I woke up this morning with the word “Jonah” in my mind and the only Jonah that I have heard of is the one that is swallowed by a Whale. This made me think of the power of oral traditions, myths and story telling.

Australia’s ancient lands are steeped in oral tradition and the languages of this land are intimately connected to what is termed ‘The Dreaming’. Many oral tradition stories are about the act of Creation and Creation Law and teach messages of the need for people to follow spiritual laws and the consequences of what happens if they don’t.

Even though the stories of the past may contain a different language to our own, traditional stories remain relevant for today’s time because it is the message the story is trying to convey that is important. The following is an extract of a story told by Abenaki Indian Man, Joseph Bruchac, who speaks of his experience in listening to the stories and receiving the messages of different oral traditions. The Abenaki are members of an Algonquian people living chiefly in Maine and Quebec.

In 1992 my son Jesse, the anthropologist Robert Bruce and I drove 400 miles in Robert’s beat-up VW van across the dry landscape of southern Mexico into the Chiapas. In the Lacandon jungle, where the first rain we’d seen in two days fell on the heavy vegetation, we came to our destination – the village of Naha. Darkness had fallen as we ducked our heads to enter the main building in the village. A sight that might have been from a 1,000 years ago greeted our eyes. Everyone in the village, all clad in white cotton xikuls (tunics), sat around a fire as the 100-year-old village elder Chan K’in told stories in the peninsular Mayan language.

Later that same year, my other son James and I were in Tireli, a village deep in northern Mali. There we listened raptly to Meninu and Asama, two venerated Dogon elders chosen by the village to share the epic tales of how their people came to be. Their job, they explained, was to teach anyone eager to learn.

Whenever I think of oral tradition, those moments come to mind. I also remember Maurice Dennis, an Abenaki elder who worked for decades at a tourist attraction in Old Forge, NY. Cars roared by on the highway as he carved the figure of a turtle into a basswood log while relating to me the meaning of the 13 plates on its back. I remember Dewasentah, the Onondaga’s head clan mother, teaching me stories “to pass on to my grandchildren who are not listening to me right now” as we drank tea in her trading post on the reservation. Then there was Duncan Williamson, pulling me aside at the British Storytelling Festival in London to explain how similar his Scottish traveller clan animals were to those of my own Abenaki Indian people.

There’s a similarity of intent within oral traditions around the world. In American Indian traditions, a story has at least two purposes. The first is to entertain, ensuring it will be heard. This requires awareness and knowledge of the audience – an awareness lacking in any form of recording. Secondly, a story must convey a lesson, one directly appropriate to the needs of the listener. If an Abenaki child was behaving in a selfish manner, for example, one of our traditional tellers might decide to share with that child the story of the monster that tried to keep all of the waters for its own use, was defeated by Gluskonba and turned into a bullfrog.

As Chan K’in said that night in Naha, it is all related. The great trees are connected to the distant stars. We humans are part of a circle. If we imagine that we are more important than all other beings, we may be inviting disaster. If we imagine that technology can take the place of the living human presence experienced through oral tradition, then we diminish ourselves and forget the true power of stories. [1]

Jonah and the Whale is also a powerful Biblical story that tells of God’s law and the consequences of not keeping it. Jonah is instructed to teach God’s word in Nineveh, the Capital of the Assyrian Empire, but Jonah decides the people are too corrupt so he books a passage on a ship and leaves. While at sea a violent storm erupts and the crew blame Jonah for disobeying God’s orders so that he is thrown overboard. Instead of Jonah drowning, God sends a whale and Jonah is swallowed and three days later he is vomited alive onto dry land back to Nineveh. [2]

You could say that this is the story of a miracle but it also has a message. Jonah gets a second chance to to do the right thing, which he did. This time round he was much more resolute in his task and all the people of Nineveh listened, including the King, repented and were forgiven by God.

Linking this story to 2020, it feels in some way that we are being given a second chance to pause and reassess the way we are living. To recognise that we are part of a sacred circle, a circle that includes many other species who are not less than we are. The earth is round and has finite resources and we are inviting disaster if we do not heed the warning we are being given. Let’s hope that in the years to come we can tell the story of Covid-19 with the message that 2020 was a powerful year for change and that the people were resolute in their actions knowing that they too had to change.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jul/29/lasting-power-oral-tradition

[2] https://www.learnreligions.com/jonah-and-the-whale-700202