Two Ears, One Mouth

Oral Storytelling as a Tradition

May 18, 2022

The Tale Begins with Moʻolelo and Ends with Griots


  • A look at oral storytelling across cultures and across the globe from days past and today.
  • How listening to stories is used to educate, entertain, and pass along information to the next generation.
  • Storytelling traditions from the Hawaiian moʻolelo to the West African griot.

Julio Diaz is a social worker from the Bronx. Every night, he ends his hour-long subway commute one stop early just so he can eat at his favorite diner. But one night, as Julio stepped off the train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn when he was robbed by a teenage boy. At StoryCorps, Julio recalls what happened next.

Len Berk loves lox, the salt-cured salmon that goes so well with bagels. Today, the 85-year-old New Yorker is a veteran salmon slicer at Zabar’s, a gourmet food shop in Manhattan. But it wasn’t always that way. At StoryCorps, Len talks about becoming a salmon slicer after forty years in accounting.

So you’re probably wondering what is this StoryCorps? And how can you learn how these stories end? 

StoryCorp’s mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. These are just tidbits of StoryCorp’s more than half a million unscripted conversations in the words of the people who lived them. 

Some of the aims of StoryCorp are to teach the value of listening and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. It’s also about creating an invaluable archive for future generations. 

StoryCorp has brought the ancient tradition of oral storytelling into modern times. Oral storytelling has been around as long as there’s been human language – so a loooong time! It has been used to educate, explain, enchant, and perhaps most of all, to ensure that stories connect the past, the present, and the future.

Oral storytellers were once the walking-version of Facebook of their time. They’d journey from region to region and listen to the latest stories, news, and gossip. They’d bring the information back to their land where it would then be retold again and again. 

Many famous authors of years past have picked up these traveling tales and adapted them into literature, such as Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. They had to be good listeners, cause unlike Facebook, there was no posting for eternity in historic times. 

Perhaps the story one often thinks of when thinking of storytelling is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. It’s where the storyteller Scheherazade saves herself from execution by telling tales. She leaves her audience wanting more by making the story incomplete and promises to finish it the following night.

This brings us back to the tales of today and how oral storytelling has evolved into groups like The Moth. The Moth aims to highlight both the diversity and commonality of the human experience. People from all over the world share their true stories at The Moth’s live events, podcast, and Radio Hour. Over 40,000 stories have been told by everyone from Nobel laureates to a hotdog eating champion.

We’ll take a look at these oral storytelling traditions across various cultures and see what societies have listened to throughout time. Kay Turner, a folklorist and independent scholar who’s on the board of the New York Folklore Society, notes, “Even if a story is the same, each culture will tell it differently, because each one has its own genres and cultural rules.” 

Learn More about Hawaiian Hula
Credit: Nicasello Photography

The Hawaiian Moʻolelo

Grab your grass skirt and coconut bra cause first we’re journeying to Hawaii. Traditional hula dancing (not the kind you do after too many mai tai’s!) is actually a form of storytelling. It is done to the language of chants or songs. Hula dancing aims to connect audiences to the foundation of Hawaiian ancestral knowledge and animates history, genealogy, prophecy, and the tales of those who came before.

The Native Hawaiian word for story is “moʻolelo.” It combines two words, mo’o, meaning succession, and olelo, meaning language or speaking. Therefore, the word for story means “succession of language.” This makes sense since Hawaiian stories were passed orally from generation to generation until missionaries arrived in the 1820s. They helped the Hawaiians learn to read and write and encouraged the use of English. Even with the advent of the written word, oral storytelling still exists on the islands today.

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Credit: B. Anthony Stewart

The Jewish Passover Seder

On Passover, families of Jewish faith commemorate the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The main storytelling ritual of Passover is the seder. This service and ceremonial dinner occur on the first night or first two nights of Passover. The word “seder” means "order" because the meal is done in a certain order to tell the story of the exodus from slavery to freedom. The story is told orally with words and song, plus with the consumption of certain foods.

One of the purposes of the seder is to educate the younger generations. Therefore, children play a key role in the ceremony by asking four scripted questions that are then used to drive the story. For example, one question is: “Why is it that on all other nights we need not dip even once, and on this night we dip twice?” The vegetables at the seder are dipped in saltwater. The saltwater is a reminder of the tears from when Jewish people suffered as slaves in Egypt. 

Credit: My Kind of Japan

The Japanese Rakugo

Rakugo is a Japanese form of storytelling with a comic monologue performance. Quite appropriately, rakugo literally means “fallen words.” Rakugo is minimalistic and features a lone storyteller dressed in a kimono and kneeling on a cushion. The only props are a fan and a hand towel. The different characters are depicted through a change in pitch, tone, and a slight turn of the head. Since the art is so minimal, the rakugoka must inspire the imagination of the audience with skilled storytelling. The comedic punch line is considered essential to a successful performance.

Rakugo is a 400-year-old tradition. It was invented by Buddhist monks in the 9th and 10th centuries to make their sermons more interesting by using dramatic stories. It has now evolved into many variations with differing styles. It can be classified as either classical rakugo, stories that have been passed down since the Edo era, and newer rakugo stories from modern storytellers. There are several hundred classic rakugo stories and they vary from five minutes to 40 minutes. 

Hollywood Insider Night of the Kings Review
Credit: ‘Night of the Kings’/Neon

The West African Griot

You may have heard the term griot recently since it was the basis of the movie Night of the Kings that was just shortlisted for the Academy Awards International Feature category. The film by Ivorian writer-director Philippe Lacôte is set in an Ivory Coast prison where a new arrival is unaware that his storytelling skills will determine his life or death. Lacôte explained, “I didn’t create this story. It’s Scheherazade, 'Arabian nights. It’s the same situation.” He went on to say, “I wanted to pay a sort of tribute to the griot.”

Griots have long been a part of western African culture and are still around today. They are a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history. It is usually an inherited position and griots typically marry other griots. “Griots are very important in West Africa because they have three functions; one is to tell stories, another is to sing the praises of the queen or the king, and also to keep the history of the kingdom. This means that in our culture there’s no difference between real events, legend and poetry. These three levels are the same for us,” noted Lacôte.

In this day and age, it seems like the role of the oral storyteller is being outsourced to TV, social media, and the internet. But there’s only so much you can gain by leaning on these methods. 

The key is to not solely rely on getting your information with glazed eyes from a screen. But to get out and actually listen and learn. Go to a local cultural festival and listen to the music and dancing. Chat with an older relative about family anecdotes. Visit your local historical society and learn about your town. Eat at a restaurant with cuisine you’ve never tried before and talk with the owners. 

And on that note… we will finish, as all good stories do, by saying THE END.

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