Creation stories topic of WSU storytelling festival

Feb 24 2013 - 8:38am

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Illustration by BRYAN NIELSEN/Standard-Examiner
Raji Lauffer
Stacy Palin
Linda Eaton
Illustration by BRYAN NIELSEN/Standard-Examiner
Raji Lauffer
Stacy Palin
Linda Eaton

Children ask "Why?" hundreds of times a day. Occasionally, they mix it up with "How?"

"Why is it dark at night?" "How come birds fly?" "Why does it rain?"

Grown-ups ask why and how, too. "How did I come to be here?" "Why am I the way I am?" "Why do people have so much trouble getting along with each other?"

Answers are often found in creation tales, passed from generation to generation.

"Creation tales are stories that explain how ... a people, nation or culture came about," said Jean Andra Miller, professor emeritus from WSU's department of foreign languages. "Almost every group ... has creation stories."

Stories of creation are the topic of this year's Weber State University Storytelling Festival symposium, at which panelists present a scholarly discussion of tales from around the world, and their philosophies about the wide range of approaches to creation.

"Creation Tales, Ph.D." starts at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, in the Hetzel-Hoellein Room of the university's Stewart Library. The free event will be led by Miller, and kicked off with a sample tale shared by David Sidwell, a professor and storyteller from Utah State University. A panel of presenters, of WSU faculty members Linda Eaton, Raji Lauffer, Stacy Palen and Eleanor Olson, follows.

Many creation stories are founded in religion. "I think probably every major religion has beliefs about the beginning of the world, and the creation of people," said Miller.

Other creation stories are just for fun.

Either way, they are important because all stories tell us something about who we are, said Palen, a WSU associate professor of physics.

And not just who we are, but who others are and who we can be, according to Olson, who teaches children's literature in the WSU English department.

Adults need to tell creation stories to children, she said: "It helps children with different cultures, divergent thinking, moral reasoning, creativity and enjoyment."

Moral reasoning is one of the major reasons to share fictional stories like creation tales, said Olson. Ideas of right and wrong surface. "When we see people make mistakes, we know what to do or not to do," she said.

So, an Iroquois tale about why chipmunks have stripes also teaches listeners not to make the mistake of making fun of others. A Cherokee tale explaining why antlers were given to deer, instead of rabbits, is a lesson about cheating.

"Kids today now think that it doesn't matter, lying a little bit or cheating," said Olson, who taught teens for 34 years. Part of the reason, she says, might be that they read and hear fewer stories. Instead of sharing traditional tales with family, they're playing video games and texting. In school, more emphasis is put on nonfiction.

"It helps them to read textbooks better," she said of nonfiction. "But fiction helps us to be better people."

Creation tales help listeners understand cultures different from their own, by presenting a different point of view.

"It's natural to think: This is my story so it's the right one," Olson said. "But these other people have stories, too."

Hindu stories

Raji Lauffer, an assistant professor of computer science who grew up in South Chennai, India, is sharing creation tales of Hinduism.

"Creation is considered to be cyclical and continuous," in the Hindu religion, Lauffer said. "There's creation, death and creation again."

The universe, people and even gods go through these cycles. "We are talking about reincarnation, but that's not all of it," she said.

To illustrate cycles of life and death, she'll discuss three tales.

"First, I'm going to talk about how human beings were created," she said. "There's a story about how Brahma, the creator in Hindu mystic tales, took a part of himself and created a female component, and how they both created the rest of the organisms in the world."

Her second tale focuses on the Earth and its place within the universe.

"The Earth has its own cycle," she said. "As it revolves around the sun, the sun revolves around the center of the universe, and as it approaches toward the center of the universe, the consciousness of man increases. As it moves away from the center of the universe, consciousness decreases."

Her final story is about Vishnu, the Hindu god who protects the universe and destroys evil people, and his many avatars or incarnations.

"If you look at his avatars, they will match, somewhat, the theory of evolution," she said, explaining that each time he's born, he takes on both human and animal characteristics -- first half-fish in form, then half-tortoise, and so on.

"Overall, I believe these tales send a message of hope, faith and the oneness of the eternity with all of its creation," Lauffer said.

Celtic stories

Most people in this area have roots in Europe.

"I'd like them to have a sense of how very differently our European ancestors thought about the creation of the world," said Eaton, a professor of anthropology who teaches a WSU course on the Celtic world.

Her presentation, "Swimming Upstream: The Salmon of Knowledge and the Creation of the Irish," focuses on the tale of a shape-shifter who survived the great flood. He lives as a variety of animals for thousands of years.

"Each time he's incarnated ... he remembers all that happened before. He becomes the wisest creature in Ireland," said Eaton.

Finally, as a salmon, he's caught and tasted by Irish folk hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, who gains great wisdom. The rest of the fish is eaten by a woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to the shape-shifter as a man again.

"He's seen the whole history of Ireland, and is able to pass it on to literate monks in the sixth century," she said.

The Irish were converted to Christianity in the sixth century, and that's when European tradition was, as Eaton put it, "hijacked into Middle Eastern tradition." By trying to mesh the ancient tales with multiple references to their newly adopted religion, such as the flood of Noah's time and the monks, Eaton says, Irish storytellers made an already complicated creation tale more complicated.

"It's the quandary that is always posed by religious change," she said.

Nature's stories

Stacey Palen, director of WSU's Ott Planetarium, is telling nature's creation story.

"It's the story nature tells about how everything got here, from the big bang all the way up through evolutionary biology," she said.

"We can see light now that's coming to us from a very short time after the big bang," Palen said. "It tells the story of what happened ... and keeps arriving like waves hitting the shore, and we learn more all time."

There are differences between the stories humans tell, and the stories nature tells, but the point is the same. "I think they help us understand our place in the universe," said Palen.

Compared to the universe, we're tiny and our place is small.

"At the same time, we're the most important thing we know about," she said. "As far as we know, we're the only ones in the universe who are actually able to look at it and understand it, and hear nature tell her story."

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