Monday, October 26, 2020

Wits are a matter of life and death (Following folktales around the world 174. - Uzbekistan)

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!

Karakalpak Folk Tales
Quatbay Utegenov
Trafford Publishing, 2006.

Since I could not find a collection of Uzbek folktales, I got this book instead. The Karakalpaks are a Turkic ethnic group that has belonged to various states in Central Asia, and since 1936 they have been living within the borders of Uzbekistan. The book contains 13 realistic folktales and 8 fairy tales, although sometimes it is hard to tell those two apart. The author is Karakalpak himself; after teaching English for a while he became a Central Asian correspondent for the BBC. In the introduction he gives us a detailed description of Karakalpak history.
The book is a bit larger than it should be (large letters and some strange spacing), but apart from a few editing errors it is an intriguing and enjoyable read.


The story of The dispute between the three young men and the clever girl was a very cool version of the "three fastidious men" folktale type. The three brothers - Advisor, Thinker, and Verifier - were seeking justice about their father's inheritance. After they dazzled the khan with their skills (e.g. telling the lamb they ate had been suckled by a dog), they decided he was not wise enough for their needs, so they moved on to a famously clever girl. She told them a dilemma tale, and based on their responses determined which one had been lying about the inheritance. I especially loved that this time the dilemma tale itself ended well - it was a "who deserves this woman the most" type story, where they usually send the poor woman back to a husband she didn't want, but here the girl changed the ending for the better. 
The story of Aqyl-Dana and Aqyl-Kamal was interesting for several reasons. It was about a boy and a girl who had been sworn to be siblings by their mothers even before they were born. The boy did not want to go to school, instead he asked his father to build him a library and locked himself in there. Eventually he fell in love with a mysterious girl who visited him, and his sworn sister helped him win her, through all kinds of adventures.
Among the fairy tales I really liked Gulziyba, the daughter of a khan, who accidentally ran away with the wrong guy, went through many adventures, found love, and then helped her husband fulfill a khan's impossible wishes. Part of the story reminded me of the "son of the hunter" folktale type - here, he had to build a palace of tiger teeth. Tigers helped him voluntarily, each donating one tooth, and made a small model palace, since the khan never specified how big it had to be... This tale also featured a return from the underworld on the back of a giant golden eagle. 
In another fairy tale, a stepmother chased two siblings into the wilderness; brother and sister raised each other. When a prince wanted to force the girl to marry him, she first yelled at him for not even asking her consent, and next (after the price murdered her brother), she beheaded him. After that she set out into the world, dressed as a man, and managed to win three wives and three magic items that could bring a dead man back to life - thus saving her brother. Bringing someone back from the dead was also a key plot point in the story of Abat-Batyr, whose wife revived him by tracking down three of his old friends who had magical powers. 
The tale of Jansap was a long and elaborate story that featured a lot of traveling, adventures, and the classic story of Gemstone Mountain. I especially liked that later on the hero, seeking his lost wife, went back to the evil merchant and got himself sent up the mountain again, to retrace the steps of his journey and find his love. 
I enjoyed the part of the story of The mullah's three sons where the mullah proved to be a horrible, abusive teacher who beat and took advantage of students - until his students revolted, and threw him in the outhouse.


We are still on the Central Asian crossroads of cultures, which means there were many familiar tales and motifs in the book. There was a clever boy telling the khan riddles (and saving his people from taxes); a clever old shepherd who gave mysterious answers to the khan (and cheated his evil ministers out of their money); a clever maiden who was a shepherd's daughter; and one of those stories about an innocent girl who keeps being threatened by men, until she gains control of her own life (Angel Inta).
I encountered a tale I have also heard in the USA, about a clever man (Yesim the mat weaver) who married his mean neighbor's wife. There was a secret tunnel between their houses, and the woman pretended to be her own twin sister. Later on, she helped her new husband get rich with all kinds of clever tricks. 
The resident trickster is Aldar-Kose, who here appeared in the company of two other like-minded men, Mukhtar-Kose and Dukhtar-Kose. He tricked both of them (with classics such as "who had the best dream" and "half a shoe lost on the road"), but in the end he teamed up with Dukhtar-Kose to scare a bunch of robbers and get their treasure.

Where to next?

Monday, October 19, 2020

Tales at the crossroads (Following folktales around the world 173. - Tajikistan)

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!

Tadzsik népmesék
Jeremiás Éva
Európa, 1970.

This is another volume of the Tales of Nations series, which is one of the best and most popular folklore publications in Hungary. It contains 30 folktales from Tajikistan, organized by type from animal tales to anecdotes. At the time of publication, it was the only collection of Tajik folktales in Hungarian (I think it still is, and I couldn't find an English edition either). The afterword talks about Tajik culture, history, and storytelling. The book comes with a source and tale type index, and a glossary of foreign words. The tales are beautiful, and eloquently written.


The wonder and hero tales of the book were definitely the best. The story of Iradjpahlavan, for example, was about a boy whose father had been abducted by devs; when he grew up, he went to his rescue, and succeeded after a series of epic battles. The tale titled Alive in the grave reminded me of some Nart sagas; the hero grew up inside the grave of his wrongly accused mother, and then emerged to bring justice to her. He went through many adventures, fighting devs and venturing into the kingdom of snakes.
Tajik woman, 19. c.,
image from here
The most beautiful story in the book was the one mentioned in the title: Moon Angel was a variant of the "silent princess" tale type. What I liked is that suitors had to keep the girl awake and intrigued (not make her speak). After the hero failed his friend succeeded (with riddles and stories), and the princess decided to marry him instead, even though he was a commoner.
Among the animal stories the most interesting was that of the bird and the elephant. The elephant kept knocking the bird's nest out of a tree while scratching, and he refused to take responsibility because he was stronger. The bird then recruited the wasps, the frogs, and a crow, and together they almost killed the elephant through a trick; in the last moment they granted him mercy, warning him that small animals can be strong too when they work together.
There was also a riddle tale where a king was warned of impending danger by a treasury guard who'd seen it in a dream. The king rewarded him then fired him. Why?... Because he fell asleep on duty.
I also felt like the tale of Lak and Pak was relevant to our times. A girl accidentally ate bread with dirty hands, and she was so ashamed that she asked the king to declare that no one can ever mention her eating with dirty hands, because she would be shamed if people found out...


Due to the cultural crossroads that is Central Asia, there were also many familiar tale types in the book. For example: Brementown musicians (The donkey's journey), golden-haird twins (The talking parrot; the girl sibling got incredible power in this one), innocent girl wrongly accused (Mehranbu), a king learning a trade (The shepherd girl and the padisah - here she married someone else instead), and a mass-hysteria chain story (Lak and Pak). 
I was reminded of a Hungarian folktale by the story of the djugara seed who went to see the world with an ember and a piece of straw. Crossing a river the ember burned the straw and they were washed away. The seen grew into a plant on the riverbank, keeping the memory of its friends.
The resident trickster is Nasreddin, who was referred to as Effendi or Mosfeqi. There were several familiar tales, such as the pot that gave birth, or the one-legged geese. My favorite was the one where the clever effendi brought a tree as witness to theft, making the culprit unwittingly confess his crime.
There was also a clever fox, once again outwitted by a pheasant, who rescued all the other prey animals too.

Where to next?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Prince Hlini (Feminist Folktales 22.)

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

Origin: Icelandic

The story

A king's only son, Prince Hlini, disappears during a hunt. The king offers a reward to anyone who can find him, but to no avail. A shepherd's clever daughter, Signy, sets out to seek the prince. She finds a cave, and inside, two beds - in one of them, there is Prince Hlini in an enchanted sleep. She hides and waits. Soon two troll women appear. They wake the prince up with the song of magic swans, and try to get him to marry one of them. Prince Hlini declines. The next day, while the troll women are away, Signy wakes the prince up, and they hatch a plan of escape.
That night Hlini pretends to be friendly with the trolls, and coaxes out of them the magic words that make the beds fly. He also learns that the trolls keep their life hidden in an egg they like to play with. The next day, after the trolls leave, Signy and Hlini take one of the beds and follow them in secret. When they start playing with the egg, Hlini breaks it, killing the trolls. The prince and the girl pile all the troll treasure on the two beds, and fly home to the palace together. They eventually get married. 

What makes it a feminist story?

I especially adore tales where male and female heroes work together to overcome challenges. This story begins with a classic Sleeping Beauty style situation, where the brave girl wakes up the enchanted prince (with patience, attention, and no kissing). However, from that point on, they both actively participate in the escape plan, and work together. On top of that, is is the prince who takes on the "sneaky" role in this plan, flattering the trolls to learn their secrets, which is often seen as a feminine role in folktales (thing women using their "wiles" to spy on people). Here, it is the prince who is trying to avoid unwanted marriage, and he finds a way out of the situation by following the girl's advice. This is another thing I love: Hlini trusts Signy, and trusts her advice.
In the second half of the story, we can see perfect cooperation between the two heroes. Signy notices the runes on the beds, Hlini finds out what they mean, Signy makes the bed fly, Hlini breaks the egg and kills the trolls. Finally, they fly home together, either one on a separate bed. I like this balance between the two roles. 
I also love the fact that a girl sets out to rescue an abducted prince.

Things to consider

Thanks to the movie franchise, many kids these days think of trolls as something cute and friendly. It is worth explaining up front that these are different kinds of (man-eating) trolls, before we traumatize the audience by killing them off. For smaller children, the fact that they turn into mushrooms can be a way of softening the description. 
Some kids I've told this story to were hung up on Hlini being a "girl name." We had some good conversations about what makes a name a "girl name", and how different languages have different naming customs. 


A. W. Hall: Icelandic Fairy Tales (Frederick Warne & Co., 1897.)

Reimund Kvideland & Henning K. Sehmsdorf: All the World's Reward: Folktales Told by Five Scandinavian Storytellers (University of Washington Press, 2011.)


This story was recommended to me by a fellow storyteller after my "gender-swapped folktales" post the other day :)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Mountains of gemstones (Following folktales around the world 172. - Turkmenistan)

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!

Turkmen Folk Tales: 
Turkmen national tales
Iqroriddin Sayfutdinov
Kindle, 2016.

I was hesitant about this book when I bought it on Kindle: the digital layout is a bit of a mess, and the text reads as if someone put the original folktales into Google Translate (possibly in Russian). With all of this said, I managed to read it (it is easy to follow if you have read folktales before), and it actually had quite a few great, entertaining and unique stories.


The favorite hero of Turkmen folktales is Yarty-Gulak, the tiny boy ("half a camel's ear"), who is also a trickster figure: he goes on adventures, gets into trouble, and especially enjoys tricking greedy rich men. His old father and mother find him in the desert and adopt him. In one story, Yarty goes into the neighbor's vineyard to eat some grapes, and accidentally manages to scare the lights out of the neighbor's family. In another, he is trapped in a clay pot that a greedy man takes from a poor potter - and he manages to trick the guy into smashing all of his own pots. In a third story he is taking three cakes to his father working the fields, and he gets into a series of adventures, including falling into a pit and being chased by a dog and a crow.
I loved the Turkmen version of the Bluebeard tale where a girl saves her two sisters. In it, a dev kidnapped three girls, and filled his palace with their tears that turned into beads. Eventually, the youngest girl managed to kill him. The story started out as a Beauty and Beast tale, by the way, with the youngest girl asking for beads as a gift, and the dev followed the father home along the trail of beads he dropped.
I enjoyed the tale of Ahmed, who wanted to be a merchant even though no one believed he could do it. He managed to gather a lot of pearls in secret, and prove people wrong. There was a dark tale about a princess whose father asked for an impossibly high bride price to keep a prince away - but the prince was so intent on marrying her that he ruined his whole family and kingdom, and sunk into crime. When he finally paid the bride prince he decided to spy on his bride - however, she mistook him for a bandit, and had him blinded by her maids. There was a similar moral to the story of the man who spoke the language of animals, and used it to sell his pets whenever they were about to die. In the end, he was about to die too, and there was no one left to help him.


There were some familiar tales in the book as well. The widow's son was a classic "three kidnapped princesses in the underworld" tale, with peris instead of princesses, divs instead of dragons, and a Simurgh bird instead of a griffin (we are close to Iran here). I especially liked that the hero didn't marry the underworld princess, instead he was adopted as her brother. In the end, when he found his bride, they flew back to the underworld on the Simurgh, and lived happily there.
There was a version of the "silent princess" tale; here the hero managed to get her to talk with the help of a golden carp. The dilemma tale embedded in this story was similar to the "woman carved from wood" stories, except here with wooden birds, which is a lot nicer.
The story of Mamed was an animal brothers-in-law tale (wolf, tiger, and lion in this case), combined with a "princess on a glass mountain" type plot. It was a neat combination.
There was once again an "ungrateful animal" story, this time with a snake locked in a box, who was tricked by a young boy to gab into the trap.
Turkmenistan is also the country where I originally got my version of Gemstone Mountain (the version I first told). This book has two versions of this tale type.

Where to next?

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Down the Rabbit Hole: More questions about researching stories

Today I taught my storytelling research workshop (Down the Rabbit Hole: The How and Why of Researching Stories) as part of the FEAST webinar series. I had a lovely group of people attending from around the globe, and a wonderful team helping me run the workshop (thanks to Sheila Wee, Roger Jenkins, and Krupa Vinayagamoorthi!).

As usual, there were a lot of questions, and I did not have time to answer all of them. Luckily, people typed them into the chat, so now I can go back and address the ones I've missed.

Here we go!

How often do you find a folk tale does not fit an ATU number?

Often. Especially when I venture further outside of Europe. In these cases I try to use other sources that might help, either regional tale type and motif indexes, or other handbooks. Here is a very useful one I didn't mention, that deals with African folktale types that also appear in the Americas. It that fails, it's back to keyword search...

Does anyone have resources for folk tales from the Punjab Region of India/Pakistan in the original language? I mostly have been finding English.

I don't, but I'm putting this out here so that other people might respond. All the sources I can come up with are also in English (like the India/Pakistan tale types and motif indexes I mentioned in the slides). 

How to search for the F number E number or H number story from the search result of

I talked about this in the workshop, but I want to share the resources. If you want to search by number, here is the motif index online (and here is the bibliography of sources it refers to). As you can see, the letters mark different groups of motifs, such as Tests or Magic. I did a really fun blog series about the weirdest motifs, you can read it here.

Also, when you have the number of a motif you are looking for, and you have already checked the motif index's own bibliography, I usually type the number into Google Books search, with quotation marks and an additional search term. For example: "S31" + "folktales"

What is your recommendation for pronunciation resources?

Usually other people, who speak the language as their native tongue. But there are also resources online, Forvo is a pretty good one for example, because people can add to it, and it gives you where the person is from.

What if I read a story in a book or watch a video of a story, and want to tell it enough to just mention about the author and the publisher or do we need to take permission from the author/publisher?

This is a whole long and complex conversation that revolves around copyright laws, and also around professional ethics. Checking whether you need copyright permission for a story is one of the main reasons people do background research. But even when something is a folktale, and not under copyright, storytellers tell the same tale very differently. We all make them our own, and out favorites become our "signature stories", as the Americans call it. Because of this, I feel it is polite to ask a teller if you like their signature version of a tale - or ask for the sources, so you can go, do your research, and come up with your own signature version! 

And finally, as usual: if anyone has any storytelling research questions, or specific stories you are looking for, feel free to reach out here, or through my Facebook page! And check out Girl in the Chair, my blog series on storytelling research. :)

Monday, October 5, 2020

Kindness, wits, bravery (Following folktales around the world 171. - Kyrgyzstan)

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!

A szürke héja
Kirgiz népmesék
Buda Ferenc
Európa, 1988.

The book contains 57 Kyrgyz folktales in thematic chapters: magic tales, animal tales, realistic tales, and origin stories (etiological tales).  The texts are eloquent, sometimes poetic, and peppered with traditional words and phrases in italics, with a glossary at the end of the book. This way, the stories kept their Kyrgyz flavor, and they are still easy to follow (I learned a lot of new words by the end). The afterword talks about Kyrgyz history, customs, culture, and traditional storytelling, even though there are no notes attached to the individual stories. I couldn't really find a Kygryz collection in English, sadly. You can read about their national epic here, though.  


I enjoyed the tale about The orphan boy who first saved a frog from a road accident, then revived various other animals, and in the end even the son of his enemy. While the other boy betrayed him, eventually he did find a happy ending, and forgave the villains. I also liked the story about The old many and a fox, where an old couple adopted a pregnant fox who in exchange hunted various animals for them. When the fox herself was being hunted, the old woman yelled at the hunters, shaming them until they left the household alone.
Image from here
The tale of The obozger's daughter was a fun variant of the silent princess type. Here a man left his bride of low birth to try and win the hand of a princess. He failed, however, and then his bride set out, disguised as a man, and managed to win the princess herself. In the end, the three of them went home together. Another story, Djapalak's wife, featured another clever woman; a khan tried to seduce her but she resisted, and then came up with a devious plan to show the khan's wife was not immune to seduction... 
The story of Tolubaj Sinchi gave me a lot to think about. It was about a khan who wanted to find a magic horse in his herds, but when a wise man pointed out the ugliest colt in the lot, the khan refused to believe him. There was also a tale where a clever khan proved that generosity comes from the heart, not from wealth. 
My favorite origin story was that of the hedgehog, who had smooth skin in the beginning, but when their wisdom was needed to defeat the devil, the animals gave them protective armor in gratitude.
One of the "golden-haired twins" tales had a lovely moment where the abandoned babies were found by a veteran warrior named Akmat, on his way home from Fairyland. He warmed the babies on his bare chest, and then raised them as his own; he even helped them from beyond the grave. I love father figures like him. Another nice moment was in the story of Akchükö and Kuchükö, where one of the heroes visited the king of dragons. The king did not only take good care of him, but also gave him a dragon to fly him where he needed to go. 


There were, once again, many familiar tale types in this book, such as extraordinary helpers (Seven sons of the old woman), sometimes along with Underworld adventures (Töstük), secret dream (Chinibek), Polyphemus (Djajil Mergen), cloth, donkey, stick (The grey hawk), Aladdin (The magic ring), firebird and grey wolf (The golden bird), magic bird heart (Akchükö and Kuchükö), magician's apprentice (The wizard boy), puss in boots (How the fox went courting), clever maid, valiant tailor (The coward warrior), false fortune-teller (Almikul Tüschü). Even one of my favorite tale types, that of the "pirate princess" showed up in the book, under the title Zar and Meer
There was a classic animal chain story (here started by a nightingale), and also a race between animals, here featuring a fox, a turtle, and a tick (the tick won). I also once again encountered the story about the animal calendar and the contest between the mouse and the camel
There were both animal and human tricksters in the stories. There was the clever fox (here outwitted by a partridge), Kösö (a smooth-faced trickster guy) and Apendi, who is very similar to the Hodja Nasreddin. 

Where to next?

Monday, September 28, 2020

A magic garden of stories (Following folktales around the world 170. - Kazakhstan)

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!

Stories of the Steppes
Kazakh folktales
Mary Lou Masey 
David McKay, 1968.

The book contains 19 folktales, translated from Russian language sources listed inside. They are not literal translations, but rather enjoyable re-tellings by the author, true to the original plot of the stories. They are accompanied by black and white illustrations, and a glossary at the end. The book was a fairly quick read; I would have enjoyed more folktales of the same style.


The most beautiful tale in the book by far is The magic garden, in which a boy sets out to plant a beautiful garden for everyone who wants to eat the fruit, drink the water, or enjoy the shade. An evil khan tries to build a wall around it (*cough*), but the garden protect itself, and remains a shelter for all people. I also loved the story that warns that Whoever knows a tale should tell it - or otherwise the tales take revenge. In this case, it's a man's sister-in-law who rescues him from the vengeful story spirits that don't want to exist in secret.
There was a lovely story about A little camel who got lost and almost eaten by wolves. When later two man argued about who the camel belonged to, a clever judge howled like a wolf, and watched which flock the little animal ran to for shelter. The camel was a less likable character in the story about The animals' quarrel that explained the origin of the animal calendar. Since it was the mouse who saw the rising sun first in a contest (standing on the hump of the camel), the cycle starts with the Year of the Mouse.
I liked the story about the Three suitors who were all promised the same girl. Eventually, a judge discovered that the girl already loved one of them, and made sure she got to marry him. This was not the only story with clever and independent girls: The woodcutter's daughter, for example, tricked a rich man multiple times when he wanted to take all her inheritance; eventually she defeated him in a storytelling contest. In the strange tale of The magic ring, golden shoe, twigs, the hero defeated three fairy women without realizing it, and eventually, when he met them, he married all three and lived happily ever after. Even though they all ate people...
The illustration was the best thing about The stupid wolf, who was tricked by various prey animals.


There were familiar tale types in the book, such as a valiant tailor (in this case, Old Man Kurai), or puss in boots (Salakhbai and the Fox). Also, Segizbai and the Mouse-girl was a variant of the story where a father wants to give his daughter to the strongest suitor - and after Sun, Wind, and Rock, he eventually marries her to a mouse. 
The resident trickster is Aldar-Kos. In one story he tricked a rich man who kept hiding food from him. There was alos a clever fox who tried to make a quail believe that World Peace is here - but the clever bird didn't fall for the trick.

Where to next?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Cinderfella, Sleeping Prince: Less-known versions of popular folktales (Feminist Folktales, special edition)

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

Today's post is a special edition: I have collected variants of well known folktales where the gender of the hero is different from what we are used to (not saying "opposite" because gender is not a binary, people). My goal was to show off how - while people tend to bash/praise folktales for promoting "traditional gender roles" - oral folklore around the world is a lot more flexible than we tend to give credit for. 
(Links in the titles.)

Cinderella is often brought up when people discuss gender roles in fairy tales (see "if Cinderella were a guy" by the creators of - the otherwise amazing - Rebel Girls). And yet, a whole lot of Cinderfellas exist in folktales around the world. There is a Hungarian folktale called Prince Cinderella (although, despite the title, the cinder-boy walks a whole different journey), and the folktale type of The princess on the Glass Mountain (ATU 530) also often revolves around an abused youngest brother showing up in disguise three times to win a princess. 
The Cameroon folktale of The unhappy stepson follows the Cinderella plot to a letter. A boy is left at home by his stepmother to sort beans, while the princess is having a ball to pick a husband. The boy is dressed for the ball by the spirit of his mother. In the end, he even leaves his shoe behind, and the princess uses it to find him. 

Sleepig beauties are not always women - in many tales, it is a sleeping prince who needs to be awakened. In the Turkish fairy tale of The dragon prince and the stepmother, the female hero wakes and rescues a prince enchanted by peris. There is a similar Greek folktale, as well as an entire folktale type (ATU 425g), where the female hero has to sit vigil over a prince for many days and nights until the curse is broken. Often she is replaced in the last minute by a false bride - but I also know at least one variant where the women become friends instead.

Boudin-Boudine is a French folktale, where the role of Little Red Riding Hood is taken up by the boy. Also, in the end the wolf is chased away by a broom-wielding grandma.

The Swedish folktale that Andersen based his Princess and the Pea on is actually much more fun than his version. It is essentially a Puss in Boots tale, except the hero is a clever girl, and she is helped by a clever dog. And she is not bothered by the pea at all.

There is a folktale type (ATU 725) about a hero who sees a prophetic dream of wealth and fortune, but either refuses to tell his parents about it, or tells them and they are angered by his inpertinence (see Joseph and his brothers). In the end, of course, the dream comes true. Well, in the Greek folktale of The Wild Man's daughter, it's a girl who sees herself as a powerful queen in a dream, and her father chases her away. She is adopted by a wild man in the woods, who takes good care of her, and makes sure her dream comes true.
(This is also a lovely adoption story.)

The story of the Clever Maid is internationally well known: this is the tale where a girl has to visit a king "walking and not walking, dressed but not dressed," etc. In at least one version I know, from Finland, this tale is told with a clever male hero. 

In another well known folktale motif, a man usually spies on fairy women who take off their bird / swan / feather dresses while they bathe. He steals the dress/skin of the most beautiful girl, so she can't escape from him (sometimes, this backfires). Creepy, right? In the Armenian tale of The magic box, it is a girl who spies on bird men, and steals a feather cloak. In her defense, it is her stolen husband she is trying to find again.

We get used to princes in folktales setting out to seek beautiful princesses. In the Greek tale of Fair as the Sun, however, it is a princess that takes on the journey to find a legendarily beautiful prince, and make him her husband (even though he already has a lover... but that's beside the point).

There are many variants of the Silent princess folktale, where a hero has to make a princess speak three times through various means - usually with telling some very clever dilemma tales. In a Georgian folktale, however, it is a king who has to break the enchantment on a silent prince, and he is helped by a talking golden apple.

You know the folktale motif where a mortal woman marries a mysterious supernatural husband, who only visits her at night, and refuses to show his true (beautiful) face? Well, in a Lithuanian folktale it is a mortal man who marries a mysterious woman, and when he spies on her, she tosses him out the window.
(They do reunite in the end, though.)

The Love of Three Oranges (ATU 408) is a folktale type where a man sets out, obtains three magical fruits, and cuts them open to summon beautiful women. The first two usually die or disappear, but the third eventually becomes his wife.  
Well, in one tale from the Dominican Republic, it is a girl who sets out to pick grapefruit, and by burning them she summons three princes. However, she can't talk to any of them, so all three disappear. Later on, when her life is in danger, they return to help her.

You might be familiar with the motif from many "animal bride" folktales where three brothers shoot arrows in three directions, and follow the arrows to find a bride. In the Turkish tale of Rose Beauty, the archery trick is done by three princesses, who then set out to seek husbands.

This is what they call the folktale type where two brothers accidentally eat the heart / liver / head etc. of a magic bird, and gain superpowers from them. After they get separated and go through many adventures, their powers bring them good fortune and they eventually find each other again (ATU 567A). 
In the Azeri version of the story, the siblings are a boy and a girl, Lala and Nergiz, and it is the girl who has the most exciting adventures - among others, she defeats a dragon, a giant, and a sea monster too! 


Hungarian, Russian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian folktales often contain the motif of a tree of golden apples being robbed every night, until the youngest of three princes manages to stay awake to spy on the mysterious thief. I recently found a Hungarian folktale variant, where a king's silk meadow is grazed every night. He sets his three daughters to guard it, but only the youngest princess manages to stay awake, with the help of a little mouse. At the end of the story, the mouse turns into a prince.

Jill and the Beanstalk

The well known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk belongs to folktale type ATU 328, Treasures of the Giant. It is a very interesting type, because it exists both with male and female heroes. The version with the female hero is especially well known in the Hungarian tradition. I translated one text here.
There are also other tales around the world where women climb up into the sky on a beanstalk. I read one from Nauru, and another one from Latvia.

"But the traditional gender roles in folktales..."

Monday, September 21, 2020

Ivans and Vasilisas everywhere (Following folktales around the world 169. - Russia)

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!

A tűzmadár
Orosz varázsmesék
Alekszandr Nyikolajevics Afanaszjev
Magvető, 2006.

This book is a Hungarian selection of Afanasyev's classic 19th century Russian folktale collection (see an English version here). It contains 75 wonder tales (according to the collector, these were the most important group of folktales), and seven chapbook tales from the 18th and 19th centuries. The book didn't come with any notes, but the tale types were numbered, and the Afterword gives details about Afanasyev's life, and the history of the collection. The latter was especially interesting. Afanasyev only collected a few tales first hand, the rest he found in the archives of the Russian Geographical Society (geographers also collected folklore materials on the side). In addition, he used Vladimir Dal's folktale collection; Dal collected stories via a network of mailing partners, researching the Russian language and its dialects.
The book is a fun read, it contains many of the "great classics" of Russian folklore, and it's illustrated by the amazing pictures of Ivan Bilibin (although, sadly, in black and white). I also have the English volume I linked above, and there is a lot of overlap.


One of my favorite Russian folktales is featured in this book: Elena the Wise flies in a chariot drawn by dragons, and teaches magic to girls who sneak away from home at night. The hero wins her hand by hiding from her sharp sight. The tale of The Sun's sister and the witch is a lovely variant of the "prince seeking immortality" tale type - especially because the hero didn't use his magic objects to save himself, but rather to help others who needed them (e.g. the brush that turns into a forest, for a woodcutter). In the end, the people he helped saved him from the witch (his own sister). I also love the Future dream, a variant of the tale where the hero refuses to tell his dream to anyone; here the dream foretold that he was going to help his best friend win the hand of a princess.
I was amused by the tale about How the soldier cured the tsar's daughter, by outwitting various devils (and he didn't even marry her in the end). I also liked the tale about The blind and the legless soldier, where the true hero was a prince's magical helper, Uncle Katoma. He defended the naive prince from the intrigues of an evil princess, and when she cut off his legs in revenge, Uncle Katoma teamed up with a blind old soldier, and together they managed to set things right.
The Bear Tsar was a fascinating story, included in more than one version. Two children, promised to an evil bear, tried to escape with the help of various animals unsuccessfully, until a young bull managed to rescue them. I also enjoyed the long and intricate tale of "Go I-don't-know-where and bring me I-don't-know-what", where the hero eventually managed to complete the vague mission by finding a mysterious invisible helper named Sense. Another symbolic figure in the stories was Sorrow, who attached itself to a poor man and made him drink away all his fortune, until he found a clever way of getting rid of the mean spirit. Sorrow then attached itself to a rich man, but, surprisingly, this victim also managed to outwit it.
There are many classic Russian tales in this book that might already be familiar to international readers. For example, the tale of Morozko, Father Frost, who rewards the kind girl but freezes her unkind stepsister. Or the legendary Vasilisa the Beautiful, who sets out deep into the woods to bring fire from Baba Yaga. Or Maria Morevna, the warrior maiden, and her arch-enemy Koschei the Deathless, who hides his life inside an egg. Or the Frog Princess, who brings valuable items to her prince and dances a dance of creation; or Ivan and the Grey Wolf, setting out to find the legendary Firebird; or Finist the Radiant Falcon, a well-known Russian variant of the hurt-and-rescued bird prince tale type.
Obviously, many tales feature Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch who flies in a mortar, lives in a house with chicken legs, and often eats people. My favorite was a little tale about a cat, a sparrow, and a "nimble youth" (possibly a gnome) living together; whenever the cat and the bird left, Baba Yaga came into their house to count their spoons... Eventually, the nimble youth managed to get rid of her.


Texts in this book were arranged in a way that similar tales followed each other, sometimes in more than one version. There were many familiar stories: Kind and unkind girls (The girl and her stepsister, where a mouse helped the kind girl get away from a bear), three kidnapped princesses (Copper Kingdom, Silver Kingdom, Gold Kingdom, where Baba Yaga's bird flew the hero back to the surface; also Dawn, Evening, and Midnight, where the older boys pulled their younger brother back up instead of betraying him), extraordinary helpers (The flying ship; The Seven Simeons - the latter also featured a magical Siberian cat, and a lad whose power was to submerge ships and then bring them back to the surface, á la Pirates of the Caribbean), twin princes (The Two Ivans, who were sadly hunted down by the dragon's sister after the happy end), animal brothers-in-law (or, in the case of Fyodor Tugarin, Wind, Hail, and Thunder), princess on the glass mountain (Sivko-Burko, Silly Ivan), Aladdin (The magic ring), Fortunatus (Horns), gold-spitting princes (The duck and the golden eggs), Snow White (The magic mirror), magic flight (The sea tsar and Vasilisa the Wise), gemstone mountain (or, in this case, Gold Mountain), magician's apprentice (The secret knowledge), Bearskins (Unwashed soldier, who was basically the thesis work of a little devil), golden-haired gardener (I don't know), and the devil's three golden hairs (Marko the Rich and Unhappy Vasily).
The kind and unkind girls type was especially interesting in the case of The swans; here a girl's brother was kidnapped by birds, and she set out to rescue him. She was both kind and unkind: on the way there she refused to help the trees and animals, but on the way back she changed her mind.
I once again encountered the trope where a hero only strikes a villain once.

Where to next?

Saturday, September 19, 2020

StorySpotting: People marrying trees (As seen on the news)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

StorySpotting is usually for film, comics, TV shows, and other popular media, but every once in a while, I see something on the news that is also worth including. Like, in this case, where a true story reminds me of a few folktales...

Where was the story spotted?

A bunch of articles came out last week about "a woman married to a tree", who is celebrating her first wedding anniversary. Just google "Kate Cunningham" and "tree."

What happens?

Her maiden name is Kate Cunningham, and her married name is Kate Elder, since her tree-spouse is an elder (she also has a human boyfriend and two children). She is an environmental activist who married the elder tree in Rimrose Valley Park last year, in an attempt to stop a road being built through the park. She got the idea from Mexican activists who do the same to halt illegal logging. It is basically a very dedicated (and newsworthy) form of tree-hugging for environmental conservation. It even has its own Wikipedia page

What's the story?

Marrying trees is not exactly unheard of in world folklore. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't, but either way, it makes for a good story. 

In a Sangu folktale from Tanzania a woman marries a tree while her sisters take animal husbands. She later discovers that her tree-husband sheds its bark at night in the form of a pangolin, and turns into a handsome human man. At dawn, the pangolin returns, and the man becomes a tree again. The marriage goes on like this until the woman eventually kills the pangolin (poor pangolin!), and the husband remains human.
There is a Makka legend from Paraguay about a woman who marries a lignum vitae tree. She falls in love with the beautiful tree and scratches it gently every day, until the tree bleeds, and visits her at night, becoming her husband. It brings abundance to the crops of the village, and has a child with the woman, but when she cheats on it, the lignum vitae ascends to the sky. But even then, it makes sure child and family never go hungry. 
In a Tlingit legend, a girl dreams about a man visiting her multiple times, and then gives birth to a boy. No one knows who the father is, and no man takes responsibility, so the girl's father invites all the "people of the trees". When they arrive, the boy crawls straight to the old man by the door, who turns out to be the spirit of an old spruce tree. The mother marries him.
In an Indonesian folktale from Sumatra, a brave princess named Kemang falls in love with a beautiful mango tree who turns out to be an enchanted prince. She manages to find a way to break the enchantment, and transform the entire forest into a kingdom.
In the heartbreaking Japanese tale of the Willow Wife, a young man saves a willow tree from being cut down for timber. Soon, a mysterious woman appears in his life, and turns out to be the spirit of the willow tree he loved so much. Sadly, people eventually cut the tree down anyway, and the willow wife disappears in the same instant. 
The Indian folktale of The Flowering Tree features a girl who has the power to transform herself into a tree filled with beautiful flowers. Eventually some jealous women trap her in her half-transformed stage and tear her branches and flowers, and she has to go through a lot of pain and suffering until her husband's love restores her.
In a Jamaican folktale, a lonely hunter sees a pretty tree, and wishes it was a woman, because I would love to marry her. Lo and behold, the tree transforms into a woman, and she marries the man. Later on another man kidnaps her, but her husband goes to the rescue.
Some tales are even darker than that. A storyteller named Emily Dean, of mixed Fox Indian and Black heritage, told a tale in the 19th century about a hunter who married a pretty but mysterious girl by the forest. At night, he felt like he was touching bark and branches, and during the day the girl disappeared, until he eventually figured out he is married to a tree spirit, and managed to reveal her as an old hag that turned into a hollow log. The Jewish tale of The demon in the tree is very similar to the story known (thanks to Tim Burton) as The Corpse Bride. Here, a young man practicing his wedding vows puts a ring on a tree branch, just to find himself married to a tree demon. The demon kills all his brides, until he marries a woman sensible enough to strike a deal with her. The double marriage is resolved by negotiation in the end.


I guess one could do worse than a tree for a spouse.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

MythOff Aquincum: Back to the Classics

We have not had a MythOff since February, due to the coronavirus crisis. Hence, when the Aquincum Museum invited us to bring MythOff to the museum's open archaeological park, we were more than happy to oblige. Last weekend was their Roman Festival, and we didn't only prepare with Greek and Roman mythology - but we even dressed for the occasion!

MythOff took place in the afternoon (following right after the gladiator combat). Since it was very hot outside, we abandoned the open air theater and set up under a large tree so that our audience could sit in the share. It turned out to be a great idea: it created a lovely atmosphere, and about 50-60 people stuck around to listen to myths for two hours. Voting was done by dropping pieces of pottery into urns, and the prizes were antefix replicas provided by the museum.

Here is how things went down: 

Round one: Life and death
The lineup opened with Hajós Erika. She told the myth of King Erysichthon, who disrespected the goddess Demeter, and was punished by eternal hunger. The other myth was that of Aeneas' journey into the Underworld, told by Gregus László.
Voting question: Which one would you rather take on: eternal hunger, or a trip into the Underworld?
Winner: Aeneas. People would rather go to the Underworld than go hungry.

Round two: Love
This was my round, and I got to tell a brand new myth from my repertoire: that of Dea Muta, the silent goddess, who saved a nymph from being raped by Jupiter, and then became the secret lover of Mercury. Nagy Enikő told the lovely story of Philemon and Baucis wishing to leave the world in their old age together.
Voting question: Which love would you rather choose, one that is rich but has to be kept a secret, or one that is poor but you don't have to hide?
Winner: Philemon and Baucis. People would rather not hide their love. 

Round three: Troy
Stenszky Cecília told the myth of Philoktetes, the unlucky archer whose story kicks of the fall of Troy. Dala Dániel joined her with the prequel to the prequel: the death of Heracles (a story which is depicted in a mosaic in Aquincum). 
Voting question: Who would you rather have as an archery master?
Winner: Heracles. More people would rather have an angry master than a stinky one.

It was amazing to tell ancient myths among the ancient ruins. We hope to do it again sometime soon!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Heroes in the wilderness (Following folktales around the world 168. - Georgia)

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!

Georgian Folk Tales

Marjory Wardrop
David Nutt, 1894.

The book contains 38 folktales, grouped into three chapters: 15 Georgian tales, 8 Mingrelian tales, and 14 Gurian tales (the latter two are smaller ethnic groups in the western part of Georgia). It was one of the first English translations of the Georgian oral tradition. The author selected the tales from collections published in the Georgian language, and listed the sources in the introduction. The archaic language makes them hard to read occasionally, but the cultural references and more obscure phrases are explained in the footnotes.


My favorite story in the book was the one about The prince and the fox. A prince, running away from his abusive father, found shelter in the woods, where he befriended a fox, a wolf, a bear, and an eagle. At first he was afraid of the animals, but they soon proved they could take care of him. With the fox's leadership they built a palace, carved furniture, planted a garden, and even brought a princess from the city. The princess' father, however, sent a wily old woman who stole her back. The animals got her again, at which point the king sent an army against them. In a great battle the animals defeated the army. The prince could have lived happily with his bride... except he became ungrateful and mistreated the animals. The fox cursed him, and he died soon without an heir. From that day, the story concludes, the animals ruled the forest again...


There were quite a few familiar tale types in the book: Magician's apprentice (Master and pupil), frog bride (Frog skin, in which the hero also took a trip into the Underworld), twin princes who turned to stone (Ghvthisavari), magic flight (The prince), Cinderella (Conkiajgharuna, once again with a clever old woman), Two thieves, hidden strength (Kazha-ndii), princess who saw everything (The prince who befriended the beasts - his final helper was a giant jackal that burrowed under the palace), and princess on the glass mountain (The priest's youngest son). 
I once again encountered the tale type where a girl bringing food to her brothers is kidnapped by a monster, and eventually all the siblings are rescued by their newly born younger brother (Aspurtzela). Here, the tale was combined with the "three princesses in the underworld" type. In the end, the hero asked whether it was the princesses' or his brothers' fault that he had been left in the underworld, and the princesses declared that they had been forced to comply, therefore they can't be blamed (this tale type often blames the kidnapped women too). In another "hidden strength" tale (Geria, the poor man's son) the hero was killed, and his bride kidnapped by the villain. She gave him an ultimatum: either fight her in single combat, or let her grieve for six months. The villain was too scared to fight the feisty princess. In a "golden haired twins" type tale (The three girls and the stepmother), the girls tossed into a well were rescued by the youngest sister, whose hands turned into a shovel and pickaxe, and she dug her way out. The story of The king and the apple was an interesting variant of the "silent princess" type - here, a sleeping prince had to be awakened with the help of witty dilemma stories told by a magical apple. 
We had a guest appearance by a trickster: Nasreddin Hodja showed up to tell Shah Ali a story that made the king say "that is impossible!", thus winning a bet. Among other witty stories there was the one about a scholar who judges a sailor for not knowing how to read - only to find out soon that the himself doesn't know how to swim. And also the one where a wise man wonders why pumpkins don't grow on trees... until one falls on his head. 

Where to next?

Monday, September 7, 2020

Roses, dervishes, warrior women (Following folktales around the world 167. - Azerbaijan)

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!

Százegy azerbajdzsáni népmese I-III.
Abdullájeva Szvetlána
Magyar-Azerbajdzsán Baráti Társaság, 2014.

An amazing and unique book even on an international level (I was having a hard time locating an Azerbaijani collection in English). It contains 101 folktales translated from a five-volume publication from 2005 (the tales were originally collected at the beginning of the 20th century). The introduction talks about how the book came to be, and how selections were made - with an eye to parallels in Hungarian folklore. Regardless of this, however, I found many of the tales unique, and many variants fun and unexpected; it is a true journey into Azerbaijani culture and tradition, and a great read. Stories come with footnotes that explain cultural elements, and there is a glossary at the end of each volume. The book has gorgeous illustrations, and cover art by Arif Huseynov (see some of his work below). There seem to be an English series with some of the tales and the same illustrations: try here.


I especially liked this collection because it had so many tales about brave, clever, independent women. My favorite was the tale of Lady Nardan - I blogged about that one in detail here. In the story of Lala and Nergiz twins, a boy and a girl ran away from their stepmother and were separated. The girl, Nergiz, killed a giant, a dragon, and a sea monster before she was reunited with her brother and found happiness. In the legend of Ibrahim, son of Adjem, the hero's mother, Lady Dostu put on armor and protected her daughter-in-law from an invading army. She killed a lot of soldiers before she was defeated with a trick. She did survive, however, and got to live happily with her family. In the story of the Apple of Seven Mountains a princess named Perinous chose her own husband, a gardener, and through various clever tricks managed to convince her father to let them get married (among other things, the young man had to bring an enchanted apple, and burning mummies from the Nile, to prove his worthiness). Lady Gülnar fought giants and read spells in forty different languages to save a kidnapped prince. In the story of Gara Hasan a padisah wanted to kill all women because one had been unfaithful, but the hero convinced him with a story that there are just as many heroic and honest women in the world.
The most complex and intriguing story in the book was that of the hero Tapdig, who, however, was kind of a side character in his own adventure. The main story revolved around a cosmic family feud between the Sun and her daughter. The Sun fell in love with the King of the Underworld, but her daughter disapproved of the match, and the two women fought tooth and nail, involving bystanders like a djinn prince, a kidnapped princess, and Tapdig himself. At the end of the story heroes and anti-heroes all got to live, and the sun princess had to accept that her mother was happy with her underworld lover.
 Another adventurous story was that of Semi, about a traveling prince who first became a pastry maker and then fell in love with a princess who loved his pastries. His boss, however, wanted the girl for himself, and the prince had to weather many challenges with the help of a friendly shepherd before he could get married.
The qadi of Shirvan
was a tale of a young and innocent padisah who was taken advantage of by criminals (pretending to be family). Eventually he set out into the world, and having learned from his mistakes he helped uncover conspiracies and rescue kidnapped maidens. Similarly, the tale of Dasdemir was a full on multi-generational murder mystery, where the hero uncovered corruption inside the padisah's court.
I liked reading about Logman, the famous doctor and historical person who performed all kinds of tricky healing procedures (even brain surgery). On the other hand, I was also greatly amused by the simple little story of Jirtan, a small boy who rescued his friends from giants with a trick known to many parents the world over: he refused to go to sleep...
There were interesting smaller moments and motifs in some of the tales. For example, I learned from The snake and the girl how long it takes for a snake to evolve into a dragon, and from the dragon into an evil human being. The tale of Ohaj and Ahmed was a magician's apprentice story, where the palace of the evil magician was literally built from the pain and suffering of his victims; it was described in amazing detail. In the second half of the story the magician's daughter, who helped the hero escape, gave him a quest of her own to see "how far you'd go for my sake."


It is not very surprising that the collection had a lot of familiar tale types, some of them in more than one version. An incomplete list would include: Silent princess (Melik Mehmed; Jagub and the Fish Padisah), three fastidious men (The three princes;The ruby), various Three Kidnapped Princesses tales, sometimes with stolen golden apples (Südemen; Melikmemmed; The little prince), ebony horse (Nazik Beden), cursed brothers (The seven brothers), clever girl and a king learning a trade (Sah Abbas the weaver), grumpy wife and fake fortune-teller (God save us from Hamperi), secret dream (The tailor's apprentice), puss in boots, or rather fox (Mr. Pear), a hero collecting stories from people (The tale of Hatem), various glass mountain princesses and animal in-laws (Kösa Three-Moustaches; The tale of Melik Jamil), all-kinds-of-fur (Hosgedem), girl rescuing her sisters from a murderous husband (The story of the three sisters), Gemstone Mountain (The tale of Telet története; also featuring a Simurgh bird), golden-haired gardener (The boy on the white horse), various Aladdin / magic ring tales (Janig; The magic ring), a firebird-type tale with a series of challenges (The white bird, named after the helper), trickster maiden (Haji's daughter), clever wife who seduces his own husband three times (Pour water on my hands!), ungrateful animal (Good for good), Magical helpers (The six companions), Fortunatus (Emir and the shah's daughter; The useless boy), three oranges (Pomegranate girl), the hunter's son (Hunter Pirim; Jusif and Senuber), princess who turned into a prince (The secret of Benidas), cannibal girl defeated by her own brother (Iron-tooth girl), and the tale about why elders are not executed anymore (The tyrant padisah). 
I was happy to read another version of the tale about the kind man who wanted to be a robbers' apprentice, but kept messing up the jobs with his kindness (Mehemmed). There was also a tale about the unjust king who hung the person who fit the noose best, not the actual criminals (Logman and his servant). Iskender Zülkarnejn was an Alexander-legend, combining the parts about the king with the horse's ears and the Land of Darkness where the king sought the Water of Life. I also once again encountered the motif of a king checking his daughter's readiness to marry by cutting open watermelons (Semsi Gemer).
I especially liked it when well-known tale types had unexpected twists. There was a creepy version of the "laughing fish" tale, by the way, where the hero was born because his mother ate a powdered mummy head (yup). He then revealed to the padisah his wife's unfaithfulness. At the end of the story he turned back into a mummy head and rolled away, looking for his next victim... The tale of Rejhan was a version of the "kidnapped princesses in the underworld" type, but here we got to find out where the little man with the long beard (a staple character in these tales) actually came from. In the story of The prince and the frog it was the princes who tossed golden apples to girls they wanted to marry (not the other way around). By the way this was a Frog Bride story, where the frog befriended a bunch of other animals, and in the end they summoned an animal army and defeated a tyrant.
However, my very favorite was a Cinderella variant (Beautiful Fatma) where a clever old woman helped the girl with sorting out mixed seeds: she brought her three bowls of new seeds, and tossed the mixed pile out to the chickens. Work smarter, not harder.

Where to next?