Monday, June 27, 2016

10 years already?!

I have been a professional storyteller for ten years today. 

Ten years ago on this day, a lazy summer break afternoon, I registered to the Storytell mailing list, and sent them the following e-mail:

My first "official" gig
with the Renaissance group
Hello everyone! Sziasztok!
I've just subscribed:) I'm a 20-year-old Hungarian girl, and I'm sooo gald to have found this list at last... you know, professional storytelling doesn't exist in my country (well, as for me, not YET:) and I'd really love to find people like me... I've been telling stories for some 5 years, mostly to children in summer camps (and to my roommates in other camps and univerity colage:). I'm also a writer (first book published last week!!!:) and a member of a Renaissance group (as things are now, maybe I will be the storyteller of the group:). And I'm still a beginner. And I'm sad that I could find no one in entire Hungary to help me with storytelling... I don't even know if I could find jobs as one (I'm not helped with this by univerity either: I study Archeology... as for that, I still gonna starve to death...:))) (we call storytellers "mesemondó" in Hungraian, you like it?:). If ANYone has ANYthing useful to tell me about what I'm beginning now, thanks a lot... maybe I could pay it back with some Hungarian stories if you'd like that:) And I hope I will find some friends here too...:)
Oh, and I am not a native English speaker (maybe you've already fihured that out:), sorry for spelling and grammar...

(I left the typos and grammar mistakes in there just to show how much my English changed in 10 years... to be fair, my English was better even back then, but I was typing the email in a nervous frenzy.)

Boy, did they have "anything useful" to tell me.
This email was solely responsible for kicking off my life as a professional storyteller. Dozens of amazing, friendly, helpful, and loving people answered it within a day, and ever since then they have been giving me continuous support and encouragement on my journey. I will never be able to fully repay the Storytell community for responding to my wobbly email with so much enthusiasm.

And this is me at the book launch interview for my
newly published book on international storytelling last week

I have come a long way since 2006. Three books, three degrees (including one in Storytelling), three blogs, two continents, several festivals, even more conferences, hundreds of performances, the Holnemvolt Foundation, MythOffs, TED talks, a place on the FEST Executive Committee, an epic-telling grant, and hundreds, hundreds of storytelling friends to share the travels, the stories, and the joy. I briefly considered making a list of highlights from the past ten years... but really, I could not just pick one, or ten. Or even fifty. If you want to browse through them, scroll down, and keep scrolling...   

I still love telling
in costume
Fitting for the ten-year anniversary, this upcoming year promises to be eventful. Finishing my PhD (fingers crossed) I will have some big decisions to make, new roads to travel, and new things to learn. I have a new book in the works (a collection of Hungarian folktales in English), and I am loving my dissertation research on digital storytelling and role-playing games. But wherever I go next, or wherever I will be typing the 20 year anniversary post 10 years from now, I know that storytelling will still be in the center of my life.

Thank you, all of you. Thank you so, so much. You know who you are.

Here is to the next 10 years. I'll see you all on the road!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Long tales for a short night - Night of the Museums in Hungary's first Story Museum

Night of the Museums, happening every year around Midsummer Night, has become one of the big events for storytelling in Hungary. Year after year I have been performing in different venues for amazing audiences. This year, for the first time since it opened, I had the pleasure of telling stories in Hungary's first and only Story Museum and Workshop.

The Museum as tiny as it is marvelous; it is housed in a historical building just below the Buda castle. Walking in, one encounters a tiny inner courtyard with a World Tree (still a sapling), and a Fountain of Life; over the front desk, a giant, friendly-looking, colorful centipede marches across the ceiling upside down. In the front room there are reading nooks, storytelling nooks, coloring tables, and walls full of word magnets. Walking into the exhibition, one first arrives to a blue-and-twilight chamber decorated with the silhouettes of traditional Hungarian fairy tale characters - the Prince, the Princess, the Witch, the Magic Horse, etc. There is also a pile of pillows with fairy tale phrases on them; children can pair the pillows with the silhouettes. Moving into the next room, we arrive to my favorite part of the museum: The Dark Forest. The entire space is criss-crossed with tree branches, and kids can play hide-and-seek while also challenging all of their senses: They have to reach into tree trunks to identify objects by touch; smell bottles to find a particular scent; lean over a star-filled well to pick out an animal sound; and they can even climb up to an elevated platform to a gryphon's nest, and watch the giant egg change colors as they touch it. They can climb over the top of the trees to get to the next room, where they have to defeat a dragon with  a fast-paced touch screen game, dress up in fairy tale costumes, learn more about dragons, and finally sit on a royal throne. I was having tons of fun just sitting on a pillow in the forest, watching children play.

The storytelling happened in a different venue: The inner courtyard of the historical building next door. It was cool, even on this very hot June day, and the audience could sit on small box-like chairs or bean bags shaped like giant green and red apples. In the back corner there was a crafts table, but they were very polite and quiet through the storytelling, and I had a microphone that helped me be heard over the background murmur. I had a nice audience of maybe thirty people, kids and parents/grandparents alike.

I was invited to tell stories of magical journeys - my favorite kind. Right before my performance, there was a Q&A with a very popular Hungarian children's author who writes adventure stories about pirates, and islands, and dragons. Listening to the Q&A I gleamed a lot of useful information about what my audience was the most excited about; once I was on stage, I used what I learned to pick the best stories, and color them in similar ways.
First, I told The King's Daughter Who Lost Her Hair; one of my favorite stories, and also one that always goes over well with children. Since they talked a lot about magical plants in the Q&A, and it involves a voyage across the sea to a mysterious island inhabited by talking flowers, it fit right into the theme. Next, I told the tale of the Princess of Tomboso, mostly because the green-and-red apple pillows reminded me of it, and also because it does involve a sea voyage and a distant island. This is also one of my ever-favorite tales, one that I also included in my book under Teleportation. I love watching kids roll their eyes every time Jack makes a stupid mistake, and I really enjoy the sassy princess too. Last, but not least, I told Fionn Mac Cool in the Land of the Big Men (also included in my book), where I had kids and parents alike helping me remember all 8 of Fionn's magical helpers...

Despite the fact that all three tales were very long (as journey tales often are), and some of the kids were very young, they followed all three with rapt attention. It was a very nice audience, primed and ready for sea monsters, and giants, and flying witches, and all kinds of adventures. I especially felt lucky that I got to tell some of my favorite tales, and see that the kids liked them just as much as I do. Definitely a win-win.

If you are in Hungary mid-June, don't miss out on the Night of the Museums. It's full of fun things like this.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Folklore Thursday: The best worst curses of legend and lore

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 have been mulling over the concept of creative curses in world folklore, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how many there are. Even if one goes beyond the standards, like "eternal sleep" or "turning into various animals," humanity has come up with a stunning array of ways of messing with someone's life - an array that ranges from mildly annoying to truly miserable.

I have long held that my personal favorite curse in legend and lore is that of Macha - the lady who is forced to race the king's horses while in labor, and in exchange curses all the men of Ulster to lie in labor pains for three whole days every time their kingdom is attacked. There is something truly satisfying in this one... But once I started claiming it as my favorite curse story, people started asking: "Wow, what are some of the others?..."

So, without further ado, here is my list of runner-ups:

Cast for all the wrong reasons, I always thought that Cassandra's curse is truly hellish: Constantly being right, and not being able to prove it to people around you, having to watch them run into their doom despite your warnings. Even as a kid I felt tremendously sorry for Cassandra, and marveled at the razor-sharp cruelty that Apollo displayed with this curse.
(Side note: Interesting to look at how Apollo attempts to "embrace" Cassandra, and when she rejects him, he curses her so that no one will ever believe what she says. There is a metaphor in there somewhere...)

Hilde, the Good Stepmother
In this Icelandic folktale, a mother's curse compels a princess to do three things: Burn down her father's palace, get pregnant out of wedlock, and kill a man. All three parts are fulfilled with minimal casualties, courtesy of the princess' kind and clever stepmother, Hilde. Part of the allure of the story is the curse itself (especially with the added weight of it coming from the mother), and part of it is the enjoyment of watching Hilde avoid disaster on all three counts, using technicalities.

Narts vs God
And while we are on technicalities: There is an Ossetian Nart saga where God curses the Nart heroes with food shortage. However much they work in a day on the fields, He declares, it will only ever amount to one bucket of wheat. The Narts' response is one for the ages: They start harvesting one handful of wheat a day - and it, per the word of God, still results in a full bucket. Boom.

Frogs and snakes
I always found folktales where people "speak" things fascinating - in many versions of the tale of the Kind and the Unkind Girl, the good girl gains the power to speak/laugh golden coins, while the lazy girl ends up with something nasty. Most often, whenever she opens her mouth, frogs and snakes fall out. While in picture books this is usually portrayed as reptiles and amphibians manifesting out of thin air just outside her lips, somehow as a kid I always imagined her actually spitting them up. Either way, yuck.

Sex swap
I know I have been hung up on this folktale type ("The princess that turned into a man"), but here it is again: In many versions, it is a curse that changes the princess from female to male, and her male companions into female. The fun part is, it is intended as a curse, but the princess is usually quite happy with the result, and doesn't mind at all. Also fun is that the curse doesn't only take on people - it also affects their horses and other animal companions.

Eternal Wandering
This one is actually quite common - a curse on a person, or a group of people, to wander aimlessly without being able to stop or settle down. The most famous examples include the Flying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew, and the Roma people (I found this one quite recently in a collection of Romani folktales). It is usually punishment for lack of hospitality given to someone, lack of compassion shown, or for a challenge against God - and as a side effect, it sometimes comes with eternal life, so that the person doesn't only wander across space, but also time... I always found the thought of such a curse epic in magnitude, and heavily charged with emotions.

There are, of course, many more curses in legend and lore. These are simply the ones I have given the most thought as a storyteller, ideas that made me think, shudder, or wonder.

What are some spells in lore that you would NOT want to be under?...

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Folklore Thursday: We really need to talk about the "Female Drakula"

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.

This weekend we went on a family trip to Slovakia to do what we enjoy doing best: Visit medieval castles. We do this periodically, once or twice a year, and since every hill and mountain sports a jaw-dropping view and a ruin on top, we can hit three or four of them in a day trip.

This weekend the first stop on our journey was the castle of Csejte (Cachtice), a scenic ruin in the Vág valley that was made (in)famous by Erzsébet (Elisabeth) Báthory - most commonly known in legend and pop culture as "the Monster of Csejte" or simply "the Blood Countess." Many foreign books, movies, websites, and other sources tag her as the "female Drakula," or, in more reasonable cases, one of the most vicious female serial killers in history.
Legend says that Báthory, a wealthy widow at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, believed that the blood of virgins could make her eternally youthful - and therefore started murdering young women, and bathing in their blood. According to historical sources, she killed about 80 of them before the Palatine and the King brought her and her accomplices to trial. Her name today is synonymous with torture and blood.

Which is sad, because the story is bullshit.

I'll let you do the historical math: 16th century, wealthy woman with no husband, a king who owes a ridiculous debt to her family and can't pay, while the entire country is in a political and religious turmoil that makes Game of Thrones look like the Teletubbies. Oh, and by the way, it is biologically impossible to bathe in blood, in case you were wondering.
Yup, Báthory Erzsébet's trial was a political one. She got imprisoned without a sentence in her castle, walled in until she died alone 4 years later; her two female servants were tortured, maimed, and then burned alive (they confessed under torture), her male servant beheaded and then burned, and her female doctor also burned alive for witchcraft.
And somehow this story is not bloody enough for people.
Go figure.


Here is what pisses me off: People want this story to be true. They want it to be true so bad that even in the face of facts they try to salvage it. In the castle's own museum exhibit (generously supplied with fake Halloween spiderwebs), the sign read "While it is impossible to bathe in blood since it congeals too fast, medieval books could have had secret herbs and knowledge that we know longer know about."

This was, however, not the only thing that made me want to scream in Csejte. In the doorway of the castle someone was selling "Báthory energy drinks," some kind of a canned concoction dyed blood red with cherries. The castle (gorgeous, by the way) was peppered with Halloween-style decorations such as spiderwebs, plastic skeletons, and pictures of the "Iron Maiden," a torture device that Báthory is claimed to have used. In addition, there was an archery contest happening in the castle at the time, and one of the targets set up in a dimly lit hall was in the shape of a white-skinned woman with blood-red lips, and a large red heart which you had to shoot.
And in the entire, ENTIRE exhibit (or the touristic websites I browsed before traveling) not a single word about how the story might not be true.

Now, it makes sense that a tourist destination would want to bring in people by whatever means necessary - and clearly if anyone even finds their way to Cachtice, Slovakia, they will be here specifically to be titillated by legends of torture and gore. This allure is only elevated by a much beloved patriarchal trope: The sad, middle-aged woman jealous of the beauty of younger women, and turning violent out of vanity.
But would it really be so hard to make a footnote of history? Say something like "Here is the legend in all its gory glory, but be advised that the historical events were put into motion by politics and greed." I think the real story of women being dragged through the mud, humiliated, tortured, starved to death or burned alive, for the sake of asserting dominance, is way more chilling and emotionally intense than the fancy story of Once Upon a Female Vampire.
Just, you know. Less sexy.


In order to do some justice to Báthory Erzsébet as a storyteller, a couple of years ago I have created a full-hour storytelling performance that presents both sides. It is titled "Requiem for the Blood Countess;" in the first half, I tell the classic legend of blood and jealousy, and in the second half, I tell the historical story of the trial. People can decide in the end which one is worth talking more about.