Thursday, April 30, 2015

Z is for Zong Belegt Baatar (Epics from A to Z)

Zong Belegt Baatar is a Mongol short heroic epic. "Short" in this case means under 500 lines (in chanted or sung oral poetry), and can be told in under 20 minutes. For epics, that is definitely short - but not any less epic.
(I read the English translation in this book.)

The Hero
The epic is named after its hero: Baatar means "hero" in Mongolian, and Zong Belegt is the name. He has a body of iron, and for all intents and purposes he is a giant of a man, and the leader and protector of a prosperous land. We don't find out a lot about his personality, but we do learn from the epic that his silk gown has seventy-five buttons.
(That's a lot of buttons)
His wife is praised for her wisdom.

The Highlights
The epic itself tells the story of Zong Belegt Baatar's fight against a terrible giant. The description of the giant is definitely a noteworthy moment: He is described in great detail and with a lot of exaggeration - His toenails are iron hooks, his face has blue stripes and his tongue has brown, and he can cover an entire continent in the smoke from his pipe. I can imagine younger audiences getting a kick out of this description alone... The fight between the hero and the giant is similarly cosmic and landscape-altering.
I found the mention of the iron body intriguing. Those of you who have been following me know that I published a book on superpowers in traditional stories. In it I included a Hungarian folktale about a hero with a body of ice, and a villain with a body of iron. Sounds like it's a popular theme...

This concludes our epic adventure from A to Z! Thank you for sticking with me, I hope you enjoyed the ride. Come back for the Reflections post on Monday (May 4th) - I will tell you a little about some of the epics that didn't make the cut!

Also, check out my book, titled Tales of Superhuman Powers (available on Kindle, Nook and in print), for more epic stories ;)

Outside of A to Z, I write regularly on this blog about storytelling adventures, mythology and MythOffs, books related to folktales and fairy tales, and other story-related odds and ends :) Follow or visit back for updates!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Y is for the lost epic of Yi (Epics from A to Z)

Stories, much like people, have a life cycle. Epics are created, told, and when people cease telling them, they slowly break apart and disappear. Some cultures pick up the pieces (like it happened with the Kalevala or the Kalevipoeg). For today, I will write about an epic that might or might not have ever existed.

In 1995, Mori Masako published an article in Asian Folklore Studies, suggesting that the many accounts and tales of Hou Yi, the most famous archer-hero of Chinese mythology, are actually the scattered fragments of what once was a coherent epic, much like the epic of Gilgamesh. She drew a parallel between Gilgamesh and Hou Yi, trying to arrange the fragments into their original order, from the hero's birth to his death. It is an intriguing article. I was familiar with the tales of Hou Yi before, but never thought of them as an epic; Mori Masako, however, makes a compelling argument.
It is an epic I would love to hear.

The Hero
Hou Yi is an archer. In his part of the world, he is THE archer, really. Some people suggest that Yi is not actually his name at all - it is a title that refers to archers. Hou Yi is known for one very famous feat: He shot nine suns out of the sky, saving the world from being scorched to ashes.
Other feats of his include killing various demons and monsters, and traveling to Kunlun Mountain in search of immortality (much like Gilgamesh did). He never became immortal, though; his wife, Chang'e, drank both bottles of the elixir he brought home, and flew away to live alone in the Moon forever.
Hou Yi is ambiguous in many sources; sometimes he is a hero, sometimes he is a tyrant. Mori Masako claims that those features are reconcilable in an epic; most heroes, like Gilgamesh, have both good and bad sides as well.

The Highlights
Instead of highlights, here are some versions of the story of Yi that you can read:

There is a nice and detailed version in Virginia Schomp's book of Ancient Chinese mythology.

There is also a detailed analysis in Sarah Allan's book The Shape of the Turtle.

In Treasure Mountain: Folktales from Southern China there is a Yao minority tale called Shooting the Moon, in which a brave archer and his wife work together to save the world from a scorching fiery moon. In the end they rise into the moon together as well. It is one of my favorite versions.

Here is a short animated video from the website of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

There is also the Mongolian version of the tale type where the hero Erkhii Mergen shoots seven suns.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

X is for Xi You Ji - also known as Journey to the West (Epics from A to Z)

Come on, guys. Everybody knows the Monkey King, right?... Right?...

Journey to the West is one of the three great Chinese epics. It has existed in the oral tradition for hundreds of years, and it was also published in book format at the end of the 16th century. It takes place during the Tang Dynasty. It is an epic, mythical journey built on top of the historical event of Buddhism being brought to China.

The Heroes
The main hero of the story is supposed to be Xuanzang, a holy monk that is tasked by the emperor to travel to India and bring back the holy scriptures of Buddhism. He is very holy, very polite, very pure, and not exactly the survivor type. Here is the thing: Any demon who eats him gains immortality. That makes traveling for years through demon-infested lands a tad bit difficult.
Here is where the real hero (by centuries of popular vote) comes in: In order to protect the holy monk, bodyguards are ordered to accompany him. First and foremost, there is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, the archetypal Trickster, who once broke havoc in the Heavens, ate the peaches of immortality, crossed his name out of the Book of Life and Death, robbed the treasury of the Dragon Kings, and defeated the celestial armies... until they dropped a mountain on him. A couple of centures later he was freed to help Xuanzang on his quest. In order to keep him in line, Sun Wukong is crowned with an iron band that the monk can tighten with a special prayer - he is, for all intents and purposes, leashed to him until the end.
The other bodyguards are Zhu Baije, most commonly known as Pigsy or Monk Pig, and Sha Wujing, or Friar Sand. Both of them used to be heavenly generals before they were exiled to Earth for various sins, and became demons; they both join the monk's quest seeking redemption. Pigsy it not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and gets in trouble almost as often as he argues with Sun Wukong. He fights with a rake. Friar Sand is more quiet and obedient, and also less powerful than his companions.
In addition to the three misfits, there is also a hidden fourth companion: Yulong, a dragon prince, who is sentenced to be Xuanzang's steed in the form of a white horse.

The Highlights
I know I say this a lot, but it is really impossible to list all the highlights. The entire story is exciting, colorful, and all-around epic.
My favorite chapter is probably the one where the team encounters a den of female Spider Demons who capture the monk with silk threads they shoot from their belly buttons. It is a delightful mix of awkwardness (Xuanzang is kind of scared of women to begin with), terrifying magic abilities, and insect-involved fight scenes.
Another great moment is when Xuanzang and Pigsy accidentally drink from a spring in Women's Country, and they both become instantly pregnant (best monk freakout ever). In order to dissolve the magic pregnancy, they have to drink from another spring, protected by a demon. Sun Wukong takes the matter into his hands... after laughing his ass off.
Another famous moment of the epic is the tale of Princess Iron Fan, whose fan Monkey needs to steal in order to make a path across a mountain of flame. She proves to be a worthy opponent in a fight, together with her close-knit family of demons.
I also love the end of the story, when Sun Wukong asks to be released from the headband... just to find it is already gone.
Really, honestly, I could go on forever and ever. At one point I even ran a blog about this epic together with another storyteller, writing about our favorite scenes.
Just... go read the books.

Journey to the West literally has thousands of adaptations in cinema, TV, theater, song, and games. Monkey keeps popping up everywhere. Remember Goku in Dragon Ball? How about Jet Li in the Forbidden Kingdom? Some of my favorite takes on the story are the Japanese manga/anime Saiyuki, the post-apocalyptic video game Enslaved (with the talent of Andy Serkis bringing Monkey to life), Stephen Chow's recent movie adaptation (in the vein of Kung Fu Hustle), and, more recently, Zen Cho's short story Monkey King, Faerie Queen. Once you know the story, you'll see it everywhere!

Monday, April 27, 2015

W is for Wagadu (Epics from A to Z)

Four times Wagadu rose. A great city, gleaming in the light of day. Four times Wagadu fell. And disappeared from human sight. Once through vanity. Once through dishonesty. Once through greed. Once through discord.”

Origins The story of Wagadu is one of the most haunting, most enchanting pieces of oral literature I have ever encountered. It is a West African epic by the Soninke people, and tells about the early history of the place we know today as Ghana.
Sadly, no full English version of the epic exists today. Several different books present several different pieces of it, collected from the oral tradition. As suggested by the opening lines above, the full story would consist of four parts, each telling the rise and fall of one aspect of Wagadu (named Dierra, Agada, Ganna and Silla, respectively).
The most complete part of the story survived known as "Gassire's Lute" (collected by Leo Frobenius at the beginning of the 20th century). Other parts can be found in Oral Epics of Africa, and Courlander's A Treasury of African Folklore.

The Hero
The hero of Gassire's Lute is Gassire, the son of the king of the first Wagadu. Not being able to wait until his father dies to take the throne, he decides to become a griot instead - claiming that rather than being "second among the first" (the highest social class) he'll be "first among the second" (the keepers of the lore). In the end it is his blind vanity that brings down Dierra.

The Highlights
All of it, really. The rolling eloquence of the language, the haunting chorus, the mysterious opening lines (see above), and the gripping story of how Gassire slowly realizes he got way more than he bargained for when he decided to pursue the destiny of a storyteller. The blacksmith creates a lute for him, but the lute won't sing until it becomes part of Gassire's life and family - through drinking in their blood. Gassire starts taking the lute to battle with him every day, willing to endanger and sacrifice all of his sons to achieve his goal...

This story packs a punch. I wish I could have found a more complete version of the rest of the epic.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

V is for the Vetala Tales (Epics from A to Z)

(I was going to do the Völsunga saga, but we have had enough Vikings already)

All right, so the Vetala Tales (Vetālapañcaviṃśati) is not exactly an epic. It is a collection of short tales from the oral tradition of India, set inside a frame story, much like the Arabian Nights. It is more often known in English as the Twenty-five Tales of the Corpse Demon. It has four versions written in Sanskrit (both in prose and in verse), and other versions also exist in Hindi, Tamil, and other Indian languages. The English translation I used was based on the Sanskrit versions written down by Sivadasa and Jambhaladatta, sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries.

The Hero
The "hero" of the frame story is the legendary King Vikramaditya, the protagonist of countless Indian tales (I included one of them, involving paintings that come to life, in my book about superpowers). In exchange for valuable gifts, he volunteers to help a mysterious man perform a ritual that would give him supernatural powers. The King's task is to go to the burning grounds at night and bring a corpse that is hanging on a tree.
What the King doesn't know is that the corpse is inhabited by a vetala (an ancient deity, also sometimes translated as a genie, a goblin, a spirit, a vampire or a demon). If the King breaks his silence while carrying it, the corpse magically returns to the tree. As Vikramaditya carries his burden, the corpse starts telling him tales; each tale ends in a dilemma or a riddle. The King can't help answering them each time, and the moment he speaks, the corpse flies back to the tree, and he has to go fetch it again. This happens twenty-four times - hence the collection of stories.

The Highlights
While the book itself was a translation of Sivadasa's version, with some of Jambhaladatta's tales in the Appendix, I definitely liked the style of the latter more. It was more detailed, and all in prose. Also, a lot of the stories in the collection will read as strange or downright sexist for contemporary Western readers - don't forget that this is a historical text. Some of the King's answers to the riddles won't make sense to anyone else but the people of that time and place. But it is still an interesting read.
Some of the stories I enjoyed, mostly for their dilemma-endings which can start interesting debates:
1. Of Mandharavati and her Three Suitors (Tale 2) - a popular story among contemporary storytellers, and a riddle about the nature of love (and relationships)
2. Of the beautiful Mahadevi and her Three Suitors (Tale 5) - another popular folktale type about three companions that save a girl together, only to end up with a debate over whom she would choose as a husband
3. Of the young bride who switched heads (Tale 6) - while somehow reminiscent of season 3 of American Horror Story, this is an entertaining little tale with a moral dilemma in the end (once again over a girl)
4. Of three very delicate Queens (Tale 10) - an early variation on the idea of the Princess and the Pea
5. Of the merchant's daughter who loved a robber (Tale 13) - a refreshingly different love story among not very female-friendly tales, with a hint of Robin Hood
6. Of Jimutavahana and his supreme sacrifice (Tale 15) - An exiled prince offers his life to end a cosmic war between the serpent people and the Garuda bird
7. Who is Prince Haridatta's real father? (Tale 18) - an interesting legal-moral riddle of multiple fathers and a very non-traditional family model
8. Of three rather fastidious Brahmanas (Tale 23) - another take on Princess and the Pea, this time with three guys. A version of this story is also included in my book under Enhanced Senses.
9. Of strange and riddling relationships (Tale 24) - Another mind-bending riddle over family relations (this one actually took me drawing family trees to figure out)

All in all, most of these tales will spark lively conversations when told. That is kind of the entire point.

Friday, April 24, 2015

U is for the Ulster Cycle (Epics from A to Z)

The Ulster Cycle is one of the four cycles of Irish epics, centered around the heroes of Ulster (surprise). The most well known part of the cycle is the Táin Bó Cúailnge (in English, the Cattle Raid of Cooley), and the only reason this whole post was not under T yesterday is because I couldn't find another candidate for U. So, one day late, but here we are!

The Táin (as well as the rest of the cycle) takes place about two thousand years ago, in the 1st century AD. The earliest written versions are from the 12th century. This is an old, old, old story, you guys. And extremely important to Ireland's culture, history, and identity. It revolves around Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connaught, going to war against Ulster over a bull, and re-arranging the Irish landscape while at it.

The Heroes
The uncontested protagonist of the Táin is Cú Chulainn. He is incredibly strong, kind of crazy in battle (okay, so, VERY crazy in battle), but all in all a great lad. He is the nephew of the king of Ulster, and was originally called Setanta until he accidentally killed a giant bloodhound with his bare hands, and then took its place. They named him the Hound of Culann. He was a little boy at the time.
While most of the story revolves around Cú Chulainn, both sides of the war have a great lineup of heroes. The great nemesis is Queen Medb, who is not only an incredibly (physically and mentally) strong woman, but also very entertaining in her many ways of trying to secure victory. She repeatedly offers her "friendly thighs" to heroes who might fight in her name, for example. Also on the Connaught side is Fergus mac Róich, an honorable and clever exile from Ulster who refuses to fight against his friend Cú Chulainn (and is not-so-secretly also bonking the queen). Both sides enumerate their many great heroes over the course of the epic, and honestly, I greatly enjoyed their individual descriptions.

The Highlights
One of the best parts of the epic is the story explaining why Cú Chulainn has to protect Ulster alone for half a year, while all the other heroes roll around in labor pains (yuup). The legend is called "The Pangs of Ulster" and it includes the hands down best curse in Irish mythology.
Another part close to my heart is Cú Chulainn's training in Scathach's school for warriors. Because of the coolness factor of a lady training Ireland's best heroes in her own (hard to approach) institution, and for all the things she teaches them, this part would merit an entire movie all on its own.
The pillow-talk that sets off the entire war is also quite great - Medb and her husband have a long discussion about which one of them is in fact running their kingdom. Medb calls her royal husband a "kept man."
Apart from Cú Chulainn being constantly badass, another Ulster hero kind of steals the spotlight for a while. Cethern returns from the fight against the enemy all wounded, and then proceeds to explain how he got each would. When the healer tells him he can rest and live, or fight and die, he chooses the latter, and they re-create his broken body with borrowed bone marrow and various chariot parts. He goes back to fight some more.

Other entertaining moments include:
Medb calling Cú Chulainn a "peppery overgrown elf."
Cú Chulainn threatening his opponent with "I will stand above you like a cat's tail erect."
Cú Chulainn encountering Medb alone while she is having her period in the woods, and deciding not to kill her.
The detailed description of Cú Chulainn going into his "war-spasm" and hulking out in a way that would make Bruce Banner cower in shame.
The women of Ulster flashing Cú Chulainn in order to cool down his war-spasm (and the order from the king "Bring the naked women!!!")

The Táin was also the chosen epic for this year's Epic Day. We told it in six hours! I blogged about the experience here.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

T is for Thidrek of Bern (Epics from A to Z)

If you like Norse sagas, King Arthur legends, and Alternate Universe fan fiction, then you will like this epic.

The group of legends centered on Thidrek (Dietrich) of Bern is German in origin. The particular collection discussed here, known as the Thidrekssaga, however, was probably written down somewhere in Scandinavia (although scholars can't agree if the writer was German or Norse). The English translation is almost 300 pages long (in extremely small print). The saga is usually dated around 1250, the high time of romances of chivalry... and boy does it deliver.

The Heroes
The story is essentially a mash-up of German legends such as the Niebelungenlied, some Norse sagas, stories of Attila the Hun, and a great dose of Arthurian pomp. It features several historical names, but in the end, it is a product of chivalric fiction.
In the center stands King Thidrek of Bern (Dietrich of Verona), who is often equated with the historical king Theoderic the Great. Around him gather the great names of German legends: his mentor Hildibrand (who can still kill ten young warriors in combat when he is over a hundred years old), Siegfried (the invulnerable dragon-killing hero of the Niebelungenlied), Heimir (who is not a nice person, but great with horses), Vidga (the white-haired half-mermaid son of Wayland the Smith - he is essentially the Lancelot of the bunch), Sistram of Fenidi (who joins the team after they fish him out of a dragon's mouth), Thetleif the Dane (who is not very smart, but very strong), Vildifer (who can and does pass for a live bear in combat), Herbrand the Far-Traveler (the diplomat of the team), Ekka and Fasold (the stereotypical red-haired identical twins, one a friend and one an enemy), Högni (the one-eyed, grumpy half-elf knight) (yeah, you read that right), Sifka (the traitor) and Earl Hornbogi (the handsome one).
Impressed yet?
Add Attila the Hun to the mix (he's best friends and allies with Thidrek), and you have a vague idea of the lineup you will meet in this story.
(There is an entire chapter devoted to what each of them look like, how they dress, and what their coat of arms is. They also all get their own backstories.)

While a huge part of the saga is taken up by very detailed duels and epic battles, it also has a lot of other delightful bits going for it. For example:

1. The duel between Thidrek and Ekka (the evil twin). They meet in the woods at night, and neither can see the other. After Ekka taunts Thidrek with how superior his weapons are, they decide to fight. Thidrek strikes sparks on rocks with his sword to see where his opponent is, and they fight in the flashing light of sparks flying from their blades. Now there's a visual.
2. The scene where Thidrek and Fasold find a dragon on a clearing. The dragon is in the process of devouring Sistram, whose head and shoulders are still free. He yells instructions at the two knights on how to kill a dragon, one of which is "Don't cut its neck! My legs are way down its throat..."
3. The time young Thetleif defeats an older knight (who rides an elephant) and after the duel they become friends and go home together. When the daughter of the old knight sees her father wounded, she yanks Thetleif off his horse and throws him down with a force that would kill a normal man. Of course they fall in love later.
4. The time Vildifer dresses up as a bear and sneaks into the enemy's castle to rescue the imprisoned Vidga. The enemy king doesn't realize there is something wrong with the dancing-bear performance until the bear draws a sword... At which point the king comments "That's a well trained bear!" (Famous last words)
5. The time Vidga kills a giant in single combat, and then covers himself in the giant's blood and rides back to his friends, pretending to be mortally wounded. Everyone panics, and Vidga laughs his bloody ass off.
6. There is a version of Tristan and Iseult's legend in here - Herburt and Hild - and it has a happy ending. That in itself made me so happy...
7. There is a battle where one of the kings is helped by his wife, the sorceress Queen Ostasia. She summons an army of lions, bears and dragons. The entire chapter is just one big battle scene between knights and combat dragons. I was having some serious Maleficent flashbacks.
8. When King Thidrek gets angry, he literally breathes fire. He only uses it once in combat, though.
9. This line: "King Hertnid rode at the dragon more out of honor than out of wisdom." (He gets devoured)
10. The time Heimir becomes a monk, and then decides to return to being a knight when a giant threatens the monastery. The monks tell him they already broke down his sword and used it for door hinges (it's one of the three magic swords in the saga). Heimir almost gets a stroke.
11. The time Earl Iron gets so obsessed with hunting that his wife feels neglected. Finally she goes out into the fresh snow and rolls around naked, leaving boob-prints all around the castle. Then she goes back to her husband and says "I have seen the tracks on a very rare new prey around the castle. If you don't hunt it soon, some other man will."

(This saga was definitely one of my favorites I read for this challenge.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

S is for the Shahnameh (Epics from A to Z)

When it comes to epics, the Shahnameh (also known as the Persian Book of Kings) is definitely one of my favorites. I have loved it since I read some stories from it in an abridged "Epics of the World" collection back in middle school.

The Shahnameh is the national epic of Iran, the history of their kings from mythic origins all the way to the 7th century. It was written in verse at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries by the poet Ferdowsi, who based his work on much older sources, tales and legends. The book contains some of his notes, comments, and musings about his own life during the thirty-something years he worked on it.
The Shahnameh exists in a number of English translations. I bought the 1967 Persian Heritage Series volume, translated by Reuben Levy - mostly because it is lavishly illustrated with miniatures. It turned out to be a very hard read, since Levy wanted to reflect the archaic language of the epic by putting it into Shakespearean (prose) English. Also, he annoyed me by cutting some of the best mythical parts out of the story, calling them "fanciful tales." I ended up re-reading the missing parts from the newer edition translated by Dick Davis.

The Heroes
The center of the epic is a long line of Iranian kings. Some of them, especially in the legendary eras, get more detail and attention than others. The greatest hero of Iran is undoubtedly Rostam, son of Zal, who lives for long centuries fighting for Iran under various Shahs (kings). Also worth mentioning are Esfandyar, the invulnerable prince, and Bahram Gur, with whom a whole lot of tales are associated (including Nizami's Seven Wise Princesses, which I introduced last year). The story also features some intriguing female characters, both slaves and royals, such as Gordiya the warrior maiden or Shirin, the poison-wielding matron of the royal harem.
And then there is Zal.

The Highlights
The undisputed best part of the entire epic (if you ask me) is the tale of Zal and Rudabeh. It is a love story for the ages, between a white-haired prince who is raised by the colorful mythical bird Simurgh, and Rudabeh, the daughter of a nobleman descended from Zahhak, one of Iran's first kings who was turned into a dragon by his evil ways. Both outcasts in some way - Zal for his unusual coloring and Rudabeh for her bloodline - the two fall in love. Some say they are the origin of the Rapunzel tale, since Rudabeh offers to let Zal climb her braids to her tower (which Zal refuses because he is awesome and he brought a rope). They end up getting married and becoming the parents of Rostam (who is delivered by the world's first C-section, assisted by the Simurgh, who is better than any fairy godmother ever). The entire story, from start to finish, is amazing, and everyone should read it in its full glory.
Another tale that I really like is that of Esfandyar (I included it in my book about superpowers in traditional stories, since it features an invulnerable hero). It is the story of a struggle between father and son for the throne, in which the prince chooses honor over inheritance. He also goes through an epic journey fighting demons and monsters to rescue his sisters, and ends up being forced to fight Rostam to the death, something that neither hero wanted and both of them regret. It is one of the most eloquent parts of  the epic.
There are two shorter stories that I like as well, one involving the invention of the game of chess and its arrival to Iran, and the other the story of how Kalila and Dimna was translated into Persian.
I also really love the miniatures and paintings that are used to traditionally illustrate manuscripts of the Shahnameh. They are full of bright colors, minute details, and life.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

R is for the Ramakien (Epics from A to Z)

A lot of people have heard about the Ramayana, one of India's (and the world's) great epics. In the spirit of introducing readers to less well-known (at least in Western education) works, I picked another version of the same story: Thailand's national epic, the Ramakien.
I first came into contact with this epic when I told a short portion of it for a MythOff event. For this challenge, I went back and re-read the full English prose translation, and I found it even better that I remembered. The version I read was based on an 18th century document; earlier written versions of the epic were destroyed and lost in 1767.

The Ramakien (sometimes also spelled Ramakian) tells the story of an epic war between demons and humans - the latter side led by reincarnated deities and supported by a great monkey army. It is also a story of rescuing a damsel in distress (war breaks out when the king of the demons, Totsakan, kidnaps the hero's wife), and re-arranging the cosmic Thai landscape with the involvement of Heaven, earthly kingdoms, and several countries of the Underworld.

The Heroes
The power couple of the epic is Pra Ram (the human reincarnation of the god Pra Narai) and his wife and love Nang Sida (the reincarnation of the goddess Laksamee). They are surrounded by a stellar supporting cast including Hanuman the monkey-deity-trickster hero, Pra Ram's brother Pra Lak, Pipek the demon seer who betrays his evil brother and joins the human side, and a whole line of distinguished monkey generals and warriors.
Interestingly enough, the demon side is just as diverse and full of intriguing characters. The main villain for most of the epic is the ten-headed, twenty-armed Totsakan, surrounded by terrifying demon warriors and supported by his wife and love Nang Monto. While Totsakan is definitely the bad guy, he is also surprisingly gentle and loving with his family, and at the moment of his death he goes out with dignity and humility. The demon side involves a lot of good characters such as Benjakai, Pipek's shapeshifter daughter who falls in love with Hanuman while working to deceive the monkey army, and ends up marrying him after the war is over.

The Highlights - 12+1 times the Ramakien is truly epic
1. Monkey. Army.
2. Magic in this story works in amazingly logical ways. Shapeshifters have to see the person they want to copy. Magic weapons have to be charged with a certain amount of power before they are used. People have to go through a rite to become immortal. When incantations are interrupted, rituals fail. The heroes (and villains) of the epic take advantage of these rules in multiple ways.
3. The main form of combat in the Ramakien is archery, performed with powerful magic arrows that have various effects such as a rain of snakes (or birds of prey to eat the snakes), rings of fire, diamond nets, lightning and thunder, and even bringing dead soldiers back to life. Heroes and villains pick their arrows to counter the effects created by their opponent. Magical combat archery.
4. When Nang Sida is accused of adultery and exiled by her husband, she gives him an epic run for his money. Once Pra Ram realizes he was wrong, he tries to make amends (with the wife who just lived ten years in exile because he didn't believe her word). Nang Sida is having none of that, and after giving him a piece of her mind multiple times, she goes as far as divorcing him. In the end, and entire committee of gods is needed to convince her to give him a second chance, and even then all she says is "I'll try."
5. Queen Kaiyakeese holds the chariot of her husband together with sheer force while they fight a demon.
6. The sweet moment when Nang Sida gets married and leaves the house of her parents. As they are left alone in the quiet, the old parents "pledge their love to each other."
7. Sadayu the magic bird sacrifices his life to stop Totsakan from kidnapping Nang Sida. He fails, but manages to stay alive long enough to bring the news to the husband.
8. Hanuman sleeps with  mermaid, and the result is a tiny monkey with a fish tail. They keep him in a little lotus pond. At one point he tries to beat his father with a flower.
9. "Fighting a battle is like throwing water: Both sides get wet."
10. The time when Hanuman sneaks into the demon city and ties Totsakan and Nang Monto's hair together as they sleep. The magic knot can only be broken if Nang Monto punches her husband in the face three times.
11. The fact that even after Hanuman gets his own kingdom, he still spends his time climbing trees and scratching his head with his feet.
12. The time when Nang Sida gets a stern lesson in motherhood from a bunch of female monkeys for leaving her child alone in the forest with a meditating hermit for a babysitter.
+1. The time when Hanuman does the "I've got a jar of dirt!" routine with Totsakan's heart in a box.

Fun fact: According to an image published in Time Magazine, Barack Obama carries a small figurine of the Ramakien's Hanuman in his pocket for good luck. How cool is that.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Q is for the Queen of the Mountains (Epics from A to Z)

The lineup got slightly wonky here: I'll have to introduce you to Dietrich's first quest before I introduce you to the awesomeness that is the Dietrich Cycle (which you will see under T in three days). But I was really hard pressed since the only epic that starts with a Q is not available in English. Therefore, I had to go with the Queen of the Mountains, and Dietrich's first Quest. It's a great story anyway.

The poem generally known as "Virginal, Queen of the Mountains" was written sometime before the 14th century, and it is German (Swabian-Alemanic) in origin. It survives in three different versions, two of which are fairly long, and none of which are translated. I read it in two, freely available short prose translations here and here.

The Hero
You'll hear enough of Dietrich later, so I'll talk about Virginal instead. She is introduced as the Queen of the Mountains (of Tyrol), and also as the Queen of the Dwarves. This in itself sent me into a righteous gloating mood over the "female dwarves are not authentic!" whiny part of the Tolkien fandom. 
Sadly, none of the story actually calls Virginal herself a dwarf, although it would be interesting to look at the German text. In English they call her an elf, and describe her as a beautiful maiden dressed in white and crowned with a magic jewel (sounds like an elf doesn't it). She also marries the (human) hero in the end, which means she's probably not a dwarf - although it has to be noted that the same legend cycle does mention a (happy!) marriage between a Dwarven king and a human princess. (The legend is called King Laurin's Rose Garden. I love that story so much, I even included it in my book!) 
Anyhow, dwarf or elf, Virginal (whose name, while it seems self-explanatory, probably derives from a Gothic word that means 'mountain') rules over the glaciers and snow-covered peaks of the mountains. According to the story she has a magic jewel in her crown that allows her to command all the creatures - dwarves, elves, giants - of the mountains (although, concerning the main story, it probably doesn't work very well).
While the idea of an elf queen over a dwarf kingdom bugs me, she is still a fairly interesting character.

The Highlights
The story itself is much like many other medieval romances: Virginal's kingdom is threatened by evil giants (the traditional enemies of dwarves) led by two evil magicians, and she asks help from the great hero Dietrich and his knights. Several adventures commence, giants are slain, maidens are saved, dragons are defeated, until finally Dietrich kills the last evil magician, and the war is over. As I said earlier, he marries Virginal in the end, and she gives up her kingdom (meh).
Some of the fun parts:
1. While fighting re-spawning giants and dragons all night (courtesy of black magic) Dietrich and his mentor Hildebrand rescue a knight from a dragon's mouth. Literally. That's a whole new level of "Look what the dragon dragged in!"
2. Much in the  vein of Hansel and Gretel, the maidens offered to the evil giants as sacrifice are kept in a chamber, being fattened for consumption. For some reason, I found this amusing. Especially since the wording said: "In the castle they found three of the queen's maidens, cooped up for fattening."
3. Virginal has an "undefeated champion," a dwarf called Bibung, who during the story turns out to be a tremendous coward.
4. There is a cosmic battle in the end with human heroes, magicians, dragons, giants, evil hounds, and all kinds of natural disasters. Very epic.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Whirlwind of Stories

Sunday is Visiting Day! We take a break from writing A to Z, and catch up on visiting other blogs. If you are looking for A to Z posts, scroll on down!
In the meantime, I am going to write about an awesome storytelling gig I had earlier this week.

After a long semester of snow days and schoolwork, I finally had the time and the opportunity to return to the local school that I adopted for storytelling practice purposes. They invited me in for Right to Read Week. I was scheduled to visit 7 classrooms on Thursday, and 2 on Friday - it was going to be a whirlwind of stories!
I unleashed a full semester's worth of pent-up storytelling energy. The kids didn't know what hit 'em. I broke in three new stories:
The King's Daughter who Lost her Hair (an Akamba folktale, about a princess who is mean to a magic bird and in return she goes bald; a hero has to go out and find a magic hair tree for her)
The Red Lion (a Persian folktale, about a prince who is terrified of lions, but no matter ow far he runs, he keeps encountering them, until he learns to face his fear)
The Sisimiqui (a Costa Rican folktale that features a rabbit riding an armadillo into battle) (yeah you read that right) (5th grade actually tagged this one "Assassin's Creed: Bunnyrabbit")
All three worked great. I did the princess one multiple times, and it was not only tremendous fun to tell, but it also managed to hold the kindergartners' rapt attention for almost twenty minutes!

I told a bunch of other things as well, such as Greek myths in 4th grade (Dionysus and the Pirates, and the fable of Momus - because they asked for my favorite), Journey to the West and some Nart sagas in 6th grade (I was really not planning on the former, but they were still talking about our trickster stories from last year, and before I knew it, I was asking them "have you ever heard about the Monkey King?..."), the adventures of St. Vincent de Paul (it's a Catholic school), and the meeting of Oisín and St. Patrick (to explain how tales get written down).
One of the things I loved the most was the questions kids asked. After every story they got to ask me anything they wanted to know, and most of them had great questions (if you ask me, the education system needs to encourage all students to ask as much as they can...). The first and second graders, for example, after hearing the tale of Oisín and Niamh and St. Patrick, had a slew of fun questions, such as "Who was Oisín's mother?" and "What was the name of his friends?" and "How could the horse run on water?" and "Where did the fairies go?" and "Are the Fianna the same as knights?" and even "Why did Oisín not die when he aged 300 years?" I was happy that I have a solid background knowledge in Fianna legends - answering their questions promptly and with real information delighted both them and me.

I was completely spent by the end of the day, but it was totally worth it.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

P is for the Panther Skin Knight (Epics from A to Z)

The Knight in the Panther's Skin, written by poet Shota Rustaveli, is the national epic of Georgia. The epic poem was composed in the 12th century, under the reign of Queen Tamar, with whom sources suggest the poet was distantly and madly in love. I read the epic in its English prose translation.
The Knight in the Panther's Skin is a tale of love and adventure. It doesn't actually take place in Georgia - rather, it happens in a half-imaginary landscape between Arabia, India, and the Kingdom of the Seas. And while it aims to tell a double love story, it ends up being something more than that: A tale of friendship and loyalty.

The Heroes
The two main male heroes of the epic are Avtandil, commander-in-chief of the Arabian armies, and Tariel, a young king from India (the latter being the knight in the title). Both of them are great champions - honorable, brave, loyal, and blindingly handsome. They are also both madly in love with two young queens, Queen Tinatin of Arabia, and Nestan-Darejan of India, respectively. The story centers on Tariel's exile from India and his meeting with Avtandil. The two love-struck heroes soon become best friends, and Avtandil takes it on himself to reunite Tariel with Nestan, which he manages to do, after many adventures.
Next to the star-crossed power couples, there are also some notable female supporting characters in the epic, such as Tariel's loyal sister Asmat who follows him into exile, and Phatman, a rich woman from the City of Flowers, who saves Nestan-Darejan in her exile and makes sure the lovers end up united.

The Highlights
After reading so many epics centered on fighting, I enjoyed this tale of love, intrigue and adventure. It is essentially a friendship for the ages, between Avtandil and Tariel, as well as between the two queens, and their supporting cast. Some things that I especially liked:
1. The fair treatment of women. They not only become sovereigns in their own right (spoilers, even Asmat gets a kingdom), but they are also described with the respect and admiration due to sovereigns, and their legitimacy is never questioned.
2. The importance of friendship. "He who does not seek a friend is his own enemy," says Avtandil at some point. One of the great messages of the epic is that no one can be a hero alone. One of the most powerful scenes is when Avtandil talks Tariel out of suicide, with compassion and ingenuity.
3. Phatman's character. Not only is she crucial to saving Nestan who had been thrown out of her kingdom, but she also acts as a mother figure and some kind of early feminist icon to her. She clearly takes pleasure in sleeping with younger men and she admits it - and she never gets punished for it. She is a rich, clever, independent lady married to a not-too-bright husband, and she puts her means to good use, helping young love find its way.
4. The cathartic final fight. Avtandil, Tariel and their third king-friend, Nuradin-Phridon, launch an attack against an impregnable citadel to rescue Nestan. It is a fairly well done fight scene (with some serious planning), but the crowning moment of it all is the end: Once the fortress is secured Avtandil and Phridon go in search of Tariel (they got separated in the fight). They find a trail of dead guards and scattered weapons, and finally find Tariel himself inside the citadel, helmet cast away, sword dropped, kissing Nestan for dear life. Boom. Hollywood ending. I totally ship them.
5. Love is suffering. I like how much guys suffer from love in this story. They definitely don't hide their emotions or try to look tough. They sigh, they cry, they faint. One of my favorite moments early on is when Tariel tries to write a love letter to Nestan and fails; finally his sister Asmat dictates to him what to write. Because that's what big sisters are for, after all.

Friday, April 17, 2015

O is for Ogier the Dane (Epics from A to Z)

I remember reading the story of Holger Danske in a picture book when I was little: The story said that he was a great knight who now sleeps under the castle of Kronborg in Denmark, waiting to wake up and return when he is needed.

Ogier the Dane (French), or Holger Danske (Danish) is a hero from medieval romances of chivalry. While the stories claim he was a Danish prince, most of the romances in which he is featured are French and Italian. I read a prose version of his story based on a French romance (Chevalerie d'Ogier de Denamarche) written in the early 13th century.

The Hero
Ogier is the firstborn son of the king of Denmark. At his birth he is visited by "six ladies of ravishing beauty" who each grant him a gift (and, surprisingly, none of them curses the child). The last of the six is none other than Morgana le Fay, who takes her chance to call dibs on the little hero (after he has been gifted bravery, strength, and handsomeness).
Ogier grows up as a hostage in Charlemagne's court and becomes one of his greatest paladins (and makes friends with legendary characters such as Roland and Olivier). If you like the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, definitely read more about this court as well!
Ogier is strong, brave, and honorable - the very image of chivalry. What is even more important, though, is the gift given to him by the fourth fairy: “Lest all these gifts serve only to betray, I give you sensibility to return the love you inspire.” That's a very good quality for a hero.

The Highlights
The legend of Ogier the Dane has pretty much everything you would expect from a medieval romance of chivalry: Epic battles, daring duels, enchanted love, magical voyages, and even a trip to the Holy Land.
One of my favorite parts is the duel between Ogier (merely a day after he has been knighted) and the King of Mauritania, the Saracen Carahue. The son of Charlemagne, Charlot (who is very Mordred in a lot of ways) is also scheduled to duel with Carahue's cousin, but he decides to plan an ambush instead and get rid of the enemy, as well as Ogier (because he is jealous of his father's love for the young knight). Seeing the ambush Ogier and Carahue stop their duel and fight side by side - for chivalry, and against treason. They end up saving each other's lives and becoming best friends. Carahue keeps showing up over the course of the romance to save Ogier or help Charlemagne against other Moorish armies. It is a remarkable moment in the legend where honor and friendship trumps cultural and religious differences.
Another favorite character of mine is Turpin, who "occasionally recalled to mind that he was an archbishop." He is a priest, but also a knight and a warrior, and a very clever man - Charlemagne's most trusted adviser. He saves Ogier's life when he is imprisoned: The king plans to starve him to death by only allowing a quarter loaf of bread and a quarter cup of wine a day. Turpin, keeping to the word of the law, starts making loaves from two bushels of flour, and makes a cup the size of a barrel, keeping Ogier well fed. He is a fun, clever, likable character, and I have loved him since I read a folktale about him saving Charlemagne from enchantment (Aix-la-Chapelle: The Magic Ring).
Ogier has a wife, and a hundred-year enchanted love affair with Morgana, but the most touching love story happens at the end of his tale: After missing almost two hundred years of French history, he returns from Avalon to find Hugh Capet on the throne. He is introduced to the young queen, who is very curious about Ogier's stories and the history he lived; he tells her all of his life, and they fall in love through long conversations. When Hugh Capet dies, Ogier proposes to the queen... But sadly, the marriage never comes to pass.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

N is for the Nart sagas (Epics from A to Z)

(I have written about the Nart sagas once last year, but they are amazing enough to be featured again.)

The Nart sagas are the shared epic heritage of several ethnicities that live in the Caucasus. Some researchers suggest that the original core of this large corpus of stories was the Ossetian sagas (a group of people of Iranian roots), but now they are widely told by surrounding groups of various origins as well. There is a great English edition for many of the Circassian, Abaza, Abkhaz, and the Ubykh sagas, but the Ossetians were only available in Hungarian to me. John Colarusso seems to have been working on an English translation for a while now.

The Heroes
The Nart heroes are all one happy, magically endowed, slightly violent family. The matron presiding over it all is Satanaya, a mix of a fertility goddess and wise adviser. The male heroes include Soslan (or Sosruqo) who was tampered in wolf milk, but the milk didn't cover his knee (sounds familiar?) and because of that, he had a limp; Hamic and his son Batradz who he gave birth to because his wife was a frog princess (epics, amirite?...); as well as many other generations before and after.

The Highlights - 10 Reasons the Ossetian Nart Epics are Epic

1. Two heroes having a dance-off for the hand of a lady.
It's a refreshing change from people beating each other into the ground (which also happens a lot). Dancing happens on the blades of swords, with a bowl of water on one's head, and also on the feast tables around the food (and this was the only way I could picture it).

2. This story ending, after the hero wins the hand of a lady: "And they lived very happily for a while. But they realized that they were too different, and they decided to go their separate ways." Peaceful divorce ever after. Good for them.
3. This prophecy one hero comes by in the Underworld (which, by the way, is also a place that gives Dante a run for his laurels): "One day men and women will live peacefully as equals."
Important words from a culture where kidnapping wives was common practice at the time.
4. There is a God of Wolves called Tutir. I rest my case.
5. Sirdon the Trickster, Curse of the Narts. Dog person, single father of three. Pretty much described (accurately for a trickster) as "the Narts can't live with him, can't live without him." He is very close to Loki in attitude, but he is bullied way worse than the Norse trickster. Looks like the Narts torture him for kicks. To which he responds with nasty mischief of his own. Very layered character.
6. The practicality of the tale when Satana wants to tamper a newborn and red-hot hero baby in wolf milk (as you do), and her husband's response is: "Where the heck am I supposed to get wolf milk?!" He then goes on to ask for the help of the Mother of Dogs, and she herds a couple of hundred she-wolves into a pen. To which our hero responds: "Umm... okay, now how am I supposed to milk them?"
And really no one ever responds "Hey, we are in a mythical saga, it will just magically happen!"
Nope. He milks them with his own two hands.
7. The Nart hero Hamic has a Mustache of Steel.
And he kills a snake with it. Enough said.
8. The time the Narts got God on a technicality: God cursed them saying that no matter how much wheat they work a day, it will only amount to one bucket of grain. So they started only working a handful of wheat each day, and they still got a full bucket out of it. Sheer brilliance.
9. Smart woman moments such as "I am not marrying you, hero of the Narts, because your mother is evil" or "If you don't leave my tower right now, I will put your eyes out with my scissors." Nart women might not be equal to their heroes, but they sure do run things in the background. And they do raise a raiding army every once in a while.
10. The moment one hero explains how he learned not to hurt women: He tells his companions of a time when he was a guest in a house where only women lived (men were away) and he overheard them talking among themselves in a language they didn't know he spoke. He listened to their conversations and learned from them. In the adventure he claims that he would never hurt a woman for making a mistake (namely, even for cheating!) because he listened and now he knows better.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M is for Manas (Epics from A to Z)

The epic of Manas is the national epic of Kyrgyzstan, and UNESCO appointed as a Masterpiece in the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is truly epic in every sense of the word: In some of its sixty recorded versions it is more than 500.000 lines - twenty times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey put together (!!!). It is also estimated to be more then a thousand years old, which is all the more impressive because it has never been written down until the 20th century. It is regarded as one of the greatest examples of oral epic poetry in the entire world.
I only read a short snippet of the story from a book that focuses on the art of one particular storyteller. It was a selection of episodes from the epic, and although it was short, it was utterly captivating.

The Heroes
The epic follows the story of three generations of great heroes - Manas, Semetey, and Seytek. They are all strong, brave, honorable, and great leaders. In addition, they are surrounded by great warriors, loyal friends, and strong-willed women. They fight a lot, usually against the Chinese.
One of the great things about the successive generations of heroes is that their stories intertwine. People who were young alongside Manas return as old and trusted advisers to help young Semetey along the way. Their children join the next group of warriors. There is a lot of inter-generational continuity that adds to the heroes' character and background.
One of my favorite female heroes in the story is Kanikey, Manas' wife and the mother of Semetey. When her husband is killed, she puts on his armor, and runs into exile with her newborn child and her ninety-year-old frail mother-in-law. She does not only make it back to her homeland, but she also manages to stay strong until her son grows up, ready to reclaim his father's place. She becomes the matriarch of the next generation of heroes, and lives to return home in victory.

The Highlights
(These are the highlights from the particular book I read, I am sure there are many others).
1. Right off the bat, the story of Manas' father involves a magical nighttime otter wedding. With frolicking offer brides and husbands. Yes.
2. Hands-down my favorite character of the story was Almambet, Manas' best friend (okay, so maybe I just have a thing for heroes' best friends). He is born into a family on the Chinese side and trained as a special warrior from childhood, prepared specifically to assassinate Manas. However, when his father beats his Kyrgyz mother, he kills him and runs into exile, eventually befriending Manas and staying loyal to him to the very end. Almambet is smart, diplomatic, and takes advantage of his upbringing. He is apparently very good with the whip and the lasso. His son becomes Semetey's best friend too.
3. The epic expands on motifs known from folktales. For example, when two heroes kill a one-eyed giant, it goes into great detail about how giants can be killed - pointing out that there is too much fat for a bullet (they have guns) to pierce, and describing the problems with trying to hack off and transport the dead giant's head.
4. One of the best moments in the story was an expansion on the "Swan Bride" folktale type. Semetey marries a woman named Ay-cürök who can turn herself into a swan. This is not unusual in traditional stories - except, in this case she turns herself into a swan and goes out to spy on all the heroes in the world until she finds one she likes. Later on, when she is already married to Semetey, and the Kyrgyz are preparing for war, Semetey remembers her ability and sends her out to spy on the enemy. She fearlessly flies over the Chinese army, dodging bullets, and returns with good information. Heck yeah.
5. Another scene I really liked was twelve-year-old Kül-coro (Almambet's son) going on a mission as a messenger for Semetey. He has to get to Ay-cürök on the far side of a flooding river. He is terrified, but makes his horse jump into the water anyway. As he struggles against the current, the spirit of his father, accompanied by the spirit of Manas and all the heroes of the previous generation, appear to help him, lift him, and urge him on, telling him he has so much to live for, such a great life ahead of him. It is a really touching and powerful scene. (Yes, he makes it)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

L is for the Lianja epic (Epics from A to Z)

I have read a large number of epics for this challenge. This one was not only new for me too, but I also have to admit that it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful pieces of oral literature I have ever read. Because I loved it so much, today's post is going to be a little longer than usual, so I can fit all my favorite parts into it. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!

This epic, like yesterday's, is named after its main hero. The culture it belongs to is the Mongo, a Bantu ethnic group that lives in the tropical forests of the Congo Basin in Central Africa. This story has been narrated since the 14th century; the English text I read is based on the performances of three storytellers, recorded in the 1980's. The narration is divided into three nights' performances (the introduction of the book describes really well what these performances look like).

The Lianja epic, unlike many others I have read for this challenge, is a story of peace. It is the tale of a foretold hero-messiah who will come to lead warring tribes to brotherhood and prosperity. It is exciting, eloquent, visually captivating, all-around gorgeous, and has a strong, amazingly relevant message of peace, forgiveness, and cross-cultural understanding.

The Hero
Lianja, while definitely the most important, is not the only hero in the story - in fact, he is not even born until the third night of the performance. He is preceded by a line of strong and wise men and women, like Bokele who leads the Mongo out of darkness into the light, Lianja's father the half-spirit Ilele, or his mother Mbombe, who is not only a famous wrestler, but also named Lady of Wisdom for her advocacy for peace. Lianja also shares his destiny for peace with his twin sister Nsongo.

The Highlights
Too many to count, really. Here are some of my favorites:

1. The prominent role of women. They fight beside their husbands (they lead armies and they have their own groups of experienced female warriors), they decide their own destiny, and they give speeches of wisdom to the community. One time the elders of a council try to shut wise woman Mama Isaso up, and instead a spirit appears to tell them that they should listen.
2. The descriptions of nature. This epic teems with beautiful, detailed descriptions of scenery, nature, and everything that lives. My favorite line is "The clouds played acrobatic games across the sky."
3. The questioning of the enemy's motives. Multiple times in the epic heroes ask themselves: What made our enemies hate us? What do they think about us? Even evil spirits are described like this: "They are infinitely asking themselves the meaning of their lives. As they are questioning themselves and how to change their lives they are lost in their thoughts and thus go around all the cosmos creating havoc, death and misconduct among the living."
4. This line: "How much better is life among strangers with light, than home without the sun and the moon."
5. Choosing a wife: After every nation and kingdom sends girls he can choose form, Ilele turns down the "short-listed" (sic!) bride, saying he wants to marry a girl he had "met, talked with, and loved." He goes on a journey, and joins a group of girls at a dance celebration, picking one he likes. But when he says "I want you to be my wife" this it he response he gets: "Your wife? What do you mean by your wife? A first wife? A second one? Or just for the occasion?" (This smart girl turns out to be a half-spirit herself, and they don't get married). Eventually, Ilele wrestles Mbombe in a pool of palm oil and defeats her, and they get married (she actually wants to marry him before the wrestling, but she says she can't give any suitor preferential treatment). In the wedding song the ideal wife is described as "a girl of plentifulness, selflessness and greatness, a girl of bravery, courage and without self praise, a girl of kindness, power and a sense of humor." Damn right.
6. Talk before action. Most conflicts in the epic are solved through talking them out. When Mbombe is bullied for her too-long pregnancy, the elders gather the community and explain to them how their words hurt her, in simple terms so they can understand. The epic says "Even those who spoke ill of Mbombe did not quite hate her, though they may have said some things out of jealousy." When Mbombo's husband is killed by the rival Sau-Sau (instigated by evil spirits), she is the first one to stand up and say the Mongo should not take revenge, because violence does not bring a solution. She only starts grieving after she makes sure no one goes off to avenge her husband.
7. The miraculous birth of Lianja: Mbombe, after years of pregnancy, becomes a sort of All-Mother: She gives birth to insects, birds, animals, and an entire race of people, before at last her twins are born, fully grown and ready for action. One of the small details I really liked is that Mbombe approaches her children with caution: They might be hers, but they have just been born, and she does not know what they are like, or how they think. They are, essentially, grown-up strangers to her.
8. The tortoises. Tortoises play important roles in the epic. My favorite part is when Mbombe lies to Lianja, telling him his father had died when a tree fell on him (she doesn't want him to go on a revenge quest). Lianja sends the tortoises to investigate. Tortoises stage a re-enactment of the accident to see if a tortoise can get away from a falling tree. When they succeed, they report back to Lianja that his father could not have died that way. CSI: Tortoise. (They also say "trees hate to drink human blood.")
 9. Minimum casualties. After the epic final battle, and killing the evil chief-spirit that ruled the Sau-Sau, Lianja brings all his dead warriors and his enemies back to life to start a new nation together. They cut down the tree that started the war, and plant a tree of peace in its place. Lianja then sets out to lead his people to a Promised Land, and many other groups join them on the way. When they are attacked and they have to fight. Lianja always brings back the dead from both sides.
10. One of the beautiful parts of the journey is the time the traveling nation takes refuge in the branches of a baobab tree from a group of evil ogres. The tree protects them, and in exchange they heal the tree when the ogres try to cut it down. Powerful image.

Monday, April 13, 2015

K is for the Kalevipoeg (Epics from A to Z)

The Kalevipoeg is the national epic of Estonia. Much like its close cousin, the Finnish Kalevala, it has been pieced together from folk songs, tales and ballads by an ambitious 19th century poet. Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald had a lot less material to work from than Elias Lönnrot, and the first version of his epic couldn't even be published due to censorship (there are some pretty risky details in there) - but he still managed to compile a twenty-song long continuous story. The epic is now available in English both in verse and in prose format.

The Hero
The hero of the epic is called Kalevipoeg; he is named after his father, Kalev, who was a famous hero himself. With that said, Kalevipoeg is the least likable character in the entire epic. He is very strong and large - in the original tales, he is a giant - but he is not very smart, and he also treats women fairly badly (and sometimes violently). Like any decent hero, he has a magic sword, but his first feat is to get drunk and kill the son of the blacksmith who forged it. In return, the blacksmith curses the sword, and it becomes Kalevipoeg's downfall in the end.

The Highlights
So if the hero is not exactly a likable fellow, why should anyone read this epic?
Well, here are some reasons I found:
1. The first song. It tells us the story of Kalevipoeg's mother, and her cosmic courtship by the Sun, Moon, Water, Fire, and other supernatural suitors, before Kalev comes along. There are various versions of this tale collected from Estonia; one of them tells of the creation of the Milky Way.
2. Wizards. There are many different kinds of wizards in the world of the epic. There are word-wizards, wind-wizards, death-wizards, and my personal favorites, salt-sorcerers. They all have their own spells, magic rites, and personalities.
3. The tiny episode where Kalevipoeg gives a spiky coat to a naked hedgehog. Because: naked hedgehog.
4. The description of Hell (Kalevipoeg visits the underworld multiple times) from where three girls are rescued. Hell itself is a series of chambers - according to folktale tradition we see chambers of iron, copper, silver, gold... aaaand then we go on to silk, velvet, and lace. The rescued girls take some time to loot the latter rooms before they return to the world of the living. I would too. Also, the three girls get their own story after they are rescued, and they generally fare better than other women in the epic. (The second descent into the underworld is also entertaining - it reads like a well-designed Dungeons & Dragons adventure, with caves and traps and everything.)
5. Song 16 tells us the story of Kalevipoeg's mythic journey to the end of the world in the far North. There are whirlpools, whales, islands of fire, and half-canine men - all in all, pretty much everything that makes a mythic voyage a mythic voyage.
6. Olev. There are other heroes around Kalevipoeg (Alev, Sulev and Olev), and Olev is by far the most likable. He spends his time building splendid cities for people. When Kalevipoeg realizes that he is not really a good king (duh), he gives up his throne for Olev. Best choice he makes in the entire epic.
7. The language. Much like the Kalevala, the Kalevipoeg also has an enchanting, repetitive, alliterative rhythm that lulls you into reading it. I imagine it would be even more enthralling if sung.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Visiting day: Favorite themes in A to Z!

The second week of the A to Z Challenge has come to an end, therefore we are about halfway through the alphabet! As I do my visiting rounds today, I wanted to gather a list of some of my favorite themes this year (in no particular order). I have also been tweeting about them, but I thought it would be nice to have a more static  collection.

First off, a shout out to my fabulous Legendary Ladies, the four bloggers who are helping me stay on top of my co-host duties this year!

Mary Garrett, or Storyteller Mary, blogging about Tales out of School.
Mary Garrett, writer and storyteller, tells folk tales, humorous tales and personal stories. She shared stories with her students at Francis Howell North High School and has since told at the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration, Texas, Timpanogos (Utah), O.O.P.S. (Ohio), and NSN (national) conferences, the St. Louis and St. Charles Storytelling Festivals, the Greater St. Louis Renaissance Faire, day care centers, parks, scout events, elementary through high schools, and retirement communities.

Lanise Brown, blogging about the Most Beautiful Libraries in the World.
Lanise Brown is a bookworm who dabbles in everything from science fiction to romance, classics, literary, nonfiction, graphic novels, and more. She's a daydreamer, would-be Timekeeper, ebook hoarder, part-time ninja, and an avid lover of all things Steampunk. In her spare time, she likes to write tales of science fiction and romance. 
Twitter @Lanise_BrownFacebook @

Courtney Turner, blogging about Life on Maui
Courtney Turner blogs about life on Maui from a jungalow (jungle bungalow), providing amusing insider perspectives about the reality of living on Maui as opposed to vacationing on Maui so that Maui residents can be more informed and connected.

Corinne Rodrigues, blogging about the A to Z of Self Leadership


And now, to some of the themes I have been avidly reading and following this year:

Scottish Folktales, at The Wee White Hoose

Mythological Ramblings, at A Year with the Mad Grad Student

Heidi Dahlsveen's storytelling theme on Understanding Trolls (the Norwegian folklore kind, not the Internet kind)

Minor characters and their stories in Indian epics, on Modhukori

The Little Princess' theme of the many types of love, and tales from India to illustrate all of them

Famous and intriguing personalities from the 16th century on The Art of Not Getting Published (and not just from Europe!)

Sharon Marie Himsl's theme on Famous Inventions by Women

Hannah Givens' theme on LGBT+ superheroes! I am learning a lot from this one! :)

The theme of female monsters and the monstrous feminine on Part Time Monster

The mythology theme on Flaming Sun, presenting a full tale every day, mostly from Indian mythology

Sarah Zama's theme on the Roaring Twenties in America

Alex Hurst's beautiful posts and pictures about life in Japan

Sara C. Snider's theme on tree-related writing prompts for amazing flash fiction

The "Names from the Decameron" theme on Onomastics Outside the Box

Happy visiting, happy posting!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

J is for the Jómsvikings (Epics from A to Z)

Short version: The Jómsvikings are the Avengers of the 10th century.
More accurately: The Avengers are the Jómsvikings of the 21st century.

The Jómsvíkinga Saga is an Icelandic saga written sometime in the 13th century. It takes place in Denmark, Norway, Wales, and Jómsborg, and ends with the Battle of Hjörungavárg in 986 AD. It details the (long and complex) family background, deeds, and eventual downfall of a group of select Viking heroes known as the Jómsvikings. Much like the Fianna of Ireland, they are a brotherhood of elite warriors, the best of the best, not admitted based on anything else but bravery and personal prowess. Both of which there is a lot to go around in this story.

The Heroes
The heroes of the saga are the Jómsvikings, living in their own walled city (Jómsborg) under strict rules - men only, loyalty to each other, no preferential treatment, equal distribution of booty, that kinda stuff. The founder of the place is Pálna-Tóki, and after his death Sigvaldi, who is not as good a leader, and manages to let the whole thing crumble on a drunken bet (great job, Sigvaldi).
One of the most notable characters is Vagn, who shows up at the water-gates of Jómsborg at the ripe old age of twelve, demanding entry into the brotherhood. He is refused on grounds of creeping everyone out, and also the fact that he is underage (rules only allow membership to men between eighteen and fifty). He proceeds to soundly beat Sigvaldi in a naval battle, and gains admission anyway.

Apart from your usual run-of-the-mill fighting and pillaging, the saga offers a few remarkable moments, especially towards the end. They mostly involve fighting:
1. Much of the end of the saga (I'm not giving out spoiler alerts here, the story has been out since the 13th century, deal with it) involves the captured Jómsvikings being executed by their enemies. It is a fascinating lineup of warriors going to their death, each one making a different joke or proposing fun little experiments. One of them insists that his long and fabulous hair has to remain clean and intact; then, just when the executioner swings the sword, he yanks his head down, and the sword takes off the arms of the man who had been holding the hair out of the way. The kid (barely 18) looks up and asks with a shit-eating grin: "Whose hands are in my hair...?" He gets to live, Vikings appreciate a good practical joke.
2. Another battle-related moment of epic is delivered by Búi, one of the Jómsvikings, who loses both his hands in the last battle of the company. Instead of being fazed by this at all, he puts the arm-stumps through the hoops of a chest of gold, and jumps overboard with it, transforming into a dragon.Yup.
3. And still on the topic of lost appendages - I'm sensing a theme here, you guys - there is some bravery on the opposite side as well: Geirmundr, the commander of a town attacked by the Jómsvikings, jumps out of a building, gets an arm cut off by Vagn, and then manages to run through the woods all the way to the earl's court to warn him of the impending danger. He does it in a calm, collected and professional manner, reporting on numbers first, before the earl asks him if he has any proof. To which Geirmundr responds, "Oh yeah, they cut off my arm, see?" and follows up by providing information on the enemy's best warriors. "One of them got my ring."

Ain't no party like a Jómsborg party.

The Real Jómsborg
Although contested by some historians and archaeologist, it is generally believed that Jómsborg stood somewhere in the place of modern day Wolin, Poland. Every year the town celebrates this fact with Europe's largest Viking festival, involving historical reenactors from all corners of the continent and beyond. Definitely worth a visit.

Friday, April 10, 2015

I is for the Ibong Adarna (Epics from A to Z)

(I bet you thought it was gonna be the Iliad, huh)

Ibong Adarna (The Adarna Bird) is a metrical romance from the Philippines. It was originally written in Tagalog sometime in the 17th century while the Philippines were under Spanish rule; the author is unknown. It consists of 1034 short verses that rhyme in the original language; sadly, they don't rhyme in the English translation, but the story was still enjoyable.
The story itself is an elaborate mash-up of many well-known folktale types. We have three princes that go on quests, magic birds to find, princesses to rescue, dragons to slay, bird-maidens to steal dresses from, magical flights with objects turning into obstacles... the works. It reads as if the author decided to put the "best of" lineup of fairy tale motifs into one continuous romance. They succeeded.

The Hero
The hero of the epic, Don Juan, is the youngest of the three sons of King Fernando of Berbania (feeling some Spanish influence here). He does everything a youngest prince does: Surpasses his older brothers until they want to kill him, goes on long and elaborate adventures, and survives against all impossible odds. Don Juan in this case is also quite amorous. He will woo any princess that comes his way, which creates an interesting conflict at the end of the story: All the princesses he swore his love to show up for a wedding, and since this is a Christian romance, Don Juan can only wed one of them. Oops.

Although it follows well-known folktale types, the story does have a few rare gems:

1. The Adarna Bird. Not just any magical bird - it sings beautifully every night seven times, and molds between songs so its feathers take on seven different hues. Also, if it poops on you, you turn to stone.
2. One of the princesses rescued from the Underworld has a pet wolf. A magical pet wolf. A flying magical pet wolf. Yep.
3. One of the settings for the epic is a place called the Crystal Kingdom (or, as it is said in the translation, "Kingdom de los Cristal"). It is mostly named so because the failed suitors of the princess turn into crystal instead of stone. Now there is a visual I would love to see in a movie.
4. The end of the romance is definitely the best part. After Don Juan returns home with Bride B (Doña Maria), he meets Bride A (Doña Leonora) again, and completely forgets about Bride B. Doña Maria, who is by the way a very accomplished white magic sorceress, comes to the wedding and puts on a shadow-puppet show, telling the story of how she met Don Juan, and how she had saved his life more than eight times (!). Every time the shadow-puppet bride hits her foolish shadow-puppet husband, it is Don Juan who actually gets hurt. Because magic. Doña Maria successfully makes her case with the show, and ends up marrying Don Juan. Doña Leonora gets to marry one of the older brothers. 
Happily Ever After.