Storytelling and Cultural Traditions

Storytelling and Cultural Traditions

Storytelling is as old as culture. Many societies have long-established storytelling traditions. The stories, and performances thereof, function to entertain as well as educate.


3 - 12


Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, Human Geography, Religion, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, Storytelling

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Storytelling has existed in all cultures for a long time. Before there was writing, there was storytelling. It is still used today to entertain, inform and pass down cultural traditions and values.

Oral storytelling is telling a story by using your voice and moving your body. Not all of these stories are true. Truth is less important than bringing people together. Oral storytelling includes rhymes, songs, poems, and more. There can also be different types of stories, legends, prayers, and instructions.

Here are some examples of how storytelling helps different cultures pass down their traditions.

Choctaw Storytelling

Like all Native American tribes, the Choctaw have a tradition of oral storytelling. They tell the stories to keep their history alive and to educate young Choctaw people. For example, there are two stories about where the Choctaw people come from. One is about the first Choctaw people traveling east to find a better life. The other says that the people were created from a large hill called a mound. The stories also talk about history and life lessons. Many of the traditional stories use animal characters to teach these lessons in a humorous way.

Native Hawaiian Storytelling

The Native Hawaiian word for story is "mo'olelo," but it can also mean history, legend, or tradition. It comes from two words. The first, mo'o, means succession, or the passing down of something. The second, olelo, means language or speaking. Together they mean "to pass down language," because the stories are told orally. Native Hawaiian stories include the tale of the first Hawaiian, who was born from a vegetable called a taro. Other stories tell of travel across the seas.

Native Hawaiian storytellers are special members of society, and they know a lot about history and genealogy. Genealogy studies the ancestors of a family. Hawaiian storytelling does not only use words. It also uses mele (song), oli (chant), and hula (dance).

The stories are very important to Hawaiians. They are entertaining, but they also teach young Hawaiians about behavior and traditions.

Western African Storytelling

The people of sub-Saharan Africa also have a strong tradition of storytelling. Sub-Saharan Africa is the part of Africa below the Sahara Desert. In many parts of Africa, the whole village comes together after dinner to listen to the storyteller. Like other cultures, the storyteller entertains and educates people.

Griots are very important in west African culture. Griots are people who tell stories, sing songs, and help kings. Some of the most famous stories from western Africa are about Anansi, a trickster spider.

There used to be schools where people could learn how to be a griot. Usually, the job is passed from an older member of the family to a younger member. Both men and women can be griots, but women are called griottes.

The Jewish People and the Passover Seder

Passover is an important Jewish holiday celebrated in the spring. The holiday celebrates the Jews' Exodus, or escape, from slavery in Egypt. The Passover celebration includes a feast and a storytelling tradition called a seder. During the seder, Jews eat a big meal and retell the story of the Exodus. The storytelling begins when the youngest child at the seder asks what makes this special night different from other nights. Then the questions are answered by telling the story of the Exodus and explaining some of the Passover traditions. This story of Exodus is written down in the Jewish holy book, the Torah. The same story is also told in the Old Testament of the Bible. the Christian holy book.

Irish Storytelling

The seanchaí were the traditional Irish storytellers. They would travel from village to village, telling ancient stories and tales of wisdom. They told the old myths as well as local news and events. Many of the stories in the Irish oral tradition are tales of kings and heroes.

Today, storytelling and interest in storytelling appears to be making a comeback. As one Irish storyteller put it, "It's a need for connection." Storytelling helps people feel connected to each other in real life.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

March 6, 2024

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