The Storyteller: Shaman and Healer by Michael Berman

Storytelling is the oldest form of communication/education/healing in the history of mankind, dating back to the "storyteller" (the shaman) around the campfires of prehistoric or primitive villages. The stories painted or drawn on the walls of caves in petroglyphs, on animal skins and in the oral tradition, were man's first form of education, communication, entertainment and healing, far predating the written word. The Twelve Tribes of Israel used the "oral tradition" for centuries in passing down the parables of the Creation and Noah's Flood. It was not until King Solomon decreed that these stories be written down, that we had any records from which much of the "Old Testament" was taken. It can be argued that we have a responsibility to carry on this tradition and that mankind has a "need" for "storytellers" that is almost as great as his need for love.

It is difficult for us today to understand what the winter would have meant to our pagan ancestors in northern Europe - a time of fear, constant cold, hunger and tedium. Taking literacy for granted, we also forget that until the beginning of the twentieth century, when free basic schooling for all was first introduced, that most of our great-grandparents relied on word of mouth for both information and entertainment. It is hardly surprising therefore that one of the most important figures in the world of our ancestors was that of the storyteller - the provider of entertainment through the long dark winter nights, purveyor of wonder and magick, the transmitter of tribal and community myths, legends, teachings and values.

Like the shaman, the storyteller is a walker between the worlds, a mediator between our known world and that of the unknown - a communer with dragons and elves, with faeries and angels, with magickal and mythical beasts, with Gods and Goddesses, heroes and demons, able to pass freely from this world into those above and those below and to help us to experience those other realms for ourselves. He or she is an intensely powerful invoker of elemental powers, of the powers of absolute transformation, who can show us how to confront our most deeply-engrained fears, or teach us how to experience ecstasy or bring us face to face with death or terror of the spirit - with the infinite and incomprehensible. He is not only the archetypal magickian but also the archetypal guide.

In many traditions storytelling is synonymous with song, chant, music, or epic poetry, especially in the bardic traditions. Stories may be chanted or sung, along with musical accompaniment on a certain instrument. Therefore those called folk musicians by foreign music enthusiasts could just as well be called storytellers - their true roles being more profound, as their names reflect: bards, ashiks, jyrau, griots amongst many more. Their roles in fact are often as much spiritual teachers or healers, for which the stories and music are vehicles, as well as historians and tradition-bearers. In Central Asia, for example, the same Turkic term, bakhshi, may be used for both shamans and bards, and both may be called to their trade by spirits to undergo a difficult period of initiation. Indeed a bard can be described as a healer who uses music as a gateway to the world of the Spirit, and there is a magical dimension to reciting the epics. They use a fiddle or lute as accompaniment, and tales may run through several nights of exhaustive performance; one Kyrgyz bard is known to recite 300,000 verses of the Manas, the major Kyrgyz epic. For genuine initiates of these bardic disciplines, they draw directly on the conscious creative power of the Divine and transmit it through the words they speak and sing. This is not the same as merely 'being creative' or 'feeling inspired', and involves considerable spiritual training.
"The dastan [Turkic epic] is ornate oral history and an important part of the Turkic literature of Central Asia. Traditionally, dastans have been repositories of ethnic identity and history, and some constitute nearly complete value systems for the peoples they embrace. The primary, or "mother", dastans are those composed to commemorate specific liberation struggles. Set mostly in verse by an ozan [bard], more than 50 mother dastans are recited by Central Asians from the Eastern Altai to the Western Ural Mountains and as far south as Bend-e Turkestan in Afghanistan. Most dastans commemorate the struggles of different Turkic peoples against external aggressors, such as the Kalmuks and Chinese." (H. B. Paksoy, Central Asia's New Dastans).

In Turkey, the folk-poets of Anatolia are usually referred to as ashiks, meaning 'the ones in love' [with the Divine]. The ashiks, who belong to the Bektasi / Alevi faith, have wandered the plains of Anatolia since around the tenth century. They accompany themselves on the saz, a long-necked lute with three sets of strings, said to represent the fundamental trinity of the Muslim faith: Allah, Mohammed and Ali.

However, there is no need to travel so far afield in search of the storyteller as shaman. Ballads such as Thomas Rhymer, as closer analysis shows, are in fact shamanic journeys in themselves: There is clearly a great deal more to this ballad than first meets the eye because there is also a parallel with shamanic journeys into nonordinary reality. It is the kiss that moves what Carlos Castaneda called the 'assemblage point' and initiates the process of the journey. As Castaneda explains through the teachings of Don Juan, what we call 'reason' is merely a by-product of the habitual position of the assemblage point. Dreaming (and / or visualization) gives us the fluidity to enter into other worlds and to perceive the inconceivable by making the assemblage point shift outside the human domain. The ballad is presented below, followed by more detailed analysis:

From Child, Part II p.317

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
A fairy he spied with his e'e
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eidon Tree.

Her skirt was of the grass green silk
Her mantle of the velvet fine
At each tett of her horse's mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pulled off his cap
And bowed low down to his knee
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.

Oh no, oh no, Thomas, she said
That name does not belong to me
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland
That am hither come to visit thee.

Harp and carp, Thomas, she said
Harp and carp along with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be.

Betide me well, betide me woe
That weird shall never daunton me
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eidon Tree.

Now, ye maun go with me, she said
True Thomas, ye maun go with me
And ye maun serve me seven years
Though weal and woe, as may chance to be.

She mounted on her milk white steed
She's taken True Thomas up behind
And aye whenever her bridle rang
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

Oh they rode on, and further on
The steed gaed swifter than the wind
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind.

Light down, light down now, true Thomas
And lean your head upon my knee
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three.

Oh, see you not yon narrow road
So thick beset with thorn and briars
That is the path of righteousness
Though after it but few enquire.

And see you not that broad, broad road
That lie across that lily leven
That is the path of wickedness
Though some call it the road to Heaven.

And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

But Thomas, you must hold your tongue
Whatever you may hear or see
For if you speak word in Elfin land
You'll ne'er get back to your ain country.

Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will give the tongue that can never lie.

My tongue is my own, True Thomas said
A goodly gift you would give to me
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I may be.

I dought neither speak to prince nor peer
Nor ask of grace from fair lady
Now hold thy peace, the lady said
For as I say, so it must be.

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shoes of velvet green
And till seven years were gone and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.


It is the kiss of the Queen of Fairyland that changes Thomas Rhymer's life forever, as the start of his descent into what can be regarded as the Lower World of the shaman is marked by that kiss. The Fairy Queen tells Thomas of the three paths that lie ahead and explains the meaning to him, acting as a guide or sacred teacher.

The first path is almost desert, flat, wide and straight as far as the eye can see. Although easy to journey on, it is of absolutely no consequence. It would appear to be a reference to an occupation that is easy and so leads to no rewards, expanding neither knowledge nor skill and devoid of any spiritual value. It offers a contrast to the traditional path of an initiate into shamanic practices, who often has to undergo great suffering and hardship along the way.

The second path is narrow, winding and treacherous with thorny hedges encroaching on both sides. Hazardous in the extreme, yet with a happy ending for it leads to the city of the kings. As we know, the king is always at the centre and in control. The suggestion is that after all the trials and tribulations of endangering oneself and surviving on a path upon which many obstacles are encountered, the reward for the righteous is entrance to the king, an honour indeed.

The third path is lush and green, meandering into forest and glade. It is a wild place where one could easily get lost. The Queen gives no explanation of this and quite simply says "This is the path to Fairy Land, and do not utter a world whilst in this land or you end up staying forever." This suggests that anything spoken in the otherworld is to be taken very seriously indeed.

The only material thing Thomas is given on his journey is an enchanted harp and it is used as a link between the two worlds. It can be regarded as the equivalent of the shaman's drum, the rhythmic beating of which was used to induce a trance state. In some cultures a musical bow was plucked in a rhythmic way to achieve the same state, and in others songs were sung. The Sufis use dance to produce the same effects. Other parallels can also be drawn between the ballad of Thomas Rhymer and a shamanic journey but limitation of space precludes further analysis here.

Significantly, a link has been established by Peggy Ann Wright at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between heightened temporal lobe activity and shamanistic experiences. These are soul journeys to distant realms of experience in order to communicate with spirits, and to bring back healing advice. Rhythmic drumming of the sort used in a vast range of spiritual rituals excites the temporal lobes and associated areas of the limbic system, as can the practice of guided visualization. Moreover, each time a storyteller introduces a tale starting 'once upon a time', he / she is inviting the audience to transcend their linear concepts of time and space and so enter a light state of trance. Consequently, as in the case of shamanic journeying and guided visualisation, storytelling can also be used to facilitate the development of what Danah Zohar calls Spiritual Intelligence - what we use to develop our longing and capacity for meaning, vision and value - and the power of storytelling is not to be underestimated.


Sheppard, T., Tim Sheppard's Storytelling Resources for Storytellers [accessed 6 April 2004]
Zohar, H., & Marshall, I., 2000, Spiritual Intelligence The Ultimate Intelligence Bloomsbury, London


Michael Berman is currently a research student at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and working part-time as a teacher at Oxford House College in London. Publications include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom and The Power of Metaphor for Crown House Publishing and The Shaman and the Storyteller for Superscript. Michael has been involved in TESOL for over thirty years and has given presentations at Conferences in Austria, Azerbaijan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, and the Ukraine.

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