Monday, November 11, 2019

Adventures are for girls (Following folktales around the world 130. - Lesotho)

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!

Tales from the Basotho
Minnie Postma
University of Texas Press, 2014.

The book contains 23 folktales, translated from Sesotho to Afrikaans, and then to English. The translator's introduction talks about the culture of the country and the Basotho storytelling tradition; among many interesting things I learned that Lesotho is the country, Sesotho is the language, Mosotho is the people of the country, and Basotho is both the plural of the people and the adjective. The stories were collected by a white African woman, Minnie Postma, who heard them in her childhood and learned to tell them in their original language. As an adult, she became a teller and collector, retaining the rhythm and language and life of the folktales. They were written down from her oral telling, which makes the texts exciting and enjoyable. The book also contains a type and motif index for the tales, and a bibliography.


I knew in advance what my favorite story was going to be from this book: Nanabolele shines in the night is the tale of a girl raising her two brothers alone. The boys want special outfits for their initiation, made from the shining skins of the water-dragons known as nanabolele. She sets out with a group of people, descends into the underwater realm, and gets the skins for her brothers.
There was a beautiful story about an exiled girl who was fed and protected by the spirits of her ancestors until she found an invisible husband, and settled down. She was only cared for by her grandmother (her mother abused her), so she ended up bringing the grandmother to her new wealthy home.
Whirlwind and the half-men was once again a variant of the tale about the girl who married into the spirit world, except here the girl was found and rescued (through various clever tricks) by her brother.


Minnie Postma
The tale of the kind and unkind girls featured a giant bird, Mothemelle, giving out reward and punishment. In the end, however, the unkind girl also managed to carve out her own happy ending, and hat the giant bird hunted down for trying to punish her... The story of Fenya-fenyane was a classic "false bride" tale, but with some fascinating details. The bride was sent to her groom's house alone because her brother had been killed by a water monster, and her mother was too deep in mourning to arrange her wedding procession. On the road she was joined by a monster who had a tail with a mouth under her skirt, and the monster took her place as bride. The girl was eventually helped by a kind old woman to regain her place in her husband's home.
I was reminded of Irish stories by the tale of an old woman dragged out of her grave who clung to the back of a young man until he found a way to get rid of the talking corpse.
There was once again a story about why chickens scratch in the dirt (still looking for hawk's borrowed needle), and the tortoise that talked too much, and while a friendly dove was flying it across a river, it spoke and let go of the branch it's been biting on (luckily, it fell into the water and became a turtle).
The resident trickster was once again Jackal, who rode on the back of Wolf. There was also a tale where Jackal threatened Dove, trying to eat her children, but Heron intervened, and risked his life to save the little birds, proving that Jackal was no threat to her because he could not climb trees. Jackal was also tricked by Hen in the story where he tried to convince her that world peace had been declared.

Where to next?
Eswatini! (Formerly known as Swaziland)

Monday, November 4, 2019

Diverse tales from a diverse country (Following folktales around the world 129. - South African Republic)

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!

11 ​South African Folk Tales – 11 Official Languages
A Celebration of Democracy and Cultural Diversity
Aré Van Schalkwyk
Zytek Publishing, 2005.

The book, true to its title, contains 11 tales representing the 11 official languages of the country, retold by authors who create in those languages. Each story is presented in the original text and in English translation, and each is prefaced with a short introduction about the language, the culture, the customs, and the traditional dresses that belong to them. The book contains a foreword from the Minister of Art and Culture, and is closed by the lyrics of the South African anthem.


The English language was represented by Kwenda and the Tortoise, told by Margaret Kollmer. It was a lovely story about a mean old widower, whom a chief tricked into enjoying life again by sending him on a mission to gather colors along with his tortoise.
In the Xitsonga story a family set out on a journey, and the husband told the wife that if they encounter a wild beast, she should hold it by the tail so that he could kill it. When they were attacked by a lion, the woman grabbed the tail, but the husband got scared and fled, leaving her to wrestle the beast alone. Eventually the wife left in trouble was found and rescued by other people, and the husband was eaten by something in the bush.


I have encountered a similar story to the Zulu tale before. Here a single mother named Nanana was chased out of her community, and established her own home by the road, signaling that she was not afraid. When an elephant devoured her children, she set out to find it and kill it, saving everyone from the elephant's stomach. The Sesotho language was represented by a Cinderella variant about a girl named Analeti, while siSwati was represented by the tale of kind and unkind girls named Tsandzekile and Tondzekile, where the former was saved and vindicated by the village of her uncle.
Hare appeared as the trickster in the Xhosa story where he tricked King Lion into jumping down a well to fight his own reflection. In the Setswana story Hare, Tortoise, and Jackal all appeared as tricksters. Tortoise trapped Jackal (who was stealing water from the communal dam) by smearing himself in sticky gum - this is the first story I have ever seen where the trickster himself was also the tar baby...

Where to next?

Saturday, November 2, 2019

StorySpotting: Princesses ditching their own weddings (Disenchantment)

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!

Disenchantment is a Netflix show created by Matt Groening, with the usual humor and style. While this kind of humor makes my brain hurt after a few minutes, I did watch a couple of episodes, and it was definitely entertaining.

Where was the story spotted?

Disenchantment, season 1, episodes 1-2 (A Princess, an Elf and a Demon Walk into a Bar / For Whom the Pig Oinks)

What happens?

Princess Bean of Dreamland is supposed to marry a prince in a political match, but she ends up running away from her own wedding (after accidentally killing her first fiance, and being chased by the second in line). She is eventually captured and dragged back home, only to get away from her own wedding a second time.

What's the story?

Princesses running away from fairy tale weddings seems like a modern day feminist subversion of old story tropes - except, it already exists in old stories. Surprise! When you look into less well-known stories, it turns out ditching an unwanted suitor is totally in line with how some fairy tale princesses behave. And some non-princesses as well.

The most famous example would be, no doubt, Princess Gráinne, who ditched her wedding to legendary Irish hero Fionn Mac Cool to run away with a much younger warrior, Diarmuid ua Duibhne (some say she fell in love with him because he had a mark on his forehead that made him irresistible to all women, and he accidentally uncovered it during the wedding). Diarmuid doesn't want to run away with her at first, but Gráinne places him under geasa, an unbreakable bond, and essentially forces him to elope with her. Theirs is the most adventurous love-hate love story of ancient Ireland. Spoilers, though: It doesn't end well.
In the Italian folktale of The Dragon and the Enchanted Filly, a king and queen have a baby boy with a curse: if he doesn't kill his wife the same moment he gets married, he will turn into a dragon. Keeping this a secret, when he grows up they arrange for a marriage between him and the Queen of England. Luckily, the queen has an enchanted filly, her best friend, who warns her of the danger, and rides away with her from the wedding procession. The queen, just like Princess Bean, exchanges her wedding gown for a shirt and breeches, and works disguised as a stable boy until she finds love with another, non-cursed prince. The dragon is eventually killed by her and the filly (who turns out to be a girl cursed into being a horse until she kills a dragon, because this tale is epic).
In a folktale from Kashmir titled How the princess found her husband, a princess is promised to a prince, but when his father dies the engagement is broken, and her father finds a better suitor. The princess decides to run away with her original fiance, but while she is waiting for him in the darkness outside the palace, a robber comes along and she thinks it's the prince. Once she notices the mistake, she goes through a series of adventures until they are reunited.

By the way, the motif number for a princess accidentally running away with the wrong person is T92.4. You can find other tales like this here and here.

The Jewish tale of The Pirate Princess has a similar plot: A princess is engaged to someone she loves, but they are separated on a deserted island, and she is picked up by a rich merchant and forced to promise her hand in marriage. She manages to get away from him by getting everyone drunk, and then repeats the trick with a bunch of pirates, until she eventually becomes king (in disguise) over a kingdom, and manages to find her original fiance.
The Algerian tale of Aicha the Demon-killer features a clever, brave, and strong heroine, the daughter of a merchant, who kills monsters in her spare time. When a prince proposes to her, she says she will only marry him if he hunts down all the monsters in a forest. He is too much of a coward to do so, but spends a few days camping in the woods and returns, telling a lie about a job well done. Aicha, however, had been in the forest herself, and she calls the prince out on his lies in front of the whole court, rejecting his marriage proposal.

Last but not least: The Faun and the Woodcutter's Daughter is not a folktale, but it is one of my favorite love stories. It's a literary fairy tale by Barbara Laonie Picard, about the friendship and then love of a human girl and a forest faun. At the end of the story she runs away from her own wedding to a rich merchant to live in the woods with her faun.


Ladies, if the prince is not right for you: Remember, ditching him can also be a fairy tale ending!

Monday, October 28, 2019

Tales of strength and endurance (Following folktales around the world 128. - Namibia)

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!

Haiseb ​and the man who cooked himself
and other folktales from the Khoi of Namibia
Sigrid Schmidt & Veronica Eiases
Macmillan Education Namibia, 2008.

This book was written for entertainment reading, and contains 29 stories from the Khoi people of Namibia. There are no introduction or notes, only black-and-white illustrations, but the name of the storyteller is noted with every story.


The tale of the girl who married a springbok would be an excellent story for therapy. It belonged to the type where the girl marries into the spirit world and then has to escape, but it was a particularly powerful variant. Here, the springbok-husband "softened the bones" of his wife so she could not stand up or get away from him; she crawled home on her stomach, and had to win back her family's support before they helped her regain her strength. Another therapy-worthy story was that of the lazy horse. It told about a place where people had to cross lion-infested lands to get food; everyone hurried to make the trip faster, except for a man with a "lazy horse" that kept stopping to eat and drink. When the lions did attack, however, that horse was the only one that had the strength to get away.
I enjoyed the story of the chameleon and his twenty wives. The chameleon did not have the resources to care for that many women, so he kept feeding them some of his own flesh in secret. When they found out, they all left him, leaving their colorful dresses behind... and he has been wearing those every since.


There was yet another story that explained why chickens scratch the dirt (looking for a needle they borrowed from falcon and then lost). I knew the tale of the three elephants from Mali; the animals truned themselves into pretty women to trick a hunter into telling them all his secrets. His mother warned him to be more careful, and the kept one trick up his sleeve that helped him get away from the vengeful elephants.
It was interesting to encounter a story that I read from Venezuela before: a cannibal woman killed a pregnant mother and raised her twins as her own. The sister of the twins, Aga-abes, eventually revealed the truth to them, and they trapped and killed the cannibal, and revived their mother.
The resident trickster was Jackal, who in one story turned into grass just to be reincarnated as a calf and steal some cow milk. He also played the classic horse-riding trick with Lion and Lion's wife.

Where to next?
South Africa!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Unlikely heroes, diverse tricksters (Following folktales around the world 127. - Angola)

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 Angola
Fifty tales, with Kimbundu text, literal English translation, introduction, and notes
Héli Chatelain
The American Folk-Lore Society, 1894.

This is a very old book: the very first volume of the American Folk-Lore society series! It contains fifty folktales collected from the Mbundu people of Angola. The collector was a linguist who traveled to the country to help missionaries learn the local languages. Most of the tales came from a student of his named Jeremiah, who even accompanied him to America to help put the stories into writing.
The long and detailed (although definitely dated) introduction talks about Angola's geography, natural resources, climate, population, languages, societies, folklore, and oral traditions. A separate chapter deals with phonetics and pronunciation, since all the stories are printed in mirror translation, both in the original language and in English. They have been translated carefully word for word, which makes the English rendering hard to read and enjoy (even though, I still found quite a few fun stories in it). At the end of the book we get extensive notes for each tale to help with the understanding of linguistic and cultural details. This book was definitely ahead of its time.


I have read a similar story before, but I really liked this version of The son of Kimanaueze and the Daughter of the Sun and the Moon. A mortal man wanted to marry the celestial girl, but there was no one to carry his letters to her. Frog figured out a way to make the trip back and forth (in the water jugs of heavenly maidens), and managed to arrange the marriage through multiple visits.
The tale of Dinianga Dia Ngombe was strange but very entertaining. The hunter killed a deer and skinned it, but then the animal suddenly jumped up and got away. The hunter yelled after it, shaming it for running around "naked" - to which the deer responded that the hunter looked even more embarrassing, going home with an empty deer skin and nothing else. The humor was similarly poignant in the story of The young man and the skull; here the protagonist met a talking skull that warned him that his wits will be his undoing. The young man went around boasting that a talking skull told him he's so smart it will be his end... until they told him to prove his story. The skull, however, refused to talk, and the young man was beheaded, his own skull joining the family of talking skulls that should have known better.
I was fascinated by the tale of the two men who competed for the same girl. The father gave them the difficult task of catching a live deer. One of them considered his options and decided not to try, while the other stubbornly completed the task. The father gave the girl to the former, claiming that a man who followed senseless orders without thinking will make a terrible husband, and will beat his wife if she makes a mistake. Whoa.


Pic from here
The story of the (beautifully named) Na Nzua Dia Kimanaueze was similar to the European "boy who turned into animals" tales, except here the hero could take on the form of any animal, not just three, and besides rescuing a princess, he also used his forms to hunt for food when he was hungry. The princess, by the way, had to be rescued from slavery in Portugal. The story had a similar beginning than that of The woman who ate too much fish, except in that one, she did not have to give up her child to the God of Fish (eco-tales!), but rather, a particularly large fish came to life in her stomach, just like in the African-American story of the Singing Geese.
Once again I encountered a story about a woman (Ngana Samba) who married into the spirit world - here, against her will - and managed a daring escape together with her children. There was also another story where a little sister saved her siblings from the evil Ma-kishi spirits by keeping vigil at night and keeping them occupied. She eventually convinced her sisters to run away from the spirit world; in their escape they were helped by a hawk, which, strangely reminded me of a story I read from Kiribati.
There was a whole host of resident tricksters, including Hare and Monkey. In a Tar Baby variant they actually appeared together, and were caught by the tar-women set up by Leopard (but obviously they got away). In the tale about the shared food secretly stolen, Fox was tricked by a wily Mole, but he managed to take revenge in the end. In the story where the "male goat gave birth to kids" trial had to be decided, it was clever Duiker (a distant relative to Mouse Deer) who helped the defendant; while the infamous horse-riding trick of Br'er Rabbit was played on Elephant by Frog. I was also reminded of Br'er Rabbit stories by the "briar patch" tale, where Turtle made people believe he could only be killed by being thrown into the river. The ungrateful predator rescued from a trap (and then put back in) was Leopard, tricked by Hare. Leopard was also the villain of the story where he invited animals along to his family, played tricks on them on the way, and had them killed in the end. It was Monkey who managed to outsmart him (in other African traditions it used to be Antelope who tricked wily Tortoise).

Where to next?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Tales in the Cathedral: Storytelling in Aachen

I already blogged about this year's FEST conference, but I still owed a report from the amazing storytelling event that followed after. I always love it when a gathering of international storytellers is followed by a festival, and this time Regina Sommer and the Haus der Märchen und Geschichten organized a truly special treat: We told stories inside the Aachen Cathedral at night!

We visited the cathedral during the conference that was organized by three different countries. It was my first time seeing it in person, and I was absolutely stunned by how beautiful it is. When we returned for the storytelling event (after a very friendly dinner), I could barely believe that this was going to be our venue for the night. We got a chapel for a green room (best green room ever, see the photo on the right), and they even opened the sacristy for us so that we could use the bathroom... (talk about being behind the scenes). The pre-event mood was cheerful, friendly, and filled with awe, underscored with Davide Bardi tuning his guitar in the chapel.

We were in excellent hands to help us explore: A group of young guides, trained by art historian Wirtz Ágnes (incidentally also the founder of the Világszép Foundation, the NGO I work for) when they were children, returned for the evening to offer special tours to visitors, telling us about the history and secrets of the cathedral. We got to see Charlemagne's throne built from stone slabs brought from Jerusalem, and also his golden sarcophagus. While we were on stage, the latter was visible behind us, and if we looked up over the audience, we could see the empty throne facing us from the first floor gallery. It was thrilling to imagine that someone that famous was listening to our stories... along with about three hundred people in the audience, who filled up all the seats. We had a full house... or rather, a full cathedral.

Storytellers were invited to represent carious cultures and traditions that had a connection to Charlemagne, the cathedral, the school he founded there, and the Carolingian renaissance era. For example, I was there because the cathedral has a Hungarian chapel, built in the 14th century; it has been an important place of pilgrimage ever since. Everyone told one story, and in-between performances we got to hear enchanting organ and saxophone music that filled the entire space, and transported us through time and space. The story I brought was a Hungarian legend from the time of the Mongolian invasion - it tells about how refugees were helped across the Danube by Fairy Queen Tündér Ilona, and the magician Göncöl táltos, who gave up their own powers for 777 years for them. This story holds a special significance this year, because the Mongolian invasion ended 777 years ago. I could hear the audience gasp when I told them that. It was an unforgettable moment. I was a little worried before for bringing such a pagan story into a cathedral, but since the event was opened by George Macpherson doing an ancient Celtic invocation, we both agreed that we would be fine. The Dom handled our stories well.

The other performances were all captivating, and although I could not follow the ones in German very well, I still enjoyed them. Davide Bardi and Paola Balbi brought us their incredible telling of Jesus' death and return from the points of view of Mary Magdalene and Peter. Michaela Sauber told us about Parsifal, Nuala Hayes brought us the Children of Lir, Gidon Horowitz the legend of the first temple in Jerusalem, Sam Cannarozzi legends of alchemy, Raymond den Boestert a tale of Till Uilenspiegel, and Abbi Patrix a creation myth from Africa about the spirit of creativity. Wirtz Ágnes and the young guides told us a story about Aachen together.

The whole evening was an amazing experience that connected people across time, space, and cultures, and I was incredibly honored to be a part of it. I wondered if the people building the Hungarian chapel centuries ago would have ever thought one day a Hungarian storyteller would visit, and talk about magicians and fairies under the arches...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Roosters, dogs, tortoises (Following folktales around the world 126. - São Tomé and Príncipe)

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!

Sadly, once again I ran into a country where I could not get a folktale collection from. I searched for stories on the Internet, and came up with a few anyway (it would have been a lot easier if I read Portuguese...):

Why dogs don't talk
A short tale about a dog who helped its owner carry a burden home, but asked him not to tell anyone that the dog could talk. The owner's wife, however, managed to coax the secret out of her husband, and the dog got so offended that it stopped talking for good.
(I found this story in other versions as well)

The clever tortoise
Tortoise won the king's daughter in marriage by winning a bet, proving that chickens are never not hungry.

The singing roosters
Story says that the island of São Tomé used to be inhabited by roosters that crowed happily all day. Some people liked this, some tolerated it, but some were annoyed and eventually threatened the roosters with war if they did not leave. The roosters made the sensible choice, and with the leadership of a black rooster they moved somewhere else.
(This is also a popular tale, I found it on several sites)

I also found a reference to a Tortoise and the Hare tale, noting that Tortoise the resident trickster of the islands.

The tortoise and the dream
Tortoise claims that he can guess anyone's dream, so the Emperor puts him to the test. Tortoise uses colorful feathers to disguise himself as a bird, and spies on the ruler who talks about his dream about a breadfruit. (I have seen this tale with Anansi as well).

The legend of King Amador
Historical legend about the slave revolt in 1595 led by a man named Amador. The Portuguese colonizers beat down the revolt a year later and executed the king, but he became a legendary national hero and a symbol of independence.

Where to next?