Saturday, 17 December 2011

Story-tellers Through Time : A Griotte in the Making

When I was trying to come up with a theme for my next blog one thing stuck with me. The origins of storytelling and the many cultures around the world who use words (oral and written), paintings, ceremonies, music and dance, and, in the modern age, film to convey their family history and traditional beliefs.

Photo by Alastair McNaughton
When I came to Australia, on the verge of my teenage years, I was immediately effected by the Aboriginal culture and folklore. I was less interested in the history books about James Cook and White Settlement and more engrossed with the Aboriginal customs and, in particular, their Dreamtime.
The ways in which the Aborigines honour the land on which they live, their spiritual beliefs and their deep-rooted affinity with their people has continually effected me over the years. The family stories they tell, through the Dreamtime or Dreaming, has been altered dramatically with the coming of the White people and many tribes and families, and many traditional Aboriginal customs have been lost or systematically driven out of their daily lives. There are still those today who embrace their ancestral culture and who live day-by-day with their family stories because it is psychologically entrenched within them, and they cannot be expected to ignore what is rightfully theirs.

Madina (Griotte)
Whilst reading Cherry Gilchrist's book 'Growing Your Family Tree" recently, I became intrigued by a passage in the last chapter where she describes the African storytellers. Known as griots (male) and griottes (female), they traditionally sing their family stories and play an instrument known as the Kora. The griots are keepers of family stories, genealogy and histories. The female griotte is known more widely for sharing family stories through song and one well known musician is Madina N'Diaye (pictured right).

In Western societies our ancestors used tapestry, murals and paintings, and in medieval times there were minstrels and bards to tell our stories. Then came the age of stagecraft where men acted out stories in front of a paying audience. Newspapers and books, penny dreadfuls quickly followed and people all over the world began to express themselves through some form of the written word. However, print was not easily accessable or affordable to the working class and humble poor and so the centuries-old tradition of oral storytelling never lost its favour. Opportunities for embellishment meant that the line between fact and fiction were oftentimes blurred!

The family who sits around the fireside listening to and sharing family stories is easily conjured up in one's mind. One such special occasion for me, as a child, was Christmas time. When my grandmother's had enjoyed a nip or two of sherry with their Turkey dinner, their tongues were loosened and many stories were shared and regaled. I loved those times, and still today I try to continue their legacy of storytelling (and not just with the sherry to help me along!).
There are so many opportunities at Christmas to sit down with a loved one or favourite relative and ask them questions. I have bored my own long-suffering parents and aunts with questions about their own childhood memories, and I have notebooks filled with many lovely stories.

I will share one with you here. My mother remembers when her father would bring home the Christmas tree ( a real one of course) and the whole family would decorate it the day before Christmas. On the tree would be small bauble decorations and candles, and even sugar mice! On Christmas Eve the family would sit by the hearth and tell stories and my grandmother would light the candles on the tree.

I would like to close this blog with a message of love and hope for a very merry Christmas to all my faithful readers and all newcomers. Thank you for reading my blogs, and leaving such heart-warming comments. I would like to give my special thanks to my family and to also acknowledge and thank Jo W, Luke, Mike, Angela B, Ann, Lynn H, Emma, Suzie & Rosemary for encouraging me throughout the year to share my special family stories through this blog.


  1. A lovely and very interesting article Debra.

  2. Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking post. Merry Christmas! Jo

  3. First of all, Merry Christmas. Secondly, I loved this Post. It was great to read it. I think you have yourself a new follower.

  4. Thank you Ann & Jo for your comments and Christmas wishes! Welcome Martin, and thank you too for your comments and Christmas wishes. I hope everyone continues to enjoy my posts. xx