Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zzzzzzz, or, the many stories of Sleeping Beauty

As an archaeologist, I have always been drawn to the story of Sleeping Beauty. I mean, finding a castle that has been fully magically preserved for a century? Heck yeah.

Anyhow, every once in a while you hear people mentioning "the real Sleeping Beauty" story just to illustrate how dark and gruesome the Grimm tales really are. There is, in fact, a less child-friendly version of the tale - but it is not Grimm.

The tale is called Sun, Moon and Talia, and it is from Italy, included in the collection called the Pentamerone. The basic idea is about the same as the well-known and Disneyfied story, with one small but significant exception: instead of prince finds girl, prince kisses girl, girl wakes up, it is prince finds girl, prince kisses girl, girl fails to wake up, prince tries for a while, prince goes home. Nine months later the still sleeping princess gives birth to twins. Well, that'll wake a girl up.

(Anyone having flashbacks to Almodovar's Habla con ella?)

I have told this story in high school, it was great fun.

Another version of the tale comes from the Arabian Nights. In this one we have a very twisted version of the "childless queen makes a wish" story motif: She says "I wish I would have a daughter even if she was allergic to flax!" What the heck, lady.
Anyhow, Sittukhan is born and she is indeed allergic to flax. Her condition, however, is actively used in the story to smuggle her out of her castle and into a prince's garden who, like a real gentleman, wakes her up first and then proposes to her. Things go right, things go wrong, and in the end of the story, it is the prince who has to fake his own death to win her back since now she is rich and independent. Go princess.

And with this interesting tidbit, we conclude this year's run of the A to Z challenge. It has been great fun! Thank you all for visiting and sticking around. The blog will keep going as usual, with more stories and some musings along the way. 

Happy Z!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Cover Reveal!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the cover of my upcoming book, courtesy of McFarland. Some of the stories that I have mentioned through the Weird Princesses A to Z theme are included in the book, as well as superpowers, background information, folklore, and general storytelling goodness. The stories are organized by the 61 different supernatural powers they represent. On the cover is a Persian illustration for the legend of Isfandiyar from the Book of Kings, also included under the chapter on Invulnerability.
There is no release date for the book yet, but I will post it as soon as I know it. In the meantime go read some Persian stories, they are awesome!

Y is for the Yellow Princess

Before anyone assumes that I am being racist here, I'll let it be known that today's princess is not from China. Or any part of Asia. And actually it is not one princess, once again, as much as a type.

This is another Hungarian thing, people. Bear with me, we are almost done...

In many Hungarian folktales the traveling prince/princess/random peasant boy goes through a series of symbolic kingdoms. Some of them are kingdoms such as Ice or Fire, while others are simply designated by colors. One could assume they are the hues of the rainbow, and indeed, depending on who the audience is, sometimes I do go down the list from red to lilac (kids love it). In the stories, however, the most common are black (usually cursed), and green (fertile). Sometimes there is also red.

Another person, however, who could qualify as a princess and definitely has a connection with the color yellow is the Sun. In Hungarian tales and folklore the Sun is female (most of the time) and sometimes mentioned as "the woman dressed in sun" - great image. She is usually the helper of the hero, either by advice, or by action, but she is always definitely treated with respect fit for royalty.

That's all folks, I am still zonked out from the weekend's storytelling conference. Stay tuned for the report with steampunk, D&D, and other fun stuff.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for Xenia, a Greek Princess With Questionable Morals

Not Xena. Xenia. Two entirely different people, and only one of them comes from mythology.

Xenia (a Greek word for gift) is a mortal princess that has an interesting way of meeting men. Well, one man in particular. His name is Daphnis, and he is one of those merry shepherd boys the Greeks were so fond of, frolicking around and playing music, raised by nymphs, loved by the gods of the countryside. Daphnis apparently also has an ego on him, because he loudly claims he will never fall in love. He should have known from Greek mythology that it's not safe to flaunt that in Aphrodite's face, who goes ahead and makes him fall hard for a nymph called Nais. The nymph eventually agrees to marry him, but only is he swears he will never look at another woman again. That is how marriage works, people.
BUT. Along comes Xenia, a mortal princess, who fancies Daphnis, and fancies him enough to get him drunk and drag him to bed. Sounds like a teenage soap opera yet? Good. Wife finds out, strikes Daphnis blind, who eventually wanders into a river and the nymphs, out of sister solidarity, let him drown.
Don't cheat, peeps. Especially not with a princess called "gift".

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for the Wind Princess

Again from Hungary.

Wind Princess is actually called Szelike, and is not translated "wind" because she is some kind of a weather fairy - she is translated "wind" because she is faster than the Flash on caffeine. Anyone who wants to marry her has to outrun her in a race, and of course the odds are stacked against them. I like this folktale because Szelike is not also a fast runner, but apparently she also has a childish, impatient and hasty personality that goes very well with her supernatural powers.

Did I just say powers?

Heck yeah, this story is also included in the upcoming book!

(I swear we are almost done)

I would like to take a moment here to muse about the many princesses in tradition who have to be outrun. There is Atalanta and the trick with the golden apples, then there is Camilla and her divine gift of speed (also included in the book), and then there is Szelike and her sisters, a whole array of folktale princesses who run as fast as the wind.
First things first: mind you, these princesses are not running to get caught. They have to be outrun, and a goal reached first, be it the water of life or just a shiny stone on a nearby mountain. It is not a tale of chasing the girl, it is a tale of keeping up with her.
There is a slight but important difference when the suitors have to complete some unrelated task to win the princess, and when they are pitted against the princess herself. Many people complain that folktales are "outdated" because women are given as nameless-colorless prizes for heroic deeds. While that is true in many cases, let's not skip over the fact that many times it is the princess herself who has to be outwitted, outrun, or wrestled down (we have seen all of those before through A to Z). Many times it is even stated in the tale that it was the princess' choice to set those challenges. To make sure whoever married her could hold his own.

Just something to think about.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for the Vampire Princess

Yes. I went there.
Vampires are in this year, right?
(Also known to werewolves as "hunting season")

Today's princess is brought to you from Hungary, and before you ask yes, this is a real folktale.

Tragedy strikes the royal families. Two brothers, competing for the hand of the same princess, end up destroying each other, and the princess, who by the way was in love with one of them, dies of grief. Every night after that she crawls out of her crypt and tears whoever is nearby to ribbons and shreds. And there is always someone nearby, not just for dramatic effects, but also because the King ordered guards to stand outside the crypt all day and night. A waste of money and good fighting men if you ask me.
Well, a young man comes along and offers to stand guard for a bushel of gold a night. That's a lot of money, but the King agrees none the less, because keeping his word about the guards has cost him too many good men already, so he is open for volunteers.
The young man soon realizes he is in over his head. Fortunately for him he finds an old beggar who offers to help him survive the night if he is willing to split the spoils.
What ensues from here is three nights of very creepy things. Every night at eleven the princess crawls out of her coffin and goes shrieking through the cathedral looking for someone to kill. Every night the young man finds a hiding place and barely escapes with his life when the clock strikes midnight and the princess has to go back to being dead. The third night he hides in her coffin, and when she has to go back into it he just yells "occupied!" until midnight has passed, and lo and behold, she turns human (and alive) once again.

Great story for Halloween. Read it in English here!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for the Unfair Princess

Or Unkind, or Utterly Annoying. Take your pick.

We are talking about a type of princess here, rather than one particular person. The folktale type is known as King Thrushbeard, the original cautionary tale for shallow girls who want a perfect prince based on looks alone. I have always enjoyed this story and its numerous variations as a child. Of course growing up gives one a different perspective of publicly humiliating royalty in order to make a point, but a point is definitely made: If you judge people by their looks, don't expect them to accept them as you are either.

Another tale takes it to the next level: Cannetella  wants gold from her suitors. Specifically, gold teeth and golden hair. Well, she gets it, and then some, because the only one who can pull it off happens to be an evil magician who abuses her and locks her up, and comes after her even when she manages to escape. Actually very dark and depressing for a folktale. But teaches you a lesson not to run off with someone just because he looks good.

(Or wait for the nonexistent Perfect Prince who has to look just so)

(We all know that girl)

One step up from this and we are straight on Bluebeard's doorstep - the cajun version of the tale, Marie Jolie, is still one of my favorite creepy stories to tell.

And while we are on the topic of shallow and utterly annoying princesses, I'm shamelessly gonna plug Teh Book again: The tale of the Princess of Tomboso, also known as The Three Soldiers, features a princess who shamelessly cheats and beats a poor boy out of all his magical items, and does not even feel bad about it, not even a little. She ends up getting her just desserts, obviously, and even gets dumped in the end. I included the story in my book because one of the items the boy has gives him (and the thieving princess) the ability to teleport. Hilarity ensues. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for the Táltos Princess

Once again from Hungary. I sense a trend here.
Oh wait, I'm Hungarian.

Táltos is our word for a person with supernatural knowledge (probably our old word for shaman from back in the day before we became Christian). There are táltos people, táltos horses (the kind that can fly and talk), and there are táltos princesses as well. At least one.
A Táltos Princess is, obviously, the daughter of the Táltos King. Said king is strong and powerful and versed in many arts - except for one, healing, which is especially lame since his own daughter is desperately in need of some. She is missing an arm and a leg. The King is really upset about this, and after long years of desperate searching he finds a possible solution: there is a fish that grants wishes, but only to people who has never killed anyone - and only once a year.
As it happens, the day before Fish Wish Day the princess gets kidnapped (a princess is a princess is a princess), and her father slays the intruder on his way out.
Good news: Princess is alive and safe. Bad news: No fish.

Story moves on. Some time later a mysterious stranger appears in court who turns out to be the Prince of the Cloud Kingdom. He falls in love with the princess and marries her, and two things happen: She learns to fly even though she can't walk, she learns to use her powers to command the rain and the storm, and she has a son. Well, that's three, but you get the picture.

This folktale was collected from a storyteller called Anna Pályuk about a hundred years ago. The entire book containing her tales is magical. She had a sense for coloring folktales and piecing them together in new ways, and also telling stories about princes, princesses and kings that behave suspiciously like real life people.

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for the Silver Princess

And the gold, and the copper, and the diamond. But since they are all in one story, might as well put them into one post.

This is another Hungarian folktale, and also another teaser for my upcoming book, so bear with me!

Given one very strange youg man called János. They call him Carnation-hair, whatever that means, I am open to interpretations, but whatever it is (red, curly, silky, etc.), it is obviously very pretty, because princesses seem to fall in love with him a lot. János is also a telepath on the side, he learned that trick from his fairy godmother.
Intrigued yet?

János sets out on a journey across the world to find one particular princess he has seen in his dream: the Diamond Princess. But in order to get to the Diamond Kingdom, he has to travel through the lesser kingdoms: Copper, Silver, and Gold. In each kingdom a princess falls for him, and in each kingdom the Queen tried to kill him various ways. The Silver Princess, in particular, is very kind to him, but alas, she is no Diamond, and gets her silvery heart broken by the mortal.

In Hungarian folktales precious metals often represent "kingdoms" in the sky: Moon, Sun, Stars, and sometimes even Mars, for its fiery red. If this idea is right, then these princesses are not only a striking image of wealth, but also beings that represent celestial bodies. Silver Princess or Moon Princess... has a nice ring to it!

The full story will be included in my book of Tales of Superhuman Powers, under the chapter on Telepathy.

Happy Last Full Week of A to Z! Keep on typing!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for the Rainbow Princess

Marriage equality for princesses? Whaaaat?

Maybe later.

Today's princess is once again brought to you from Hungary.

Given is one queen who has a very special talent: she can change the color of her skin every hour of the day, into seventy-seven different shades. Now, Rainbow Queen has a son (who obviously did not inherit this gift) that she raises alone (!). When he is old enough to marry she only has one small request to make: he is only allowed to marry a princess that can also change her color into all the shades of the rainbow.
(Talk about a hard-to-please mommy in law...)
The prince sets out to find such a princess, and as folktales usually go, he goes through a whole series of ordeals until he manages to find one. He is, among other things, aided by a faithful zombie servant.

That is all I am telling you right now.
*shameless self-promotion*
This story is also included in my book that will be published later this year! Together with 54 other folktales that include supernatural powers such as invisibility, super strength, and eye beams.
Stay tuned for more details!

(Sorry about the image, I couldn't resist...)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for the Questions of the Princess

Also known as Her High Bitchyness Princess Tourandot.

If the name sounds familiar then you must be familiar with the Puccini opera that made it famous.

The original story and the princess(es) in it come from the Persian tradition, from a collection creatively titled "Thousand and One Days" (betcha you didn't know this was a thing). It is originally titled "Prince Calaf and the Princess of China", among various other titles.
It is a looooong story filled with delicious, delicious details.

Long story short, however: Princess Tourandot is a monster. She hates men and enjoys violence, and she has tricked her father into making an oath that if a suitor of hers does not answer all her questions on the spot, without hesitation and correctly, they will be publicly beheaded. Of course this does not frighten underage royalty, and a blood bath ensues, since Tourandot happens to be not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also embarrassingly smart for a woman in her day and age. Of course eventually a prince shows up who has been around the block (the block meaning Central Asia) and is determined to win her no matter what (really, what the heck do they like about her so much?). He answers all three questions correctly. Tourandot, unlike other fairy tale princesses, throws a major hissy fit and plots to have him assassinated in true Chinese spoiled princess fashion. But Prince Calaf still lurvs her, so he gives her a way out: it is her turn to answer a question, and if she does so, she can walk away from the wedding.
The question is embarrassingly easy, and genius at the same time: Calaf asks her with a smug little smile to say his name out loud.
(Eat it, Bilbo Baggins)
Oops: Tourandot never bothered to learn any of her suitor's names, since she did not expect them to live.

Prince : Princess
4: 0


Of course the entire story is a lot more complex and pretty. It also includes an alternative princess who lives as a slave in the Chinese court; guess what, she is pretty AND smart AND kind, and tried to have Calaf run away with her instead of being assassinated by Princess Predator. And then we observe a brutal scene of friendzoning on the prince's part, the reason for which can only be explained through one classic example:

Well, to each his own.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for the Pirate Princess

Because, seriously, what else?!

Today's princess is brought to you from the amazing world of Hasidic Jewish folkales - particularly, from this very entertaining book.

I love this story because, although it does present certain classic elements, it generally does not follow the fairy tale course. It is full of miscommunications, misunderstandings, and good old-fashioned screw-ups on everybody's part. The lovers, princess and prince (princess being the daughter of an emperor!) are destined for each other since before they were conceived by their parents, yet they have to go through hell to get to the happy ending. They lose each other, they find each other, they lose each other again. Not everything is neatly arranged.

Okay, so technically this lady is not a pirate per se, but she does steal more ships during the course of the story than Captain Jack Sparrow in three movies, so I decided she does qualify. Deal with it. Also, even though most versions of the story are titled "The King and the Emperor" many popular re-tellings call it "The Rebel Princess" or "The Pirate Princess" (see the story collection above).
Close enough.

Side note:
Hasidic folktales are amazing. They are beautiful, full of adventure and miracles and vivid images. Once at the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference I have heard master storyeller Rabbi Rachmiel Tobesman tell a full hour of these tales. It was magical.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for the Old Princess

Okay, so today's princess is brought to you from the most underrated Grimm fairy tale, like, ever.

Because this princess, kids, is Badass with a capital B. In fact, I should have put her under B and not O. But O will be important too. Whatever.

So, in the beginning of the story we have one ordinary princess and one overprotective king who builds a glass mountain and declares that whoever can climb the mountain can have the princess. I guess it's the trendy thing to do for royalty when they get bored with arranged marriages.

Anyhow, there is one prince who loves the princess and volunteers to climb the slippery slope -  and guess what, the princess volunteers to climb with him and "hold him if he falls."

Brownie points for the princess!

Apparently there are no rules about helping the contestants, so they begin to climb... but it is the princess who slips, and the mountain opens and swallows her up. She ends up in a cave with a nasty looking little man who has a long beard and makes her do chores around the house, threatening to kill her if she doesn't.

And no one comes to the rescue.

No, really. No king, no prince, no nothing.

The princess grows Old doing her chores and now she is called Mother Mansrot.


I know right?! Way to be depressing, Brothers Grimm.

But the story does not end here! The Princess (or, rather, Mother Mansrot now) gets fed up with being a slave and rescues herself in quite a genius way. No spoilers, read the story.

When she gets home, the prince is still waiting for her, and they can finally get married.


No, seriously, how many princesses grow old in their fairy tales?! Even Sleeping Beauty is preserved as eternally sixteen after a hundred years. So, here is some realistic storytelling for ya, straight from the Grimm Brothers who brought you half of the Disney princesses...

The illustration for the storybook comes from here. Check it out it's really cool!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for the Nun Princess

Straying more than a little bit from folktales, here is one of the most famous Catholic legends of Hungary.

About a real princess who was also a nun. And a saint.

St. Margaret of Hungary was born as the daughter of King Bela IV in 1242, just months after the Hungarian army was beaten and the kingdom devastated by the Mongolian invasion. The king and his family fled to Klis in Croatia - the baby princess was born in that castle. The king offered her to God in exchange for liberating the kingdom from the Tartars.

The Mongolian invasion ended. The royal family returned home. Princess Margaret was raised from the age of three to become a nun. She spent most of her life on the island that was later named after her - Margaret Island on the Danube, now the green heart of Budapest.

Everyone in Hungary knows about St. Margaret. We learn about her in school. She was devout, religious, humble, and apparently, more than a little bit overachieving when it came to torturing herself. To pray for her country and her father she offered herself to God, in all kinds of disturbingly painful ways, ranging from whips and beatings to hedgehog-skin belts. She did not wash, she did the dirtiest jobs in the monastery, and she never knew anything in life except devotion.

The King himself tried to marry her off more than once, but she always refused. She remained a nun until she died at the young age of 28.

The process to make her a saint of the Catholic church was put in motion practically at the moment of her death; testimonies were collected and written. She was beatified in 1276, but she only became a saint in 1943.

My personal reason for including this princess is because her legend has the only mention of a namesake of mine. Csenge, although very old, was not a popular name through the ages - but apparently there was one noble girl who was a nun the same time as Princess Margaret who bore this name. My infamous namesake was recorded in the saint's legend for one reason only: she beat the princess in the face with the dishwashing rag.
Go figure.

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for the Myrtle Princess

Today's princess is brought to you from Italy by Giambattista Basile, who wrote the fairy tale collection Pentamerone in 1634. It's a delightful collection that contains many older versions of well-known fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

But today, we shall talk about the Myrtle Princess.

The first thing you will note if you read this story is that this girl is actually not a princess. I took a liberty with this choice. My mother told me this story countless times when I was little, over and over again, long before I ever discovered the written version, and she always calls it "Myrtle Princess" so this is how it is stuck in my head. Plus, in the end, she does marry a prince. If that counted for Princess and the Frog, it counts for me.

All in all, this story is pretty similar to the Apple Princess: A woman wishes for a child, and instead of giving birth to one, she gives birth to a sprig of myrtle. The prince, passing by, smells the sweet scent of the flowers, and begs the mother to let him take the flowerpot to the castle.

Just like the Apple Princess, Myrtle comes out of the flowers every night and walks around. Of course, eventually, she finds her way to the prince's bed. Jealous people might try to destroy their love, but all is well in the end.

The image of the Myrtle Princess lived vividly in my mind from the childhood stories. She is tiny, like a fairy, wears a pink dress and a crown of pink flowers. My grandmother used to have myrtle growing in flowerpots, and I remember sitting by, touching the silky petals carefully, and collecting the drops of sweet nectar in little syringes (I was not allowed to eat them, but that was the closest I ever got to feeling like a butterfly).

Myrtle Princess is a sweet story, if not particularly earth-shattering.

Let a new A to Z (or, rather, M to R) week begin!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

L is for the Loquacious Princess

I just like saying 'loquacious.' One of the most fun English words, seriously.

Today's princess is once again brought to you from Hungary, and the title of the folktale actually translates into "The loquacious princess," I did not make this one up, people.

Well, Princess Loquacious has a minor problem: she talks. A lot. So much, in fact, that no one can get a word in edgewise. And she does not only talk - she also swears and curses, which is very un-princess-like (but awesome fun to tell to the right audience). Finally we end up at the usual place: King declares that whoever can leave his daughter speechless can marry her.
Princess agrees this is a good idea: she would not want to marry someone who can't hold his end of the conversation. Finally, a princess after my own heart...

As the story goes on, three brothers set out to out-talk the princess. After the first two fail, the youngest decides to give it a try - he has fallen behind on the road because he picks up everything he sees, including eggs, rusty nails, and cowpies. Once he is in front of the princess a hilarious exchange ensues in which he has an answer to everything, and the banter results in the princess breaking down in tears of laughter... and marriage.

Who doesn't like a good banter between people destined for each other? TV shows run on that stuff. I also like the idea that the guy can keep up because he keeps his eyes open along the road and picks up random things that come in handy later. That's the way to go through life, people.

Have a nice A to Z free Sunday! See you all next week!

Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for the Killer Princess

Her name is Maria Morevna. She is from Russia.

I have read a lot about her in the past months. I did a version of her tale at MythOff USA (see below) for Slavic mythology - in that version, she was the goddess of the Underworld, who, very appropriately, escaped with Koschei, the god of the underworld.

In folktales, however, Maria Morevna turned into a princess. The first time we see her in one of the tales is across a battlefield full of dead soldiers - when Ivan tsarevits, the hero, inquires about the massacre, he is told that Maria Morevna, a princess, killed all those men.
Well then.

Maria Morevna is clearly a warrior. I especially enjoy the fact that this story is the opposite of the Bluebeard tales: the prince is left home while the princess goes to war, and opens the one room he was not supposed to open, which leads to a whole world of trouble.
The princess' warlike nature is never quite explained in the stories. She just happens to be a warrior that can slay an entire army, and still look attractive when a prince visits her tent after.

This tale was recently turned into an amazing mythic fiction book called Deathless by Cathryn M. Valente. Check it out, it is a gorgeous book!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Breaking News: MythOff USA Origins - Getting personal

Reporting in from the magical 7th MythOff in international history: Johnson City's rockin' MythOff Origins.

(For wandering A to Z visitors: MythOff is an international series of storytelling events where storytellers tell myths from various cultures in a less-than-serious slam format. Usually in bars. With alcohol. Great fun! See the FB page here.)

We like tampering with the MythOff idea - within the limits of the original guidelines, of course. This time around we played with the selection process for the featured mythologies. Instead of drawing the mythology from a hat like before, we left it up to the storytellers to pick a myth from their own personal cultural background or tradition. This is especially a fun game to play with people who are self-labeled "American mutts."

We had a new venue too this time: a bar called Side EFX, with drink specials, tall chairs, and a neat little podium stage in the corner. The owner was not entirely sure what storytelling entailed, but as soon as the first story was under way he leaned on the counter with rapt attention, and by the end of the night he was so enthusiastic that he listed us ideas for future events. He also cast his votes for the tellers and cheerfully noted that all of them won.

The host of the evening was Griffin Van Camp, veteran MythOff-er and my favorite Scion Game Master. He was funny, collected, and on top everything. Including the voting questions. We had an audience of about 30 people, cheerful and very responsive.

Because of selecting from our own traditions, the entire thing felt a lot more personal. Every teller chose their story first, and then we were paired up, and came up with themes to connect the pairs. It was a very laid-back and free way of preparing for a myth slam, and yielded amazing results.

Round 1: Divine Wisdom (voting question: Which nugget of wisdom would you wish you have been given when you were a child?)
In the Hebrew/Christian corner: Paul (who took on the risky role of calling the Bible "mythology" in East Tennessee and lived to tell the entire tale!) - with the story of Adam and Eve smoking the Tree of Knowledge. No comments. It was a surprising yet hilarious opening to the evening.
In the Welsh corner: Joshua - with the story of Taliesin. Reaching back to his family's Welsh roots he came up with an amazing telling of Taliesin's head filling up with infinite knowledge.
Welsh won.

Round 2: Epic Love (voting question: Precious)
In the Crow corner: Travis, exploring his Native American heritage and the amazing love story of Red Shield and Running Wolf, that, surprisingly for a Romeo and Juliet kind of setup, ended in peace.
In the Persian corner: Sam from Iran, telling us a 1600 year old love story that, surprisingly for a folktale-like setup, ended in tragedy. Sam was a first-time MythOff teller, and did an amazing job - he was funny and delightful, and the Persians won the round.

Round 3: Divine Punishment (voting question: Which punishment are you more afraid of?)
In the Hungarian corner: Yours truly, choosing to tell the tale of Attila the Hun and the Sword of God. As far as Hungarian mythology goes, this is as badass as you get.
In the Colombian corner: Carolina, from Colombia, telling a tale from Ecuador (that used to be the same country 200 years ago), telling the myth of the Tree of Life and how people were punished for their greed by losing it. Beautiful, gorgeous story well told.
Ecuador won.

Round 4: Hel(l) hath no fury like a jilted deity (voting question: "He had it coming!", sung from Chicago by Griffin with great enthusiasm)
In the German corner: Our lovely actress Meg Zinky, presenting the tale of Brunhilde and Siegfried with wit, humor and great language.
In the Scandinavian corner: Our very own Cathy Jo, with the mythical love triangle of Loki, Thor and Sif.
Norse vs Norse. Scandinavia won this time.

We have one more MythOff coming up for this season. If it ends up being half as good as this one, we will be more than satisfied.

J is for the Jasmine Princess (and a Prince)

Both of the tales today are brought to you from India by the marvelous folktale collections of A. K. Ramanujan.

The princess of the day is called The Princess of the Seven Jasmines. She earned that name by weighing as much as seven jasmine blossoms, no more, no less. Also, similar to our previous cat-eyed princess, she also has the ability to laugh flowers - in this case, guess what, jasmine flowers. But there is a catch: this princess never laughs. Talk about teenage angst...

I like this story in particular because it also features a smart and environmentally conscious prince. When his kingdom is plagued by snakes, he eventually figures out that curing the Snake King (and making sure he keeps his subjects in line) is better than killing every single one of them. In order to do that, he needs some special jasmine flowers (ever had jasmine tea for a headache? Uncle Iroh knows his stuff!). So the quest is on: locate princess, marry princess, make princess laugh. Not necessarily in that order.

I have a soft spot for tales about making princesses laugh. They show the importance of laughter in a relationship. And in the world in general.
The type is AT 559, in case anyone is interested in reading more.

The other tale that I want to mention here is called The Jasmine Prince. It is about a prince who fills the air with the scent of jasmines when he laughs - but it has to be a true, heartfelt laugh. Of course sooner or later someone will try to force him, and it will not go well. For the rest, read the story. And then go on and read the entire book. One of the best folktale collections I have read.

And then go drink some jasmine tea.

Happy J day!

PS: If you are interested in Indian tales about flowers and plants, I also highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I is for the Invincible Princess

Okay so this princess actually existed, but her life is the stuff of legends. She is also not a princess in the European sense of the word. Whatever.
She is from Mongolia.

Khutulun was the niece of Kublai Khan, and famous for her skills in wrestling. Apparently she was quite big and strong for a woman, and accompanied her father into war. Besides wrestling she was also skilled in other aspects of a warrior's training, including horseback riding and archery (let's note that this is Medieval Mongolia here, if you can't ride and shoot you don't live, so her own family probably did not see it was impressive as we do). She refused to marry anyone unless they could defeat her in wrestling - but no one ever did. All her suitors went home beaten and she remained unwed, even when her parents begged her to fake a fall for a particularly qualified man.

(This is very folktale-y; there are many stories where suitors can't marry the princess unless they can outrun/outwit her, see the Hawkeye Princess yesterday)

Khutulun remained unbeaten all her life - when she finally married, it was by her own choice, to a man she did not wrestle at all. Guess who wore the pants in that household...

I have read plenty of stories about strong and independent women in my career as a storyteller, but surprisingly enough Khutulun's story is not as well known as it should be. So. Here.

Full story in the link above, Wiki wisdom here.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H is for the Hawkeye Princess

Today's princess is, once again, brought to you from Hungary, but also from other places.

The Hungarian tale is called "The Princess that Saw Everything", while the Grimm version is known as "The Sea Hare" (the whut now?)

The basic idea is the same: There is a princess with such keen eyes that she can see everything in the world. The quest is to hide from her - whoever manages to do so (one time out of three) can marry her. All right, so this is not exactly all that different from damsel-in-distress tales, BUT, at least the princess is taking active part in the decision - by eliminating all possible suitors. Where would you hide from someone who can see through the SUN?!

Of course, in the end, there will be someone to figure out how to hide in plain sight: the closer you are to the damsel, the less likely she is to notice you. Talk about taking advantage of being friendzoned!

This tale also has a Hungarian cartoon version from the same series as the dwarf princess story. You can find it on YouTube here.

If you want to read the Hungarian version, see the book above.

This tale is also included in my upcoming book "Legendary Powers" that includes folktales that feature superpowers - like superhuman sight. *shameless self-promotion*

Stay tuned for details!

Monday, April 8, 2013

G is for the Giant Princess

Since we already had a dwarf.

This princess comes to you from Thailand, particularly, from this book.

The giant princess is not really the protagonist in this tale, as much as one more problem two star-crossed lovers have to overcome in order to finally be together. On the other hand, she is more interesting than the actual heroine.

The giant princess' name is Princess Phakar, and the is the only daughter of the widow queen of the giants, Queen Warsan (I wonder what happened to the king). She is young and innocent: she has never even tasted human flesh before. This seems to be kind of a coming-of-age ritual, because the Queen, as soon as her giant soldiers bring her a human prince (who happens to be the hero of this story, snatched away from his bride who at the time is disguised as an old priest, don't ask, long story) - orders the rare delicacy to be brought to the princess for consumption.

There is a problem: Princess Phakar falls in love with the human.

Talk about ill-fated love. If they could overcome the difference in size, there is still the matter of the whole star-crossed lover destiny thing, and the fact that the "other woman" is the daughter of the god Indra.

And you think your love life is complicated?!

Unfortunately I have not managed to get my hands on the original book yet, so, courtesy of Google Book Preview, the last page of the tale is missing. You have been warned. I am guessing the star-crossed lovers get together, and the giant princess can be happy to escape with her life.

Let's hope the next human she encounters is not called Jack.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

F is for the Frog Princess

No, not the Princess and the Frog. This is a princess who is a frog. Pay attention.

Today's princess is brought to you from Russia.

1. Princess turned into a frog as a curse. Right? Right.
2. Prince looking for a wife, in a very particular way: he and his brothers shoot out arrows, and whoever brings them back will be their bride. Kind of wasteful and dangerous, but this is fairy tale land, so two arrows are brought back by rich girls, and the youngest prince's is retrieved by the frog. Oops.

Princess Frog can shed her skin. She only does that when no one is looking, and does work to prove that she is a worthy wife (yes, he married the frog before he knew it was a princess!). But once her husband finds out and burns the skin, she flees home, and prince charming has to go out and brave the road and Baba Yaga (and her sisters) to find her again.

The picture above depicts the part of the tale where the frog princess dances in front of the king's court. By shaking her sleeves she conjures up birds and ponds and trees and all kinds of wonderful images that disappear once she is done. She is obviously no ordinary cursed princess; she is a cursed princess with magical powers. Daytime frog, nighttime sorceress.

This folktale exists in many versions around the world (sometimes with a cat, a mouse, a hedgehog, and other fascinating creatures involved). It belongs to the folktale type AT 402 - Supernatural bride.

Friday, April 5, 2013

E is for the Elephant Princess

Today's princess is brought to you from Malaysia, by the author if this neat little collection.

The story starts out with ("the prophet") Adam and Eve having a fight. Start at the Beginning, right? With a capital B.
Well, this fight ends in a breakup because Eve decides to move "across the sea" and become "the queen of the other side." In addition to that, she also has a daughter, a princess. Princess soon grows curious about what is across the sea, and defying her mother's orders to leave people's fields alone she crosses the water and stomps around until she is turned into an elephant for her carelessness. Oops.

The prince that lives nearby sees her in her new form, and, guess what, he has never seen an elephant before. When he sees the monster "with tails on both ends" he hits in on the forehead with an iron pike and breaks the tip of the weapon off into the elephant's skin. Elephant princess runs home, and the prince follows, suspecting that it was not just an ordinary monster. The rest is pretty standard: he finds the princess, removes the iron blade from her forehead, brings her back to life and health, and marries her.


The moment the princess and her thirty-nine attendants set foot on the Prince's fields after the wedding, on their way to their new home... they turn into elephants.

End of story.

So, the prince now has forty great elephants instead of a wife. Some would call that a good deal. I suspect this story was supposed to explain the origin of elephants. It certainly did it in a very original way.

Moral of the story: Treat elephants well, one in every forty is a princess.

(The picture has nothing to do with the story, it is a TV show aptly named "Elephant Princess." I was amused.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

D is for the Dwarf Princess

Today's princess is once again brought you from Hungary. I'm Hungarian, deal with it.

Also, I am not being insensitive here. She is actually a Dwarf.

The story, this time, does not start with her. It starts with a prince called Palkó, who has two handsome brothers, but he is as short as a child, and his mother is so aad about this fact that she gets ill and dies. Of course the king blames his son for all of this.
(Tyrion Lannister much? You know you already love him.)

According to the queen's dying wish, a lily-of-the-valley has to be planted on her grave and guarded day and night. The king sees an opportunity in this to keep his son occupied. Prince Palkó and the old woman who brought the shining flowers sit by the grave together, day and night in quiet awkwardness.

Enter the princess. Whut?

As soon as the old lady falls asleep, a long-bearded Dwarf springs up out of the blue and tells the Prince a secret: the lily-of-the-valley is in fact a Dwarven princess, turned into this shape to be smuggled out of the kingdom of the Fairy Queen. Who is evil, by the way, and jealous of the princess' beauty.
(I can hear Legolas getting a stroke in the background)

The only way to turn the flower back into a beautiful Dwarf maiden is to break the Fairy Queen's ring. The opportunity offers itself when the Queen and seven of her witch-fairies (!) show up to get the flower back. After a couple of tries Palkó manages to get a hit in on the ring, and suddenly, he is presented with a princess just his size.

The lovers have to flee now. Fortunately for them the princess can call upon a chariot drawn by butterflies that takes the across the sky and back towards the Dwarf kingdom. But the Fairy Queen is hot on their heels astride a horse with seven legs, clearly bought for a discount price in Asgard, and she almost catches up to them when they finally round the Sun, and that is the border where the power of evil ends.

Palkó becomes a prince, marries the Dwarf princess, and all is well in the world.

This story has been turned into a cartoon and is available on YouTube here.

I personally have always loved the idea of a Dwarf princess, beard or no beard. The fact that her beauty beats Ilona the Fairy Queen just makes the whole thing better. Fae can't be the best at everything all the time, right? There is not much to know about dwarfs in Hungarian folklore at all, fairies are much more popular. This story is a rare exception. It is also interesting to note that apparently the Dwarf princess was a ward in the Fairy court until they grew jealous of her beauty. Talk about politics.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

C is for the Cat-eyed Princess

Today's princess is brought to you by famous folktale collector and teller Benedek Elek, from Hungary.

I remember reading this story as a child and being thoroughly creeped out by it. You are welcome.

This princess starts out with very princess-like supernatural qualities: roses fall from her mouth when she laughs, pearls fall from her eyes when she cries, and if she walks barefoot golden coins appear from every step. Naturally she makes her father's kingdom quite rich, and everyone wants to marry her. Except for the neighboring kingdom's heir, that is, because he is too busy fighting a war. But fear not, the queen goes behind his back and mail-orders the magical bride to be delivered upon victory.

As usual, there is a hitch in the plan, no pun intended: the woman who is escorting the princess to her new home, while her grace is cheerfully dancing out gold for the poor along the way, decides her ugly daughter would make a much better queen, so she calls up a storm (witch alert!), carves the princess' eyes out, and tosses her in a ditch. Ouch.

It doesn't get better from heir either. First the princess is found by poor men who help her up, but as soon as they see the gold coins under her feet they just lead her around in circles until she drops from exhaustion. Next a gardener picks her up and takes her home, but his wife complains that they can't keep a blind chick around. Fortunately for said blind chick, there is a witch in town who deals in eyes (we are getting into Minority Report here). The first pair the gardener takes home and applies to the princess' eyes is not quite right, because the moment they are in the princess curls up in a corner and stares into a hole for hours until the gardener starts to suspect that he got cat eyes for his money instead of human eyes. Fortunately once again, the witch has a return and exchange policy, and she swaps the cat eyes for a pair of brand new human ones that she happened to find in a ditch (!).
Now at this point princess has had her eyes carved out twice, and moonlighted as a cat for a while, so naturally when she gets her own eyes back she cries a ton of pearls, laughs a garden of roses, and then moves on to marry the prince who was too dumb to tell a princess from a kitchen maid in a dress. But before she does, she has to work as a maid to said wench in order to get close to the prince. It is not long before the wench slaps her for being clumsy with the hairbrush, and out come the pearl tears again, revealing who is the real deal, and who is the fraud. Happy ending, at last.

Being a princess is not always sunshine and cupcakes, people. I don't usually tell this story to children, because even though they find the eye swap hilarious, it never fails to creep the hell out of parents and teachers, and then all hell breaks loose backstage. It is very successful for adult female audiences, though. Go figure.

This folktale is another very popular type called AT 403 - The White Bride and the Black One (from the times when white was considered beauty and black was... not). It usually includes a true bride and then an ugly/mean girl who tries to get rid of her and take her place. Stories get very creative with ways of killing or almost killing a princess, but the eye thing is still the most graphic I have encountered. Yuck.

Also, one can't help but wonder what would have happened if the princess kept the cat eyes. Now there is food for thought.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

B is for the Bird Princess

Today's princess is brought to you from Thailand (although the story is known in other Southeast Asian countries as well).

Her name is Manohara, and she is a Kinnari: half bird, half human (lower half swan, as shown in the picture). She is not just any Kinnari either, she is the youngest of the seven daughters of the King of the Kinnara. She lives in the mythical forest Himavanta together with many other amazing creatures of the mythology of South-East Asia.

(Before we go any further with this it bears mentioning that Kinnari can transform themselves into a fully human form as well, which probably makes them marrying humans a lot less awkward)

Manohara wears a precious gem on her forehead that gives full control over her to whoever holds it. This becomes important as soon as a hunter called Halaka lassoes her and drags her out of the lake where she was taking a bath.
(The magic lasso has a whole fascinating story behind it, by the way)
The hunter proceeds to hand the swan-girl over to a prince called Sudhana, who promptly falls in love with his captive (but not enough to give her back the jewel). Manohara returns the feelings and becomes his wife.

In the second part of the story the prince goes away to war and the Kinnari's jewel is handed over to the queen mother. When some advisors in court start scheming to have Manohara sacrificed for the success of the war, the queen finally hands her jewel back and lets her escape. Manohara leaves clues along the way for her husband, and then flies home, and spends her time "trying to wash the human smell off."

Of course the prince eventually finds her, following the clues. He is a hero, after all. 

You can read the full story here as depicted on the reliefs of the temple of Borobudur in Java.

This story belongs to a folktale type known in most parts of the world, called AT 400 - The Swan Maidens. You can find several other versions listed here and here. In China a similar story is the basis of a yearly festival.
This tale type usually includes a male hero catching a bride when she sheds her animal form (usually a bird, sometimes a seal - these are called selkie stories). There is always something that gives the man power over the supernatural bride: it is usually the shed skin or feathers, or sometimes a robe or a veil. In this case, it is a jewel (since Manohara does not shed her feathers to swim in a lake, which leads to her being lassoed around the neck instead of just having her skin stolen, ain't it nice?) Usually the bride finds this hidden item later, after having children, reclaims it, and returns to her own home, leaving the husband and the bunch of half-human babies behind.
It is a woman's tale, and rarely ever has a truly happy ending. Even in Manohara's case the means of her becoming the prince's wife are more than questionable and scream Stockholm syndrome. But let's not forget, this story was born in another time, and another place.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A is for the Apple Princess

Because, you know, A is for Apple. Even in Hungarian. Duh.

And no, I am not talking about Snow White. She has been told and re-told in so many genius ways. No, the first Weird Princess of the A to Z challenge is brought to you by master writer and storyteller Italo Calvino from Florence, Italy.

The tale is called the Apple Girl, and starts with the usual careless royal wish: A childless queen wishes to be as fertile as an apple tree. And then gives birth to an apple. Don't you just love it when that happens? Still better off than the woman with the hedgehog, though...

Apple Princess lives in her apple. She only comes out once a day to brush her hair and do her make-up. I kind of picture her like a real life Yankee Candle, with golden-red hair, red cheeks, and a strong sweet healthy apple scent.

(Are we craving fruit yet?)

She doesn't do much - it will turn out later that she is under a spell - and she never says a word. Later on in the story we also learn that the apple is not only a home for her; it is part of her body. When the apple is cut, it bleeds, and when the princess is summoned, she will have scars all over her body.  

Apple Princess in one in a long line of fruit-based instant wives in folklore: Similar stories exist with oranges, figs, lemons, citrons, pears, walnuts etc. She is not really an active participant in her own story. She gets engaged, saved, and married. Then again she is, technically... an apple.