Thursday, January 23, 2020

The ring that said "I'm here" (Feminist Folktales 4.)

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: Spain (Asturias)

The story

A girl goes to collect firewood, but gets lost in the forest. Looking for shelter after dark she ends up at the cottage of a one-eyed giant. The giant locks her in his house and orders her to cook dinner or she'll be cooked herself. He also orders her to bring the meal to his bed. The girl makes a plan; she waits for the giant to fall asleep, then blinds him with a fire poker, puts on a sheep skin, opens the sheep corral adjacent to the house, and when the blind giant is letting his sheep out one by one, she sneaks out.
However, when the giant realizes she's outside, he starts complimenting her with sweet words, and throws a golden ring to her as a gift. She is suspicious at first, but he convinces her to put on the ring. The moment she does, the ring starts yelling "I'm here!", and she can't take it off. Eventually, pursued by the raging giant, she cuts off her own finger, and tosses it into the river. The giant jumps after it and drowns.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

This story is an excellent example of how different the same tale type can be depending on how it is embellished. The basic story, I assume, is familiar to everyone: It's Odysseus and the Cyclops, or, according to the folktale type index, ATU 1137, The Blinded Ogre. It is a common tale type around the world, from Finland to Chile, from America to the Caucasus, but this is the only version I have read so far that has a female hero. And the moment the hero's gender is changed, the story gathers a fundamentally different meaning.
(I have to repeat here that I'm not a psychologist or a story therapist, I'm just musing about what this story means to me. Stories mean different things to different people, which is only natural.)


I could just state that this story falls into the "feminist" category because it has a brave, clever heroine who rescues herself from a monster. That is plenty in itself to make the story likable. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to notice things that resonate with some women's real life experiences.
See if you feel the same: A girl, lost and alone, seeks shelter from the dark. But then it turns out that the man giving her shelter is aggressive, abusive, and dangerous. He takes her freedom away first (only he knows the password for the door), then demands household labor and obedience from her, threatening to kill her if she doesn't comply. The girl eventually gathers her strength and courage, takes up arms, fights for her freedom, and manages to find her way out of the situation, and back into the light. However, when she seems to have gotten away, the giant changes tactics. He compliments her, uses sweet words, and even offers a gift in the form of a brilliant ring. She is suspicious at first, tries to get away, but his kind demeanor breaks her defenses, and she puts on the ring. The ring becomes a shackle, yelling loudly for the giant to find it - as long as she is wearing it, there is no escape from him. She only has one chance left: she cuts off her own finger to her away.
If you ask me, this tale is the story of getting out of an abusive relationship. The loss of freedom, the fear, the hard-earned escape are not the end of the story: then comes the sudden change, manipulation, feigned kindness, and the ring that binds the girl. The ring is an especially powerful image here: society ingrains in all of us the idea that id you want to "keep someone," "secure someone", or "don't want someone to leave," you have to put a ring on them, and fast. This is the favorite last resort of sinking relationships where people would do anything to keep a partner around.

Put a ring on it.

I see this story is a feminist tale because it is about a girl who successfully rescues herself from an abusive situation. But not without a cost. This is a hard and heroic deed on her part. She literally cuts the giant off - with a drastic and final move to severe the thing that bound them together. This is not a polite, diplomatic, gradual separation. It is a complete cutoff. Sometimes this is the only way to get rid of monsters.

Things to consider

I have to add to the metaphor above that the girl in the story is not in a romantic relationship with the giant, merely sheltering at his house. Similarly, in the real world abusive relationships don't only exist between romantic partners.
At the end of the tale the girl keeps the giant's sheep, and becomes wealthy. I feel like it's really important to highlight that she has her happy ending, and a full life. As a storyteller, I'd definitely elaborate this part.
It is also important to think about what makes her pick up the ring; it would be a serious mistake to blame it on her being "stupid" or "naive."

Sources

Constantino Cabal: Los cuentos tradicionales asturianos (Voluntad, Madrid, 1900.)
José María Guelbenzu: Cuentos populares españoles (Siruela, 2011.)

Notes

Before the Greek choir pipes up: I'm not saying marriage is a mistake in general. Only the marriages between people who hurt each other.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Pearls from India (Following folktales around the world 139. - Mauritius)

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 of Mauritius
Pahlad Ramsurrun
Sterling Publishing, 1982.

The book contains nineteen folktales from the island of Mauritius. They are prefaced by a short introduction that makes some stunningly wrong statements, such as that black people didn't have their own folktales because their memory is bad (?!), and they only repeated stories from other colonizers (?!). On the other hand, the author praises Indian storytelling and storytellers. All nineteen stories are from the Bhojpuri tradition (Mauritius has always had a mixed population, since it did not have indigenous inhabitants before the Portuguese showed up). Despite the awful introduction, the tales themselves were enjoyable and interesting, and had lots of mixed African and European motifs.

Highlights


I liked the legend adjacent to the Ramayana that explained the birth of the island. The evil sorcerer Mareech, who assisted in the abduction of Sita, was killed by Rama, but before his death he begged to be able to hear his name forever.His body turned into pearls, which Rama cast into the ocean, where they turned into islands. Later on when the first Indian settlers arrived to Mauritius (Mareech's island), they told legends of Rama, and thus his name is still heard there today.
The story of The guru and his apprentice was full of unexpected turns. The two protagonists ended up in a kingdom where a king did justice all wrong. A bunch of thieves wanted to rob an old woman, but the wall of her hut collapsed and killed one of them. They then complained to the king, asking for her to be punished, and the old woman blamed the builder of the house. The king ordered the builder executed, but since he was too skinny for the noose, they found a fatter person randomly instead to be hanged. Eventually the guru and the apprentice managed to trick the unjust king into killing himself instead.

Connections

There was a devil-husband story that reminded me of the Cajun tale of Marie Jolie, and was elaborated really well. A girl married a rich werewolf, who wanted to devour her, but a fairy in the shape of a rat helped her get away with an egg, a broom, and a sagai leaf. The latter, when thrown behind her, turned into plants that "shredded the wolves like sausages in a Chinese restaurant."
The story of the king's horns was the same as King Midas; here the sandalwood tree told the secret. Sabour's fan was a distant variant of the Italian Canary Prince; here the girl did not only save her injured lover, but also tested him to see if he would marry anyone else. I was reminded of Bantu stories by The miracle of the colophane tree - a king sent animals to ask a wise person how a dry lake could be refilled, but all of them forgot the answer on the way back. Eventually Tortoise made the trip successfully, and told the king all colophane trees had to be cut down for the lake to refill. The story was supposed to explain why these trees are rare on Mauritius.
The resident trickster is Hare, who played some very nasty tricks on other animals until he was tricked in return. He muddied the king's bathing pond in a story I have already read from Zimbabwe, until Tortoise caught him by covering her shell in tar. In a few stories Monkey was also a trickster, and usually was punished for it.

Where to next?
Madagascar!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

StorySpotting: Fishing for genies (The Witcher)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!



Where was the story spotted?

The Witcher, season 1, episode 5 (Bottled Appetites)

What happens?

Geralt goes fishing for a genie, because he can't sleep and wants three wishes. After casting a net into a pond many times and coming up empty, he finally pulls up a clay jar, stopped with a seal. The jar breaks, the genie goes free, and Geralt gets three wishes, which gets him into a world of trouble before the creature is finally away.

What's the story?

I'm not going to go into djinn lore here, because it is vast and elaborate (and awesome). Instead, let's just focus on the "fishing a djinn bottle out of a lake" part here. This is a well-known folktale type, ATU 331 - The Spirit in the Bottle.

The most popular version of the story comes from the 1001 Nights, right from the beginning, from nights 4-9, titled The Fisherman and the Jinni. It features a fisherman who casts his net out 4 times, and at the fourth try catches a copper jar stopped with Solomon's seal. He opens it, and out pops an ifrit. This one, however, is o-v-e-r granting wishes to humans; during the centuries he spent bottled up, he'd sworn to kill anyone who freed him, so he tells the fisherman to prepare to die. The fisherman tricks him back into the bottle with what is one of the oldest tricks in the book: he pretends to doubt that such a large creature can fit into such a small bottle. Once the genie is back in the bottle, the fisherman puts the seal back on. Eventually they come to a compromise, and a whole other new story begins when the genie is freed again, and the fisherman grows rich.

This story exists in many cultures with little variation; sometimes the spirit is freed, and sometimes it is thrown back in the water. There are some versions collected by the Grimms, and other ranging from Finland to Sri Lanka.

But how did the genie get into the bottle in the first place? Another favorite tale of mine from the 1001 Nights, The City of Brass, explains the phenomenon in a way that warms my little archaeologist heart. The story claims that when King Solomon ruled over the people and animals, God granted him power over the djinn. He used his power to imprison them in brass jars, pouring lead over the opening and closing it with his seal before he cast the bottles into the sea. Many years later, travelers ended up on the coasts of Africa where they saw fishermen pull brass jars out of the water in their nets, break them open, and release djinn who flew away yelling "repentance!" Apparently, it was a common occurrence. The whole legend of the expedition to find the City of Brass kicks off with the sultan sending people to find him some of these magic bottles.

Conclusion

Apparently these bottled djinn are a lot less eager to grant wishes as the one in The Witcher. For a moment in the beginning of the episode I thought they were going to stick to the story when Jaskier started dying, but then they did the wishes anyway.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Pablo and the Princess (Feminist Folktales 3.)

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: Philippines

The story


Three friends - Pedro, Juan, and Pablo - set out to seek their fortune. They decide to go their separate ways at the crossroads, and meet again in one year's time. Independently from each other, each of them meets an old man who gives them a magic item in exchange for sharing their food. Pedro receives a flying carpet, Juan an all-knowing book, and Pablo an ivory tube that can heal anyone if he blows into their nose with it.
When they meet again at the crossroads, the three friends discover from the book that the princess of a faraway land is dying. They fly there on the carpet, and Pablo heals her with the ivory tube. The king, however, is baffled: he doesn't know which man he should give his daughter to (he previously promised to give her hand in marriage to the one that saves her). He comes up with a new test: the three men have to shoot arrows at a banana flower, symbolizing the princess' heart. Pedro and Juan hit the flower right in the center, but Pablo refuses to compete: he doesn't want to cause harm to the princess, not even symbolically. With this caring attitude, he wins the contest, and the princess happily marries him.

What makes it a feminist folktale?


Bat pollinating a banana flower, from here
This tale has many solutions in many different cultures, ranging from definitely feminist ("let her make up her own mind") to kinda horrible (where the suitors give her as a wife to their father, because he is older). I like this version especially because the question is not decided by strength or dexterity, or even by "usefulness." Pablo wins the princess with his empathy. The king knows exactly what he is doing when he sets up a banana flower as a target. It is heart-shaped and dark red, very much reminiscent of an actual human heart. Pedro and Juan shoot at it without care or consideration, eager to prove that they are better than the other two. It is more important to them to prove their own worth than to think about the deeper meaning of the task.
Pablo is the only one who sees the symbolic message behind the practical, and he resists the competitive instinct to stop and consider the best course of action. He does not want to hurt the princess, not even symbolically. This is a lovely counterpoint to all the cases where people are blind to non-physical abuse. The two other suitors immediately shoot the "heart" of the woman they claim to be in love with, to prove a point about their manliness. Pablo takes the risk of losing by not participating at all, and puts the princess' comfort above his own need for approval. This is the kind of respectful, empathetic attitude that allows the other person the freedom to make her own choice, letting her know what her safety is more important than winning.

I also like the fact that this version of the story gives a separate, new task to the suitors instead of trying to decide which one of them was the most "useful" in saving the princess (a lot of variants declare the healer to be the winner by default). This is a good reminder that you can't win someone by doing useful things for them. Despite what writers of romantic movies might think, you can't win a woman by doing X number of favors for her until you collect enough points to exchange for a date. Just because you save someone from a bad situation, they are not obligated to marry you as a thank you. Pablo, by declining to participate in the contest, proves himself to be the most mature of the suitors - and also that he is capable of not only love, but also respect and caring, allowing the princess to draw her own conclusion.

Things to consider

In the original text it's the king that declares Pablo the winner, explaining why his choice was better. When I tell this story, it's usually the princess herself who does the same (balancing out the fact that she had been promised by her father).
Also, because I like men who read, I usually give Pablo the book instead of the ivory tube. It's not a bad option, since, according to some sources, originally the book was the healing item, and the tube used to be an all-seeing spyglass (see here). This has the added bonus of connecting reading with empathy, which is a proven phenomenon.

Sources

"Narrated by Dolores Zafra, a Tagalog from La Laguna. She heard the story from her father."

Dean S. Fansler: Filipino Popular Tales (American Folk-Lore Society, 1921.)

Notes

The tale belongs to the ATU 653B type (The most wonderful thing in the world). It is originally a dilemma tale - the audience is expected to discuss possible solutions, and come up with a satisfying ending.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Creole tales from the blue ocean (Following folktales around the world 138. - Seychelles)

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!


Stars ​and Keys
Folktales and Creolization in the Indian Ocean
Lee Haring
Indiana University Press, 2007.

This book was written by the same person as the previous one, where I got the Comorean folktales, but this one was more of an academic folklore publication for adult audiences, and not really a story book. The introduction contained the same chronology of the history of Indian Ocean islands. Each story came with notes, comments, and cultural context (usually wedged into the text with a slightly different font, which was very distracting). Most tales were recorded in the early 20th century by various collectors; a lot of them were from Madagascar, including creation myths and pourquoi tales. They were eleven stories from the Seychelles included.

Since the previous book also had five stories from the Seychelles, and I already read them, I included those in this post as well.

Highlights

I was not really captivated by any of the stories, but if I had to pick a highlight I'd choose Kader, which was a "man searching for his luck" type story. This time, our hero set out to ask the Sun why it rises and sets red. On the way he encountered battling rocks, logs, and an eel bridge, and he managed to make his way back across them as well. Then he was sent to fetch the Queen of the Sea for a king, but of course he ended up marrying her instead.


Connections

Ti Zan and the doctor was a classic Magician's Apprentice story; there was also a Blacksmith and the Devil type tale where the protagonist, who got stuck in the mortal realm after cheating death one too many times, was Poverty. 
The resident trickster is Brer Soungoula, who is described as "some kind of monkey", although he also tricks monkeys sometimes. In one story he ate all Tiger's children and then blamed Monkey for it; in another he tried to steal water from a communal well, and was caught by the usual tar baby trick. He made Elephant and Whale do a tug-o-war, and made Wolf believe the mountain was going to fall if he did not hold it up (using the movement of clouds to prove the illusion). He swam a race with Turtle, and won once because he hitched a ride on his back - but on the second run, Turtle decided to dive for some food, and poor trickster was drowned.

Where to next?
Mauritius!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

StorySpotting: The grateful alien (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!


(Image from Mark Hamill's Twitter which is a gift to the galaxy)

The Rise of Skywalker is out, and I'm not a happy camper. It's like someone chopped up a good Star Wars movie, and tossed bits and pieces of it into a blender with a whole bunch of really bad decisions, cop-outs and shredded metaphors.
But anyway, I fished out some folklore references.

Where was the story spotted?

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

What happens?

Our team of rebel scum lands on a desert planet, and gets promptly sucked into quicksand. Falling through the sand they end up in an underground tunnel system, which leads them straight into the Dune franchise. Here they encounter a sand worm that first tries to eat them, but Rey notices in time that it has been injured (by what?!), and Force-heals it. The snake is so grateful for the healing that it shows the team the way out of the tunnels.
(Apparently this scene had two uses: one, it linked the movies to The Mandalorian, where they introduced Force-healing a couple of weeks ago, and two, it set up the fact that Rey can do this, which became stupidly important in the movie later on.)


What's the story?

A hero healing an animal that does them a good turn in exchange is one of the oldest folktale motifs in the book. And by the book I mean Stith Thompson'd Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. This handy collection of folktale LEGO blocks lists all the moving parts of the narratives of old, sorted by letters (big themes like Magic of Death) and numbers. Grateful Animals range from B350 to B399, actually including way more than 49 motifs because of all the sub-categories. For example, if The Rise of Skywalker was a folktale (they wish), this scene would be categorized under B380 - Animal grateful for relief from pain. These stories can have various different kinds of injuries a person helps an animal with, ranging from thorn in the foot all the way to opening abscesses or acting as a tiger's midwife.

Probably the most famous tale of this type is that of Androkles and the Lion. First recorded in the 2nd century, it tells about a runaway slave who seeks shelter in a cave, and encounters a lion with a thorn in its foot. Androkles pulls the thorn out, and the lion becomes his friend, sharing his prey with the man for years. Eventually Androkles is captured again, and thrown into the arena - but the lion they sic on him turns out to be his old friend, who refuses to hurt the man. The emperor ends up pardoning them both.

In the Sri Lankan folktale of The Glass Princess, a young prince offers himself as a human sacrifice to a cobra guarding a pond. It turns out, however, that the serpent has an ulcer on its head, and agrees not to kill the prince as long as he heals it. After days of treatment, the prince sets out to find the legendary Glass Princess, who has the only real cure for the ulcer. They heal the cobra together, and receive treasure in exchange.

In the Oroqen folktale of Aoxingbe, a hero descends into an underground realm, seeking to rescue a girl and also his father. He kills a monster, but gets stuck in the underworld. Wandering he encounters a man stuck in the side of a mountain; the man is the son of a Black Dragon in human form, asking for help. The only way to free him from the rocks is to water pine trees on top of the mountain, making them crush the rocks with their roots over time. Aoxingbe carries 9999 buckets of water up 9999 steps without a break, and frees the dragon, who in exchange flies him out of the underworld.

Conclusion

Sometimes kindness can be more powerful than violence.
But also, Rey totally should have ridden the sand worm. Poe could have helped her smuggle some spice.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Amaradevi (Feminist Folktales 2.)

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: Cambodia and Sri Lanka

The story

Cambodian version: Princess Amaradevi is courted by four ministers, but she chooses her own husband, a wise and noble man named Mahoseth. The four ministers frame the husband, accusing him of conspiring to assassinate the king. Mahoseth flees into exile. The moment he is gone, the four ministers begin courting Amaradevi, who sees through their plots immediately. She invites them to visit her for four consecutive dates, then has hes servants build a clever trap. When the ministers arrive, they are left alone in a room with a lot of jewelry spilled on the table. The moment they steal a piece, a trap door opens up and they are dropped into a pit filled with sticky substances. Amaradevi reveals the plot to the king, and her husband's name is cleared.

Sri Lankan version: Noble pandit Maha Bosat travels in incognito as a tailor, and encounters a girl on the road. They take a liking to each other, so he gives her a signal, which she interprets well and responds with a signal of her own. They start talking, and Maha Bosat asks her a series of questions, which she answers in riddles. He understands her meaning, and they are mutually impressed by the other's intellect, so they get married. Four other pandits steal jewels from the king's treasury, and frame Maha Bosat for the theft, forcing him into exile. All four of them try to court Amaradevi, who in turn has each one of them caught and bound. She presents evidence to the king to clear her husband's name, and they live happily ever after.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

Amaradevi
(Sharra Frank)
First off, Amaradevi lives in a happy and equal relationship of her own choosing. In the world of folktales, where princesses are often handed out as gifts or marry as a thanks for rescue, it is refreshing to meet a female protagonist who makes sure she chooses a man worthy of her. I especially like the beginning of the Sri Lankan version, which is basically a "Clever maiden and her suitors" type tale (ATU 876), ecept here the suitor understands her hidden meaning, and doesn't have to ask. They know they are meant for each other because they communicate well on multiple levels - words, signals, meanings.
Second, Amaradevi is hella smart. According to the Cambodian version she "had been educated not only in music, painting, and the fine art of poetry, but also in government, law, the sciences, and engineering." (Side note: the Kama Sutra lists mining and carpentry among the skills of a good wife. Mmmm, sexy.) She doesn't only see through the four ministers, but also designs the trap to catch them. This supposes a good deal of practical skill and knowledge, and also empathy in knowing what kind of men they are like, and how they can be trapped by their own weakness.
Third, it is important to mention Amaradevi's good relationship with the other female characters. In the Cambodian version she works together with her most loyal maid to trick the ministers, and they even spring the trap together. In the Sri Lankan version she finds out about the ministers' plot because she stops to chat with the servant girl they sent to her, asks her questions, gets to know her, and accidentally finds out. This story lacks all kinds of female jealousy and competition, which is very refreshing, because, frankly, female friendships are so rare in folklore they are almost nonexistent.

Real Cambodian Princess
Norodom Buppha Devi
Fourth, on the topic of jealousy and competition: this story has a very important message about the difference between healthy and toxic masculinity. The four ministers think that in order to get Amaradevi, all they need to do is get rid of her husband. Raise your hand if you are a woman, and you have used "I have a boyfriend" as a way of getting rid of a creep before, just to be told "but he is not here, is he?" (for higher level douchery: "and I have a girlfriend, so what?"). Here we have a smart, educated, confident princess, who chose her own husband, and the four idiots still think that if they get rid of him, she will just fall into their lap. This is textbook toxic masculinity: "there is clearly nothing wrong with me, so she would clearly be dating me if she wasn't with that guy" (or if there is no that guy, then it's clearly her fault for being a ****, and this is when things usually get violent). Unlike Mahoseth, the four ministers do not see Amaradevi as an independent, equal partner, but rather as an object that can be obtained once her "owner" is out of the way. They can't even imagine her making her own decision. This rhymes well with the fact that they can also not keep their hands off the unguarded jewelry. This is why Mahoseth ends up on the throne, and the ministers end up in the cesspit.

Things to consider

In the Sri Lankan version Maha Bosath puts Amaradevi through various tests - among them, he sends two men with a pile of money to try to seduce her, to "test her faithfulness." While it has its symbolic meaning in a traditional story (to make it explicit that Amaradevi is loyal in her relationship), testing one's faithfulness by tricks in real life is manipulative, and honestly I think the story works without it just fine.

Sources

The Cambodian version comes from the Gatiloke, a Buddhist teaching tale tradition written down in the 19th century. The Sri Lankan version is from the Ummagga Jataka, a 14th century Sinhalese collection of Jataka tales; Maha Bosat is one of the earlier avatars of the Buddha.

Kathleen Ragan: Fearless girls, wise women, and beloved sisters (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.)
Muriel Paskin Carrison: Cambodian folk stories from the Gatiloke (Tuttle Publishing, 2011.)
Suzee Leong: Asian folk tales and legends (MPH Group Publishing, 2015.)
T. B. Yatawara: Ummagga Jataka (Luzac & Co. 1898.)
https://www.storiestogrowby.org/story/princess-amaradevi/

Notes

Amara means 'eternal' or 'immortal', and Devi means 'goddess.' Even in her name, Amaradevi is special.