Sunday, April 5, 2020

Animal helpers, human dangers (Following folktales around the world 150. - Somalia)

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!

Today, with Somalia, we leave Africa behind! It took me about a year and a half to read a book from every African country, and it was an amazing journey. Next week we return to Asia for the last thirty-something countries of the trip!

Sheekoxariirooyin ​Soomaaliyeed / Folktales From Somalia
Ahmed A. Hanghe
Nordic Africa Institute, 1998.

The book contains some seventy-six tales in Somali original and English mirror translation. The short introduction talks about the Somali storytelling tradition, and we get a useful piece about the pronunciation of Somali words and names. Each story comes with comments and footnotes, explaining phrases and customs. The book is divided into chapters by themes, with a short introduction to each chapter. It was a great last book to read from Africa, full of fascinating, thought-provoking stories.


One of my favorite tales from the book was that of Huryo és Kabacalaf in which a homely but clever girl eloped with her lover. They were accompanied on the road by the man's best friend, Kabacalaf. Along the way the girl made all kinds of clever comments which her lover didn't get and it made him increasingly annoyed. Kabacalaf, however, understood her well. In the end, when they found a priest, the girl decided to marry Kabacalaf instead. They lived happily ever after, constantly trying to prank each other. Kabacalaf also appeared as a wise man in other tales, such as the one where he helped a friend test two girls to see which girl was smarter.
There was an entire cycle of intriguing stories about a cannibal woman named Dhegdheer. She used to be a kind and clever girl who was forced to marry a horrible husband. She killed and ate her, and human flesh turned her into a cannibal with supernatural powers. In some stories people managed to outwit her, while in other she won, but either way storytellers admitted that she was clever, and had amazing tricks for tracking and catching people. One other got away from her by jumping over a chasm with her baby on her back. In the end, Dhegdheer was killed by her own daughter. Her two elder daughters ran away, but she kept the youngest trapped, until two sisters happened to visit their house, and the three girls together found the way to kill the cannibal woman.
I liked it that in a tale about evil giants the villains were not defeated by a man, but rather by another, good-hearted giant named Biriir, who thus saved humanity from disaster.
There was a simple but beautiful story about a young man who wanted to marry, but every time he brought home a bride his father ordered him to lift a heavy stone, or he'd not give his blessing. In the end, one bride volunteered to help him, and they lifted the stone together - proving that good marriage is based on cooperation.
The story of the Deceiver was eerie and very much had contemporary parallels. The deceiver was exiled from his village, and went to the animals, inciting them to rebellion against humans. Once they took the goods of the humans, the deceiver began to accuse the animals of various crimes, made them suspicious about each other until they started killing each other off. In the end the deceiver was left alone with all the loot. (Eventually he realized he was lonely and miserable, and returned to the people.)
Among the animal tales I really liked the one where two donkeys ran away from their master. They soon discovered freedom came with hunger, and one of them returned. The master abused him and beat him, and forced him to tell where the other donkey was hiding. By the time he got there, however, the free donkey had grown sharp horns, and defended himself. That's how the oryx was born.
There were multiple tales about shapeshifters, mostly featuring hyena-people known as qori-ismaris. In some cases they were helpful and honorable, while in others evil and greedy.


There was a myth about raising the sky; here it was the fault of women pounding their pestles against the sky and making holes that are now stars. There was also a tale about a clever husband who sent a coded message to his wife about his own murder. The fable of the grasshopper and the and there featured a bee and a grasshopper.
The tale type of "why old people are not killed" was included in the larger tale cycle of Queen Arraweelo. She was said to be a powerful queen who took over with the help of women, castrating all the men in her kingdom. One old man managed to hide from her, and helped other men fulfill tasks she gave them. He eventually had a son with her daughter, and the son killed the queen.
The trickster in residence was a man named Cigaal and also Jackal. The latter featured in the (very popular) tale where he cleverly chose his life over his food in the face of a lion.

Where to next?

Saturday, April 4, 2020

D is for Dugongs (Folktales of Endangered Species)

Welcome to the 2020 A to Z blogging challenge! This year my theme is Folktales of Endangered Species. I am researching cool traditional stories about rare, fascinating animals - to raise awareness of what we might lose if we don't get our collective shit together. Enjoy!

Species: Dugong (Dugong dugon)

Status: Vulnerable (local populations, like the group around Okinawa, are critically endangered)

The Mermaid and the Tsunami
Okinawan legend

Legend says that on an evening like any other more than two hundred years ago, a fisherman from Nobaru village on Ishigaki Island caught a dugong in his net (dugongs around Okinawa are often called "mermaids"). The dugong begged him to let her go, and feeling sorry for her, the fisherman complied. Once she was freed, the grateful dugong told him there was a terrible tsunami approaching.
The fisherman ran home and quickly evacuated his village, sending a messenger to the nearby Shiraho village to warn them as well. The people of Shiraho however did not believe the hearsay of a dugong, and they stayed put. At dawn the terrible Meiwa Tsunami hit the island, and destroyed the villages. The people of Nobaru, thanks to the kindness of the fisherman and the warning of the dugong, were safe up in the mountains.

(In another story the dugong is caught by people and roasted, and while being roasted it calls a tsunami down on the village in revenge.)

Sources: Find information about this story here or read example stories here.

How can I help?

Join the petition to save the Okinawa dugongs here, and find more information about conservation efforts here.

Have you ever seen a dugong (or a manatee) in real life before?
Do you know any stories about them?

Friday, April 3, 2020

C is for Chameleons (Folktales of Endangered Species)

Welcome to the 2020 A to Z blogging challenge! This year my theme is Folktales of Endangered Species. I am researching cool traditional stories about rare, fascinating animals - to raise awareness of what we might lose if we don't get our collective act together. Enjoy!

Belalanda chameleon, image from here

: Belalanda chameleon (Furcifer belalandaensis), Bizarre-nosed chameleon (Calumma hafahafa), Brookesia bonsi, Tarzan chameleon (Calumma tarzan)

Status: Critically endangered (with another 23 species listed as Endangered)

Chameleon and the other animals
Malagasy folktales

In one folktale from Madagascar, Boar meets Chameleon by a waterway, and decides to make fun of him. "You walk so slowly! You are so tiny and weak!" Chameleon notes that yes, he walks softly and carefully, but he is still capable of getting all the food he needs. Even more so, he suggests they should run a race. At first Boar laughs, but then they make a bet that whoever loses will serve the other one forever. When they get to the starting line, Chameleon carefully climbs up some grass and grabs on to the Boar's tail. Boar runs the race, then turns back at the finish line to gloat - and Chameleon jumps off his tail, pretending to beat him to the finish. They run again and again, always with the same result, until Boar admits defeat.

In another story, Chameleon and Lizard have a conversation. Lizard notes that life is beautiful, but the careful Chameleon notes it is also dangerous. Lizard then makes fun of Chameleon saying he is skinny with large, bulging eyes, that's why he sees danger everywhere. Chameleon retorts that Lizard is ugly and dirt-colored, that's why he is never in danger (possibly because no one wants to eat him). Eventually a human shows up, and the two reptiles run their separate ways.

Sources: Read the first story here or here, and the second here or here.

How can I help?

Read about conservation efforts here, here, here, here, or here.

Tarzan's chameleon, image from here

Thursday, April 2, 2020

B is for the Black rhino (Folktales of Endangered Species)

Welcome to the 2020 A to Z blogging challenge! This year my theme is Folktales of Endangered Species. I am researching cool traditional stories about rare, fascinating animals - to raise awareness of what we might lose if we don't get our collective shit together. Enjoy!

Species: Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

Status: Critically endangered (some subspecies have already been declared extinct)

Why the rhino scatters its dung
Ndebele folktale

Story says that once upon a time Elephant and Rhino got into a big fight (in one Tonga folktale it was because they had a contest over who can make a larger pile of poop). Rhino was seriously injured in the fight, his hide torn in many places. He limped over to Porcupine, asking to borrow one of her quills to sew up his hide. Porcupine agreed to lend a quill, but only after making Rhino promise to return it after use. (Porcupine needs her quills to defend herself). Rhino, however, got tired from all the sewing, took a nap, and forgot about the quill.
When Porcupine came to take back her quill, Rhino realized it was lost. He figured he must have swallowed it in his sleep. So, ever since then, he has been digging around in his own piles of dung, hoping to find the lost quill and return it.

(Male black rhinos do stomp around in and scatter their dung; this is how they mark their territory.)

Sources: Read about this story here, here, or here. There are also other tales about the rhino you can find here, here, or here. There are some other legends about rhinos in hunting memoirs, namely this one and this one.

How can I help?

Check out black rhino conservation efforts by the WWF or the International Rhino Foundation.

Have you ever lent something to someone and never got it back?
Would you be brave enough to ask a rhino to return it?

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Pirate Princess (Feminist Folktales 14.)

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

Origin: Jewish tale (see Sources)

The story

A king and an emperor make a pact that if one of them has a son and the other a daughter, they will marry them when they come of age. However, both of them almost immediately forget about the pact when their children are born. Totally by accident the prince and princess go to the same school, fall in love, and decide to marry. The emperor is not keen on letting his daughter marry the prince, but that can't stop the lovers, who hop on a ship and elope together.
Landing on an island the prince and princess lose each other in the forest. The girl sleeps in a tree, and is spotted by a merchant's son from his ship. He orders his sailors to bring her to him, as he immediately wants her for a wife. She comes up with a clever plan to get away, manages to get all the sailor drunk, steals the ship and cargo, and sails away.
Soon the princess lands in a seaside kingdom, where the king also wants to force her to marry him. She manages to convince him to plan a great wedding, and while the preparations are under way she escapes along with eleven of her handmaids, steals the ship again, and sails off. Avoiding further kingdoms, they land on an island and run into pirates who - surprise - also want to marry them. The girls get everyone drunk, kill the pirates, steal their treasures, and sail on disguised as men.
The ship eventually lands in a kingdom where the king just died without an heir. Their random selection falls on the princess, who thus becomes a king. Her first order is for her picture to be put up everywhere, and for every stranger to be arrested if they look distressed when they see a picture. Soon three men are brought to her: the merchant's son (kicked out of home for losing a ship), the seaside king (exiled for losing eleven noble maidens), and her original love, the prince, who has been searching the world for her. The emperor's daughter passes judgment on the merchant and the king and sends them home, and happily marries the prince.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

Here we have a princess (an emperor's daughter) who goes to school, speaks multiple languages, sails, plays music, and in addition is also clever and brave. She finds a way out of any trouble. She sticks with her convictions, stands up for herself, chooses her own husband and doesn't cave to pressure. When she is lost in the jungle she sleeps in a tree (I have always loved tree-climbing princesses), and when she gets into trouble she makes clever plans to save herself.
She finds herself in a similar situation multiple times: a strange man sees her, and immediately wants to marry her, even by force. At the end of the story, when these men are in her power, she calls them out on their behavior: "I was in trouble, and you did not ask what I need. You didn't ask, What do you want? Let me help you with whatever you need. Are you hungry? Why did you run away?... Instead you wanted to sleep with me right away." For most men in this story the princess' appearance was her entire value, and while they pretended to be helping her (the merchant's son by "rescuing" her from the island, the king by "saving" her from the ship) all they really cared about was claiming her as a trophy. This is a red flag, in folktales as well as reality: if someone assumes he knows what is best for you, and never actually asks, they probably don't have your best interest in mind. (As a counter-example, see Kristoff from Frozen II whose first princess-saving words are "What do you need?")
Despite their behavior, the princess doesn't take revenge on the merchant's son or the king (she does on the pirates, but then again they wanted to kill her first). She calls them out on their mistakes, and sends them home instead.

Things to consider

The oldest text, by Rabbi Nachman, has some parts that are questionable to the modern reader. For one, the princess becomes king after accidentally killing the kingdom's prince (by blinding him with a mirror so he falls off the mast of his ship), taking his place as the husband of his widow. She also doesn't escape with the eleven maidens as much as gets them drunk and kidnaps them on the ship. In one version she cuts off the pirates' noses instead of killing them. This tale, while known as a story by Rabbi Nachman, has also appeared in the oral tradition in multiple variants, many of which don't include these episodes.


Tale created by Nachman Mi Breslov rabbi (1772-1810).

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: Story tales of ancient years (Kulanu Haverim, 2011.)
Dov Noy, Dan Ben-Amos, Ellen Frankel: Folktales of the Jews I. (Jewish Publication Society, 2006.)
Jane Yolen: Not one damsel in distress (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.)
Howard Schwartz: Elijah’s violin and other Jewish fairy tales (Oxford University Press, 1994.)
Peninnah Schram: Stories within stories: From the Jewish oral tradition (Jason Aronson, 2000.)


This is a very popular "feminist folktale" - it has even made its way to the cover of some collections (see the images above). It should be a Disney movie...

A is for Amazon river dolphins (Folktales of Endangered Species)

Welcome to the 2020 A to Z blogging challenge! This year my theme is Folktales of Endangered Species. I am researching cool traditional stories about rare, fascinating animals - to raise awareness of what we might lose if we don't get our collective shit together. Enjoy!

Species: Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis)

Status: Endangered (may be critically endangered, listed in 2018)

The Enchanted City of Pink Dolphins
Legend from Brazil

Legends along the Amazon River claim that the pink dolphins (boto) only appear as animals on the surface. Under the river they live as people in their own great golden city known as the Encante. The rivers and streams are their roads and highways. 
There is a popular legend about a man likes to hunt and shoot dolphins, wounding many of them for sport. One day the dolphin people (a couple of girls, or even soldiers) pull him out of his boat and into the river. They take the man deep underwater to the Encante. In the city there is a large hospital full of injured people, where they show the man all the pain and suffering he caused. He has to stay and care for the wounded until all of them are healed. He is then returned to his family, and never harms a dolphin ever again.

There are also legends about the boto taking human form and visiting, flirting with, or even seducing mortals on land. In some places along the Amazon people will make a stranger take off his hat, to make sure he has no blow hole on the top of his head outing him as an enchanted boto.

Sources: Read more about the boto and the Encante here, here, here, or here.

How can I help?

Visit the website of the Amazon River Dolphin Conservation Foundation for more information! You can even, very fittingly, name them your supported organization on Amazon Smile.

Would you visit the Encante if you had the chance?
What would you be the most curious about?

Monday, March 30, 2020

Afar folktales of foxes and hyenas (Following folktales around the world 149. - Djibouti)

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!

Image from here
Sadly I could not find a folktale book from Djibouti, not even an online collection of tales. I decided to read Afar folktales instead, since the Afar people live both in Ethiopia and in Djibouti.

I found fourteen Afar folktales this website. They were collected in the 1990s from the oral tradition in the region of Ethiopia that borders Eritrea.


In the story of the four brothers and the hyena four young men were attacked by hyenas in the woods. Each one of them puts his faith in someone else: one in God, one in his clan, one in Mother Earth, and one in the kindness of the hyenas. Naturally, the fourth brother gets devoured. Similarly sad was the story about the hyena and the donkey, where the donkey admired the hyena and wanted to be his friend, while the hyena only wanted to eat him.
I really liked the story about the clever girl who married an equally clever crown prince after several rounds of riddles and flirting. Even when her husband was later killed by bandits, he still managed to send her a coded message to help her take revenge for his murder.


There was a classic trickster story where three travelers decided to give their food to the one who had the best dream (and while two of them slept the third ate the food). There was also a man that exchanged useless things to increasingly more valuable ones, but in the end he got too clever, and destroyed his entire family. Oops.
The trickster in residence was the fox; when the lion stole a calf and claimed it was birthed by his bill, the fox was the one who revealed the lie. He also defeated hyena in a similar debate. In other cases his cleverness helped him escape predators, such as the lion, when he had to pick between his food and his life...

Where to next?