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Killing Time in the Underworld

The Scottish Storytelling Forum (SSF) is a membership organisation, dedicated to keeping the art of live oral storytelling alive and growing in Scotland – a diverse network of storytellers and individuals supporting Scotland’s vibrant storytelling community.  It’s facilitated by Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) and based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The SSF blog series hopes to introduce you to the many different strands within the storytelling scene in Scotland and beyond.

This month we hear from storyteller, author and podcaster, Daniel Allison. Here he shares some thoughts on how myths can provide us with guidance and help us through times of uncertainty.

‘It seems we’re in two camps. Some of us are baking bread, sculpting our abs and learning Russian. Others are feeling isolated, bored, starved of human contact and terrified of losing at best our income, at worst our loved ones.

‘In mythic terms, we’re in the underworld. This isn’t the part of the hero’s journey where they find the magic sword, kiss the maiden or kill their first giant without even trying. For Finn MacCoull, it was when his wife eloped with his best friend. For Hansel and Gretel, it was when their parents abandoned them in the forest. It’s the time when everything falls apart, your village burns down and there’s nothing remotely glamorous about it. It’s painful, it’s scary and you wish none of it had happened.

‘So how to respond?

‘For those of us who work from home or run our own business, the natural response is to work flat out to adapt. Our lives might not have changed much at all; we might even be secretly enjoying the challenge. Others have lost their jobs in service, have toddlers screaming at them in cramped flats or can’t get to work at the hospital because they have the virus themselves. The answer seems to be to get online, attend virtual parties, FaceTime with family and hope things get better soon.

‘Of course, the division is arbitrary; we all move between both camps. But there is something both camps can learn from those who have walked this road before?

‘That’s what myths are for. Old stories aren’t fanciful entertainment. They aren’t about seal-people and amorous trolls. They are the hard-won knowledge of our ancestors, passed in a form that guarantees its survival.

‘The underworld is a necessary stop on any quest. But what happens there, besides things falling apart? How does the skilled heroine respond?

‘One story that’s on my mind right now is The Tale of The Hoodie. It’s found in many forms, but in its Scottish guise, the heroine’s husband flees their home after their child is stolen. She goes after him, he continues to flee and she pursues. An old woman tells her she must learn blacksmithing, in order to forge horseshoes with which to cross the Hill of Poison. The heroine spends a winter by the forge, learning her craft, sweating as she works the bellows, giving her attention day after day until the smith begins to reveal the secrets of the craft. She forges her shoes, and crosses the hill.

‘Another story I keep remembering is the Russian tale of Ivan the Bear’s Son. Ivan literally falls into the underworld, crashes to the ground and breaks every bone in his body. He lies there as little birds slowly, slowly mend his shattered body.

‘In both stories, a forging takes place. The muscle fibres of the heroine’s arms are torn and rebuilt. Ivan’s reforged body is not what it was before. We could all look into the fire, loosen our minds and look for hints as to what kind of tempering we need. It might be the resilience needed to keep pumping the bellows when our arms are screaming; to stay at home when we’re desperate to get to work or see friends. We might need to give ourselves more time to lie there like Ivan, letting the little birds do their work. It’s hard for them to work when we’re rushing from project to project, every second of the day scheduled.

‘My challenge is to lie by the fire; for this means taking walks instead of running, journalling to encourage quiet thoughts to come forward, and phoning friends rather than working constantly.

‘I think all of us are gong to be challenged by this in ways we can’t foresee. I don’t personally believe it’s all here to teach us and help us grow; but I do know that forging, tempering, comes from pressure. We can linger in the underworld, watching Netflix and 24 hour news among the shadows until the government airlifts us out; or we can switch off and enter the forge. No-one can tell us how to do that, but myths can point the way.’

Find out more about Daniel’s storytelling work, podcasts and books on his House of Legends website here.

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