Monday, July 6, 2020

A map made of stories (Following folktales around the world 163. - Syria)

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!

Syrian ​Folktales
Muna Imady
Msi Press, 2012.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters, according to the fourteen districts of Syria, and each chapter contains one or two folktales from that region. Next to the tales each chapter also has riddles, songs, sayings by the Prophet, and a few local recipes. For example, I now know how to make roast camel.
The end of the book has a glossary, and the introduction talks about Syria and its storytelling traditions (for example the claim that if you tell stories by daylight you'll turn into a donkey). Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the region's history, famous places, and economy.

Highlights

The tale of Boujhayesh the donkey was entertaining, and had a nice ending. The donkey and his friends - a goose, a duck, and a pigeon - planted a field together, and then all of them ate from it in secret. In the end when it all came to light they admitted their weakness and continued being friends.
I really liked the story of The enchanted snake where a girl wandered into a ghoul's cave, and when she refused to become her accomplice, the ghoul cursed her into a snake. The curse could only be broken if someone jumped over her three times without fear - but every time someone was scared of her, she'd become even uglier. The tale had a happy ending, and I especially liked that we got to hear all of it from the snake-girl's perspective.
The woodcutter and the lion was also a good story, where a poor man visited a lion's forest-island, and the kind lion allowed him to cut some wood. However, when he grew rich, he forgot about the animal's kindness and began to mock him, and even tried to kill him. The hurt lion then took back his island, saying "wounds can heal, but hurtful words last forever." I have read a similar story from Tunisia.

Connections

There were many familiar tale types in the book (no wonder, since Syria has always been a crossroads of trade routes). I encountered Treasures of the giant (Nuss-insais or Tiny), a Cinderella / Kind and unkind girls combination like the one from Lebanon (The wicked stepmother), the three gifts (and A cow that told lies), doctor and the devil (or jinn; the two scary wives were called Tunnay and Runnay and became synonymous with fake news), chain story about a cat who lost its tail, a "chatty wife" story ("When it rained meat"), and three clever men and the blind camel (The wise qadi).
I once again encountered my favorite Middle Eastern tale, where a clever girl is married to a kind beggar (The secret of the pomegranate), and the story from Palestine where a family is threatened by a ghoul, and the wife and daughters escape while the father, who didn't listen to their worries, is devoured (Sherehan Abu Khabeza).
The trickster in residence was the sly fox, who tricked several animals into believing he was going on a pilgrimage. Eventually a duck outwitted him. In another classic tale the fox and the raven invited each other for dinner, but when they discovered neither can eat well at the other's place, they apologized and made peace. There was also a version of the African folktale type where the fox decided to give all the food to the lion, after he witnessed the wolf being punished for an equal division.

Where to next?
Cyprus!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Fake news folktales: Talk to your kids about checking sources

Information and media literacy is becoming essential in today's world. The volume of information flooding our days in unprecedented, and children are not immune to it either. We need to start teaching them early not to take things at face value; to ask questions, check sources, and evaluate the information they are provided. And yes, a lot of adults are still learning to do the same.
Stories are a great way to teach, and luckily, there are many of them that touch upon the question of truth and lies. Here is a selection of some of the most interesting ones.


The king of the monkeys (Liberia)

An ugly bird moves into a hole in the ground, and makes the monkeys believe he is some all-powerful, terrifying monster. He holds this power over them, making them bring him food and gifts - that is, until the baby monkeys, who don't know better, actually start poking into the hole, and discover that the "terrifying monster" is just a very ugly, but not very scary bird.

The cat and the fox (Hungarian)

This tale type goes under ATU 103A, and has variants all over Europe. In it, a lazy cat is chased out of the house, and he goes to live in a forest. Since forest animals have never seen a cat before, he manages convince first a fox, and then with her help everyone else that he is a terrifying beast. The animals pay him respect and bring him food, and the lazy cat finds a comfortable kingdom for himself.
This is very similar to the previous story, but also highlights the role of those who support the deceit and benefit from it (the fox).

The Deceiver (Somalia)

Pretty dark story. A deceitful, lying person is exiled from the village of humans, and goes into the wilderness. There, he incites the animals and the elements to rebel against humans. Once they raid the village, however, he begins to accuse his helpers, one after another ("Did you see how the fire burned the village? What if it turns against you next? Let's put it out before that happens!"), and he turns his followers on each other, until no one is left. Then he happily walks away with all the loot. However, in the end he discovers that wealth doesn't make him happy, and he is miserable in exile.

Lies hurt more than a wound (Suriname)

A king keeps insisting that words can't hurt anyone - "sticks and stones", and all of that. Anansi, the spider-trickster, decides to teach him a lesson. He defecates in the hallways of the palace, and starts spreading a rumor that it's the king who can't control his bowels. The rumors spread like wildfire, and the king soon learns that words can, indeed, have very serious consequences.

Cat and rat bathe together (Grenada)

This story is about learned prejudice. A kitten and a young rat go bathing together every day, and they become good friends. However, when their parents find out, they start teaching their young that they should not be friends because they are different from each other. The kitten is told rats are lowly food, and the rat is told cats are dangerous killers. The friendship ends.
(I do want to re-tell this story with a more positive ending, and you might too.)

Qamar Al-Zamaan and Shams Al-Dunya (Lebanon)

A prince is engaged to a beautiful girl, but on his way to the wedding a bunch of jealous women convince him that his bride (whom he has not seen yet, according to custom) is actually ugly and awful. The prince runs away from the marriage. The bride finds out and goes looking for him; she befriends him without telling him who she is, and eventually they get to know each other and fall in love.
(This tale also has a nice version from Palestine.)

The Pincers of Pagan (Burma / Myanmar)

This story is about how "blind justice" is not always the fairest option (or, as you'd say, the difference between equality and equity). A king has a set of magic pincers he uses to dole out justice: the accused has to put his hands between the pincers, and if they are lying, the pincers cut the hands off. However, a thief manages to outsmart the pincers in the story, proving that they can't be solely relied upon for justice.
(There are similar stories about the Bocca della Veritá in Rome.)

Brave Mouse-Deer (Borneo)

A human comes into the forest, and the animals are all scared of the new visitor. Mouse Deer sets out to spy on the human, and observes it doing things animals have never seen before (taking off his shirt, smoking, etc.). Every time Mouse Deer returns with news, the story gets wilder and wilder ("he eats clouds!", "he takes off his skin!"), and panic rises in the jungle. Once the human departs without trouble, however, the animals accuse Mouse Deer of making it all up.

Tunnay and Runnay (Syria)

This is a classic "devil and the fake doctor" type tale, where someone chases the devil away in the end by scaring him into thinking his wife is coming. It features two terrifying women, and it became a phrase in Syria, "Tunnay and Runnay" being synonymous with "fake news."

Plop! Splash! (Tibet)

Hare hears a strange sound that scares him, and starts running, making everyone else think the sky is falling (yes, very Henny Penny). Eventually someone things to check where the sound was coming from, and discovers it was fruit falling into water.

Go to sleep, gecko! (Bali)

I mentioned this one before in relation to quarantine stories, but I'm repeating it here, because it is also about looking into why others do things that annoy us. Gecko is angry at the fireflies flashing, but when Lion investigates, it turns out they have been trying to warn travelers on the road at night. And so on. Gecko learns in the end that all the animals he thought were annoying and wrong had good reasons to do what they were doing.



Anansi seeks a fool (Ghana)

Anansi seeks someone who is foolish enough to do all the work for him while he rests and reaps the results. Crow, however, beats the trickster at his own game, by making him believe that they can spit up work and effort. Anansi ends up doing all the work while Crow pretends to be taking on all the "tiredness" from it. I am including this story here to talk a little bit about checking "fine print" on what a job/social position really is about.

If you have other stories that would fit the list, let me know in the comments!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The first sail (Feminist Folktales 20.)

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: Marshall Islands

The story


Twelve brothers organize a boat race to decide who gets to rule the "eastern islands". While they are getting ready, their mother Loktanur appears, carrying a large, heavy bundle. She asks her eldest to allow her in the canoe, but he is afraid she would slow him down so he declines. She then asks all the others in turn, but only the youngest, Jebro agrees to take her on. The race starts, and right away Loktanur delays her son, telling him to pull the boat up on shore. It's worth the delay: turns out Loktanur has invented sailing. Mother and son put the mast and the sail and the rigging up, and they set out flying, soon overtaking all the other brothers.
When they reach the eldest, he demands to be given the sailing ship, because he "deserves" it. Jebro wants to decline but his mother tells him to hand the ship over... after taking out some of the rigging. Not knowing how to work the sail, the elder brother flops around in circles, while Jebro and his mother comfortably win the race. They go on to teach people how to sail, and Jebro eventually becomes the Pleiades, signaling the start of the sailing season.

What makes it a feminist story?

I like stories where the brave / clever / wily female hero is not a young girl, but a grown woman or even a mother - one who did not lose her creativity, independence, and initiative just because she had children. In this case Loktanur doesn't only show up to help her youngest son: She has an invention of her own, something she dreamed up, created, and learned to use. She owns her knowledge, and she only shares it with those who show her respect. She hands the ship to her eldest, but not the knowledge that goes with it (and not all the essential parts). She knows her worth and her boundaries, and knows that the only one who deserves her invention and her knowledge is the one who respects her as a person, not just wants her stuff.
And of course she is a good role model, because how cool is it that she invented sailing?!

Things to consider

In multiple cultures of Oceania navigation was something women did; there are legends about them learning the secrets of wayfinding, or inventing tools to help sailing (see the Sources below). They are fascinating stories, worth digging into.

Sources

Laurence M. Carucci: From the Spaces to the Holes: Ralik-Ratak remembrances of World War II (Isla III, 1995.)
Gerald Knight: A History of the Marshall Islands (Micronitor News and Printing Co., 1999.)
Jack A. Tobin: Stories from the Marshall Islands (University of Hawaii Press, 2002.)
Anono Lieom Loeak, Veronica C. Kiluwe, Linda Crowl: Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (University of the South Pacific, 2004.)

Notes

This is not the only culture that believes a woman invented sailing. I read a similar story from Qatar too.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Worlds behind the curtain (Following folktales around the world 162. - Lebanon)

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!

Abu ​Jmeel's Daughter and Other Stories
Arab Folk Tales from Palestine and Lebanon
Jamal Sleem Nuweihed
Interlink Books, 2002.

The 27 folktales in this book were written down from memory by a Lebanese lady named Jamal Sleem Nuweihed when she was 83 years old. The stories were then translated to English by her family - children, grandchildren, nieces. Jamal spent her life writing novels, poems, autobiographies and tales, but she was never allowed to enter literary life outside the home, so a lot of her work went unpublished. She learned her folktales from four women in her childhood: a Lebanese aunt, a Lebanese friend, her own Turkish mother who had an adventurous life, and a Palestinian fortune-teller. The foreword tells us about her life, while the introduction talks about the colorful details of Arab storytelling traditions. Each story comes with end notes and comments. The tales in the book were all colorful, exciting, and beautifully eloquent, reflecting the hidden life and dreams of a brilliant woman writer.

Highlights

Image from here
One of the most beautiful tales in the book was the story of Amina. Eight siblings (seven girls and a boy) ran away from home from an evil stepmother, and started a new life elsewhere, supporting each other. In time their father left the stepmother and found them, and the brother married a princess. What I liked most about this story (other than the bookworm youngest daughter) was that it stated that the father knew about the cruelty of his wife, but didn't have the confidence to do something about it.
The story of Rummana was a gorgeous Snow White variant, combined with elements I knew from tales such as Little Surya Bai. The princess was not exiled here, rather she ran away into the wilderness our of curiosity and got lost. Three hunters adopted her as their sister and raised her. When eventually an evil ghoul killed her, they put her in a glass coffin on the back of a camel and set her free. A prince found her, his mother revived her and cared for her until she was healthy again.
The tale of Qamar Al-Zamaan and Shams Al-Dunya was very similar to one of the Palestinian stories, but it was a longer and more elaborate version. A prince was tricked into thinking his bride was ugly, so he ran away and hid in a garden. The bride disguised herself and befriended him; they slowly fell in love (with lots of poetry) until she revealed who she really was. The seond half of the tale, however, took a tragic turn: evil women killed the wife and her children, and the prince went through a long and dark grief process before he found love again.
Image from here
I absolutely loved the story of Hassan Al-Waqqad (I have recently worked with a different version of it for my book). A clever and brave princess was married to a beggar by her angry father as punishment, but they managed to build a life together anyway, fell in love, and found their fortune together. In another tale a man named Azzam was the most eligible bachelor of his city, but he kept divorcing his wives after the wedding night. Finally a clever girl managed to uncover his secret (he was being blackmailed by a sorceress), got rid of the villain with the help of her maid, and turned his life around. In The midwife's daughter and the bandit another clever and brave girl managed to talk herself out of danger when a bandit found his way into her house at night.

Connections

There was, once again a "women's wiles are better than men's wiles" story, although this version was definitely kinder than the ones I have read before. After Palestine, I also encountered again the tale where a poor girl was rejected by her rich cousin, only to marry a beggar - who, to the infinite regret of the cousin, turned out to be Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid himself.
Another Mediterranean tale type appeared in Sons of the rich and daughters of the poor, where a poor girl competed with her rich cousin about which one of them could start a better business. The clever girl grew rich, while the guy ran his family business into the ground.
In "Mine to use as I choose" a young man was not allowed to see his bride, so, similarly to Greek folktales, he had a golden statue made, and hid inside (it was also a beautiful story, btw.). The fawwal's daughter was an Anait-story, where the prince had to learn a trade before he could marry a girl - and his trade saved his life later on. The girl was a spirited, flirty, clever character, who reminded me of Basil Girl tales.
On top of all this, there were several familiar tale types, such as a golden-haired gardener (Clever Hasan), three gifts (Marzuoq the woodcutter), Prince Thrushbeard (Hajji Brumbock), daughter of the sun (Abu Jmeel's daughter), cat bride (Cat of cats, where the cat skin was not burnt in the end, but rather stuffed with gold and displayed as a memorabilia), three pieces of advice (Don't betray those who trust you), Basil girl who seduced her husband three times (The tailor's daughter), and Cinderella / Kind and unkind girls (The golden shoe).

Where to next?
Syria!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Wise grandmothers and brave women (Following folktales around the world 161. - Palestine)

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!


Speak, ​Bird, Speak Again
Palestinian Arab Folktales
Ibrahim Muhawi & Sharif Kanaana
University of California Press, 1989.

The book contains 45 folktales, preceded by a long introduction about the collection, storytelling traditions, events, and styles. The stories were collected between 1978 and 1980, and out of more than two hundred texts the authors selected the most common tale types to represent the Palestinian folktale tradition.
The introduction talks about some of the seventeen storytellers (14 of whom were women); Palestinian family culture and relationships; society, cuisine, religion, and beliefs, in the light of folktales. The stories in the book are grouped into chapters thematically (individuals, society, relationships, etc.), and each chapter comes with a short Afterword analysis. Each story comes with plenty of footnotes, explaining cultural references and expressions. On top of that, at the end of the books we can find more notes for each story, a folktale motif index, and a bibliography.

Highlights

My favorite in the whole book is a story cycle named "Seven leavenings" - sadly, only two of the seven have been collected. The hero is a clever old woman who, while waiting for dough to rise, walks down to the sea, gets on a random ship, and goes traveling to other cities. In each city she solves some kind of a problem (usually marital) with trickery. I would LOVE to read more of these stories.
"Sumac, you son of a wh***, sumac", the story with the best title in the book, was a pretty great version of the tale type where a girl is born a cannibalistic monster (here, a ghoul), and her brother ends up hunting her down after she eats the whole family. Here the hero was helped by two tame lions he raised. In an unexpected twist, at the end of the story he solved a riddle with the help of his sister's drops of blood (who yelled the solution at him in the above mentioned title format). Similar monster-hunting appeared in the story where an old ghoul woman stole the brides of a prince on their wedding night, until a clever lady broke the curse and sent guards to kill the ghoul. In the story of the Transjordanian ghoul mother and daughter killed the monster, while the man of the house was taking a nap.
The story of the brave young man reminded me of the devil's golden hairs - but it was not about a brave young man at all. His sole role was to go to the terrible ghoul and tell his wife the ghoul needed to die - at which point the brave and clever woman took care of the monster-killing. She was not the only interesting female hero in the book, either. The tale of Gazelle was a version of the type known to many of us as the Russian Koschei the Deathless - but here the jinn the guy accidentally released from prison (where it had been put by the heroine) didn't kidnap the wife, but rather challenged her to a fight which she accepted (saying "this time I will destroy you"), and while they fought the husband went off to find the jinn's hidden strength.
The story of Soqak-Boqak was interesting: jealous bystanders made a prince think his bride was ugly, so he ran away from his wedding. His bride disguised herself, found him, and they fell in love before she revealed that he had been lied to.

Connections

I was happy to read another version of the Saudi-Arabian tale where a woman goes into an underground kingdom out of shame for a burp. Here, a  poor woman sank underground because of a fart, and returned rich; when a rich woman tried to copy her, she returned cursed. It was especially funny to see how farts lived in the underground realm as people.
The tale of Tunjur Tunjur belonged to the funny type where a talking bowl brings gifts to its owner (here, also its mother). The story of Lady Tatar was an interesting mix of Daughter of the Sun and Daughter of the Wild Man - a heroine raised by a ghoul used her magic powers to show how she was better than all the other brides of her husband. There was also a version of the cute Middle Eastern tale type where a Cricket girl married a mouse, then fell into a puddle, and her husband heroically rescued her.
There were many familiar tale types represented in the book, for example princesses kidnapped to the underworld (Precious One and Worn-out One), treasures of the giant (Half-man), an animal brother tale (The orphans and the cow), "mother killed me, father ate me" (The green bird), Golden-haired children and the Water of Life (The little nightingale), Canary prince (The chief of birds), All-kinds-of-fur (Sackcloth), Rapunzel + magic flight (Lolabe), kind and unkind girls (Chicken eggs), tablecloth, donkey, and stick (with a Woodcutter and jinn in a well), Aladdin (Maruf the shoemaker, whose wife eventually stole the magic ring back), false fortune-teller (named Sparrow), and Seven kids (here with three kids, and a hyena disguised through a chain story). There were other chain stories in the book too; one about a cat who wanted her tail back, and another about a louse that started a mass grief chain among the animals. Dunglet was one of those stories where a monster keeps devouring everyone and getting bigger and bigger (here, it was an ever-growing piece of dung).

Where to next?
Lebanon!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Returning the selkie skin: Divorce in folktales, in a positive light


I somehow ended up being the "positive divorce" storyteller on Twitter.
My parents divorced two years ago, in a friendly way, and ever since then I have been interested in traditional folktales that portray divorce in a different light. There are situations in life where divorce is absolutely the solution, even if it means a painful ending to something that had been good once.

Here are some of my favorite examples so far:




Why the Sun shines in the day and the Moon shines at night (Lithuania)

This story tell us about the mythic divorce between Sun and Moon, and how they decided to share custody of their child, the Earth. They decided Sun will keep an eye on her during the day, and Moon will do so at night. The arrangement seems to be working so far.

How Soslan married Kosher (Ossetian Nart saga)

The most famous of the Nart heroes, Soslan, fights for the hand of a lady who lives in a magic flying tower. After many adventures and some flirting, she agrees to marry him. However, eventually she grows bored of living in one place, and since Soslan won't leave the Narts, they decide it's better for them to divorce. They say goodbye, and she flies away in her tower.

The marriage of Sultan Hasan (Egypt)

A sultan is told he'll have seven years of bad luck, so he dresses as a beggar and goes into exile to keep his family from suffering. In a village he encounters a rich man who keeps divorcing and re-marrying his wife out of cruelty. According to law, after three divorces he can only marry her again if she's had another husband in between. So they marry her to the first random beggar (the sultan), hoping to divorce them the next morning. However, they take a liking to each other, and decide not to divorce. Instead, they live on in a much happier, harmonious marriage.

The selfish husband (Zambia)

During a time of famine a family moves into the wilderness. The husband finds a lot of wild honey, but doesn't give any to his wife and children. The wife sets out on her own and catches an antelope, but can't carry it home alone. People from a nearby village help her, and since she can now care for her children with the help of the community, she divorces her selfish husband.

The selkie wife (Scotland)

A fisherman who doesn't have anyone, and wears a birthmark on his face, meets a selkie. First he steals her skin so she can't return to the sea, but then he feels bad about it and gives the skin back to her. The girl decides to stay with him anyway. Fifteen years later, however, she grows homesick, and returns to the sea, telling her husband to follow in time. When their children are grown, the fisherman goes into the sea and turns into a seal as well.
(I don't know if this is divorce or separation, but it's the best selkie story I know.)

Red Roderick and the selkie (Scotland)

Also a selkie story, except here the wife steals back her own skin after the birth of three children, and walks into the sea, telling her husband not to hunt seals ever again.

Fallen men spoil virtuous women (Syria)

In this tale type that exists in East Africa and the Middle East, a man divorces his three wives because each has a character flaw. Another, kinder man decides to marry them, and discovers that "character flaws" are actually largely the result of how badly the women had been treated by their husband (e.g. the one called "gluttonous" never got enough to eat).

The man who spoke the language of animals (Eritrea)

A classic tale type, where a man can't tell his wife where he got his magic powers. However, here in the end instead of beating his wife they simply divorce over their differences - and thus divorce is introduced to the world for the first time.
(This divorce saves the man from dying, and the woman from a dishonest marriage.)

The three little eggs (Eswatini)

Not as much divorce as escape from an abusive husband, towards a better future. I wrote about this story in detail in the Feminist Folktales series (see link).

Skadi and Njörd (Norse myth)

The goddess Skadi accidentally marries Njörd, the old god of the sea. They are such an awful match, however, that they decide to separate, and Skadi goes on to fall in love with Ullr, god of archery, who is a much better match for her.

Monday, June 15, 2020

A treasure trove of stories (Following folktales around the world 160. - Israel)

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 ​Power of a Tale
Stories from the Israel Folktale Archives
Haya Bar-Itzhak & Idit Pintel-Ginsberg 
Wayne State University Press, 2019.

A very special collection with a great backstory. The 53 tales in this book were selected from the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) to celebrate its 50th anniversary - the book was published in Hebrew in 2009, and finally in English last year. The archives were founded in 1955 to gather folk narratives from people immigrating into Israel, as well as from religious and ethnic groups living in the country (actively contradicting the idea that Israel would have to be culturally homogeneous). Today the archives contain more than 24,000 texts! All the stories in this book are tales that have not been published before. They represent 26 ethnic groups; nineteen of the tellers were women, and thirty-three were men.
This book really has everything a reader-researcher can wish for: a detailed Introduction about the history of IFA and the collection projects; bibliographies, folktale types, photos of the storytellers, an index, statistics of IFA, etc. Each story comes with a full background essay, with sources and notes and bibliographies, written by folklorists in Israel and abroad. Each takes a different approach to its story: a feminist point of view, comparative folklore, story psychology, cultural anthropology, etc. They were often as fascinating to read as the stories themselves. The whole book is a rare resource and a fun read, and definitely worth the time.

Highlights

My favorite story in the book was about The king who trusted the kingdom to his daughters (I blogged about it here). I love it because the heroine saves a kingdom with her kindness and empathy, turning her tears into diamonds to help people. Another story I loved a lot was titled A mother's gift is better than father's gift, in which a stepmother made her stepdaughter do chores around the house, and the girl hated her for it. When she grew up and fell on bad times, she suddenly realized she'd learned to work from her stepmother to survive. Good stepmother tales are a rare find!
Professor Dov Noy,
 founder of the IFA
The tale of The rich miser from Iraq was quite funny. He had his shoes mended so many times that they became heavy as rocks, and every time he tried to get rid of them they caused more and more trouble, until he had to admit it would have been easier to buy a new pair. The tale of Men's wisdom and women's slyness started out equally funny, but turned kind of cruel. A woman tricked a conceited man just to prove women could be sly and wise - but she did so at the expense of a crippled girl. The accompanying essay unpacked all the possible implications of the tale quite well.
Since the book focused on stories that are culturally relevant, it contained several narratives from times of pogroms and discrimination, telling of heroic sacrifices and miraculous survival. In the legend of Serah Bat Asher from Georgia, a king made fun of the Jews and made discriminatory laws against them, until one day he encountered a warrior woman, daughter of one of Joseph's brothers, who gained eternal life from God, and she convinced him to believe and revoke his laws. In a Persian story the Jews were saved when they used a magical bottomless bucket to fish the cruel king out of his palace through a well, and made him sign a document that gave them protection. In a story from Poland a boy was taken from his family and raised in Russia to be a soldier, and he found his parents later on by accident; in a story from Romania a boy was rescued from a persecuted Jewish family, and his wandering father found him years later, living as a rich man.

Connections


Recording stories (Image from here)
Of course there were also stories in the book that rang quite familiar, or belonged to international types. There was a Godfather Death tale, but with a female Death (!), and a kinder ending. Here, when the man asked for his life candle to be extended, Death kindly reminded him that he'd chosen her as godparent because she treats everyone equally. The tale of The princess in the wooden body was an All-kinds-of-fur type story, and the accompanying essay outlined the symbolism of abuse and childhood trauma quite beautifully. The six girls in the mountains was a Bluebeard tale, but here the heroine only ended up saving herself, not her sisters. The story aptly titled The measure of a woman is two, the measure of a man is one was a Basil Girl variant, complete with the part where the clever wife seduces her own husband in disguise three times in a row. The girl born from an egg was a Rapunzel story.
The tale of the cat demon was a fairy midwife tale; here the midwife did not only help with the birth, but also saved a changeling from being taken by demons. The life legend of the Polish hero Dobush started out with him being lost in the woods as a baby and being suckled by a female dog, much like Romulus and Remus. Between Sun and Moon was a Bedouin tale of a boy with a secret dream who won not one but two wives with his cleverness. I really like this type.
The queen and a fish reminded me of a story from Iraq; the queen's infidelity here was also revealed by a fish after multiple warnings by cautionary tales. From an Ethiopian source there was the tale of the Lion's whiskers, of a patient woman who learned how to approach her husband. In Muslim Arab stories I encountered the motif of a clever girl giving a drink of water to a man slowly, so that he is not harmed by it; I knew this one from Queen Anait from Georgia.

Where to next?
Palestine!

Monday, June 8, 2020

Heroes and prophets (Following folktales around the world 159. - Jordan)

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!

Legends of Galilee, Jordan, and Sinai
The Sacred Land III.
Zev Vilnay
The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1978.

This book is part of a series that collects the legends of the Holy Land by region; in Volume III we find stories from Galilee, Jordan, and Sinai. Among them, sixty-three legends are from the historical region of Jordan, grouped by geographical area. Not all of these areas are a part of modern day Jordan, but I read all of them anyway, and learned a lot about the region's geography. Stories are primarily from the Jewish tradition, but there were also a few Muslim and Christian legends. Sadly the volume doesn't have an introduction or foreword, but each story comes with cited sources.
I also read some more Arab legends from this book, because I was curious.

Highlights

The legend of the fight between Moses and King Og was filled with wonder tale motifs. My favorite was the part where the giant king tried to throw a mountain at Moses, so God sent an army of ants to dig through the mountain, and it collapsed on his head. He tried to take it off like a hat, but God grew his teeth so he would get stuck with his head inside the mountain...
I also liked the legend of the sneezing goats, who live in the land of Moab and sneeze from the incense burning in the Temple of Jerusalem.
There were some legends about Petra in the book. One of them was an Arab tale about the Pharaoh who built Petra, and his treasure hidden in a vessel above the door of one of the buildings. Whoever can shoot the vessel and break it can keep the gold. In another Arab legend the Pharaoh's daughter, living in one of the palaces, promised her hand to whoever could bring water to the city. Two young men succeeded, but one credited his own ingenuity and the other the help of God. She chose the latter.
In the Arab legends Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet made an appearance, alongside Antar, one of my favorite epic heroes.Ali visited Antar on his journey, and then reached the legendary City of Copper. There were also tales about another black Arab hero, Zir, whose story of trial and triumph resembled the "golden-haired gardener" type fairy tales.

Connections


The origin story of Lake Ram was one of those international types where a beggar visits a village and people are rude to him, so he calls down a storm and drowns the place in water, creating a lake. I also found a version of the classic fable about the man with two wives, one of whom pulled out the white hairs from his beard, and the other pulled out the black, until he was left without any beard at all.
The tale of King Solomon's ring did not only mention his wife (who was not the Queen of Sheba) but also fell into the motif of "the ring of Polycrates", being lost and found in the belly of a fish again. The legend of Ghareisah and Zeid was a Romeo and Juliet story here the youth from two warring Bedouin tribes tried to run away together, but they were found and killed. The girl wrote her dying message on a rock, and locals see the print of her hand in the cross of a Byzantine altar stone.
I couldn't help but think of a literary parallel in the legend of the Caesarion tunnel: according to legend the Lord did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land, no matter how he begged to cross the Jordan or the mountains. He finally asked to pass through the tunnel under the river, but God said "Thou shall not pass!" I wonder if Tolkien knew this story...

Where to next?
Israel!

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Folktales of rebellion, revolution, and community

As you have seen from the previous quarantine folktale posts, I deal with current events (and pretty much any other event) through stories and storytelling. So, watching the news about the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the USA, as well as following protests in Hungary against racism and against the de-legitimization of trans people, I have been thinking of stories where communities come together to fight injustice and oppression, and create a better future.
Here are some of my favorites:

The shy quilt bird (Myanmar)

When a serpent, the evil king of the sea, wants to take over the land from the just king lion, birds and animals of the jungle all band together to chase him away. They create enough noise to make the serpent believe they are the legendary Galon bird, with the help of an unlikely (and very shy) ally.
(When I tell this tale, I usually expand it so that different groups of animals have different roles - being the voice of the bird, shaking the trees to mimic wind, stomping on the ground, etc.)

The Tale of the Sun (Saami)

People kept in darkness and poverty by evil brothers find out that the Sun exists somewhere far away. Initially they don't believe the news, but a brave young man manages to pull everyone together, so they rebel against their overlords, and bring the Sun up to the sky together.

The cock's kraal (Eswatini)

A greedy king's soldiers come across a rich city inhabited only by roosters and hens. They find out that the fowl used to be people, but they were cursed by an evil king, and the curse only be broken if they defeat an enemy stronger than themselves. The greedy king orders his soldiers to attack the city, thinking it will be easy pickings - but the roosters and hens, under the encouragement of their king the Golden Rooster, close ranks, stand up for themselves, and defeat the invading army, breaking the curse.

The dragon and the golden bird (Nakhi)

When an evil serpent threatens the entire world, four women - Thinker, Doer, Seer, and Wisdom - band together and come up with a plan to trick the serpent into a fight with the powerful Golden Wings.

The Theft of Fire (Native American & Ilocano)

When giants, spirits, or other greedy creatures keep all the fire to themselves, a trickster figure organizes all the animals into an epic heist / relay race to bring light and warmth to the rest of the world.

Three valiant lads (English)

When a dragon threatens the countryside, three young men commission a blacksmith to make them a giant sword, and come up with a plan that involves everyone else in town. The repeating phrase of the story is "maybe one can't, but three of us can!" People together chase the dragon away, and it burrows underground, turning into the rare fluorite stone of the Blue John mines.

The king who trusted his kingdom to his daughters (Jewish)

Alright, I know I mention this tale a lot, but I love it, and in the end kindness and empathy makes people rise up and defend their kingdom.

The dragon in the swamp (Hungary)

When a dragon starts eating people from the villages around its swamp, a young Roma man figures out a way to gather information about the monster. Once he knows enough, he organizes the people of the villages, teaches them how to fight, comes up with a strategy, and all of them together defeat the dragon.

The battle of the trees (Wales)

When monsters attack the land, the famous magician Gwydion calls upon the forest to protect it. All the trees come to life, with their different personalities, and go into epic battle.
(By the way a few years ago Mark Williams wrote an epic "fakelore" version of this, and it is totally tellable.)

Just to be clear, this post is NOT advocating violence. It is advocating telling stories that show, in a symbolic way, that communities can stand up to toxic ideas and oppressive systems together, and change things for the better.


Thursday, June 4, 2020

The three little eggs (Feminist Folktales 19.)

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: Eswatini (Swaziland)

The story

A woman is beaten and abused by her husband regularly until she decides to run away. She takes her two small children and escapes into the wilderness. By a river they find a nest with three little eggs in it, and they carry it safely with them. For the rest of the journey the little eggs whisper advice to the woman about which road to take, where to find shelter. She has to face and defeat various monsters, keeping her children safe in the wild. In the end she breaks a curse on a kingdom, she is elected their queen, finds true love (in a prince who had been transformed into an egg), and lives happily ever after.


What makes it a feminist story?

I loudly support any folktale where the abusive partner is not "saved" or "fixed" but rather escaped and left behind (there are not many of these). This story highlights the fact that the abusive, violent husband is bad for the wife, and the best solution for her is to leave him.
However, the story also clearly shows that such an escape is very hard and full of danger. Sometimes the travelers find shelter that turns out to be a den of monsters; sometimes they get lost in the woods and the only way through is forward. The mother cares for her children, feeds them, sings to them, helps them climb trees to be safe. She is not a "selfish woman" who "destroyed her family" (women fleeing abuse are often told by people that they should have "tried harder, for the sake of the children", which is, frankly, bullshit). We see a brave and caring mother who literally faces man-eating monsters to make the life of her children (and herself) better and safer.
It is also important to note that the mother needs help and encouragement on this road, which she gets from the eggs. This symbolism can be explained in many ways, as internal or external help. At the end of the story we find out that the eggs were princes under an enchantment. But whether the help comes from without or within, it is important to see that the brave hero needed encouragement, advice, help - as in real life survivors of abuse also need a lot of these things to escape a bad situation, especially with children. At the end of the story the hero becomes queen, a queen who has the power to help others. Getting help from others does not diminish her heroism. Quite the opposite.

Things to consider

This story can be triggering to some audiences (esp. survivors of abuse). The storyteller should consider carefully the context of the telling, and make sure there will be time and space to deal with the feelings that might surface.

Sources

E. J. Bourhill & J. B. Drake: Fairy tales from South Africa (MacMillan, 1908.)

Notes

I included this story in my upcoming book (in Hungarian), about "non-traditional" families.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Plot twists and a flying mermaid (Following folktales around the world 158. - Iraq)

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 from Iraq
Middle East Book Review
Books & Books, 1995.

The book contains twenty-two folktales from Iraq, collected from the oral tradition. The introduction talks about the storytelling tradition, opening and closing formulas, and the most common Iraqi words in the stories. The layout was a bit hard to follow, but it was a very exciting read!



Highlights


The Mosul market in the 1930s
My favorite story in the book was that of The porter and the thieves. A poor man was abused by his wife, who wanted him to bring her the jewels of the Wazir's wife. The man eventually apprenticed him to a group of thieves, but every time they went to rob a house he did something out of the kindness of his heart, and blew the whole plan. Eventually, through a series of accidents, he did get the jewels, though.
The story of The young sultan was an interesting combination of the Glass Mountain and the Animal Suitors tale types. The boy guarding his father's grave fought demons and took their horses and armor. Instead of having to jump up to the mountaintop for the princess, suitors had to pull her out of a deep pit. In the end, the hero rescued his kidnapped wife by flying up to her tower on the back of a flying mermaid. (?!)
In a more realistic tale, a rich and a poor brother got into some family drama over their children marrying. The poor man's fortunes turned when his daughter married a mystery suitor; when envious relatives dragged them in front of the sultan, the sultan turned out to be the mystery husband.
I was amused by the tale of the man who sent his donkey to the market, and when it didn't come back, he went searching for it. People kept directing him along as a prank, until someone told him his donkey was a judge in Baghdad. The man tried to take the judge home, enticing him with oats and threatening with a stick, until the pranksters took pity on him and gave him the price of the animal. In another amusing tale a man made his stingy neighbor believe that his pots and pans could have offspring.
I was fascinated by the story of Shamshum aj-Jabbar, which was a mix of the Biblical legend of Samson and a few folktale tropes. It had a sad and pensive ending.

Connections


Magic lamp in Baghdad
The book had quite a few stories of well-known types: fool tales (here with Kurds... ugh), golden-haired twins (The fisherman's son), animal husbands (here with a pumpkin), Canary prince (with a djinn named Leelu). Se we are in the Middle East here, there was also an Aladdin-type story with a magic lamp.
The tale of the magician's wife was that of the fake fortune-teller who gets lucky. The brave prince was a very well detailed golden-haired gardener tale, with demons chewing gum and magic lion milk. In this one, they divined whether princesses were ready for marriage by watermelon, a motif which I have last seen in a Roma tale from Transylvania...
There was also a magic bird type tale, where two brothers ate the head and the heart of the bird and gained magic powers; their mother and stepfather chased them for a long time, trying to get the heart and head back, but they managed to get away. The story of The laughing fish combined various folktale elements: the story of the faithful falcon and the faithful dog, for example. It was a fascinating story, but had a pretty dark ending. The tailor's daughter was a Clever Maiden tale, with the addition of the story where a woman seduces her own husband three times in disguise; The djinn in the well was a "doctor and the devil" story, where the doctor used his shrew of a wife to chase the djinn away.
There were also some Harun al-Rashid tales of wit and wisdom.

Where to next?
Jordan!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Girl in the chair: Grief over a bowl of rice

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

CW: Grief for a child


"I'm looking for a story..."

I was teaching a workshop today on research for storytellers, and one of the participants brought in a question about a specific story:

"There is a story about a young woman who loses her child, and a wise man / spirit (?) tells her if she collects a bowl of rice from people who have never experienced loss, she can have the child back... of course she can't."

She asked me if I could find this story. I thought this was going to be easy to answer; I have encountered this tale type before. If only I remembered where...

Step One: Google Books

When in doubt, I usually search in Google Books first. I focused in on the bowl of rice aspect of the story (it was a mistake, see later), and tried search terms such as "bowl of rice" + "grief", "bowl of rice" + "mourning", "gather rice" + "grieving", etc. Random folktales did pop up, but they usually had something to do with rice and nothing to do with grieving. I even tried adding "Buddha", as I vaguely remembered this as a Buddhist story, but no luck.

Step Two: More Google Books

A small change in search terms yielded the first results: I put "grain of rice" instead of "bowl of rice." This brought up versions of the parable, but none of them came with a source. I found simplified texts posted online, such as this one, this one, and this one.

Step Three: Untouched by grief


At this point I was kind of annoyed, so I did a "long shot" search - these are searches were I use terms that are very specific, and it is kind of unlikely that they will yield a result, but screw it, I'm gonna try it anyway. So I typed in "untouched by grief" + "folktales" in quotation marks as a search term for Google Books.
Lo and behold, The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales came up. (Maybe I had the term floating around my brain somewhere, because I reviewed this book for a journal last year, and I highly recommend it to storytellers.) This one has a story actually titled "Untouched by Grief", in which King Darius loses his beloved wife, and Demokritos tells him he can have her back if he writes three names on her tomb: the names of three people in his kingdom never touched by grief. The great king fails, and learns a lesson about loss.

Step Four: Folktale type number

Luckily, the Book of Greek and Roman Folktales comes with a folktale type index, where this story was marked as ATU 844 - The Luck-bringing shirt. I know that story: a king is told he can be happy if he wears the shirt of a happy man, and soon finds out that in his kingdom no one is happy, except for a man so poor he has no shirt. (I'd argue with this message, put let's put that aside).
So, off to the ATU Catalog I go. I get a summary of the lucky shirt, but no mention of grieving mothers or grains of rice anywhere. Technically the same basic idea, but not the same story.

Step Five: Storyseeds

Usually around this point in the research process I take a shot at finding a key motif in the story in the Motif Index. So, I go to storyseeds, where I type in "rice" and "grief", but don't find a motif specifically for this story.
Back to search terms, then.

Step Six: Loss

It occurs to me that maybe the bowl of rice is not the key motif in this story at all. On the whole, this is a parable about grief and loss.
So, I focus on the mother this time, and try search terms such as "lost her son", "lost her child", "son died" + the usual "grain of rice" since it seems to yield better results than "bowl of rice." I get some more hits like the ones above, of short version of this story, but still no direct sources. Still, I'm getting closer.

Step Seven: Search phrase

I shift my search at this point. I still cycle through terms of losing a child, but instead of the rice motif, I try a phrase that would occur in a story like this: "from a house". Because the mother has to collect rice from a house where no one has experienced loss.
BINGO. This combination, finally, comes up in a book titled First Buddhist Women. And here the young mother has a name! Her name is Kisagotami. And she has to find a mustard seed.

Step Eight: Kisagotami

I type the name into Google, and turns out she has her own Wikipedia page (as Kisa Gotami), as a part of a series of articles on Buddhism. It is a pretty good starting point for further research: it has a bibliography, footnotes, and external links to go on.

Extra steps

Just to make sure, I also type "mustard" into Storyseeds to see if I find a motif number, but no luck. I do type "mustard seed" + "grief" + "folktales" into Google Books again, and this time I finally remember why the heck this tale was so familiar to me: I read it only a couple of weeks ago for my post on folktales from Bahrain. Duh.

Step Nine: Tale type revised

This book, by the way, marks the tale as 844A - House untouched by grief, but there is no such tale type listed in the ATU. I get curious, and think maybe it was in the older tale type catalog before the Uther revision, so I put "AT 844A" into Google Books (newer numbers are ATU, old numbers are AT, and sometimes they differ).
I get a hit from El-Shamy's invaluable Types of the Folktale in the Arab World. It is the same story as the one from Bahrain (the source of that one was from El-Shamy's own collection), except this catalog actually lists motif numbers!
[I later discover the Bahrain collection also listed motif numbers, but I got too excited and didn't read the whole paragraph. Pay attention, people!]
BOOM! The key motif here is H1394 - Quest for person who has not known sorrow.

I should have typed "sorrow" into Storyseeds.

Step Ten: This is just the beginning

So now we have a tale type number (AT 844a), a motif number (H1394), and the name of the most well-known version of the story (Kisa Gotami). One can now proceed in a couple of ways:
Follow up on the Wikipedia article (through the sources listed)
Follow up on the type number (through more Google searches)
Follow up on the motif number

Conclusions

TRY A LOT OF DIFFERENT SEARCH TERMS.
Like, a lot. Don't give up.
Don't make assumptions about what the story's key motif is.
Type various words into Storyseeds to search for motifs.
Check footnotes and end notes. (And read the notes all the way through!)
Sometimes, a long shot is worth trying.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Secret worlds (Following folktales around the world 157. - Saudi Arabia)

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 ​from Saudi Arabia
Lamia Baeshen
Lamia Baeshen, 2002.

There are twenty-four tales in the book, collected from traditional storytellers in Jeddah at the turn of the 21st century. The author made voice recordings of the stories, then wrote them down in Arabic and in English. The introduction tells us about the storytelling tradition, and expresses hope that these tales will keep traveling and being told by future storytellers.


Highlights

I was greatly amused by Mikki's mother, in which a strange little mouse named Kakki pooped golden coins for a poor family. When a jealous neighbor borrowed it, however, it just pooped regular mouse poop. Similarly amusing was The matron of cats: a prim and proper woman accidentally burped, and her cat blackmailed her with the shameful secret. She went to complain to the Matron of Cats, who lined up all the burps in the world, and punished the offending one. In another funny story a man told a porter he'd pay nothing for his services, to which he started demanded a payment of Nothing, and a judge had to clear things up.
I loved the imagery of The fisherman and the basket of jewels. Catching an enchanted fish, the poor man became rich, and opened a jewelry shop; however, when he started keeping secrets about his income from his supernatural wife, she made all the riches disappear, and he had to return to fishing.
There was very interesting symbolism in the tale where a father worried about his daughter so much he kept her locked up in a cellar, and only fed her prime boneless meat. One day, however, she found a bone in her food, and she used it to dig her way into the world outside. On the other hand, The materialistic aunt was a story of all the horrors and injustices that can happen to women in the world - but at least justice came to the abusers in the end.
The rooster and the string of pearls reminded me of a Greek folktale. A girl helped a princess find her lost love enchanted into the form of a rooster. She brought the news through storytelling, and moved through seven curtains to get to the princess as she was telling the story. In the tale of Pearl, the daughter of Coral, it was a kind leek-seller who helped an enchanted couple find their way back to each other.

Connections

Once again there was a story about a clever man exchanging a wheat grain and a barley seed for increasingly more valuable things, until he ended up with a palace and a wife.
Jeddah, jewel market
Donkey Head was a super dark variant of the "animal husband" tale - here the husband was the talking, cut-off head of a donkey. In the end of course he turned into a prince, as his mother had conceived him from the flame of a lamp where the Lord of Light was imprisoned. The sultan and the chicken was similar to animal bride stories, and Spring of elixir reminded me of Canary Prince from Italy. In a wicked stepmother story (Our cow Sabha) it was curious to see that the stepson, after he found his fortune, took care of the stepmother and her children too, making sure they lived comfortably as long as they lived apart.
There were multiple "kind and unkind girls" stories in the book, including one where it was a ghoul guarding a well who doled out the gifts and punishments.
It was fascinating to read Cornelian Tureen, a Beauty and the beast version where the wife found out her husband has a secret lock on his chest. She opened it, and saw a whole hidden world inside, with craftsmen preparing things for the birth of their child. I have only even seen a version of this tale from Albania before.

Where to next?
Iraq!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Queen Bee (Feminist Folktales 18.)

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 is World Bee Day, so I decided to post about one of my favorite bee-related folktales :) 

Origin: Germany (Grimm)

The story

Image from here
The two eldest of three brothers fall into a "decadent way of life" and go out adventuring. Their youngest brother, nicknamed Simpleton, goes to find them and tags along on the adventure, despite their claims that he is useless, and they are much smarter. Along the way the brothers encounter various animals the two eldest try to hurt: an anthill they want to destroy for fun, ducks they want to kill, bees they want to smoke out. Simpleton stops them from doing so every time, feeling sorry for the animals.
The three brothers eventually end up at an enchanted castle, where a little grey man gives them three tasks to break the spell. They have to gather a thousand pearls from the moss in the woods, retrieve a golden key from a lake, and select the youngest out of three identical princesses. The two elder brothers fail, but the youngest gets help from the grateful animals, completes the tasks, and wins a princess for his kindness.
(And his disenchanted brothers marry the two other princesses.)


What makes it a feminist story?

This is the first story that comes to my mind when someone talks about "feminist male heroes." I had a post in this series earlier about a hero whose strength is empathy. Here, we see the same thing, except said hero is male. On top of that, he is not just casually kind to someone on his way to kill dragons or whatever, but rather, the entire story revolves around his kindness. His main power is empathy.
Simpleton starts out from a disadvantaged position. His brothers believe that he is stupid and useless, and has no business seeking his fortune. An early English translation calls him an "insignificant little dwarf." Simpleton is not strong, masculine, or dashing, and because of this, his brothers look down on him. Since his main virtue is kindness, his brothers, who follow toxic patterns of masculinity, believe that he is weak. This is a common phenomenon: if a man shows traits that are traditionally deemed "feminine", toxic masculinity labels it as a sign of weakness and ridiculousness (think of all the jokes about male nurses or kindergarden teachers - caregiving is traditionally seen as a "woman's job").

The two elder brothers are the textbook example of violent, toxic, destructive behaviors. They want to destroy an anthill just to laugh about the scared ants scurrying around. They want to eat the ducks. They want to steal the honey. They don't need to do any of this, but they enjoy exercising their power over defenseless creatures. They feel like they are entitled to their enjoyment at the expense of others, and to fulfill their wants without any regard for the pain they cause to those who are weaker. On top of that, they base their ego on thinking they are stronger and smarter than their victims. This is pretty much the definition of toxic masculinity. 
(For those in the back: "toxic masculinity" is one form of masculinity. NO ONE is saying that masculinity is bad in general.)

Simpleton, in his own quiet way, is actually very strong character. He is kind and has empathy - he cares for what happens to defenseless, small creatures like ants, bees, and ducks. Also, and this is a crucial part of the story, he stands up to his brothers to defend their victims. "Leave those animals alone! I won't let you hurt them." He doesn't wait to quietly clean up the mess later, but rather stands up and stops his stronger elder brothers from causing harm in the first place. This is what we call bystander intervention. A man with healthy masculinity does not only avoid causing harm, but also actively works to keep others from doing harm either. The former is passive, while the latter is active behavior. It is a whole new level of male role model when he doesn't just avoid "ever doing that" himself (which is indeed good), but actively intervenes when something is not okay. "Hey, that joke was sexist." "Dude, don't talk like that about her." "Hey. No means no." Even when it makes him a target of ridicule.
(Also, this is not unique in the world of folktales, but it is an important and attractive trait that he accepts help when he needs it. It doesn't bruise his ego to solve the tasks with the help of the animals.)

Simpleton is a likable, empathetic, strong character, who doesn't think he is better than others, and stands up for those who are defenseless. This is what makes him a feminist role model.

Things to consider

As a storyteller I feel like Simpleton should earn himself a better name at the end of the story.
The Grimm tale is beautiful, but it is worth digging up and reading other variants of the same tale type. I got into researching African versions, and some of those were equally gorgeous, featuring a wide variety of animals. I ended up including a Malagasy variant in my upcoming feminist folktales book.

Sources

This story is in the Grimm collection under KHM 62, and belongs to tale type ATU 554 (Grateful animals). It has many versions around the world.

Read an older translation here.
Jack Zipes: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (Princeton University Press, 2016.)
Oliver Loo: The 1810 Grimm Manuscripts (2015.)

Notes

According to research notes, the story was contributed to the collection by Albert Ludewig Grimm (who was not actually related to the Grimm brothers).