The Art of Storytelling

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Art by Albert Anker

I have always been fascinated with the art of storytelling. I was a storyteller before I was a writer. My favorite thing to do when I was little was to go on walkabouts with my two younger cousins making up stories about oddly shaped rocks, twining trees and little lakes, as we wandered through changing landscapes of forests and mountains. Perhaps this talent came from my mother. I will never forget the storm-torn tree with the roots reaching for the skies. It was a magical gateway to another world. A world only my mother knew about. And now me. A miniature world of trolls and elves. And I, with the magical eyes of childhood, saw it all. Or perhaps it was my grandmother who taught me to tell stories. I could not get enough of the stories she told about a wonderful land called Yesteryear. Or her folktales, always with a wicked modern twist to make me laugh.

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Art by Theodor Kittelsen

When I learned how to write, my writing was first and foremost a way to record my stories. Whenever I wasn’t busy playing you could always find me scribbling something in a notepad or sketching odd characters and fantastical sceneries in a drawing book.
Some of the stories turned into movies which my big brother shot with my father’s old fashioned video camera.

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Art by Theodor Kittlsen

When I was eight I started writing poetry. I learned the magic of words. Poems were little stories about emotions. And these stories outshone the longer narratives in my teens. Today my writing is a mixture of storytelling and creative poetic writing.

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The tradition of storytelling is old. Older than recorded history. Storytelling was the way to record history in ancient times. It was a way to teach moral, explain natural phenomena, carry on culture and traditions, and of course, to entertain. In the Norse part of the world, we had the Skald. The skald was a poetic storyteller, often working for the king. He composed actual events into epic heroic sagas, creating heroes and adding valor to kings. Our most famous Skald is Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet who composed the epic Prose Edda. This Prose is still taught in schools today, and is a valuable source to understand ancient history and traditions in the Norse world.

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Art by Theodor Kittlsen

Other famous storytellers in Norway are Asbjørnsen and Moe. During the National Romanticism in Norway in the late 18th century, there was a general revival and interest for the old Norwegian traditions and culture. This was also true for the Norwegian folk tales and fairy tales. These tales had been told on farms and around bonfires for many many years, but had never been written down. Asbjørnsen and Moe took it upon themselves to collect these folk tales and publish them in two volumes. They traveled around the country from farm to farm listening to stories and writing them down. They were also known for re-telling the different stories to the children they met on their journeys. The two volume of folk tales collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe have never been out of print since they were first published in 1841, and rarely will you find a Norwegian home without one version or the other of this Fairytale collection.

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The Iron Age Farm, Stavanger, Norway

I was so lucky as to meet one of the more modern storytellers in Norway, on the Iron Age farm in Stavanger. Nina Næsheim is a professional storyteller who specializes in Norse myths and legends. It was a very special moment sitting inside the ancient stone farmhouse with the rain tapping on the roof and candles swaying in the draft listening to Nina Næsheim telling stories about the Jotne, Thor, Freya and Odin’s Ravens. Seeing a professional storyteller performing a narrative is something completely different than listening to a book being read out loud. It is then you understand that storytelling truly is an art.

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Inside the Iron Age Farmhouse, Stavanger, Norway.

I met another such contemporary storyteller in Galway, Ireland. Ireland, with its Celtic heritage, has a rich tradition of storytellers, or seanchaí as they are called in Ireland.
The stories often include the mythical Fey Folk, or faeries as we call them today. But these faeries are very far from the Disney fairies we see on screen today. The Irish Faeries were cunning and mischievous and often downright wicked, stealing babies and luring bachelors into Faerierings.
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Eddie (Edmund) Lenihan is a famous contemporary Irish storyteller who specializes in tales about the Faerie folk. Eddie is featured in the film ” The Faerie Faith”, and claims that the Faeries actually exist. His stories are often modern and stars people who have actually had encounters with this mythical folk. I met Eddie Lenihan in Galway during the yearly storytelling festival. His performance was exceptional, and he captivated his audience, young and old, with his dreamy deep voice, his shape shifting facial expressions and his faerie like body language.

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Eddie Lenihan by Valerie O’Sullivan

The Irish seanchas were not only the bearers of Faerie Lore, they were also essential in the Druid tradition. Druids were Celtic priests, or wise men, who were called upon to perform weddings and funerals. They were also the holders of the secret knowledge and were considered to be wise and knowledgeable. They often shared and distributed this knowledge in the telling of stories, symbolic tales conveying hidden messages for the listeners.
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I met a Druid priest on the island of Inish Mor in Ireland. He was a former catholic monk, but had converted to the old faith in recent times. He spent his days studying ancient knowledge and mysteries, and some of this knowledge he shared with me,standing in the stone ruin of an old monastery facing the boisterous Atlantic Ocean, his tales came alive before my very eyes as the skies and seas shifted and roared and spat out the secrets the Druid called upon.

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Inish Mor, Ireland

We all tell stories. Perhaps funny anecdotes from our own lives, or perhaps stories we’ve heard told about someone else’s misfortune or success. We are made up of stories, memories, moments of learning, experiences, our stories make us who we are. Humanity has always had a fondness for gossip, for eavesdropping, just look at today’s reality shows and social networking. Sharing our story becomes important, it is how we leave our mark on this world, it is how we prevent the sea from washing out our footprints.

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Art by the brothers Hildebrandt

Whenever I go through something difficult, as we all must do in life, I think of my life as a story, a quest, a heroic tale, something that will grow in interest, excitement and richness, the more adversary I go through. For after all, what is a story without a plot, what is a tale without a quest, what is a saga without a hero? Or in the words of Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings:

“It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. ”

* All the images have been sourced from Wikimedia or Wikipedia

Further reading:

Nina Næsheim: http://fortellernina.no/node/1
Eddie Lenihan: http://eddielenihan.weebly.com/

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The Secret Language of Trees

Yggdrasil

Trees have always played a very crucial part in Nordic Mythology and Culture. The first sacred tree we hear about is “Yggdrasil” the cosmic world tree in Norse Mythology. Yggdrasil is an enormous Ash Tree, with roots extended into the many worlds and branches reaching into the Heavens. Yggdrasil means “the horse of the terrifying one”, which scholars have interpreted to mean Odin’s Horse. Odin is the greatest of the gods in Asgaard the abode of the gods, he is the grandfather who rules the worlds.

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Norse Mythology also claims that the first humans called Ask (Ash Tree in Norwegian) and Embla (Elm Tree in Norwegian) were fashioned from tree trunks. Odin was the one who breathed life into them.

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In Scandinavia it was, and still is, the custom to plant a tree outside on the farmyard called the “Tuntre”. The Tuntre would stand watch over the farm for generations and was considered to be a great protector of the farm. The tree was much respected and cared for and often even worshipped. Especially in Finland these trees were given great importance. The Tuntre could also give warnings about the future, if the tree looked sick or unhealthy a great disaster would most likely come to the farm.

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The origin of the tuntre comes from the belief that a holy tree would grow where the “haugbonden”, a magic elf residing over the farm was buried. The tree would protect the grave from bad luck and witchcraft.

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Oak

The great Oak tree is considered to be the King of the Trees according to ancient Norse culture. It symbolizes strength and endurance and is considered to be the Norse god Thor’s tree. It is often referred to as the Tree of Thunder. Anyone can seek protection and shelter under the oak and Thor’s sacred power will keep them safe. The Oak is also said to be the keeper of ancient wisdom as it is the tree that lives the longest. You can seek out this tree to obtain this old and mystic wisdom and the tree will bless you forever.

Birch trees in a summer forest

Birch

The Birch tree might be one of the most feminine of trees in the forest. It is said to hold the portal between this life and the afterlife. The Birch holds the light, and it will light your path through even the deepest of the dark. It looks quite angelic lighting up the forest in the night. This tree is able to grow and thrive almost anywhere as long as it has access to water.

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Ash

The Ash tree is an important tree both in Nordic Mythology and in Celtic mythology. It is said to be the abode of fairies and holds the portal to Fairyland. As we have learned the great Yggdrasil is an Ash Tree and the first man was fashioned out of the trunk of an Ash Tree. Odin writes the ancient knowledge in runes on the trunk and branches of the Ash Tree. Ash is a very auspicious tree to keep close to your house because it will bless the house and all the people living close to it, but only if it is treated with respect and care. Ash is a protective tree, especially for sailors and in the ancient North people used charms made of ash to prevent sailors from drowning and give them safe passage over the seas.

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Hazel

The Hazel Tree is Thor’s tree. It is said to protect people against lightening. In ancient Norse Culture it was said that if you stood under a Hazel Tree in a thunderstorm Thor would protect you and you could not be struck by lightening. Hazel tree is also known in Celtic mythology to be the Fairy Tree. It is loved by all fairies, and if you go out looking for fairies you should start with the Hazel Tree. Hazel Tree was also used by the Celtic druids to make themselves invisible. The Hazel is the tree of Fairy Knowledge.

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Spruce

The Spruce, or the Norway Spruce, is the traditional Christmas Tree in Norway. It is the most common tree in most parts of Norway, but especially in the south. It is an evergreen tree symbolizing endurance, courage, long life and positivity.

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Alder

Alder is a tree associated with fire. People rarely wanted to build houses near an Alder tree as they were afraid the house would easily catch fire. Witches were said to make flutes out of Alder to come in contact with the North Wind. Alder is a sturdy tree and symbolizes vitality, good health and strength in difficult circumstances.

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Elm

Elm is the tree which the first woman Embla was fashioned out of. Elm is a female tree associated with female qualities. Elm is used in many herbal medicines and is therefor considered to be a great healing tree. Elm is also very nutritious and can be used in cooking to give extra strength. Elm is a very auspicious tree to live close to as it provides protection, nutrition, medicine and healing.

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Rowan

Rowan is another tree associated with the Norse god Thor. It is said to have protected Thor against a great flood. Rowan is perhaps the most magical of the trees, believed to be the tree of witchcraft and fairy magic and frequently used in magic potions. It is also said that if you burn rowan twigs in your house then the smoke it creates will chase away ghosts and evil spirits. Rowan can also be used in divination, as it will help you to look into the future and have clairvoyant dreams.