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The Art of Storytelling by Michael Berman

Jürgen Kremer, transpersonal psychologist and spiritual practitioner, defines tales of power as conscious verbal constructions based on numinous experiences in non-ordinary reality, “which guide individuals and help them to integrate the spiritual, mythical, or archetypal aspects of their internal and external experience in unique, meaningful, and fulfilling ways” (Kremer, 1988, p.192). Such stories can broaden our horizons, connect us to a vision and provide an overarching narrative for our journeys through life. They are also the most effective for classroom use.


The stories painted or drawn on the walls of caves in petroglyphs and told around the prehistoric campfires, were man’s first form of education, communication, entertainment and healing, far predating the written word. The Twelve Tribes of Israel used the oral tradition for centuries in passing down the parables of the Creation and Noah’s Flood, and it was not until King Solomon decreed that these stories be written down, that we had any records from which much of the “Old Testament” was taken. It can be argued that we have a responsibility to carry on this tradition and that mankind has a need for storytellers that is almost as great as his need for love.

Like the shaman, the storyteller is a walker between the worlds, a mediator between our known world and that of the unknown – a communer with dragons and elves, with faeries and angels, with magical and mythical beasts, with Gods and Goddesses, heroes and demons, able to pass freely from this world into those above and those below and to help us to experience those other realms for ourselves. He or she is an intensely powerful invoker of elemental powers, of the powers of absolute transformation, who can show us how to confront our most deeply-engrained fears, or teach us how to experience ecstasy or bring us face to face with death or terror of the spirit – with the infinite and incomprehensible. He is not only the archetypal magician but also the archetypal guide.

In many traditions storytelling is synonymous with song, chant, music, or epic poetry, especially in the bardic traditions. Stories may be chanted or sung, along with musical accompaniment on a certain instrument. Therefore those called folk musicians by foreign music enthusiasts could just as well be called storytellers – their true roles being more profound, as their names reflect: bards, ashiks, jyrau, griots amongst many more. Their roles in fact are often as much spiritual teachers or healers, for which the stories and music are vehicles, as well as historians and tradition-bearers.

In Central Asia, for example, the same Turkic term, bakhshi, may be used for both shamans and bards, and both may be called to their trade by spirits to undergo a difficult period of initiation. Indeed a bard can be described as a healer who uses music as a gateway to the world of the Spirit, and there is a magical dimension to reciting the epics. They use a fiddle or lute as accompaniment, and tales may run through several nights of exhaustive performance. For genuine initiates of these bardic disciplines, they draw directly on the conscious creative power of the Divine and transmit it through the words they speak and sing. This is not the same as merely ‘being creative’ or ‘feeling inspired’, and involves considerable spiritual training.

In Turkey, the folk-poets of Anatolia are usually referred to as ashiks, meaning ‘the ones in love’ [with the Divine]. The ashiks, who belong to the Bektasi / Alevi faith, have wandered the plains of Anatolia since around the tenth century. They accompany themselves on the saz, a long-necked lute with three sets of strings, said to represent the fundamental trinity of the Muslim faith: Allah, Mohammed and Ali.

However, there is no need to travel so far afield in search of the storyteller as shaman. Ballads such as Thomas Rhymer, as closer analysis shows, are in fact shamanic journeys in themselves It is the kiss from the Queen of fair Elfland that moves what Carlos Castaneda called the ‘assemblage point’ and initiates the process of the journey. As Castaneda explains through the teachings of Don Juan, what we call ‘reason’ is merely a by-product of the habitual position of the assemblage point. Dreaming (and / or visualization) gives us the fluidity to enter into other worlds and to perceive the inconceivable by making the assemblage point shift outside the human domain. The ballad is presented below, followed by more detailed analysis:

Thomas the Rhymer

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
A fairy he spied with his e’e
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eidon Tree.

Her skirt was of the grass green silk
Her mantle of the velvet fine
At each tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pulled off his cap
And bowed low down to his knee
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.

Oh no, oh no, Thomas, she said
That name does not belong to me
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland
That am hither come to visit thee.

Harp and carp, Thomas, she said
Harp and carp along with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be.

Betide me well, betide me woe
That weird shall never daunton me
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eidon Tree.

Now, ye maun go with me, she said
True Thomas, ye maun go with me
And ye maun serve me seven years
Though weal and woe, as may chance to be.

She mounted on her milk white steed
She’s taken True Thomas up behind
And aye whenever her bridle rang
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

Oh they rode on, and further on
The steed gaed swifter than the wind
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind.

Light down, light down now, true Thomas
And lean your head upon my knee
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three.

Oh, see you not yon narrow road
So thick beset with thorn and briars
That is the path of righteousness
Though after it but few enquire.

And see you not that broad, broad road
That lie across that lily leven
That is the path of wickedness
Though some call it the road to Heaven.

And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

But Thomas, you must hold your tongue
Whatever you may hear or see
For if you speak word in Elfin land
You’ll ne’er get back to your ain country.

Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will give the tongue that can never lie.

My tongue is my own, True Thomas said
A goodly gift you would give to me
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I may be.

I dought neither speak to prince nor peer
Nor ask of grace from fair lady
Now hold thy peace, the lady said
For as I say, so it must be.

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shoes of velvet green
And till seven years were gone and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen

It is the kiss of the Queen of fair Elfland that changes the life of Thomas Rhymer forever, as the start of his descent into what can be regarded as the Lower World of the shaman is marked by that kiss. The Fairy Queen tells Thomas of the three paths that lie ahead and explains the meaning to him, acting as a guide or sacred teacher.

The first path is almost desert, flat, wide and straight as far as the eye can see. Although easy to journey on, it is of absolutely no consequence. It would appear to be a reference to an occupation that is easy and so leads to no rewards, expanding neither knowledge nor skill and devoid of any spiritual value. It offers a contrast to the traditional path of an initiate into shamanic practices, who often has to undergo great suffering and hardship along the way.

The second path is narrow, winding and treacherous with thorny hedges encroaching on both sides. Hazardous in the extreme, yet with a happy ending for it leads to the city of the kings. As we know, the king is always at the centre and in control. The suggestion is that after all the trials and tribulations of endangering oneself and surviving on a path upon which many obstacles are encountered, the reward for the righteous is entrance to the king, an honour indeed.

The third path is lush and green, meandering into forest and glade. It is a wild place where one could easily get lost. The Queen gives no explanation of this and quite simply says “This is the path to Fairy Land, and do not utter a world whilst in this land or you end up staying forever.” This suggests that anything spoken in the otherworld is to be taken very seriously indeed.

The only material thing Thomas is given on his journey is an enchanted harp and it is used as a link between the two worlds. It can be regarded as the equivalent of the shaman’s drum, the rhythmic beating of which was used to induce a trance state. In some cultures a musical bow was plucked in a rhythmic way to achieve the same state, and in others songs were sung. The Sufis use dance to produce the same effects. Other parallels can also be drawn between the ballad of Thomas Rhymer and a shamanic journey but limitation of space precludes further analysis here (see Berman, 2011, for this).

Significantly, a link has been established by Peggy Ann Wright at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between heightened temporal lobe activity and shamanistic experiences. These are soul journeys to distant realms of experience in order to communicate with spirits, and to bring back healing advice. Rhythmic drumming of the sort used in a vast range of spiritual rituals excites the temporal lobes and associated areas of the limbic system, as can the practice of guided visualization. Moreover, each time a storyteller introduces a tale starting ‘once upon a time’, he / she is inviting the audience to transcend their linear concepts of time and space and so enter a light state of trance. Consequently, as in the case of shamanic journeying and guided visualisation, storytelling can also be used to facilitate the development of what Zohar (2000) calls Spiritual Intelligence – what we use to develop our longing and capacity for meaning, vision and value.

As a storyteller, it is obviously important to know your story but this does not necessarily mean memorizing the words. You can do that if you want to, but the main thing is to know what happens to whom and when it is supposed to happen. One way of accomplishing this is to make an outline of the story to study. Another way is to imagine a picture for each part of the story with all the important things in the picture. Any special parts of the presentation such as poetry or complex phrases can be learned by heart and / or you can print them out on cue cards for reference. The more you repeat them out loud, the easier it will be to say them, whether you memorize them or not. Use stories you are confident with from previous occasions for a first time situation because the knowledge that you are well prepared helps diminish any nervousness you might be experiencing.

Before it is time to tell, if possible, check out the space. If there is something that needs to be set up or changed, something to be planned, do it early, before you tell. Anticipate some of the things which might go wrong and know the strategies you will use to deal with any problems that might crop up. Make sure you have a fall-back position or some extra material up your sleeve to use if necessary. Remember that most of the things which are not right will probably only be noticed by you. Deal with everything you need to deal with beforehand, but then forget about those things. When you get up to tell, it is time to concentrate on the listeners.

Keep the introduction and explanation as brief as possible. You may want to memorize some opening lines to make sure you leave nothing to chance and to show the audience that you know what you are doing; from then on it is up to them. As for the ending, take your time, but not the next speaker’s. Be on, be good, and be off (vaudevillians’ rule). Prepare a clean punch line or closing comment to finish with. “And that’s the story of __,” will do. And remember to thank your audience too.

Making mistakes is a natural part of performing. It is not a question of what to do if you make a mistake, but simply a matter of when you make a mistake. The most important thing is to stay calm and keep going. The audience does not know you have made a mistake unless you tell them so do not draw attention to the problem by admitting to it or apologising. As far as they know, the way you told the story is the way you meant to tell it.

When you look out at the people listening to you, avoid anyone who makes you nervous. Try to find the people who make you feel safe. There is no reason to be scared of your audience. Your audience is (usually) your friend. They want you to succeed. And, since many of them are also nervous about talking in front of people, they will be sympathetic if things go wrong. Obviously, this sympathy is somewhat dependent on the venue and how much people pay to see you perform.

The nervousness you feel before going on is your performance energy. That is what will get you up on stage and into your story. And if you do not feel it, your performance will probably fall flat. The energy you feel is an instinctive reaction to stress. The body knows something is about to happen and is preparing for action. However, the emotional content is entirely conscious. Research shows that physiologically, fear, anger, excitement are all identical. The body is reacting in the same way. Your mind determines how you react to those stimuli and your emotions are under your control. With some practice, you can control whether it is fear or excitement running through your head before going on.

If you suffer badly from nerves, the Zen concept of No-Self as an approach to the problem can prove to be helpful – “There is no teller… only the tale.” In this way you disappear for yourself as well as for the listeners. And if you have disappeared then there is no one to be nervous for.

An alternative approach is to make use of a Talking Stick (an American Indian tradition) which you pick up when you tell and hand to others when they tell. It helps to connect you to those legions over the centuries who have told stories and to remind you that you that you have an ancient responsibility to both audience and story. This carries you well beyond the awareness of nervousness. The nervousness is still there but now it is harnessed to bringing out the life in that story. The idea is to make your focus the responsibility to your audience and your story rather than focusing on yourself. Let go of yourself and think about the people you are telling the story to. Pay attention to them and you won’t be thinking of yourself and you won’t be nervous.

Guided visualisation can also be an effective tool. Sitting in some quiet place, imagine as clearly as possible that you are preparing to perform – employing all your senses – the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with these pre-performance moments. Be as specific and detailed in your imaging as possible. When you have placed yourself as fully as possible into the pre-performance context, imagine yourself feeling completely confident–fearless. Imagine how great it would be to feel that way, rather than scared. Then continue on with the imagined performance: you present your material–solidly, and with confidence. Imagine the smoothness and grace with which you will make your presentation. Imagine your heart keeping a steady pace instead of racing. Imagine your breath deep and full, not shallow and shaky. In other words, paint an accurate and detailed mental image of every step of the process – the way you’ve experienced it so many times before – but with a successful outcome. Once you have experienced success in non-ordinary reality in this way, it becomes that much easier to achieve in this reality.

Slowing down your breathing can help to control nervousness too. If you must focus on yourself, then focus on your breath. Breathing is the most important thing for life. If you are nervous, if you are scared, or feel anyway you don’t want to feel, then think about your breath and control it. Deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Once you have your breath under control, you can do anything.

One way to practise storytelling with others is to pick a partner and sit facing each other, close enough to have your knees touching. Have other partners on either side of you so you are in two long lines all up close against each other, and all facing your respective partners. One person in each pair starts the story and after thirty seconds to a minute say, ‘and’, and then ‘throw’ the story to the person opposite to continue. That person makes up the next short segment, says ‘and’ and then passes the story back to the first person again. The story unfolds by being passed backwards and forwards this way between the same two partners.

Before everyone starts they are told that the story that is to unfold between each pair is to be about a journey. Two people who a very fond of each other go their separate ways and on their respective journeys. Many things happen during the course of their journeys that stretch their resourcefulness and help them grow in wisdom. Then circumstances happen such that they find each other again and share the experiences they had along the way.


Berman, M. (2010) In a Faraway Land: A Resource Book for Teachers on Storytelling, Hampshire: O Books.

Berman, M. (2011) Shamanic Journeys, Shamanic Stories, Hampshire: O Books.

Kremer, J.W. (1988) “Shamanic Tales as Ways of Personal Empowerment.” In Doore, G. (ed.) Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth and Empowerment, Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications.

Sheppard, T., http://www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/ Tim Sheppard’s Storytelling Resources for Storytellers.

Zohar, H., & Marshall, I., (2000) Spiritual Intelligence The Ultimate Intelligence, Bloomsbury, London.

Author’s Bio:
Michael Berman BA, MPhil, PhD (Alternative Medicines) works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom and The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and Tell Us A Story (a resource book for teachers on storytelling) for Brain Friendly Publications. Shamanic Journeys through Daghestan and Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus were published in paperback by O-Books in 2009. Michael has been involved in teaching and teacher training for over thirty years, has given presentations at conferences in more than twenty countries, and hopes to have the opportunity to visit many more yet. For more information, please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk

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