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The tale in the tale – story medicine

December 19, 2013

In his vision of the power of story, Horst Kornberger describes ‘The tale in the tale’: “a second layer of story encrypted in the first. The tale in the tale is the message in the bottle of story medicine. It is the key that unlocks the secretes of story medicine from antiquity to our time. Using this key, stories reveal themselves as co-creators of cultures, shaping the destiny of whole nations as well as of our individual lives.” (p.12)

Drawing on The Odyssey, Kornberger explains this concept further… he writes:

“Homer’s Odyssey provides a classical illustration of story medicine.

Returning from the sack of Troy, Odysseus is pursued by the sea god Poseidon. In vain, he tries to reach his home and family. For ten years he is tossed on the high seas. He has lost all his companions and endured much hardship. Finally, he is washed up on the Island of the Phaeacians. The exhausted hero is found by the Princess Nausicaa and welcomed at the court of her father King Alcinous.
Odysseus gratefully partakes in the hospitality of the Phaeacian king, but does not disclose his identity. During an evening feast, the local bard takes the lyre and entertains the company with a song recalling the quarrel of Odysseus and his compatriot Achilles during the siege of Troy.
Odysseus hears his own tale. He is immediately overcome by emotion and draws his cloak over his head to conceal his weeping. The king notices, but says nothing. On the next evening the bard sings again. This time the theme is the Sack of Troy. Again Odysseus listens to his own story and again he is overcome with emotion. he weeps with such force that the king enquires about his grief.
Once the question is asked, Odysseus reveals himself. He joins again with his destiny and recounts the rest of his story: his ten years of voyage through adversarial seas and the many adventures that lost him his ships and companions. He tells his tale over the remainder of the night. By the approach of dawn, the Phaeacians return the weary Odysseus by means of magical ships back to his beloved Ithaca.

The Odyssey leads us directly into the dynamics of story medicine. Hearing his own story told and then telling the rest of it himself becomes the turning point in Odysseus’ life. Homer emphasizes this by placing the encounter of Odysseus with his own story precisely at the culmination of ten years of futile attempts to return home and by following it immediately with his homecoming. All night long Odysseus tells his tale. At dawn he steps into the Phaeacian ship and falls asleep and when he opens his eyes he is back in Ithaca. The return is immediate. The journey is complete.
the composition of the epic reveals the power of story and the importance of timing. Odysseus encounters story medicine when it is its most potent – at the peak of crisis when story can unfold its full potential to transform his life.” (pp.17-18)

Stories do not explain in a direct way; they show by example. The tale in the tale is this example. Through it, stories reveal their way of working. The tale in the tale is the explanatory manual in which stories show [-p.21] us how they work on the hero. And in showing us how they affect the hero, they are also showing how they affect us, because they affect us in the same way that they affected Odysseus or Parzival – as an agent of change and a catalyst that completes the hero quest. That is, if it is the right story at the right time – for then it pertains to us, is our story and part of our life. This type of story acts like a tale in the tale of our life and helps us to take the next step. The encounter with such a story can take many forms.” (pp.20-21)

“Rightly read [the tale in the tale] reveals the greater mission of myth and its impact on a people. For each myth is a tale in a greater tale. It belongs to a whole body of myths. There it fulfils the same function as the tale in the tale fulfils in The Odyssey – it becomes a means of transformation and change.
In this way The Odyssey not only affects the life of an individual, but that of a whole people. It is story medicine for the culture it belongs to. It is a tale in the tale of Greek myth. It is part of a large body of myth in which all stories are intertwined.
Nowadays, we come to know these stories one by one. We don’t live in them as they once were lived in: we meet them in isolation. It is as if we had found a finger or nose of a broken sculpture. But if we come to know a sufficient number of myths we may become more aware of the intricate mythological universe of which they are part.
A body of myth is like a complete poem cycle, a grand artwork, an epic tale. Every single myth is a tale in the tale of this large body of stories. The myths that feature most prominently often present a culture with pictures of its destiny long before this destiny becomes reality. They prepare the remedy long before the illness comes about. Cultures take millennia to mature. The great myths are the mothers who bring them to birth and give of themselves to prevent cultural stagnation.” (p.32)

“The great stories, therefore, stand at the inception of cultures such as India, Egypt and Greece, and not at their end. They are the co-creators, mothers, guides and instructors of what is to come. Myths prepare the ground for what is achieved later. They are cause rather than effect, seeds [-p.33] sown in the fertile soil of the human psyche, already containing the germ that will shape itself in the course of time.” (pp.32-33)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Horst Kornberger (2008) The Power of Stories: Nurturing Children’s Imagination and Consciousness. Floris Books: Edinburgh.

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