Firelit Stories: Creating Imaginary Communities

Session Date: 
May 19, 2023
Some 350 to 400,000 years ago when out ancestors gained control of fire, the day was extended, providing many hours for social interaction undisturbed by economic activities. How are those hours used in societies with only firelit hours after dusk ? In most preindustrial societies, music, dance, healing and stories fill the darkness. Myths and legends create common understandings such matters as the origins of humans, social groups, rituals or features of the landscape. Hilarious trickster traditions explore what happens to those who have the pluck to break with social norms, extending imaginations of what is possible. Stories about the adventures of real people add other dimensions, a topic I will address here. Hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi of Botswana and Namibia live in a small world with residential villages of 25-40 people. Nonetheless, they have complex cultural institutions regulating marriage, property, kinship and vast social networks that open access to the resources of others up to 200 km away. Drawing on material from 174 day and night conversations and 68 night stories, I will propose that firelit stories transmit the ‘big picture’ of cultural institutions which bind people together and create ‘imaginary communities’ those who cooperate but do not live contiguously in space. They portray kinship connections with faraway others and describe their personalities. They play an essential role in evoking understandings of the perspectives of others, arousing empathy for those near and far, as people sit around the fire biting their nails, laughing or crying in response to the adventures of others. Firelit stories increase broader understandings of other people and the cultural institutions that bind ‘imaginary communities’ over hundreds of kilometers. They put listeners on the same emotional base and let tensions of the day face with the embers.