Thursday, December 13, 2018

5+1 little known Christmas folktales (Following folktales around the world)

Since there is only one Following folktales around the world post left for this year - and that post is also the last country from Europe - I wanted to make a special collection of Christmas stories that I have encountered on the journey so far.

Every year, storytellers frantically search for new tales to tell around the winter holidays. There is an entire publishing industry built on Christmas stories, and there are classics that never go away - from The Gift of the Magi to Christmas Spiders. While reading stories from the three continents I completed in the challenge, I encountered some folktales that are not very well known in the storytelling community, but would make a great addition to the holiday lineup.
In no particular order, here they are:

El palo del ocote 
A young boy learns from his grandmother that one should talk to trees, because they listen. So, he makes friends with a Montezuma pine in the mountains, and invites it home for Christmas. While everyone laughs at the boy's attempt to make a tree friend, on Christmas eve the giant tree does show up at the house to celebrate with the family.

Anancy and Sorrel
Anancy the Trickster wants to go to the Christmas market, but has nothing to sell or barter. He finds some pretty red flowers, and he decides to pick them and sell them - but people suspect the trickster of trying to cheat them, and chase him around until he dumps the flowers into a pot of boiling water. The water turns red and tastes good, so people start adding spices and fruit to it. And thus, sorrel, a Jamaican Christmastime drink is born.

The Fairies' Mist Gate
The fairies kidnap a little boy's baby sister on Christmas eve, so he sets out to rescue her with the help of a talking cat, a donkey, and a church Grim. They have to get through the mists surrounding the fairy hill, and take the baby while keeping the Little Folk away. A tale of adventure, teamwork, and magic.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves
The tale starts with a mystery - every Christmas eve, a shepherd dies on a farm - and leads into a nighttime journey to the land of the Elves. Hildur, a servant at the farm, turns out to be a fairy queen in exile, who can only travel home to see her family once a year, until her curse is broken by a brave mortal who is willing to accompany her.

Two poor children set out into the winter forest on the night of Reyes (the night of January 6th, when the Three Wise Men bring gifts to Spanish children) to find the Wise Men and point them to their little cottage. Instead, they encounter a mysterious lady who sends the on a quest to an enchanted castle. In the end, they do get an abundance of gifts for their bravery.

The mischievous sons of Father Frost
In this fun Estonian folktale a poor farmer receives three visitors in a row. Each is a son of Father Frost, and they make life of their gracious host increasingly uncomfortable by filling his house with ice and still complaining about the heat. The eldest one, however, turns out to be doing good work - winter cold is needed just as summer heat - and he gifts the patient farmer two bags (one hot and one cold) so that he can manage the weather over his own fields.

Today is the last #FolkloreThursday of the year. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Land of witches (Following folktales around the world 95. - Andorra)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Andorra is a Catalan-speaking country, so I had trouble finding a full book of folktales in a language that I could read. But I did manage to scavenge up some Andorran legends and tales from the Internet. Here they are:

The piper of Ordino

A famous piper is on his way to play at a wedding when he is attacked by wolves. He climbs a tree and starts playing the pipes; the sound makes the wolves flee. Villages find him the next morning, still playing his music to keep the wolves away.

The White Lady of Aubinyá

A greedy bishop takes advantage of the poor, until the White Lady, a woman who inherited the lands from her father, lures the bishop into the deep woods, and he is never seen again. At the same time, a large wolf starts prowling the forests. Draw your own conclusions.

Lake Engolasters

A beggar arrives to a small town, but no one takes pity on him; people chase him away or trick him, until a girl takes pity and gives him some bread. In exchange, he advises her to flee immediately. That night a flood drowns the entire town, and Lake Engolasters is born. The lake becomes a favorite bathing place of Andorran witches.
(Here is another version)

The Virgin of Meritxell

On the day of the Three Wise Men (January 6) people on their way to church find an image of the Virgin under a blooming rose bush. They take the image to the church, but by the next morning it miraculously returns to the bush, so they build a chapel for her there instead.

The seven-armed cross

A boy is terrified of the devil, so seven other boys decide to trick him. They send him for wine at night, armed with an (unloaded) pistol. Sadly, the shopkeeper loads the pistol for him, and on the way back he ends up shooting the boy dressed in bed sheets who is trying to scare him. At the place of the accident a cross appears with seven arms.

The rock of witches

This legend explains the origins of the Bronze Age rock carvings pictured below. It is said that Andorran witches fought the devil and threw him off a cliff; the claws of the devil left the marks on the rocks.

Where to next?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nobody expects the Spanish princesses (Following folktales around the world 94. - Spain)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Cuentos ​Populares Españoles
José María Guelbenzu
Siruela, 2006.

The book contains 117 Spanish folktales, somewhat re-worded for contemporary readers from their dialects, but kept in their original shape. It is a good selection from all the regions of Spain, including Catalonia and the Basque Country. There are sources in the end, but the tales themselves follow each other without chapters or themes, so it was a surprise every time I turned the page to see what would come next - fairy tale, legend, anecdote, or something else? It is a great, colorful, enjoyable selection with many memorable stories.


Right now, just before the holidays, it was nice to read Aguinaldo, the tale of two poor children who set out to direct the Three Wise Men to their cottage (because the year before they did not get any presents from them). They meet a lady instead, who sends them on an adventurous journey to an enchanted castle. Similarly touching was the story of the Repentant robbers, in which a holy monk mocked an arrested criminal for being destined to Hell - and then he got a divine reminder that anyone can change for the better if they want to. The tale of The purest blood also had a timely lesson that a king taught to his mean son - that his blood is the same read as the blood of the poor, and his infant child also looks the same. The Catalan story of the Green Cap, on the other hand, had a less optimistic message. In it, a witch gave a man a cap that let him hear everyone's thoughts - and he soon concluded that all people are horrible.
One of my favorite stories was The sewing box of the anjana. A poor woman found the sewing kit of an anjana (one-eyed witch), and after giving away each pin for a good cause, she was rewarded with help for rescuing her son from a giant. The tale of The Dwarf also had a female hero, who, after accidentally eloping with the wrong guy, rescued a princess for eternal torture. A long list of other female heroes followed: Three sisters rescued themselves from a giant's Castle with Seven Towers, and a wife accused of adultery proved her innocence with a pair of Golden shoes and genius trickery. Dwarves also made other appearances, among them one where a Sepherd befriended a Dwarf, and they rescued a princess together.
Some well-known tale types took unexpected turns in this book. The Sleeping Princess was a Sleeping Beauty variant where the girl was awakened by the prince pulling the splinter from her hand (bonus points), but after she got pregnant the prince went home to his wife (minus point). The wife then tried to get rid of the other family by cooking the kids and serving them to her husband (minus points), and while the princess and the prince eventually married, the kids did not come back to life like in other versions. Angelina and the Lion was a Beauty and the Beast variant where the woman looking for her husband dressed as a soldier, and killed the dragon as a side quest. The Dragon Prince was saved by a girl who had to make a shirt out of a princess' hair to break his curse - the princess turned out to be his sister in a surprising plot twist. It was also a princess who made herself a Louse Skin drum and offered a reward to whoever could guess its origins; a man, with the help of some people with superpowers, guessed right, and got a reward (but not the princess). The ring that said "I'm here" was a classic Cyclops-legend, except here the hero was a clever girl rather than Odysseus.
Some tales ended on a less triumphant note: In The charcoal burner and Death a mortal tried to trick Death, but Death pretended to hang herself, and tricked the mortal instead by giving him a false sense of triumph. The story of the heroic Juan y Medio ended when the hero kidnapped a princess, who in turn tricked him with the age-old "tar baby" trick, left him to drown in the ocean, and went home.


I encountered many of my favorite tale types in this book. There was a version of the Three Gifts story, where the princess wanted three husbands, but her father insisted that she should choose. When the three princes used their magic objects to save her together, she said "see, all three were needed!", and married all of them. Lavender Flower was a variant of my favorite Italian Canary Prince, and Green Rose (Rosa Verde) was a variant of the fiery Mediterranean Basil Maiden. Also Mediterranean is the story of the marriage of Butterfly and Mouse, which I have encountered in South America before.
The best changeling story I have read so far was that of the Lost Boy. In it, the husband kept trying to kill the changeling child, but the wife kept stopping him, saying the changeling was just a child, and deserved love. Eventually, the real child was also found, and it turned out that the wife's kindness had broken the spell.
There were many, many classic tale types featured in the book: Tom Thumb (Periquillo), Two Hunchbacks, Thee oranges (here the fairies appeared from the oranges with their children in their arms), Hero who could turn into three animals, Bluebeard (the girl saved herself and her sisters), Three spinners, Puss in Boots, Princess in the shroud, Princess that saw everything, Blacksmith and the devil (or Juan Soldado), Tía Miseria and Death, Animal Bride (here with a frog, helped by her sister who was a snake), Brementown Musicians, Devil's three golden hairs, Raven brothers (here lion brothers), Faithful servant (here the kid stayed dead too), Gold-spitting prince, Stone of Pain and Dagger of Love (I knew this as a Turkish tale), Fortunatus, Girl who turned into a man (specifically so that she could marry into the royal family), Juan el Oso, Extraordinary helpers, Princess who stole magic items from three heroes, Queen bee, Three Little Pigs (with female pigs who built houses together).
As for tricksters, Juan Bobo and the fox deserve a mention (the latter for the classic down-into-the-well trick she used on the wolf).

Where to next?

Monday, November 26, 2018

Tales of endless adventures (Following folktales around the world 93. - Republic of Ireland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folktales of Ireland
Sean O'Sullivan
University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Yet another classic on any storyteller's bookshelf. It contains fifty-five stories, divided into thematic chapters (Animals and birds, Kings and warriors, Wizards and witches, etc.). It has a long and detailed Foreword and Introduction about the history of Irish folklore collection and storytelling. Each tale comes with detailed notes, sources, type numbers, as well as a glossary and a bibliography at the end of the book. As a 20th century folklore collection, the book is missing the well known big Irish legends, but it has plenty of amazing lesser known folk stories.


Many of the stories in the book are long, complex, multi-episode wonder tales. For example, I loved the story of Céatach, an apprentice magician who rescued his master's daughter from Steel Skull, ended up in Ireland, went through quests to keep her from the Fianna, died, and was brought back eventually by his crafty wife. This was also not the only story where the Fianna made an appearance. In one legend, we found out how the heroes of the Fianna got their magical abilities from a woman named Youth; in another, we got a backstory for the birth of Oscar, Oisín's son, and his adventures in finding his place among the heroes (this one also told about Goll Mac Morna defeating three witches). Nex to the Fians, Cú Chulainn also appeared in one tale, although more as a storyteller rather than a warrior.
One of the deepest, more complex stories in the book was that of The man who was rescued from hell. In it, a woman left her abusive husband, found a new home with her mother, fell in love with a cursed man, and went all the way to hell to save him, herself, and many other souls (including her ex-husband). Similarly hard-hitting was the story where a man visited the Queen of the Planets to ask some questions, and got to witness how she decides the fates of people in various gruesome ways. Among the historical legends, the most fascinating was about the friar who foretold Cromwell's invasion, and helped a man keep his Irish lands. In the end, Cromwell went to hell, obviously.
Among the fairy legends, my favorite was Seán Palmer's voyage to America with the fairies - the man visited his friends and relatives in New York and Boston within one night, and got home to Ireland by morning. Apart from fairies, a leprechaun was also mentioned - but here, instead of giving away treasure, it just laughed at the misfortunes of its captor. Of the stories about witches and wizards, the best one was that of the Black Art, in which a father realized his wife was a witch when he saw his little girl playing at sinking ships by magic...


The story of the Cold May night resembled the Welsh story of the Ancient of the World - an eagle set out to find the oldest living creature, and ended up realizing that Old Crow had been alive longer than anyone in the world. After Scotland I once again found a Man who had no story (but got one by the end of a wild magic-filled night), Heather ale (here the secret recipe belonged to the Danes, rather than the Picts), and a Cow that ate the piper (or so it appeared). Many of the fairy legends had familiar elements in them, such as the fairy midwife.
The story of the four-leafed shamrock resembled the Grimm tale fo the Rooster Beam, in which a clover allowed its owner to see through a magician's illusions.
Among tricksters we had the fox who outwitted animals and people alike (e.g. by pretending to be dead), but the most well-known was Daniel O'Connell, who picked up a lot of classic trickster motifs along the way - such as a "smell of money for the smell of food" type story.

Where to next?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Land of legends (Following folktales around the world 92. - Northern Ireland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Armagh Folk Tales
Frances Quinn
The History Press, 2014.

Because I do this challenge by political and not cultural borders, I get to read two books of Irish folktales. Yay! This first one is by storyteller Frances Quinn, whom I heard personally tell some of these stories last year, on location (a treat!). The book collects fifty stories from County Armagh, including some very famous classic Irish legends that have connections to Ulster. All of them are researched and retold by an excellent storyteller, and make an exciting read. The book has no notes or bibliography, but it does preface every story with sources and origin. Chapters are themed by story types, from legends through anecdotes to local lore.


Many famous Irish legends have connections to Armagh. Emain Macha (Navan Fort), legendary home of the Ulster kings and heroes falls inside the boundaries of the country, so technically any story of the Ulster cycle could fit within this book. Many of them did, starting with the Twins of Macha, a woman who was forced to run a race with the king's horses while heavily pregnant, won, gave birth to twins, and then cursed the men of Ulster to have birthing pains whenever they were attacked (best curse in legend and lore). Another Macha, Macha Mongrúad was also a fierce woman, winning herself a kingdom and keeping it against all odds.
Talking about Ulster heroes, of course there are several legends in the book that feature Cú Chulainn (including the one about how he won his name). Similarly famous are the Children of Lir (who spend 900 years changed into swans), and Deirdre of the Sorrows, probably the most famous tragic love story in Ireland. To my delight, there was even a Fianna story, the Hunt on Slieve Gullion - last year, when we visited Armagh with the FEST conference, I got to climb the mountain and see the setting of that story for myself. Another member of the Fianna, Oisín, also made an appearance, helping Saint Patrick fight off a raging bull and find a place to build the cathedral of Armagh.
I have always liked the story of Fergus Mac Leide, which is the earliest known mention of leprechauns. This book's version had a different opening than the one I was familiar with, but it did end the same way: With the king in his water-walking shoes encountering a monster under a lake... I also got to read about the mermaid Liban (who became St. Murigen later on), and Black Pig Dyke, which was created when a bad teacher was cursed into a wild boar by a parent, and tore up the countryside. The most disturbing legend, however, was that of the Hungry grass, which grows on the graves of people who died in the Famine, and makes unsuspecting people starve to death.


I encountered yet another story that I knew from a local Hungarian version by my grandpa (the tale of bringing candles to the church to count sins). I have also read variants of "Lived once buried twice" from several countries - the tale of the wife who is woken up in the grave when a robber tries to cut her ring finger off. This book had two different versions of it, one of them from 1705.
There were, of course, sleeping knights (here associated with Black Pig Dyke and the end of the world), and many, many fairy legends - stolen women, nighttime dances, fair midwives, and changelings. My favorite text, however, was from a folklorist who overheard local people talking about him, and wrote the conversation down - the two fellows concluded in the end that the strange collector must be a fae himself.

Where to next?
Republic of Ireland!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Fairies, heroes, wizards (Following folktales around the world 91. - Scotland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

The Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales
Neil Philip
Penguin Books, 1995.

Yet another folklore classic, with notes, sources, tale types, and a world of information. It represents various aspects of Scottish oral tradition; the 112 tales are grouped into chapters by region (Highlands and Lowlands), as well as story types (historical stories, anecdotes, fairy legends, etc.). The long introduction talks about tale type indexes, the features of oral storytelling, Scottish tradition, and even the roles of male and female tellers. Each story comes with sources, type numbers, and the teller's name. Many texts were written out phonetically, which made it harder for me to follow, and often I had to read them out loud to understand the words, but it was worth it. I found quite a few great stories in this book.


Kate Crackernuts
Some of my favorite Scottish folktales are featured in the book - for example Kate Crackernuts, with a heroine who saves a prince and also helps her stepsister (in a sort of reverse "dancing princesses" story); or Mally Whuppie, who repeatedly outwits a giant to save herself and her sisters. The latter also had a Highland variant, called Maol a Chliobain.
I really liked Maraiche Mairneal, the Weatherwise Mariner, who was not even the protagonist in his own story; the hero was a prince who had a snake twisted around his body, and in order to find the women who could help him get rid of it, he had to enlist the help of an old, blind mariner. All was well in the end. The story of The widow's son and the king's daughter took an unexpected turn when the hero, in order to defeat a fire-breathing dragon, got a camel, filled it up with water, and made it spew water at the flames of the dragon. Similarly unexpected was the story of The man in the boat, a version of "the man who had no story", in which said man was spirited away by a boat, turned into a woman, married, had children, and then got back on the same night - and now he had quite the story to tell. Teenagers love this story.
I was delighted to find quite a few Fianna legends in the book. Finn in the land of Big Men was familiar; I even have a version of it in my own book. Finn and the Grey Dog is also an old favorite of mine; I knew it from Rosemary Sutcliff's collection, but it was great to find the folk text as well. There was a variant of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees (here the Yellow Field), where the Fianna warriors get stuck to their chairs in an enchanted house, and the younger generation has to rescue them. And of course there was a story about Oisín (Ossian), after the Fianna.

Michael Scott's tomb
There were some fascinating historical legends as well. One was about the last of the Picts, and how father and son took the secret of the heather ale with them to the grave. I encountered Sir James Ramsay of Bamff, a legendary doctor with magical abilities, and Michael Scott, one of the most famous wizards in European lore (both were features in my book on superpowers).
Among the fairy legends, I really liked Black Lad MacCrimmon and the Banshee, where the fairy asked the piper lad if he wanted success without talent, or talent without success. He chose the latter.


A Fekete Bika képregény- változata (Image Comics)
There were quite a few classic tale types in the book, such as Mother killed me, father ate me; Cinderella; Beauty and the Beast (here the Black Bull of Norroway); Magic Flights (Green Sleeves); Frog Bride; The hunchback and the fairies; Clever Maiden; Water of Life (here with a friendly bear); Firebird (here with a friendly fox); and even Raven brothers (here with shirts made from bog cotton). There was a Scottish Frog Prince who had to be beheaded with an axe, rather than kissed. Rumpelstiltskin here was a woman named Whoppity Stoorie, and Frau Holle's tale was called The well at the end of the world (one of my storyteller friends recently released a CD with the Appalachian version of this).
I was reminded of other European wizards by Donald Duibheal Mackay who had not shadow, and other European tales by the Humble-bee that flew from the mouth of a sleeping person, and had dream-like adventures.
There were familiar Münchhausen tales among the anecdotes, such as the servant who ate one leg of the goose (known from the Decameron, and also my own grandfather), or the Mare's egg.
Of course I found sleeping knights, waiting for their king to appear; and there was also a Polyphemus story, but instead of blinded cyclops here it featured a blinded fairy (Tam M'Kechan).
The fairy legends were full of familiar motifs: Dance in the fairy hill, fairy midwife, changelings, wife kidnapped by fairies (who then had to choose between two husbands), and mortal traveling with fairies (Hurrah for Kintail!). There was also a selkie and an evil mermaid.
As for tricksters, we had George Buchanan, the king's clever fool.

Where to next?
Northern Ireland!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Arthur, Merlin, and the Fair Family (Following folktales around the world 90. - Wales)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

The Welsh Fairy Book
W. Jenkyn Thomas
F. A. Stokes, 1908.

This old volume contains a treasure trove of eighty-four Welsh fairy tales. They were collected by a teacher who wanted to make sure that his Welsh students could read stories from their own culture. The language of the tales is eloquent and entertaining, and many tale types repeat based on different places where they are said to have taken place. They are connected to the Welsh landscape - lakes, mountains, towns. Many of the names are difficult for the non-Welsh reader, but Thomas provides a handy pronounciation guide at the beginning of the book. I was delighted to discover that the original volume had been illustrated by Willy Pogány, an artist of Hungarian descent.


The drowning of the Bottom Hundred is an eerie legend about a kingdom protected by levees and devoured by a flood after the people whose job it was to keep everything in good shape neglected their duties. It is a very exciting, elaborate story with appealing characters such as a brave princess and a clever minstrel. Floods happened fairly often in these stories; another captivating yet dark legend was that of the Swallowed Court, where a king swapped his elderly wife for a fair young maiden, just to find out too late that the maiden was his old wife who had made a dark deal to regain her youth.
The curse of Pantannas was a story of truma passed down through the generations. A farmer plowed a fairy ring, but when the Fair Folk threatened him hi begged for the punishment to be passed down to his descendants instead. Generations later his descendant Madoc was stolen away on his wedding day, and only appeared again decades later, when all his loved ones were dead. Another tale, titled The ancients of the world, spanned a similarly long time: An ancient eagle wanted to marry someone who matched him in age, so he visited the other ancient creatures of the world until he found an Owl who was older than all of them.
Most of the book is taken up by various fairy legends. One of the most interesting was Elidyr's sojourn to Fairyland, from which we find out that fairies eat saffron milk, never lie, and their language is related to ancient Greek. Next to the fairies we also encounter the Pwca, a mischievous and dangerous trickster creature, and also some witches, in some cases a whole town of them (Goronwy Tudor and the witches of Llanddona).
The book also features some of the most famous Welsh legends, such as the origin of the Red Dragon as a symbol of Wales (along with Merlin's origin story), the tale of Gelert the faithful hound, and the Mantle of Beards, in which King Arthur kills Rhitta Gawr, who collects beards from defeated kings. I was also familiar with the story of Hu Gadarn, who, with the help of a maiden, saves his people from the water monster called Afanc.


If there is a country that can claim to be them home of the most Sleeping Knights, Wales is probably it. The knights of King Arthur are said to be asleep under various mountains, waiting to be called back to help their people. Of course the fairy legends followed familiar types: There were several fairy midwives with ointment in their eyes (e.g. Lowri Dafydd), changelings that had to be tricked (e.g. the Changeling of Llanfabon), and people who got lost in Fairyland and only returned years later. Even the Open, Sesame tale type featured fairies instead of thieves, whose secret world opened with a Fairy Password.
Some other familiar tale types were also featured in the book, such as Rumpelstiltskin (here the name was Sili go Dwt), or Cricket the false seer (here named Black Robin). Among the classic Welsh tales there was the King with horse's ears (just like the Greek King Midas), and also a surprise appearance from the White Woman whom I have not seen since South America. But the story that made me the happiest was that of Why the robin's breast is red, which echoes one of my favorite American folktales, about birds bringing water to Hell to ease the suffering.

Where to next?