What is the significance of storytelling and the oral tradition in preserving a culture—why do people tell stories?
For many, many years, the history of a culture, even of a town, as well as the stories, factual or folklore, were passed down by word-of-mouth (also known as "the oral tradition"*) because first, people could not read or write, and second, paper was non-existent. This is evident throughout the world. The oral tradition preserved the past as there was no other way to do so at the time.
Not only were history and stories passed down, but geneaologies and songs.
As an example, in England, specifically, different forms of ballads (songs) in the British Isles can be found. That they have the same origin is clear, but they "morphed" over the years depending upon the location of the people that preserved them through the oral tradition. (This is much like the game "whisper down the lane.")
One of the earliest known manuscripts known in English literature is Beowulf. Even this is based on a much earlier version. The first people to start writing were clerics of the Church. Paper was not used at first, but sheep skin. Ultimately, parchment would be introduced.
It is terribly unfortunate for English scholars, for the world, that when Henry VIII of England could not get a divorce from Catherine—his first wife—from the pope, he decided to create his own religion, now known as the Anglican church. The tragedy lies in his temper tantrum against the Church: he traveled through England destroying and closing Catholic churches. Because members of the clergy were the only one able to read for so long, history had been kept by these men. Countless documents and manuscripts were lost forever when this occurred.
Everything changed when feudalism ended in 1066. With the advent of the long bow**, knights became obsolete. Additionally, surfs who served feudal overlords and were previously destined to lives of poverty and servitude were now able to make a living as merchants and members of guilds. For example, when English wool became preferred over wool imported from the Continent, a surf could save enough to buy a pair of sheep and start his own herd. Within a couple of years, he was wealthy enough to move up in the world.
Castles were no longer strongholds, and the peasants who left to raise sheep (or become artisans) became a part of the new emerging middle class. They educated their children, and though the nobility would not recognize these "self-made men," the "gentry" as they were soon called, started to control a good deal of the money within England's economic circles.
Then the printing press made it easier for people to gain access to books, which had previously only been available to the upper classes. This allowed information to be "catalogued" into print, and with an educated middle class, the need for the oral tradition was not as great.
The oral tradition is still practiced in some areas of the world today where people cannot write, but can still pass down the history of their culture to younger generations. In addition, families will continue to practice this tradition as they share stories of their ancestors, and even experiences of their own youth. And, of course, urban folklore and jokes continue to be shared, though the method has changed dramatically with the advent of the Internet.
* - source: <http://www.enotes.com/european-oral-epic-traditions-salem/european-oral-epic-traditions>
** - source: <http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty
People of every age seem to have the need to know where they came from and who their people were. Consider the tremendous current interest in family genealogy; this desire to know doesn't seem to have changed very much since the time of ancient cultures.
Before the development of writing, developing a body of stories was the only means a people had to preserve their history. In creating their stories, they naturally imbued them with the characteristics of their own culture. As a result, reading the epics of ancient or early people gives us great understanding of the cultures in which they lived: their values, customs, traditions, religious beliefs, dress, weapons, family relationships--the list goes on.
Besides preserving history and culture, these stories were exciting, dramatic, and sometimes very sad. In short, they were entertaining because they appealed to the emotions of their listeners.
According to eNotes reference documents, in ancient Greece, storytellers were held in high regard as artists. In Athens, festivals were held every four years during which renowned storytellers competed to tell the most compelling and entertaining tale. They were allowed to embellish their stories, so long as they did not change the basic facts, which were well known.
Homer's epic, The Iliad, was presented in these festivals, with numerous storytellers taking turns in covering the 24 individual books in the epic. The Iliad is a collection of such compelling stories that its appeal has not diminished through the centuries. A good story will always be a good story because human nature never really changes.
The Oral Tradition began by a need to both entertain and to preserve the history and culture of the people. At the end of the day, everyone would gather around the fire and regale the stories of the people before them while all the time adding new ones to account for the present acts and deeds of their members. Younger members memorized them for lack of a way to write them down, and therefore passed along the history of the people to their children until someone learned to read and write or someone came in contact with the people, learned to communicate with them, and recorded the stories in writing for all to see. This is the way we have such stories as Beowulf, Piers Plowman, the ballads of the middle ages, and many of the King Arthur tales.
Stories could also serve the main functions of communication - to inform, persuade, and entertain. Storytellers tended to have a special place in their societies, whether they were held in high regard or shunned for their lifestyle choice.
Regardless, these people could inform the audience about cultural traditions, values, behaviors, etc such as the griots found in some African cultures. They could also take advantage of the opportunity to attempt to persuade people to act a certain way or adopt a particular world view. Finally, quite often storytellers were looked upon to entertain at social gatherings to tell humorous stories, such as jesters.
Cultures like the one where I grew up never had a written language of their own. Because they never had a written language, how else would their culture be preserved? It is only recently that any of the old myths and such have been written down. Since this was never possible before, they had to pass their legends down orally.
As far as why people tell stories -- one reason is what else are you going to do after dark (it got dark around 6 PM every day near the Equator where I grew up) when there's no TV, etc?
I think you need to consider the importance of epics in the life of so many cultures. These stories seem to pass on through the generations the cultural essentials of different societies. Especially in oral traditions, these kind of stories are so important. An amazing novel you might want to read is called The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa, which deals with an indigenous tribe in Peru who maintains their identity by story telling. An amazing book!
There is a necessity for myth and heroes in cultures. Having someone or something larger than life that people can identify with lends a greater significance to their lives. And, for more primitive cultures, storytelling preserves the explanations for natural phenomena in a spiritual way.
Since no one knew anything about where they came from or their true purpose in the universe, the most ancient cultures wove stories into the fabric of peoples’ sacred world and into their storytelling. All societies have their own unique stories and ways that they tell stories, which can all differ mightily from the ones next door. Storytelling is also a way of passing the time.