Thursday, February 20, 2020

The pig (Feminist Folktales 8.)

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: Denmark

The story

A poor widow is working with her three daughters (combing flax, baking, etc.) when a pig runs into their garden. She sends her eldest to chase the pig away, and the pig lures the girl into a foggy forest where she gets lost. Suddenly the pig turns into a man who takes the girl home and locks her in a room. The same thing happens with the second daughter, but the third managed to win the man's approval, and gets free rein of the house. She finds her sisters in the locked rooms, and finds the keys to let them out. She makes a plan of escape.
One day the man comes home complaining it's cold outside. The girl asks him to take a bag of coal to her poor old mother. She hides her sister in the bag with gold and silver, and covers her with coal. The man carries her home on his back; when he tries to peek inside the bag, the girl yells "I can see you!" and he thinks the youngest daughter is watching him. He carries the first two sisters home, and then the youngest hides herself in a bag, so all thee make it back to their mother safe and sound. When the man comes home to an empty house, he bursts into pebbles out of anger.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

A brave and clever girl does not only rescue herself, but also saves her sisters.
This tale is related to the Bluebeard and Mr. Fox stories. But while in those (ATU 312) the previous wives are killed, in this type (ATU 311) the heroine finds a way out of danger, and she also saves the other girls. This is the reason I especially like this story: it is very rare in European folktales to find sisters who don't compete, but rather help each other and work together. This is a very important element to highlight, in the context of all the "evil stepsister" and "kind and unkind girls" tales. Traditional tales have very few female friendships to begin with, or good sibling connections in general, so it's good to emphasize the rare exception.
I also love this version in particular because it doesn't feature a romantic element. In many variants the girls go off to marry a rich and handsome stranger, and the moral of the story is along the lines of "don't marry rich and handsome strangers" (which is also an important message, but also kind of makes it all the girls' fault). In this Danish story the girls get lost in the woods chasing a pig, and they only go to the man's home because they "can't find the way home." They go to his house for shelter, not (misguided) romance, and none of them become his lover or wife.

Things to consider

The English text calls the animal a pig; in Hungarian I often say "boar" or "wild pig" because the creature comes out of the woods, and because "pig" is also a pejorative term for a pervert (which in this case is not entirely unfounded).


Clara Stroebe: Danish Fairy Book (1922.)
Sven Grundtvig: Gamle danske minder i folkemunde (1854.)


Interestingly, the name of this tale type in English is Rescue by the sister, but in Hungarian we call it Girl-killer. In some versions the man does kill the first two girls, but their sister usually brings them back to life somehow.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Survivor stories (Following folktales around the world 143. - Rwanda)

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 ​skin of lions
Rwandan Folk Tales and Fables
Gabriel Constans
Cacoethes Publishing, 2009.

The ten stories in this book were collected from children, aged 10-19, who were left as orphans by the 1994 genocide or the AIDS epidemic, and ended up at the El Shaddai Orphanage in Rwanda. Two of the stories are personal, telling about their life and challenges. Each chapter comes with the photo, name, and age of the storyteller. The book is a very short read, but a great initiative to preserve disappearing tales.


There was a lovely, very short story about a man who was saved by his dog. He was too sick to move, but the dog ran over to the neighbors, and kept on barking until they followed him and found the man in trouble. In another story there was a surprising moment when a man found an egg and took it home, only to see a ferocious lion hatch from the egg...


The story that gave the book its title, The skin of lions, belonged to the African tale type where a man saves a small animal, and in exchange it chases away a big predator (a lion) by yelling loudly from a hiding place, pretending to be an even bigger, more dangerous creature. There were also two versions for the "mother killed me, father ate me" tale type, where telltale trees or bushes told about the murder of a child by his parents.

Where to next?

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Li Ji and the Serpent (Feminist Folktales 7.)

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: China

The story

Fujian Province is threatened by a giant, man-eating serpent that keeps snatching livestock and people. Through a dream, the serpent demands a sacrifice: a twelve-thirteen year old maiden every year on the eighth day of the eighth month. For nine years, the sacrifice is given out of fear, from the daughters of servants and convicts. In the tenth year, a girl named Li Ji volunteers for the task. She is the sixth daughter of her family, and has no brothers, so she volunteers hoping her family would get money for her sacrifice. However, her parents refuse to let her go because they love her. Li Ji, determined to go, sneaks out in secret.
Armed with a sword and a snake-hunting dog she sets out for the serpent's lair in the mountains. At the entrance she sets rice cakes, soaked in malt sugar, on the ground. The the serpent comes out to devour the cakes the dog attacks it, and so does the girl, and the two of them together manage to kill the monster. Entering the cave Li Ji finds the skulls of the previous victims. She collects them and says "You were timid, and you were devoured. How sad!" The ruler of the state of Yue hears about the heroic girl and makes her his queen, and her family is brought to the court to live in comfort. No more monsters haunt the mountains.

What makes it a feminist story?

A female monster-killer, who saves other girls from certain death. The trope of St. George and the dragon, but with a girl protagonist. Next to the whole yassss, cool girl with sword and a dog factor, there are also smaller details in this story that are worth talking about.
The serpent does not demand just any sacrifice: it wants maidens twelve-thirteen years old, at the start of puberty. We could go into the whole Freudian analysis of what a snake symbolizes in this story, but even setting that aside, the fact remains that young, defenseless girls are being sacrificed here for the greater good. There are variants where warriors try to defeat the serpent and fail, while in others the monster simply states its claim, and is given the girls. In the spirit of intersectional feminism, we should also note that these girls are not selected at random, or in a democratic fashion: they are taken from the most vulnerable population, the families of bondservants and convicted criminals. They are seen as expendable.
And then enters Li Ji.
Li Ji doesn't want t be a hero. She doesn't volunteer to save other women as much as she, in a very Katniss Everdeen moment, offers herself as a sacrifice to help her family. She is a sixth girl in a family of no boys, and in the cultural and social context of this story she is simply one more mouth to feed. She says this to her parents, asking them to allow her to at least help them by selling herself as a sacrifice. The parents, however, refuse. While her reasoning makes a kind of sense, they choose love over practicality; they value and love Li Ji for who she is. In the end, she sneaks away without their permission.
She has a plan, though: she asks for a weapon and a dog, things she'll need to fight. She knows what she needs and she voices that need. She prepares the rice cakes to distract the serpent, and when her moment of opportunity comes, she does not hesitate. Li Ji is not a victim who throws herself to the monster; she set out with a plan to survive and triumph. In many traditional stories, dogs represent intuition; Li Ji trusts her instincts, and takes advantage of them in the fight.
The closing scene of the story is also interesting. When Li Ji defeats the monster, she collects the skulls of the nine previous victims. She says a sentence over them that can be interpreted in various ways (see below), but the fact remains that the previous victims are acknowledged, and the audience is reminded how many of them perished before Li Ji came along to win. Remembering the victims of cruelty, abuse, and painful customs is an integral part of ending the cycle.

Things to consider

I read various English translations of the sentence Li Ji says over the skulls, and I even got help from a friend in looking at the Chinese original. Essentially, Li Ji says something like "You were weak, devoured by the serpent. How miserable." In other versions she says "For your timidity, you were devoured. How pitiful!", or "Because you were timid, the serpent ate you, poor things!" or "Because you were afraid to fight, you quietly lost your lives. How sad!"
It is hard to tell if Li Ji means these words as words of sorrow for the lost girls, or as some kind of a moral about putting up a fight. Modern audiences can take this two ways: either as respectful commemoration (see above), or a message about not giving up. The latter might brush too close to victim blaming, so it is important for a storyteller to be aware of their phrasing.
(Let's also note that we are talking about twelve-thirteen year old girls, who could not reasonably be expected to have three years of serpent-fighting experience for an entry level sacrifice.)


This story is a part of the Shoushen Ji (In search of the Supernatural) collection by Gan Bao, from the 4th century AD. Very bad English translation hereChinese original here.

Hua Long: The Moon Maiden and Other Asian Folktales (China Books, 1993.)
Jane Yolen: Not one damsel in distress (Houghton Mifflin Hacourt, 2018.)
Moss Roberts: Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies (Pantheon Books, 1979.)


Li Ji was featured in Rejected Princessesyou can find the entry here. I personally find it unfortunate that the artist drew a Chinese dragon for the picture, though, since no text ever calls this serpent a dragon. Chinese dragons are a whole different creature.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A country without tales (Following folktales around the world 142. - Burundi)

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!

African myths of origin
Stephen Belcher
Penguin Books Ltd., 2005.

Obviously, Burundi has folktales too. Every country does. But this is a first in the series' history: a country where I could find a single folktale from! As far as I know, where is a French collection, but I could not get my hands on it, and there also might be one in German I couldn't locate. Instead, I found one origin myth from the Kingdom of Burundi in the book above.
It told the story of how the legendary Ntare Rushatsi became king of Burundi. It started with his grandfather, who took the throne from a Hutu king with trickery. It was a complex story with a complex family tree. I liked the part where the future king was rescued from a jealous uncle by her aunt, who used various magic spells to keep him safe.

Where to next?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Basil Maiden (Feminist Folktales 6.)

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: Puerto Rico

The story

A poor man (or woman) has three daughters who go out into the garden to water the basil plants every day. They are noticed by the king who loves riddles, and he calls in over the fence, asking how many leaves are on the plants. The two elder sisters blush and flee, but the youngest respond without batting an eye, asking him how many stars are in the sky (or grains of sand on the beach, fish in the sea, etc.). The king takes a liking to her, and a prank war ensues. He disguises himself as a candy seller, and gives her candy in exchange for kisses. In revenge, when the king gets sick the girl disguises herself as Death and shows up at this door. The king begs for his life, and she says if he kisses the ass of her donkey / pig / dog, he'll get as many years as kisses. The king plants several kisses on the animal, which she reminds him of the next day. The king admits he's been outwitted, and marries the clever girl.
(In some variants there are other scenes after this, such as the "come to me walking but not walking, dressed but not dressed" story, or the part where they have a fight and the queen is sent away with "take whatever is dearest to your heart".)

What makes it a feminist folktale?

I love two things about this story: One, that it has a sassy, clever, confident heroine, and the other, that she is matched equally by the king. In similar tale types it is very common that a king, humiliated in a battle of wits, tries to get the girl killed or maimed. Sadly, this is also common in real life, where men respond to teasing or defeat (or a simple "no") with aggression and violence. Quoting Margaret Atwood here:

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.
Women are afraid men will kill them.

In this story, however, the opposite happens. This is playful flirting between two equal, and equally interested parties, and when the girl executes an awesome prank, the king gleefully admits that he can't defeat her, and falls in love with her for her humor and wits. A man who is capable of laughing at himself, and graciously accepting defeat by a woman, is an important role model to the next generations.
This story is also about sexuality, in a symbolic way. The girls are locked into their house under strict parental supervision (sometimes even underground). Basil planted in the window or garden is a traditional symbol of sexual maturity. The girls are beginning to look over the fence, but while the two elders are still too shy and not ready to engage, the youngest girl starts to flirt with the king with ease and confidence. This is continued in the kissing scene (see below), in which she gives kisses to the handsome, disguised king, and receives sweets in return. Her sisters are scandalized, but she enjoys the exchange and does not worry about it one bit. The Basil Maiden is comfortable with her own sexuality, takes enjoyment in it, and she is not prudish or ashamed by this. She has fun with the banter, the flirting, and the exchange of pranks. She is having fun, being herself, she knows what she wants, and the king is an equal, accepting partner in this. Humor can be a wonderful part of a healthy relationship.

Things worth considering

Some parents might be concerned about the "giving a stranger kisses for candy" part of this story, because of its similarity to real life safety issues. This is probably not a problem with adult audiences, but if you are not comfortable with it for whatever reason, the good news is, this tale type has many variants where the pranks are different. One of my favorites is Violetta from the Pentamerone (read here), where the prince makes her believe she has fleas, and asks her how many fleas she has.


This tale belongs to the type ATU 879 (Basil Maiden). Interestingly enough it is almost nonexistent in northern Europe, but it is wildly popular around the Mediterranean, and in Hispanic traditions. Read Turandot's Sisters for more information on its significance.

William Bernard McCarthy: Cinderella in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007.)
John Bierhorst: Latin American Folktales (Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2007.)
Rafael Ramírez de Arellano: Folklore portorriqueño (Avila, 1926.)
Giuseppe Pitré: Catarina the Wise (University of Chicago Press, 2017.)
Wayland Debs Hand: Hispanic folktales from New Mexico (University of California Press, 1977.)
Rodolfo Lenz: Cuentos de adivinanzas corrientes en Chile (Imprenta Universitaria, 1912.)


In Spanish death, la muerte, is feminine, which is why it makes sense for her to dress up as Death. In other versions, however, she dresses up as Saint Anthony.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Incredible transformations (Following folktales around the world 141. - Tanzania)

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 Buhaya
R. A. Mwombeki & G. B. Kamanzi
Institute of Kiswahili Research, 1999.

This book contains 64 tales from the Haya people, from the Kagera region of Tanzania. The authors created this collection to preserve the quickly disappearing oral tradition, recording the stories in Swahili and in English for the younger generations (the book is in English). At the end of every story they note the morals, which are often strange to European readers, but they reveal a lot about the cultural values represented in the tales. The book is a crowded read, peppered with typos, but it contains a whole lot of amazing stories. It definitely became one of my favorite folktale collections from Africa.


The best tale in the book was about A woman who sought her husband's favours. To win back his love she turned to a magician, who used medicine on her and made her stand on an anthill. When she walked off, she turned into a lioness - when she returned to the hill, she was human again. She eventually managed to get a message to her family, and they came to see her sitting naked on the anthill, but since they couldn't help, they gave her up for dead. She lived as a lioness for a long time, only occasionally returning to the hill to "remind herself she was human"; living as a lion made her stronger and younger. Eventually she found the magician - who turned out to be a slave, forced by his master to test the medicine on her. They made a plan, killed the master, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.
The story of The prince who changed into a woman was also fascinating. He was castrated for seducing one of his father's wives, and chased into the wilderness in woman's clothes. He eventually married another prince, revealing the secret on their wedding night, but the prince didn't mind at all. Eventually when the royal family got suspicious, an old nurse helped change her into a female body.
The story of Ak'omu-Bukuma was eerie but clever. A man had a daughter with a leopard, and she sometimes changed into a leopard for fun, scaring everyone. When she got married, she promised not to do it again, but her father-in-law insisted on seeing the transformation. She found a clever way to show him, and then make everyone believe he was out of his mind, instead of revealing her secret. In another story a leopard stole a boy, but the women of the village stole him back with a clever trick.

I was fascinated by the story of The king's son who conquered Rwangoigo mountain. It was the story of an exploration, where the tenth son of a king set out with his dogs, wandered around the mountains, and reached a distant kingdom where he found a new home. Another long and exciting travel tale was that of The fisherman and his kite, in which the bird carried the man to faraway kingdoms, where he could grow rich and powerful by knowing about foods and crafts the locals were not familiar with. The first time he lost his wealth because he was ungrateful to the kite, but the second time around he became a powerful king, and broke the curse that turned a prince into the kite.
The story of Mbiliizi, the calabash child was also along, complex dynastic tale filled with divorce, remarriage, infertility, love, and tragedies. I loved the moment where the hero was helped by his mother in eloping with a woman whose husband was about to kill her. But among all the long and complicated tales, the best one was The wood of enticers, with a poor man turned into a king, a queen turned into a monkey than human then a monkey again, a murdered ruler, a monkey child, and all kinds of scheming and double-crossing. In the end, the "evil" monkey queen got to live happily ever after.
I liked the tale about How Hare got a wife for his son. First, he won the bride by winning a challenge of not scratching himself in a cloud of mosquitoes (he just "pointed" at places, talking about how he had a spotted cow at home). Then he sent out his son for the bride, telling him to be kind to everyone; it was a "Queen Bee" type tale from there, with helpful mosquitoes, termites, and birds.
The story of Ishe Migani, king of the monkeys, had a rather sad ending. He was lured into a trap by a human king, being told that he was offered a high ranking position at court. When his people dispersed, working on roads and building projects, the humans hunted them down one by one. The story is told in verse, in the first person, by the monkey king himself.
The story of The children trapped under a tree was more of a legend, and a very interesting one. A falling tree trapped a bunch of kids and their animals in an underground hollow, where they lived for seven years. By the time a woodcutter found them, some of them had kids of their own, and a great number of animals; they returned home happy, but with their skin changed because of the lack of light.


There was a Cinderella variant where the girl fled from her evil stepmother on a flying tree. It was interesting that her father divorced her mother, and later the stepmother too, but when the girl, as queen, returned to visit her family, she convinced him to re-marry both women. I also encountered the international folktale type about the king who ordered old people (anyone over 35) to be executed... until he got into trouble, and only the wisdom of an old man could save him. (One more year and I'll be wise too!)
There was a nice variant for the ungrateful animal story type; here a leopard was rescued by a man from a trap, and wanted to eat him. All domestic animals said the leopard was right, but the dog helped him lure the leopard back into the trap - and he became man's new best friend. There was also a Clever Maiden tale, with a girl answering a king's tricky questions.
The story of Kajunju the giant reminded me of other tales from Africa where the father left his family out of greed in times of famine. The mother and her children ended up in a giant's house, managed to kill him, and got rich from his treasures (I read a similar story from Swaziland). There was also yet another story about a girl who married into the spirit world - in this case, she wanted a husband who could spit gemstones, and ended up being kidnapped by ogres in disguise. She was rescued (along with her friends) by an old woman half-eaten by the ogres, who did not only carry the girls home in a basket on her head, but also left a magic bomb behind that killed the ogres.
The resident trickster was Nyakami, the Hare. He used his wits to get rid of the evil hyena and lion, found a way to kill an evil elephant king (after all other creative assassination attempts failed), and made Hippo and Bison play tug-o-war. However, he also had some pretty bad stories (rape, torture, murder, etc.), which made it hard to particularly like this character.

Where to next?

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Don't stop believing, just keep swimming: Folktales for dark times

2020 is off to a globally crap start. Fire, epidemic, climate crisis, fascism on continued rise, general seasonal depression, pick your favorites. Panicking is not a good reaction, but neither is the opposite. As a storyteller, I am often asked what stories one can tell to give a glimmer of hope, to inspire kids and adults to try and make a difference. Since dear friend Laura Packer asked again recently, I made a list of some of my favorite tales for the occasion.

Here is your Storytelling Global Crisis starter kit:
(Sources in the links)

The Tale of the Sun (Saami)
In a land plunged into eternal darkness a young boy inspires people to try to rebel against the shadows and bring back the light together.

Journey to the Sun (China)
When the Sun is stolen by a demon king a young man sets out to find it in the depths of a distant ocean. He is helped along the way by communities who clothe him and feed him, and braves frozen rivers and man-eating demons.

The shy quilt bird (Burma)
When a terrible water serpent threatens Lion's kingdom, Lion, with the help of his friends and advisers, comes up with a plan that needs everyone to succeed. (Kinda like in Bug's Life).

How the women saved Guam (Guam)
When people anger the spirits of nature and a giant fish starts eating their island, men fail to fight the enemy with force, but women come up with a way to work together and set a trap.

The Black Kitty (USA)
In this story the hero saves a cursed black kitten by holding on to her for three nights through all kinds of horrors, telling her everything will be okay.

Mouse Deer and the Owl (Indonesia)
Mouse Deer has to protect Owl and her nest from humans for ten days, until they are strong enough to flee. Mouse Deer is pissed and tired and not sure he can do this, but tries anyway.

The brave little parrot (Jataka)
Rafe Martin's retelling of this Jataka tale inspires you to keep doing the tiny things you can, even when all seems lost.

The magic garden (Kazakhstan)
The birds help a kind-hearted boy plant a magic garden for anyone who is in need; when the khan tries to claim it for himself, the garden protects itself.

The flying lion (South Africa)
The terrifying flying lion seems undefeatable, but Bullfrog discovers it can be slowly weakened by breaking the leftover bones of his victims one by one.

The serpent and the golden bird (Nakhi)
When the world is terrorized by a great evil serpent four women - Thinker, Doer, Seer, and Wisdom - get together and make a plan to get rid of it once and for all.

Aoxingbe (Oroqen)
In this story the hero, trapped in the underworld, carries 9999 buckets of water up 9999 steps to free a dragon that can restore him to the world of light.

Ice lanterns (Manchu)
In order to defeat a terrible monster people have to warm magic stones between their hands, passing them on to each other until they gain enough light to shine brightly and blind the monster.

More story suggestions are welcome in the comments!

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The proud king (Feminist Folktales 5.)

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.

CW: domestic abuse 
I promise I'll have some nice men in the stories starting next week!

Origin: Mahakoshal, India 

What's the story?

Image from this movie
Every night when he gets home a proud raja makes his wife hold up her nose ring, and throws a spear through it with such force that even the ground trembles on impact. He then asks her "Who is the most powerful raja in the world?", to which she always says "you." However, a female gardener observes all this, and worries for the queen, so in secret she gives her advice for the next time. The following evening, when the raja does his usual power move, the queen answers "You are the most powerful to me, but there are stars and stars and the earth is greater." The raja takes this as a claim that there is someone stronger than him, and immediately sets out to find them and kill them.
After eight days of traveling the raja ends up in the kingdom of the rakshasas, and finds their king plowing a field of black rock with a cobra-plow drawn by tigers. The raja is terrified by the monsters and runs all the way home to his wife, begging her to save him from the pursuing rakshasas. The queen gathers her maids, they quickly slaughter a goat, splatter everything with blood, wrap the king in a swaddling cloth, and pretend the queen just gave birth (they even put the goat's stomach on the bed for a placenta). When the rakshasa shows it is terrified to see the baby with a mustache, and the queen says "his father just went out to get a rakshasa for a sacrifice." The monster runs away, and the king's pride is broken because "his wife became his mother."

What makes it a feminist folktale?

First things first: The queen in the story proves her bravery and cleverness by saving her husband's life. This, however, is only a part of why this story if interesting to this "feminist folktales" series. Following the topic from last week, we one again have a tale that symbolically deals with the issue of domestic violence.
First off, on a positive note: The queen is helped by a bystander in breaking the endless cycle of abuse. In addition, this bystander is another woman (the female gardener) who does not only notice something is wrong, but also worries for the queen enough to offer actual help for changing the situation (even though she is terrified of the raja too). Female friendships in traditional tales are very rare, and in a story like this it is especially important that the abused wife gets help from another woman.
The representation of abuse in this tale is especially powerful. The spear thrown with excessive force through the nose-ring (a symbol of femininity and a personal, intimate possession of the queen) is very expressive in itself, and then comes the question: "Is there anyone more powerful?" The whole ritual exists for the raja to humiliate his wife every night, and reinforce his belief that there is no one greater than him. It is a power trip, making him feel great at the expense of his weaker, defenseless wife. Abuse is about power and control. The moment the thought of someone even greater appears, the raja loses his sense and sets out in a murderous rage to end them. When he encounters someone actually stronger than him - the rakshasa -, however, he is not prepared to face them. Quite the opposite. His entire ego is built on dominating others who are weaker, not being challenged by those who are strong. This raja is not a folktale hero who goes up against a monster when he sees one. He runs.
He runs back to the same place where he got his ego boosts from: literally to his wife's skirts, begging to be saved. The queen could simply throw her husband to the demons at this point, but instead she decides to prove that she can face her fears. With the help of other women (once again, community) she defends the king, with a solution that involves the feminine rites of giving birth. The raja's pride is broken. He is not only rescued by his wife, but she does so in the most humiliating way possible: by making him an actual baby to match his baby-sized masculinity; it turns him from warrior into a helpless, whining child. Abusers are never brave or powerful on the inside. In a home where the woman is either doormat or mom, there is no space for a happy marriage.

Things to consider

A question to consider: what constitutes a "happy ending" for this story? In traditional societies a woman could rarely ever just leave her husband, especially if she was a queen, but to modern audiences it might be strange to see her stay with him, instead of walking out the door and leaving the raja to stew in his own diapers. Plus, an abusive mentality can't really be cured by one humiliating act of defiance - quite the contrary, usually.
Suggestions and opinions welcome in the comments.


Verrier Elwin: Folk-tales of Mahakoshal (Oxford University Press, 1944.)


For a long time I imagined the king throwing the spear through the nose ring while his wife was still wearing it. The text is not clear, but it's pretty bad either way.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Magic and blood (Following folktales around the world 140. - Madagascar)

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!

Rafara, ​a Víz Lánya
Madagaszkári népmesék
Jeanne de Longchamps
Európa, 1960.

This book is the Hungarian translation of the French language folktale collection of Jeanne de Longchamps (for folktales in English, try the book I read for the Seychelles). It contains seventeen folktales. The introduction describes the island and its traditions in eloquent, poetic language; Longchamps and her husband collected the stories from all over Madagascar over the course of the years they spent there. Each story is introduced by a small vignette about the place and people it was collected from. The book has an Afterword by folklorist Linda Dégh, describing the history, cultures, and storytelling customs of Madagascar. Each story comes with notes, tale types, and a glossary.


One of my favorite stories in the book was that of Beanriake, the sailor, who was born for the seas, deserted  white man's ship, and rescued two princesses from a monster on an abandoned island.
I was fascinated by the story of Ivorombé, the goose woman. Her daughter unexpectedly hatched from a bad egg, and she raised her in love until the girl ran away with a man. The angry mother skinned her and took her eyes in revenge, but when her daughter's painful tears flowed to her house, she regretted her actions, returned her skin and eyes, and helped her fulfill tasks to win happiness.
In the story of Ifara és Ikoto brother and sister ran away from the cruelty of their parents; half of her body was made of wood, and he had a belly so big he could only crawl. They went through many adventures, fought and made up, and defeated a monster, winning its treasures.
I was also touched by the story of Revere, the great dancer, who stole some oxen and was caught because he was compelled to dance whenever he heard music. He didn't even mind being executed for his crime, as long as he could dance to his heart's content before.


Ancali's child was the bird who sang even after its death; it sang from the kitchen, even from the hunter's stomach that killed it, until the parent birds showed up, cut the hunter's belly open, and rescued their child. The tale of Ibotiti wondered who is the strongest being in the world, but instead of circling back around like in other variants, in this one the story concluded that there is no one stronger than Andriamanitra, the Creator. I enjoyed the Magic Flight story of Bibiolo and the clever boys, in which instead of throwing magic items over their shoulder the boys asked various plants to help them block the way of the monster; after that they spilled food on the road, which the frugal monster was compelled to stop and gather.
I don't particularly like "golden haired twins" type folktales (where the queen gives birth to children and they are swapped for puppies, so her husband chases her away), but the story of King Ravohimena was a pretty great variant. Here she was not chased away, rather turned into a lemur by evil women. Her husband set out to find her, and with the help of forest creatures he finally managed to track the lemur down, and bring the criminals to justice.  
Andrianuranurana reminded me of Isis and Osiris: the hero was tricked into lying in a coffin and thus killed; his wife sought hi for a long time while he turned into a giant snake and devoured all who wronged him.
The tricksters in residence were a couple of good friends, Ikotofeci and Imahaka, who committed mischief as a very efficient team, working together. Eventually an old woman outwitted them, and burned them inside a house. The tar baby also made an appearance in the story of Icihitananco, a boy who turned into an animal. He was caught by a female figure covered in wax, but managed to get away by claiming he could only be killed by fire, and thus the flames melted the wax.

Where to next?

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Year of the Rat: Favorite rat folktales

Today is the day of the lunar new year, and according to the Chinese zodiac we are entering the Year of the Rat. Rats get a bad reputation in Western cultures, even though they are smart and empathetic creatures. To celebrate the new year I have collected some of my favorite rat folktales:

The egg, the broom, and the sagai (Mauritius)

This is a classic "devil husband" tale. A girl marries a rich and suave stranger, who takes her home. One day she shares her coffee with a hungry little rat, and in exchange the rat warns her that her husband is a wolf in disguise who wants to devour her. The rat (who is a fairy woman) helps the wife escape with some magic items; once she is safely home she swears never to harm rats ever again.

The commoner's daughter who was given in marriage by three kings (Tanzania)

A girl is given to a prince as a wife, but he refuses to have anything to do with her because she's a commoner. He orders his servants to bury her alive. The girl is rescued by a group of rats, who dig her a tunnel back to her parents' house. Then they help her spy on the prince, and she makes a plan to pretend to be a princess three times over. Her husband never recognizes her, but he falls in love and marries her three times before she reveals what's going on.

Turtle, dove, and the rat (Vanuatu)

A dove drifts out to sea, and a turtle rescues her. When the turtle in turn is caught by people, the dove teams up with a rat to rescue their friend.

The god that turned into a rat (Fiji)

A god decides to visit the deity of a neighboring island. He turns into a rat and travels across the water inside a piece of bamboo. However, when he arrives he is so exhausted that he can't shapeshift back into his real form - so he has to live as a rat for a while until he can gather his power again.

The spider who won Nzambi's daughter (Congo)

In order to win the goddess Nzambi's daughter, Spider has to go up into the sky and steal fire from there. He gathers a team: Tortoise, Woodpecker, Rat, and Sandfly. They all ascend into the sky on spider silk, and meet Nzambi Mpungu, who gives them various tasks to fulfill in exchange for the fire. One of the tasks is that someone has to withstand a bonfire. Rat burrows into the ground under the pyre, and comes out unhurt.

Rat and Leopard's friendship (Gabon)

Leopard keeps killing the animals, so Rat befriends him, and every time Leopard thinks of killing someone he warns them in advance. Leopard eventually finds out, and pretends to be dead to lure Rat close to him. Rat, however, is a lot smarter, he discovers the trick, and manages to get away.
(Rat is the trickster in a lot of these tales.)

Leopard's hunting camp (Gabon)

Rat and Leopard go and set up hunting camps together. However, Leopard keeps cheating Rat out of the best bits of their catch, until Rat finds a way to trick him. Leopard then captures Rat with the use of the age-old tar baby trick, but Rat finds a way out, and on the way home from the jungle he even steals the remaining meat from Leopard.

Cat and rat bathe together (Grenada)

A short but powerful tale about how a kitten and a small rat play and bathe together until their parents tell them they are supposed to be enemies.

The rat and the man (Adi people)

Rat discovers that people build nice little huts for their dead, and wants to have a grave like that when he dies. He makes a deal with a man, promising to reveal secrets of food and wealth in exchange for a grave. However as the man grows rich he becomes mean. Rat decides to test him and pretends to be dead - instead of a grave, the man throws him away in the jungle. Rats lodge a complaint with the village chief, and because no justice is served, they swear to keep eating people's food and crops as revenge for all eternity.

The rat princess (Japan)

A very pretty rat princess wants to get married, and her parents are looking for the most powerful suitor in the world. By the end of the chain tale, they discover rats are the most powerful, and the princess happily marries another rat.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The ring that said "I'm here" (Feminist Folktales 4.)

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: Spain (Asturias)

The story

A girl goes to collect firewood, but gets lost in the forest. Looking for shelter after dark she ends up at the cottage of a one-eyed giant. The giant locks her in his house and orders her to cook dinner or she'll be cooked herself. He also orders her to bring the meal to his bed. The girl makes a plan; she waits for the giant to fall asleep, then blinds him with a fire poker, puts on a sheep skin, opens the sheep corral adjacent to the house, and when the blind giant is letting his sheep out one by one, she sneaks out.
However, when the giant realizes she's outside, he starts complimenting her with sweet words, and throws a golden ring to her as a gift. She is suspicious at first, but he convinces her to put on the ring. The moment she does, the ring starts yelling "I'm here!", and she can't take it off. Eventually, pursued by the raging giant, she cuts off her own finger, and tosses it into the river. The giant jumps after it and drowns.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

This story is an excellent example of how different the same tale type can be depending on how it is embellished. The basic story, I assume, is familiar to everyone: It's Odysseus and the Cyclops, or, according to the folktale type index, ATU 1137, The Blinded Ogre. It is a common tale type around the world, from Finland to Chile, from America to the Caucasus, but this is the only version I have read so far that has a female hero. And the moment the hero's gender is changed, the story gathers a fundamentally different meaning.
(I have to repeat here that I'm not a psychologist or a story therapist, I'm just musing about what this story means to me. Stories mean different things to different people, which is only natural.)

I could just state that this story falls into the "feminist" category because it has a brave, clever heroine who rescues herself from a monster. That is plenty in itself to make the story likable. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to notice things that resonate with some women's real life experiences.
See if you feel the same: A girl, lost and alone, seeks shelter from the dark. But then it turns out that the man giving her shelter is aggressive, abusive, and dangerous. He takes her freedom away first (only he knows the password for the door), then demands household labor and obedience from her, threatening to kill her if she doesn't comply. The girl eventually gathers her strength and courage, takes up arms, fights for her freedom, and manages to find her way out of the situation, and back into the light. However, when she seems to have gotten away, the giant changes tactics. He compliments her, uses sweet words, and even offers a gift in the form of a brilliant ring. She is suspicious at first, tries to get away, but his kind demeanor breaks her defenses, and she puts on the ring. The ring becomes a shackle, yelling loudly for the giant to find it - as long as she is wearing it, there is no escape from him. She only has one chance left: she cuts off her own finger to her away.
If you ask me, this tale is the story of getting out of an abusive relationship. The loss of freedom, the fear, the hard-earned escape are not the end of the story: then comes the sudden change, manipulation, feigned kindness, and the ring that binds the girl. The ring is an especially powerful image here: society ingrains in all of us the idea that id you want to "keep someone," "secure someone", or "don't want someone to leave," you have to put a ring on them, and fast. This is the favorite last resort of sinking relationships where people would do anything to keep a partner around.

Put a ring on it.

I see this story is a feminist tale because it is about a girl who successfully rescues herself from an abusive situation. But not without a cost. This is a hard and heroic deed on her part. She literally cuts the giant off - with a drastic and final move to severe the thing that bound them together. This is not a polite, diplomatic, gradual separation. It is a complete cutoff. Sometimes this is the only way to get rid of monsters.

Things to consider

I have to add to the metaphor above that the girl in the story is not in a romantic relationship with the giant, merely sheltering at his house. Similarly, in the real world abusive relationships don't only exist between romantic partners.
At the end of the tale the girl keeps the giant's sheep, and becomes wealthy. I feel like it's really important to highlight that she has her happy ending, and a full life. As a storyteller, I'd definitely elaborate this part.
It is also important to think about what makes her pick up the ring; it would be a serious mistake to blame it on her being "stupid" or "naive."


Constantino Cabal: Los cuentos tradicionales asturianos (Voluntad, Madrid, 1900.)
José María Guelbenzu: Cuentos populares españoles (Siruela, 2011.)


Before the Greek choir pipes up: I'm not saying marriage is a mistake in general. Only the marriages between people who hurt each other.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Pearls from India (Following folktales around the world 139. - Mauritius)

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

Folk ​tales of Mauritius
Pahlad Ramsurrun
Sterling Publishing, 1982.

The book contains nineteen folktales from the island of Mauritius. They are prefaced by a short introduction that makes some stunningly wrong statements, such as that black people didn't have their own folktales because their memory is bad (?!), and they only repeated stories from other colonizers (?!). On the other hand, the author praises Indian storytelling and storytellers. All nineteen stories are from the Bhojpuri tradition (Mauritius has always had a mixed population, since it did not have indigenous inhabitants before the Portuguese showed up). Despite the awful introduction, the tales themselves were enjoyable and interesting, and had lots of mixed African and European motifs.


I liked the legend adjacent to the Ramayana that explained the birth of the island. The evil sorcerer Mareech, who assisted in the abduction of Sita, was killed by Rama, but before his death he begged to be able to hear his name forever.His body turned into pearls, which Rama cast into the ocean, where they turned into islands. Later on when the first Indian settlers arrived to Mauritius (Mareech's island), they told legends of Rama, and thus his name is still heard there today.
The story of The guru and his apprentice was full of unexpected turns. The two protagonists ended up in a kingdom where a king did justice all wrong. A bunch of thieves wanted to rob an old woman, but the wall of her hut collapsed and killed one of them. They then complained to the king, asking for her to be punished, and the old woman blamed the builder of the house. The king ordered the builder executed, but since he was too skinny for the noose, they found a fatter person randomly instead to be hanged. Eventually the guru and the apprentice managed to trick the unjust king into killing himself instead.


There was a devil-husband story that reminded me of the Cajun tale of Marie Jolie, and was elaborated really well. A girl married a rich werewolf, who wanted to devour her, but a fairy in the shape of a rat helped her get away with an egg, a broom, and a sagai leaf. The latter, when thrown behind her, turned into plants that "shredded the wolves like sausages in a Chinese restaurant."
The story of the king's horns was the same as King Midas; here the sandalwood tree told the secret. Sabour's fan was a distant variant of the Italian Canary Prince; here the girl did not only save her injured lover, but also tested him to see if he would marry anyone else. I was reminded of Bantu stories by The miracle of the colophane tree - a king sent animals to ask a wise person how a dry lake could be refilled, but all of them forgot the answer on the way back. Eventually Tortoise made the trip successfully, and told the king all colophane trees had to be cut down for the lake to refill. The story was supposed to explain why these trees are rare on Mauritius.
The resident trickster is Hare, who played some very nasty tricks on other animals until he was tricked in return. He muddied the king's bathing pond in a story I have already read from Zimbabwe, until Tortoise caught him by covering her shell in tar. In a few stories Monkey was also a trickster, and usually was punished for it.

Where to next?

Saturday, January 18, 2020

StorySpotting: Fishing for genies (The Witcher)

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!

Where was the story spotted?

The Witcher, season 1, episode 5 (Bottled Appetites)

What happens?

Geralt goes fishing for a genie, because he can't sleep and wants three wishes. After casting a net into a pond many times and coming up empty, he finally pulls up a clay jar, stopped with a seal. The jar breaks, the genie goes free, and Geralt gets three wishes, which gets him into a world of trouble before the creature is finally away.

What's the story?

I'm not going to go into djinn lore here, because it is vast and elaborate (and awesome). Instead, let's just focus on the "fishing a djinn bottle out of a lake" part here. This is a well-known folktale type, ATU 331 - The Spirit in the Bottle.

The most popular version of the story comes from the 1001 Nights, right from the beginning, from nights 4-9, titled The Fisherman and the Jinni. It features a fisherman who casts his net out 4 times, and at the fourth try catches a copper jar stopped with Solomon's seal. He opens it, and out pops an ifrit. This one, however, is o-v-e-r granting wishes to humans; during the centuries he spent bottled up, he'd sworn to kill anyone who freed him, so he tells the fisherman to prepare to die. The fisherman tricks him back into the bottle with what is one of the oldest tricks in the book: he pretends to doubt that such a large creature can fit into such a small bottle. Once the genie is back in the bottle, the fisherman puts the seal back on. Eventually they come to a compromise, and a whole other new story begins when the genie is freed again, and the fisherman grows rich.

This story exists in many cultures with little variation; sometimes the spirit is freed, and sometimes it is thrown back in the water. There are some versions collected by the Grimms, and other ranging from Finland to Sri Lanka.

But how did the genie get into the bottle in the first place? Another favorite tale of mine from the 1001 Nights, The City of Brass, explains the phenomenon in a way that warms my little archaeologist heart. The story claims that when King Solomon ruled over the people and animals, God granted him power over the djinn. He used his power to imprison them in brass jars, pouring lead over the opening and closing it with his seal before he cast the bottles into the sea. Many years later, travelers ended up on the coasts of Africa where they saw fishermen pull brass jars out of the water in their nets, break them open, and release djinn who flew away yelling "repentance!" Apparently, it was a common occurrence. The whole legend of the expedition to find the City of Brass kicks off with the sultan sending people to find him some of these magic bottles.


Apparently these bottled djinn are a lot less eager to grant wishes as the one in The Witcher. For a moment in the beginning of the episode I thought they were going to stick to the story when Jaskier started dying, but then they did the wishes anyway.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Pablo and the Princess (Feminist Folktales 3.)

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: Philippines

The story

Three friends - Pedro, Juan, and Pablo - set out to seek their fortune. They decide to go their separate ways at the crossroads, and meet again in one year's time. Independently from each other, each of them meets an old man who gives them a magic item in exchange for sharing their food. Pedro receives a flying carpet, Juan an all-knowing book, and Pablo an ivory tube that can heal anyone if he blows into their nose with it.
When they meet again at the crossroads, the three friends discover from the book that the princess of a faraway land is dying. They fly there on the carpet, and Pablo heals her with the ivory tube. The king, however, is baffled: he doesn't know which man he should give his daughter to (he previously promised to give her hand in marriage to the one that saves her). He comes up with a new test: the three men have to shoot arrows at a banana flower, symbolizing the princess' heart. Pedro and Juan hit the flower right in the center, but Pablo refuses to compete: he doesn't want to cause harm to the princess, not even symbolically. With this caring attitude, he wins the contest, and the princess happily marries him.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

Bat pollinating a banana flower, from here
This tale has many solutions in many different cultures, ranging from definitely feminist ("let her make up her own mind") to kinda horrible (where the suitors give her as a wife to their father, because he is older). I like this version especially because the question is not decided by strength or dexterity, or even by "usefulness." Pablo wins the princess with his empathy. The king knows exactly what he is doing when he sets up a banana flower as a target. It is heart-shaped and dark red, very much reminiscent of an actual human heart. Pedro and Juan shoot at it without care or consideration, eager to prove that they are better than the other two. It is more important to them to prove their own worth than to think about the deeper meaning of the task.
Pablo is the only one who sees the symbolic message behind the practical, and he resists the competitive instinct to stop and consider the best course of action. He does not want to hurt the princess, not even symbolically. This is a lovely counterpoint to all the cases where people are blind to non-physical abuse. The two other suitors immediately shoot the "heart" of the woman they claim to be in love with, to prove a point about their manliness. Pablo takes the risk of losing by not participating at all, and puts the princess' comfort above his own need for approval. This is the kind of respectful, empathetic attitude that allows the other person the freedom to make her own choice, letting her know what her safety is more important than winning.

I also like the fact that this version of the story gives a separate, new task to the suitors instead of trying to decide which one of them was the most "useful" in saving the princess (a lot of variants declare the healer to be the winner by default). This is a good reminder that you can't win someone by doing useful things for them. Despite what writers of romantic movies might think, you can't win a woman by doing X number of favors for her until you collect enough points to exchange for a date. Just because you save someone from a bad situation, they are not obligated to marry you as a thank you. Pablo, by declining to participate in the contest, proves himself to be the most mature of the suitors - and also that he is capable of not only love, but also respect and caring, allowing the princess to draw her own conclusion.

Things to consider

In the original text it's the king that declares Pablo the winner, explaining why his choice was better. When I tell this story, it's usually the princess herself who does the same (balancing out the fact that she had been promised by her father).
Also, because I like men who read, I usually give Pablo the book instead of the ivory tube. It's not a bad option, since, according to some sources, originally the book was the healing item, and the tube used to be an all-seeing spyglass (see here). This has the added bonus of connecting reading with empathy, which is a proven phenomenon.


"Narrated by Dolores Zafra, a Tagalog from La Laguna. She heard the story from her father."

Dean S. Fansler: Filipino Popular Tales (American Folk-Lore Society, 1921.)


The tale belongs to the ATU 653B type (The most wonderful thing in the world). It is originally a dilemma tale - the audience is expected to discuss possible solutions, and come up with a satisfying ending.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Creole tales from the blue ocean (Following folktales around the world 138. - Seychelles)

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!

Stars ​and Keys
Folktales and Creolization in the Indian Ocean
Lee Haring
Indiana University Press, 2007.

This book was written by the same person as the previous one, where I got the Comorean folktales, but this one was more of an academic folklore publication for adult audiences, and not really a story book. The introduction contained the same chronology of the history of Indian Ocean islands. Each story came with notes, comments, and cultural context (usually wedged into the text with a slightly different font, which was very distracting). Most tales were recorded in the early 20th century by various collectors; a lot of them were from Madagascar, including creation myths and pourquoi tales. They were eleven stories from the Seychelles included.

Since the previous book also had five stories from the Seychelles, and I already read them, I included those in this post as well.


I was not really captivated by any of the stories, but if I had to pick a highlight I'd choose Kader, which was a "man searching for his luck" type story. This time, our hero set out to ask the Sun why it rises and sets red. On the way he encountered battling rocks, logs, and an eel bridge, and he managed to make his way back across them as well. Then he was sent to fetch the Queen of the Sea for a king, but of course he ended up marrying her instead.


Ti Zan and the doctor was a classic Magician's Apprentice story; there was also a Blacksmith and the Devil type tale where the protagonist, who got stuck in the mortal realm after cheating death one too many times, was Poverty. 
The resident trickster is Brer Soungoula, who is described as "some kind of monkey", although he also tricks monkeys sometimes. In one story he ate all Tiger's children and then blamed Monkey for it; in another he tried to steal water from a communal well, and was caught by the usual tar baby trick. He made Elephant and Whale do a tug-o-war, and made Wolf believe the mountain was going to fall if he did not hold it up (using the movement of clouds to prove the illusion). He swam a race with Turtle, and won once because he hitched a ride on his back - but on the second run, Turtle decided to dive for some food, and poor trickster was drowned.

Where to next?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

StorySpotting: The grateful alien (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

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!

(Image from Mark Hamill's Twitter which is a gift to the galaxy)

The Rise of Skywalker is out, and I'm not a happy camper. It's like someone chopped up a good Star Wars movie, and tossed bits and pieces of it into a blender with a whole bunch of really bad decisions, cop-outs and shredded metaphors.
But anyway, I fished out some folklore references.

Where was the story spotted?

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

What happens?

Our team of rebel scum lands on a desert planet, and gets promptly sucked into quicksand. Falling through the sand they end up in an underground tunnel system, which leads them straight into the Dune franchise. Here they encounter a sand worm that first tries to eat them, but Rey notices in time that it has been injured (by what?!), and Force-heals it. The snake is so grateful for the healing that it shows the team the way out of the tunnels.
(Apparently this scene had two uses: one, it linked the movies to The Mandalorian, where they introduced Force-healing a couple of weeks ago, and two, it set up the fact that Rey can do this, which became stupidly important in the movie later on.)

What's the story?

A hero healing an animal that does them a good turn in exchange is one of the oldest folktale motifs in the book. And by the book I mean Stith Thompson'd Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. This handy collection of folktale LEGO blocks lists all the moving parts of the narratives of old, sorted by letters (big themes like Magic of Death) and numbers. Grateful Animals range from B350 to B399, actually including way more than 49 motifs because of all the sub-categories. For example, if The Rise of Skywalker was a folktale (they wish), this scene would be categorized under B380 - Animal grateful for relief from pain. These stories can have various different kinds of injuries a person helps an animal with, ranging from thorn in the foot all the way to opening abscesses or acting as a tiger's midwife.

Probably the most famous tale of this type is that of Androkles and the Lion. First recorded in the 2nd century, it tells about a runaway slave who seeks shelter in a cave, and encounters a lion with a thorn in its foot. Androkles pulls the thorn out, and the lion becomes his friend, sharing his prey with the man for years. Eventually Androkles is captured again, and thrown into the arena - but the lion they sic on him turns out to be his old friend, who refuses to hurt the man. The emperor ends up pardoning them both.

In the Sri Lankan folktale of The Glass Princess, a young prince offers himself as a human sacrifice to a cobra guarding a pond. It turns out, however, that the serpent has an ulcer on its head, and agrees not to kill the prince as long as he heals it. After days of treatment, the prince sets out to find the legendary Glass Princess, who has the only real cure for the ulcer. They heal the cobra together, and receive treasure in exchange.

In the Oroqen folktale of Aoxingbe, a hero descends into an underground realm, seeking to rescue a girl and also his father. He kills a monster, but gets stuck in the underworld. Wandering he encounters a man stuck in the side of a mountain; the man is the son of a Black Dragon in human form, asking for help. The only way to free him from the rocks is to water pine trees on top of the mountain, making them crush the rocks with their roots over time. Aoxingbe carries 9999 buckets of water up 9999 steps without a break, and frees the dragon, who in exchange flies him out of the underworld.


Sometimes kindness can be more powerful than violence.
But also, Rey totally should have ridden the sand worm. Poe could have helped her smuggle some spice.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Amaradevi (Feminist Folktales 2.)

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: Cambodia and Sri Lanka

The story

Cambodian version: Princess Amaradevi is courted by four ministers, but she chooses her own husband, a wise and noble man named Mahoseth. The four ministers frame the husband, accusing him of conspiring to assassinate the king. Mahoseth flees into exile. The moment he is gone, the four ministers begin courting Amaradevi, who sees through their plots immediately. She invites them to visit her for four consecutive dates, then has hes servants build a clever trap. When the ministers arrive, they are left alone in a room with a lot of jewelry spilled on the table. The moment they steal a piece, a trap door opens up and they are dropped into a pit filled with sticky substances. Amaradevi reveals the plot to the king, and her husband's name is cleared.

Sri Lankan version: Noble pandit Maha Bosat travels in incognito as a tailor, and encounters a girl on the road. They take a liking to each other, so he gives her a signal, which she interprets well and responds with a signal of her own. They start talking, and Maha Bosat asks her a series of questions, which she answers in riddles. He understands her meaning, and they are mutually impressed by the other's intellect, so they get married. Four other pandits steal jewels from the king's treasury, and frame Maha Bosat for the theft, forcing him into exile. All four of them try to court Amaradevi, who in turn has each one of them caught and bound. She presents evidence to the king to clear her husband's name, and they live happily ever after.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

(Sharra Frank)
First off, Amaradevi lives in a happy and equal relationship of her own choosing. In the world of folktales, where princesses are often handed out as gifts or marry as a thanks for rescue, it is refreshing to meet a female protagonist who makes sure she chooses a man worthy of her. I especially like the beginning of the Sri Lankan version, which is basically a "Clever maiden and her suitors" type tale (ATU 876), ecept here the suitor understands her hidden meaning, and doesn't have to ask. They know they are meant for each other because they communicate well on multiple levels - words, signals, meanings.
Second, Amaradevi is hella smart. According to the Cambodian version she "had been educated not only in music, painting, and the fine art of poetry, but also in government, law, the sciences, and engineering." (Side note: the Kama Sutra lists mining and carpentry among the skills of a good wife. Mmmm, sexy.) She doesn't only see through the four ministers, but also designs the trap to catch them. This supposes a good deal of practical skill and knowledge, and also empathy in knowing what kind of men they are like, and how they can be trapped by their own weakness.
Third, it is important to mention Amaradevi's good relationship with the other female characters. In the Cambodian version she works together with her most loyal maid to trick the ministers, and they even spring the trap together. In the Sri Lankan version she finds out about the ministers' plot because she stops to chat with the servant girl they sent to her, asks her questions, gets to know her, and accidentally finds out. This story lacks all kinds of female jealousy and competition, which is very refreshing, because, frankly, female friendships are so rare in folklore they are almost nonexistent.

Real Cambodian Princess
Norodom Buppha Devi
Fourth, on the topic of jealousy and competition: this story has a very important message about the difference between healthy and toxic masculinity. The four ministers think that in order to get Amaradevi, all they need to do is get rid of her husband. Raise your hand if you are a woman, and you have used "I have a boyfriend" as a way of getting rid of a creep before, just to be told "but he is not here, is he?" (for higher level douchery: "and I have a girlfriend, so what?"). Here we have a smart, educated, confident princess, who chose her own husband, and the four idiots still think that if they get rid of him, she will just fall into their lap. This is textbook toxic masculinity: "there is clearly nothing wrong with me, so she would clearly be dating me if she wasn't with that guy" (or if there is no that guy, then it's clearly her fault for being a ****, and this is when things usually get violent). Unlike Mahoseth, the four ministers do not see Amaradevi as an independent, equal partner, but rather as an object that can be obtained once her "owner" is out of the way. They can't even imagine her making her own decision. This rhymes well with the fact that they can also not keep their hands off the unguarded jewelry. This is why Mahoseth ends up on the throne, and the ministers end up in the cesspit.

Things to consider

In the Sri Lankan version Maha Bosath puts Amaradevi through various tests - among them, he sends two men with a pile of money to try to seduce her, to "test her faithfulness." While it has its symbolic meaning in a traditional story (to make it explicit that Amaradevi is loyal in her relationship), testing one's faithfulness by tricks in real life is manipulative, and honestly I think the story works without it just fine.


The Cambodian version comes from the Gatiloke, a Buddhist teaching tale tradition written down in the 19th century. The Sri Lankan version is from the Ummagga Jataka, a 14th century Sinhalese collection of Jataka tales; Maha Bosat is one of the earlier avatars of the Buddha.

Kathleen Ragan: Fearless girls, wise women, and beloved sisters (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.)
Muriel Paskin Carrison: Cambodian folk stories from the Gatiloke (Tuttle Publishing, 2011.)
Suzee Leong: Asian folk tales and legends (MPH Group Publishing, 2015.)
T. B. Yatawara: Ummagga Jataka (Luzac & Co. 1898.)


Amara means 'eternal' or 'immortal', and Devi means 'goddess.' Even in her name, Amaradevi is special.