Thursday, February 20, 2020

The pig (Feminist Folktales 8.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Denmark

The story


A poor widow is working with her three daughters (combing flax, baking, etc.) when a pig runs into their garden. She sends her eldest to chase the pig away, and the pig lures the girl into a foggy forest where she gets lost. Suddenly the pig turns into a man who takes the girl home and locks her in a room. The same thing happens with the second daughter, but the third managed to win the man's approval, and gets free rein of the house. She finds her sisters in the locked rooms, and finds the keys to let them out. She makes a plan of escape.
One day the man comes home complaining it's cold outside. The girl asks him to take a bag of coal to her poor old mother. She hides her sister in the bag with gold and silver, and covers her with coal. The man carries her home on his back; when he tries to peek inside the bag, the girl yells "I can see you!" and he thinks the youngest daughter is watching him. He carries the first two sisters home, and then the youngest hides herself in a bag, so all thee make it back to their mother safe and sound. When the man comes home to an empty house, he bursts into pebbles out of anger.

What makes it a feminist folktale?


A brave and clever girl does not only rescue herself, but also saves her sisters.
This tale is related to the Bluebeard and Mr. Fox stories. But while in those (ATU 312) the previous wives are killed, in this type (ATU 311) the heroine finds a way out of danger, and she also saves the other girls. This is the reason I especially like this story: it is very rare in European folktales to find sisters who don't compete, but rather help each other and work together. This is a very important element to highlight, in the context of all the "evil stepsister" and "kind and unkind girls" tales. Traditional tales have very few female friendships to begin with, or good sibling connections in general, so it's good to emphasize the rare exception.
I also love this version in particular because it doesn't feature a romantic element. In many variants the girls go off to marry a rich and handsome stranger, and the moral of the story is along the lines of "don't marry rich and handsome strangers" (which is also an important message, but also kind of makes it all the girls' fault). In this Danish story the girls get lost in the woods chasing a pig, and they only go to the man's home because they "can't find the way home." They go to his house for shelter, not (misguided) romance, and none of them become his lover or wife.


Things to consider

The English text calls the animal a pig; in Hungarian I often say "boar" or "wild pig" because the creature comes out of the woods, and because "pig" is also a pejorative term for a pervert (which in this case is not entirely unfounded).

Sources

Clara Stroebe: Danish Fairy Book (1922.)
Sven Grundtvig: Gamle danske minder i folkemunde (1854.)

Notes

Interestingly, the name of this tale type in English is Rescue by the sister, but in Hungarian we call it Girl-killer. In some versions the man does kill the first two girls, but their sister usually brings them back to life somehow.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Survivor stories (Following folktales around the world 143. - Rwanda)

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 ​skin of lions
Rwandan Folk Tales and Fables
Gabriel Constans
Cacoethes Publishing, 2009.

The ten stories in this book were collected from children, aged 10-19, who were left as orphans by the 1994 genocide or the AIDS epidemic, and ended up at the El Shaddai Orphanage in Rwanda. Two of the stories are personal, telling about their life and challenges. Each chapter comes with the photo, name, and age of the storyteller. The book is a very short read, but a great initiative to preserve disappearing tales.

Highlights

There was a lovely, very short story about a man who was saved by his dog. He was too sick to move, but the dog ran over to the neighbors, and kept on barking until they followed him and found the man in trouble. In another story there was a surprising moment when a man found an egg and took it home, only to see a ferocious lion hatch from the egg...

Connections

The story that gave the book its title, The skin of lions, belonged to the African tale type where a man saves a small animal, and in exchange it chases away a big predator (a lion) by yelling loudly from a hiding place, pretending to be an even bigger, more dangerous creature. There were also two versions for the "mother killed me, father ate me" tale type, where telltale trees or bushes told about the murder of a child by his parents.

Where to next?
Uganda!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Li Ji and the Serpent (Feminist Folktales 7.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: China

The story

Fujian Province is threatened by a giant, man-eating serpent that keeps snatching livestock and people. Through a dream, the serpent demands a sacrifice: a twelve-thirteen year old maiden every year on the eighth day of the eighth month. For nine years, the sacrifice is given out of fear, from the daughters of servants and convicts. In the tenth year, a girl named Li Ji volunteers for the task. She is the sixth daughter of her family, and has no brothers, so she volunteers hoping her family would get money for her sacrifice. However, her parents refuse to let her go because they love her. Li Ji, determined to go, sneaks out in secret.
Armed with a sword and a snake-hunting dog she sets out for the serpent's lair in the mountains. At the entrance she sets rice cakes, soaked in malt sugar, on the ground. The the serpent comes out to devour the cakes the dog attacks it, and so does the girl, and the two of them together manage to kill the monster. Entering the cave Li Ji finds the skulls of the previous victims. She collects them and says "You were timid, and you were devoured. How sad!" The ruler of the state of Yue hears about the heroic girl and makes her his queen, and her family is brought to the court to live in comfort. No more monsters haunt the mountains.

What makes it a feminist story?

A female monster-killer, who saves other girls from certain death. The trope of St. George and the dragon, but with a girl protagonist. Next to the whole yassss, cool girl with sword and a dog factor, there are also smaller details in this story that are worth talking about.
The serpent does not demand just any sacrifice: it wants maidens twelve-thirteen years old, at the start of puberty. We could go into the whole Freudian analysis of what a snake symbolizes in this story, but even setting that aside, the fact remains that young, defenseless girls are being sacrificed here for the greater good. There are variants where warriors try to defeat the serpent and fail, while in others the monster simply states its claim, and is given the girls. In the spirit of intersectional feminism, we should also note that these girls are not selected at random, or in a democratic fashion: they are taken from the most vulnerable population, the families of bondservants and convicted criminals. They are seen as expendable.
And then enters Li Ji.
Li Ji doesn't want t be a hero. She doesn't volunteer to save other women as much as she, in a very Katniss Everdeen moment, offers herself as a sacrifice to help her family. She is a sixth girl in a family of no boys, and in the cultural and social context of this story she is simply one more mouth to feed. She says this to her parents, asking them to allow her to at least help them by selling herself as a sacrifice. The parents, however, refuse. While her reasoning makes a kind of sense, they choose love over practicality; they value and love Li Ji for who she is. In the end, she sneaks away without their permission.
She has a plan, though: she asks for a weapon and a dog, things she'll need to fight. She knows what she needs and she voices that need. She prepares the rice cakes to distract the serpent, and when her moment of opportunity comes, she does not hesitate. Li Ji is not a victim who throws herself to the monster; she set out with a plan to survive and triumph. In many traditional stories, dogs represent intuition; Li Ji trusts her instincts, and takes advantage of them in the fight.
The closing scene of the story is also interesting. When Li Ji defeats the monster, she collects the skulls of the nine previous victims. She says a sentence over them that can be interpreted in various ways (see below), but the fact remains that the previous victims are acknowledged, and the audience is reminded how many of them perished before Li Ji came along to win. Remembering the victims of cruelty, abuse, and painful customs is an integral part of ending the cycle.

Things to consider

I read various English translations of the sentence Li Ji says over the skulls, and I even got help from a friend in looking at the Chinese original. Essentially, Li Ji says something like "You were weak, devoured by the serpent. How miserable." In other versions she says "For your timidity, you were devoured. How pitiful!", or "Because you were timid, the serpent ate you, poor things!" or "Because you were afraid to fight, you quietly lost your lives. How sad!"
It is hard to tell if Li Ji means these words as words of sorrow for the lost girls, or as some kind of a moral about putting up a fight. Modern audiences can take this two ways: either as respectful commemoration (see above), or a message about not giving up. The latter might brush too close to victim blaming, so it is important for a storyteller to be aware of their phrasing.
(Let's also note that we are talking about twelve-thirteen year old girls, who could not reasonably be expected to have three years of serpent-fighting experience for an entry level sacrifice.)

Sources

This story is a part of the Shoushen Ji (In search of the Supernatural) collection by Gan Bao, from the 4th century AD. Very bad English translation hereChinese original here.

Hua Long: The Moon Maiden and Other Asian Folktales (China Books, 1993.)
Jane Yolen: Not one damsel in distress (Houghton Mifflin Hacourt, 2018.)
Moss Roberts: Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies (Pantheon Books, 1979.) http://chinatourplanner.freechinalink.com/chinese-legends-the-serpent-sacrifice.html

Notes

Li Ji was featured in Rejected Princessesyou can find the entry here. I personally find it unfortunate that the artist drew a Chinese dragon for the picture, though, since no text ever calls this serpent a dragon. Chinese dragons are a whole different creature.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A country without tales (Following folktales around the world 142. - Burundi)

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!


African myths of origin
Stephen Belcher
Penguin Books Ltd., 2005.

Obviously, Burundi has folktales too. Every country does. But this is a first in the series' history: a country where I could find a single folktale from! As far as I know, where is a French collection, but I could not get my hands on it, and there also might be one in German I couldn't locate. Instead, I found one origin myth from the Kingdom of Burundi in the book above.
It told the story of how the legendary Ntare Rushatsi became king of Burundi. It started with his grandfather, who took the throne from a Hutu king with trickery. It was a complex story with a complex family tree. I liked the part where the future king was rescued from a jealous uncle by her aunt, who used various magic spells to keep him safe.

Where to next?
Rwanda!

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Basil Maiden (Feminist Folktales 6.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Puerto Rico

The story

A poor man (or woman) has three daughters who go out into the garden to water the basil plants every day. They are noticed by the king who loves riddles, and he calls in over the fence, asking how many leaves are on the plants. The two elder sisters blush and flee, but the youngest respond without batting an eye, asking him how many stars are in the sky (or grains of sand on the beach, fish in the sea, etc.). The king takes a liking to her, and a prank war ensues. He disguises himself as a candy seller, and gives her candy in exchange for kisses. In revenge, when the king gets sick the girl disguises herself as Death and shows up at this door. The king begs for his life, and she says if he kisses the ass of her donkey / pig / dog, he'll get as many years as kisses. The king plants several kisses on the animal, which she reminds him of the next day. The king admits he's been outwitted, and marries the clever girl.
(In some variants there are other scenes after this, such as the "come to me walking but not walking, dressed but not dressed" story, or the part where they have a fight and the queen is sent away with "take whatever is dearest to your heart".)

What makes it a feminist folktale?

I love two things about this story: One, that it has a sassy, clever, confident heroine, and the other, that she is matched equally by the king. In similar tale types it is very common that a king, humiliated in a battle of wits, tries to get the girl killed or maimed. Sadly, this is also common in real life, where men respond to teasing or defeat (or a simple "no") with aggression and violence. Quoting Margaret Atwood here:


Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.
Women are afraid men will kill them.

In this story, however, the opposite happens. This is playful flirting between two equal, and equally interested parties, and when the girl executes an awesome prank, the king gleefully admits that he can't defeat her, and falls in love with her for her humor and wits. A man who is capable of laughing at himself, and graciously accepting defeat by a woman, is an important role model to the next generations.
This story is also about sexuality, in a symbolic way. The girls are locked into their house under strict parental supervision (sometimes even underground). Basil planted in the window or garden is a traditional symbol of sexual maturity. The girls are beginning to look over the fence, but while the two elders are still too shy and not ready to engage, the youngest girl starts to flirt with the king with ease and confidence. This is continued in the kissing scene (see below), in which she gives kisses to the handsome, disguised king, and receives sweets in return. Her sisters are scandalized, but she enjoys the exchange and does not worry about it one bit. The Basil Maiden is comfortable with her own sexuality, takes enjoyment in it, and she is not prudish or ashamed by this. She has fun with the banter, the flirting, and the exchange of pranks. She is having fun, being herself, she knows what she wants, and the king is an equal, accepting partner in this. Humor can be a wonderful part of a healthy relationship.

Things worth considering

Some parents might be concerned about the "giving a stranger kisses for candy" part of this story, because of its similarity to real life safety issues. This is probably not a problem with adult audiences, but if you are not comfortable with it for whatever reason, the good news is, this tale type has many variants where the pranks are different. One of my favorites is Violetta from the Pentamerone (read here), where the prince makes her believe she has fleas, and asks her how many fleas she has.

Sources

This tale belongs to the type ATU 879 (Basil Maiden). Interestingly enough it is almost nonexistent in northern Europe, but it is wildly popular around the Mediterranean, and in Hispanic traditions. Read Turandot's Sisters for more information on its significance.

William Bernard McCarthy: Cinderella in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007.)
John Bierhorst: Latin American Folktales (Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2007.)
Rafael Ramírez de Arellano: Folklore portorriqueño (Avila, 1926.)
Giuseppe Pitré: Catarina the Wise (University of Chicago Press, 2017.)
Wayland Debs Hand: Hispanic folktales from New Mexico (University of California Press, 1977.)
Rodolfo Lenz: Cuentos de adivinanzas corrientes en Chile (Imprenta Universitaria, 1912.)

Notes

In Spanish death, la muerte, is feminine, which is why it makes sense for her to dress up as Death. In other versions, however, she dresses up as Saint Anthony.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Incredible transformations (Following folktales around the world 141. - Tanzania)

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!

Folk tales from Buhaya
R. A. Mwombeki & G. B. Kamanzi
Institute of Kiswahili Research, 1999.

This book contains 64 tales from the Haya people, from the Kagera region of Tanzania. The authors created this collection to preserve the quickly disappearing oral tradition, recording the stories in Swahili and in English for the younger generations (the book is in English). At the end of every story they note the morals, which are often strange to European readers, but they reveal a lot about the cultural values represented in the tales. The book is a crowded read, peppered with typos, but it contains a whole lot of amazing stories. It definitely became one of my favorite folktale collections from Africa.

Highlights

The best tale in the book was about A woman who sought her husband's favours. To win back his love she turned to a magician, who used medicine on her and made her stand on an anthill. When she walked off, she turned into a lioness - when she returned to the hill, she was human again. She eventually managed to get a message to her family, and they came to see her sitting naked on the anthill, but since they couldn't help, they gave her up for dead. She lived as a lioness for a long time, only occasionally returning to the hill to "remind herself she was human"; living as a lion made her stronger and younger. Eventually she found the magician - who turned out to be a slave, forced by his master to test the medicine on her. They made a plan, killed the master, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.
The story of The prince who changed into a woman was also fascinating. He was castrated for seducing one of his father's wives, and chased into the wilderness in woman's clothes. He eventually married another prince, revealing the secret on their wedding night, but the prince didn't mind at all. Eventually when the royal family got suspicious, an old nurse helped change her into a female body.
The story of Ak'omu-Bukuma was eerie but clever. A man had a daughter with a leopard, and she sometimes changed into a leopard for fun, scaring everyone. When she got married, she promised not to do it again, but her father-in-law insisted on seeing the transformation. She found a clever way to show him, and then make everyone believe he was out of his mind, instead of revealing her secret. In another story a leopard stole a boy, but the women of the village stole him back with a clever trick.

I was fascinated by the story of The king's son who conquered Rwangoigo mountain. It was the story of an exploration, where the tenth son of a king set out with his dogs, wandered around the mountains, and reached a distant kingdom where he found a new home. Another long and exciting travel tale was that of The fisherman and his kite, in which the bird carried the man to faraway kingdoms, where he could grow rich and powerful by knowing about foods and crafts the locals were not familiar with. The first time he lost his wealth because he was ungrateful to the kite, but the second time around he became a powerful king, and broke the curse that turned a prince into the kite.
The story of Mbiliizi, the calabash child was also along, complex dynastic tale filled with divorce, remarriage, infertility, love, and tragedies. I loved the moment where the hero was helped by his mother in eloping with a woman whose husband was about to kill her. But among all the long and complicated tales, the best one was The wood of enticers, with a poor man turned into a king, a queen turned into a monkey than human then a monkey again, a murdered ruler, a monkey child, and all kinds of scheming and double-crossing. In the end, the "evil" monkey queen got to live happily ever after.
I liked the tale about How Hare got a wife for his son. First, he won the bride by winning a challenge of not scratching himself in a cloud of mosquitoes (he just "pointed" at places, talking about how he had a spotted cow at home). Then he sent out his son for the bride, telling him to be kind to everyone; it was a "Queen Bee" type tale from there, with helpful mosquitoes, termites, and birds.
The story of Ishe Migani, king of the monkeys, had a rather sad ending. He was lured into a trap by a human king, being told that he was offered a high ranking position at court. When his people dispersed, working on roads and building projects, the humans hunted them down one by one. The story is told in verse, in the first person, by the monkey king himself.
The story of The children trapped under a tree was more of a legend, and a very interesting one. A falling tree trapped a bunch of kids and their animals in an underground hollow, where they lived for seven years. By the time a woodcutter found them, some of them had kids of their own, and a great number of animals; they returned home happy, but with their skin changed because of the lack of light.

Connections

There was a Cinderella variant where the girl fled from her evil stepmother on a flying tree. It was interesting that her father divorced her mother, and later the stepmother too, but when the girl, as queen, returned to visit her family, she convinced him to re-marry both women. I also encountered the international folktale type about the king who ordered old people (anyone over 35) to be executed... until he got into trouble, and only the wisdom of an old man could save him. (One more year and I'll be wise too!)
There was a nice variant for the ungrateful animal story type; here a leopard was rescued by a man from a trap, and wanted to eat him. All domestic animals said the leopard was right, but the dog helped him lure the leopard back into the trap - and he became man's new best friend. There was also a Clever Maiden tale, with a girl answering a king's tricky questions.
The story of Kajunju the giant reminded me of other tales from Africa where the father left his family out of greed in times of famine. The mother and her children ended up in a giant's house, managed to kill him, and got rich from his treasures (I read a similar story from Swaziland). There was also yet another story about a girl who married into the spirit world - in this case, she wanted a husband who could spit gemstones, and ended up being kidnapped by ogres in disguise. She was rescued (along with her friends) by an old woman half-eaten by the ogres, who did not only carry the girls home in a basket on her head, but also left a magic bomb behind that killed the ogres.
The resident trickster was Nyakami, the Hare. He used his wits to get rid of the evil hyena and lion, found a way to kill an evil elephant king (after all other creative assassination attempts failed), and made Hippo and Bison play tug-o-war. However, he also had some pretty bad stories (rape, torture, murder, etc.), which made it hard to particularly like this character.

Where to next?
Burundi!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Don't stop believing, just keep swimming: Folktales for dark times

2020 is off to a globally crap start. Fire, epidemic, climate crisis, fascism on continued rise, general seasonal depression, pick your favorites. Panicking is not a good reaction, but neither is the opposite. As a storyteller, I am often asked what stories one can tell to give a glimmer of hope, to inspire kids and adults to try and make a difference. Since dear friend Laura Packer asked again recently, I made a list of some of my favorite tales for the occasion.


Here is your Storytelling Global Crisis starter kit:
(Sources in the links)

The Tale of the Sun (Saami)
In a land plunged into eternal darkness a young boy inspires people to try to rebel against the shadows and bring back the light together.

Journey to the Sun (China)
When the Sun is stolen by a demon king a young man sets out to find it in the depths of a distant ocean. He is helped along the way by communities who clothe him and feed him, and braves frozen rivers and man-eating demons.

The shy quilt bird (Burma)
When a terrible water serpent threatens Lion's kingdom, Lion, with the help of his friends and advisers, comes up with a plan that needs everyone to succeed. (Kinda like in Bug's Life).

How the women saved Guam (Guam)
When people anger the spirits of nature and a giant fish starts eating their island, men fail to fight the enemy with force, but women come up with a way to work together and set a trap.

The Black Kitty (USA)
In this story the hero saves a cursed black kitten by holding on to her for three nights through all kinds of horrors, telling her everything will be okay.

Mouse Deer and the Owl (Indonesia)
Mouse Deer has to protect Owl and her nest from humans for ten days, until they are strong enough to flee. Mouse Deer is pissed and tired and not sure he can do this, but tries anyway.

The brave little parrot (Jataka)
Rafe Martin's retelling of this Jataka tale inspires you to keep doing the tiny things you can, even when all seems lost.

The magic garden (Kazakhstan)
The birds help a kind-hearted boy plant a magic garden for anyone who is in need; when the khan tries to claim it for himself, the garden protects itself.

The flying lion (South Africa)
The terrifying flying lion seems undefeatable, but Bullfrog discovers it can be slowly weakened by breaking the leftover bones of his victims one by one.

The serpent and the golden bird (Nakhi)
When the world is terrorized by a great evil serpent four women - Thinker, Doer, Seer, and Wisdom - get together and make a plan to get rid of it once and for all.

Aoxingbe (Oroqen)
In this story the hero, trapped in the underworld, carries 9999 buckets of water up 9999 steps to free a dragon that can restore him to the world of light.

Ice lanterns (Manchu)
In order to defeat a terrible monster people have to warm magic stones between their hands, passing them on to each other until they gain enough light to shine brightly and blind the monster.

More story suggestions are welcome in the comments!