale road or a sword fight then go to the ocean or take up fencing – follow its leads. This pursuit is a sign of respect, that you take the story seriously. Just don’t mistake that research or lines on paper as where the story really lives. It’s more a gesture of decency and readyness.

      If it really wants you to tell it, you should find that you can inhabit the rough characters of everyone in it, including animals. If you can’t, it may be a clue to wait a while. Stories are not about a lightning quick performative rendering: I cooked in one story for fifteen years before I considered uttering a word of it.

      Get to know your own inner weather – if you are a generally placid, loving sort, then leaving a mug of red beer out for the spirit of Beowulf may be a tricky fit, although at the same time it could bring out depths unimagined. But any audience will sense in a spilt-second any disconnect between you and the textures of the narrative. It’s rather like a lump like me trying to wade through the Bhagavad Gita. Stories are not at ‘our disposal’ in this way, that’s a reckless idea.

      Recently the storyteller Robin Williamson – Chief Bard of the order of Bards, Ovates and Druid, sat in my house with a harp and talked for six hours straight on the four branches of the Mabinogion. What became clear was how unfitting the word ‘voice’ was for what came out of his mouth. After almost seventy years on the planet, it is at turns raspy, angelic, guttural, cackly and melodic. It makes jumpy turns at very unusual moments. It is a gravel creek bed that the salmon of insight lays its eggs in. The old ones say that the more time you spend in the Otherworld then the stronger your voice is. So for mythtellers, that is the place to go.

      So check your cadence out, your accent, your vocal dance. If young, don’t beat yourself up about it being lively and high, life will rub that off, there is no need to hurry. Mythtelling points towards the vitality of the elders – keen as us younger ones may be, something unfurls with age that we can’t ignore.

      So we could be like Finnegas waiting for the salmon by the Boyne, with patience and good humour, abiding in the music of ‘what is’.

      Our voice is part of our own personal eco system. Contained within it are differing tribal groups. The cadence of our family and region, inflections brutally introduced by television (even children in Devon now use the syntax of Australian soaps, every sentence ending up high, as if you are asking a question), or words influenced by workmates, travel or university. Within just one storyteller’s voice is a convergence of ancestral, regional and enforced influence.

  2. Henry Braun says:

    Mythtelling about a Hugh Rock in the Wilderness

    It sees nothing where it has been seen
    by all eyes in the climax forests
    that pass in slow succession after fires.
    Even the white bear may have known it
    glazed by the last touch of the glacier
    that, miles away, broke it off the mountain.
    The story of its roll down here
    to this surprising presence,
    its ride with the field of stones
    that made Maine hard to farm, and again hard,
    is soon told.
    I take this boulder as a landmark
    and pass by
    in the deep woods on my road to friends.
    to this surprising presence

  3. Rebecca Lowe says:

    What a great little gift hidden in your reply to Danny, some of these foundational stones of storytelling. When in college studying theatre, my theatre history professor told me, it takes 20 years to make an actor. It did. I haven’t acted much in the last 10 years, though…I got dowsed in the rivers of Caroline Casey, then Robert Bly, Martin Prechtel, Gioia Timpanelli…and there has been writing and priestessing and caring for my family. And I feared Time, and wore away time, but all the while a story has travelled with me, shadowing me, waiting for me to stop and acknowledge Her. More work on our relationship is needed, but She is speaking to me still, and feeling not just the teacher, but a Being who wants to see me dance with Her.
    I look forward to meeting you in person one day.

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