Historical Background

Very old string figures have been preserved from near extinct and remote cultures due to the initial efforts of anthropologists Dr. A.C. Haddon and Dr. W.H.R. Rivers who in 1898 introduced a standardized language to describe the movement of the strings. Other anthropologists used their new language of describing the steps to make string figures during anthropological travels and these subsequent cultural scientists were able to reproduce and published the final figures. Not all the figures have instructions on how to achieve the final figure and, in fact some of the figures still have no solution. (Jayne, 1962).

This is one of the original figures drawn by the two anthropologists.

Retrieved from http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_40_1931/Volume_40,_No._160/Gilbertese_astronomy_and_astronomical_observances,_by_Arthur_Grimble,_p_197-224/p1

Here is an example of a complicated string figure made by Inoli Murphy called Navaho Many Stars. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/c_-3pCX4hU8

Many cultures treat string figures as a puzzle game. It is a source of great entertainment. Some are so skilled at making them that they can reproduce a figure in just a few minutes without looking to see how it was made. In fact, string figures are such an integral part of Pacific Islander life, particularly of the people of the Gilbert Islands, that they must learn string figures to be prepared for the afterlife. They believe that their souls will have to successfully make a succession of string figures in order to gain entry from the underworld guide, Na Ubwebwe, to pass to the afterworld. (Fleishman, 2000). String figures are also used as passwords, blessings for good crop growth, and fortune-telling (Darsie, 2003). There are also string competitions where families on Easter Island are judged on the story or chant accompanying the kai kai string figure. They are also judged on other aspects too such as finger dexterity and creativity. (Stotter, 2009).

String figures are used to represent different scenes in local mythology. For example, in New Zealand, the string figures from what we call cat’s cradle are scenes from stories such as Mother night Hine-nui-te-po, giving birth to her children, as well as from the story of the god hero Maui, fishing the land, and the Lightning God Tawhaki going up to heaven (Jayne, 1962). These kinds of stories, using string to draw the picture, are also accompanied by song chants.

The string loop can made from different materials depending on the culture. Reindeer sinew, the inside of bark, leather thong, fibers from the hibiscus tree and even braided human hair are all materials used to the make the string. (Gryski, 1985). In modern times, the string is made of nylon cord. Nylon is strong yet thin and cheap. One does not even have to make a knot in order to make the loop. One can melt the two ends and join them together just so to create a loop with a smooth surface consistent surface throughout.

The movement of the fingers across the string or a certain twist of the string is matched with the right choice of word, song, or chant. In some stories, the string is moving the entire time during the storytelling, while in others, the string is still except at precise moments during the story when the string is brought back into action. The timing of the movement (or lack thereof) of the string with the voice, tone, pitch, facial and body language can dramatically affect the success of the storytelling. Many times the next figure is made from the present figure so the flow of string figures from one to the next matches the story perfectly.

Watch how this storyteller uses her voice, pacing and the string in this classic Eskimo story about the string competition between a boy and the god Totanguak.
Retrieved from http://youtu.be/3i9MupX–Es


One thought on “Historical Background

  1. Good story 🙂 very enjoyable.. You are a good storyteller & good with the string.
    I think string stories are so neat , I hope the tradition continues.
    Thank you

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