Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Queen Blue, Royal Blue, and Brother Blue

There is not a single color that starts with Q, other than Queen Blue, a medium tone of Royal Blue. But since I have already used up all my Blue stories for the letter B, I'll take the opportunity today and remember Brother Blue.

Blue is definitely royalty, at least to the storytellers of the world. He is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. He is one of those people who were born not only to tell stories, but to live them. People walking the streets of Boston would run into him, dressed all in blue, telling stories in an engaging voice and style, a mix of song, rap, recital, and everyday street speak. If you ever so him, you would never walk past him.
Here is an excerpt from his telling of King Lear, to give you a taste:


I am not going to give you the entire amazing biography of Brother Blue. You can find it here. I personally only met him once, at a storytelling conference in 2008, a year before he passed away. I was presenting a workshop on Hungarian stories, one of the first ones I have ever done, and I was super nervous. People pointed Blue out to me in the crowd, and I knew he was a storytelling superstar of some sort, but I was too preoccupied with getting ready for my workshop to walk up and talk to him. But then, I walked into the classroom assigned to me, and there he was, together with his wife Ruth, sitting in the first row with a big grin on his face. And at that point I found out another amazing thing about Blue: He was the greatest audience ever. He came right into every story with me, he enjoyed them with a spark in his eyes, he was engaged body and soul in everything I said on stage. His attention was undivided, inspiring, and made me forget anything I had ever been nervous about. Listening like that, if you ask me, is an even rarer gift than telling well.
(I still have the feedback sheet he wrote for my workshop. It is covered in little blue stars.)

If you search for Blue on YouTube, you can find quite a few videos. Take a moment and enjoy them :)
I'll see you all on Monday for the next color!

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Pretty (and dead) in Pink

Today's letter is Pink, which could stand for Pink or Purple, but since I have already done shades of purple for Lilac and Heliotrope, I'm going to do Pink now. Not the singer, the color. Duh.

Honestly, there are not that many folktales about the color pink. One of the more entertaining ones I found is aptly titled Pink, and is a folktale (or more of an urban legend) from Florida. The story tells us about a woman who loves gardening and the color pink, and plants the entire garden full of pink flowers. The husband, feeling his masculinity threatened by the onslaught of pink, takes offense at her hobby, but despite repeated warnings, she keeps on gardening in pink. Eventually she even takes on a young man to help her with the garden chores. The husband, suspecting that the young gardener is cultivating more than just flowers, accuses her of cheating, and in a rage of passion he accidentally kills her. Scared at his crime, he buries the body under a bunch of pink flowers in the garden, and skips town. A few years later he returns, just to find out that the new owners of the house found the body and buried her in the local cemetery. Visiting the grave he finds it covered in pink flowers; the stress is too much for him, and he collapses dead. Legend says the grave is still there, completely covered in pink, except for the man-shaped empty space in the middle.

This story, apart from the entertaining use of the color pink, has a lot in common with the Lilac story I recounted earlier, and also a classic Grimm tale known as the Juniper Tree. The tale type is 720, cheerfully referred to as Mother Killed Me, Father Ate Me. It usually revolves around an unpunished murder within the family, and the soul of the dead returning in the shape of a plant or a bird to warn people of the injustice that happened to them.
I find it all kinds of fascinating that such an old story type (it exists in Greek mythology) is still alive and well, and was transplanted to the US as an urban legend.

For more pink, check out Andrew Lang's classic Pink Fairy Book.




Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Orange, and Surplus Fairy Maidens

Say what, men of the world? We have an ACTUAL COLOR this time? Why yes, indeed we do.

The color orange is named after the fruit orange (surprise!) and its main claim to fame is the fact that no other English word rhymes with it. It is a warm, cheerful color, and a fruit full of vitamin.

The folktale most often associated with orange comes from Italy, and it is aptly titled "The Love for Three Oranges." In this story, a prince sets out to find the perfect wife for himself, a woman who is "white and red" (I always assumed he meant a redhead, but it's up for interpretation). After many adventures an ogress hands him three oranges, warning him to only open them near a source of water. When he arrives to a fountain, he cuts the first orange open, and out pops a fairy maiden, crying for water. He is, however, not quick enough on the uptake, and the fairy maiden dies (oops). So does the second one, which brings the prince's mental facilities into question, but he does manage to give a drink to the third orange fairy on time, and she survives.
At this point I always wondered: What would have happened if all three lived? Would he end up with three wives? Or was he supplied with a surplus of instant maidens because of the assumption that he would botch the job?...
Anyhow, the third orange maiden lives, and the prince promises to marry her... then he promptly abandons her outside town, telling her to wait until he is finished with the proper preparations. In the meantime an ugly servant woman comes across the maiden, attempts to kill her (the maiden turns into a bird and flies away) and takes her place, claiming to the baffled prince that the sun and the waiting turned her old and ugly.
(Side note: The original version of this tale is one of the most racist folktales anyone can ever read. The servant woman is not ugly, she is black. Storytellers with any shred of sentiment change it to ugly and evil.)
When the bird attempts to reclaim her prince (of questionable mental qualities), the new bride has her cooked. But when they throw the cooking water out into the garden, a new orange tree sprouts up, reminding the prince of the original bride. He cuts the oranges open, looses two maidens as usual (but... whatever), reclaims his true bride, and has the servant executed.
Happy Ending.

This folktale exists in many versions, and with a number of different kinds of fruit. I have read it with apples, pomegranates, figs, citrons, and walnuts. I am sure there is some important meaning behind all of them. This particular version is featured in Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Nadeshiko Pink, and what that actually means

So, N is not an easy letter to start a color with. We have Navy and Neon,  and neither of them is going to help in my quest for folklore and mythology. So, once again I have to resort to linguistic sleight-of-hand.
Looking at my trusty list of color names, I came across a shade called Nadeshiko Pink. It is a soft pink color named after the Japanese word for carnations. It has a very important place in Japanese flower symbolism: Yamato nadeshiko is the term they use for the ideal Japanese woman, for the ultimate delicate feminine beauty.
Sadly, my search for a tale that explains the connection did not yield any results.

BUT!
I do have a story that involves carnations.

Szegfűhajú János (János Carnation-hair) is a Hungarian folktale with one of the most peculiar heroes I have ever seen. I came across the story when I was doing research for my book, and ran into a problem (much like with the letter N) with finding folktales about telepathy. After scouring the whole world for a story, I found it right under my nose, in Hungary. Duh.
We never did figure out why János is called Carnation-hair; we just know that his hair is somehow peculiar and important. I asked a bunch of people, including folklorists, and got a bunch of answers. Some said his hair must be red (red carnations are common in Hungary), or pink, or purple, or wavy, or fragrant, or smooth, or just straight up made of flowers. It was a delightful poll to do.
The story itself is very long, and full of fascinating imagery. It tells about a boy who is raised by a fairy in a castle under the sea. His stepmother repeatedly cuts him into pieces and puts him back together, giving him more and more superhuman powers every time, including telepathy and astral projection (this is probably related to early Hungarian shaman beliefs). Eventually he sets out to find the Diamond Princess he saw in a dream, and adventures his way across the kingdoms of Copper, Silver, and Gold, breaking other princesses' hearts and being hanged for it more than once (yeah you read that right). I like this story for the deadpan tough love of the fairy godmother ("and then she killed him and cut him into pieces, and put him back together again"), the various personalities of the metal (heh) princesses, and just the overall weirdness of a telepathic fairy tale hero.
You can find the full English translation and notes in my book.
For those of you who read Hungarian, here is the Hungarian version online (of the story, not the book).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Mint, and love in the Underworld

The first M colors that came to mind were Maroon and Magenta, but neither of them yielded any exciting stories. And then I remembered Mint.
Mint is a soft, light green color named after a plant with a very specific, strong scent, usually associated with freshness and chewing gum. When I was little, I remember rolling around in a mint patch during a class hiking trip, enjoying the scent.

The story associated with mint comes from Greek mythology. It tells us about Minthe, a nymph from the river Cocytus (one of the five rivers of the Underworld), who was in love with Hades, the Lord of the Dead. They were lovers for a while, but unfortunately Hades also happened to be (un)happily married to Persephone, who found out about the affair, and was not thrilled. She turned the nymph into a small, plain green plant and walked away. Hades, who could not reverse the transformation, have the gift of divine scent to Minthe to soften the blow.
In ancient Greece mint was associated with funeral rites, along with other spices and herbs that had a strong enough scent to mask the smell of a dead body.

As simple as this story is, I kind of like it for a few reasons. One of them is that I have never been crazy about Hades and Persephone. The whole "kidnap my niece and force her to marry me" just sounded disturbing to me. On the other hand, I kind of find it adorable that someone can have a crush on the Lord of the Dead. In some versions of the story I have found Minthe watched Hades from far away before she approaches him with her feelings. There is someone out there for everyone.

For one of my favorite literary characters, Minty Fresh, see the books A Dirty Job and Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore.

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Lilac in its many shades

It's getting closer to the time when lilacs start to bloom. Somewhere. Not around here, but somewhere.
Thinking about a color for L, lilac was the first one that came to mind. In Hungarian, our world for purple is "lila." Also, I love the flower; it has an amazingly sweet scent.

As for the stories: One that pops up a lot is the Telltale Lilac Bush, a version of a folktale type that is favored by ghost story tellers around the world. In this tale, a man's wife mysteriously disappears, yet he does not seem distressed at all - in fact, he is having the time of his newly bachelor life. But one day some of his guests notice that the lilac bush next to the house is beating furiously against the windows, even though there is no wind. Thoroughly disturbed by the aggressive plant, they dig up the lilac bush, and discover the wife's corpse buried beneath.
(Plants growing on graves revealing injustice about one's death is a very common motif in folklore. This version was collected in Virginia. See the book on the link).

Another lilac episode can be found in the old French fairy tale Blondine. I have a visceral dislike for French fairy tales written in the 18th and 19th centuries - they are literary tales, which makes them too long and too convoluted to tell, and most of them are just too sugary sweet for my taste, with pretty princesses fainting all over the place, and princes crying rivers. Ugh. Anyway, this tale includes Princess Blondine getting lost in the Forest of Lilacs, which is a nice image. You can read the story on the link if you want to.

Lilac also has a Hungarian relation: One specific kind of lilac, Syringa Josikaea, was first discovered in Hungary and named after Countess Rozália Jósika. A lot of sources just call it Josika's Lilac. You can see it in the picture above.

For more lilac, check out Andrew Lang's classic Lilac Fairy Book.

For more Hungarian curiosities, check out my other blog (also participating in A to Z): MopDog - The crazy thing about Hungarians...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Kadmos, dragon teeth, and earth tones

Watch my hands.
K might turn out to be the trickiest letter in the color alphabet. Most lists had exactly one entry for it: Khaki, which is not only a "meh" color, it also has no good stories attached to it. So I decided to go the alternate route and look at colors in Hungarian (hey it's not cheating if you're bilingual!). This is how I ran into cadmium colors, and from there it was only a step further to spell them the Greek way.

Cadmium is an element. Combined with other elements it can produce pigments of different hues, such as cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, and cadmium green. Back when it was discovered they named it after a common zinc ore generally known as "cadmean earth."
In turn, cadmean earth, first found near Thebes, was named after the city's founder and first king, Cadmus, or rather, Kadmos (Greek spelling).
Ta-da! Story.

Kadmos was not Greek. He was Phoenician, and also happened to be the brother of Europe, the girl that was kidnapped by a very horny Zeus and gave her name to a continent. While being the mother of Zeus' children is usually presented as an honor in Greek mythology, parents rarely ever approve. In this case, they sent big brother Kadmos to bring Europe back home.
Kadmos, however, did not find his sister; he had another destiny. Consulting the Oracle of Delphoi, he was told to follow a cow with the sign of the moon on its flank, and build a city where it lay down. The spot was found in Boeotia, but when Kadmos' companions went to fetch some water for a sacrifice, they were all devoured by a giant snake-dragon that lived in a nearby spring. Kadmos, being a true hero, killed the dragon. Athena (who runs a counseling program for heroes) instructed him to take the dragon's teeth and sow them into the ground; from the dragon teeth sprang an army of warriors. Kadmos threw a rock in their midst and they started fighting (not the brightest) until only 5 remained; these five helped him build the legendary city of Thebes.
In the process, however, he managed to piss off Ares, god of war, who happened to be fond of that dragon in particular. Kadmos ended up serving him for several years before he was granted forgiveness, and Ares and Aphrodite's daughter, Harmonia. But even then, misfortune followed him till the end of his life, until he cursed the entire dragon thing over and over. The gods, who have a wicked sense of humor, turned him (and his wife) into dragons.

Kadmos is obviously tied to the earth with many threads in these stories (building a city, growing warriors from the ground, slaying a dragon and then becoming one). No wonder they credit him with cadmean earth (and also minding gold for his kingdom). Incidentally, they also credit him with bringing the Phoenician alphabet to Hellas.