Thursday, July 30, 2015

Folklore Thursday: Greek tales for the summer

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

As you have probably seen in the previous posts, I recently spent some time in Greece at a storytelling conference and festival. I love to prepare for travel ahead of time, mostly by reading local folklore and legends. Now, you do not have to dig very deep for the mythology of Ancient Greece - pretty much everyone grows up with those. But I was also curious about more recent stories, folktales and legends, so I went digging anyway. I immediately realized "modern" Greek tales are a lot less popular in English than mythology, but I still managed to find some great collections:

E.M. Geldart: Folk-lore of modern Greece: The tales of the people (1884)

L.M.J. Garnett: New folklore researches: Greek folk poesy, Vol. II. (Folk-prose) (1896)

R. M. Dawkins: Modern Greek Folktales (1953)

R. M. Dawkins: More Greek Folktales (1955)

Ruth Manning-Sanders: Damian and the Dragon (Modern Green Folk-tales) (1965)

I have not gotten through all of these, but the stories I read were just as fascinating as Greek mythology. In addition, a lot of them retain traces and motifs known from mythology. At the FEST conference we heard a great presentation on this, and the question whether it was mythology first, or tales first. Either way, you can recognize many elements, both old and new, in these stories, and they are definitely worth reading.

Here are some of the familiar things I have encountered so far (most of them in Greek folk poesy):

1. A prince that visits his princess in the form of an eagle
2. Nereids (they seem to be very popular in Greek folklore - they take the place of fairies in most tales)
3. A king having a child with a woman and leaving his weapons for his son to find when he grows up (Theseus)
4. Fates (instead of fairy godmothers)
5. A multi-headed serpent living in a swamp and killed by a hero (Hydra)
6. Hunt for a terrifying wild boar (Kalydonian boar hunt)
7. Rocks that open and shut that the hero needs to get through (Argonauts)
8. Golden apples and their guardian (Hesperides)
9. "Souls in Hades"
10. A fish-horse the hero rides into battle (hippocampus)
11. A one-eyed giant who lives in a cave and gets blinded, and then the hero escapes the cave by crawling under the sheep (come on, you know this one)
12. Blind old women giving directions to the hero (Perseus)
+1: A hero that can make the earth shake. This one is interesting because it is found in an "Extraordinary Helpers" type folktale, but out of the 46 version of this type I have collected, the Greek was the only one that mentioned earthquake powers (and it made me happy because I could include it in my book as the story for Earth Manipulation). Go figure.

It is all kinds of fun, reading these folktales and hunting for mythological Easter eggs.

Monday, July 27, 2015

13th Kea Folktale Festival, 2015

This year was not only my first time in Greece - it was also my first time at a Greek storytelling festival! I have been hearing about the magical island of Kea for years, and I was excited that I finally got to participate in their festival. It was a treat.
Our participation started on Wednesday evening, when we all gathered in the garden of the Mylopotamos museum of folklore and cultural heritage, in a nice small open-air theater. Storytelling started at 7pm; there were 21 storytellers in the lineup, with 10 minutes each. Together with the breaks where we drank wine and ate dinner, the program lasted until midnight, and in true Mediterranean fashion, we still had quite a big audience at the end. Apart from the international FEST participants, there were also Greek families, and tourists who happened to pass by. The acoustics of the theater left some things to be desired, especially because of the mixed background noise of cicadas, playing children, and a road. It was sometimes hard to hear the storytellers if they did not project at full capacity. Still, we experienced quite a few amazing performances.
Antonietta Pizzorno (above) told the tale of "A prince made by woman's hands" and while she mostly told in Italian, she conveyed the story really well, and left us in tears of laughter. Nuala Hayes told an Irish folktale in which the son of the King of Greece fell in love with the daughter of the King of Ireland - it was a great story, and very appropriate for the occasion. Susana Tornero told Stone Soup entirely in Sabir, the pidgin language of the medieval Mediterranean. We could all follow it, although it sounded like she was speaking Italian, Spanish and French at the same time (which, technically, she was). Regina Sommer told my favorite legend of Charlemagne, about the founding of Aachen. Senem Donatan, one of the Turkish ladies, told the myth of Inanna in the Underworld, with powerful singing. Seung Ah Kim, the Korean visitor, wore a traditional dress, and told the tale of the Snake Bridegroom with graceful gestures, eloquent words, and a haunting song.
As for me, I told a folktale collected from one of my favorite storytellers, Anna Pályuk, more than a hundred years ago. It is about three princesses who are half-siblings - one of them had a mother who was a fairy, one was a witch, and the third was a mortal. Their father, the king, tries to make them marry the Devil out of a mistake, and the three princesses work together to change his mind and fix the situation. It is a fun story to tell, the audience loved it, and it fit air-tight into the 10 minutes.
On Thursday, the festival moved to another location: We drove up to the town of Ioulida on the mountain, and prepared for a second story walk. The first stop was a fountain surrounded by fig trees and bushes; we sat on a flight of stairs, and listened to four stories. Three of them had to do with the sea; my favorite was Janneke Tanja (right), who told a haunting legend about a fisherman who ferries the souls of the dead across the sea. I had goosebumps all over. It was excellently crafted from a small bit of a local legend in the Netherlands.
The second site was a small alley, surrounded by the white walls and winding steps of the town. Once again we sat on stairs. We heard three storytellers, Jennifer, Marina, and Dafydd Davies Hughes (left), who told us a Welsh version of the myth of King Midas. Once again, bonus points for the choice of story. It is always interesting to see how far certain motifs have traveled over the centuries.
The third and final stop on the walk was an open air theater in a grove, under the stars and below the old stone walls of the town. The performance was a treat: Abbi Patrix (France) presented a full show of smart animal tales, spiced with African proverbs and percussion music by Linda Edsjö.
The festival continues on over the weekend, and I am a little sad that I didn't stay longer (although the performances seem to be in Greek from this point on). Kea is a lovely place, very calm and beautiful, and the festival was an amazing blend of mythical landscape and good storytelling. I am glad I made the trip, and I hope I will get to return in the future!

FEST Conference 2015, Kea Island, Greece

This is me reporting in from the Federation for European Storytelling conference in Greece. This is an unofficial, personal account of the conference.

The 8th FEST storytelling conference took place between July 19th and 22nd this summer, on the lovely island of Kea in Greece. According to my count (based on the list of participants we received in our conference packet) it was attended by 75 storytellers, representing 21 countries and 44 storytelling organizations, 32 of which were members of FEST. It was the first time I was representing an official member: We registered the Holnemvolt Storytelling Foundation last September! Apart from several European countries, we had people visiting from Canada and South Korea; also for the first time in FEST history, 9 lovely ladies showed up from Turkey! It was a dynamic, exciting, culturally colorful conference.
We started off on Sunday evening with an international picnic where every country offered up some traditional food. Sadly, I couldn't find any Hungarian delicacies that would have traveled well, so I gave up the Hungarian table to the Turkish delegation, who promptly filled it with overflowing delicious sweets (talk about history going the right way). Our gracious Greek hosts treated us to dinner with music and spontaneous dancing. The walk around the harbor in the sunset was a very romantic opening scene for the three days of storytelling work.
Monday morning opened at the Cultural Center in Korissia, with a ceremony involving Greek mythology and music. Next we heard a presentation from Mr. Stavros Benos from an organization called Diazoma that works to revitalize ancient Greek theaters, and bring new cultural events to the ancient stages. They talked about research and restoration work, tourist programs, and ideas for future projects.
Three other presentations followed: Marina Granlund (Sweden) introduced us to Project Hermes through a ritual invoking the Greek gods and a beautiful telling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Maria Vrachionidou (Greece) gave a presentation about motifs of mythology surviving in folktales (or maybe the other way around?) and brought some great examples too. My favorite was a version of the Prometheus myth that features a smart old woman. The third presentation was by Stella Kassimati from Friends of Amari in Crete, who talked about how mythology and personal or family stories can be intertwined, and brought the story of Europa and Kadmos as an example.
Monday evening we could choose from two workshops: One was on performance skills, and one on the use of storytelling in education. I attended the latter, presented by Guy Tilkin (Belgium), Regina Sommer (Germany), Heidi Dahlsveen (Norway), and Jennifer Ramsay (Spain). We herd about several school storytelling projects; Regina presented academic research on the effects of regular storytelling on the students' skills; we discussed how we can prove and present that storytelling (and narrative thinking) is useful to a school. Jennifer talked about language education and activities that go with storytelling. We also discussed the use of storytelling with students who are disadvantaged in some way. All in all, it was a great workshop, and much needed in the field of applied storytelling.
Tuesday morning we started with a long story walk up on the mountain in Iulida. We were split into three groups; my group was led by two lovely Greek storytellers, Georgia Lazarou and Katia Kantouri (left). We walked around town and along the mountainside, and occasionally stopped to hear local legends and folktales. It was both gorgeous and fascinating.
My favorite stop was the Lion of Kea, an old, old statue lying in the mountainside, smiling its enigmatic smile. It reminded me of the stone lion from the Neverending Story, one of the books that made me a storyteller. I touched its back - although it was lying in the burning sun, it was cool to the touch.
The walk ended under a great old plane tree, where we all gathered to take pictures, drink from the fountain, and have a picnic together. Before the food we had an open forum discussion about how landscape affects the stories that are born from it. We heard very interesting opinions, examples, and even stories (obviously). The common ground seemed to be that yes, stories are affected and shaped by landscapes, but that in itself is not enough to make them interesting to a foreign listener. Speaking for myself, I was glad I got to hear the tales of Kea in the place where they were born. It added a lot to the experience.
After a great lunch, we returned to Korissia for siesta before we began the afternoon sessions. Everyone could choose two from four round table discussions (Festivals, Performance, Healing, and Inclusion). First I attended the discussion on festivals (moderated by David Ambrose from Beyond the Border), in which we talked about practices and ideas about translation, commissioning new work, residencies for storytellers, and outreach for new audiences. Some people in the group were veteran festival organizers, while some of us were fairly new, and drinking in information like a sponge.
In the second round I joined the group titled "Storytelling and Inclusion - Social, political, economic immigrants." This was a very timely topic for me as a Hungarian person, for all the wrong reasons, and I was eager to hear about projects and ideas that help storytellers contribute to building bridges and counteracting hate and prejudice. The discussion was moderated by Guy Tilkin (Alden Biesen, Belgium), and we heard about things like the Human Library Project, integration of immigrant children into German-speaking schools through storytelling, and other great things. It made me feel hopeful to hear that storytellers had an important part to play in this cultural shift.
Tuesday evening the Greek hosts passed the torch of FEST on to the French representatives - next year's conference will be in France! We celebrated with drinks, singing, and dancing, and conversations late into the night.
The conference's last day contained all the actual organizational work. We had to vote on several things. One of them was the location of the conference in 2017; both the Irish and the Dutch delegation brought excellent presentations to pitch their own sites. It was a tough choice; we had to break a tie, and in the end, Ireland was chosen by the representatives of FEST members for the 2017 conference. I am personally very excited about it! I also hope the Dutch apply again. Their plans sounded amazing as well.
We also voted on FEST 2018; 4 countries proposed, and in the end, after another elaborate voting process, Slovenia gathered the most votes. In my personal opinion, this is great for several seasons: One, Slovenia is a gorgeous place; two, Ana, the Slovenian representative, made a very good point about the need to bring FEST to Eastern European and Slavic speaking storytellers, in order to bring them into the FEST community (she was the only Slavic speaking person at the conference). I am looking forward to the next three years!
Finally, we also voted on new members of the FEST Executive Committee. I was among the nominees, which surprised me, but also made me think seriously about what I could contribute to the work of FEST. While I spend the school years in the USA, I could offer my experience with digital and social media, and networking. In the end, I was among the three new members elected for the Executive Committee, along with Ana Dusa (Slovenia) and Sonia Carmoma Tapia (Spain). The next three years are looking to be an adventure! I am deeply honored and excited for having been chosen for this position, and looking forward to all the work.
All in all, it was a great conference: Friendly, well organized, educational, and not too hurried. I will be processing all I heard and learned for a very long time.
With all the voting done, we were free to relax and enjoy the 13th Kea Folktale Festival. But I'll leave that for the next post.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Story Saturday: The King of the Frozen Lands

Once again, I promised a fellow storyteller to give them the bones of a Hungarian folktale - and since I am scheduling this post ahead of time, I might as well do it now. In the middle of a heat wave in Hungary, maybe a winter tale will cool things off a little...

Jégország királya (The King of the Frozen Lands)
Collected & published by Elek Benedek here.
(Not quite the way I tell it, but this is the original version)

- Poor man has an incredible number of sons, each apprentices for a different craft; the youngest doesn't have anything left for him - decides that he will be a king, or die trying
- blacksmith brother makes him three pairs of iron shoes, mother bakes him three pieces of ash bread, off he goes, travels for a long time, wears down the first pair of shoes
- arrives to the Black Kingdom (everything is black), asks the steward of the castle if they need a king - he laughs at the boy, the king has many children
- goes on, wears off second pair of shoes, arrives to the Red Kingdom (everything is red), goes to the king and asks if he is looking for an heir
- Red King has an only daughter, and is at war with his neighbor, the King of the Frozen Lands; sent many soldiers, but they all froze. The Ice King is all made of ice, he can freeze half the lands with his breath
- with the last pair of iron shoes the boy sets out to defeat the Ice King. He arrives to a little hut and asks the old woman there for shelter. The old woman says her son is the Sun, and they should not wake him
- in the morning János (the boy) asks the Sun politely to shine on the Frozen Kingdom. The Sun says he only helps people who deserve it - János has to prove his worth first
- János goes north and arrives to mountains that touch the sky - the border of the Frozen Lands
- hears a noise - finds a polar bear that has a splinter in its foot - the Ice King was hunting, and the bear got over the mountains to get away
- János helps the bear - gets a hair from him to be able to call when in need
- climbs halfway up the mountain - meets three dwarves around a fire - their beards are frozen - they escaped from the Frozen Lands, try to talk János out of going there - he helps them thaw their beards out, and in exchange they give him a whistle and a promise to help
- János gets to the top - has to lie down and crawl through between the sky and the mountaintop
- on the inside everything is frozen ("I should have become a shoemaker...")
- pulls out the hair, the polar bear appears - asks him to take him down the mountain - bear warns him, "you will freeze" - goes anyway
- they get to the bottom of the mountain, János falls off the bear, starts to freeze from the ground up
- blows the whistle - dwarves appear - sends them to the Sun to tell the story
- János freezes completely, polar bear lies down to guard him
- dwarves go and tell the Sun everything - the next day the Sun makes a change on his way and shines above the Frozen Lands - everything thaws, the animals, the plants, the red armies
- János thaws - now he has a crown of ice and a specter of ice
- mounts the polar bear and leads the armies to the castle of the Ice King - it has already melted, with the king in it
- János becomes the new Ice King - marries the Red Princess - they spend winters in the Red Kingdom, and summers in the Frozen Lands - brings all his family to his kingdom as well

(It was fun to re-read the original version, after I have been telling this story for several years. My version is essentially still the same, but there were also changes I didn't even notice I made. Note: It is an interesting exercise to sometimes go back and see how much your stories changed through repeated telling...)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Folklore Thursday: 7 folktales I would rather watch than a live-action Prince Charming

Honestly, really?! The newest installment in Disney's "live action remake" craze is a movie about Prince Charming. Because what Hollywood needs in yet another live action movie featuring a dashing white dude.
(Unless they make a movie about a Prince Charming who is a person of color... which would be a surprising step from Disney)
What I don't understand is why Disney insists on recycling old material instead of continuing the trend of Tangled and Frozen and making new films from fairy tales that have survived been overlooked by them so far. There are so many that would be awesome on the screen.
In honor of Folklore Thursday, here is my wish list:

1. Twelve Dancing Princesses
Pretty please with cherry on top. Look, it already has the dancing and singing built in.

2. Jack and the Flying Ship
I know it would essentially turn into the Avengers on screen, but honestly, I would watch a folktale-Disney version of people with superhuman powers. Go figure. Bonus points if they do the Greek version with earthquake powers and a "plump princess" (this is one of the versions I included in my book).

3. The Frog Princess
The whole "animal bride" thing would be intriguing to watch... Plus the female protagonist and the mandatory witty Disney animal could be one and the same in this case. Doesn't necessarily need a frog - my favorite version is the Finnish story with the Mouse Princess who manages to be seductive even in her rodent form.

4. The Winged Wolf
Not just because it's a Hungarian folktale, but also because how awesome a winged wolf would be!

5. Bluebeard
Because it would be dark, and disturbing, and that fairy tale needs to be known by more people overseas. Bonus points if they do J. J. Reneaux's Cajun version, Marie Jolie.
(And maybe get Cajun culture right this time, *cough*Princessandthefrog*cough*)

6. The sea-hare
A princess that can see everything, and a hero that needs to hide from her. What an adventure and what a love story that would make... cool Hungarian version also available in my book, dear Disney, just sayin'.

7. The Daughter of the Sun
Italian folktale with a magical sassy female protagonist, some minor gore, and a whole lot of stunning visuals. Courtesy of Italo Calvino.

Come on, Disney. You can do better than Prince Charming. Don't sell yourself short.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

MythOff Budapest II: Myth like salt

Not even a 38 Celsius heat wave could break the MythOff momentum: We had our second event today, in a new venue (a ruin pub called Fogas Ház), but with the same enthusiasm. Apparently we did something right the last time: Once again we had full house and then some, counting upwards of 60 people! The setting had mood lighting, comfy chairs, and a wonky sound system, but all in all, the event ran smoothly, and the stories were great.
Here is what went down:

Round 1: Life and Death from the Sea
Celtic (Scottish/Irish) corner: Yours truly, with the legend of the Fianna and the Muileartach. I have wanted to tell this story for a long time. It is strange, and powerful, and all-around awesome.
Karelian (Finno-Ugric) corner: Our new storyteller, Rozka Sőrés, who told us a myth about God creating the world, and the Devil helping him in the form of a duck that dives into the ocean for earth.
The Question: "Who would make a better supervisor at a wave pool, the Muileartach or the Devil?"
The Prize: A small pouch containing a vial with a pinch of salt in it (for the saltiness of the sea)
Winner: The Devil

Round 2: Family feud among the gods
Hindu corner: Maja Bumberák, with the story of the birth of Ganesha, and how he got his elephant head. Maja is a very lyrical teller, and her story was eloquent and elegant.
Assyrian corner: Enikő Nagy, telling the haunting myth of Ishtar's descent into the Underworld. This, in my opinion, was the high point of the evening, perfectly told, and full of emotion.
The Question: "If these conflicts happened in average families, which one do you think would make up sooner?"
The Prize: A small pouch containing a vial with a pinch of salt in it (for the superstition that spilled salt means quarrels)
Winner: The Hindu pantheon

Round 3: Masters of Wanting More
Maori corner: Szilvia Varga-Fogarasi, telling the story of how Maui brought fire to the world. She made us all instantly like the guy, even as he went looking for trouble.
Chinese corner: László Gregus, who masterfully summed up several opening chapters of Journey to the West into 12 minutes, and introduced us to the Monkey King's adventures towards immortality.
The Question: "If you were the CEO of a company, looking for a new creative employee with diverse skills, which one of the two tricksters would you hire?"
The Prize: A small pouch containing a vial with a pinch of salt in it (for the tricksters as the salt of the world)
Winner: The Monkey King

MythOff has definitely taken Budapest by storm. Can't wait to see where it will take us next!

To celebrate the fact that we didn't forget to take one this time, here is a group photo of all the tellers! From left to right: Szilvia, Enikő, moi, Maja, Rozka, and László. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Folklore Thursday: The princess who slapped a dragon

If you are a storyteller or a story-lover, chances are you are every familiar with Aarne-Thompson folktale type 301, commonly known as "The three kidnapped princesses." It is the story where three princesses are stolen by a dragon/giant/evil person, and a hero sets out to find them, usually with his brothers or companions. He rescues all three, but on the way home he is betrayed by the others and left behind (in the Underworld, inside a well, etc.). Eventually he makes his way out of there with the help of a giant bird, or some other magical creature, and arrives home just in time to save the youngest princess from her wedding. The traitors are then properly executed or exiled, and the hero becomes king.

I have never really had a close relationship with this story, even though it's Hungarian version, Son of the White Horse, is THE textbook Hungarian folktale.


I was reading Rusyn folktales this week - stories collected in Transcarpathia more than a hundred years ago - and I finally found the version that I can get behind.
Here is what made it work for me:

1. The three heroes are brothers, and each has a superpower: One can fly, one has a sharp sense of smell, and the youngest is a master of sword fighting. If you have missed the memo, I do love folktales with superpowers.

2. The youngest hero is NOT betrayed by his brothers. The soul of the third dragon he kills takes on his shape, and tricks the brothers into leaving him behind.

3. The place where the youngest hero gets stuck is on top of the Glass Mountains (instead of the Underworld). He can't come down.

4. The hero finds the mothers of all three dragons and receives magic items from them. With that, he lets them live. A refreshing change from all the folktales where the enemy is tricked into giving away items, and then killed anyway.

5. The hero meets a giant bird that offers to take him down the mountain, but he has to find water first. He manages to find a tree and dig up a well. Very impressive, given that the mountain is made of glass.

6. When he gets home, the hero takes on a job as a dressmaker. He makes the wedding dresses of the two older sisters. The youngest princess shows up before her own wedding in tears: She knows her "prince" is a fake, but nobody believes her. She asks for an ugly dress, stating she is being married off against her will.

7. The hero shows up on the wedding day, and calls out the impostor as the evil soul of a dragon. He claims that he can be destroyed if he is slapped with a left hand. Hearing that, the youngest princess immediately pounces on the shapeshifter, and slaps him so hard he turns to dust.
Heck yeah.
Happy Ending.