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Storytelling and the Priestcraft of Art

The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

There is a story from the ancient Hebrew tradition in II Samuel 12 where a king spots the beautiful wife of a young warrior bathing on her roof. He sends for her and the two sleep together shortly thereafter. Upon learning the woman has become pregnant, the king sends the woman’s husband to the frontlines of a nearby battle where the fighting is most fierce, and therefore ensures his death.  A prophet travels to see the king and rather than rebuke his morals in the way that prophets were prone to do in those days, the prophet instead tells the king a story

The story is about two men, one rich and one poor. While the rich man had a plethora of sheep and cattle, the poor man had but one little ewe lamb. The poor man cherished the lamb, sharing his food with the animal and even sleeping with it in his arms, like a child. One day, when the rich man had a visitor arrive from out of town, rather than taking one of his own sheep to slaughter for a meal, he took the poor man’s lamb. Hearing this story, the king exploded in anger, demanding to know the identity of the rich man. Of course, the irony of the king’s inability to recognize the biographical nature of the story is lost on no one…except the king. The prophet used a story to bypass the king’s head and go straight to his heart. The story acted as a mirror, allowing the king to see his true self. 

Stories have long been one of the most powerful forces in the human experience. Study after study reveals that human behavior is less motivated by logic than we would prefer to believe, but instead relies on the narratives we create for our lives. Statistics and physical proof of something rarely changes our behavior, but stories seem to succeed where facts and figures do not. 

The role of the storyteller cannot be underestimated in the Hebrew story. His use of art to spark self-examination in the mind of the king is a testimony to how significant narrative is and how essential it can be in making meaning for us. From storytelling prophets to warrior poets, the sword falls under the might of the pen and a powerful potentate is no match for a well-told story. 

Recently I was invited into a conversation about what differentiated Joseph Campbell’s work around the hero’s adventure from that of his predecessors, who offered stages of initiation that resemble aspects of the monomyth. The most significant factor that has caused Campbell’s work to resonate so deeply where so many others have not: story. He took the patterns that many had seen previously in human rituals and practices and applied them to our speculative fiction. He recognized that our stories said as much about who we are as our behavior did.

At this year’s Golden Globe Awards, Jane Fonda expanded on the essential role of story in our humanity:

[I]n turbulent crisis-torn times like these, storytelling has always been essential. You see, stories ... can change our hearts and our minds. They can help us see each other in a new light, to have empathy, to recognize that for all our diversity, we are humans first. [...] That’s why all of the great conduits of perception, Buddha, Mohammad, Jesus, Lao Tzu, I would say all of them spoke to us in stories and poetry and metaphor because the nonlinear non-cerebral forms that are art speak on a different frequency, may generate a new energy that can jolt us open and penetrate our defenses. So that we can see and hear, what we may have been afraid of seeing and hearing. […] Stories, they really can change people.

Campbell’s recognition of the fundamental role of story in myth caused his work to resonate with people in ways they weren’t always able to put into language, as myths are stories not always told in words but also in images, in motifs, and in food. 

In The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, Campbell speaks of the priestcraft of art. He explains the lore of the greatest Capital city of Old Egypt can only be understood properly by recognizing that “those that developed it were a priesthood of practicing creative artists.” (91-92) Here, Campbell links the greatness of a society with the artistry of its creators, suggesting that the artists were not simply tradesmen but people of a divine calling, whose work and leadership transcended the lines between that which is beyond and the here and now. 

We live in a world in need of new stories – in need of better stories. We also need storytellers that understand the power of the tool they wield. An impactful story can cause oppressors to turn from their harmful ways. It can also unite people around a tyrant. It can end a season of torment and cause new life to bloom forth from stony ground. Our stories matter, and those gifted with the ability to tell them well hold great authority, they are part of a priesthood of practicing creative artists, and they have the skills to craft the lore of our culture or completely destroy it. 


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