Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Turquoise, and Crafty Old Men

Turquoise is a precious (albeit unspellable) stone with a lovely blue-green hue (the pavilion of the Blue Princess mentioned early on is usually called the Turquoise Pavilion). There are many tales attached to it, especially in indigenous cultures in the Americas. You can read a Hopi legend here, and a Navajo legend here (this latter one associates turquoise with the female spirit).

There is a folktale from Bhutan about an old man who finds a huge piece of turquoise on his land one day. He cheerfully walks down the road with it, and then quickly exchanges it for a horse, then the horse for an ox, then the ox for a sheep, sheep for a goat, goat for a rooster, and finally, exchanges the rooster for a song, and walks home singing to himself, perfectly content and happy. I label this story "old man destroys capitalism." It reminds me of some Jack tales, except the song makes more sense to me than magic beans. Some bands nowadays wish they could buy a song for a rooster...

Anyhow. Another story, this one from Tibet, also features an old man and a turquoise. In this one, an old man is left alone with his two daughters-in-law who use him as a slave. He manages to get a message to his daughter, who sends him a turquoise stone. The old man tricks both women in the house into believing that he will leave the stone to the one who treats him better, and lives out the rest of his life in peace. Before he dies, he hides the stone, and sends another secret message to his daughter, telling her where to look for it. A lovely father-daughter tale, but not a very good story for in-laws.

On MopDog today: Túró Rudi, Hungarian candy that tastes like heaven and unicorns.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Sandalwood

And here we are once again, meeting one of Nizami's Seven Wise Princesses (for those of you keeping track, we have just visited the Red Pavilion, and the Green, Ebony and Blue ones before her). S stands for Sandalwood. The color of sandalwood can range from dark reddish-brown to neutral beige hues, through a series of different softer shades of brown. In addition, sandalwood is a scented tree, often used in many Eastern cultures, which is probably why the Thursday pavilion is called the Sandalwood Pavilion, rather than just plain Brown.

The Chinese Princess (actually the text calls her "Chinese Turk" and in some translations "Tartar") in the Sandalwood Pavilion tells Bahram Gur the following story:

Once upon a time two men, called Good and Bad, traveled together across a desert. After a while Good ran out of water, and as the day grew hot he begged Bad to give him some from his own. Bad would not take any of the jewels Good offered as payment, claiming that water was life, and life deserved something more important. Finally he got desperate Good to offer his eyes in exchange for water. After giving him a drink, he carved his eyes out, stole the jewels, and left Good in the desert to die.
Fortunately for Good, a Kurdish tribe happened to pass by, and the chief's daughter found him. She put his eyes back and healed his wounds, and the Kurds took him in, slowly nursing him back to health. He married the girl that saved his life, and started a family of his own. One day he came across a sandalwood tree, and gathered some leaves, knowing they could cure many diseases. He kept the medicine a secret until he heard that a king nearby had a daughter on the verge of death; healing the daughter, he received her hand in marriage as a second wife. Healing with sandalwood proved to be a lucrative business: He did not only end up with three wives (two of them princesses he saved and one that saved him), he also became a king in his own right, and ruled over a country for many years. One day Bad showed up to pay the court a visit, not knowing who the king was; when he found out he begged for forgiveness, and Good forgave him for his crime.
The Kurdish father-in-law, however, did not. When Bad left the court, he followed him, and cut off his head.
The story ends with stating that Good, when he became king, wore sandalwood-colored clothes only, and decorated his palace with the soft colors of the sandalwood, to remind himself and everyone of the healing power of the tree, and the adventures he lived through.

If you are keeping count: Two more princesses coming up before the end of the month (White and Yellow). Stay tuned!

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for Red, and not just Riding Hood

And once again we are on solid ground. R is for Red, and the many folktales associated with this color.

First up, we have yet another one of the Seven Wise Princesses (if you are keeping track, we have met Blue, Green and Ebony so far). The Red Princess is from Russia (or, rather, the historic Rus), and lives in the Red Pavilion dedicated to Mars. The tale she tells to Bahram Gur is probably my favorite out of the seven.  It is about a Russian princess who did not want to get married, but her father pressured into agreeing that she can set whatever task she wants to set, as long as she marries the man who completes it. In turn, the princess built a fortress surrounded by killing machines and traps, and declared that whoever can sneak in an meet her in the inner courtyard, and answer her riddles after that, can marry her. As stories usually go, after a while a hero shows up who is capable of sneaking in, and also capable of solving the riddles. Whatever. I like this story mostly because of the active part the princess plays in shaping the hero's task, and because all the riddles are pretty much constructed in a way that there is only a right answer to them if she accepts is as a right answer. Plus, she does magic. Very cool.

Other tales that include the color red are:

Little Red Riding Hood (I don't think I need to introduce this one)

Snow White and Rose Red (Much more entertaining than Snow White if you ask me, and also masterfully adapted in the Fables comics)

The Red Shoes (A classic Andersen story, gruesome and depressing in true Andersen fashion. A little girl loves her red dancing shoes and doesn't pay attention in church, therefore an angel curses her to dance forever, a sentence she only gets away from by having her feet chopped off, and then she prays until God takes pity on her and lets her die. This, boys and girls, is why I don't tell Andersen.)

The Red Dwarf of Detroit (one of the most entertaining urban legends in the USA)

The Little Rabbit who wanted red wings (a cute Southern folktale that children especially like, about a little rabbit that wishes for bits and pieces of other animals to be more like them)

For more folktale goodness, check out Andrew Lang's classic Red Fairy Book.

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.

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).