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!