Plotting the Story of Stories

Sep 02 2011

“God created man in order to tell stories.” - Hasidic saying, quoted by Franz Kafka

Where did stories start?

In The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker charts the history of stories and where he believes that they have gone wrong in the last 200 years, after outlining seven archetypal plots in detail with a rich array of examples. It’s a long and fantastic read, despite some flaws, which will enrich anyone interested in stories in any form (for example, there are many movie examples).

Stories go back to the beginning of our evolution into consciousness, and one of the fascinating insights in the book is that the Palaeolithic paintings found at Lascaux and other sites, are always inevitably clustered in cave passages with resonant acoustics, so that if someone sings their voice carries much further than in any other location in the cave. The pictures in the cave of men, animals, and even dots which have been interpreted as representing the phases of the moon, are the beginning of narrative perhaps 20,000 years ago, and are still breathtaking in the skill shown in inscribing each image on the rock faces of pitch black underground caverns. And all to support the sharing of knowledge through voices (and probably dance) based around stories.

Gods and stories

A little later than these  cave paintings, some of the earliest artefacts that are recognisably religious were made from clay and stone, and have been found all across Europe and elsewhere. They were often placed in caves, which were perhaps used as holy places and often represented a vision of the ‘Earth mother’ as a symbol of fertility and the source of food. clothing and shelter.

When humans began building some of the great monuments of the New Stone Age in Egypt (pyramids), UK (Stonehenge) and elsewhere, life had moved on from hunting to gathering and cultivating (a role more associated with ‘overseeing’ nature), and imagery was often associated with looking ‘up’ to the sky and the source of light (the Greek and Latin words for God and our word for light, ‘day’, come from the same Sanskrit source). Gradually, we began to see the world as divided into three levels, the Earth in the middle, the sky above (or the heavens, the source of light, a higher state of consciousness) and the underworld below (a shadowy place representing the dark unconscious). These places became populated by beings, including gods, who personified the forces shaping human life.

In the beginning

The earliest stories that survive, can be traced back to this time (between 3 and 4,000 years ago), including the Epic of Gilgamesh (the earliest) and the stories of Homer and other ancient Greek poets.

Tellingly, there is no culture in the world which does not have a creation myth.  We all seek an understanding of how we came to be here, and where it all began.  They come in many shapes and forms, but the desire is always there. The simplest version of this myth comes from Jewish mythology, and is told in the book of Genesis, beginning with a ‘conscious’ God who organises the creation of the world much like a process engineer (for a musical version of this, you can’t do better than Haydn’s Creation with it’s dramatic explosion of sound ‘… and there was light’). A second, more common, version is of a long and mysterious process of the emergence of the world from a formless chaos, through a form of evolution as the world passes through different stages of development to finally reach the world we see today. The most frequent version of this appearing in different cultures is the idea of a ‘World egg’, a single created object with the capacity and potential for everything else to come, triggered by some external event such as the coming of light (invoking a split between light and dark which is an important element of storytelling). There is a final, modern version which is known as the ‘Big bang’ which is still a story in its own right (and not so different from both mythologies described above).

The fall (and rise) of man

Although every culture in the world has a creation myth, there is a second story which is less common. This is the myth of how humans became separated from the rest of creation as being different from other animals (perhaps less common as not every culture would agree that man is separate!).

The most familiar version of this is the Fall of man in Paradise which is told in Genesis. Adam and Eve live is a state of happy unity with nature until they succumb to temptation and eat the fruit of the tree of ‘knowledge’ and realise that the knowledge that they have gained is part blessing and part curse before they are expelled from Paradise and become aware of the distinction between good and evil (another duality). They become self-conscious and learn about the realities of life in all its good and evil.

Seizing the fire

The Greek version of the story adds some interesting elements to this story. The names of the two brothers in the story, Prometheus (‘forethought’) and Epimetheus (‘afterthought’), reflect increased consciousness of the power of humans to rise above the present moment and learn and reflect on our experiences, through stories. The story also includes Pandora, who defies an instruction not to open a sealed vase ((not a box in the original version) unleashing a range of horrors on the world including envy, lust, hatred and war, all products of the emergence of human ego and our newly conscious understanding of how we stand separate from each other as well as nature. Prometheus shows sympathy for the plight of humans and steals fire from the Gods (or is that the ‘divine spark of consciousness’?), giving us freedom at a terrible price pictured by Prometheus’ eternal torment stretched out on the Caucasian rock having his liver eaten out every day (a state of perpetual discontent with life).

“Prometheus moulded men from water and earth and gave them also fire, hiding it from Zeus in a fennel stalk.  But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus (this is a Scythian mountain).  On it Prometheus was nailed and bound for many years.  Each day an eagle swooped on him and ate the lobes of his liver, which grew back each night.  And Prometheus paid this penalty for the theft of fire until Hercules released him later.” (Apollodorus, Library I.vii.1)

The wit of humanity

Prometheus is often associated with the Trickster archetype, and the idea of a cultural hero. Such characters are common across all mythologies, from Prometheus to the North American’s Coyote to the Norse god Loki (or Loge as he appears in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle).  Dionysus, Maui, Anansi and Kitsune (Japanese for fox) are other examples tricksters who are associated with transformation of the world, often through transforming their shape or controlling nature (and using their intelligence).  They have many heroic qualities, although they rely more on intellect than strength to influence the world, personifying our imagination and inventive capacity to transform the world around us to our own advantage. However, for such transformation there is always a price to be paid.

“Didn’t I seize the fire of ideas and make them leap, tear, fly, sing”  - Tom Paulin

The power of story

These two stories of the origins of the world, and of human dominance over the world, are just two examples of the many stories we have created to share our understanding of the world and our life stories. Importantly, all those stories demonstrate key dualities or opposites we face in the world: light vs dark, masculine vs feminine, conscious vs unconscious, ignorance vs wisdom and self vs others. Christopher Booker argues that these stories fall into seven basic plots which tell the stories of our lives, hopes and dreams. Stories are not just made up, but are the basis of how we can share what we learn from our life experiences.

Over the next few weeks there will be further articles outlining these plots and the key elements of great stories which you can bring to any ideas you wish to communicate with others. Stories are the key to how we understand the world, and our memories are wired to make connections by relating different events in time (that is, through stories), helping us generalise from specific instances to general rules for living.

Storytelling is one of the key themes of this blog, and an appropriate way to celebrate the 100th post!  I hope you enjoy reading more on stories and keep coming back.


The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker (2004)

2 responses so far

  1. Good post. we are writing about same stuff. See a series of posts triggered by Booker’s book at

    Latest in series of posts is “The search for meaning in celebrity dramas and story behind the death of Amy Winehouse.”
    Richard House

  2. Richard

    Thanks - I enjoyed reading your posts.

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