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The Story Behind Storytelling

Written By Hannah Shiblaq

January 5, 2023

When I was little, I refused to go to sleep without a bedtime story. It was the chance to set aside my elementary school worries and escape to somewhere far, far away. Even now, years later, I consider stories to be an essential part of my nighttime routine, whether it’s binging a Netflix series or devouring a couple chapters of my current read. What I understand now that I didn’t as a child is that this need for stories comes from my early human ancestors, and how, even with the progression of technology, storytelling has remained an integral part of the human experience.

My desire for a nightly bedtime story takes me back some 300,000 years, to the first appearance of homo sapiens. Their existence, and more importantly, their stories, rest deep in the earth in the form of paintings, scattered across caves throughout modern-day Africa, Europe, and Asia. One cave in particular, France’s Chauvet Cave, contains some of the earliest examples of human artwork to date. Looking at the messy scrawled outlines of bison and deer, you can imagine how those animals must have come to life in the flickering firelight. Quite the imaginative backdrop for prehistoric bedtime stories. Today, we have little to nothing in common with those early artists except for two things: we are human and we need stories to live. 

Image of hand print on a cave wall from Chauvet Cave in France
Chauvet Cave in France holds some of the earliest evidences of storytelling. Credit: Claude Valet.

But why? Why have humans always relied on stories? Strictly speaking, stories do nothing to actually contribute to survival, so why has the tradition of storytelling prevailed? In an article in the daily newsletter The Conversation, author Daniel Smith explains that stories contributed to the development of organized society. In a complex web of “meta-knowledge,” or knowledge of other people’s knowledge, stories ensured that everyone acted according to a set of expectations or norms, especially in early hunter-gatherer societies. One story from a Filipino tribe of hunter-gatherers, “The Sun and the Moon,” chronicles the dispute between the male sun and the female moon. Each argues that they light the sky the brightest. In the end, they discover that they brighten the sky equally, resulting in the natural day-night cycle. This ancient story preached gender equality, ensuring that the people of that tribe respected each member regardless of gender. 

Humans and Our Heroes

The shift from hunter-gatherer societies to more settled agricultural ones ushered in a new–and arguably even more influential–era of storytelling. During the Neolithic period, early humans had little scientific knowledge for the workings of nature. Stories helped explain and justify natural occurrences. They also provided early humans with an opportunity to establish and cultivate morals through religious legends. 

The most prominent example of these types of legends is Ancient Greek mythology. Beyond the 12 best-known Olympian gods and goddesses, there are 3,130 other deities and heroes complete with their own complex storylines. It was common belief that gods moved in and out of the lives of everyday citizens in acts of divine intervention. From these interactions came the legendary tales of ancient history’s half-God half-human offspring: demigods. Modern storytelling takes root in these myths. The stories of Perseus, Achilles, and Hercules, while fantastical, highlight intrinsic aspects of the human experience. Despite each hero’s partial godliness, their humanness almost always led to their demise as a result of their fatal flaws. Demigods fell in love, made mistakes, and faced consequences like everyone else. These legends allowed humans to insert themselves into previously unattainable circumstances, and thus, stories gained their power. 

Drawing of Perseus killing Medusa from Greek mythology
The demigod Perseus kills Medusa in a Greek myth dating back to about the 12th century BCE.

It’s easy to imagine a child in Ancient Greek society connecting to these mythological heroes the same way that 21st century children connect to Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker as the ultimate role models. Fictional characters help us understand the emotions and experiences we may be too afraid to acknowledge in ourselves. Even as Harry Potter attends magical boarding school and Luke Skywalker fights the pull of the dark side, they remain undeniably human, modern-day variants of the classical tragic hero. 

The Hero’s Journey

If you look closely, you’ll find that most stories possess the same archetypal hero and formulaic stricture. This concept is referred to as the Hero’s Journey and was popularized by the American writer Joseph Campbell. Campbell theorized that every literary protagonist’s journey can be encapsulated in a circular diagram in which the hero is called to embark on a quest aided by supernatural forces, during which he eventually uncovers a hidden truth about his or her life and returns enlightened and transformed. This template applies to almost all stories, from The Odyssey to The Hobbit.

Circular diagram of Joseph Campbell's idea of the hero's journey
Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey is a circular diagram that describes many ancient and new stories.

During the Hero’s Journey, the hero encounters an antagonizing villain and goes toe to toe in the ultimate battle between good and evil. We see this formula in most of humanity’s favorite fairy tales, which span across many historical cultures and societies. In fact, some of these stories pre-date written language, going as far back as the Bronze Age. While classics like “Rumplestiltskin” and “Beauty and the Beast” first appeared almost 4,000 years ago, experts have discovered that these narrative templates come from a singular tale: “The Smith and The Devil.” 

In this story, a blacksmith sells his soul to a devilish figure in exchange for the power to weld any materials together. The blacksmith then uses his newfound power to seal the villain to an immovable object in order to renege on his side of the bargain. A graphic published in a study by the Royal Society of Open Science proved that all of humanity’s universal fairy tales stem from “The Smith and The Devil,” with variations spanning across the whole of Indo-European society. While each fairy tale is vastly different, its archetypal components (and the Hero’s Journey) remain consistent. These thematic ideals are so embedded in the human mind, they are resistant to the passage of time and shifting perspectives. 

Storytelling in Marketing

Thousands of years after the first fairy tale, storytelling remains as important as ever, especially when used in marketing. In fact, some brands tell their own stories with original characters equipped with values that reflect the brands themselves. The Charmin Bears sing catchy songs about the roughness of the average roll of toilet paper, and Jake from State Farm politely addresses the challenges of homeownership while sporting his trademark uniform. These commercials, in fact, are bite-sized versions of the bedtime story.

A company’s ads can even act as chapters to their characters’ greater storylines. Since 2008, Progressive’s Flo has appeared in over 100 commercials for the company. In some, she declines the advances of her old flame Jon Hamm, and in others, braves the annual awkwardness of her own Thanksgiving family gatherings. Even though her entire life revolves around insurance and she never changes clothes, she has her own cheeky personality and everyday struggles, aspects that make her loveable, and more importantly, relatable. 

When companies tell their stories through their own unique characters, they cater to the homo sapien in all of us. Storytelling exists as a mark of humanity, guiding each of us through the experience of what it means to be alive and human. Whether it be a New York Times bestseller or a popular advertising campaign, there’s a comfort and familiarity in these centuries-old themes and archetypes. Because human beings from the early Bronze Age to today have faced and continue to face the same struggles and ponder the same questions, we will continue to tell the same stories.