Saturday, April 25, 2015

V is for the Vetala Tales (Epics from A to Z)

(I was going to do the Völsunga saga, but we have had enough Vikings already)

All right, so the Vetala Tales (Vetālapañcaviṃśati) is not exactly an epic. It is a collection of short tales from the oral tradition of India, set inside a frame story, much like the Arabian Nights. It is more often known in English as the Twenty-five Tales of the Corpse Demon. It has four versions written in Sanskrit (both in prose and in verse), and other versions also exist in Hindi, Tamil, and other Indian languages. The English translation I used was based on the Sanskrit versions written down by Sivadasa and Jambhaladatta, sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries.

The Hero
The "hero" of the frame story is the legendary King Vikramaditya, the protagonist of countless Indian tales (I included one of them, involving paintings that come to life, in my book about superpowers). In exchange for valuable gifts, he volunteers to help a mysterious man perform a ritual that would give him supernatural powers. The King's task is to go to the burning grounds at night and bring a corpse that is hanging on a tree.
What the King doesn't know is that the corpse is inhabited by a vetala (an ancient deity, also sometimes translated as a genie, a goblin, a spirit, a vampire or a demon). If the King breaks his silence while carrying it, the corpse magically returns to the tree. As Vikramaditya carries his burden, the corpse starts telling him tales; each tale ends in a dilemma or a riddle. The King can't help answering them each time, and the moment he speaks, the corpse flies back to the tree, and he has to go fetch it again. This happens twenty-four times - hence the collection of stories.

The Highlights
While the book itself was a translation of Sivadasa's version, with some of Jambhaladatta's tales in the Appendix, I definitely liked the style of the latter more. It was more detailed, and all in prose. Also, a lot of the stories in the collection will read as strange or downright sexist for contemporary Western readers - don't forget that this is a historical text. Some of the King's answers to the riddles won't make sense to anyone else but the people of that time and place. But it is still an interesting read.
Some of the stories I enjoyed, mostly for their dilemma-endings which can start interesting debates:
1. Of Mandharavati and her Three Suitors (Tale 2) - a popular story among contemporary storytellers, and a riddle about the nature of love (and relationships)
2. Of the beautiful Mahadevi and her Three Suitors (Tale 5) - another popular folktale type about three companions that save a girl together, only to end up with a debate over whom she would choose as a husband
3. Of the young bride who switched heads (Tale 6) - while somehow reminiscent of season 3 of American Horror Story, this is an entertaining little tale with a moral dilemma in the end (once again over a girl)
4. Of three very delicate Queens (Tale 10) - an early variation on the idea of the Princess and the Pea
5. Of the merchant's daughter who loved a robber (Tale 13) - a refreshingly different love story among not very female-friendly tales, with a hint of Robin Hood
6. Of Jimutavahana and his supreme sacrifice (Tale 15) - An exiled prince offers his life to end a cosmic war between the serpent people and the Garuda bird
7. Who is Prince Haridatta's real father? (Tale 18) - an interesting legal-moral riddle of multiple fathers and a very non-traditional family model
8. Of three rather fastidious Brahmanas (Tale 23) - another take on Princess and the Pea, this time with three guys. A version of this story is also included in my book under Enhanced Senses.
9. Of strange and riddling relationships (Tale 24) - Another mind-bending riddle over family relations (this one actually took me drawing family trees to figure out)

All in all, most of these tales will spark lively conversations when told. That is kind of the entire point.


  1. I can get the trouble with reading a text like this these days. I am reading 1,001 Nights, as I mentioned before, and some of it is very hard to get through. I can mostly put my filters on, but someone I am reading it with is having a harder time of it.

  2. I like the sound of the merchant's daughter with Robin Hood echoes :) And the framing story sounds cool.
    Sophie's Thoughts & Fumbles
    Wittegen Press

  3. That's one tricky demon with all his tales :) I think I'll skip the one where you have to draw a family tree to figure it all out.
    It's so nice to find someone else with a love for vampires :) Have you been reading Timothy Brannan's posts (386 on the list)? They're all about vampires this year.
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  4. I've gotten so involved with painting that I don't have time to read. This sounds interesting though!

  5. You got me at the title. Demon corpse. Yep, hooked me right there. My kind of story.

  6. Another fabulous post!

    Fee | Wee White Hoose
    Scottish Mythology and Folklore A-Z

  7. One can never have enough of vikings, but I applaud you in your direction of V posting.

    Elizabeth Mueller
    AtoZ 2015
    My Little Pony

  8. Love hearing about tales from other traditions. Thanks for sharing.

  9. This one sounds really good. I'll have to check it out. I love that the stories stem out of a guy carrying a corpse who won't stop talking. How cool is that?

  10. Okay, tales of the corpse demon? That grabbed me right away and as I read on, I am very intrigued to learn more. Great post! Thanks for visiting my V post earlier!

  11. I like the idea of the frame story a lot. And... doesn't exist an Irish story with a very similar idea at it's core? I remember this idea of the young man carrying a corpse talking to him.

    The Old Shelter - Roaring Twenties

    1. It's called Teig O'Kane (it's in Yeats' folktale collection). I love telling that story :D