Storytellers: Shaping History and Community

Storyteller at Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco.
Tomasz Kulbowski, via Flickr

Rena Dam and Joshua Leo look at storytellers around the world. Their stories influence the people around them.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Rena Dam.

Voice 2 

And I’m Joshua Leo. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 3

Scheherazade had a problem. She needed to protect her life. She had just married the powerful King of Persia. But Scheherazade was not the king’s first wife. His first wife had not been faithful to him. This made the king very angry. So he sent his first wife away to be killed. But he was still angry. Every day, the king married a new wife. And the next morning, he would send her away to be killed.

Scheherazade knew that marrying the King would lead to her death. But she was very wise. She had a plan. Scheherazade began to tell the king a story. She told him the story all night long. The king was very interested in the story. The sun began to rise the next day. But Scheherazade did not finish her story. She asked the king to let her live. Then she could finish her story the next day. He agreed.

That night Scheherazade finished her story. And then she quickly began another one. Again, day came in the middle of the story. The king wanted to know the ending of this story too. He let Scheherazade live for another night. This continued for 1,001 nights. By then the king knew that he loved Scheherazade. He would not send her to be killed. Scheherazade’s story-telling saved her life.

Voice 1 

This famous story is called ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ It shows the power of a good storyteller, like Scheherazade, can have great power. She can influence individuals and the community. Today’s Spotlight is on story tellers.

Voice 2 

Story-telling began a very long time ago. The oldest surviving record of storytelling is from Egypt. It is a famous document called the Westcar papyrus. Most of the stories include magic events. Ancient Egyptians believed that some people had special powers. In one story, a magician puts the head of a bird on to the body of a cow. Experts think that these stories are 4,000 years old.

Voice 1 

People told the first stories orally - they would speak the stories out loud. A community would gather together. They listened to the storyteller. The storyteller told the action of the story. Many storytellers also acted out the different characters. To do this the storyteller would make large expressions with his face. He would use his voice in different and funny ways. People enjoyed watching and listening to the storyteller.  The stories were good entertainment. But the storyteller did more than this.

Voice 2 

Tawennihake is from the Mohawk Tribe of North America. He is an artist and community leader. He says that the storyteller was the most influential person in Mohawk culture. He wrote in an online article:

Voice 4 

“The storyteller was the origin of wisdom, history, literature, knowledge, moral instruction and learning. The old story tellers were often called "tricksters." They would inject valuable lessons into the message they were sharing. The people would hear the stories thinking that they were being entertained. But they were learning through the lessons and morals of the story. These stories stayed forever in the collective mind of the tribe.”

Voice 1 

Storytellers helped communities understand their history. Chris Abani is a Nigerian writer and activist. He thinks that stories are the best way to learn. He says that we understand ourselves through stories. He said:

Voice 5 

“Language makes the world in which we live. Language can only be understood in connection to story. Everything, everything...all of this - is story. It is important to remember that. If we do not, we lose our history.”

Voice 2 

In West Africa, the community learned their history from a story teller called a Griot. Usually, each village would have one Griot. At the end of the day the Griot would call people to come hear a story. Children and adults would gather around to listen. The Griot often beat on a drum or played another musical instrument. Griots told stories about tribal history such as wars and famous events. They also told stories about village events such as births or marriages. Some of the Griots stories were about made up characters. Through these stories the Griot taught people good moral values.

Voice 1 

In ancient China, stories also ended with a moral lesson. The storyteller would stand behind a table in the market. He would wear a long cloth robe. In one hand he held a folded paper fan. When he opened the fan it was big enough to cover his face. In the other hand he held a gavel, like a judge in a court. He hit this wooden tool on the table to mark important parts of the story. Chinese storytellers often used music and poems in their stories. Like the Mohawk storyteller, they used humour to teach people good lessons.

Voice 2 

Storytellers urged people to try to make their lives better. Their stories encouraged people to create something new. Steven Denning writes popular books on leadership. In his book “The Leaders Guide to Storytelling” he writes:

Voice 6 

"Story produces creativity. A story encourages us to bring new things into the world. It moves us forward and backward. It makes us do new things. But we must also look back to history.”

Voice 1 

Over time, people began to record their stories in writing. Many more people became storytellers by writing books. Some people wrote down old stories - such as the story of Scheherazade and “One Thousand and One Nights.” And many more people began to write new stories.

Voice 2 

A storyteller may tell a story with her voice. Or she may write her story in a book. Either way, storytelling is an important part of human history. Storytellers have had a large influence in every culture. And they probably will continue to do so. Writer Steve Denning says:

Voice 6 

"Hearing a powerful story makes the listener feel more alive. So listening to the story turns it into a living thing. The seeming aliveness of the story makes listeners want to pass it on."

Voice 1 

The writer and producer of this program was Rena Dam. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘Storytellers: Shaping History and Community’.

Voice 2 

You can also leave your comments on our website. Or you can email us at You can also find us on Facebook - just search for spotlightradio. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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What is your favorite story? How has it influenced you?


Avatar Spotlight
said on December 10, 2012

I love to read and listen all of sport light program because sport light program can help me read more and more.
before i read and listened this program i am afraid to read other English program because i don’t have English vocabulary to understand.
Thank you very much for reading.

Avatar Spotlight
Rain Bows
said on December 10, 2012

Thank you so much for the article about storytellers.
I really liked it.
It is such a fun way to learn this way.
It is about to be Christmas, I hope you are all getting ready.
Sofía Miketta,

Luis Piedra's avatar
Luis Piedra
said on December 10, 2012

The histories are part of a culture.
It interesting listen histories all the time.
Thanks Spotlight's avatar
said on December 11, 2012

Be reading or listening a good book,a interesting story or any one usefully is always help us improve our knowledge and it is more worthy for people who is learning English. Thank spotlight so much! Bye for now.

Avatar Spotlight
said on December 11, 2012

I like the stories. It’s important to learn more and more about the history or differents cases on the life.
The books are the tools of the wisdom.

Great topic

Avatar Spotlight
said on December 13, 2012

It is an interesting story.

Avatar Spotlight
said on June 01, 2015

hezar-o-yek shab,”هزار و یک شب” is one of the best story books in IRAN.
all the people love it….

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on September 06, 2016

In fact, I do not know any one of Hestoytellers directly but certainly I heard and read a lot about them, Scheherazade and her the One Thousand and One Nights , for example. Personally I think that the Hestorytellers was had a big impact in shaping history and society in the past times but this impact is much the decline in the light of globalization and the information revolution.
God bless you

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on September 06, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Tuesday 06, September 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid, Rena Dam, and Joshua Leo:

At first,  I want to thank you to bring us readers and learners of English more one great article. Thanks!
My favoite story is The dawn of the hinterland. This is a great story in which my grandmother used to tell me every day in morning in Pernambuco countryside where I lived there together with her and the rest of my family.
She told me about the wind in which moved the landscapes and nature. Also, she told me about the night’s silence and bright stars in the sky how they were beautiful.

Yours regards,
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 08, 2016

Undoubtedly, people have been enjoying watching and listening to storytellers already since antiquity. Storytellers represent the important source of wisdom, history and knowledge, they have the power to teach people helping them to understand themselves just as their history as well. Although writing stories dominate nowadays their influence on human mind continues so that good stories can stay in our memory for a long time.
I had known the wonderful story about wise Scheherazade from my parents’telling when I was a child and subsequently I had been telling same story my daughters during their childhood. The beautiful, meaningful stories can be regarded as the valuable cultural heritage of people around the world!
Thanks Spotlight for another excellent topic!

Avatar Spotlight
said on March 17, 2020

I have many favorite stories. For me, even though I’m not a Christian, the best story ever written in the world is the Christian Bible. In it we find, in fact, a great story about the pilgrimage of part of humanity in the period between 4,000 BC and 2,000 BC The history of the human species and its bad or good behaviors are all in the Christian Bible, abstracting any sense of belief or disbelief.

Avatar Spotlight
said on March 20, 2020

Thanks Spotlight
This topic does not only give me new perspective about how the culture can be preserved and passed through the generations but it also give me more knowledge about ” One thousand and one night” story