Tuesday, August 30, 2022

StorySpotting: Body and soul mix-and-match (Locke & Key)

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!

Locke & Key, in my opinion, is a seriously underrated show (I haven't read the comics but I hear they are good too). With the new season out, they gave me multiple things to Story Spot.

Where was the story spotted?

Season 3, episodes 4-6.

What happens?

The basic premise of Locke & Key is about an old house that hides various old keys, each with its own magical property. The Ghost Key has been a staple since Season 1. It essentially opens a door that separates one's soul from their body when they walk through. It has been used in various creative ways over the course of the show.
In this season Dodge, the demon who has been the main heroes' arch nemesis, manages to use the door to knock the young boy Bode's soul out of his body. She then leaves her own mortal shell, and takes over the boy's body instead. Bode, left as a floating ghost, eventually manages to regain his own body by projecting his soul into a sparrow, and then transforming back into human shape. (Complicated, I know, but kinda genius).

What's the story?

The whole body-snatching-taking-refuge-in-a-bird thing is actually one of the creepiest pieces of folklore I have ever encountered. And as I looked into it again, it seemed a lot more common than I had believed. It even has a couple of Thompson motif numbers: E725.1 - Soul leaves the body and enters an animal's, and K1175 - Minister dupe raja into entering body of a dead parrot, then enters raja's body. And yes, that latter one is hella specific.

The first time I encountered this trope was in a collection of Tibetan folktales titled Tales of the Golden Corpse. The tale of The Travelling Spirit was about two friends, a prince and a minister's son, who went to school together. The prince was lazy, but the other lad learned the secret art of projecting his soul out of his body (known as phowa). Jealous that the minister's son might upstage him, the prince tricked his friend into showing off his skills - and destroyed the unattended body. Seeking a new place, the boy's lost soul entered an old woman's dead parrot, reanimating it. Later on, the parrot managed to catch up to the prince, and tricked him into falling out of a window... And then the minister's son's soul entered the prince's empty body, and walked away home.
Excellent creepy revenge ending.

As I was reading my way around the world, I encountered this trope again in a collection from Thailand, in a tale titled The Weaverbird Princess. In this story, a silent princess is promised to the suitor who can make her talk. A prince comes along with his mentor, both of them versed in the art of projecting their soul. The mentor projects his soul into various objects in the princess' room, and the prince has conversations with the objects, telling them clever stories. The princess can't help but interject, and thus the prince wins her hand. 
Later on, the prince goes to the forest with his mentor, and, seeing a dead deer, decides to project his soul into the animal and go exploring. He trusts his body to his mentor. However, the evil mentor in turn takes over the prince's abandoned body, burns his own, and goes home to take the prince's place. The prince, not finding a body to return to, transfers himself into a dead parrot. He flies home and tells his wife what happened. The princess manages to trick the mentor into leaving the body and transferring into a goat to show off. The prince thus gets back into his body, and kills the goat in revenge.

Once I started pulling on the king-in-the-dead-parrot thread, a whole lot of other tales came tumbling out. 

There is one in the Turkish story collection titled The history of the forty vezirs, where the evil vezir, instead of burning his own body, puts a slave's soul into it for safekeeping (and the king, while in parrot form, also judges some court cases). Interestingly, in this version the queen recognizes that her husband is not behaving like himself, and refuses to sleep with him.
There is also a version from Pakistan in this book, where the king takes on the parrot's body to pick mangos for his queen. The queen, who is aware of the evil servant's soul in her husband's body from the get-go, devises a clever plan to trick the soul into a lamb's body.
The tale also appears in The Three Princes of Serendip, the English translation of the Italian translation of a medieval Persian tale collection. You can read the story about The Emperor who turned into a parrot here. Once again, the wife's suspicion plays an important part in restoring her husband to his body. Added bonus: the Emperor uses his body-switching ability to travel his kingdom in the disguise of birds, and right wrongs.
Another version of the story can be found in Hatim's Tales, a book of Kashmiri stories collected from storyteller Hatim Tilwon in 1896. The fun part of this one is that the vezir loses the king's stolen body when he goes hunting, and decides to inhabit a bear for greater efficiency. The king then shoots the bear, saying "we can't have a bear for a vezir"... The tale also appears in other Kashmiri collections. It even has a variation in the famous Ocean of the Streams of Stories. Here, a person takes over a recently deceased king's body, but a minister suspects the change. Still, the minister decides an impostor is better than the child heir, and makes sure the soul doesn't have another body to return to. Now this would make a great movie...

In India, the story is known as The Metamorphoses of King Vikramaditya (you can read it in two versions in this volume of North Indian Notes and Queries). In this one, the parrot ends up at his father-in-law's house, judging court cases. Once he actually judges the case of a woman whose husband has been replaced by a shapeshifting dev. Eventually his wife (who is suspicious of her "husband") hears of the parrot and discovers the truth. In the second variant, the evil servant is tricked into the body of a goat and then beheaded, and the head of the goat still laughs and weeps as it's hung in the bazaar.
(I even found a popular comic book adaptation of this story from India.)

A distant relative to this motif is a story from Melanesia, where an evil spirit pushes a girl off a cliff, and takes over her body and identity.


So here we have a folktale type that spans a continent at least, and also several centuries in time, all the way from 11th century Kashmir to 21st century Netflix. Traveling souls and body-snatchers are a rich topic for people to think about. It probably has something to do with our mortality...

(Fun fact: I originally started working on this post when I was watching The 100)

Friday, August 19, 2022

StorySpotting: The monster in the wilderness (Prey)

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!

So I just watched Prey, which is an amazing movie, and immediately fell down a rabbit hole. This is not just a cool action flick, but also fascinating in terms of how it incorporated Comanche culture, tradition, and even language (as the first major Hollywood production with full Comanche dubs at its release). I recommend this article for more details.

Where was the story spotted?

Prey (Hulu, 2022.)

What happens?

Naru, the movie's main hero, flees from her first encounter with the Predator (that kills a bear in front of her). She meets young men in the woods and tries to describe what she has seen: 

"It was huge. I couldn't see it until it was covered in blood, but it looked like... like a mupitsl."

One of the young men scoffs. "You saw a monster from a children's story?"

What's the story?

Okay, disclaimer first: there are a million people out there who could do this better than me, because I only found out about this creature like a day ago. But I went down the rabbit hole, and got excited, so this is me nerding out. I am citing all my sources in the links for accuracy.

So, mupitsl. Also known (or rather, spelled) as Pia Mupitsl, Pia Mupitsi, piamupits, piamupitz, mu pitz, mupits, piamupitsi, and a bunch of other variations.

The name, apparently, means 'great owl' or 'giant owl', and refers to the monster's owlish features. It is also translated in some places as 'big old giant' or 'cannibal owl.' Apparently large owls were admired by the Comanche by their ability to hunt quietly and stealthily in the night.

The earliest mention I found is a Spanish-Comanche dictionary from 1865, written by Manuel García Rejon and published in Mexico. In it, the piamupitz is described as "an imaginary being, human-shaped and gigantic, that carries an extraordinarily large staff as a walking stick, devours humans, and lives in caves in the mountains of the distant North. It is believed that if the staff breaks, it dies."
1994 article about Comanche tradition of topography also mentions the piamupits' mountain habitat, and the actual caves it was supposed to live in.

So far, the Predator does a pretty great job with this impersonation.

A Comanche medicine woman named Sanapia, whose knowledge of medicine was recorded, used bone fragments (mammoth fossils) in her work. She called them piamupits bones. She described the piamupits as a large, hairy giant, tall, with big feet, and with a face like a man. She claimed their bones ended up in the ground when they died of old age.
Turns out the bones of the piamupits were valuable medicine. An article from 1942 mentions pieces of fossil bones that were believed to be the bones of the Piamupits (a "supernatural being"), and used to treat sprains and broken bones. Sanapia also used them for the same thing.

Fossil bones and legendary creatures took me to Adrienne Mayor, who researches traditions around the world involving fossils. She does not only describe Mu pitz traditions in detail in the book linked above, but she also went straight to the source, talking to contemporary Comanche storytellers and tradition bearers. One of whom - drumroll! - was the same Juanita Pahdopony who consulted on Prey. Well, that explains a whole lot. We love it when storytellers consult on movies! The storytellers confirmed that both forms of the creature - the hairy giant and the large owl - existed parallel in tradition.

Most of the actual stories I found came from a book on Comanche Ethnography. There is one story about a group of children who get left behind when their camp moves, and they end up at a piamupits' cave. They manage to make an escape with the help of various animals (a frog, a crane, an eagle, a buffalo, and a calf). In the end, the owl-mupits is thrown up into the moon where it lives today.
In another story, a hunter encounters a piamupits (in the form of a giant man) while hunting buffalo. it offers the creature meat, but the piamupits wants to eat the hunter instead. He flees, but the piamupits tracks him down to his camp. Eventually, the hunter manages to kill the invulnerable creature by sticking a sharp pole up its anus.
In yet another story, the piamupits enters a hunter's tipi while he is away, and kills his pregnant wife in a very graphic way. The twins she had in her belly, however, survive, and their father later finds them.
There is also a story in the collection where the piamupits functions as the dragon in European stories: a girl is supposed to be devoured by the eight-headed creature, but a young man saves her. Another young man tries to take credit for the kill, but the girl tells her father the truth.

The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center also has a short introduction to the Pia Mupits who uses a cottonwood tree as a cane, and was mentioned to scare children into quieting down. Many of the sources seem to agree that the piamupits was a child-scaring creature in folklore.


Early in the movie, after witnessing the Predator's ship in the sky, Naru calls it a Thunderbird. Thunderbird lore is vast and well documented, but I came across one thing in one of the articles I read about the piamupits: it mentions a Thunderbird that fell into a ravine from the sky, killed some men with lightning, and burned out a large patch of grass "in the shape of a bird" where it landed. So.


The more I read about piamupitsl folklore, the more impressed I got with how one throwaway line from the movie integrates so much of tradition so seamlessly into the movie-mythology of the Predator. On purpose, and with consulting Comanche educators. Let's face it, the two might be centuries apart, but the 'masterful, deadly hunter stalking its prey in the wilderness' is an age-old story that keeps surfacing again and again...

Monday, August 8, 2022

StorySpotting: "This b*** I've never heard about before" (Canada's Drag Race)

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!

Yeah, I watch Drag Race sometimes, when my overworked brain needs the mental equivalent of a chewing gum. I am fascinated by the makeup and the sewing challenges. 
One thing I learned is that these shows are usually hilariously off the mark whenever it comes to geek culture... or mythology. And then recently I saw one thing I needed to blog about.

Where was the story spotted?

Canada's Drag Race, season 3, episode 2 (The Who-Knows)

What happens?

The runway theme for this episode was Goddesses of the Ancient World. All of the contestants would be worth a post... but I'll focus on one: Kimmy Couture, who walked the runway in a Vegas showgirl-esque orange dress and headpiece. During the critique round, this conversation happened between the judges and Kimmy:

"Tell us about your goddess."

"So, I went on Google, and I searched it, and then I found this b*tch that I've never heard before... I just really wanted to show some sun because I feel like, I'm like a ball of fire."

"Well, you nailed it. It all worked out."

Kimmy went on to win this episode.

What's the story?

Okay, yeah, it irked me that someone on TV would refer to a mythical character in this manner, and lack of attention to... basic facts, like her name. Because Kimmy herself could not tell us who the goddess was, I became curious to see if she'd just made up a generic sun deity for fun. After some searching, I found a post on her Instagam, and was surprised that she named the goddess there: her name was Alectrona or Elektryone.

So, here is what Kimmy didn't tell you:

Elektryone belongs to the Greek pantheon. She was a demigoddess venerated on the island of Rhodes, as the daughter of the sun god Helios and the island's own patron goddess Rhode (whom the locals worshiped as an aspect of Athena). Rhode herself was a sea nymph, the daughter of Poseidon. So Elektryone belonged to not one, but two illustrious divine families: that of the ocean, and that of the sun. Very fitting for an island deity. She had seven brothers, all kings of Rhodes.

According to some sources, Elektryone was the (demi)goddess of the sunrise. Her name is related to the Greek word for amber, which was always associated with the sun for its color, and its ability to create sparks. Elektryone was also a personification of youth, since according to myth she died a virgin, before she became elevated to the rank of a local deity. Youth and the sunrise go hand in hand.

By the way, the whole myth about Helios' family on Rhodes is pretty interesting. According to one story when the Greek gods divided up the world among themselves, Helios was not present, because, well, he was doing sun things in the sky at the time. So, they conveniently forgot about him, and gave him no realm. However, just at that time the island of Rhodes rose up from the sea, and Helios made his claim of that new piece of land. Other sources say Helios himself raised the island from the sea, after falling in love with Rhode.

You can read more about Rhode here, and Helios' family in Rhodes here.


I have a soft spot for Helios' family in mythology (going all the way back to Kerényi Károly's mythology books, and, most recently, Circe). That look Kimmy served did not read Greek, or mythical, to me at all - but then again, I'm not a fashion expert. I am happy for the chance to introduce some lesser known deities in this post, though. So... yay?

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Flame-Red Fairy King: a short and weird Hungarian folktale translation

I was commissioned to translate another Hungarian folktale text, so I'm putting it up as a resource too.

The Flame-Red Fairy King 

Once upon a time there was a fairy king, who, for being completely red all over, was called Flame-Red Fairy King, and whomever he touched, he immediately burned. Once upon a time he had a daughter named Tündér Ilona (Fairy Ilona). Once, the devil in the disguise of a merchant asked for Ilona's hand in marriage, and having won her, he took her on his ship to a forest castle by the water, where he had four other ladies locked up in a room. To the same place he invited all the other fairies along with the Fairy King, claiming that he wanted them to visit his wife, but when they arrived, he attempted to murder the Fairy King. However, when he touched the king, he was immediately burned, and the fairies killed him. They kept the castle to themselves, but that magic building collapsed on them, killing all the fairies.

From Ipolyi Arnold's collection.
Text collected by Károly Weber in Szeged, Hungary, in 1835.

Someone needs to turn it into... dunno. A novel, or a movie, or something. Fill in the blanks. :)

Monday, July 25, 2022

Storytelling Cities: 8 storytellers, 6 countries, 3 weeks, 1 show

This spring I participated in an incredible European storytelling project.

I traveled to Sigüenza, Spain, on May 26th to take part in a project organized by Spain, Italy, France, and Slovakia. These four countries have created a collaboration named the European Network of Storytelling Sites and Towns (ENST). Since Spain was represented by the same organization that also organizes the Maratón de Cuentos in Guadalajara, part of the network's inauguration was a project within a project: getting storytellers together from all the countries and creating a multicultural, multilingual stage performance for the Maratón.

Each country delegated tellers. I was invited along by Bohdan Ulasin from Slovakia, whom I met in Guadalajra at the Misterios de Europa conference ten years ago. The lineup of our colorful team was as follows: Pepito Matéo (France), Clara Zénoun (France), Julien Tauber (France), António Fontinha (Portugal), Bohdan Ulasin (Slovakia), Roberto Anglisani (Italy), Susana Tornero (Spain), and yours truly (Hungary). Seven of us participated in the performance, and Pepito took on the role of director.

We had two weeks to put the entire show together. As soon as I stumbled into the hotel on May 26th, we immediately headed to the theater to start rehearsing. We worked hard all day almost every day, until June 8th, when we had our premiere in Sigüenza. The next day, we packed up, and headed to Guadalajara for the Maratón, to prepare for the big show.

The performance we created was whimsically titled "Il était una vez jeden utopická viaggio a történeteken keresztül em seis línguas" - and this title reflects the actual creative process. All of us selected short tales ahead of time, translated them to all the other participating languages, and selected the ones we wanted to include in the show. Pepito created an outline that we got to fill with stories, songs, rhymes, and playful interactions as we went along.

Our common language was Spanish. It took me a few days to switch my brain over to it (in my everyday life I only have the chance to read and watch TV in Spanish), but once it happened, I loved the opportunity to speak it, and listen to the others. Our little team had a whole lot of languages in common: multiple people understood French, Italian, and even English, although we barely ever spoke the latter. After a few days, we were all speaking some strange pan-Mediterranean mixed language, and my brain gave up trying to understand what language a word was spoken in, as long as I understood the meaning. Susana, as the only native speaker on the team, was super helpful and patient with our efforts to speak better and tell better in Spanish.

It was a joyful, playful experience to be a part of such a multilingual, friendly group of people. We shared meals every day, and our conversations often turned to "how do you say this in your language...?". We went around the table, comparing phrases, proverbs, riddles, and animal sounds, celebrating our differences and similarities. I learned a whole lot of fun new things - such as Antonio's comment on how these were "cherry conversations." Just like you can't eat just one cherry (he explained, as we were all feasting on ripe cherries from the market), you also can't just have one response in these conversation. One example inspires the next.

(Our theater stage in Sigüenza - first a medieval church,
and then a grain storage building)

We had rehearsal from 10 in the morning till 2pm every day, had lunch, and then started again at 4pm. We usually finished work around 8 in the evening (and headed to the town square for drinks and conversation). We played drama games and warm-up exercises in the mornings, and then launched into working on the performance. In two weeks, we created a 90 minute long storytelling show. The first half of it featured individual tales. We opened with a song, and proverbs in many languages, before we started on the storytelling. I told the old Hungarian legend Golden Bridge, Silver Bridge; Julien told the legend of The City of Ys. Roberto brought us a story by Gianni Rodari about roads not taken, Susana a Catalan version of the Musicians of Bremen, and Bohdan the story of legendary Slovak highwayman Janosik. Clara told the Armenian tale of Queen Anait, and Antonio brought us a lovely Portuguese version of The boy who could speak the language of animals. After the individual tales, we told some stories together, mixing multiple languages. We did Stone Soup (with each ingredient in a different language), Sennin (a literary tale by Akutagawa Ryunosuke), and the legend of the Journey of Malei from the Zhuang people. We closed the show with folk songs in all our various languages.

It took very intensive work to craft the show and create a flowing performance. It is not easy at all for storytellers to work together in this many languages, with this many different styles. We negotiated and compromised, and found creative solutions to fitting all the pieces together. Sometimes we grew tired, and sometimes we ran into communication barriers, but in the end, we all enjoyed the experience way too much to get hung up on the technicalities. It was something that allowed me (us) to experiment with different styles and techniques of telling. For example, I have never told a story before to empty chairs this many times... but after the initial discomfort of speaking into the void, I was beginning to see the upside of repeated rehearsals. The good news is: this project is a great experiment, and it is not over yet! We will take the show on the road to France, Slovakia, and Italy, changing things around every time to fit the new languages and new audiences.

We premiered the show in Sigüenza, in front of a very appreciative local audience - many of whom we got to know over the course of the two weeks spent in that lovely city. Among them were Fernando and Mirta, our gracious and lovely hosts from La Casona de Lucía - honestly the best little hotel I have ever stayed in, with definitely the best food. But they were not the only ones we got to spend time with while in Sigüenza: we also told some stories in other places!

One of those places was a center for refugees hosted by an organization named Accem. It was a lovely experience. We told some tales, and the people living there also told us some of the stories from their countries (such as Afghanistan and Burkina Faso). Then we had dinner together, someone put on music, and the whole evening turned into one big party, where we all danced and laughed together. Many of the children and adults from out audience later came to the premiere too - and whenever we met on the streets of Sigüenza, we always exchanged happy smiles.

We also got to visit the two high schools the town has, and tell stories at both. The kids were friendly and curious; suspicious at first the way all teenagers are, but they warmed up to be a great audience. I told to them in English so that they could hear a tale in another language too, and they followed along enthusiastically. After the tales we had conversations with them about storytelling as an art form and the importance of stories. I still love telling to teenagers. Such a great audience, wherever you go.

These two weeks in Sigüenza flew by, but they will stay with me forever. The town itself is beautiful, all pink stones and medieval buildings, and the people who life there were friendly and welcoming. And I cherish the experience of working with this international group of storytellers: the conversations over wine, the tales we exchanged, the laughs we shared. In a time when differences and conflicts get so much attention, it was good to be among people who seek connection through stories.

Thank you, all! See you on the road!

P.S.: The performance, and the rehearsal process, were documented by a professional film crew. Hopefully, there will be a video to share soon!

(I will write about the Maratón in a separate post, to keep from going on too long.)

Miska and Juliska (Hungarian folktale translation)

I was asked to do a full translation of a Hungarian folktale, and since I already have it, I am putting it on the blog as a public resource. Original text here.

CW: abuse

There was and there wasn’t, far-far away, a king who had three sons. They shared their bread, they loved each other, and they would have lived in peace – except they could not deal with the middle son, who was a rascal [never obeyed directions]. One day the old king grew bored of dealing with him, and told his other two sons: "Listen, my children! Get rid of this middle child of mine, Miska, because if he stays home, he will drive me insane!"  

The two older sons pondered about what to do with their brother. They can’t kill him, or get him killed! What should they do? At last, the eldest had an idea. They wrote a letter to Rút [Foul, Hideous], king of the devils, saying they have a brother who would like to be in his service. Then they worked on running their sibling out of the home. They berated him, abused him, they even blamed him for what he ate, until he couldn’t listen to all their cruel words anymore. He went into the stables, saddled the worst horse, and traveled to Rút, his majesty the kind of the devils. 

When he got there, he rested for three days, and got to know everything around the house – including Juliska, the devil’s daughter. They didn’t admit it to each other, but they fell in love. When the three days were up, the devil tells Miska: "Now, my lad! You shall start your service today. One year is three days. If you can fulfill your tasks as I say, I’ll be satisfied. Here is today’s task: there is a fishpond behind the house. If you do not drain it by tomorrow morning, dig it up, sow it with millet, and bring me a bowl of that milled with grease and sugar for breakfast, you’ll be finished! Do you understand?"

Miska nodded like he understood, but he didn’t understand at all! He went to the stables, sat behind the horse, and pondered. As he was sitting there thinking, Juliska was looking for him inside the house, and didn’t know where Miska had gone. After a lot of searching, she found him sitting on the plank that covered the stable drains [hídlás]. "Dear beloved of my heart! I will love you till we die! [Only spades and hoes shall divide us]. What ails you?"  
"Don’t even ask, Juliska dear!" said Miska. "You can’t help either way!" 
"I can’t? How do you know? Tell me, maybe I can fix things!"  
Miska then told her all of what his majesty Rút had ordered him to do. 
"Well, if that is all" said Juliska "then we can deal with that!"  

She went inside the house, took out the big book, and for every page she turned, a devil jumped in front of her. When she had enough of them waiting, she ordered them to do what Miska was told, and finish it all by morning. All the devils ran like hell, got to work right away, and by the next morning his majesty Rút had on his breakfast table a nice bowl of steaming porridge, with grease and sugar. He had a hearty meal of it, filling his stomach till it was almost bursting. When he finished, his wife came to him and said: "Listen! You know one thing, this lad knows two! [for every one thing you know]" 
"He does, the rascal!" said the devil, licking his lips. 

 By then Miska knew that all had been resolved; he did not need to worry, as long as he kept carrying on. Once the devil was done with breakfast, he came out of the house to see Miska. "Now, my lad! You are a man. So far, I am satisfied with you. Now I shall give you a new order, and if you fulfill it, you won’t be harmed. There is a great forest here. If by tomorrow morning you don’t tear it all up by the roots, plant a vineyard, and bring me a plate of grapes and a bottle of wine from it for breakfast, you’ll be finished! Count on that, and remember it!"  

This time, Miska did not ponder much; he knew Juliska would help him [pull him out of the mud.] And so it happened. Miska was sitting in the doorway, smoking a pipe, when Juliska came to him and asked what news he had. Miska told her everything in detail. Juliska went and picked up the big book, turning pages and summoning a devil with every turn. Then she stood in front of them and strictly ordered them what to do. They were happy they were not in trouble, and went and did what they were told. By the next morning there was a plane of grapes and a bottle of wine on his majesty Rút’s breakfast table. In the place of the forest there was a vineyard, with vines heavy with ripe grapes. Rút’s wife said to him: "Well! You know one, he knows two!"  

When the devil swallowed the last gulp from the bottle, he went outside to see Miska. "Well, my lad! You have fulfilled two of my orders; if you fulfill the third, you will be a real man. Across seven times seven kingdoms, even across the Óperenciás sea, I have a very good friend. If you don’t take this letter to him, and return by morning, you’ll be finished!"  

And with that, Rút handed him a letter. Miska was shocked; he thought not even Juliska could do this. He paced up and down, waiting for Juliska. She arrived soon enough. 
"Hey! What’s wrong?" 
"Hey! I am in serious trouble. Not even you can fix it!" 
"Tell me anyway! Maybe I can."  
Miska told her, but he was on the verge of tears. She said: "That’s nothing! You know what? Let your horse out to pasture outside the village, and I shall turn into a golden haired mare. You can ride me, we’ll go."  

So it happened. The girl turned into a golden haired mare, and rode with Miska, flying like the wind [through bushes and thickets]. When they came near the palace, the golden haired mare said: "When you go in, only say: May God grant you a good evening, I brought a letter! And then come out, not through the gates, but over them."  
Miska did what he was told. When he handed the letter over, he said no more, and when he came out, he vaulted over the top of the gates. They could hear applaouse behind them, and someone yelling after them: “You did well! Otherwise you would have been turned into tar!” 

 When they reached Juliska’s house, dawn was breaking. His majesty Rút and the old lady were still fast asleep. Juliska turned back into a girl, and Miska went in to announce that he’d returned. The devil shook his head, and his wife said once again: "You know one, he knows two!"  

And with that, Miska’s year of three days was up. But on the way home the lovers had decided to escape, any way they could. They wanted to leave the devil’s lair. Juliska went inside the house, spat on the table three times, and at the break of dawn they both fled. The wife woke up in the morning, called into her daughter’s room: "Wake up, daughter! The sun is up!"  
The first spittle called out: "Coming, mother! Coming right away!"  
After a while, the wife called out again: "Wake up already, daughter! Sweep the house!"  
The second spittle called out: "In a moment!"  
Finally the wife was out of patience, and yelled in very angrily: "Come on already, and start the fire!"
The third spittle only answered: "I’ll be right there!"  
The young lovers were far away by now. The wife called out a fourth time, but no voice answered her. She looked in, and saw no one in the room, except for the three spittles on the table. She grew furious. She grabbed an iron shovel from the corner. "Now, shivel-shovel, iron shovel, we’ll catch up to that pretty girl!"  She sat on the shovel and went after them. When she was high up, she turned into storm clouds dark as soot. She was flying after them like a bird! 

As they were fleeing, suddenly Juliska says to Miska: "Whoa! One of my cheeks is burning, Miska! My mother is after us! I’ll turn into a mill, and you turn into a miller. Take an ax in your hand and work on whittling something. But take care that when my mother comes in a dark storm with a whirlwind she doesn’t pick up a splinter of wood, otherwise I’ll die. Understand?"  
Juliska turned into a mill and Miska into a miller. He picked up an ax and started whittling. Suddenly the dark storm clouds reached them with a great whirlwind that almost swept the mill up. Miska stepped on the splinters to make sure the wind did not move them. The storm saw it couldn’t succeed, so it descended on the mill. Miska took up the ax and slashed at it. Blood fell from the clouds like rain [as if from a rain bag]. The storm saw it couldn’t do anything, and turned back. The mill transformed back into Juliska, and the miller into Miska. 

 The old lady got home, and her husband asked: "Did you see them?"
"I didn’t! I saw someone else." 
"Who did you see?"
"A mill and an old miller whittling something. The miller slashed my arm with his ax so bad, it’s still bleeding." 
"You ass! [donkey, idiot]. It was them!" said his majesty Rút furiously. 

The young lovers continued on their journey. They barely made it half a day’s distance, before Juliska’s cheek started burning again. The woman was flying after them again. Juliska says to Miska: "You turn into a dry weed, and I’ll be a little bird."  They immediately transformed. The old lady goes to them: "Listen, you tweeting little bird! Have you seen such and such young people passing by?" 
"I have, but back then this dry weed was still green." 
"Ooh! That must have been a long time ago! Not recently…"  The old lady turned the shovel around, and shoveled home. There, her husband got started again: "Have you seen them now?" 
"I have seen nothing except a dry weed and a tweeting little bird. I don’t know where they have gone."
"You ass! It was them!" said the devil, and he was so furious he almost knocked his wife over. "Go after them right away, and bring them both back to me!" 

The old woman set out again. She sat on the iron shovel. "Shivel-shovel, iron shovel, we shall catch up to the pretty girl!" and she set off. Juliska sensed her again. She immediately turned into a golden duck, and Miska into a lake. The woman came, stripped off, put her clothes on the shore, pulled off her ring and placed it on her underskirt. When she was up to her neck in the water to catch the duck, the duck flew up, picked up the ring from her clothes (because all the devil’s power was in it), and the lake went dry. The devil’s wife was left standing. No Juliska, no Miska, no ring! Well, her husband will take it out on her! When she got home, his majesty Rút asked her. "So, you are not bringing them after all? Didn’t you hear what I ordered you to do?" 
"I did! But they even took my ring!"  That was all the devil needed to hear. He lunged at his wife. He became like a lion. If you ever wanted to see a beating, you should have been there! The kind of beating the woman got, I wouldn’t take for a hundred forints [that was a lot back then]. She roared desperately like a cow after its calf. But now that they had lost trace of the young lovers, there was nothing to do but accept that they were gone. 

 Miska and Juliska traveled on, more calmly now that no one was pursuing them. They reached the edge of the village were Miska’s father and mother lived. There Juliska told Miska: "Now, I can’t go in with you. Promise that you won’t kiss anyone, and won’t let anyone kiss you. If you do you will forget me, and marry someone else!"  
Miska promised, and said “What are you thinking, my dear Juliska! How could I forget you?” But when he walked through the door, someone ran up to him and kissed his hand. He immediately forgot Juliska.

Everyone rejoiced at home at Miska’s return. He was a changed man, a better person, obedient and tame like a lamb. His father found him a nice girl from the village and announced the engagement; all that was missing was the wedding. Gifts were brought to the house, there was so much kalács [sweet bread] that there wasn’t more space for them even on the benches; many chickens, roosters running around the courtyard, tripping everyone up. Juliska heard the news that Miska was getting married, and grew very sad. She took a pair of doves, male and female [a goose and a hen], put them under a sieve, and brought them to Miska’s. Miska happened to be home. When she handed the gift over, she set the male dove free from under the sieve and only said: "The same thing happened to us, Miska, as to these doves. One of them was left alone."  

Miska immediately remembered his promise. He returned the engagement handkerchief to the other girl, and kissed Juliska. They got married, and they are still living happily today if they haven’t died yet.

Mese, mese, mátka, 
Fekete madárka. 
Uj mente, kopott róka, 
Vesd a vigyorgódra! 

[This is a folktale closing rhyming formula, app. Story story, black little bird, new coat, old fox fur, out it on your face] 

Collected in Besenyőtelek, Heves county. Storyteller: Ragó Lajos, 32 year old peasant, former soldier. Recorded in November, 1903.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Sisterhood of the Wolf: The hunt for female werewolves (Girl in the chair)

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

I am preparing for this year's Story Camp that my organization (the Világszép Foundation) runs for children in the foster system. This year's theme is Transformations/Shapeshifting. First step is usually for the camp staff to choose folktale roles for themselves, so we can greet the children in character. I have spent the past few weeks researching tales about shapeshifters. When it came to picking my own character, I decided I'd like to turn into a wolf. 
(I recently read the book about Wolf 21 and I am in love with positive wolf representation. In addition, Werewolf is one of my favorite RPGs.)

So, I set out to find folktales or legends or myths about female werewolves or wolf shifters. I set some pretty specific criteria:

1. It has to be a traditional story with a narrative (folktale, legend, myth)
2. It has to be a good story
3. It has to feature a female character who can turn into a wolf
4. This female character has to be portrayed in a positive light, and has to achieve a happy ending
5. Wolves have to be portrayed in a positive (or non-negative) light
6.The transformation should happen at will, not as a curse or a one-time thing

Yeah. The bar was pretty high.

1. Thompson Motif Index

I turned to the motif index first, looking for "transformation: man to wolf" (D113.1). Werewolves do get their own motif number (D113.1.1), but I did not want to dig into those one by one unless I had to - werewolves are almost always male. Since Thompson usually notes when transformation happens to a woman, I filed this away for later. Too broad.

2. Keyword search

I set out with the most obvious search terms on Google Books and Google Scholar: "female werewolf", "she turned into a wolf", "wolf princess", "wolf fairy", etc., combined with "folktales", "legends" and other keywords. I had to work through a lot of fantasy novels (Google autocorrects "folktale" to "story" for some godforsaken reason), and several references to Princess Mononoke and Angela Carter.
No story really jumped out at me, but I did flag a book about the cultural history of female werewolves.

3. She-Wolf

The aforementioned book is a fascinating collection of articles on female werewolves. Only one really goes into folktales, but that one is a treasure trove, about female werewolves in Estonia (apparently, Estonia is unique with its strong female wolf tradition, go figure). I did get a couple of stories from it, but they didn't tick all the boxes: either the wolf was cursed, or evil, or it died in the end, or the story was simply not all that interesting. Still, great book.
(There was also a study on Burgundian werewolf trials, but the women accused of lycanthropy were all executed.)

4. I take to Twitter

When in doubt, tweet about it. The online folklore community rallied around my question, and I received quite a few suggestions from lovely people. Some were literary examples (again, Angela Carter, also Sergeant Angua),but others were promising. 


A Croatian friend was kind enough to send me translations of two She-Wolf folktales, both variants of the "swan bride" tale type, with a girl whose wolf fur is stolen by her husband. I loved these, but I couldn't really use them in the story camp setting. 


Multiple people pointed me to the Werewolves of Ossory. It's an interesting tale, but once again it is short, with nameless characters, and the wolves are cursed. But it did point me to the Irish wolf tradition, which I circled back to later.


Someone brought up Romulus and Remus. I went on a side quest, looking into the lupa of Rome, and Acca Larentia as a possible wolf goddess - but in the end, Romulus and Remus is not a story that gets me excited either. And I thought a wolf mom to abandoned babies would hit a little too close to home with the foster kids.


Someone suggested looking into the Wulver, but I couldn't find a tale with a female Wulver. Or any tale, really. Some say this whole thing might be fakelore.


Someone linked me to a Chinese tale about an old woman who turns into a wolf, and eventually has to leave her family. It was a touching story, but with a sad ending.


Jürgen Hubert mentioned a tale about a wolf-woman who fell into a trap, and later killed the hunter with his own rifle. I liked this one, but it's not really much to build a character on. Translation forthcoming.

INTERLUDE: Pinkola Estés

Yes, a bunch of people mentioned Women Who Run With the Wolves. While I have a bone to pick (heh) with CPE and her treatment of folktales, I did look up the book to refresh my memory. One of my problems with this book is that it comes with notes, but it does not cite the sources for the stories - and she tends to change them a lot. And then everyone quotes her as a folklore source. I checked both in English and Spanish, and could not find the story she references.

5. Peeira

Fables, 1001 Nights
of Snowfall
My "wolf fairy" search took me to the topic of the peeira, a Portuguese creature of legend often translated as "fairy of the wolves." These women are usually seventh daughters in their family, and at one point they run off to live with wolf packs who take care of them.
It gets a mention in this book (which a Twitter friend kindly looked up for me), but the story itself attached only deals with wolves symbolically (as punishment for an unkind girl). Also this one, which looks fun, but I could't get a copy. Following the trail, I found this video which tells an amazing peeira legend, but it is kind of dark and bloody. I found a source in Portuguese as well, but it didn't really give a full story, just a belief. I found a reference to another (non-peeira) Portuguese female werewolf story, but in this one the girl was definitely evil, and she ate a baby. Boo.
(Here is a blog post on Portuguese werewolves)
All in all, I like the peeira as a concept, but couldn't find any convincing narratives to use.

6. Irish wolves

I circled back to the Irish tradition, as one of the Portuguese sources cited a source about Irish wolves. The source cited is pretty short; it says the Irish word for female werewolf was conoel (which Google promptly autocorrected to colonel), and mentions women who go into wolf shape, but alas no stories. Conoel did not yield any as a search term either.
The mentions of the Werewolves of Ossory led me to look into Laignech Faelad, a legendary figure whose descendants can turn into wolves. Couldn't find a direct reference to women, though.
I did get a few hits here and there. I found a literary poem featuring the warriors of the Fianna, and a Wolf-Girl whose curse is broken by a kiss from Oisín. In one of the folktales collected by Curtin a woman cursed into the shape of a wolf gave birth to a human baby (but then promptly died). The Acallam na Senórach mentions the three wolf-daughters of Airitech who came out of their cave to hunt, but they are murdered by warriors in the end. There was also a tale about a family of shapeshifting wolves, and a man they rewarded for saving and healing one of their pups. The family included a fierce mother, so this tale was a definite maybe.
I also found some references to lycanthropy and women in Ireland, such as this article, but no convincing stories. There was an entire side quest about the wolf-woman to be tamed by Irish kings through marriage (see references here). Some sources that looked interesting I could not track down (like this study from this book. It referenced a 17th century text here, but I did not have the bandwidth to go through it in search of the mention of a female wolf).

7. More keywords

I found a reference to a Persian tale called "The Wolf-Girl and the Fairy", but despite the enticing title, it turned out to be one of those tales were a hero's sister transforms into a monster. You can find it in this book. I also found a reference to ATU tale type 409, "Girl as Wolf", but it was another "woman cursed to be a wolf" story.

8. Wolf Queen

And then it dawned on me that might not have searched for "Wolf Queen" earlier. So I did. Lo and behold: a story! A Cape Malay story, specifically, from Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales. (This is the original source.) It's a version of the Donkeyskin tale type: a girl tries to avoid marrying a sultan by transforming into a wolf - and then occasionally forgets to transform back. In the end, her true love recognizes her anyway. And she has a name! (Amina.) And she lives happily ever after!

WHEW! That was an intense three-day dive into a rabbit hole... wolf den? I am sure there is more to rustle up, but I'm satisfied for now.

The real treasure was the citations I found along the way!