Monday, May 20, 2019

Folktales about climate change

While "cimate change" as a scientific term is too recent to feature into traditional stories, make no mistake: People have been telling legends, myths, and folktales about our fragile relationship with Nature for many centuries. Since it is a very timely topic, here are some of my favorite examples of traditional tales with messages for the future:

The Lady of Stavoren
(Read versions here, here, or here.)

A legend from the Netherlands, with written versions dating back to the 16th century. A wealthy merchant lady orders a ship's captain to bring her the greatest treasure in the world. The captain goes on a long voyage, and after searching all over the world (and probably some introspection), he returns with a ship full of wheat, claiming that there is no greater treasure in the world than food. The lady grows angry, and, despite the begging of the poor of the city, orders him to dump the entire cargo into the harbor. The captain does so, and then leaves. The wheat, however, causes a sand bank to form, blocks the entrance, and trade coming into the city. The lady loses her fortune, becomes a beggar, and eventually, rising waters destroy the city itself.

How the Women Saved Guam
(Read versions here, here, here, or here.)

Chamorro legend from Guam. People anger the spirits of nature by taking from land and sea, and not giving anything back. First comes draught, and then famine, and then a giant parrot fish that keeps taking bites out of the island. Men set out but fail to trap it in their nets. Eventually, women discover where the fish is hiding in a cave under the island. They get together, weave a stronger net from their own hair, put their own strength and determination into it, and catch the fish with collective effort.


Sedna
(Read about her here, here, here, or here.)

Sedna, also known by several other names, is the Mother of the Sea in Inuit mythology. When the ocean is polluted, when people commit too many sins or dirty the waters with too many abominations, the animals of the sea get tangled in Sedna's dirty hair, water rushes into her house instead of out of is, and there is no food for the hunters to be found. At times like this, a shaman has to descend into Sedna's realm, patiently comb and untangle her hair (she can't do it herself since she has no fingers), and release the animals trapped in it. In some legends, he has to make a promise to treat the Sea with respect, and not kill more animals than people are allowed.

King Erysichthon
(Read here.)

The King of Thessaly angers the goddess Demeter by cutting down her sacred trees. The nymphs responsible for the trees run to the goddess, and she orders Famine to enter the king's stomach. Erysichthon is cursed by horrible hunger, and he devours everything, until people flee from his palace, and he is left with only one person - his daughter. He sells her for food, but she escapes (thanks to her shapeshifting abilities)... so he sells her again and again. But even so, there is less and less food to be found, and he eventually devours himself.

Saint Peter and the Frogs
(Read about the collection here.)

Macedonian folktale, originally titled Saint Peter and the Poor Man. Peter encounters a poor beggar who complains about winter, and how the cold weather is miserable for the poor. Peter asks God to make sure it is always summer. God warns him it is a bad idea, but Peter insists. God creates eternal summer, and in the warm weather, Nature goes wild - amphibians proliferate, and soon the entire world is covered in frogs. Frogs grow bigger and more intelligent over time, and Peter eventually admits that his idea was bad - when one of the frogs wants to marry his daughter. God sends a hailstorm, and all frogs freeze. Seasons return.


Encante
(Read about it here.)

There are many legends from the Amazonas basin about the boto, the pink river dolphin. Some of them tell about fishermen who wound a dolphin for sport or for entertainment. Dolphins drag the fisherman underwater, and take him to the Encante, the Enchanted City, where dolphins appear as humans. They show him the harm he has done, and make him tend to the wounded dolphins in a hospital until they are healed. The fisherman is released back to the land with a warning to treat the dolphins with the same respect as people.

The Revolt of the Utensils
(Read here, here, or here.)

A Moche myth, mostly reconsturcted from vase and wall paintings, and some Mayan parallels. From what researchers can piece together, it deals with an upside-down, apocalyptic time (either in the past, in the future, or happening periodically), when man-made objects and domesticated animals revolt against humans, allegedly for being mistreated, or being thrown away. Led by the goddess of Moon or Night (?), and they subdue, enslave, and/or kill humans in revenge.


Drop of Honey
(Read here, here, or here.)

A king drips some honey on the ground while eating, and refuses to have it cleaned up, claiming that it is "not his problem." The honey attracts a fly, which attracts a lizard, which attracts a cat, which attracts a dog, and the chain of events escalates from there to all-out civil war, until the palace burns down around him. The king has to finally admit - too late - that the drop of honey might have been his problem after all.


*Note: Not all of the stories above are foktales, some of them are myths or folk legends. I just wanted to make the title simpler than "traditional narratives." 

Tricksters and oceans (Following folktales around the world 107. - Cape Verde)

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-lore from the Cape Verde Islands
Elsie Clews Parsons
American Folk-Lore Society, 1923.

Elsie Clews Parsons was a very prolific collector; I read a lot of her books for the Caribbean countries. The 133 folktales in this book were collected by her from Cape Verde immigrants settled in the US. At the beginning of the 20th century, they formed closed communities, often separated by island even in their new home. Parsons collected the tales with the help of a Cape Verde interpreter, who first translated them to standard Portuguese, and then to English. Storytelling was a community event that Parsons participated in. She recorded variants for most of the stories, and each one comes with abundant footnotes and comments, pointing out the variations in plot and motif.

Highlights

One of my favorite stories in the book was the tale of The girl who would dance. I liked it for its symbolism: A girl was chased away from home because she wanted to dance all the time and do nothing else. She allowed a seven-headed dragon into her new home, who kidnapped her. She sang a desperate song, asking for help from her parents, godparents, and friends, but everyone told her to give in, this was the fate of women. Eventually, her olderst friend rescued her when she asked, and she ended up sharing his house, living together "as brother and sister." Another favorite was The magic ship and the three temptresses. In this one, the middle son (!) was the hero; he was also mute, and communicated with everyone in writing. He set out for Australia on a ship, got into a naval battle with a mysterious vessel that surfaced from below the ocean, traveled to the underwater realm, found a wife, lost her, rescued her again, and even got his voice back.
Among the many trickster tales in the book, I enjoyed the one about Uncle Caramba, and how he made a transatlantic trip by tricking people into thinking he was an excellent sailor, champion swimmer, and fortune-teller - while he didn't actually do any work. 
Good Maria and Bad Maria was a fascinating variant of the Kind and Unkind Girls tale type. Here, Good Maria was rewarded with the power that "her smile summoned clouds, and her laughter brought rain", while Bad Maria was punished so that "her smile summoned wind, her laughter brought a storm." I'm not sure which one is better or worse.
One of the most amusing stories in the book was that of The things that talked - namely, a fig tree, a dog, and a stick, effectively freaking out some humans just for fun.

Connections

Parsons points out in the introduction that the Cape Verde folktale repertoire mostly features internationally known tale types, and many of them are familiar to the European reader. The book features many classics such as Ali Baba (and the Seven robbers), the Seven Kids (although there were only three of them, and an ant saved them from the wolf's belly), Three kidnapped princesses (here rescued by a hero raised by a donkey), Treasures of the giant (Frigajonsi), Extraordinary helpers (three of them, who rescued a girl who married a serpent), Three gifts (with a mirror that showed the past, very useful), Magic Flight (several variants), Fish lover (last time I encountered this was in the Caribbean), Brementown musicians, Fortunatus (who killed off the whole royal family in the end), King's hares (the very adult version), Golden-haired hardener (raised by a shark), Dancing princesses (rejected by the hero, but one of the tales actually listed all the dances!), Man in search of his luck (or rather, a woman, visiting the Mother of the Sun), and Magician's Apprentice.
Of course this book did not lack animals running a race - one variant featured a mollusk and a dolphin, while another had turtle and gazelle.
The resident tricksters were Wolf and his Nephew - Wolf was usually tricked by his clever nephew, although in some cases he was the smart one. A human trickster (and liar) named Little John also appeared in multiple stories. There were many classic trickster tale types, such as the Tar Baby, and the one where Rabbit got Elephant and Whale (or Elephant and Wolf) to play tug-o-war.

Where to next?
Senegal!

Saturday, May 18, 2019

StorySpotting: The Lady and the Tiger (Riverdale)

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!



(Let's be real, people, Riverdale is not a good show, but it's kind of perfect for background noise when you are working on a crafting project. Or is it just me?)

Where was the story spotted?

Riverdale, season 3, episode 19 (Fear the Reaper)

What happens?

Jughead gets caught up in playing G&G, a fictional, 80s "Satanic panic" version of Dungeons & Dragons (don't even get me started on this). Jug sets out to rescue his kidnapped little sister, but in order to do so, he has to play the game, as per the orders of an unhinged Game Master. At one point, the GM takes Jughead to an abandoned scrap yard, where he is faced with two large metal ice boxes. The GM asks him if he is familiar with the story of The Lady and the Tiger, and then explains it for us: "Behind one of these doors is your sister, behind the other is your doom." Jug, being ever the smart person, opens both, and both are empty. Then he gets immediately locked into one of them, but that's another story.


What's the story?

Well, the story is actually titled "The Lady, or the Tiger?", and it's not a folktale, although at this point it is so well known it might as well be. It was written by American author Frank R. Stockton, and originally published in 1882. It involves a barbaric kingdom, where justice is done on criminals by a strange tradition: They are thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one door, there is a savage tiger, behind the other, there is a beautiful lady. The tiger eats the criminal (obviously), the lady marries him (we are assuming all criminals are male here, or the kingdom has a very progressive view on marriage), thus proving by pure luck that he is innocent.
In the story, the daughter of the king falls in love with a commoner, and when her father finds out, the young man is sent into the arena. The princess, however, finds out which door is which, and lets her lover know that she will subtly indicate which door he should open. The question, however, is this: Would the barbarian princess rather watch her lover die by tiger, or watch him get married to another woman? Which door will she point at?
The story is a dilemma tale - it doesn't have an ending. The question is put to the audience. When I tell this story (it works great with teenagers), it usually leads to long debates about what the princess would choose, the nature of love and jealousy, and a million and one solutions to get out of the choice. I usually learn a lot, laugh a lot, and marvel a lot at the abundance of creativity that this story sparks in audiences.

Conclusion

Riverdale kind of butchered the original idea, because it became a game of simple Russian roulette with no stakes, instead of an emotional dilemma.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Saints and lessons (Following folktales around the world 106. - Mauritania)

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!

Shinqiti ​Folk Literature and Song
H. T. Norris
Clarendon Press, 1968.

The book is a selection from the oral tradition of Mauritania's Hassaniya-speaking "Moorish" people. Shinqit is the name of a trade city as well as the region spanning from the Senegal River to Morocco. Cultures have been split up by political borders, but there are still close to ten million Hassaniya speakers in West Africa, the majority of them living in Mauritania. The landscape, between ocean and desert, left its mark on the stories and the poetry. The book has a lengthy introduction to the culture, language, music, poetry, and oral tradition of Shinqit. There is one chapter for poetry (bilingual print), and a chapter that contains fourteen stories, both folktales and saints' legends.


Highlights

I was fascinated by the stories of local saints. One of my favorites was about how Aba Zayd and Baba Ahmad outwitted a notorious trickster, al-Arusi, to protect the reputation of a friend of theirs. The troublemaker tried to trick them with riddles, but they solved all of them in the end. Another fun story was that of Sid al-Amin, and how he tried to cure his consumption by drinking vinegar and honey. He listened to the medicine arguing with the illness inside his chest; Vinegar was mean, but Honey was polite, and yet the latter was the more terrifying. I also adored the story of Saint Barakallah and his slow and ugly, but loyal and kind donkey. The animal carried water for the saint in his life, and after his death stood by the grave, and could not be moved by any force.

Connections

I have encountered stories before (e.g. in Mali) where a smaller animal defeated a larger, stronger one from the inside. In this collection, it happened in The fight between the lion and the fly, where the fly killed the lion by crawling into his brain. I was reminded of a Hungarian tale by The murabit and the shepherd, in which the wise man preached about hell and the afterlife until the shepherd began to cry - but when consoled, he admitted that it was not the thought of hell that made him cry, but rather the wise man's beard, which reminded him of his favorite goat that had been eaten by a beast...


Where to next?
Cape Verde!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

StorySpotting: A whisper at a funeral (Game of Thrones)

After some consideration, I decided to revive an old, old blog series of mine, called StorySpotting. In this weekly or kinda-weekly series of posts, I will write about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up (heh) in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics will be random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!



Where was the story spotted?

Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 4 (The Last of the Starks)

What happens?

The episode opens with a funeral scene, where all the fallen from the Battle of Winterfell are being burnt on funeral pyres. The task of lighting Ser Jorah's pyre falls on Queen Danaerys. Before setting it aflame, she leans down, and whispers something in Ser Jorah's ear. What does she say?
No one knows.
It has since been revealed that neither the audience nor the crew were supposed to know what she said. Emilia Clarke wrote her own lines for the scene, so the only people who know are she and her co-star, Iain Glen. Glen has been asked multiple times since the episode aired to reveal what Clarke said in the scene, but he is adamant about not telling.
(We'll see how long that lasts)

What's the story?

This scene, and the secrecy around it, reminded me of something: the death of Baldr in Norse mythology. Baldr, god of light, son of Odin, dies by being shot with an arrow made of holly, thanks to Loki's trickery. The entire world mourns for him (except, obviously, for Loki). He gets what people now call a "Viking funeral" - they place him on a pyre on his magnificent ship named Hringhorni, launch the ship onto the sea (it is so large that they can only do so with the help of a giantess), and set fire to it as he floats away. Baldr shares the pyre with his wife Nanna who died of grief, his horse, an unfortunate Dwarf that Thor punted into the fire (yup), and Odin's magic ring Draupnir.
However, before Baldr is placed on the pyre, Odin leans to his dead son's ear and whispers something to him. Something that no one knows. It is the great secret of Norse mythology. In one of the songs of the Poetic Edda, Vafþrúðnismál, Odin gets into a contest of widsom with a giant. They trade riddles and questions, and the giant finally loses the contest, and his life, when his opponent asks him what it was that Odin whispered in Baldr's ear at the funeral. The giant admits, "you alone know that."
Odin apparently really likes this riddle, because he also uses it in the Saga of Hervör and Heidrek, in a riddling contest against Heidrek. The fact that he knows the answer reveals his true identity as Odin.
The whisper remains Norse mythology's best kept secret.

Conclusion

Some people suggest that Odin whispered to Baldr that he will return after Ragnarök, as foretold. I doubt that's in the cards for Ser Jorah.

Monday, May 6, 2019

A to Z Challenge Reflections, 2019.


This year was my 8th in the challenge!

All in all: I had fun, as usual. I'm very proud of my Fruit Folktales theme - I scheduled all the posts in advance, and I had a great time tracking down and researching stories.

Participation seemed to have dropped a little, but I still got about ten thousand views in one month, which is definitely nice. I did notice the phenomenon other participants are mentioning: there were less comments this year, and it seemed like less people went visiting around unless they were visited first (and too many never visited back). I really hope that activity will pick up again next year. Still, I had many, many lovely comments (12-15 per post on average), and I found some new and fascinating blogs!

My three most popular #FruitFolktales posts were (unexpectedly):

Eggplants versus Ghosts
Daterella
Perilous Persimmons

Some of my favorite blog themes this year:

Nancy Jardine's "Ancient Roman Scotland During the Flavian Era"
Story Crossroads' "Golden... All things that glimmer" (folktale theme)
Anne E. G. Nydam's "Fantastical Creatures" (check out the Kickstarter!)
Sarah Zama's "Berlin Cabaret"
Carrie-Anne Brownian's "Lesser known stars of the silent film era"
Nilanjana Bose's "Bengali history and music"

Thank you all for participating, visiting, and commenting! The fun of A to Z is in the community. I am looking forward to next year!



Good examples, bad examples (Following folktales around the world 105. - Mali)

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!

A madáron vett menyasszony
Bambara mesék Maliból és Szenegálból
Görög-Karády Veronika & Gérard Meyer
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1984.

This book contains 43 Bambara folktales, collected over the course of two expeditions in 1972 and 1975. The stories were recorded first, and then translated to French and Hungarian. Storytelling happened in its natural setting, with local audiences, after sunset. At the end of the book a lengthy Afterword tells us about Bambara history and culture, and the role of folktales in Bambara tradition. There are approximately ten million Bambara living in West Africa, most of them in Mali, but also in the neighboring countries. Among the stories there were some familiar types, but also new ones (for me), and some of them repeated in the collection more than once.

Highlights

In the story of The snake husband, a girl married a snake disguised as a man. Her little sister tried to follow her to her new home, and stuck around even though the bride tried to chase her away multiple times. In the end, it was the clever sister who saved both of them when the husband showed his true nature. I enjoyed the character arc, and the sibling teamwork at the end.
Bambara antelope headdress
I found the story of Siriman the Hunter both exciting and strange. He was a hunter who killed too many animals, and the animals swore revenge against him. In an elaborate plan, they turned an antelope into an attractive young woman, and she lured the hunter away into the wilderness without his weapons. In the end, he had a narrow escape with the help of his hunting dogs, and the moral of the story told us he should have listened to the warning of his mother about the woman. I found myself a little disappointed. Animals had a more helpful role in the Animal companions tale, where a dying father made sure to garner favors with various animals. Later, when his orphan son was persecuted by the village, the animals helped him fulfill all their impossible tasks. Rabbit was the hero of the story of The elephant stomped into the mud, in which an elephant killed everyone who tried to drink from his watering hole, until the brave little rabbit defeated him.
The tale of The farmer and the spirits was both humorous and eerie. Spirits of the land helped a farmer by mimicking everything he did, which was very useful at first (they helped him plough, sow, harvest, etc.)... but when he slapped at a mosquito on his arm, the spirits did the same, and beat him to death. Oops.
The best story of the collection, however, was that of The wicked boy and the griot. Everyone gave up the boy as evil and good for nothing, until a griot began following him around, beating his drum and singing "He is not acting wicked because he is evil" over and over again. At first, the boy only heard the griot calling him wicked, and tried everything to get him to stop... but in the end, the storyteller managed to convince him that he had the capability to change his ways and do good. Lovely story.


Connections

I was reminded of the seven kids story by The beautiful girl who was locked up, and eaten by a hyena. In this one, the girl was hidden in a house by her mother, because she was so beautiful that her father and brothers wanted to marry her. When the hyena got in, mimicking the voice of the mother, and ate her, the story put the blame on the male relatives. On the other hand, there were two stories that I have encountered in other African countries, where a girl abandoned her weak or sick brother, and regretted it later, when their fortunes turned.
There was yet another Kind and Unkind Girls type story (here, the person giving out rewards and punishments was a three-headed old woman), and a race between animals, run by The hedgehog and the heron, who were co-wives, and were racing to get to their hairdresser first.

Where to next?
Mauritania!