Thursday, June 5, 2008

Skulls That Talk

I am currently preoccupied with talking skulls.  Not the kind that you plug in and put in the middle of a candy dish at Hallowe'en.  The kind you encounter if you walk through the woods (or a book) with too cocky an air of self-satisfaction.  I've found several variants of this motif - primarily in stories from central Africa - and the narratives they occur in generally go something like this:

Cocky young man walks through the woods
Meets talking skull
Ignores skull's warnings and runs to tell Chief
Brags to Chief about talking skull
Skull won't talk
Chief has young man killed
Skull scolds young man

What fascinates me most about these tales, is that the Skull warns and censures the young man for TALKING.  The moral of these stories, in fact, is that Talking Gets You Into Trouble.  Or, condensed, Talking = Death.  

How can a Storyteller tell this?

First off, it's a funny bit of irony that this particular story has survived for as long as it has, and spread as far from its source as it has; the Talking Skull motif is found in African-American tales and art (see cool sculpture below).  So the story is ambiguous: on the one hand it warns us that talking is dangerous (as I quickly learned in elementary school), however we can read between the lines (so to speak) and understand that talking is what makes us who we are as human beings.  Flawed, cocky, obnoxious, too clever for our own good, and inevitably mortal. But none of that will stop us from telling our truths, and getting into trouble for it.

That talking skull is a challenge - irresistible to a storyteller - to open our mouths and talk back.  The Dead surely speak to us and teach us (if we will only listen), but their stories belong to us, the Living.  We must tell their stories, and also add our own.... and pass them all along.

Let's Keep talking!

Talking Skull, by Meta Fuller, from the Museum of African-American History, Boston
A sculpture of a young man kneeling before a skull.
I found this image at


Granny Sue said...

Do you think the story also indicates the value of what is said when talking? That is what I take from it, but I like your analysis too.

A storyteller listens, I think, more than they talk. When we tell stories, there is value in our talking. It's not idle gossip. Listening is where our talk comes from (including reading as a form of listening to others.)

Interesting post, and I like that sculpture.

Doria said...

Granny Sue, you are right on; the Talking Skull stories absolutely underscore the power and significance of the spoken word. I think of them as a sort of "Worst Case Scenario" warning for those of us who talk without thinking first about how powerful our words can be.

But on the other end of the Talking spectrum, our words can achieve great good. I really like how you put it:
"When we tell stories, there is value in our talking.... Listening is where our talk comes from...."

Tell on!

Connecting Stories said...

Right on! Listen twice - talk once.