Monthly Archives: December 2010

Those Great Old Greek Myths

All cultures have their myths, but I suspect that few are as beloved in the West as those of the Greeks. Tomorrow I am scheduled to perform an hour of Greek myths for 90 middle-schoolers at a Greek restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. While preparing these stories, I realized how well I already knew them, and how I have inhabited their world for such a large portion of my life.

The reason the West is so enamored of Greek myths dates back at least to the Renaissance, when humanistic ideals were resurrected from Ancient Greek culture, and Europeans “went Greek” in a big way. In my youth in the U.S., children devoured the stories of Hercules, Pandora, the Minotaur and Medusa in much the same way we enjoyed the Little Mermaid or Cinderella. I remember checking out a book or two on Norse myths from the elementary school library, but those tales never took hold in my imagination.

According to schema theory, there is a kind of feedback loop that perpetuates our desire for certain types of narratives even as it reflects those narratives we pursue. In other words, do we go to see the newest James Bond movie because we love that character or have we come to love that character because that’s what has been fed to us for as long as we can remember? I purposely use the word fed, by the way, because our taste in art is a lot like our taste in food. Why do I love Jewish food while my husband, who did not grow up in a Jewish household, does not? Most likely because I associate it with my grandparents and happy holiday memories. So I seek out more of it because it was what I grew used to.

Whatever the reason, Greek myths seem to speak to Americans. Interestingly, so do the stories of the Arabian Nights. The two genres are very different, as narratives go. Greek myths are the sacred, ontological stories of a culture, while those of the Thousand and One Nights are decidedly earthy, hale from Persia, Iraq and India, and are quite often obscene . (Not that the myths don’t have their share of rape, kidnapping, lying and murder as well.) Yet most middle-aged Americans would be able to identify Aladdin and Sinbad in a Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit game. 

Why? I suggest that the answer is very simple. They are great stories. And a great story is compelling whatever the subject, whatever the source. Period.

Wish me luck tomorrow! Not that I expect to need it. The stories will do all the heavy lifting. I just have to get out of their way.

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Our First Stories

Years ago I read Julia Cameron’s popular book, The Artist’s Way. So many people I respected recommended it that I thought, what do I have to lose? Among the exercises and insights that I loved in that book was something like this (I no longer have my copies, since I gave so many of them away): Ask yourself, what are the movies and books that most appeal to you? Once you have a list, what are the common themes among those works of art? The idea being, when you discovered the themes that most spoke to you, you knew what direction your own creations should take. 

As a storyteller, I have a slightly different take on that wonderful exercise. I like to ask: What are the stories you liked best or remember best from your childhood and young adulthood? When you list them, you will learn a lot about the kind of person you are. That’s because as storytellers, we find that stories choose us. I could no more assign a student a story to learn than assign a person to marry. The relationship between storyteller and story is an intimate one. If you can’t relate to the story, you can’t inhabit it.

Conversely, when we do relate to a story, we have to wonder, why? One of the earliest stories that made an impression on me was from a record that my parents played for me when I took a nap as a very young child. It was the Brothers Grimm version of  “The Goose Girl.” I didn’t remember the name, or much about the story. But I did recall that there was a horse named Falada who spoke even when its head was cut off. And there was a case of stolen identity. 

My love for the story is no great mystery to me. I was a huge fan of horses, for one thing. As for the stolen identity, The Prince and the Pauper always haunted me. The idea that someone could take someone’s rightful place in his family was terrifying. 

I’m not going to take too much time here figuring out what that says about me—other than that I had a strong sense of justice, and that personal identity is an important value of mine. My point is just that our favorite stories indicate overwhelming needs and desires, dreams and beliefs that we may not even recognize as being important to our sense of ourselves. So please, try this, and let me know what you discover.