|Mosaic of Hermes Trismagestrus from the Duomo di Siena|
by Gerald Fierst
When I tell stories, my audiences inevitably give me new stories in response. I read folk lore and myth from around the world. I listen to personal stories. I create stories from my own life. This artistic profession has given me a profound respect for the powerful effect a story has on the individual and collective psyche.
Over decades of telling stories, I have come to understand the connection between the storyteller and the hermetic tradition of alchemy. Popular culture imagines alchemy as a Harry Potteresque turning lead into gold, but in the tradition of Hermes Trimagestrus, (you can see the portrait of Hermes in the mosaic floor of the cathedral in Siena) alchemy is the art of summoning energy to transform both the physical and spiritual plan so that (as we say at a good performance) time stands still, and we are transported to a new and more powerful reality.
Storytelling cannot exist in isolation, but needs the collaboration of the viewer as well as the artist. Storytelling ( I will now use the term storytelling/storyteller instead of alchemy/alchemist ) transforms a personal vision into a universal statement. We open ourselves up to the experience which the artist offers, and we are transformed by new ways of perceiving ourselves and our world. The craft of the artist is to know the formulae developed over millennia and to reinvent the structures that have become conventional in order to enable the psyche to expand and understand the new facts being presented.
Working with StorytellingArts, I have seen this process happening in audiences ranging from preschool to adult, most powerfully, at the Morris County Youth Detention Center where a group of storytellers has worked over years. The residents are 15, 16, 17 year olds. They wear prison uniforms. They are small groups supervised by a guard. Whatever their old life was, it is stripped away, and they are neutralized. It is at once prison, and, as the superintendent once told me, “the last best hope to start again.” It is a bleak, heart breaking place- AND YET.
The Jews say if you can save one soul you save the world. This year the storytellers chose our theme as super powers and magic. Jack McKeon and I began the year with a series of stories based on the concept of elemental powers. Jack told a version of The Stonecutter in which a man cutting blocks from the mountain wishes himself to become the sun, a cloud, the wind, the mountain and, finally, once again the man, for a man with tools can transform the world and is the most powerful. The session that day was unremarkable, but the next day, when I returned alone, one of the boys entered the room bubbling with excitement. He had been telling Jack’s simple story over and over again. The other boys laughed and shared his delight, and the guard rolled his eyes and nodded in acknowledgement. The boy had discovered a voice that could enlighten and entertain; and if the stories we tell ourselves lead us on our life’s path, this simple story could be the beginning of this child’s positive sense of himself.
Do I know this? - no. Do I hope this?- yes. Over and over, I meet people who remember a story I told years ago. Grown ups who remember a story they heard me tell when they were children in school. Stories are powerful magic, and, perhaps, on that day last fall, Jack and I made one boy’s life transform from the impossible to possiblities, for one man can level mountains.
Such visions are what the Hermetic tradition is all about.