Storyteller weaves cultural bond with string

Tied together

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006


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  A church congregation in Papua New Guinea practices string stories during a visit by Herb Schaan of North Kenai. Photo by Herb Schaan

A church congregation in Papua New Guinea practices string stories during a visit by Herb Schaan of North Kenai.

Photo by Herb Schaan

Drop out of the sky into the middle of just about any culture, just about anywhere on Earth, start tying string figures, and you’ll have no problem making friends.

In fact, if there’s anything close to a universal language, the art of looping a length of string to represent people, animals and events may be it.

“Don’t overlook string figures — they really are part of a culture,” said Herb Schaan, a North Kenai resident who came across the art while working as a missionary in Papua New Guinea. “Like artifacts, some think string figures go back to the stone age. ... Some of the things we dismiss as trivial are far from trivial.”

Schaan recently returned from a six-week trip to Papua New Guinea with David Titus, a string storyteller from Oklahoma who visited the Kenai Peninsula last spring. Schaan’s first encounter with string figures came when he visited New Guinea to do mission work for the Lutheran church in 1966, though.


Schaan talks in North Kenai about the string stories he was able to share during a tour of Papua New Guinea with string storyteller David Titus earlier this year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

New Guinea is the largest island in the Pacific and is located just north of Australia. The western half of the island is part of Indonesia while the eastern half, Papua New Guinea, earned its independence in 1975.

Schaan lived with the Enga tribe — Enga is now one of the provinces of Papua New Guinea — for 15 years. He said he spent his first year there learning the language and the culture, and discovered string figures as he got to know the people of the region.

“I realized their importance from an anthropology field guide. People started showing me string figures, and I became fascinated,” Schaan said.

Titus has traveled the world collecting string figures and offered to pick up Schaan’s expenses in exchange for arranging the trip to New Guinea. While Schaan’s knowledge of the language and culture opened doors for the two to visit schools and other places, the things Titus was able to do with his hands and a loop of nylon string were understood by all.

“He was just this quiet old man with a string,” Schaan said of Titus’ reception in New Guinea. “He spun out one figure after another. I did the introductions and the translating. He just goes in and starts doing strings.”


Papua New Guinea's lush landscape was a constant backdrop during the tour.

Photo by Herb Schaan

Schaan said reactions to a string storyteller run from “Do that again” to “I know that one.” Invariably, someone in the crowd will offer to share some different figures.

Titus brought with him 5,000 loops of nylon string to pass out. Schaan said they passed out every string, and seeing the brightly colored nylon around the village gave him an idea of the excitement their visit generated.

“We’d see people with strings wrapped around their wrist, showing off what they’d learned,” Schaan said.

Titus and Schaan visited enough different places in New Guinea to come up with a collection of common string figures, though sometimes different stories were attached to the same figure. For example, loops that represent a lobster in a New Guinea coastal community become a dancing women several hundred miles away in the highlands.

Schaan said the stories may have evolved over the years along with the culture, but figures themselves likely haven’t changed in centuries.

While a primary purpose of string figures is entertainment, Schaan said they also are used as educational and instructional tools. In a society that didn’t have books, string figures evolved into a means of passing down knowledge.


Herb Schaan of North Kenai stands at the front of a classroom in Papua New Guineea to share string stories during a visit to the country earlier this year.

Photo courtesy of Herb Schaan

Schaan shared one string figure he learned in New Guinea that represents a mother and her baby. The baby starts as a single loop inside the mother, and as the storyteller relates things like proper health and nutrition, safety and caution, and factual information about pregnancy and childbirth, additional loops are added to show the development of the baby.

A few jerks of the fingers get the baby kicking, and a gentle tug releases the loops, representing the birth of a healthy baby.

Another string figure demonstrates the proper technique for hunting a bird, and yet another shows how to harvest a papaya without damaging the tree or the fruit — all valuable lessons in a subsistence society.

Other string figures serve as a starting point for discussions of social dynamics. One of the most popular string figures Schaan has encountered in New Guinea depicts a man and woman fighting.


Schaan is offered a local meal during the trip to New Guinea.

Photo courtesy of Herb Schaan

Schaan said the initial reaction is that the man is beating the woman, but a closer viewing reveals a different interaction.

String figures also can be magic tricks. Schaan demonstrated one that illustrates threading the eye of a needle, in which one loop of string, despite a firm tug, appears to be too short to pass through another loop. However, with another subtle tug, the storyteller can easily pass the string through the loop.

“Some strings go into string tricks, to give an illusion of magic, that you’ve done the impossible,” Schaan said. “I’m told shamans used to use this to show people they actually did have magic powers. They used string tricks to elicit respect from people on the naive side.”

Of course, there are plenty of string figures that are just for fun. The most basic is simply crossing a loop of string and tugging on the bottom loop to get the top to bounce like a flea. Schaan also demonstrated a mosquito — then slapped his hands together and pulled them apart, unraveling the knot and flattening the mosquito in the process.

String figures are used as a tool for early childhood development in New Guinea schools.


David Titus helps a resident of New Guinea with a string story during a tour earlier this year.

Photo by Herb Schaan

“They give string figures to preschoolers as a prelude to writing. It stimulates good brain activity. It activates different parts of the brain. It stimulates communication between the hand, eye and brain. Some do string figures to teach hand exercises for writing,” Schaan said.

In the United States, cat’s cradle is a game for two sets of hands. Schaan said in other parts of the world, string figures are an individual pursuit, though complex figures can require the use of both hands, feet and sometimes a mouth.

“What’s kind of neat is you see folks who are so old they can barely stand, and kids who can barely stand because they’re so young, both with string and excited,” Schaan said.


New Guinea residents share string stories with each other during a presentation from David Titus and Schaan.

Photo courtesy Herb Schaan

Schaan has noticed a growing interest in string figures in this area. He’s said he’s in the process of relearning some string figures and would like to see a club form where participants of all ages could share knowledge of string figures with each other.

“In 1973 I wrote some down in scientific language, now I’m having to figure out my own handwriting. Since they use technical terms, it does take some thought,” Schaan said.

Strings aren’t expensive, Schaan said, and many books and videos on the topic are available. Titus’ manual on string figures of the Arctic is soon to be released, and Schaan said a manual of South Pacific string figures is in the works.

The International String Figure Association also works to catalog and share string figure knowledge.

Will Morrow can be reached at

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