All over the world people have been telling stories for thousands of years. What were these storytellers from different countries called? Names for storytellers, some fun facts, some videos.
1. The Skald (Norway, Iceland)
Skalds were the poets of the Vikings. They weaved myths and heroic stories into long poetic works, but they also spoke about love and commented on contemporary events. A famous skald was Snorri Sturluson, who edited the Prose Edda: an introduction to skaldic poetry and a collection of Norse poems.
💡 Fun fact: A smith and a tanner were fighting in the street. The king who came by challenged his skald to improvise a poem about it on the spot. The skald didn’t blink, but called upon recurring parts and descriptions in the poems he knew. He freestyled a skaldic poem on the spot in which the fight turned into an epic battle!
2. The Kathakar (India)
Kathakars were wandering North-Indian storytellers and dancers. They mainly told epics and myths using words, dance, songs, and music. Apart from Hindu influences you can also find Muslim influences in their dances. Today the dance form Kathak is highly influenced by these storyteller-dancers of the past.
3. The Griot (West Africa)
Griots were the storytellers, musicians and praise singers of West Africa. They had to know their history, but also everything that was going on in the world. They played a part in the village rituals like birth, marriage, and death, but also functioned as advisors to leaders.
💡 Fun fact: Griots were often seen as a special caste of people. They learned the art within their families and married only with other griots. They had a specific role in the society. Both girls and boys could become griots.
4. The Dengbêj (Kurdistan)
Dengbêjs are singing Kurdish storytellers. They have the important task to keep the traditions of the Kurdish people alive, who have for a long time been minorities in other countries. They sing their stories about history and war, love and resistance usually without instruments.
5. The Dastango (India)
Dastango’s were storytellers in India. They told long tales of adventure and magic, drawing upon the rich stories of the Panchatantra and the Arabic 1001-nights (and other collections). They mainly used their voice and performed everywhere, from city squares to opium houses.
💡 Fun fact: Opium and storytelling. Storytelling and opium. For a while dreaming away on a cocktail of both was the favourite pastime of opium addicts in Lucknow. As a storyteller, I recommend a good story with a good glass of wine. It’s better for your health!
6. The Seanachaidh (Scotland, Ireland)
Seanachaidhean were hereditary bards. They were held in high regard, carrying the traditions and history of their clans (tribes). At births, marriages, and deaths they brought their poetry, stories, and songs. When needed they sang rousing songs calling the men to war.
7. The Ashik (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Iran)
Ashiks were wandering singers and storytellers in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran. They sang their stories and songs accompanied by the saz, a kind of lute. Their songs were highly improvised around familiar themes, keeping traditional culture and folklore alive.
💡 Fun fact: Ashiks regularly challenged each other to verbal duels. One ashik woud sing a riddle, and the other would have to sing an answer in style. Example:
|First ashik asks||Second ashik answers|
|Tell me what falls to the ground from the sky?||Rain falls down to the ground from the sky|
|Who calms down sooner of all?||A child calms down sooner of all.|
|What is passed from hand to hand?||Money is passed from hand to hand|
8. The Minstrel (Central Europe)
Minstrels were medieval singers and storytellers in Europe. They sang about history. Or they made history up. They started in the courts, but when their popularity waned, many became wandering performers in the streets. Traveling entertainers, trading their stories and mostly songs for coin.
💡 Fun fact: You might say that the tradition of the minstrel still exists. After all, there are still musicians sharing their songs all over Europe. ‘Busking’ it is also called nowadays. You can find some pretty popular buskers on YouTube.
9. The Bard (Ireland, Scotland, Wales)
Bards were the court singers and storytellers of the Celts. They were employed by royals and nobles to sing their praises and remember their histories, including their genealogies. Of course, when needed, they could also compose devastating satirical verses. Usually, they played the harp.
💡 Fun fact: It is said that when a king or a noble did not pay his bard anymore, they would compose satirical songs about their own patron. And of these satirical songs it is said that, if they were good, they could raise boils on the face of their target!
10. The Kobzar (Ukraine)
Kobzari were traveling Ukrainian bards who accompanied their songs and stories by playing on the kobza (a kind of lute). They were usually blind and required a three-year training period to be officially recognized as Kobzar. They sang a unique epic form called ‘dumas’.
💡 Sad fact: The Russian dictator Stalin recognized the cultural power of the Kobzari. In 1932 he called all of them together to attend a congress in Kharkiv. Those that came were taken outside the city and killed. It was an almost fatal blow to this tradition.
Notes on these names of storytellers
This list with names for storytellers is by no means exhaustive. I did quite extensive research online and hope to have represented the different storytelling traditions in a good way.
Personally, I found it very interesting to know more about these storytelling traditions from different cultures and countries.
A couple of things stood out to me while researching.
First of all, quite often the storytellers told or sang their stories, while playing a musical instrument. Often it was even a specific instrument.
Second, quite a lot of storytelling traditions work with composed poetic verse, which the storytellers had to memorize word-by-word. This is different from modern storytelling, where we steer away from word-by-word-memorization.
Third, there seem to have been two kind of storytellers. The ones who had a patron (a king, a clan, etc.) and the ones who were wandering the land.
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💡 Once a month, I send out an email with new writings on storytelling and fairy tales.