Thursday, January 28, 2016

Folklore Thursday: About that Winged Wolf

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.

Ever since I mentioned it during my first A to Z challenge 4 years ago, "winged wolf" has been one of the top 5 search terms that bring the most hits to my blog. Since it appears to be wildly popular, I decided to write about the folktale in detail, not only to boost the search hits (WINGED WOLF WINGED WOLF WINGED WOLF... erhm), but also because it is one of my favorite Hungarian folktales, and I would love to share it.

The Winged Wolf
(This is the bare bones of the story, not a literal translation; if you are interested in more details, throw me a message)

A prince named Levente sets out to seek a bride. His two brothers have gone before him, but never returned; now it is his turn. On the road he meets an old beggar, and in exchange for a gift he learns that he is about to come to a fork in the road:
If he takes the path on the right, he'll die but his horse will live; 
if he takes the one on the left, he'll live but lose his horse; 
... and if he chooses the middle path, the Winged Wolf will tear him apart like it did his two brothers. 
The prince wants to go and fight the monster, but he is warned that the Winged Wolf breathes (blue) fire that melts ordinary weapons like wax. The old beggar tells Levente how he can find himself a magic horse, and sends the prince to his sister who tells him how to come by a magic fairy sword.
For the horse, he has to go to a mountain in the East, on top of which there is a castle made of ice, and a magic horse eating golden hay from a golden trough. It rears up at the stranger, but Levente tells him the magic words "I am the one you have been waiting for for a thousand years!" Riding the horse he makes his way to snow-covered mountains in the West, to a blue palace with twelve doors. The magic words "By the ten-ells long beard of the mighty fairy king, open the gates!" make the doors open. Behind each door there are monsters, but the words "I was sent here by Fate, I won't let anyone stand in my way!" tame them, and Levente walks through all the way to the inner chamber. In the middle of the chamber, there is a fairy sword in a diamond box - guarded by a thirty-headed dragon. Levente has a vial of fairy water (from the old woman), and sprinkles it on the dragon, making it fall asleep. The dragon only catches up with him some time later, at which point Levente  uses the fairy sword to kill it.
Making his way back to the fork in the road, Levente takes the middle path, and finds the lair of the Winged Wolf. After a long and hard battle, he finds a vulnerable spot under the left wing, and brings the wolf down. In exchange for his life, the Winged Wolf offers to be Levente's steed and helper, and takes him to a place where he can find the Water of Life, to bring back his brothers.
The Water of Life can be found in a palace that belongs to a princess. She was so beautiful that the fairies grew jealous of her, and made her fall into eternal sleep. The entire palace is wrapped in strings with bells attached - Levente has to get in and out without ringing any of them. The Winged Wolf also warns him not to fall in love... But as Levente is on his way out with the Water of Life, he happens to take a walk through the palace and finds the slumbering princess. He immediately falls in love, and when he climbs on the Winged Wolf's back, he is suddenly too heavy to fly. The wolf's leg catches on the stings, and an army appears out of nowhere. Levente slays all the soldiers, but a second army appears; he slays those too, and then the princess wakes up and sends soldiers to bring him back. They start for home happily together.
On the way, they stop at the Winged Wolf's lair, where Levente sprinkles the Water of Life on the bones of his brothers, and brings them back to life. But on their way to their parents, the two older brothers conspire and murder Levente, dragging the princess away. The Winged Wolf and the magic horse bring a vial of the Water of Life, sprinkle it on Levente, and he wakes up immediately. He makes it home just in time to see his brothers squabbling over who gets to marry the princess. The brothers are punished, and everyone else lives happily ever after.

In a significantly shorter version of the tale, there are no brothers. The Winged Wolf guards the palace of the sleeping princess, and is defeated and killed by the prince. I like the version above better, not just because it is a lot more detailed, but also because the wolf becomes a helper and that is kind of awesome.

So... what is a winged wolf exactly?
Persian Senmurv from Taq Bostan
Good question. It is not a creature we have lore about - it only appears in folktales, and a monster and a helper. But while I was poking around in the archives, I ran into some archaeological publications that described Conquest Era (9th-10th century, when Hungarians came into the Carpathian basin) decorative motifs, and compared them to Persian (Sassanid) examples. While the Hungarian text called the animals in question "winged wolves," the English description of the same artifacts consistently calls them Senmurv (Simurg) - a mythical bird from Persian traditions (also known in Hungarian descriptions as a "peacock dragon"). We even have a Conquest Era tarsoly (satchel) cover from Tiszabezdéd that depicts the same animal:
When you look at them closely, they do look kind of like dogs/wolves with wings.
Long story short: There is no way to prove that folktales collected in the 19th-20th centuries have anything to do with mythical animals that were popular 1000 years earlier. But it is still fun to think about.

This folktale belongs to ATU type 551 - The Water of Life (some folklorists say it is based on a literary source, but I couldn't find it). Versions of it were collected from a number of traditional storytellers, including:
Nagy István (1879-1965), Uraiújfalu, Hungary (and yes, that is difficult to pronounce even to Hungarians).
Szabó Julcsa (collected in 1903), Besenyőtelek, Hungary
Ámi Lajos (1886-1963), Roma storyteller, Szamosszeg, Hungary

(Winged Wolf artwork from Deviantart)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Time to sign up for the 2016 April A to Z Challenge!

Once again, for the second time, I am co-hosting the A to Z blogging challenge in April. I have been participating for four years in a row (this is going to be my fifth), and it has always been tremendous fun. You can sign up to join us below!

Please read and follow the sign-up instructions outlined below so you sign onto the list correctly!

The brainchild of Arlee Bird, at Tossing it Out, the A to Z Challenge is posting every day in April except Sundays (we get those off for good behavior.) And since there are 26 days, that matches the 26 letters of the alphabet. On April 1, blog about something that begins with the letter “A.” April 2 is “B,” April 4 is “C,” and so on. You can use a theme for the month or go random – just as long as it matches the letter of the alphabet for the day.

The A to Z Challenge is a great way to get into the blogging habit and make new friends. For more details and its history, go HERE

We recommend short posts, turn off Word Verification, and visit five blogs (or more) a day beginning with the one after yours on the list.

Blogs must be on an open platform – no Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. – and comments enabled. Please make it easy for visitors to comment on your blog.

To streamline legitimate blogs from advertisement blogs, the Co-Hosts will be visiting each blog on this list throughout the Challenge. Once the Challenge begins, blogs showing no activity or those that miss five days in a row will be removed.

Please note your blog name and number in all correspondences. Remember that as blogs are removed, your number WILL change.

There are categories for those looking for like-minded blogs. Select ONE category code and enter it after your blog’s title/name. The code applies to your blog, not your theme for the Challenge and is purely optional. See the first few blogs on the list for examples. However, if your blog has adult content, you MUST mark it (AC) or it will be removed from the list. Codes are as follows:


Be sure to grab the badge and display it in your sidebar so we know you are participating and link to the A to Z Challenge Blog.

For more information we recommend you follow the A to Z Challenge Blog and the hosts:

Arlee Bird @ Tossing it Out
Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh
Heather M. Gardner
Jeremy @ Hollywood Nuts
AJ @ Naturally Sweet
Pam Margolis @ An Unconventional Librarian
Damyanti Biswas @ Daily Write
Zalka Csenge Virág @ The Multicolored Diary
Joy Campbell @ The Character Depot
John Holton @The Sound of One Hand Typing

We also have a Facebook Page
Email address is
Twitter hashtag is #AtoZChallenge and Twitter id is @AprilA2Z

Sign up below and join us for a month of alphabet fun!

Friday, January 22, 2016

So, about those Bronze Age fairy tales

The Guardian has gone and done it again: Fairy tales are Internet front page news, with Beauty and the Beast in the headline picture. I have not had my friends and acquaintances share a fairy tale - related article on my wall this many times since the notorious "Five hundred new fairy tales discovered in Germany" in 2012. And since I ended up blogging about those back in the day, I feel like this one deserves a post as well.

This time, the viral headline reads:
"Fairy tales much older than previously thought, say researchers"

The article is based on a study done by SarGraça de Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, much less sensationally titled "Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales." Using methods evolutionary biologists apply, they traced common folktale types along the family tree of Indo-European languages to determine how old they really are, and came up with some surprising numbers: about 4000 years for Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin, 5000 for Jack and the Beanstalk, and a staggering "Bronze Age" 6000 for the Smith and the Devil (6000 before today would actually put them pre-bronze age, btw).

While the numbers are really impressive, and storytellers around the world are happy to see tales in the news once again, here are a couple of things I have been musing about since I read the study and the article:
(DISCLAIMER: I am not a folklorist. I am a storyteller, trained in archaeology, who works with traditional tales, and learned to research them through methods used by folklorists)

1. The researchers state that they based their study on the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale catalog, everyone's favorite go-to fairy tale research tool. From the 2000+ folktale types listed, they narrowed their sample down to Tales of Magic (ATU 300-549) - commonly known as fairy tales -, claiming that they are the most widely shared folktale types, and have been in the center of the debate about how old traditional tales really are. 
While this is a completely valid way of choosing a sample, it also brings up some questions:

- ATU is far from complete. Most countries have their own folktale catalogs, using the same numbering system, some of which have been incorporated into the 2004 edition, but still, this volume doesn't represent the entirety of the European folktale corpus. Since the researchers coded their sample as "present/absent" for each tale type for each society, it is important to note that in their study, "absent" doesn't mean that tale type never existed in that tradition - it just means that it was never recorded, or it may have been recorded but never made it into the ATU.

- As a storyteller, I'd contest the idea that Tales of Magic (a.k.a. fairy tales) are the most commonly shared folktale type. They do have a prestige in most cultures - known as the "big tales" or "real tales" - and they are definitely the stars of popular culture and children'd literature (thank you Disney), but that doesn't mean they are the most widespread. Trickster tales, for example, most often fall under Animal Tales or Anecdotes and Jokes, while some well-known "fairy tales" can actually be found under Realistic Tales. Especially trickster tales seem to be wildly popular around the world in very similar forms, and they are also believed to be very old (e.g. the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales from India). I would love to see a similar study done with them.

2. The study states that they wanted to focus on the vertical transmission of tales (over time) as opposed to the more often researched horizontal transmission (exchange between contemporaneous cultures). They allow that both can happen at the same time, but very correctly raise the point that it is still interesting to see what tale types neighboring cultures might adopt or reject from each other. With that said, horizontal transmission is still a factor, and given how fast popular tales can spread, it is really hard to completely factor horizontal transmission out of the study. I would have to go back and read it again to fully understand how they did that, but it's definitely worth considering.

3. Archaeologically speaking, 4000-6000 years is not that old. Human societies existed way before that. And since storytelling is a very human trait, we can assume that tales were told way back then as well. Now, given the almost complete lack of written sources, we can't tell if they were the same tales at all, or whether the tales we know and love today already existed such a long time ago. 
Here is an interesting distinction between being a folklorist and being a storyteller: Storytellers generally (and enthusiastically) assume that stories are ancient. Even if we have no proof, we treat them as a part of an age-old tradition, with the knowledge that they may have been born millennia ago. I have seen multiple storytellers on social media responding to The Guardian article with "Well, duh."
The study and its findings are still impressive, though - especially for fairy tales, because people have been contesting that they are older than the 17th century. 

4. The "folktale types" listed in ATU are the "bare bones" of a story. They break tales down to their most simple plot description, the skeleton that corresponds to other similar tales. Depending on the time, the culture, and the storyteller, the fleshed-out versions of the story can be vastly different from each other. Even within one culture and time frame, versions of the same tale type can have completely different meanings to each storyteller - for example, in some Hungarian versions of the Twelve (Seven) Dancing Princesses, the princesses live with their dancers happily ever after, while in others, they get executed for witchcraft. Same language, same time frame, same tale type, vastly different morals.
Long story short: The fact that the same tale types might have existed thousands of years ago doesn't mean they looked the same, tasted the same, or meant the same.

5. Why does it matter to us how old these stories are? I am not asking myself this because I doubt that it should matter; I know for a fact it matters to me. But I am curious: Why did this become instant viral news? What do people find appealing in the knowledge that Beauty and the Beast was told 4000 years ago?
(As for me, as a storyteller, I enjoy knowing that I am passing on a tradition that extends back thousands of years. I like the idea that someone, who might or might not have been one of my very distant ancestors, sat in a tent somewhere 6000 years ago and told similar stories.)

6. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, in case anyone was wondering why we are a blank space on the map. I am sure you were.
(We are sitting at the cool kids' table with Finland and Estonia)

Now, hands up: Who else would love to hear what a Neolithic fairy tale sounded like?...

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Folklore Thursday: Two words: Storm dragons

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.

I was going to slack off on today's FT post, but then someone brought up the topic of storm lore on Twitter, and I realized that I have some fun things to say about that.

Storms and dragons in Hungarian folklore

Storm lore in many places in Hungary is closely connected to the lore of the garabonciás - trained wizards (as opposed to the táltos, who are born with their knowledge). These wizards can warn people about coming storms, or even cause hail and thunder, depending on how they are treated when they come to town. They usually look like traveling students or beggars, ask for some milk, eggs, and bread, and judge people's kindness based on how they are treated. They can break witches' curses, find buried treasure, grant good luck... or do the opposite.

The garabonciás' most well-known companion is the dragon. While dragons in Hungarian folktales have multiple heads (three, seven, nine, and their multiples) and human traits, dragons in garabonciás lore are aquatic, serpentine creatures that the wizard can summon, saddle, and ride - invoking a storm.

The storm is mostly created by the dragon as it flies over the landscape. The low-hanging tail of the creature swipes off the roofs of houses, or tears trees up by their roots. Seeing storm clouds and lightning suggests that a garabonciás is traveling, riding his dragon within the clouds. In some cases, when the storm is particularly bad, people also said that multiple garabonciás were going to battle against each other, riding their dragons. They might occasionally turn into dragons themselves.
(In some stories, the garabonciás can also summon storms from his magic book)

Some folklorists say that all this makes the wizard related to the Germanic lore of the Wild Hunt. One way to keep the hailstorm away from a village was to ring the church bells. Like most creatures of pagan belief, garabonciás were not too keen on the sound of bells.

Garabonciás lore existed until fairly recently in Hungary. My native part of the country (north-western Hungary) is particularly known for it.

If you want to read a haunting love story involving a garabonciás, read Love in a Bottle by Szerb Antal, a well-known classic Hungarian author.

Note: I translated two garabonciás folktales for my book, Tales of Superhuman Powers.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Folklore Thursday: Celestial transport is kind of a mess

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.

Returning to our regularly scheduled #FolkloreThursday fun in 2016! I'll be continuing my new theme of the folklore of natural phenomena and constellations from Hungary. So far, we have had rainbows that cause sex-change, and a very klutzy star.

Today, we talk about the Big Dipper. Or, as Hungarians know it:

Göncölszekér (Göncöl's cart)
(Sometimes called Nagygöncöl - Big Göncöl -, as opposed to Kisgöncöl - Small Göncöl)

Göncöl, according to legend, was a táltos, a wise man or shaman, a "knowing person" who traveled in a cart with a crooked shaft that was not drawn by horses. He could talk to animals, birds, and plants, he could read the stars, and perform miracles. No one saw him die, so people concluded that he had ascended into the sky, and now his cart with the crooked shaft can be seen at night among the constellations as he continues his wandering.
(This legend comes from old records about the folklore of Great Rye Island, or, as we know it, Csallóköz. The record also claims that Göncöl was a popular name in the area, even though the táltos never had children. Ahem.)

Other names for Ursa Maior include:
Carriage of Angels
Cart of Elijah
Cart of Job
Cart of Saint John
Johnny's Cart
Cart of Saint Peter
Devil's Cart
Star Cart

This is one crowded vehicle of celestial transport, people.
Whoever sits on the Cart, however, has to answer for quite a few things, including, but not limited to:

1. The stars. Some legends say Göncöl / Job / whoever is driving is supposed to keep an eye on the stars.
2. The Milky Way. There are stories about how the cart is transporting hay, but it has been losing the cargo on the way, hence the Milky Way.
(Hey! It rhymed!)
3. The crooked shaft. There is at least one delightful story where Saint Peter accidentally drives the cart into the Pearly Gates of Heaven, and breaks the shaft. Great job, Peter. Don't pray and drive.
4. Yet another legend claims that the cart is driven by a king who was killed by a pagan Hungarian warrior to make him the warrior's servant in the afterlife.

Saint Peter and David go on a joy ride

According to one legend, Saint Peter and David wandered far from Heaven one day, and God wanted them back. He sent an angel called Göncöl to fetch them. Göncöl complained about not having a ride; God told him to build a cart from stars (you are an angel, Göncöl, for Heaven's sake). Sitting in the cart drawn by fiery horses, Göncöl picked up Peter and David and started on the way home. They flew so fast that they bumped into the Moon; the cart's shaft broke, and David got flung out of the vehicle (SAFETY BELTS, PEOPLE) and left behind. The rumble of the cart is thunder, and the sparks flying from the horseshoes is lightning. Peter got so scared on the ride that he turned seven different colors - God, to remind him of the scare, created rainbows.

(Never, ever let God send you an Uber driver.)