Two weeks ago (now an annual tradition), our family descended on my father’s property in rural New England.
The year before, one of my nephews built a firepit on the lawn facing a grand view of the tall trees lining its edge and sloping down to the meadow and further below to the roaring river gorged with snowmelt and April storms.
The reunion was like a short lived but dazzling meteorite shower striking the property for a few days, leaving in its wake a small crater with half-burned Tiki-torches and cigar stubs, and globs of molten glass from the bottles we shattered against the firepit’s stone rim. Absolute cathartic madness!
A merry band of revelers, joined by love, lore, and myth, and aided by dangerous levels of alcohol, we let loose our wild spirits, giving uninhibited wind to our singing voices (in convincing Mariachi), howled to the moon, hurled burning torches at the star-studded sky, dug sharp canines into sizzling meat and freshly-caught trout, and pretty much made total fools of ourselves. It was a veritable reenactment of the Greek festival of Anthesteira, celebrated at the beginning of spring, honoring Dionysus, the God of Ecstasy.
But besides the mischief and fire, there were stories.
In our frenzied modern-day lives, enamored as we are with our technological prowess and gadgetry, we forget that for 99% of human history our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Sometime around 400,000 years ago, we learned to fully control fire which not only changed our diet — fueling rapid brain growth — but also sparked our imagination.
A study of evening campfire conversations by the !Kung people of Namibia and Botswana suggests that by extending the day, fire allowed people to unleash their imaginations.
Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Polly Wiessner took detailed notes on the !Kung day and nighttime conversations. She reported that whereas daytime talk was focused almost entirely on economic issues (money), land rights (real estate), and complaints about other people (gossip), 81% of the firelight conversation was devoted to telling stories.
Tales told by firelight puts listeners on the same emotional wavelength, Wiessner writes in her paper, eliciting understanding, trust, and sympathy.
On one of those nights by the flames, my brothers and I finally lifted the veil over the false legend by which our mother lived during her entire life. But rather than disappointment, my heart grew in understanding and sympathy for her tragic childhood.
The ancient Greeks understood the importance of telling stories which were recounted through their many comedic and tragic plays. Stories which dealt with the follies and dramas of human existence.
The word ‘Entertainment’, at root, means to ‘hold together.’ It is a ritual renewal of the community through shared suffering, or joy, or both, wrote author Barry Spector. Athenian audiences, he added, viewed the clash of unbearable human contradictions and conflict, held that tension, and laughed, or wept together.
Had I, for instance, read Sophocles’ play Philoctetes before temporarily moving to my ailing father’s house to help care for him, I would have been armed with greater empathy.
Had I been told or read Diodorus’ myth of Icarus as a young boy, I would have probably avoided plunging into the abyss at age 36 for having soared too close to the sun on waxed wings of hubris, envy, and greed.
And we could all learn to satisfy our soul’s longing with something more satisfying and durable than our relentless consumption by reading the story of Tantalus who the Greek Gods condemned to the Underworld where he must lie below a tree bearing delicious fruit. When he reaches up, the branches also rise, then fall back, almost within reach, ‘tantalizing’ him forever.
Fire also brings us closer together.
Past the mayhem and revelry, after the enchantment of fire, wine and music, the banter and stories, wisdom and folly, the tears and laughter, after all that much-needed zaniness died down and our family dispersed, the few days us savages shared left behind an indelible mark: a reminder of the invisible strands that bind us together and the comforting feeling that the strength of those bonds — irrespective of wealth, faith, or fame — are the only links which we can rely upon in times of need or solace.
So, go build yourself a firepit, gather firewood and your loved ones, turn off your cellphones, and share your stories.
Just go a little easier on the wine.