Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MythOff Replay - Our favorite myths on stage!

For the first time in Hungarian MythOff history, we ventured outside of Budapest, and visited another town, Veszprém, to bring myths and fun to a whole new audience! The idea came from a new member of our little myth-telling team, Cecília Stenszky, and everyone enthusiastically agreed - not only because traveling is fun, but also because a whole new audience means we get to dust off and tell again myths that we really enjoyed the first time. This is how MythOff Replay was born, giving us a night of telling our mythical favorites together.

The venue for the event was an Irish pub called Scorpion. They offered us their attic room, which was a perfect size for an audience of thirty, with comfortable armchairs, mood lighting, and no background noise. We had a full house of great people who drank beer and wine, ate delicious things, and whole-heartedly cheered us on. The evening's emcee was Szilvia Varga-Fogarasi, who made sure everything ran smoothly, and also created the golden lollipops that we received as prizes.

And now, the program:

Round one: Mythical hunters

The evening opened with Enikő Nagy's telling of the Mongolian legend of Gesar, and how he went all the way to the end of the world to find a magical bird that could cure the daughter of the Sun. Her elegant and poetic telling was followed by Erika Hajós, who brought us the Greek classic of Callisto and Arcas (Ursa Maior and Ursa Minor), and eloquently described the awful person Zeus is in that story.
Voting question: "If the famous Veszprém Zoo could bring either the magic bird, or the two bears, into its collection, which one would you rather see?"
Winner: Gesar's bird

Round two: Very strong myths

This round opened with our new storyteller, Cecília Stenszky, who brought us the myth of Thor and Utgard-Loki. It is an amusing story, and her humorous telling was appreciated by the audience. Next, I told the story of how the Irish Fianna fought the Witch of the Eastern Sea for the Cup of Victory (and, according to the photo on the right, went a little ethereal while doing it). It was even more fun to tell the second time around.
Voting question: "Which group of heroes would you like to add to the Hungarian Olympic team?"
Winner: The Fianna

Round three: Burning hot myths

First, László Gregus told us the Chinese myth of Yi the Heavenly Archer and the Ten Suns, in which the hero shoots nine suns down from the sky to save the world from burning. After him, Szilvia Varga-Fogarasi told the story of how Maui stole fire from his grandmother, and how he taught the people how to kindle it themselves. She told the tale with energy and humor fitting for a trickster tale.
Voting question: "Which hero would you ask to bring some fire for your fireplace for Christmas?"
Winner: Yi the Archer

Round four: Myths of endless creativity

This last round was opened by Júlia Lovranits, who brought us a Slovenian myth pieced together from various sources, about the god Kurent, the great flood, and the invention of wine. She even brought a cow bell to ring at the end of the story! The evening's program then concluded with Maja Bumberák's magical telling of Veinemoinen and Antero Vipunen, in which the Kalevala's old magician went searching for magical words. Her singing of the end of the story was a perfect conclusion for the night.
Voting question: "Where would you rather take your family - the Kalevala Adventure Park, or the Kurent Wine Tasting Tour?"
Winner: The Kalevala

We are really grateful for yet another amazing MythOff event, a very cool audience, and the chance to tell our favorite stories. We all hope we'll travel a lot more in the future!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Trolls, polar bears, and other Norwegian classics (Following folktales around the world 52. - Norway)

Today I continue the 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!

With today's post, the series goes on a CHRISTMAS BREAK. It will continue in January!

Norvég népmesék
Vaskó Ildikó (szerk.)
Móra Kiadó, 2004.

This book is a lovely Hungarian edition of 23 tales translated from the well-known 19th century Norwegian folktale collection by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. You can find their tales in English in various formats online, including this wonderful blog. My particular edition was meant for children and families, therefore it is gorgeous (illustrated by artist Szegedi Katalin) and readable, but lacks notes and sources. Still, it was a very good selection.


One of my favorite stories from the collection is Boots and the Beasts; I included it in my own book about superpowers, since the hero can transform himself into a lion, and ant, and a falcon. He uses this ability to save princesses from trolls, which is pretty neat. I also love, and frequently tell around Christmas, the story of the Cat on the Dovrefjell, in which a polar bear scares off a bunch of trolls that try to wreck a house on Christmas Eve.
I really enjoyed Espen Ashlad and the Redfoks, in which a boy could find out all kinds of secrets by looking through the ring of a magic key. Among others, he discovered that trolls were afraid of thyme (and used this knowledge to rescue a princess, obviously).
Easy for those who are loved by women is an interesting story about a boy that wishes that all women would love him at first sight - and succeeds in life because women are helping him along. I heard Janice Del Negro tell her own amazing version of it, and I will never look at this story the same way again.


The book opens with a classic trickster story, that of Peik the Mischievous who outsmarts a king several times, using such classics as selling him a "pot that cooks without fire" (it doesn't), and also getting the king's daughters pregnant. In the end, he is caught and locked into a box, but he manages to switch places with an unsuspecting merchant.
The tale of the Three Aunts is essentially the same as Grimm's Three Spinners, although I liked these ladies better. Hakon Grizzlebeard is the Norwegian counterpart of King Thrushbeard, Grass Girl is the tiny fairy bride stepping in for the tale type of the Frog Princess, and King Valemon the White Bear is the well-known Norwegian variant of Beauty and the Beast (and probably the European source for the American White Bear Whittington). In this last one I especially loved the part where the woman seeking her husband was helped by three little girls, and only found out later that they were her own daughters, hidden by her husband with other families to protect them from the curse. Katie Woodencloak is the Norwegian variant of Catskins; I liked it that she was helped by a great black bull, who gave his life to save her, although I felt a little sorry that it did not turn into a prince at the end.
This book is also the first European collection in the series featuring one of my favorite tales, The Husband who had to Mind the House, in which a woman and a man swap chores for a day, to prove that women don't just "sit around at home" all day.

Where to next?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dragons, trolls, heroic women (Following folktales around the world 51. - Denmark)

Today I continue the 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!

While many people think Andersen when they hear the term "Danish folktale," Andersen stories are at best literary re-imaginations of traditional stories. It is important to know that there are many, many actual folktales collected from Denmark, and they are pretty great too.

The Danish Fairy Book
Clara Stroebe, Frederick H. Martens
Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922.

The volume contains twenty-nine classic folktales collected from various parts of Denmark. The tales have been translated and re-told in English, so some of the names are also English ("Jack") instead of Danish - but all in all, they seem to have retained their original flavor. Each story comes with Notes that include the place of collection, the source of the text, the tale type, and some interesting observations on certain ancient or common elements of the tale. The book is by no means a scientific publication, but it does give credit where credit is due.


By far the best tale in the book bears the misleading title The Pig, which completely conceals that the story is a version of Bluebeard. Chasing a magical pig, three sisters end up captured by an evil man, one after the other. The youngest sister does not only manage to trick the man, but she even rescues her two sisters before she ends up rescuing herself.
The story of the Lindworm (here titled King Dragon) is a fairly well-known tale among storytellers. A queen gives birth to a dragon which wreaks havoc in the royal court until a brave servant girl manages to convince it to take off all his layers of dragon skin, and turn into a prince. This Danish version also have a sequel, in which the Dragon King wrongly exiles his wife, and then goes to find her - and when he does, he makes sure to ask again if she wants to go home with him at all (yay, consent!). By the way, I really recommend hearing this story in the enchanting performance of Louisiana storyteller Danielle Bellone, if you get the chance.
I also found the tale of The Princess on the Island interesting, and more than a little dark. In it, a Danish princess was hidden away in an island fortress by her father, to keep her from marrying an English prince coming to invade the country. All the princess' servants starved to death, and she lived on eating mice until she managed to break free (!). She did marry the prince in the end.
It was noted as a typically Danish element in the stories that villains often ended their career by "bursting into pebbles out of sheer anger." I found this poetic justice very appealing.


Since these are European stories, most of the types were familiar to me from many other sources - but that does not mean I did not appreciate the Danish take on each of them. The book contains several of my favorite folktale types: The clever girl that outsmarts a bunch of trolls three times (Ederland, the Poultry Maid); the Golden-haired Gardener, who in this case is helped by a magic horse and a non-magical lion, and has golden locks that reach his heels (Jack with the Golden Hair); and the Dancing Princesses, or in this case, single princess, who dances with a troll each night, until she is followed and rescued by the hero, who also kills the troll and turns the forests of silver, gold, and diamond back to people.
Even beyond my favorites, there were some very fun takes on familiar stories in the book. I liked Trillevip, the Danish variant of Rumeplstiltskin, who, once his name was guessed, actually helped the girl trick her own husband so that she would not have to spin anymore. I enjoyed the ending of Peter Redhat, the Danish Prince Thrushbeard, who managed to win the haughty princess, but her parents never forgave him for humiliating her. The Magic Hat was reminiscent of Irish fairy stories (it made its wearer able to see invisible trolls), while The mill at the bottom of the sea is a very common Baltic and Scandinavian story type, explaining why seawater is salty.

Where to next?

Monday, November 6, 2017

Land of Magic and Enchantment (Following folktales around the world 50. - Iceland)

Today I continue the 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!

We have reached Europe! It will take almost a whole year to get through all of its countries. Settle in!

Hildur, Queen of the Elves
And other Icelandic Legends
J. M. Bedell
Interlink Books, 2007.

The book contains fifty-one Icelandic tales; most of them are legends, stories about events people believed to be true, featuring beliefs and creatures that are very prominent in Icelandic folklore. The stories are grouped according to these themes: There are separate chapters for Elves, Trolls, Ghosts, Water Monsters, Magicians, and other folktales. The tales have been translated from the Icelandic, and then re-told by the author; they provide and enjoyable reading experience, while retaining all the names and details that give them their unique flavor. There is an extensive Introduction by Terry Gunnell, who talks about the context of Icelandic legends, their cultural background, origins and collections, and the beliefs and customs they represent. He points out that Iceland was a culturally diverse country even in the middle ages, and therefore the stories show elements from Scandinavian, Celtic, and several other traditions. There is a list of sources at the end of the book, and each story comes with a citation of its original text.


Bjarnarey, one of the Westman Islands
I have to say that Iceland is exceptionally great at wizard stories. There are countless legends about magic schools (Saemundur in the Black School), and priests and wise men who have magical powers. My absolute favorite was the tale of the Magicians of the Westman Islands, in which eighteen magicians fled to the small islands from the Black Plague, and some time later sent one of them back to check if anyone survived. The magician only found one survivor, a young woman, with whom he fell in love, and never returned to the others. In revenge, the other magicians sent ghosts to destroy him - ghosts which the girl managed to outwit, in order to save the man she loved.
Knowledge of magic was usually gained from books of magic. For example, Loftur the Enchanter summoned the ghosts of Iceland's old bishops, to gain their books of secrets from them. Eiríkur of Vogsós, on the other hand, tested his prospective students by seeing if they were willing to kill an old woman for knowledge (and if they were, he kicked them out). Björn the Fiddler was tested by his uncle through summoning up talking corpses and other demonic visions - but handled all of them with patience and good humor, earning his uncle's respect. Some enchantments were more chilling than others. The darkest was Thorgeir's Bull, a creature created by bored magicians and brought to live with the use of nine souls (one of them human). The monster haunted the countryside for a long time, and eventually killed its own master.
Similarly chilling was the legend of the Elf-Steeple. It told about two brothers, one strong and brave and the other quiet and gentle. The quiet brother spent time with his Elf friends a lot, and was to be initiated into the Elf priesthood - but his sibling broke in and interrupted, for which the Elves killed him. The young priest traveled far, for the Elves promised he would die if they say each other again. One day as he celebrated mass, a storm broke the church doors open at the same time as the Elf church opened - and the moment the priest looked into the eyes of the Elf priest, he dropped dead.
Picture from the ABC blog,
which I highly recommend to
everyone interested in creatures
Redhead the Whale, one of Iceland's most famous monsters, was also a victim of Elf revenge. He stayed with the hidden people, and got a girl pregnant; but refused to acknowledge the child. He was turned into a whale in revenge, and terrorized the waters until an old priest-magician lured him up a river, where he died.
The title story is also quite beautiful. Regarded as a variant of the Dancing Princess tales, it tells about Hildur, an Elf queen who was exiled from home by her mother-in-law, cursed to work as a servant among humans. She could only return home one a year at Christmas, and only freed when someone was brave enough to secretly follow her.
Some of the troll tales were also great. I especially liked the ones where priests left some rocks and cliffs on every shore unblessed, so that trolls would have somewhere to live too.


Huldufolk homes. Picture from here.
Celtic connections were very obvious in the tales about the hidden people / fairy folk. There was a Fairy Midwife story (I already found one in the USA, and it is very popular in Ireland), a changeling legend (Father of eighteen elves), and a Selkie story (Better a seal skin than a child), among others.
I found the Icelandic variant of the Magic Flight titled Búkolla endlessly endearing. In it, a boy rescues a cow from a troll, instead of a girl; Búkolla moos to bring her savior to her, and then they escape together by throwing things behind them to slow down the troll. I was also happy to find one of my favorite strange folktales, The Dreamer and the Money Chest, in this book. In it, a traveler follows the soul of his friend as it escapes during sleep, and sees where it wanders.

Where to next?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Death and the Storyteller

In honor of Day of the Dead, I am sharing a folktale I came across during my "Following folktales around the world" reading challenge. 

Death and the Storyteller
A folktale from the Dominican Republic

Once upon a time there was a poor man who constantly dreamed of becoming rich. He had nothing and no one in the world, but he could tell the most amazing stories to people, and weave the most amazing dreams of what he would do, and see, and buy, once he was truly wealthy. Day after day, he waited for his chance.

One day, La Muerte, Death Herself appeared before the man. 

"I will take you under my wing" she told him "I will give you a profession. You'll become a doctor, and you will be able to cure any illness in the world by simply placing your hand on the patient. If you see me standing at the foot of the bed, you can be sure the patient will live. But if you see me at the head of the bed, beware: That soul belongs to me!"

The poor man was all too happy for the bargain. He immediately moved to the city, and began practicing as a doctor. People miraculously got better under his care. News spread like wildfire that there was a miracle worker in the city, and they soon reached the royal palace, where the king's only daughter lay very, very ill.

The King immediately summoned the doctor, and told him:

"My daughter is very ill. If you can cure her, I will make you rich, and give her to you as your wife. But take care, because if she dies, I will have you executed!"

The doctor went straight to the princess' room, trusting in his magical power... but when he entered, he was terrified to see La Muerte standing at the head of the bed.

What shall I do?! he thought frantically, If she dies, I'm done for!

With sudden inspiration, the doctor grabbed the princess' bed, and turned it around - now La Muerte was standing at the foot of the bed. The doctor quickly placed his hand on the princess. She was immediately cured, sat up with healthy roses in her cheeks, and La Muerte stormed out of the castle, furious.

The King announced that his daughter was going to marry the doctor who saved her life. The doctor was invited back for  the next day to prepare for the wedding. But as he stepped out of the palace, happy with his good fortune, someone grabbed his arm.

La Muerte had been waiting for him at the door.

"You are coming with me!" she said, and took the doctor straight up to the heavens, to the place where people's life-flames are burning. Each life was represented by an oil lamp, some burning high and bright, and some burning low. La Muerte pointed at a lamp that was sputtering out.

"That is your own life flame." she declared "You tried to cheat me, so now your time is up. You have five more minutes left to live."

"Five minutes?!" cried the doctor in shock, looking around. He noticed a full can of lamp oil nearby on the table. He turned back to La Muerte. "Very well, then. But before I die, I would like to tell one more story. It is a really good story, I think you'll like it."

"Go ahead, then" La Muerte nodded, and the doctor began to speak. He told such an amazing, such a wonderful, such an incredible tale, the best tale he ever told, that he had La Muerte completely enthralled... and while he was talking, he reached behind his back, tipped the oil can, and refilled his own lamp. He poured so much oil in it, that he is still alive today.

This, the story says, is how storytelling defeated Death Herself.


This story is my (slightly elaborated) re-telling of a short folktale I found in a collection from the Dominican Republic. The original storyteller's name is Feyito Molina, and he was from Monte Cristi. The story is a rare variant of the folktale type commonly known as Godfather Death (ATU 332). I have never seen a variant before where the doctor got away at the end! As a storyteller, I found it fascinating that Death, in this case, was defeated by storytelling. I feel like there is a message in it for us all. Stories do live on.