Thursday, December 29, 2016

A man in search of his luck (Folktale research post)

Once again, I am showing how the sausage is made. I dived way, way down into the rabbit hole, following a folktale that took me to all kinds of interesting places. In order to preserve my various post-it notes (and with them, my sanity), I am posting my process here. It might be useful for someone else too. It's a good story.

It all began with a book called Ready-to-Tell Tales. It contains a story retold by Richard Walker, titled The Edge of the World, labeled "a story from the British Isles." In it, a young man sets out to find God and ask why he does not have any luck. On the way, he encounters three suffering creatures - a skinny wolf, a withering tree, and a lonely woman - and they all send their questions with him to God. On the way back the lad has all the answers, but none of the sense to use them. He tells the lonely woman that God says she will soon find a husband - but then turns down her proposal. He tells the tree that it can't grow because of the treasure buried under its roots - but then walks on without digging it up. Finally, he tells the skinny wolf that it should eat the first stupid creature it encounters - and the wolf does just that. End of story. (Even God can't help you if you don't help yourself)

When I was a beginning storyteller, this tale worked like a charm. Now that it returned to be as the perfect fit for a performance I was building, I decided to dig deeper into it. Here is what I found:

Tale type: ATU 460A - Journey to the Deity (previously 461A)
Folktale motifs: H1291 (Questions asked on the way to other world), H1292 (Answers found in other world to questions propounded on the way) (this one has sub-numbers for the specific questions)

Armed with the tale type and motif index numbers, I dug up several versions of the story. It has variants all around the world, showing amazing diversity in their details:

The man who went to seek his fortune (Northern India, Simla village tales)
The deity: An old fakir
Questions: Castle that keeps falling down (until princess is married), turtle that has a stomach burn (until it gives some of its wisdom away), tree with bitter fruit (has buried treasure underneath)
Ending: The man wins all the rewards

The waters of Olive Lake (China, Many lands, many stories)
The deity: The God of the West
Questions: Girl who doesn't speak (until she sees her future husband), tree with treasure buried underneath, dragon that can't rise to Heaven (until it gives its pearl away)
Ending: Boy wins all the luck
(I especially like this one because the boy gives his own question away to ask the other three)

The Queen of the Planets (Ireland, Folktales of Ireland)
The deity: The Queen of the Planets (a woman who decides the fates of all children born)
Questions: A girl no one wants to marry (until she goes to church carrying her mother), a blacksmith that can't save money (works on the wrong days), and a farmer whose roof is always leaking (he stole thatch).
Ending: Boy reports answers, everyone goes their merry way
(This one also contains a gruesome and graphic way for the Queen to predict people's fate)

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs (Germany, Grimm collection)
The deity: The Devil
Questions: Well that ran dry (toad sits at the bottom), golden apple tree that withered (mouse is gnawing at the roots), ferryman that can't stop working (until hands off oar to someone else)
Ending: Boy gets princess and winds kingdom

Looking for his luck (Jewish, Tales of Elijah the Prophet)
The deity: Elijah the Prophet
Questions: Scrawny wolf (needs to eat a fool), weak kingdom (king is secretly a woman) (pffft), tree that bears bitter fruit (buried treasure)
Ending: Wolf eats foolish man.

The man who went to seek his fate (India, Indian Fairy Tales)
The deity: The man's fate (in the form of a stone)
Questions: Tired camel (carrying bags of gold), alligator with a stomach burn (swallowed a large ruby), tiger with a thorn in its foot (guards treasures)
Ending: Man gets treasures and lives happily

The sleeping nasib (India, Folklore in Wester India)
The deity: The man's nasib (fate), sleeping across the seven seas
Questions: Mango tree with bitter fruit (buried treasure), fish out of water (swallowed a piece of gold), tower that keeps collapsing (king has unmarried daughter), noble steed that no one rides
Ending: Man gets treasures, steed, and a second wife

The man who went to wake his luck (Bakhtiari, Iran, JBORS)
The deity: The man's luck (sleeping in a cave)
Questions: Orchard that bears no fruit (buried treasure), king whose subjects don't obey him (woman in disguise, needs husband), scrawny wolf (needs to eat a fool), exhausted bush-cutter (has to bear his fate)
Ending: Wolf eats foolish man

The man who fought with God (India, North Indian Notes and Queries)
The deity: God (Allah)
Questions: Kingdom burns down every night (king's daughter is unmarried), well filled with filthy water and two people (if they are taken out, well fills up with coin), dried-up tree (snake with sapphires in its belly gnawing on roots)
Ending: Man passes by opportunities the first time, but then marries princess and goes back for the treasures

The poor boy who went in search of Isvara (India, Folklore in Salsette)
The deity: Isvara
Questions: Breadfruit tree that bears no fruit (gold in trunk), mango tree no one eats from (buried treasure), building keeps collapsing (king needs to give his daughter and half kingdom to the first passer-by), beached whale (has precious gems in its stomach)
Ending: Boy gets all treasures, half kingdom, and princess

The man who searched for his luck (Jewish, Folktales of the Jews)
The deity: Woman with a wheel of fortune
Questions: Stranded fish (diamond stuck in fish's head), apple tree with bitter fruit (buried treasure)
Ending: Man gets treasures (plus his luck int he form of a wheel of fortune)

The sleeping karms (India, Tawi Tales)
The deity: Karms (fate-spirits, karma)
Questions: Mango tree no one eats from (used to be a learned man who never shared his knowledge), two wells no one drinks from (used to be women who only gave charity to each other), cow that is beaten by her calf every day (used to be the calf in the previous life and behaved badly), shepherd who wants to know if God knows of him (yes, he's a good man), large snake who wants to know why he was turned into a snake (was a miser in a previous life)
Ending: Man goes home and lives happily
(This one was interesting because the main hero was the rich older brother; and also because he asked everyone's respective karms for the answers)

There are also many other versions that I did not have the time (or linguistic skills) to track down, but this small sample already shows what a rich, diverse, colorful folktale type this is. In the end, for the performance I assembled my own version from various motifs in the list above, and it worked like a charm. It is definitely going into my permanent repertoire.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The many uses of seashells (Following folktales around the world 6. - Nauru)

Welcome back to 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 under the Following Folktales label, and you can also follow the series on its own Facebook page!

Nauru is the last Micronesian country on the list. Bye bye, Tiny Islands. The series is taking a short Christmas break, and will resume in the first week of January!

Legends, traditions, and tales of Nauru
A transcript of a series of lectures delivered by Native Teachers
Timothy Detudamo
University of the South Pacific, 2008.

This book could have done with an introduction. It didn't say anything about how or when the tales were collected, or who the storytellers were. It did include a "Traditional culture of Nauru" chapter, wedged in-between Legends and Tales, which was definitely an interesting read, and helped understand some elements of the stories. The Glossary was almost comically useless; it had at least six words defined as "a type of weapon" or "a type of fish", with no further comments. The stories themselves, however, were much worth reading.


Nauru from above
I really loved the Nauruan creation myth, where the world was born from inside a clam shell, and giants lifted the top half of the shell to become the sky. The same myth also contained a sky-high tree; when one of the gods climbed it, some leafs and twigs came loose and fell into the ocean, creating the islands. The leafs that fell face up became fertile islands, while the ones that fell face down remained barren.
There was a very interesting idea of rebirth in the story of Itijo and Araiman. The wife was instructed to but her dead husband inside a giant shell; three days later she found a live baby in his place. Raising the baby, she got her husband back. After a few rounds, she decided it would be better to wait a few more days and get him back as an adult so that she wouldn't have to raise him - but when she opened the shell, the corpse was still there, and the rebirth magic was off the table...
One of my favorite tales was the story of Eakeno, in which a god fell in love with a pretty young woman who already had a husband. The god let down a fishing hook with gifts from the sky, and managed to catch her and steal her away. She was eventually rescued with the help of a crab and two canary birds.


Nauru also has its own version of "in the beginning, women didn't know how to give birth" (a motif that seems to exist all over Micronesia). This one was my favorite so far. It told the story of a voyager named Deragoe, who after all kinds of adventures landed on Nauru. He married a local girl, and managed to save her from a C-section (performed by two old women with shark teeth) and teach the Nauruans how to deliver babies. And cook food. He sounds like a useful guy.
Another common motif that I encountered once again was the trick of putting shells on one's eyelids to look in the dark as if you were awake. This trick is usually used by people to avoid being devoured in their sleep by monsters (in this case, a witch).
There was a myth very much like Pandora's Box: The first god left behind three baskets that people were not supposed to open. The first two contained food and jewelry - but when the first one was opened too, all kinds of troubles and diseases swarmed out into the world. There was also, once again, a legend about the birth of the coconut palm, which, once again, grew out of the grave of a buried man.
I especially loved the Nauruan take on the giant beanstalk, called Egigu's Tree. In this story, a girl named Egigu climbed up into the sky and encountered the old blind mother of all kinds of natural phenomena. In exchange for healing her blindness, the old woman hid her in a clam shell. Eventually, the girl met and married her youngest son, the Moon, and you can still see the Moon embracing her at night. You can see the story illustrated on Nauruan stamps (left).

Where to next? 
Returning to Melanesia via the Solomon Islands.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Witches, sisters, fairy tales (Following folktales around the world 5. - Kiribati)

Today I continue new 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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Tales of Kiribati
Iango Mai Kiribati / Stories from Kiribati
Peter Kanere Koru, Ginette Sullivan
Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific, 1986.  

It was a short read - only ninety pages long, but since it it a bilingual edition, it actually took half the time to get through. The volume contains 8 folktales collected from three female storytellers. The photo and short biography of each of them are included, as well as delightful drawings and black-and-white photos illustrating the tales.


I had two favorite stories in the book (not bad, out of eight...). One was titled Kinibura and the Lions, and it was about a boy who got adopted and raised by lions before he was returned to his human family (Mowgli, is that you?...). I especially liked the scene where his little sister taught him how to speak.
Kiribati coat of arms
The other story, possibly my favorite, was the one called Atutababa and the Three Sisters. It featured three girls (all of them named Ikuiku) who wandered into the house of a cannibal witch, and then tried to escape from her. The flight had quite a few amazing scenes, such as the one where they fled to a tree, and while the hag was trying to chop it down the girls took turns peeing on the tree to make it grown and heal. I also liked that in the end, none of the three got eaten, and they all escaped together, helping each other.
(This is the story featured on the book's cover too, by the way)

Pawpaw fruit
Most stories felt like they had had some Western impact in the past. There were quite a few out-of-place elements in them such as bears, lions, and diamond rings, even though they didn't manage to overshadow the local flavor. There was a "brave little tailor" type story about a boy who tricks two giants (with the usual "squeeze water out of rock" thing), and also a "magic flight" story, the Kiribatian version of the Master Maid. This one was especially fun, since the villain in this case was the King of Cards, a spirit-being who liked to play games with mortals (and eat them if they lost). One of the tasks given to the boy was to poke a pawpaw fruit off the King's tree, which he failed to do at first, because there was a gigantic centipede on it... While the structure of the fairy tale was the same, the decorations were definitely local.

Where to?
The island nation of Nauru.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sailing from story to story (Following folktales around the world 4. - Marshall Islands)

Today I continue new 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 under the Following Folktales label

Still wandering across the many many islands, and island nations of Micronesia. 

Stories from the Marshall Islands
Bwebwenato Jan Aelon Kein
Jack A. Tobin
University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

So far, this book was hands down the most difficult read of the entire challenge. It is an excellent publication, but very academic when it comes to the texts themselves. It contains 90 traditional tales from the Marshall islands (from creation myths to folk beliefs), and each comes with extensive footnotes, references, linguistic explanations, and brackets within brackets inside the text. The latter made reading a little frustrating at times. Many stories are printed both in English and in Marshallese, and there are abundant footnotes, so it was not as long a read as it might seem. What it was, however, was informative. I learned a whole lot about the history, culture, language, society, customs, flora, and fauna of the islands, and whenever something was not clear in a story, I could trust the author to explain it in the comments or the notes. All in all, it was a challenging but rewarding experience.


Outrigger boat and a frigate bird
I especially loved the legends and tales concerning navigation. I love sailing, and seafaring stories, and the book had plenty of both. There was one about twelve brothers who arranged a boat race to an island, but none of them wanted to take their mother along... except for the youngest, who was rewarded with the mother's secret knowledge of how to build and use a mast and a sail. This story (About a woman named Loktanur) was not even the only one when navigation was a woman'd gift. In another one, a young girl named Litarmelu was taught by mysterious men how to navigate the sea between the islands. They towed her, with her eyes closed, all over the place, and occasionally they asked her to tell where they were exactly, just by the movement of the water under the boat. It was a long and detailed story of trial and error - beyond being an origin tale, it also doubled as educational text for passing down knowledge about navigation signs. Navigation signs, as I learned from the ikid (story-songs) in the book, can be many things, from the shape of waves to animal behavior (frigate birds, porpoises, turtles, etc.) or island landmarks.
I also liked the historical story of how an American ship got wrecked near the islands in 1883, and how the Marshallese helped the Americans survive and fix their ship. I especially appreciated that the author attached the other half of the story from the ship's journal... Apparently, while the Americans were scared of the indigenous people, the encounter ended up being fairly friendly.
Frigate bird
I enjoyed the tale titled Low Tide, in which two women were tricked by an octopus, and then retaliated by cooking it. The octopus' gigantic mother came out of the sea to take revenge on them, but they ended up chopping it into pieces. I am a sucker for a good giant octopus fight, apparently... In another intriguing story, a man had to find a way to tell his own wife and a shape-changing demoness apart - and he picked wrong (despite obvious signs, such as the demoness could not cook). It took a while for that story to reach a happy ending...
I loved the moment in the creation myths where two deities, after creation was done, came down to Earth to tattoo colors on all living creatures. From the same myths I also learned that the Marshallese have dozens of words for every phase of the life of a coconut palm...
And, of course, the Marshallese have their own Trickster too. His name is Etao (a word also used for mischievous mortals).


Maui is now also a
Disney hero
The most interesting connection in the book was not a parallel - but rather, an actual visit from another mythology. Maui, the famous Polynesian trickster-hero shows up in one of the stories to have a competition with local heroes... and loses. I don't often see characters from other cultures visiting like this; but I guess all the seafaring was bound to mix some of the stories, and of course cultural pride would not allow the visitor to best the local heroes. There were also Marshallese legends of fishing up islands from the bottom of the sea, so the mixing definitely involved more than some trickster-versus-trickster.
There was also a "magic flight" story (The legend of Anidep) in which the girl running from a demon threw coconuts back over her shoulder. Bursting open, the coconuts released thousands of ants. The demon apparently loved ants so much that he had to stop and gather them all - which reminded me of European fairies and witches that tend to do the same.
In the tale titled The boy who met Jebro, a fisherman encountered a canoe with seven identical boys that turned out to be Jebro (the Pleiades) itself. They gave the secret of eternal life to the boy, who lived several lifetimes until he decided to divulge the secret - and turned into dust on the spot. This reminded me of several "eternal life" tales from around the world, such as Oisin, Urashima Taro, or all those folktales where telling a secret makes you turn to stone.
There was also a completely random tree-climbing octopus in one of the tales, which reminded me of this stellar piece of Internet tricksterness.

Where are we going next?
The Republic of Kiribati.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tales in color and style (Following folktales around the world 3. - Palau)

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.

Today I continue new 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 under the Following Folktales label

It is getting more and more difficult to find books for the islands I'm looking at. This time I accidentally ran into a small little volume in a digital archive. The upside: You can read it online too!

The Palauan handicraft guidebook, and 30 Storyboard stories
Goree Ramarui, Rita Limberg
Palau Community Action Committee, 1970.
(Online here)

This tiny collection is only 24 pages long - but it still contain the condensed version on no less than 30 folktales and legends, and even the bare bones are very much enjoyable. The book(let) opens with introducing the traditional crafts of Palau, ending on storyboards.

Storyboards are a traditional Palauan art form - they are essentially traditional stories carved out in a narrative, visual format. They used to decorate the rafters of men's gathering houses, but recently they have also been produced in smaller, more portable sizes for trade. According to the book, there are more than two hundred commonly carved stories - out of which these 30 were selected. The most popular ones were marked with an asterisk. Even in their condensed form, each tale included their most recognizable visual elements. For example, in the storyboard below you can see the tale of the magic breadfruit tree - the tide would push fish through the hollow trunk and the hollow branches, so it was easy for people to gather them. Eventually, as usual, envy and greediness ended the good times (you can read the story in the book). I was happy when I found this picture and recognized the story.

source of image

One of my favorite stories was the one about a "dandy," Ngiratumerang, who was accused by other men of being a coward. In order to prove them wrong, he went and found a master to teach him the martial arts. In the next battle, he killed five of the enemy's best warriors, proving everyone wrong. I especially liked the way he proved his courage to the master: He climbed a tall, thin betel nut tree until it bowed all the way down and he had to reach the top upside-down.
Another fun story was that of Skin and Bones, who used to be brothers. One day, they were attacked unexpectedly. Since Bones did not want to drag his skin-sack brother after him, he put Skin on like a shirt... and ever since then, we have skeletons inside out body.
This was by far not the only amusing story in the book. I also liked the one where a god fought another god by throwing various sea creatures (including rabbitfish) after him. Or the one about how two young lovers discovered the 15-day nesting cycle of sea turtles, because an unsuspecting turtle made off with the girl's discarded grass skirt, and only appeared again 15 days later...
There was even a tale about where the first dugong came from. According to legend, she had been the daughter of an overbearing mother, who eventually ran away into the sea.

Picture from here
I found a tale very similar to the fruit bat boy story in the Papua New Guinean collection. In this case, the single mother was rescued by her human son and owl daughter from a terrifying sea serpent.
I found another version about the origin of Palauan money (see image on the right). I also learned that the legendary Yapese giganic stone coins were also brought from this island. I also found a second version about how women originally gave birth via C-section - in this one, it was not another girl who taught them better (like in the Micronesian collection), but the spider-god husband of a pregnant woman. There was another monster-heron (this time, defeated by a spear-throwing technique learned from actual herons), and another vagina dentata, this time with two biting eels hidden in the wife's lady parts... I expected to see more Palauan stories repeated from the previous collection, but I was happy to find that most of the 30 were new to me. As short a read as it was, it was definitely enjoyable.

Where to?
The Marshall Islands.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

All the Maui legends crammed into Moana's "You're Welcome"

So, Disney's Moana is officially in theaters. In the upcoming weeks, I encourage everyone to read indigenous reviews of the movie, to see what it has done right, and what it could have done better, to honor the cultures and mythologies it is drawing from. Of course the animation and the music and the visuals were all great, but what really intrigued me as a storyteller was all the folklore Easter eggs hidden in plain sight. The best among them was Maui the Trickster's introduction song, titled "You're Welcome", which combined the features of trickster and culture hero perfectly.
On top of that, each line of the song was a reference to an actual Maui legend. In case anyone wants to do more readings, I threw together this handy list of the stories references in the song.

 First up, a clip from the movie:

And here is the full song (audio only):

And now, for the references:

"What has two thumbs that hold up the sky
When you were waddling yay high
This guy!"

Maui lifting the sky
It is a common motif in Polynesian mythologies that in the beginning Earth and Sky were too close together. Someone, or someones had to lift the sky so that things could grow, and people could stand up. In many stories it was Maui who did the deed, thanks to his superhuman strength (in some version, he did it together with his father).

"When the nights got cold
Who stole you fire from down below
You're lookin' at him, yo"

Maui brings fire to the world
In what is probably my favorite Maui legend, Maui wanted to know where fire comes from - so he put out all fires in his village, and waited for the elders to send him on a quest. He went to visit Mahuika, the goddess of fire who lived inside the mountain, and asked for fire. She gave him one of her nails, but Maui suddenly got curious about where her own fire comes from, so he kept putting out the nails and going back for more, until she ran out. Mahuika attacked him in anger, missed, and her fire landed on some trees - ever since then, wood can be used to make fire.

"Oh, also I lassoed the sun
You're welcome!
To stretch the days and bring you fun"

Picture from here
Maui slows the sun
There are several legends that say that the Sun used to cross the sky too fast, and people did not have time to do their daily tasks. Eventually Maui (and, in some cases, his brothers) lassoed the Sun, and threatened it into slowing down, giving the world longer days. Fun fact: in some stories, Maui did this to help his mom, Hina, with drying her clothes.
(Here is another version)

"Also I harnessed the breeze
You're welcome!
To fill your sails and shake your trees"

Maui's kite flying
In this fun legend Maui has a giant kite (made for him by his mother), and he tries to fly it, but doesn't have enough breeze. He asks an old priest, who holds the winds in a gourd, to let more and more of them out, until the kite flies high up, breaks its rope, and escapes. If you watch the clip from the movie, you can see Maui flying his kite in the corresponding tattoo. Nice touch.

"So what can I say except you're welcome
For the islands I pulled from the sea"

Maui fishes for islands
There are several stories both in Hawaii and New Zealand about Maui fishing islands up from the bottom of the ocean (sometimes in the form of a giant fish). These origin legends explain the birth of the Hawaiian island chain, as well as the north island of New Zealand.

"I killed an eel, I buried its guts
Sprouted a tree, now we've got coconuts."

The origin of the coconut
First off, for some reason some lyrics I found said "snake", but in all stories it's a giant eel. His name is Te Tuna (sometimes just called Tuna), and he is a sea spirit that either sleeps with, or wants to sleep with, Maui's wife (or a woman he loves). Maui fights and kills the eel, cuts its head off, and buries it - the first coconut palm sprouts from the head (hence the "face" on the coconuts).
(Here is another version)

Of course these are just texts that I could rustle up online. Here are some resources for further reading:

The University of Hawaii's Hawaiian Legends Index
Maori Myths, Legends, and Contemporary Stories (from Te Kete Ipurangi, New Zealand's bilingual education portal)
Maori Myth and Legend Resources (from the National Library of New Zealand)
Hawaiian Legends of Tricksters and Riddlers (from University of Hawai'i Press, with an extensive bibliography)
Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the movie are, it can hopefully point people in the direction of reading more on their own. I am just getting started myself...

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Whale vs Octopus, and other creature features (Following folktales around the world 2. - Federated States of Micronesia)

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.

Today I continue new 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 under the Following Folktales label

Micronesia was an interesting country to pick a book for. Most folktale collections contain stories from geographical Micronesia, including independent island countries such as Palau or the Marshall Islands. This book mostly had stories from the islands of the Federation, with a few exceptions, so I decided it was close enough to count.    

Micronesian folktales
Roger E. Mitchell
Asian Folklore Institute, 1973.

This is a folklore publication, containing 81 tales collected by the author himself. Therefore, it has everything a reader, storyteller, or researcher could wish for: A detailed introduction about Micronesia's history; notes on tales and tale types, including the name of the storytellers; and each story comes with a short introduction pointing out its cultural elements and explaining some of the foreign terms, symbols, and beliefs. The stories have been transcribed from oral telling, which makes them both fascinating and sometimes hard to follow. I loved all the rich details about customs, sea life, the flora and fauna of the islands, and the many beliefs of spirit creatures.

I know. That's a squid, not an octopus
One of the most powerful stories in the book was, without the doubt, The battle of Whale and Octopus. Octopus' child was mocked by Whale's children saying that his father is weak and shy. As a response, Octopus challenged Whale to an epic battle (that he won). At first, I thought it was going to be one of those "weaker party wins by trickery" folktales... but it wasn't.
Micronesia, however, does have tricksters (who doesn't?): One is Rat, and one is a god named Olofat. The latter starred in a fun little story about recovering the stolen eyes of a chief's son (who used to take them out when he went swimming). Classic trickster.
Of course there is no ocean story collection without mermaids and dolphin girls. The former was a girl who borrowed scales from fishes because she wanted to live in the sea; the latter were playful spirits that granted their human lover the medicine for curing sick dolphins and whales. There was also a story about the origin of the coconut that I really liked - one of the gods volunteered to be reborn as human, and turn into a coconut palm after being buried. The other gods threw him a going-away party.
Handsome Micronesian chicken
I liked the story about a girl who was courted by various Micronesian birds, and her parents rejected all of them - they wanted her to marry a Heron, because they are hard workers, and not a Chicken, even though chickens are handsome. In the end, the girl chucked her dowry at the Herons' head, and went to live happily with the Chickens anyway. Herons did not get a good rep in many of these tales - there was even a story about a giant, man-eating monster heron.
Some stories were darker than others. One legend explained that in the ancient days people did not know that women could give birth naturally - they performed C-sections on pregnant mothers, killing them in the process, until a girl from a distant island taught them how to deliver a baby naturally. Another tale talked about a mother who was abandoned by her husband and died in labor. She turned into a spirit, and she continued to take care of her son, along with other spirits of women who suffered the same fate.
Other tales were definitely humorous, or at least had very endearing moments in them. One was about a foolish navigator who, when told to follow a star, stood in the back of his canoe, trying to point the prow at the sky, until it sank... The most WTF moment of the whole thing was the tale of a giant that got defeated and torn apart until only his rectum was left. The rectum washed up on a beach, and, according to the legend, it is still there. It came with a warning: Don't play with the giant's rectum, it brings storms and bad luck...

One of the most surprising parallel I found was for the tale titled The trapped adulterers. It mirrored the myth of Ares and Aphrodite almost perfectly. Instead of a golden net (that Hephaestos drops on top of the lovers to trap them), in this version there was a mosquito net. Still, the story was pretty much the same.
There was also a Micronesian version for Tortoise and Hare - this time, it was Hermit Crab and Needlefish swimming a race. Obviously, the former won, with the help of his family. Similarly, "Hansel and Gretel" this time happened with a little girl and two witches, who realized just in time that the girl was their own granddaughter, and raised her instead of eating her (whew).
And to wander away from European examples: I found an interesting parallel to "Raven steals the light" from the Pacific Norhwest - this time, it was Olofat the Trickster who pretended to be the baby of a chief's daughter.
There were, of course, smaller motifs that I recognized from other parts of the world. I found a giant fish swallowing children whole; mother cutting open the stomach of a spirit that ate her seven kids children; an island that turned out to be a giant fish; people walking on water; people stealing the Moon; even people eating soap bought from the Americans because they thought it was food (the latter two showed up in the Papua New Guinean volume as well). I was especially intrigued to find another story about a big mechanical bird that was built to rescue a stolen wife (I have parallels from Sri Lanka and Tibet).
And, of course, any collection with a vagina dentata folktale is a good one (bonus point to the author for having an entire chapter of erotic folktales). In this case, it was sharp clam shells instead of teeth. Still, ouch.

Where to?
Next stop is the independent island republic of Palau.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Cassowaries, marsupials, and the day the Moon ate people (Following folktales around the world 1. - Papua New Guinea)

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.

Today I finally start my new 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 under the Following Folktales label

One Thousand and One Papua New Guinean Nights
Folktales from Wantok Newspapers
Thomas H. Slone
Masalai Press, 2001.

I have got to come clean and admit that I only read the first of two volumes. The two of them together contain 1001 folktales, myths, and legends; I read 602 of them. The volume was 500 pages with two columns on each page, and heavy enough to leave marks on my sternum when I read it in bed... it was hard work to get through it, but absolutely worth it.
The author tells us that all these stories were published over the years in Wantok newspaper in the creole language of Papua New Guinea known as Tok Pisin. If each tale had to be translated from its original language, this book would never have been born - the island sports a stunning number of about 700 different languages (!).
Showing my work
I tip my hat to Thomas H. Slone. The translation is not only careful and respectful, but the volume also provides all the information any reader could wish for. Each tale comes with a citation, as well as information (name, ethnic origin, home region) of the storyteller, a list of relevant folktale motifs from the Thompson Motif Index, the Latin names of the animals and plants mentioned, and other important translation notes.
The stories themselves reflect the local flora, fauna, and traditional way of life. They are full of elements that seem exotic to the Western reader - instead of wolves or swan, we have cassowaries and marsupials in great abundance. Nature is both terrifying and helpful, depending on how one interacts with it, and inhabited by spirit creatures known as masalai that can be evil or benevolent. Many stories are bloody and violent, but there are also several that are enchanting and all kinds of beautiful.

There were many of these. I marked each one with a sticky note, and ended up with more than 50 of them. It is not a bad number at all for any folktale collection.
I especially liked tales where Nature helped or rescued someone. There was a Cinderella-type story where a girl told her sorrows to a mango tree; the three then was turned into a canoe and took her to live with kinder people. One of my favorite stories was the one where a woman was stalked and killed by an evil man; the cassowaries brought her back to life, and then kicked the tar out of the murdered. As a reward, the woman painted the kind birds bright colors (and in some versions she turned into a pandanus tree to feed them). In another great story a giant masalai clam kept swallowing ships, until a smart cassowary tricked it into coming to land, where the vines of the jungle and the red ants finished it off. There were multiple tales where a woman, left alone by her husband, gave birth in the woods and was helped by kind masalai women. In another legend a heroic little flying fox saved his (human) mother and little brother from a terrible giant serpent. I also found several stories about loyal and helpful dogs.
Of course the volume was teeming with pourquoi stories, explaining how certain things came to be. In one, a kind old woman kept all the mosquitoes in the world locked up in her house... until wicked children stole bananas from her, and she let them out as revenge. In another, funny story, we learned how men stole beards from women, because they envied their spouses' luxurious facial hair. There was a story that explained how a hunter used to keep the Moon in a bamboo tube, and use it as a flashlight, until it finally escaped and rose up to the sky. Another, more terrifying tale recounted how the Moon used to come down from the sky and devour children, until the people of a village killed it and cut it into pieces, replacing it with a friendlier Moon...
Some stories had practical elements, such as origin tales of stone axes, firemaking, or why pottery shards can be found in the ground. Others, labeled "modern stories", told about the encounters of the indigenous people with Western technology (such as radios, flashlights, soap, or airplanes), and the funny moments that resulted from them.

Marsupials from PNG
(picture from here)
There were many "animal bride" and "plant wife" stories in the book, although their plot often different from Western tales. Instead of our usual swan maidens and apple girls, these stories features cassowary women and maidens born from mangoes (or the occasional cucumber). There were also many tales about animals (marsupials, cassowaries, flying foxes) raising abandoned children in the jungle.  My favorite was the one where a lonely bee raised a little boy whose parents had been murdered by a giant snake, and when the boy grew up, the bee helped him defeat the monster.
I found a version of the "Why dogs sniff each other's tails" folktale that I have known before as a Cherokee story. It tells about how dogs used to play soccer and volleyball, hanging their cumbersome tails on a fence, until a pig tore the fence down and the tails got mixed up... I also found versions of the shape-changing bride (see Thetis in Greek mythology), the loyal dog (see Gelert the Faithful Hound), and the money tree (see Rübezahl's crab-apples). There was a tale about a cucumber that turned into an evil woman who forced a man to carry her around on his shoulders - this reminded me of Sindbad the Sailor and his adventure with the Old Man of the Sea. There was even a "grateful snake" story where a hunter saved a little snake stuck in a snail shell, and the snake later returned to pull a broken lance out of the man's side after a battle.
I found "closer" connections to a folktale from the Maldives (the Heron and the Crab), and a story from Borneo, in which a mysterious old woman in the forest has snakes and lizards in her hair instead of lice (which the protagonist has to pick out to earn her help).

Where to?
Moving on to the Federated States of Micronesia! Stay tuned!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Scary Story Festival at a haunted opera house, and other Halloween fun

This year I really managed to cherry-pick the best Halloween gigs.

It all started on Friday, when I participated in the Friday Folklore Tour at the Wood County Historical Museum in Bowling Green. The tour had several stops, all centered on creepy and eerie things, such as a Day of the Dead educational display, a haunted trail, the former asylum, a magician... and yours truly, who set up shop in the cemetery behind the museum. And by "set up shop" I mean I camped out all alone in a dark cemetery in the company of a lantern, some blankets, and a box of Halloween chocolates (because someone trusted me to be a responsible adult and not fish all the Reese's out) (I did not fish all the Reese's out).
Over the course of three hours, we had 9 tour groups passing through. I told one story to each of them; because I would have bored myself by repeating one of them over and over again, I ended up randomly rotating 5 different stories, depending on what I felt like telling, and who was in the audience. I told a Hungarian folktale about a brave princess and a haunted castle (our version of Mr. Fox) mostly when kids were around; one girl still stood with her hands over her ears until I promised her that there would be no jump scares in the story (I hate jump scares). One little boy told me that princesses were booooooring - but took it back at the end of the story. My favorite part was when I asked a group what happens to fairy tale princesses when they grow up - and one little girl immediately answered "They become queen!" Girl power.
Next to the magic castle, I also told Princess in the Coffin, and all-time favorite of mine, as well as the Burning of Tara (it's almost Samhain, after all), and the legend of Erzsébet Báthory. I also handed out candy (or rather, held the box out and let people take a handful, because I'm Hungarian and I don't know how to trick-or-treat). All in all, it was great fun, the cemetery setting was perfect, and the groups were all very appreciative. Someone even asked me about how they can become a storyteller...

The Halloween roll continued on Saturday, when I took a trip to Howell, MI to their tenth (!) annual Scary Story Festival. The event takes place in Howell's very own haunted opera house, which is a perfect setting for scary stories. They have a children's scary story show at 7, and then an adult one at 9. I only caught the end of the kids' show, but it looked like it was great fun.
The adult performance took place in the actual opera house (which was built in the 1880s, shut down in the 1920s, and functioned as the attic of the building for several decades). It was an amazing setting, all gloomy and mysterious, decorated with spiderwebs and candles. The floors creaked, the shadows stretched, and there was coffee, hot cider, and pastries available to make everything perfect.
And, of course, there was the lineup.
The show was opened by Robin Nott, who sung us the ballad of Resurrection Mary (a version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker), and then told a story about the ghost of a mother who returned from the grave to feed her child. Both were sufficiently eerie, and touching at the same time. Next, Leif Larsen told us his version of Grimm's Bearskin, set after the American Civil War (I really loved this twist on the tale). Yvonne Healy brought us a terrifying Irish tale of dark magic and revenge, and Jeff Doyle told a Kentucky ghost tale that sent shivers down our spine.
After a short break, Barbara Schutzgruber graced us with singing Childe's ballad of the dead lover (fittingly, the oldest known version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker), and then telling her amazing, rhyming and eloquent version of an English lullaby about a vain lady who turned into the first mole. I am always amazed by Barbara's elegant performances... it was a tough act to follow. I told next; I chose the Princess in the Coffin, since it is a fairly creepy story but also has some humor in it, and it is tons of fun to tell, especially in an eerie setting. The concert concluded with Steve Daut's twist on Rapunzel, with some very graphic and gory images about what could go wrong when one gets tangled in so much hair...

The festival was a superb experience, and a perfect place for some Halloween storytelling. I am happy that I got to be a part of it this year. We did not encounter Meredith, the opera house's resident ghost, but I am sure she was listening...

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Epic-Lovers Reunite!

At the end of my one-year mentorship with Cathryn Fairlee, we celebrated with a storytelling concert showcasing some of our favorite epics. It was almost exactly a year ago. Last November, I got to premiere my one-hour show based on the Persian Book of Kings - but little did the audience know at the time that Cathryn helped me work on not one, but two epics over the course of one year, and the other fringe performance was yet to come. We scheduled the Epic-Lovers Reunite! house concert for the day after Epic Day, and I was both excited and grateful that I got to share the stage with my mentor once again. We had a completely full house: 50 people bought tickets for the show!

If you have been following this blog, you probably noticed how much I posted about my research on the Dietrich Cycle. The full-hour storytelling show born from all that work is titled Roses in the Mountains: German legends of Dwarves and Men, and this was the very first time I told it all in one swoop. It was an intense, but very rewarding experience.
The show is made up of two of the prominent legends about Dietrich and his knights. The first part is the legend of Virginal, Queen of the Mountains, and her war against the evil sorcerer Ortgis. She summons the human heroes as her allies (since, according to the Book of Heroes I quote at the beginning of the show, humans were created by God to protect the Dwarf kingdoms from giants and dragons). At first, Dietrich and his men try to take care of the threat themselves, but they fail miserably, and the whole story ends in an all-out epic battle between the forces of darkness and the allies of the Dwarf queen. Dietrich marries Virginal, who proves herself to be a wise ruler. I really enjoyed telling about all the fights and monsters, and the kids in the audience listened with wide-open eyes.
The second half of the story mirrors the first in many ways. It is the story known as the Small Rose Garden, the tale of the Dwarf King Laurin who allegedly abducts a human maiden. Dietrich and his men travel to Laurin's legendary rose garden in the mountains, trespass on his property, and effectively manage to start a war between Dwarves and humans. What saves the day in the end is the love of the maiden, Künhilde, for the Dwarf king, and her joining forces with Virginal to set things right. Yes, this story passes the Bechdel Test.
The story came together beautifully in the end. It is a fast-paced tale with a lot of intense fight scenes - but it also has humor in all the right places to break up the tension, and the audience responded well to those scenes. I added a couple of sorter Dietrich tales to round out the narrative (such as the story of the rose garden itself from a Swiss legend, or the scene where they drag a knight out of a dragon's mouth). I also tweaked the tales a little to give more play time to the women. The Dietrich Cycle does have several powerful women in it, so the changes did not feel out of place at all.

The second half of the house concert was the best reward I could have hoped for after such an exhausting performance: Cathryn told some of the legends of the Fianna. She knows that I live and die for Fionn Mac Cumhail, and as I curled up on a pillow in the corner with my well-deserved dinner, she told several of my favorite tales - and even one that I have not hear before! It was equally amazing to watch her, and to see the audience's reactions. Many of the heard the Burning of Tara, or the Birth of Oisín for the first time, and I was happy to see that the stories had the same effect on them as they did on me almost twenty years ago.

Epic-Lovers Reunite was definitely a success. I hope that I will get to tell with Cathyrn again (at the next Epic Day at the latest), and I also hope that I will get to take Roses in the Mountains to many other stages around the world. These stories deserve to be told...
(King Laurin's story is included in my book of tales about superhuman powers)

Once more to the graveyard: The Tales of the Golden Corpse 2. (Epic Day 2016/2)

The whole reason I was in San Francisco last week was to participate in the year's second Epic Day performance. As you probably already know, our epic-loving crowd tells a full story twice in one year (usually in February and October). We have done Tales of the Golden Corpse from Tibet once already, and it was time for the repeat performance.

Our group was a little smaller this time - merely 17 tellers, and we got through our stories in a little under 4 hours, not counting the breaks and dinner. While some people had to cancel at the last moment, the lineup was still very much impressive, and all of my favorite stories were still there (Tales of the Golden Corpse is a string of folktales in a frame story, much like the 1001 Nights). We ate delicious snacks and listened to awesome stories for most of the day, sharing our enthusiasm and fascination for Tibetan tales. Once again, the frame story took the cake - everyone had their own version of the loquacious corpse, and the ways it managed to cheat the boy to let him fly back to the graveyard. The moment when the boy accidentally spoke up at the end of each tale, breaking the spell, was always a comedic highlights that everyone appreciated, and executed creatively.
(If you have no idea what I am talking about, read the book. It's worth it.)

Since this was out second performance for the year, it was also the time to vote on what we will be telling in 2017! Cathryn piled several options on the coffee table in the form of books, and people spent the breaks browsing through them, discussing the stories, sharing what they knew about them, and why one or the other would be cool to tell together. The lineup included well-known classics such as Beowulf and the Iliad, epics of great cultural importance such as Journey to the West, Tales of the Heike, and Sunjata, and a few last-minute contestants such as Tales of the Narts (courtesy of our Silk Road House concert the night before). At the end of the day, we all voted on our three favorites, to narrow choices down for the online poll. We ended up with Sunjata, Journey to the West, and Orlando Furioso as our top contestants. They are all very significant stories, and they all have their exciting and alluring qualities. I personally am hoping for Orlando - I have told parts of it before, but I have never read the entire epic, and I would love to.
The poll is still pretty much tied - I can't wait to find out which one we'll be telling in February!

Epic Day tellers, October 22nd, 2016.

"If our lives be short, let our fame be great": Nart sagas at the Silk Road House

For those of you just tuning in: I have fallen in love with the Nart sagas a while ago. I worked with them for a museum program for Archaeology Day, told them for MythOff, read them for Epics A to Z, and have been waxing poetic about their greatness for quite a while.
Which is why this storytelling event at the Silk Road House in Berkeley was such a perfect convergence of passion and storytelling. 

This summer, John Colarusso's translation of Nart Sagas (the Circassian and Abkhazian sagas) got its second edition, and Tales of the Narts (the Ossetian sagas) was published in English for the very first time. Since I was in San Francisco for Epic Day just in time for 3rd Friday, the traditional storytelling day of the Storytelling Association of California, everything came together for a concert celebrating the Nart sagas. On top of all that, it turned out that John Colarusso himself also just happened to be in town, and he did not only graciously accept our invitation to the event, but even agreed to present a short opening lecture. I was more than a little star-struck. He told us about what makes the Nart sagas unique and important, talked about their connections to European traditions, and pointed out some linguistic curiosities about the languages they have been translated from. It was a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how these books came to be. Professor Colarusso also very patiently helped me with the correct pronunciation of Ossetian names when I cornered him in the kitchen of the Silk Road House before the performance...

Since I have been working with the Ossetian sagas for a while now, I was given the honor of filling the first half of the event with the stories of my choice. I opened with the saga that first made me fall in love with them - it is called the The Narts and the Wadmer's Bones, and it talks about the Nart heroes unearthing the giant skeleton of an ancient hunter, and bringing him back to life to ask questions. As an archaeologist, I have always loved this tale, and now that I am (finally) reading First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor, it has become even more fascinating. 
Following up the giant's story, I told a short anecdote to introduce Shirdon, the Narts' trickster. He is like Loki, except he is treated worse, and, in Colarusso's words, he is more motivated. In Who deceived whom? the Narts try to cheat him out of his one fat ram, saying the end of the world is near - but in the end, Shirdon gets the last laugh. This story led me to the longest and most elaborate tale of the evening, A Nart Expedition, in which the heroes take Shirdon along on an adventure just to bully him for entertainment... until Shirdon decides to take revenge by tricking them into mortal danger, and then saving them in the last moment. It is a fun story, but also has a lot of very human moments. I especially like the fact that it has a very close parallel in the Irish Fianna stories (The Hostel of the Quicken Trees), and I have not found a similar tale anywhere else so far.

The second half of the evening was dedicated to Shatana (or Setenaya), the great matron of the Narts, a powerful and wise woman who keeps showing up in many of the tales. She is "the mother of one hundred", the matron of the war band of the Narts. I shared this set with two amazing storytellers. First, Cassie Cushing (the great matron of the Kaleidoscope storytelling café) told the story of the hero Shoshlan's conception and birth, elaborated with a shorter story about Shatana's golden apples. She wove several versions of the tale into one, making it sound like an enjoyable piece of gossip ("Some say..."). Since that story exists in so many versions, her solution to picking one was on point... Next, Tim Ereneta told the story of Urizhmag and Shatana's divorce, the Nart variation of the well-known folktale type of the Clever Wife ("Take from the house whatever is dearest to you..."). He did it with a lot of humor, while preserving the wisdom at the core of the story, and Shatana's character. Finally, I closed the evening with the saga of How Shoshlan rescued Shatana from the Lake of Hell, another long-time favorite of mine. It is a tense story, but it has a happy ending, and says a lot both about Shatana and the Nart heroes in general.

As far as storytelling events go, this was a near perfect evening. It was also a long-time dream of mine to do a concert like this, introducing people to the Nart sagas. We had a full house, and even a film crew from a Comparative Mythology program; people seemed inspired by the stories, and several of them said they will go and read the books now. That is what I consider a true compliment to an event like this: People discovering new tales, and storytellers passing them on. 

Hero, heroine, ally, foe: Ramayana exhibit in the Asian Art Museum

I did not know until I showed up at the doors that the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is having a temporary exhibit on the Rama Epic. Being in town for Epic Day, I visited two days before opening, and therefore was limited to staring through the doors with longing, like orphans in a Dickens novel. Since the exhibit would be closed by the next Epic Day, I shifted some of my schedule around, and took the BART back to the city on Friday, to catch it on the opening day. After all, it would have been ridiculous to fly all the way to San Francisco for epics, and then miss a museum exhibit about an epic.

Holy crap, was it worth it.

It is hard to put a story - any story - on display in a museum setting. It is even harder to do so with one of the most complex, multi-layered, culturally influential tales humanity has ever told. Presenting the Rama epic in a fashion that showcases it in its beautiful complexity, and makes it accessible to Western audiences at the same time, is a true feat of curating - and something that the Asian Art Museum pulled off with seamless elegance.

Full disclosure: As a trained archaeologist, I am very fussy about signs. They usually lack information that I'd like to know, or provide generic descriptions of items that have all kinds of interesting details. When I took Museum Studies courses, they told us that the average visitor spends 2-3 seconds on an object; cramming written information into that time frame is near impossible. And yet, the Rama Epic exhibition achieved the impossible with care and eloquence. The signs accompanying the objects and displays were concise, well written, and yet they told parts of the story in interesting ways, pointing out small details and explaining things the viewer was likely to ask (such as "Who is that guy in the upper left corner of the painting?").
Displays followed the story in chronological order for the first part of the exhibit. Pictures and other artwork related to certain scenes and narrative highlights were grouped together, so that visitors could walk though the epic and see how different cultures and eras depicted the same scenes differently. In addition, there were several video screens placed throughout the exhibit that played short clips on a loop - scenes from various iterations of the Ramayana (such as a 2008 movie, a 1980's TV show, and stage performances from various places in South and East Asia). Instead of trying to tell the whole story at the beginning, or in one handy pamphlet, the creators of the exhibit spread information out to several signs, and then provided an easy-to-follow outline for the major events and characters of the epic:
The second half of the exhibit introduced four of the main characters (Rama, Sita, Ravana, and Hanumna) in all their various forms and appearances, through sculptures, paintings, masks, puppets, and all sorts of amazing objects in vivid colors. We also learned more about scenes where they take a leading role, and how they fit into the larger cultural context of the epic.
My storytelling mentor, Cathryn, a storyteller friend, Margaret, and I spent almost four hours in the exhibit, completely enchanted. Cathryn has told the Ramayana before for Epic Day (I am sad I did not get to participate in that one, it was before I joined Epic Day), and I have read it multiple times (and told parts of the Ramakien for MythOff). We discussed our favorite scenes at length, marveling at small details; it seemed that our love and enthusiasm for the amazing world of the Ramayana was shared by the creators of the exhibition.
(Also, did I mention that the exhibit is accompanied by actual live storytelling events? How cool is that?!)

TL;DR: The Rama Epic: Hero, heroine, ally, foe is hands down one of the best executed, most amazing museum exhibits I have ever seen. If you can get there, make sure you see it!