Monday, December 10, 2018

Land of witches (Following folktales around the world 95. - Andorra)

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!

Andorra is a Catalan-speaking country, so I had trouble finding a full book of folktales in a language that I could read. But I did manage to scavenge up some Andorran legends and tales from the Internet. Here they are:

The piper of Ordino

A famous piper is on his way to play at a wedding when he is attacked by wolves. He climbs a tree and starts playing the pipes; the sound makes the wolves flee. Villages find him the next morning, still playing his music to keep the wolves away.

The White Lady of Aubinyá

A greedy bishop takes advantage of the poor, until the White Lady, a woman who inherited the lands from her father, lures the bishop into the deep woods, and he is never seen again. At the same time, a large wolf starts prowling the forests. Draw your own conclusions.

Lake Engolasters

A beggar arrives to a small town, but no one takes pity on him; people chase him away or trick him, until a girl takes pity and gives him some bread. In exchange, he advises her to flee immediately. That night a flood drowns the entire town, and Lake Engolasters is born. The lake becomes a favorite bathing place of Andorran witches.
(Here is another version)

The Virgin of Meritxell

On the day of the Three Wise Men (January 6) people on their way to church find an image of the Virgin under a blooming rose bush. They take the image to the church, but by the next morning it miraculously returns to the bush, so they build a chapel for her there instead.

The seven-armed cross

A boy is terrified of the devil, so seven other boys decide to trick him. They send him for wine at night, armed with an (unloaded) pistol. Sadly, the shopkeeper loads the pistol for him, and on the way back he ends up shooting the boy dressed in bed sheets who is trying to scare him. At the place of the accident a cross appears with seven arms.

The rock of witches

This legend explains the origins of the Bronze Age rock carvings pictured below. It is said that Andorran witches fought the devil and threw him off a cliff; the claws of the devil left the marks on the rocks.

Where to next?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nobody expects the Spanish princesses (Following folktales around the world 94. - Spain)

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!

Cuentos ​Populares Españoles
José María Guelbenzu
Siruela, 2006.

The book contains 117 Spanish folktales, somewhat re-worded for contemporary readers from their dialects, but kept in their original shape. It is a good selection from all the regions of Spain, including Catalonia and the Basque Country. There are sources in the end, but the tales themselves follow each other without chapters or themes, so it was a surprise every time I turned the page to see what would come next - fairy tale, legend, anecdote, or something else? It is a great, colorful, enjoyable selection with many memorable stories.


Right now, just before the holidays, it was nice to read Aguinaldo, the tale of two poor children who set out to direct the Three Wise Men to their cottage (because the year before they did not get any presents from them). They meet a lady instead, who sends them on an adventurous journey to an enchanted castle. Similarly touching was the story of the Repentant robbers, in which a holy monk mocked an arrested criminal for being destined to Hell - and then he got a divine reminder that anyone can change for the better if they want to. The tale of The purest blood also had a timely lesson that a king taught to his mean son - that his blood is the same read as the blood of the poor, and his infant child also looks the same. The Catalan story of the Green Cap, on the other hand, had a less optimistic message. In it, a witch gave a man a cap that let him hear everyone's thoughts - and he soon concluded that all people are horrible.
One of my favorite stories was The sewing box of the anjana. A poor woman found the sewing kit of an anjana (one-eyed witch), and after giving away each pin for a good cause, she was rewarded with help for rescuing her son from a giant. The tale of The Dwarf also had a female hero, who, after accidentally eloping with the wrong guy, rescued a princess for eternal torture. A long list of other female heroes followed: Three sisters rescued themselves from a giant's Castle with Seven Towers, and a wife accused of adultery proved her innocence with a pair of Golden shoes and genius trickery. Dwarves also made other appearances, among them one where a Sepherd befriended a Dwarf, and they rescued a princess together.
Some well-known tale types took unexpected turns in this book. The Sleeping Princess was a Sleeping Beauty variant where the girl was awakened by the prince pulling the splinter from her hand (bonus points), but after she got pregnant the prince went home to his wife (minus point). The wife then tried to get rid of the other family by cooking the kids and serving them to her husband (minus points), and while the princess and the prince eventually married, the kids did not come back to life like in other versions. Angelina and the Lion was a Beauty and the Beast variant where the woman looking for her husband dressed as a soldier, and killed the dragon as a side quest. The Dragon Prince was saved by a girl who had to make a shirt out of a princess' hair to break his curse - the princess turned out to be his sister in a surprising plot twist. It was also a princess who made herself a Louse Skin drum and offered a reward to whoever could guess its origins; a man, with the help of some people with superpowers, guessed right, and got a reward (but not the princess). The ring that said "I'm here" was a classic Cyclops-legend, except here the hero was a clever girl rather than Odysseus.
Some tales ended on a less triumphant note: In The charcoal burner and Death a mortal tried to trick Death, but Death pretended to hang herself, and tricked the mortal instead by giving him a false sense of triumph. The story of the heroic Juan y Medio ended when the hero kidnapped a princess, who in turn tricked him with the age-old "tar baby" trick, left him to drown in the ocean, and went home.


I encountered many of my favorite tale types in this book. There was a version of the Three Gifts story, where the princess wanted three husbands, but her father insisted that she should choose. When the three princes used their magic objects to save her together, she said "see, all three were needed!", and married all of them. Lavender Flower was a variant of my favorite Italian Canary Prince, and Green Rose (Rosa Verde) was a variant of the fiery Mediterranean Basil Maiden. Also Mediterranean is the story of the marriage of Butterfly and Mouse, which I have encountered in South America before.
The best changeling story I have read so far was that of the Lost Boy. In it, the husband kept trying to kill the changeling child, but the wife kept stopping him, saying the changeling was just a child, and deserved love. Eventually, the real child was also found, and it turned out that the wife's kindness had broken the spell.
There were many, many classic tale types featured in the book: Tom Thumb (Periquillo), Two Hunchbacks, Thee oranges (here the fairies appeared from the oranges with their children in their arms), Hero who could turn into three animals, Bluebeard (the girl saved herself and her sisters), Three spinners, Puss in Boots, Princess in the shroud, Princess that saw everything, Blacksmith and the devil (or Juan Soldado), Tía Miseria and Death, Animal Bride (here with a frog, helped by her sister who was a snake), Brementown Musicians, Devil's three golden hairs, Raven brothers (here lion brothers), Faithful servant (here the kid stayed dead too), Gold-spitting prince, Stone of Pain and Dagger of Love (I knew this as a Turkish tale), Fortunatus, Girl who turned into a man (specifically so that she could marry into the royal family), Juan el Oso, Extraordinary helpers, Princess who stole magic items from three heroes, Queen bee, Three Little Pigs (with female pigs who built houses together).
As for tricksters, Juan Bobo and the fox deserve a mention (the latter for the classic down-into-the-well trick she used on the wolf).

Where to next?

Monday, November 26, 2018

Tales of endless adventures (Following folktales around the world 93. - Republic of Ireland)

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!

Folktales of Ireland
Sean O'Sullivan
University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Yet another classic on any storyteller's bookshelf. It contains fifty-five stories, divided into thematic chapters (Animals and birds, Kings and warriors, Wizards and witches, etc.). It has a long and detailed Foreword and Introduction about the history of Irish folklore collection and storytelling. Each tale comes with detailed notes, sources, type numbers, as well as a glossary and a bibliography at the end of the book. As a 20th century folklore collection, the book is missing the well known big Irish legends, but it has plenty of amazing lesser known folk stories.


Many of the stories in the book are long, complex, multi-episode wonder tales. For example, I loved the story of Céatach, an apprentice magician who rescued his master's daughter from Steel Skull, ended up in Ireland, went through quests to keep her from the Fianna, died, and was brought back eventually by his crafty wife. This was also not the only story where the Fianna made an appearance. In one legend, we found out how the heroes of the Fianna got their magical abilities from a woman named Youth; in another, we got a backstory for the birth of Oscar, Oisín's son, and his adventures in finding his place among the heroes (this one also told about Goll Mac Morna defeating three witches). Nex to the Fians, Cú Chulainn also appeared in one tale, although more as a storyteller rather than a warrior.
One of the deepest, more complex stories in the book was that of The man who was rescued from hell. In it, a woman left her abusive husband, found a new home with her mother, fell in love with a cursed man, and went all the way to hell to save him, herself, and many other souls (including her ex-husband). Similarly hard-hitting was the story where a man visited the Queen of the Planets to ask some questions, and got to witness how she decides the fates of people in various gruesome ways. Among the historical legends, the most fascinating was about the friar who foretold Cromwell's invasion, and helped a man keep his Irish lands. In the end, Cromwell went to hell, obviously.
Among the fairy legends, my favorite was Seán Palmer's voyage to America with the fairies - the man visited his friends and relatives in New York and Boston within one night, and got home to Ireland by morning. Apart from fairies, a leprechaun was also mentioned - but here, instead of giving away treasure, it just laughed at the misfortunes of its captor. Of the stories about witches and wizards, the best one was that of the Black Art, in which a father realized his wife was a witch when he saw his little girl playing at sinking ships by magic...


The story of the Cold May night resembled the Welsh story of the Ancient of the World - an eagle set out to find the oldest living creature, and ended up realizing that Old Crow had been alive longer than anyone in the world. After Scotland I once again found a Man who had no story (but got one by the end of a wild magic-filled night), Heather ale (here the secret recipe belonged to the Danes, rather than the Picts), and a Cow that ate the piper (or so it appeared). Many of the fairy legends had familiar elements in them, such as the fairy midwife.
The story of the four-leafed shamrock resembled the Grimm tale fo the Rooster Beam, in which a clover allowed its owner to see through a magician's illusions.
Among tricksters we had the fox who outwitted animals and people alike (e.g. by pretending to be dead), but the most well-known was Daniel O'Connell, who picked up a lot of classic trickster motifs along the way - such as a "smell of money for the smell of food" type story.

Where to next?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Land of legends (Following folktales around the world 92. - Northern Ireland)

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!

Armagh Folk Tales
Frances Quinn
The History Press, 2014.

Because I do this challenge by political and not cultural borders, I get to read two books of Irish folktales. Yay! This first one is by storyteller Frances Quinn, whom I heard personally tell some of these stories last year, on location (a treat!). The book collects fifty stories from County Armagh, including some very famous classic Irish legends that have connections to Ulster. All of them are researched and retold by an excellent storyteller, and make an exciting read. The book has no notes or bibliography, but it does preface every story with sources and origin. Chapters are themed by story types, from legends through anecdotes to local lore.


Many famous Irish legends have connections to Armagh. Emain Macha (Navan Fort), legendary home of the Ulster kings and heroes falls inside the boundaries of the country, so technically any story of the Ulster cycle could fit within this book. Many of them did, starting with the Twins of Macha, a woman who was forced to run a race with the king's horses while heavily pregnant, won, gave birth to twins, and then cursed the men of Ulster to have birthing pains whenever they were attacked (best curse in legend and lore). Another Macha, Macha Mongrúad was also a fierce woman, winning herself a kingdom and keeping it against all odds.
Talking about Ulster heroes, of course there are several legends in the book that feature Cú Chulainn (including the one about how he won his name). Similarly famous are the Children of Lir (who spend 900 years changed into swans), and Deirdre of the Sorrows, probably the most famous tragic love story in Ireland. To my delight, there was even a Fianna story, the Hunt on Slieve Gullion - last year, when we visited Armagh with the FEST conference, I got to climb the mountain and see the setting of that story for myself. Another member of the Fianna, Oisín, also made an appearance, helping Saint Patrick fight off a raging bull and find a place to build the cathedral of Armagh.
I have always liked the story of Fergus Mac Leide, which is the earliest known mention of leprechauns. This book's version had a different opening than the one I was familiar with, but it did end the same way: With the king in his water-walking shoes encountering a monster under a lake... I also got to read about the mermaid Liban (who became St. Murigen later on), and Black Pig Dyke, which was created when a bad teacher was cursed into a wild boar by a parent, and tore up the countryside. The most disturbing legend, however, was that of the Hungry grass, which grows on the graves of people who died in the Famine, and makes unsuspecting people starve to death.


I encountered yet another story that I knew from a local Hungarian version by my grandpa (the tale of bringing candles to the church to count sins). I have also read variants of "Lived once buried twice" from several countries - the tale of the wife who is woken up in the grave when a robber tries to cut her ring finger off. This book had two different versions of it, one of them from 1705.
There were, of course, sleeping knights (here associated with Black Pig Dyke and the end of the world), and many, many fairy legends - stolen women, nighttime dances, fair midwives, and changelings. My favorite text, however, was from a folklorist who overheard local people talking about him, and wrote the conversation down - the two fellows concluded in the end that the strange collector must be a fae himself.

Where to next?
Republic of Ireland!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Fairies, heroes, wizards (Following folktales around the world 91. - Scotland)

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!

The Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales
Neil Philip
Penguin Books, 1995.

Yet another folklore classic, with notes, sources, tale types, and a world of information. It represents various aspects of Scottish oral tradition; the 112 tales are grouped into chapters by region (Highlands and Lowlands), as well as story types (historical stories, anecdotes, fairy legends, etc.). The long introduction talks about tale type indexes, the features of oral storytelling, Scottish tradition, and even the roles of male and female tellers. Each story comes with sources, type numbers, and the teller's name. Many texts were written out phonetically, which made it harder for me to follow, and often I had to read them out loud to understand the words, but it was worth it. I found quite a few great stories in this book.


Kate Crackernuts
Some of my favorite Scottish folktales are featured in the book - for example Kate Crackernuts, with a heroine who saves a prince and also helps her stepsister (in a sort of reverse "dancing princesses" story); or Mally Whuppie, who repeatedly outwits a giant to save herself and her sisters. The latter also had a Highland variant, called Maol a Chliobain.
I really liked Maraiche Mairneal, the Weatherwise Mariner, who was not even the protagonist in his own story; the hero was a prince who had a snake twisted around his body, and in order to find the women who could help him get rid of it, he had to enlist the help of an old, blind mariner. All was well in the end. The story of The widow's son and the king's daughter took an unexpected turn when the hero, in order to defeat a fire-breathing dragon, got a camel, filled it up with water, and made it spew water at the flames of the dragon. Similarly unexpected was the story of The man in the boat, a version of "the man who had no story", in which said man was spirited away by a boat, turned into a woman, married, had children, and then got back on the same night - and now he had quite the story to tell. Teenagers love this story.
I was delighted to find quite a few Fianna legends in the book. Finn in the land of Big Men was familiar; I even have a version of it in my own book. Finn and the Grey Dog is also an old favorite of mine; I knew it from Rosemary Sutcliff's collection, but it was great to find the folk text as well. There was a variant of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees (here the Yellow Field), where the Fianna warriors get stuck to their chairs in an enchanted house, and the younger generation has to rescue them. And of course there was a story about Oisín (Ossian), after the Fianna.

Michael Scott's tomb
There were some fascinating historical legends as well. One was about the last of the Picts, and how father and son took the secret of the heather ale with them to the grave. I encountered Sir James Ramsay of Bamff, a legendary doctor with magical abilities, and Michael Scott, one of the most famous wizards in European lore (both were features in my book on superpowers).
Among the fairy legends, I really liked Black Lad MacCrimmon and the Banshee, where the fairy asked the piper lad if he wanted success without talent, or talent without success. He chose the latter.


A Fekete Bika képregény- változata (Image Comics)
There were quite a few classic tale types in the book, such as Mother killed me, father ate me; Cinderella; Beauty and the Beast (here the Black Bull of Norroway); Magic Flights (Green Sleeves); Frog Bride; The hunchback and the fairies; Clever Maiden; Water of Life (here with a friendly bear); Firebird (here with a friendly fox); and even Raven brothers (here with shirts made from bog cotton). There was a Scottish Frog Prince who had to be beheaded with an axe, rather than kissed. Rumpelstiltskin here was a woman named Whoppity Stoorie, and Frau Holle's tale was called The well at the end of the world (one of my storyteller friends recently released a CD with the Appalachian version of this).
I was reminded of other European wizards by Donald Duibheal Mackay who had not shadow, and other European tales by the Humble-bee that flew from the mouth of a sleeping person, and had dream-like adventures.
There were familiar Münchhausen tales among the anecdotes, such as the servant who ate one leg of the goose (known from the Decameron, and also my own grandfather), or the Mare's egg.
Of course I found sleeping knights, waiting for their king to appear; and there was also a Polyphemus story, but instead of blinded cyclops here it featured a blinded fairy (Tam M'Kechan).
The fairy legends were full of familiar motifs: Dance in the fairy hill, fairy midwife, changelings, wife kidnapped by fairies (who then had to choose between two husbands), and mortal traveling with fairies (Hurrah for Kintail!). There was also a selkie and an evil mermaid.
As for tricksters, we had George Buchanan, the king's clever fool.

Where to next?
Northern Ireland!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Arthur, Merlin, and the Fair Family (Following folktales around the world 90. - Wales)

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!

The Welsh Fairy Book
W. Jenkyn Thomas
F. A. Stokes, 1908.

This old volume contains a treasure trove of eighty-four Welsh fairy tales. They were collected by a teacher who wanted to make sure that his Welsh students could read stories from their own culture. The language of the tales is eloquent and entertaining, and many tale types repeat based on different places where they are said to have taken place. They are connected to the Welsh landscape - lakes, mountains, towns. Many of the names are difficult for the non-Welsh reader, but Thomas provides a handy pronounciation guide at the beginning of the book. I was delighted to discover that the original volume had been illustrated by Willy Pogány, an artist of Hungarian descent.


The drowning of the Bottom Hundred is an eerie legend about a kingdom protected by levees and devoured by a flood after the people whose job it was to keep everything in good shape neglected their duties. It is a very exciting, elaborate story with appealing characters such as a brave princess and a clever minstrel. Floods happened fairly often in these stories; another captivating yet dark legend was that of the Swallowed Court, where a king swapped his elderly wife for a fair young maiden, just to find out too late that the maiden was his old wife who had made a dark deal to regain her youth.
The curse of Pantannas was a story of truma passed down through the generations. A farmer plowed a fairy ring, but when the Fair Folk threatened him hi begged for the punishment to be passed down to his descendants instead. Generations later his descendant Madoc was stolen away on his wedding day, and only appeared again decades later, when all his loved ones were dead. Another tale, titled The ancients of the world, spanned a similarly long time: An ancient eagle wanted to marry someone who matched him in age, so he visited the other ancient creatures of the world until he found an Owl who was older than all of them.
Most of the book is taken up by various fairy legends. One of the most interesting was Elidyr's sojourn to Fairyland, from which we find out that fairies eat saffron milk, never lie, and their language is related to ancient Greek. Next to the fairies we also encounter the Pwca, a mischievous and dangerous trickster creature, and also some witches, in some cases a whole town of them (Goronwy Tudor and the witches of Llanddona).
The book also features some of the most famous Welsh legends, such as the origin of the Red Dragon as a symbol of Wales (along with Merlin's origin story), the tale of Gelert the faithful hound, and the Mantle of Beards, in which King Arthur kills Rhitta Gawr, who collects beards from defeated kings. I was also familiar with the story of Hu Gadarn, who, with the help of a maiden, saves his people from the water monster called Afanc.


If there is a country that can claim to be them home of the most Sleeping Knights, Wales is probably it. The knights of King Arthur are said to be asleep under various mountains, waiting to be called back to help their people. Of course the fairy legends followed familiar types: There were several fairy midwives with ointment in their eyes (e.g. Lowri Dafydd), changelings that had to be tricked (e.g. the Changeling of Llanfabon), and people who got lost in Fairyland and only returned years later. Even the Open, Sesame tale type featured fairies instead of thieves, whose secret world opened with a Fairy Password.
Some other familiar tale types were also featured in the book, such as Rumpelstiltskin (here the name was Sili go Dwt), or Cricket the false seer (here named Black Robin). Among the classic Welsh tales there was the King with horse's ears (just like the Greek King Midas), and also a surprise appearance from the White Woman whom I have not seen since South America. But the story that made me the happiest was that of Why the robin's breast is red, which echoes one of my favorite American folktales, about birds bringing water to Hell to ease the suffering.

Where to next?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Kindness against darkness: Halloween folktales of caring

I like Halloween stories that go beyond mere fright. Maybe because I used to be an anxious child, and jump tales made me cringe in advance; maybe because I never liked horror for horror's sake. When I started developing a Halloween repertoire as a storyteller visiting the USA, I was drawn towards stories that were less about the creatures of darkness, and more about how we face them.

This year, since the world is increasingly full of darkness anyway, I decided to post a selection of stories where scary things are balanced out with kindness and understanding. So, here is my Top 5.

The black kitty
W. B. McCarthy: Cinderella in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007.)
Polish-American folktale about a boy who is believed to be simple by his brothers, and yet he ends up breaking a curse on a castle and its residents. He does so by hugging a black kitten (an enchanted princess named Katie), and whispering "my kitty, my black kitty" even when dragons, storms, ghosts, and devils descend on the castle to scare him.

The wee little tyke
Ruth L. Tongue: Forgotten folk-tales of the English counties (Routledge, 1970.)
A girl finds a small black stray dog, and takes him home. The entirely family is cursed by a witch, and the home is a horrible place; cow doesn't give milk, hens don't lay eggs, etc. The wee little dog breaks the curses one by one, and chases the witch away. The family decides to adopt the pup, despite his heartbreaking worries: "But... I'm small!" "But you have sharp teeth!" "But... I'm black!" "So is our cat!"

(Bonus: These two tales can also be used to encourage people to get over their superstitions about adopting black pets.)

The skull
Ruth Manning-Sanders: A book of ghosts and goblins (Dutton, 1969.)
Folktale from Tirol. An orphan girl runs away from her cousin's, and comes across a castle in the woods. The castle is inhabited by a woman's skull that she makes friends with despite all the eerie things going on around it. At night, the girl hugs the skull and holds on to it even when the headless skeleton of an evil man tries to tear it away from her. Her bravery and caring breaks the curse on the woman's ghost, and the girl inherits the castle.

Drinking companions
Pu Songling: Strange stories from a Chinese studio (London, 1880.)
Chinese story of possible traditional origins. A fisherman makes friends with a mysterious person who turns out to be the ghost of a drowned man. After a long time of sharing drinks every night, the ghost tells him that the next person to drown in the river is about to take his place. But when the next person turns out to be a mother and child, the ghost saves them, extending his own time in limbo. As a reward, he is assigned to be a minor deity in a nearby village, and continues his friendship with the fisherman. 
My storytelling mentor, Cathryn Fairlee, has a lovely version of this story that features husband and wife.

The count and the servant
(Source in Hungarian)
Hungarian folktale. A count dies, but his ghost haunts the family home every night. A servant who loved him while he was alive decides to find out why his master can't rest in peace. He pretends to be a ghost as well, and spends the night haunting and talking together with the count's ghost. The count confesses that he has hidden treasure that he wanted to leave to his family. When the servant helps him uncover the treasure, the ghost thanks him, and goes to his eternal rest.
I heard Heather Forest tell this one in Jonesborough once.

Have a great Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Forests full of forgotten folktales (Following folktales around the world 89. - England)

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!

I could not get access to any collections that cover all parts of the UK in one volume, so I decided to do them separately.
Forgotten Folk-tales of the English Counties
Ruth L. Tongue
Routledge, 1970.

This book instantly became one of my all-time favorite folktale collections; it is full of enchanting and unknown stories. Ruth Tongue's vast folklore collection burned down in 1966, after which she began to salvage what she could, by writing stories down from memory, and copying scorched pieces of paper. Some of these had been sent to her before and she did not even have time to read them, so it was a close call for them to be lost forever. Luckily, we now have them printed in this book, and they are a treasure trove!
The book contains 90 stories, grouped into three parts of 6 sections each. The sections are thematic (e.g. "Ghosts and Curses", "Witches and Evil Spirits," or "Rhozzums"). Each story comes with sources and notes, and there is a list of them compiled by county.


I found a lot of new favorites. I fell in love with The Vixen and the Oakmen, where trees and plants helped a fox get away from hunters and home to her husband. I encountered again the Elder Tree Witch, a fascinating and creepy story that I also included in my own book. Trees kept popping up in many of the best stories: Timbertoes and Silvertoes was about the friendship of an oak and a birch, The Wonderful Forest saved a girl from an evil king hunting her, and the Green Ladies of One Tree Hill punished two men who cut them down. There were many tales about apple trees specifically; they were often protected by fairies, or fairy horses (Lazy Lawrence) from greedy people.

Several stories that featured helpful animals. I loved the Wee Little Tyke, a tiny black dog that was adopted by a family and defended them fiercely from the curses of a witch. A little boy was helped by a donkey, a cat, and a dog to rescue her baby sister who had been taken through The Fairies' Mist Gate (lovely Christmas story, by the way). A mother was also helped by a horse, a hound, and a lap dog (!) in the fight against a Grim to save her daughter. In Food and fire and company a little old lady was helped by an invisible being around the house.
There were some stories that almost brought me to tears. Next to the wee little tyke, such a story was Poor Mall's Pilgrimage, the sad tale of a girl sold to a lord for a night, and then bullied mercilessly by her village. Eventually a strong and brave priest came along that protected her from the villagers, and carried her on his back to see her baby boy who'd grown up to be the bishop of Canterbury.
There were some ancient tales in the book too, such as one about the Wild Hunt, summoned unwittingly by a boy who blew into Herne's Horn. Or the Dragon of Solway, killed by people who dug stakes into the beach at low tide, and impaled the monster; a story that appears in indigenous traditions around the world. Dragons featured into a few stories, among them the one that got banished not once, but twice - first, by a monk on Winlatter Rock, and second, by Thee Valiant Lads who chased it into the Blue John Mines (this is how I found the book in the first place).
There were many other supernatural beings included in the book - quiet, deepwater mermaids (Asrai), the legendary Black Dog, it's cousin the Dog of the Hills, second cousin the Daisy Dog (actually a Pekingese), Black Annis the blue-faced hag, the Shuck, water ponies (shoopiltee), and fair folk under dozens of names (grig, boggarty, silky, etc.).
Even Robin Hood appeared in one story. We are in England, after all...


The story of the Seven Swans took an unexpected turn: One was wounded by a hunter, turned into a girl, and was carried away by him - but when she recovered, she turned back into a swan, chased him out of the house, and her swan sisters drowned him (just sayin'). The tale of the Cheshire cheese that went to heaven after rolling away from the priest and dividing itself among the needy reminded me of all the rolling pancake / gingerbread man tales.
Ruth Tongue suggests that the In my pocket story was probably known to J. R. R. Tolkien. It is about the friendship of a dumb giant and a smart dwarf, the latter of which hides in the pocket of the former, and beats a wizard at a game of riddles.

Where to next?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Diversity in the Netherlands (Following folktales around the world 88. - Netherlands)

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!

The Flying Dutchman
And other folktales from the Netherlands
Theo Meder
Libraries Unlimited, 2007.

The book contains 126 Dutch tales, legends, and other stories, carefully selected by the author not only to reflect the diversity of narrative genres from fairy tale to urban legend, but also to showcase the cultural diversity of the Netherlands. The introduction tells us about the history and culture of the country, including traditions, foodways, and mentality. We learn important things like how Dutch tradition has few heroes, the Flying Dutchman was actually originally an English literary story, and tulips came from Turkey. The tales, on the other hand, are definitely typical of the country, as they are selected and translated from the Dutch Folktale Database. I was especially impressed that the book naturally includes urban legends as part of folklore. Each story came with notes, including sources and storyteller names, tale type numbers, and comments.


I liked the story of The king and the soldier, which reminded me of the famous anecdote about Hadrian. The soldier met the disguised king on his way to the royal court, planning on demanding his payment or beating the ruler's face in with a rock. They became friends, went through some adventures, and all was well in the end.
The Lady of Stavoren
Among the legends I especially liked the White Women of the Hill of Lochem - they were helpful and terrifying at the same time, and a young man had to face them in order to win the hand of her beloved (who helped him escape death). of course a version of the Flying Dutchman was still included in the book (as per the title), and so was the most famous actual Dutch legend, the Lady of Stavoren. She ordered a captain to bring her the most precious thing in the world, but when he delivered wheat, she ordered it to be thrown overboard - and soon was punished for her pride. Among the mythical creatures, the Basilisk of Utrecht was the most interesting; as usual, someone defeated it with a mirror.
The best stories were found among the urban legends and anecdotes. For example, one explained why February has fewer days (because he lost some on cards to January and March), and another How people learned to eat potatoes (by a lord putting up a "to be consumed by the king only" sign, prompting people to steal the exotic plant). I also liked the one about Two witches in the wine cellar, in which two young witches said the incantations wrong, got trapped in a cellar, and got terribly drunk. The story did not end well for them, but it was very entertaining. So was another witch story, that of an Enchanted ship that was stolen by the captain's wife every night, so that she could make a magical journey to China.


Another kind of
Flying Dutchman
Hansel and Gretel found a Chocolate house - after they had been sent to gather firewood by their widowed mother, and got lost in the woods. There were other familiar tale types as well, such as the Magic Flight, Beauty and the Beast, Mother killed me father ate me, and even a fun mix of Frau Holle and Snow White, in which a stepdaughter named Bertha first took refuge in the house of seven monkeys, and then the monkeys blessed her with a prince for a husband. I was intrigued to find a variant of Snow White and Rose Red, which is a rare tale type (in this case, the bear-prince was hunted by fifty evil Dwarves).
Similar to other Northern traditions, there was a legend about Why the sea is salt (in this case, a giant salt ship sunk in it), and even some tales similar to Irish traditions, such as a Changeling story, and the classic Hunchback and the Little People.
A significant part of the book was taken up by urban legends and anecdotes - some famous ones among them, including the Vanishing Hitchhiker. It was an added bonus that I read the tale of the Circus Bear the same day when I also heard it told live by a Transylvanian storyteller, who heard it from a Georgian teller...
Among the trickster tales there were some classics too, such as Why Bear has a short tail (blame it on Fox), the Fake Baptism (also Fox), and even an Anansi story out of the blue - apparently Anansi made the trip from the colonies to the Netherlands. I also encountered human tricksters, such as a clever man named Jan, along with big names such as Tijl Uilenspiegel and Nasreddin.

Where to next?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Blame it on Reynard (Following folktales around the world 87. - Belgium)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folk tales of Flanders
Jean de Bosschère
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1918.

The book contains twenty-four Flemish folktales, and several beautiful, colorful, occasionally grotesque illustrations. In some cases, the tales had been re-written to fit the sensibilities of the era and an audience of children - in one of the stories, a wife was hiding her "nephew" from her husband, instead of a lover, and in some cases severe punishments were also omitted (although they did unceremoniously hang the Fox). It is a book for children, so it contains no notes or sources, but most of the tale types are easily recognizable, and the author re-told them in an enjoyable, entertaining style.


My favorite tale in the book was that of The peasant and the Satyrs. It is rare to find Satyrs in tales outside of Greece, so I was excited for them; in this case, they took the Devil's place in a known tale type (or maybe the other way around?). A poor man got lost in the woods in the winter, and found a little cottage where a Satyr family lived. They invited him in, but when they saw him blowing on his hands to get them warm, and blowing on his soup to make it cool, they concluded he must be a powerful being, for being able to blow both hot and cold...

How the goldfinch got its colors was a lovely tale about how the angel tasked with painting the birds forgot about the finch, and had to paint it with colors taken from other species. This was not the only bird legend in the book; the usual "who can fly higher?" contest here happened between Eagle and Goldcrest. The latter became King of the Birds, but only after they tried to imprison it, and Owl let it escape.

The Goldcrest also led the winged creatures' army in the Battle of Birds and Beasts, which was won by the winged ones - a wasp stung Reynard the Fox, who was holding his tail up as a standard, and the beast thought they had been defeated.
Probably the most famous story included in the book was The Trial of Reynard the Fox. Reynard was called to King Lion's court to answer for his many tricks and crimes. Bruin the Bear, and Tybert the Cat failed to fetch him (he outsmarted both), but eventually Blaireau the Badger managed to get him to court. Reynard, being the quintessential trickster, managed to turn his confession into an accusation against other animals, offered the King some fake treasure, got away, and even had time to kill Hare and send his head back to the King. At the end, he was caught and hanged in some other kingdom. Reynard tales are usually very dark for a trickster...


Sponsken (Little Sponge) and the Giant reminded me of an American Jack tale; our hero outsmarts a giant, and then teams up with it to defeat a bear, a boar, and a unicorn (!) and win a princess. However,the princess did not want to marry him, so the king found him another, willing bride. Go figure.
The Musicians of Bremen in this case were known as The choristers of St. Gudule - they set out to start a singing career in their old age. Another similar gang started out fleeing from The end of the world, but ended up finding a king's lost ring, and making a lot of money together.
Hansel and Gretel - in this case, Jan and Jeanette - found a Sugar-candy House in the woods, owned by an old lame wolf. The wolf chased them until they crossed a rived, helped by some ducks. When the wolf asked the ducks to ferry him across too, they dumped him into the river.
I was reminded of a Nasreddin tale by The peasant and his ass, in which a foolish man was tricked into believing he was dead, and that his donkey had turned into the captain of the guard.
Ups and downs, in which Fox got Goat to go down into a well, was familiar from the tales of Uncle Remus. Trickster, as we have already seen, was always Fox, specifically a fox named Reynard. He fulfilled the role of Puss in Boots for Poor Peter, and he rescued the knight who saved an ungrateful dragon, by tricking the dragon into going back into the trap. He also tricked Wolf in a "fake baptism" tale type (where he repeatedly sneaked out to steal lard from their shared pantry), and convinced Bear to use his long tail for ice fishing (which is why bears have stumpy tails now).

Where to next?
The Netherlands!

Monday, October 8, 2018

The mysterious Mélusine (Following folktales around the world 86. - Luxembourg)

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!

I once again ran into the problem of not finding any folktale collections from Luxembourg in any of the languages I read. Which, in this case, was especially frustrating, because there is even a beautiful stamp series of Luxembourg fairy tales - except, I could not locate most of the stories depicted in them. So, here are seven tales that I did manage to scavenge up:
The bag, the pipe, and the hat
(From here)
It is a short, simple version of the Fortunatus tale type. A young man receives three magic items, but a princess wins them from him playing cards. Eventually, he is helped by an old woman and some magic, horn-growing apples in getting the items back.

Michel Michelkleiner's good luck
(L. Bødker, C. Hole, G. D'Aronco: European Folk Tales)
A young man is robbed in the woods and trapped inside a barrel, but with the (unwitting) help of a fox he manages to break free, and he even scares the bandits that robbed him enough that they take off, leaving all their gold behind.

Master Sly
(L. Bødker, C. Hole, G. D'Aronco: European Folk Tales)
Seven rich farmers want to get rid of a poor man, but he repeatedly outwits all of them. He makes fortune out of them killing his mother, destroying his oven, and trying to drown him in a pond - and in the end, in true trickster fashion, he even gets them to jump into the pond themselves.

The beautiful Melusina
(From this great website)
Luxembourg's most famous legend, and one of the best known around medieval Europe; the origin story of the House of Luxembourg. Count Siegfried encounters Melusina, a water-fairy, and falls in love with her; she promises to marry him if he builds a castle by her pool, and does not look at her on Saturdays. After sven children and many years of marriage, the husband does take a peek, and sees Melusina in the bath with her fish tail. She leaves him, and has been haunting the Luxembourg castle ever since, waiting for someone to set her free.

Melusina (soldier's legend)
(Also from here)
Melusina appears to a soldier who is on guard at night, and tells him how he can break the curse on her. He would have to take a key out of the mouth of a fiery serpent - but he is too scared in the last minute, and Melusina remains lost.

The mysterious Mélusine
(Also from here)
In this version Mélusine's day off is the first Wednesday of every month. After her husband's betrayal she moves to the Alzette river, or to caves under the castle. She spends her time knitting, but she only does one stitch every seven years - which is just as well, because if she finishes her work, Luxembourg will crumble.

The wolf of Doncols
(From here and here)
The only tale from the stamp series that I found. It is a local legend about a famous figure, a wandering peddler who told wild tales about how he managed to single-handedly fight and kill many a dangerous wolf (proving it by wearing a wolf pelt on his head).

Where to next?

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Down the research mole rat hole

Every year, various organizations in Hungary announce natural treasures of the year, to raise awareness of the country's flora and fauna, and gather resources for conservation. We have Bird of the Year, Mammal of the Year, Wildflower of the Year, etc. Since it is by now a very popular tradition, I decided that this year I'd make a storytelling program that contained stories for all these natural treasures; I named the idea Wonders of the Year, and got right down to research.

Just to show you what I was trying to find stories for:

Bird: Peregrine falcon
Tree: Mountain ash
Wildflower: Marsh gentian
Mineral: Fluorite
Fish: Asp
Insect: Emperor dragonfly
Mammal: Mole rat
Reptile: Viviparous lizard
Herb: Lavender
Fungus: Lion's mane

The idea was to find one story for each, and then take the whole show to educational settings. Since I had a fairly busy year, the program did not really come together until the end of September, when we have the national Night of Research: Research institutions, universities and museums are open all night, and have all kinds of exciting science-related programs. A friend of mine, Dr. Beáta Oborny, biologist and storyteller, suggested that we should take the show to the university's own Natural History Museum; she'd provide the exciting factual information for each natural treasure, and I'd tell the stories. So we did.

In the end, the research process was not at all what I'd expected. Falcons show up in lots of stories, but none mentioned a peregrine specifically (in Hungarian, "falcon" used to refer to this particular species to begin with, other falcons had other names), and of course I had to give up on the "viviparous" part of the lizard very early on. Mole rats rarely ever come to the surface, so the folklore on them was pretty scant as well. But on the other hand, delving deeper into nature stories did bring up some unexpected, delightful surprises.

I tracked down some Bulgarian folk songs in which a girl is forced to marry a dragon, only to find out that her husband has no power over gentian flowers, and she uses them to escape; bonus in the story was the way the dragon's marriage entourage arrived at her house, and the dragon women re-braided her hair "in their fashion, like a dragon." Fluorite seemed like a lost cause from the get-go, but then I learned about the famous Blue John mines in England, which just happen to have a fabulous dragon legend attached to them (courtesy of Ruth Tongue, from Forgotten Folktales).
In the cases where I could not find the exact species, I did my best to improvise. For example, lizards appear in many stories; I almost fell for one where Lizard helps find the stolen Sun, but then I found out that this particular species is known for living in colder climates and habitats, and is the northernmost reptile known in Europe. In the end, I tracked down a Hungarian folktale (a variant of the Frog Princess) where a girl, turned into a lizard, lived at the edge of the world, and ventured into underground kingdoms to help a prince acquire magical items. Similarly, I went all the way to Japan to find some worthwhile mentions of the lion's mane mushroom. There it is associated with the yamabushi monks, and it just so happens that there is a well known Japanese comedy that features such a monk trying to pray an infestation of demon mushrooms away.

The hardest challenge, in the end, was the mole rat. It has been chosen as Mammal of the Year because building the wall on our southern border (*cough*useless*cough*) cut its habitat in half, and now it is severely endangered. Because it rarely ever comes above ground, there is not much folklore attached to it, and the one that exists is pretty bad. In some parts of Hungary it was believed that killing one with your left hand gave you healing powers (not for the poor creature, obviously). Other than that, I found some beliefs that children born from sibling incest live as mole rats for 7 years (weremolerats, hey!), although the word they use for mole rat could also just be a word for a mythical creature. In the end, I found a newspaper clipping from 1927 in which a mole rat was found on the road by someone, captured, lost, found again, and eventually made it into town from where the local doctor sent it on to London. Using all these small moving parts, I made up a story from the mole rat's perspective, and spiced it up with interesting details about these fascinating creatures.

I am proud to report that in the end I managed to find stories for all ten things on the list; most of them traditional folktales and legends, with some creative additions. It was tons of work, and I didn't even get to tell all of them in one show, but I had great fun with working on it. I still have three months to take it to other venues... and I can't wait to find out what treasures we'll have on the list for next year!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Fairy godmothers all over the place (Following folktales around the world 85. - France)

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!

Folktales of France
Geneviève Massignon
University of Chicago Press, 1968.

This great collection contains 70 French folktales, organized by the major regions of France. I especially liked it because it does not contain the well-known 18th and 19th century literary French fairy tales, but rather, real folk stories gathered from the people by folklorists. As such, the stories are sometimes a little unruly, often humorous, occasionally cruel, and several of them contain comments from the original storyteller. The book opens with a long Foreword, detailing the history of folklore collections in French (as well as the bitter feud between collectors), and a shorter Introduction about the tales included. The end of the volume has extensive notes for each story, a bibliography, a motif list and a tale type index.


The story of La Ramée was both shocking and amusing. It is a classic "make the princess laugh" story, except here the mouse, the beetle, and the cricket all joined the poor boy on their own volition, and did not only help him win the princess, but also rescued him from being devoured by an elephant (yup), and managed to give the other contestant violent diarrhea...
All through the collection, magical godmothers kept making an appearance. Many of them were fairies, but the Virgin Mary also frequently featured into tales. I especially liked Golden Hair, a version of the Frog Bride, in which we got to find out how the girl became a frog in the first place. Apparently, she used to be a goddaughter of the Virgin, but ran a way with a prince. The prince remained faithful to his frog bride, and completed his father's tasks with the help of the Virgin to get to marry her in the end.
I also loved the Three deserters, a very elaborate and exciting version of Fortunatus, from the Pyrenees. Three brothers, on the run from the army, won three magic items from a haunted castle, then won the same princess three times with their items, except she kept taking the items and kicking out the suitors. Eventually she got her comeuppance, the items were recovered, and the youngest brother married the lady of the haunted castle.
Fanfinette and the prince was a particularly gruesome version of the Basil Girl. At first, the prince tried to sleep with her, but she managed to get away; then he tired to kill her multiple times, but she always survived. She even managed to convince the court that the prince gave birth, so that he would have to take care of the babies of women he'd slept with. In the end, Fanfinette was forced to marry him, but managed to trick him one last time. The story does end in "happily ever after," which I did not like, but the rest was both horrible and intriguing.
A much lovelier tale was that of the Four friends (Little Goose, Tiny Black Kitten, Curly Lamb, and Heifer-ready-to-deliver) who all set out together to find various things (a cure for a headache, for example), and ended up stumbling upon a lonely old woman in a cottage. They moved in, cheered her up, and lived happily ever after.
The last tale in the book was that of A boy promised to the Devil - who, once he found out what promise his parents had made, instead of resorting to the usual trickery, straight up dueled the Devil and beat him.


There were several familiar tale types in the book. I really liked the hero who defeated a Seven-headed monster with a white stick, while wearing a coat of thirty-six colors. I also encountered Magic Flights (more than one), Beauty and the Beast, stolen golden apples (in this case, oranges), a boy who saw a dream (and became a bishop), Tom Thumb, The devil's golden hairs, Puss in Boots (who married not one, but two daughters of the king), a cursed princess in a shroud (Jean of Bordeaux), Rumpelstiltskin (here called Mimi Pinson), and Prince Thrushbeard (who had no reason to mess with the princess since she agreed to marry him right away, but whatever).
This being a collection of French tales, there was also a Red Riding Hood variant (Boudin-Boudine),with a boy instead of a girl, and with Grandma chasing the wolf out of town with a broom instead of being devoured. One of the best versions of the Rooster's Diamond I have seen so far, Half Chicken, told about a poor little hen who was bullied by the other hens, so she set out, made friends (Wolf, River, and Fire), and won herself a kingdom. The girl and the thief was another one of those stories where a bandit terrorized a girl for years until she managed to get rid of him (I mentioned this one from Italy). The wolf scalded by hot water was up against a married couple this time, who helped each other multiple times. A hiding-from-the-princess story, Princess Elisa, was solved by a hero who turned into an ant, and hid in the princess' garters.
As far as tricksters go, here God himself tricked the Devil to pick the tops of the bottoms of the crop. There was also a classic Fox vs Wolf story, with Fox secretly eating all the butter, and getting Wolf to try to fish with his tail in an ice hole.

Where to next?

Monday, September 24, 2018

Between the mountains and the sea (Following folktales around the world 84. - Monaco)

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!

Once again, it was not easy to find a book for a tiny country, but I managed to scrape by...

The beauty spot of the Riviera
Thomas Henry Pickering
Kessinger Publishing, 2010.

This book was originally published in 1882, as a sort of guide for Victorian tourists. The author notes in the first chapter that people tend to think of Monaco as a casino and nothing else; but of course visitors can only be so wrong if they try to "do" Monaco in one day, and never leave the casino at all. I don't think much has changed since then. The author introduces the natural and cultural beauties of the small country, suggests trips and walks, describes the government and the economy, and, among other things, spends a chapter talking about the history and legends of Monaco. It was in this chapter that I found some stories to read.

The stories

Monaco's connection to Greek mythology is through Heracles: Legend says he stopped here on his way home with Geryon's cattle, and founded the port and the fortress. The author also claims that Phoenician traders worshiped Melkarth here (whom he identifies with Heracles). The most famous local legend is that of St. Devote, patron saint of Monaco, a martyr from Corsica whose remains were shipped to Monaco, and whose feast is still celebrated every year.
There was also a love story about Anna, a Christian captive, and Haroun, a Moorish leader; the girl eventually got her captor to convert, and they ran away together. The Moorish army, losing its leader, soon left the area. Another legend had a more somber tone: When the Duke of York, brother to George III, died in Monaco, and his death was announced by his ship flying the flag on half mast, a woman clad in white was seen throwing herself into the sea from the cliffs. According to the author, locals still remember her.
There was one more story, about the town of Roquebrune - it said that the town was originally on the summit of the mountain, but it started slipping one day, and only the prayers of a devout monk managed to stop it halfway down, before it would have crashed into the sea.

Where to next?

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Devil did it (Following folktales around the world 83. - The Vatican)

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!

I have been wondering what I could read for the Vatican. Eventually, since saints' legends have been featured multiple times before anyway, I decided to choose a classic that I've wanted to read for a long time.

Legenda Aurea
Jacobus de Voragine
Helikon, 1990.

The Golden Legend was one of the most popular bestsellers in Europe in the Middle Ages. More than 1000 of its manuscripts survived from between the 13th and the 15th century. The author, Jacobus de Voragine Dominican monk collected the popular legends of saints and their miracles, organized around the Catholic calendar, in order to provide a resource for sermons and readings at monasteries. The full manuscripts contain somewhere between 180 and 243 saints, depending on the edition; the one I read (in Hungarian) had 110 chapters, sometimes with multiple saints in one. The full edition would have also contained descriptions of the non-saint-related Christian holidays, but I was less interested in those anyway. (I was raised Catholic, I know the drill.)
Most of the stories revolve around martyrdom. It is noted in the Introduction that the Legenda contains 81 distinct torture methods, mixing and matching them in all kinds of creative (and gory) ways. It is not exactly a historical source (the dates of Roman emperors' rules are not even remotely correct), and it is less than kind to women, Jews, and pagans, but it does contain a whole lot of folklore motifs, tropes, and legends, that are a part of the larger European oral tradition. In that sense, it was both an entertaining read, and an intriguing comparison to the folktales I have read so far.


I liked the legend where a saint and the devil had a contest of questions and answers. It appeared twice, once featuring St. Andrew, and once St. Bartholomew, and the answers were sometimes surprisingly beautiful. When the devil asks what the greatest miracle is that God worked on a small thing, Andrew responds: "The variety and beauty of faces. On a small human face God placed all the feelings of an entire body." St. Bartholomew said "the place of the Cross," but he was corrected by the (female) devil: It is the human head, because as such a small thing, in contains worlds. To the question of what it is that is the most human in a person, Bartholomew answered "the ability to laugh." But the snappiest of all answers came from Andrew, who, when asked by a decadent bishop how far Heaven is from Earth, simply said: "Ask your friend, he probably measured it when he fell." Boom.
Pic from this great Twitter account
I enjoyed the legend of St. Juliana, who tackled the Devil, bound it, and beat it into submission with chains so badly, that later a glance was enough from her to send it running. I was also entertained by the story that claimed that Vespasian had wasps (hence the name) up his nose, until a man named Albanus cast them out in the name of Christ. I don't remember this from History class... neither the story where Nero swallowed a frog, thought he was pregnant, then threw it up, and thought he gave birth. Legend claims that's why the Lateran is named after (latuerat rana).
There was a lovely story about the tame lion of St. Jerome, who guarded the monastery's donkey, and was in distress when it went missing. My favorite animal appearance, however, was the "camel yelling in a human voice" that told people where to bury the bodies of St. Cosmas and Damian. Camel ex machina.
Of course, being the legend collection of the Middle Ages, the book contains some well known stories: St. Nicholas' gift (hence Santa), the legend of the Castel Sant'Angelo (where St. Michael appeared to signal the end of the Roman plague), St. George and the dragon, Attila the Hun meeting Pope Leo, St. Peter's "quo vadis" moment, St. Christopher the Giant, St. Martin and the beggar, and even Roland's last battle. At the same time, there are also some surprising omissions. St. Valentine's legend does not say anything about love, St. Patrick's is very short and devoid of all colorful Irish details, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary was missing the famous Miracle of the Roses. Too bad.


I have seen the tale type of the gold returned through cheating (in Burma, among other places). A man swears he returned money to its owner, while all he did was put the money inside a walking stick, and ask the owner to hold it for a second. In this case, St. Nicholas made sure the cheater was punished in the end. I have also encountered the legend in which a man entrusts his fortune to an image of St. Nicholas, and threatens the saint when he gets robbed, so that Nick has to bring the stolen goods back (see also: Macedonia). The legend of St. Felix contained the popular trope of spiders spinning webs to disguise the hiding place of the persecuted saint. I was reminded of an Appalachian folktale (about two foxes) by the story in which two monks in St. Agathon's monastery made an attempt to fight, but did not know how, and ended up being too nice to each other.
Dragon-slaying was a popular element of the collection. Next to St. George, dragons were also dispatched by St. Sylvester, St. Philip, St. Margaret, St. Martha, St. Donatus, and St. Matthew. Margaret allegedly was swallowed whole by the dragon, and burst forth from its stomach (the author says that is dubious), while Martha defeated the legendary Tarrasque of the River Rhône, a monster that "shot its excrement over an acre's span at its enemies."
The legend of St. Patrick included a nice, colorful walk through hell and back that would have made Dante proud.
The book does feature some elements of classical mythology, usually in the role of the enemy (the goddess Diana attacks saints with alarming regularity). In the legend of St. Anthony, however, a very helpful centaur and a satyr made an appearance, guiding the saint on the road to St. Paul. I was reminded of the legend of Oedipus by the story of the birth of Judas, and his marriage to his own mother.
Last, but not least: I always considered Monty Python's Life of Brian a genius piece of British humor - and here I found the original story of the ex-leper! St. Martin's legend contained the story of two beggars, one lame and one blind, fleeing from the saint's funeral procession, in fear of being cured and losing their livelihood. The saint cured them anyway. Bummer.

Where to next?