Monday, March 27, 2017

Armadillos rule (Following folktales around the world 18. - Argentina)

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!

Cuentos y leyendas populares de la Argentina
Berta E. Vidal de Battini
Ediciones Biblioteca Nacional, 2013.

This books was recommended to me by an Argentinian storyteller friend. It is a selection from a larger, multi-volume folklore collection project; it is almost four hundred pages long, and has dozens of tales in it, with an extensive introduction. The latter talks about the language of the stories, which was very useful, since the tales were transcribed in the dialects they were told in: They wrote "güeno" instead of "bueno," or "jue" instead of "fue," and most of the time I only understood what a sentence meant when I read it out loud phonetically. The tales also contained indigenous words and animal names, all of which were explained in footnotes. Every story was marked with the storyteller's name and age, as well as the place and year of its collection. The volume opens with animal tales, then it has wonder tales, local legends and beliefs, and some humorous tales at the end. The only things missing were some maps, and a folktale motif index, but the book was a very entertaining read, all in all. I especially loved that several tale types were included in more than one version; it was fascinating to see how the same story is told slightly differently in different regions of Argentina.


Tatu, armadillo, quirquincho, piche
Among the animal stories, I especially loved the ones that featured armadillos (there were a bunch of different words for them). In The armadillo, the fox, and the bread seller, the armadillo pretended to be dead on the road. The woman picked it up and put it in the bread basket so that she could cook it later; the armadillo tossed all the bread out of the basket, then jumped out himself. When the fox tried to do the same, he was beaten with sticks, to make sure he was dead...
Owlets are cute though
There was also a very educational tale about The children of the owl. In it, the King of the Birds fed on their chicks; the Owl decided to befriend the king, and she managed to extract a promise that he would not eat her young. When the King asked how he would know which ones were the Owl's, she told him that hers, of course, were the most beautiful. Just to be sure, the next time the King ate, he ate the ugliest chicks in the crowd... which just happened to be the Owl's. To every mother their own.
I also liked the legends about the protectors of the animals (sometimes called La Coquena, or Yastay), who were responsible for scaring or warning hunters when they killed unnecessarily, or killed too much at once.
Among the wonder tales I really enjoyed the about The greedy, the gluttonous, and the kind brother, where each brother met an old beggar who asked for food. The elder two demanded a wish in exchange of the food; the first one got the Midas touch (and the curse with it), and the second asked for an endless supply off food (which soon became too much). The youngest gave food freely, and was rewarded with always having money in his pocket. I liked seeing the Midas myth embedded into a tale like this.
I also liked the Argentinian version of the Three Spinners, here titled The souls from Purgatory. A mother and her daughter summoned souls from Purgatory to help them with their work; when a prince proposed to the girl, the souls spun and wove for them, and then appeared in the shape of the three spinners to scare him away from giving her any more work. Then they went to Heaven.
In a tale about a man who sold his soul to the Devil, the only was to escape being dragged to Hell was to recite The twelve words, an ancient chant no one remembered. The (otherwise kind and good-natured) sinner searched all over the world, until he found one ancient woman who had learned the chant as a child, and she managed to recall it. A living oral tradition can save lives, people...
There was also a very intriguing flood myth, where some people tried to burrow underground and hide in jars (which is why you can find jars with human bones in them in the ground), and some turned into giant cacti - the mother is the trunk, and the arms are the children.


There were many familiar stories among the animal tales. I encountered Fox riding a tiger (like Br'er Rabbit does in the Uncle Remus tales), and also Fox and Armadillo doing business together, where Fox got to choose which part of the crops he wanted to keep (if he chose "top", Amradillo planted potatoes; if "bottom", he planted wheat; if "both", he planted corn). There was also Fox and Seriema, who visited each other but could not eat together (like Fox and Stork), Toad and Rhea who ran a race (like Tortoise and Hare), and Fox and Raven which ended with Fox getting the cheese the first time, but getting a rock in the teeth the second. Sweet revenge.
I also liked the Argentinian Snow White, here titled The jealous queen. The queen was the princess' birth mother (á la original Grimm), and the girl found shelter with twenty-five bandits, who took her in as their little sister. In the end, she only agreed to marry the prince when he promised to pardon the bandits...
There were kings with antlers instead of donkey ears (Midas again), a tree that opened to "Open, sesame!", and little devils singing the days of the week, just like the Irish fairies do in Lushmore. But even the stories that were very familiar had a local flavor to them, and made for a very fun read...

Where to next?

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Great and Powerful A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal!

This is my 6th year participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge, and my 3rd year co-hosting it. It has been tons of fun every time, and I am looking forward to what 2017 will bring to the A to Z community!
It has become a tradition over the years for participants to announce their themes for the Challenge at the end of March. That day is today! I once again have a theme - and yes, it is once again storytelling-related.


My theme for the 2017 A to Z Blogging Challenge is

WTF - Weird Things in Folktales

Vegetable lambs. They are a thing.
(Check out this artist)
I got the basic idea from browsing through the Thompson Motif Index. For those of you not folkloristically inclined: The Index is a list of motifs that have been sorted and numbered by American folklorist Stith Thompson, and first published in 1955. Folktale motifs are smaller building blocks you can find in traditional tales, myths, and legends around the world; you will find such things in the book as "A1010 - Deluge" (collecting all the myths that involve a flood), or "D1065.1 - Magic boots." The numbers help folklorists find all the stories that have that same element in them, compare them to each other, and see the larger patterns in world folklore. For practicing storytellers such as myself, the Motif-index is a godsend, helping us locate stories about specific things.

Since the motifs in the book are categorized in groups from A to Z, I thought the Challenge would be the perfect excuse to browse through them, and pick out some of the most unexpected ones. Because while it is not exactly surprising to find things like "A101.1 - Supreme god as creator," one tends to run into completely out-of-the blue things as well, such as "F521.3.3.2. - Person with golden anus", or "A1319.3 - Why ear wax is inside the ear."

Our ancestors told tales about the weirdest things.

Each day of the challenge, I'll pick a motif from the Index, and bring you a folktale or myth that contains it. 
The motifs usually make a whole lot more sense in context. A descriptions that makes you go "whut now?" might be a completely common occurrence in folktales, that Thompson somehow managed to make sound strange when taken out of its element. My point, therefore, is twofold: One, to place some of the Motif Index into context, and two, to show off the stunning, amazing, endless richness of folk imagination that is rarely explored these days.

There will be...
... Poisonous eyebrows
... Assassin mice
... Thieving butterflies
... Women snacking on human nails
... lobsters mistaken for Norwegians
... Kings getting a Darwin Award for burning to death in an alcohol bath...

... and many other fascinating tidbits from around the world.

See you in April!

* * *

Don't forget to check out the other blogs participating in the Challenge! People will be posting the links to their Theme Reveal posts in the Comments section of today's post on the main blog.

My previous Challenge themes:
2012 - First year, no theme

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Period is power (Following folktales around the world 17. - Paraguay)

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!

It was no easy to find a collection from Paraguay. After getting two books that only talked about stories, I finally narrowed the search down to the oral tradition of one specific tribe. 

Folk literature of the Makka Indians
Johannes Wilbert and Karin Simoneau
UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1991.

This book is one of a 24-volume series on the oral traditions of South American indigenous peoples. It collects the tales of the Makka (Maká, Macca, etc.), all collected in the 1970s when most of the informants did not speak Spanish yet. The book includes 108 folktales, myths, and legends, many of them in several versions, showcasing how the same narrative can be told differently by different storytellers (I really enjoyed this). It is a very high quality folklore publication: It has appendices, folktale motif numbers, footnotes, information about the tellers, a generous introduction, and everything a researcher could possibly need. The tales have been transcribed and translated word for word, so the text gives a glimpse of what they sounded like in live telling; they are also uncensored, which means there is a whole lot of sex and violence in them. They were quite fascinating.


One of my favorite tales was that of a boy whom his father-in-law wanted to kill by sending him to the river infested by a giant serpent. The first couple of times friendly animals (otter, nutria) saved him, but he eventually got devoured, and spent two days fighting his way back out of the belly of the beast. When he emerged, he did not have hair or eyebrows anymore... I also liked the tale of The girl who married a tree, where a lignum vitae tree turned into a loving husband who brought a rich harvest to the people.
Rolled up armadillo
There was a whole chapter of Jaguar tales. Jaguar is not only an animal spirit, but also a shaman - and yet more often than not he was on the receiving end of some painful events. In one story, he killed Armadillo's children, for which Armadillo mother decided to take revenge. She pretended to be sick, and when they called the shaman and he leaned over her, she rolled herself up and clung to his snout through fire and water until the Jaguar dropped dead. While this ending was very satisfying, in most tales the ovenbird eventually brought the Jaguar back to life.
I loved it that the tales were full of colorful imagery. There were multiple stories explaining where the birds got their colors, and there was even a hero whose skin was made of yellow butterflies. There were also several mythical peoples, such as the fukus lei, a tribe of stick people who could easily be mistaken for firewood (Groot?...), and a group of blind men who lived on honey. The strangest creature was probably Pointed-Leg, a man who carved his tibia into a point and used it to stab unsuspecting travelers.
Say what?
Also strange, and definitely graphic, was the legend that claimed that at the beginning of time men could not have sex with women, because they had piranhas living in their vaginas. The wise shaman Hawk made the women dance until the piranhas fell out, the large ones first and then the smaller ones, until only one tiny piranha remained in each woman, gnawing at them - which is why we have periods (I can attest to the accuracy of this description). Menstruation, by the way, featured quite often into the stories; the above mentioned tribe of blind men was cured by a woman on her period, and there was also a popular legend about a woman who turned into a cannibal ogre because her husband forced her to cook food while she was on her period.


I did not expect to find a far cousin of Celtic kelpies and each uisge-s in Paraguay - and yet there was one, a water horse that dragged people into rivers and drowned them.
Once again, there was an abundance of trickster tales. The Makka's trickster is Fox, and also a person called Tip'a; the latter was not very likable, being a rapist and a murderer, and usually died at the end of the stories. Jaguar came to a similar end in a legend that reminded me of Daedalus and Icarus; he learned to fly from Vulture, but the sun melted the wax he stuck his feathers on, and Jaguar plummeted to his death.
I also encountered a legend about a star-wife; they seem to be common in American indigenous folklore, I am sure I will meet them again later on. There was also a legend about a sky-high tree that people used to climb to fish in the sky, until it was burned down. It reminded me of myths from Oceania, and so did the story of the woman who had an eel for a lover.
And finally, barely a country goes by without at least one folktale of two animals having a race, Tortoise and the Hare style. This time, it was Rhea and Tick (which would be a great title for an indie band), and the latter won.

Where to next? 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Myths, flowers, and an army of chinchillas (Following folktales around the world 16. - Bolivia)

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!

Mitos, leyendas, y cuentos populares de Bolivia
Textos en castellano; quechua-castellano y aymara-castellano
Roberto Ágreda Maldonado (Ed.)
Grupo Editorial Kipus, 2015.

A little under 300 pages, this collection is a great introduction to the traditional stories of Bolivia (and it doesn't include nearly as much Quechua or Aymara text as suggested by the subtitle). It was created by an organization of poets and writers, and each chapter corresponds to a certain region of the country - each containing traditional stories of great variety, from indigenous myths through historical legends all the way to 20th century ghost stories. The original authors of the texts are always noted; some of the tales come from earlier written sources (some from the 19th century), but there was also at least one that came from the Internet, where someone posted stories from their grandma. It is a mixed assortment of stories, some gorgeous, and some slightly confusing, but I am very happy it exists. It even has a glossary at the end, and a handy table that explains the differences between myth, legend, and folktale.


One of the most beautiful stories in the book was the origin legend of the kantuta flower (one of the national flowers of Bolivia). It told about the rivalry of two kings over whose star was brighter on the night sky, and how their vanity brought war to their lands. The kings, dying from battle wounds, left the war to their sons, who had to fight even though they did not want to. In the end, wounded like their fathers, the two young princes made peace on the battlefield, saving their people, and they were buried together. On their grave grew the kantuta flower, the symbol of unity.
There was a similarly beautiful myth about the birth of the chestnut tree, in which two deities wanted children, but did not know how to procreate. They observed the natural world around them and learned to make love. Their first child was the chestnut tree, and then all the other trees, until the jungle was born.
Because I have a soft spot for hummingbirds, I also loved the legend about the condor that kidnapped a wife for himself, and the hummingbird named Lorenzo who rescued her from her mountain cave. Similarly vivid and visual was the origin myth of the peanut, where a mysterious supernatural woman combed the first peanuts out of her hair to feed hungry people. In fact, there were origin legends for almost every indigenous plant in the book, from corn born from a murdered wife to potatoes born from executed lovers. Especially touching was one legend about how the Sun God gave the coca plant to indigenous people at the dawn of colonization, to ease their suffering.
Less serious and more amusing was the myth about four mountain deities competing for the love of the same woman, in which one brother sent an army of chinchillas to (literally) undermine his rival. Chinchillas were not the only native species featured either; there was also a nice little folktale about why the armadillo's armor is so uneven.
Among the historical legends, the most interesting was probably the chapter about Inca rulers playing chess. One story told about how Atahualpa, the Inca imprisoned by the Spanish conquerors, learned to play chess, and when his captors found out, he was ordered to be executed, perceived too smart to be allowed to live.
Finally, one remarkable ghost/monster story was that of the k'arisiri, a creature that hunts people at night in order to suck the grease out of their body...


I did not have to wait long to have my first encounter with the Crying Woman (the ghost of a mother walking along a river, crying for her children) on this South American journey. I suspect I'll be seeing her more later on...
Reminiscent of North American indigenous tales was the guarayo myth where two brothers (Sun and Moon) climbed up to the sky on a ladder created by shooting arrows into each other. There was also a flood myth from the chiriguana, where a boy and a girl were placed in a gourd so that they could survive. A story about raising the sky reminded me of Polynesian mythologies - in this case, earth and sky were so close to each other they sometimes smashed together, killing people. The sky was finally raised up by a giant worm named Nyucu, whom we can still see every night in the form of the Milky Way.

Where to next?
Moving on to Paraguay.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fairy tales, Chilean style (Following folktales around the world 15. - Chile)

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!

For the next 12 weeks, we will be following folktales all around South America. 

Cuentos folklóricos chilenos
Primera antología
Yolando Pino Saavedra
Editorial Universitaria, 1973.
(For non-Spanish-speakers, tales from the same collection have been published in English in Folktales of Chile)

It's a small little volume. The 25 tales have been selected from a much larger, three-volume folktale collection by the same author. This "first anthology" contains Chilean versions of fairy tale (or, rather, magic tale) types that are well-known to European readers; the local flavor mostly comes from the small details, and the language itself. The book has a list of Chilean words at the end, and also a folktale type index. If you are interested in the less Westernized, indigenous tales, I recommend reading Saavedra's other book, Cuentos Mapuches de Chile.


My favorite was probably the Chilean take on the Twelve dancing princesses - titled The princess who went to play with a Moorish prince at the end of the world. It only had one princess, who shredded seven pairs of shoes every night on her journey. I especially liked that the tale was combined with The man in search of his luck - on her nighttime trip, the princess encountered various people who asked her questions, and she had to deliver the answers on the way back.
I also liked the take on the "hidden heart" in Body without a Soul. Here, the evil giant's soul was hidden in an egg; the egg was in a dove, the dove was in a fox, the fox was in a lion, and the lion was in a tiger that lived in a lagoon. Bonus on top of that was that the boy did not need helpful animals to get the egg - he himself turned into various creatures during the chase. Also, he rescued his own sister from the giant, and the siblings ended up ruling over the giant's wealth side by side.
Picture from here
It was fun to read the version of the Frog Princess titled The Monkey Princess. I especially loved the part where a wandering priest was asked to marry the prince to the monkey (before she turned back to human), and the priest thought to himself: "What a pity that a young man like that could not find anyone to marry but this animal!... But God knows what His plan is for them. Let them get married." Amen.
In the tale of The bull with the golden horns (a.k.a. Beauty and the Beast), the girl searching for her husband stopped in the houses of various winds (and their mothers) to ask for directions. I had to look up the names, because they were typical Chilean concepts. In most European folktales, you only visit The Wind - I liked the variety.
Another intriguing moment happened in the story of The three kidnapped princesses. Unlike other tales, where a prince finds oranges/apples/other fruit, and cuts them open to release the princesses inside, this one began with a king who wanted to keep his daughters safe so badly, he made an old woman turn them into oranges. Of course, the oranges were still stolen...


Technically, all twenty-five tales were versions of well-known types. I especially liked their take on Catskins, in which the girl fleeing from her evil father disguised herself by crawling inside a moving doll made of wood.
By the way, there are small deer in Chile
as well. They are called pudu.
And of course there is no folklore without a trickster. In this case, this role was filled by Deer (an unusual candidate), and several short stories were included within one longer chapter, detailing how Deer tricked Fox, Lion, and other animals. Many of the stories were familiar from other trickster traditions, such as Mouse Deer's from Indonesia. Even the notorious Tar Baby made an appearance - in this case, it was made of honey.

Where to next?