Firelit Stories: Creating Imaginary Communities

Session Date: 
May 19, 2023

Some 350 to 400,000 years ago when our ancestors gained control of fire, the day was extended to provide many hours for social interaction, undisturbed by economic activities. How were those hours spent in societies that only had firelight after nightfall? In most preindustrial societies, music, dance, healing and storytelling fill the darkness. Myths and legends create common understandings on such matters as the origins of humans, social groups, rituals or features of the landscape. Hilarious trickster traditions explore the successes and failures of those who have the pluck to break with social norms. 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, spirituality and the vast exchange 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 that bind and create ‘imaginary communities’ composed of people who cooperate but do not live contiguously in space. They portray kinship connections and the attributes of those near and far. They play an essential role in evoking empathy for the perspectives and experiences of others, as men, women and children sit around the fire biting their nails, rolling with laughter or crying over tragedies. Firelit stories broaden knowledge, expand understandings and portray 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 fade with the embers.

File 2023_05_19_04_Wiessner.mp4232.42 MB