A Seneca Tale: “The Origin of Stories”

Image of Stones

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Shall I tell you stories?

Many cultures have tales about the origin of stories, but my favorite comes from the Seneca.

“The Origin of Stories” – also known as “The Storytelling Stone” – tells the tale of an orphan boy who goes out hunting and discovers a stone that tells stories. The boy learns quickly that the emotional nourishment he receives from the stone’s stories is even more important than the physical nourishment he receives from the birds he hunts.

“Shall I tell you stories?” the stone asks.

“What is that?” the boy replies. “What does it mean to tell stories?”

“It is telling what happened a long time ago,” says the stone. Then importantly, “If you will give me your birds, I’ll tell you stories.”

The boy readily gives up his birds and begins to hear, for the first time, the stories of long ago. Soon, he brings his entire village. The storytelling stone instructs its listeners:

There was a world before this. The things that I am going to tell about happened in that world. Some of you will remember every word I say, some will remember a part of the words, and some will forget them all – I think this will be the way, but each man must do the best he can. Hereafter you must tell these stories to one another – now listen.

Many have told and retold this well-known and enduring tale (a quick Google search will turn up many versions!), but I am reading from Jeremiah Curtin’s 1889 collection, Seneca Indian Myths (republished in 1922). This is “The Origin of Stories” told to Curtin by Henry Jacob. Curtin (1835-1906) was an American folklorist and translator and collected these tales on behalf of the Smithsonian.

For another great telling of the tale, check out Rafe Martin’s 2005 book, The World Before This One, written for children ages 8 and up. It brings the traditional Seneca tale to life in novel form. Highly recommended!

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Listen:Listen as I read “The Origin of Stories” as told to Jeremiah Curtin by Henry Jacob. This is a long clip (12 minutes) but worth every minute to get the full flavor of this important tale.

Photo credit: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=22813&picture=stone-black-and-white