Monday, February 27, 2017

The heroic frill neck lizard, and other legendary people (Following folktales around the world 14. - Australia)

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!

Today, we arrive to our last stop in Australia and Oceania: Australia itself! Which means, this is also our last stop in the first complete continent of the journey! Thank you for sticking with me so far; it has been a lot of fun!
The opal that turned into fire
And other stories from the Wangkumara
Janet Mathews
Magabala, 1994.

Originally I picked this book because of the alluring title (I like shiny things), but it proved to be a great choice. Apart from the author's own collection of folklore, it also contains tales and beliefs from her grandfather-in-law, who traveled the southeast part of the continent in the 19th century, and noted many things that since have been forgotten. All the stories in the book come with notes, sources, and explanations; I only wished we would have found out more about the storytellers and their tribes (we did get a short biography of the collector). Another thing that I missed was a more detailed map and more visuals - many of the legends were so intricately tied to the landscape that it was hard to really appreciate them without seeing what they talked about. Still, the book was a fascinating read, full of vivid visual imagery.


The book opens with creation myths and origin legends - some of them old enough to remember the time when the ocean levels rose and cut Australia off from Southeast Asia (about 6000-8000 years ago). One of the best one told the story of how the animals - led by Koala - paddled over to Australia in a canoe that they stole from Whale while Starfish distracted him (for which Whale later flattened the poor thing).
Sandpiper (picture from here)
There were many stories that explained the appearance and behavior of various animals. One of my favorites was the one that claimed that Billidhu, the Sandpiper moves in a "dart and freeze" manner because once upon a time he was sent to spy on a lizard who know where water was hidden... Another story told about Weemulee, the Owl, whose eyes grew large because he was friends with Willanjee, the Cyclone, and he strained his eyes to try to catch a glimpse of his invisible hunting partner. Yet another legend claimed that in the beginning turtles were venomous and snakes were not, until the two tribes got together and negotiated an exchange of heads, believing that it was beneficial for both.
Animals, of course, were not the only creatures that appeared in the stories. There was, for example, a great travel-tale about a hero who crossed the lands of many strange beings - giant mosquitoes, people with emo legs (who were intrigued by human legs), and even people who had bushes growing on their back.
There was also a collection of legends about the "Hairy People", who seemed to be common in the lore of many tribes (in various sizes from tiny to gigantic, and various dispositions from man-eating to vegan). These were especially interesting to read since the Hairy People play an important role in Cleverman, a great Australian TV show based on indigenous lore that premiered this year.
Another favorite creature of mine was Gambel Gambel, the Spirit of the Bush, a female being that could create amazing illusions (colorful fungi in the shape of objects, exotic birds, ripe fruit, etc.) to lure people astray.
It was also interesting to note the stories that acknowledged European contact and its results. One of them talked about how a tribe found a colt, the first horse they had ever known, and raised it with great care and respect.


Once again, there was a myth about the journey of the soul after death. In this case, the voyage was made more difficult by hostile, fig-throwing spirits, giant parrots, and other obstacles, with which the deceased relatives and ancestors of the dead were supposed to help (if they deserved it).
The myth of how the animals stole fire reminded me of some North American indigenous legends. In this case, fire was hoarded by two old women (Rat Kangaroo and Bronzewing Pidgeon), and all the other animals danced and goofed around to entertain and distract them. Finally, Sparrowhawk managed to snatch the fire from them, and set the bush aflame.
Frill Neck Hero
The legend of Ga:ni, the heroic frill neck lizard, reminded me of flood myths around the world. In it, animal-people were stranded on an island during a flood, and they set out, one by one, carrying fire sticks, to find a distant shore. Only Ga:ni succeeded, but barely; the fire stick burned his chest, and left a mark.
There was, once again, a sky-high tree. In one story, people used it to commute up and down between earth and sky, visiting relatives that camped among the stars. In another legend, two man-eating spirit eagles lived on the tree, and they had to be defeated by two 'clever men', and the whole community acting as bait. In both cases, the tree was burned down, and the connection to the sky was lost.
There were also many tales about the stars themselves. One of them called the Pleiades Seven Sisters (much like Greek mythology), who fled to the sky from a hunter who pursued one of them with his love... (later, he ended up in the sky too, as Aldebaran).

Where to next?
Take a running leap, and go to South America! We'll continue with Chile next week, and move on up north.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Land of the Long White Cloud (Following folktales around the world 13. - New Zealand)

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!

After a long voyage and many islands, today we arrive to New Zealand. 

Land of the Long White Cloud
Maori myths, tales and legends
Kiri Te Kanawa
Arcade Publishers, 1990.

This time I diverged from reading heavy folklore publications, and picked a picture book instead. I was intrigued by this volume, written by opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa who wanted to preserve the Maori legends she heard from her father and family as a child. I kept running into this book as I searched for stories, and I finally decided to read it. It was a good choice.
The volume itself is gorgeous, with full-page color illustrations. Kiri wrote down the tales as she remembered them (showing off oral tradition in action), but each one comes with a short note explaining some of the folkloric details, and how her telling might be different from the tradition. The nineteen stories are all beautifully written and exciting; so much so that I was having a really hard time trying to pick a favorite.


There was a movie in 1914
It would be hard to list all of them. Maybe because I did not encounter many on the journey through Oceania, I was especially intrigued by the love stories - all of them came with some kind of an unexpected twist. In the legend of Putawai, a mortal girl was abducted by spirits of the Underworld; a friendly spirit (wairua) rescued and married her. Eventually, she returned to her mortal love, but she was pregnant with a spirit-child. When the child was old enough to be weaned, its father came and took it away (since spirits can't exist in the sunlight), and the girl lived happily with her mortal husband. I also loved the tale of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, where a girl swam across a lake, following the sound of her lover's flute, and then hid in some hot springs until he came and found her (and got her some clothes). One of the most interesting stories was that of Hutu and Pare, where a girl killed herself when the warrior she loved rejected her (he already had a family). The warrior, feeling sorry for her, willed his spirit to leave his body, and went to the Underworld to get her back; the best part was that they shot themselves back to the surface with a bent-down palm tree...
There were multiple stories about the "fairies" of Maori mythology, named patupaiarehe. They are described as light-skinned and light-haired; in one tale they taught people how to make a fishing net, and in another they were afraid of fire, but intrigued by the humans' jewelry. Other stories had other kinds of spirit-people, all with their unique looks and customs.
There were two monster-killing legends in the book; the monsters were called taniwha, and they resembled water-dragons. There was even a mention of warriors who were expert taniwha-hunters. One of the monsters could actually talk, and if someone scratched its back, it was even willing to negotiate - but the tales usually ended with the taniwha's death anyway.


Picture from here
It goes without saying that Maui the Trickster once again made an appearance - in four stories out of the nineteen in the book, including some of the classics such as fishing up the islands of New Zealand from the sea, or capturing the Sun (the latter done with the help of a whole lot of other people, yay teamwork!). I especially liked the story of his birth - he was raised by a foster-father, who was "both mother and father" to him, and only found his siblings and his birth-mother once he was grown up. It was a beautiful story.
Once again, we got to visit the Underworld, and see where spirits go after people die. Some residents of this world were friendly, while others were... not so much. Some of them occasionally married mortals, and/or had children with them.

All in all, it was a lovely book, with a lot of great stories. I highly recommend it.

Where to next?
Next week, we reach Australia!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Visiting the warrior goddess (Following folktales around the world 12. - Samoa)

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!

Samoa was not an easy choice. The first two books I found were intriguing, but written by linguists and ethnomusicologists who collected tales on the side. I learned a lot from them, but they only had a few stories, and a whole lot of scientific text to dig through. The third one proved to be a lot more reader-friendly, so I chose that for today's post. 

Tala o le Vavau
The myths, legends, and customs of Old Samoa
C. Steubel & Bro. Herman
Polynesian Press, 1987.

This edition of the book claims that the stories had been completely re-written by Samoan scholars, which is definitely a plus (especially considering that aitu spirit tales are still grouped under "Demons"). The book is bilingual, presenting the stories in Samoan in the first half, and in English in the second. It contains 34 stories, and a sizable chunk of "customs" at the end (things such as weddings, social ranks, crime and punishment, etc.). It was a short read, but an interesting one.


Picture from here
The legend of Nafanua, one of Samoa's most popular stories, is presented in two versions in the book. Nafanua is a war goddess, daughter of the lord of the Underworld, who is sent up to the islands to liberate a group of people living in slavery. It is a pretty epic story, going back to Nafanua's great-grandfather, and involving her killing not only her enemies, but also some of her allies in her frenzy... Nafanua, by the way, is one of the few Pacific women featured on Rejected Princesses, you can find her entry here.
One of my favorite stories in the book was the legend of Tiitii-a-Talaga. In this, Tiitii followed his father to see where he worked in secret, and found that his gardens were inside the mountain where the god of earthquakes lived. The boy fought the god, defeated him in wrestling, and then stole fire from him to give it to the people. Later, he also killed a giant octopus. Another intriguing story was that of King Mailetoa, a cannibal king who ate two strong young men a day, until his own son offered himself as sacrifice, changing the father's mind. The story reminded me of the Persian legend of Zahhak a little.
There were also smaller things I liked in the stories. For example, I really liked the goddess who picked a husband based on how well her name harmonized with his - she was called Mataiteite, and she chose a man named Matatalalo. Another fun moment was the one where a giant octopus spirit moved into a cave by a stream; when a pregnant woman went into labor while bathing, the spirit and all its companions fled, horrified by the sight of childbirth...


There was a part in the legend of Nafanua that reminded me of the myth of Eros and Psyche. A girl was visited at night by her husband, but he always left before dawn; one day she decided not to wake him, and in the morning light she saw that he had a cock's comb. The husband fled, and so did the girl.
It should be self-evident at this point that Samoa, like all the other islands, also has a legend about the origin of coconuts. In this one, a giant eel stalks a girl with his love, until he is finally captured and beheaded - and from the head grows the first coconut palm (no Maui involved this time). I also found a version of the popular story of the origin of the kava plant, in which people recognize the effects of kava by watching a rat chew on its roots and get drunk. And, of course, this collection, like most others from Oceania, contained a legend about where people's spirits travel after death.

Where to next?
Next week we arrive to New Zealand!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Epic Day 2017 - Orlando Furioso

(This was my fifth Epic Day in Cotati. You can read about the previous four here.)

I was incredibly excited when I saw the results of our Epic Day vote: It was a close call, but the majority decision fell on Ludovico Ariosto's 16th century Italian Renaissance epic, Orlando Furioso (titled in various translations as The Fury of Orlando, or the more impressive Raging Roland). I have told a small part of this epic before, and I always wanted to get more into it. Epic Day gave me the perfect incentive to dive in, and explore the world of Orlando in its full 46-canto, 600-page prose-translation glory.

(And then read parts of it in the Hungarian and the English verse translation as well, just for good measure.)

Telling Orlando Furioso is like trying to do an oral performance of the first three books of Game of Thrones (ASOIAF) from memory. There are dozens of storylines and characters, and each canto (chapter) jumps between them, leaving our heroes between life and death in the most inopportune moments (Ariosto was an early master of the cliffhanger). On top of that, the story is full of side quests and inserted tales that have nothing to do with the main plot, but heroes keep getting sidetracked anyway, so it is often hard to tell what is going to be relevant later, and what is merely embellishment (not that embellishment is not great - one of those side quests involves a knight who has an early prototype of a gun, and he wreaks havoc on the battlefield until Orlando takes him down). Since we only had 17 storytellers and one day to do the whole thing, some parts needed to be edited out. We still ended up with 31 cantos told in almost exactly 5 hours (not counting the breaks).

So, why take on telling something incredibly complex and difficult like Orlando Furioso?
Because it's awesome, that's why.

The story takes place in the time of Charlemagne, but was written at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Ariosto has a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards romances of chivalry, and he does his best to mix adventures and drama with a healthy dose of humor, and a whole lot of magic. In addition, he had a very enlightened take on the role of women in the story. There is a whole lineup of strong, smart, independent women, and every once in a while the narrator himself goes on mini-rants about how women should be allowed to have the same sexual freedom as men, and how a female knight should not be judged based on her beauty, etc. It is a pretty darn feminist story, in many ways. And in other ways, it is ridiculously entertaining.
Orlando Furioso has everything you want from a good medieval epic. It has knights and ladies, epic siege and battle scenes, love and loss, sorcerers and wizards, sea monsters, magic castles, the occasional Greek god or goddess, and the main attraction: This is the story that gave birth to the hippogriff (you are welcome, J. K. Rowling). It also has an amazing lineup of interesting and likable characters.

The story in a nutshell: Charlemagne and his Christian knights are at war with Agramant, King of Africa, and his Saracen army. Charlemagne is somewhat disadvantaged because his best knights have gone off on various quests; a bunch of them (as well as some of the Saracen champions) have fallen in love with Angelica, Princess of Cathay, and they spend their time chasing her up and down the continent. Angelica, not having a fancy for any of them, gets away in various smart ways, until she finds a guy she actually likes. When Orlando (one of the lovestruck puppies) finds out she has been married, he loses his wits and goes berserk, rampaging all over Europe and Africa. Astolfo, Prince of England, and owner of the above mentioned hippogriff, is dispatched to the Moon to recover Orlando's wits (because all things lost can be found on the Moon). Meanwhile we also have Bradamante, the legendary and mighty female knight, and her beloved Ruggiero, a champion of the Saracen army. They are destined for each other, but keep missing each other due to various circumstances, even though half the cast is working on getting them together (including the sorceress Melissa, the Original Fangirl). Eventually things work out for more or less everyone, but not before a whole lot of elaborate (and sometimes convoluted) adventures happen.
I had two favorite people in this story: Astofo, who really just wants to ride a flying horse and see the world, and Marfisa. Marfisa is Ruggiero's long-lost twin sister, who grew up to be a female knight on the Saracen side. She is, by all intents and purposes, a Muslim female warrior of color, and she does a whole lot of epic things in this story. She is also somewhat queered - at one point she volunteers to "pleasure ten women" as part of a challenge, and another time Ariosto notes that she had "no interest in romance or marriage." She becomes a friend and fierce protector of Bradamante, her eventual sister-in-law, and the two ladies do some truly mighty things together.

As for telling the story: It was definitely an adventure. Because of the editing process, and some people only reading their parts of the story, we occasionally had gaps in the plot that needed to be filled in on the fly. It became a communal game, a truly collaborative form of storytelling: When someone forgot something, someone else picked up the tale and filled in the blanks; when someone got lost, we discussed what we missed over the salad bar during the breaks. I originally picked canto 34 (Astolfo's trip to the Moon), but then also took on the last 4 cantos, volunteering to wrap up the various storylines in the end. After some people stepped back, and some things got edited out, I ended up with the last 7 cantos. In the end, it took about 45 minutes for me to wrap everything up with a neat little bow. It was a great experience, and I really enjoyed doing the whole "Remember this guy? Whatever happened to him?..." bit.

This, sadly, might have been my last Epic Day for a while (at least in California). The silver lining on that sad fact is that it was amazing. I am happy that I got to immerse myself in Ariosto's magical world in the company of some truly great storytellers. I hope I'll get to do it again sometime.

Monday, February 6, 2017

East of the Sun, West of the Clam (Following folktales around the world 11. - Tonga)

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!

Tonga is made up of 169 islands, but only 36 of them are inhabited. 

Po Fananga
Folk tales of Tonga
Tupou Posesi Fauna
Friendly Islands Bookshop, 1982.

I was really happy to find a folktale collection written and translated by a Tongan author, and published by a Tongan publisher. The volume was practically falling apart in my hands, but it was very much worth the read. It contains eleven traditional folktales, and one story made up by the author herself - so much like a folktale that I would have never picked it out of a lineup. Even more interesting was the author herself. Tuopu sounds like a remarkable lady. She was raised in the Tongan tradition, and learned the tales from her grandmother; on top of being a grandmother of sixteen herself, she was also an accomplished lecturer in Tongan folklore, and a helper to all visitors interested in it. She came from an old Tongan family, one of her ancestors being a famous blind (!!!) navigator named Kahomovailahi, who could navigate the ocean by dipping his hand in the water and feeling the currents (your move, Moana).


Pretty pretty giant clam
One of the most beautiful (and most intriguing) tales in the collection was titled Daughter of a Clam. It told of a woman who accidentally gave birth to a giant clam. The clam-daughter was raised in a pool where the son of the king used to bathe, and she fell in love with him. When he was not looking, she sucked on his bathing sponge - and got pregnant (I kid you not). In time, the clam delivered a beautiful (human) daughter with whom the prince later fell in love. Incest was narrowly avoided by the grandparents stepping in. My favorite part was the one where the daughter smashed the clam against some rocks, and her beautiful (human) mother stepped out of it - she was cursed until someone who really loved her broke the shell with tears in her eyes. She was saved by her daughter, not the prince.
I also loved Tupou's own tale, The daughter of the Rainbow. It followed folktale motifs and plots, and flowed beautifully. I loved the part where two boys descended into the under-water Otherworld, where their grandmother helped them fish the soul of their murdered father up, and bring him back to life.


Tongan royal wedding, 1976. 
I really enjoyed the tale titled Son of the Sun, which reminded me of several other stories. It began with a girl who was in love with the Sun, and she bathed in the rays of the rising sun until she got pregnant (see also: Daughter of the Sun, by Italo Calvino). The boy she gave birth to grew up, and went to visit his father before his wedding (Phaethon). The Sun gave him two presents, one of fortune and one of misfortune, telling him not to open them too soon. Of course he did, he opened Misfortune, and the winds roaring out of it blew him out to sea (Odysseus) (also Pandora). Eventually everything turned out well in the end - they even managed to use Misfortune to clean up after the wedding feast.
Another familiar motif I knew from the Maui legends - it featured a girl who had relations with a giant eel. Eventually, the eel was killed, and from its buried head grew the first coconut palm.
There was a version of the ever-depressing "mother killed me, father ate me" folktale type - a jealous brother killed his spoiled sister and buried her in various places. The wind carried her voice to her parents and told the sad story; the girl was eventually brought back to life.

Where to next?