Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Museum Storytelling: Paleolithic Tales

With the new year, I embark on a new adventure: A storytelling series in collaboration with the Hungarian National Museum! I match storytelling programs to temporary and permanent exhibitions, telling to family audiences regularly. Since museum storytelling has always been one of my top favorite things to do, I was preparing for the inaugural event with a lot of excitement!

Since we planned to do the series in a vaguely chronological order, the first performance took place in the first, paleolithic hall of the museum's permanent archaeological exhibit. The question immediately arose: What should a storyteller do in the absence of "authentic" sources for caveman folklore? As much as I would love to know what tales were told to little cavemen thousands of years ago, I had to turn elsewhere to build my repertoire for the program.

Here is the thing: Even though we don't have tales from the prehistoric era, we do have tales all around the world about things that happened in those times. Humans have always wondered, and told stories, about how we got fire, how we made friends with the dog, tamed the horse, and many other things that happened too long ago to really remember. So, for my first show in the museum, I picked out a handful of these stories, and created a program titled Fire Thieves.

The program originally included a list of 10-12 stories, out of which 5 were told in the one-hour show (selected on the spot based on the audience's interests and reaction, as usual). I started out with the Ilocano Fire Thieves story from the Philippines, a classic teamwork tale where a trickster and animals work together in a running relay to get fire from two evil giants. The kids (5-10 years old) enjoyed the participation where they got to make animal sounds and mimic running. We also talked about how and when taming the fire probably happened in human history. Next, I told a Kamba folktale from the Congo about how Dog and Jackal used to be friends, until Dog wandered into a human camp, and decided to stay there. The kids were very enthusiastic in making desperate jackal sounds. Since w already tamed the dog, they obviously wanted to know about horses next - so I told them the legend of Sasruquo and the Wild Stallion from the Nart sagas, which not only contains a very interesting hero, but also an early real-life technique for breaking a wild horse by riding it into a river.
The last two stories of the show were both folktales about ancient clay pots being found in the ground. One was from Sabah on Borneo, about a large jar that turned into a mischievous mangas dragon, and the other from Papua New-Guinea that explained why people keep finding shards of pottery underground. The archaeologists present were greatly amused at both.

All in all, I had a great audience for the show. It was by registration only, and filled up very fast; we ended up with 25 people, give or take some museum staff and wandering visitors. The kids were mostly between 5 and 10 with some younger siblings, and they were not only interested and engaged in the stories - but also had some cool archaeological questions throughout the show. I was glad that I was able to use my (8 year old, mint condition) Archaeology MA in answering them.

Museum storytelling is still one of my favorite gigs to do. I am really looking forward to the next one.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Kokles-music saves the day (Following folktales around the world 56. - Latvia)

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!

A Laima és a két anya
Lett népmesék
Voight Vilmos
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1972.

Once again I had the luck of reading a volume of Tales of Nations, because I already had it on my shelf, and because it is a very useful, high quality publication. It contains 164 Latvian folktales, selected to show a range of folk genres, from origin legends and pourquoi stories through elaborate fairy tales all the way to jokes and anecdotes. The editor, famous folklorist Vilmos Voight, penned the afterword on the history of Latvia (up to Soviet times, obviously), the origins of the Latvian folklore movement, and the Latvian folklore archives that contain more than 150k stories. The book contains extensive notes, sources, tale type numbers, and a glossary. The translation aims to reflect the original, uncensored language of the oral tradition.
For those of you who don't read Hungarian, I recommend reading other collections of Latvian folktales, like this one or this one.


Among the pourquoi stories, my favorite was titled How the birds learned their songs. It features a whole bunch of birds that all went out to see the world, observe sounds, and learn their song. It would make a great educational story.

The kokles is a folk instrument
Among the fairy tales, I especially liked the Strange deer, in which a princess fell in love with a poor kokles-player, and they could only be together after a series of marvelous transformations. Kokles-players were definitely the elite of folktale heroes: One of them tamed a wolf with music, whole another was helped by the mysterious Green Man in defeating giants and winning a princess.
The tale of the Magic Word came to a less celebratory ending: After the hero released his spirit-servant, the spirit disappeared along with all his wealth. The tale ended with the hero sending his princess-wife back home, so that she would not have to live in poverty.
The most adventurous of the legends was that of The Siege of Riga, in which a soldier hero shot silver bullets at a witch transformed into a magpie - and the magpie shot back. The most endearing was The peasant who wrote a letter to the emperor. The letter was a series of doodles, explaining a claim, but since the emperor met the peasant in disguise, he could later pretend at court that he could read exactly what the doodles meant, granting the poor man his request. I also really liked the Devil and the clerk, in which the Devil refused to take anyone who was wished to hell, because people were not saying "go to hell" from their true heart.


There were two variants in the book for the Beanstalk tale, except it was not jack who climbed up to the sky, but two very capable maidens, who won their fortune by helping an old man, rather than robbing him. The Witch's Birch Tree was a variant on the Twin Princes tale type, except in this one the witch was a lot harder to kill, and the companion animals (wolves! bears! deer! goats! foxes! rabbits! lynxes! dogs!) got a more active role (you can find this story in a picture book format in English here).
The golden apple tree, golden bird, and three princes story was a variant of what is usually known as the Firebird, Golden rain and Tar rain was a variant of Frau Holle, and the Radiant Bird was that of the Princess on the Glass Mountain, except this one also featured a tiny, feathered underground gnome king (which is pretty cool). Reading the title of the Flying Boat I was all ready for some Extraordinary Helpers, but the story really did only feature a flying boat...
The frogs from Riga and Liepaja were the Latvian cousins of the Japanese frogs from Osaka and Kyoto. No news is a favorite of American storytellers, and the Old man's glove was a variant of the Ukrainian Mitten tale. And of course, because we are still in the Baltic countries, there was a Magic Mill grinding salt into the sea.

Where to next?

Monday, January 22, 2018

The strange beauty of Estonian folktales (Following folktales around the world 55. - Estonia)

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!

Az aranyfonó lányok
Észt népmesék
Bereczki Gábor
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1968.

Once again, a volume from the Hungarian "Tales of Nations" series - and probably one of my instant favorites. It contains thirty-five tales, many of which I completely fell in love with at first read. They have been selected from various Estonian folktale collections by the editor, making sure that they represented narratives and motifs that are typically Estonian, rather than just versions of generally well-known tale types. He had a lot to pick from: According to the detailed Afterword, Estonian folklore archives hold almost one hundred thousand folktales (at least they did in the 1960s). I also learned that most of the famous storytellers were male, while most famous singers of the epic stories were female. I would definitely love to read more from those archives.
To read Estonian folktales in English, try this collection.


The title story (The three gold-spinners) has been a favorite story of mine for a long time (I even included it in my book). It is a long and complex tale full of intrigue, magic, love, Finnish wizards, talking birds, witches, and everything else you need for a good adventure. Similarly adventurous is the Theft of Thunder, in which a poor man helps the Devil steal the Thunder from a thunder-god, and then feels guilty and helps the god recover it.
Mushroom King (Estonian postcard)
I liked the tale of the Mushroom King especially for its imagery and its outcome. A prince rescues the tiny, captured King of the Mushrooms, and in exchange the little kind helps him along his exile, helps him fight dragons, and introduces him to his three daughters. In the end, instead of marrying a rescued princess, the princes marries one of the mushroom girls.
There were several tales involving water, and the beings that inhabit it. In the Underwater People, a man whose father fell through the ice on a lake visited the underwater world, and found out what happened to the people that went there. In The Gift of the Water Mother, the mysterious helper lady told about the strange upside-down world she had come from. In The Mischievous sons of Father Frost, three increasingly cold guests visited a poor man, who put up with them patiently, and in exchange he won the ability to influence the weather.
The animal and nature tales of the collection were also enchanting. A Magic Bird distracted an evil hunter from shooting at the birds of the forest; a Hedgehog wanted to cook a beetle, but was outsmarted by it; and a Sparrow brewed beer from one grain of barley in a pond, and none of the other animals had the heart to tell him it was not delicious.


I was reminded of many other superpower stories by the tale of Swift-foot, Dexterous Hands, and Sharp-eye (some titles are my own translation, but that's the general idea). All three of the brothers had his own separate adventure in this long story, and then they came together to win a princess. They agreed beforehand that they will draw lots on who will marry her at the end, eliminating the dilemma part of this popular dilemma tale like sensible people (it helped that they all looked exactly alike).
Estonian folk dress
The tale of the Talking Flax combined two tale types in a very interesting way. A girl was pursued by a supernatural suitor she knew was dangerous; she hid in the barn from him, and the flax bundles stored there talked about what awaited everyone in the barn: Tearing, breaking, cutting, etc. (basically, the process of making clothes). The suitor got terrified and left. The first part of the tale is that of the Demon Lover, while the latter usually happens with bread instead of cloth.
Waiting for Death was a story I have already encountered as a Hodja tale, while The Bear and the Three Sisters was another variant of the favorite story of mine where the clever girl rescues herself and her sisters from a monster husband (see Denmark).

Where to next?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The secret identity of the Princess with the Pea (Folklore Thursday)

Well, the Princess, specifically. If you want to know the secret identity of the pea, you'll be disappointed. It's a pea.

This is me, showing my work.

Full disclosure: I have never really liked Andersen's literary fairy tales, and doing some research on this one didn't really change my opinion of him. I wasn't even going to go into it, but I found some bread crumbs researching another folktale, and followed it all the way to some literature that talked about the possible folktale-origins of The Princess and the Pea. Sure, I knew that over-sensitivity is an existing motif (I have a tale of three over-sensitive men in my folktale collection), but I was intrigued when I found out that the "original" version was actually numbered ATU 545A - the female-hero variant of Puss in Boots.

See, Andersen claimed that he heard the story as a child. Researchers have already pointed out that there is no Danish version of such a folktale - but it is very popular in the Swedish tradition, which, when it comes to how stories travel... is close enough. I kept running into the same claim: There is a Swedish folktale, titled The Princess that Lay on Seven Peas, which includes a girl, a cat, and some pea-related shenanigans. Sadly, I could not locate the actual story anywhere, because nobody cited it.

So I eventually figured out that the claim came from Georg Christensen, who published an article on the origins of Andersen stories in Danske Studier in 1906. Since my Danish is nonexistent, I painstakingly fed the article into Google Translate, until I managed to find the citations he DID put in there. Which led me to a Swedish folktale collection, where I finally located the story. It is actually titled The Palace that Stood on Golden Pillars.
Close enough, huh.

So, now I had a text, in Swedish. Obviously, I would have to find someone to actually translate it, but as far as getting an idea of the tale went, I once again turned to Google Translate. Apart from some delightful results such as "The cat noticed, and put the mathematics on his mother-in-law", I could figure out what the story really was about.


ATU 545A is also known as The Cat Palace - and, as I have mentioned before, it is basically a genderbent version of Puss in Boots. A poor girl loses her parents, and inherits a cat (her brother gets the cow, obviously). She sets out, and the cat helps her pass as a lost and robbed princess, so that she gets invited to stay with a royal family. However, the mother-in-law is suspicious of her behavior (she's a peasant girl, after all), and decides to put her to the test. She puts things in her bed to see if she really is a refined lady, but the cat sees her, warns the girl, and helps her fake her way through the pea thing (and the bean thing, and the straw thing, and various other food items the queen puts under the sheets).
Eventually, the queen changes tactics: She sends a gorgeous silken dress for the girl to wear, and invites her for a walk. The girl keeps dragging the dress in the mud - but when questioned, she claims that she doesn't feel sorry for it, because she has much better dresses back at home, in Kattenborg. The queen has no more arguments left.

The rest of the story is pretty much the same as Puss in Boots: Time comes to visit the princess' imaginary castle, and the cat runs ahead to arrange it all, kill a giant, get a palace, etc.

Conclusion No. 1: If Andersen really heard this tale as a child, he managed to grasp the least exciting part of it. 
Go figure.
We have a girl, and a helpful, smart (occasionally sassy) animal helper. Most often a cat, BUT the tale also exists in variants where the helper is a dog, which makes it especially dear to my dog-person heart. Also, the girl is not actually as sensitive as Andersen suggests - she is simply faking it, in order to pass as "proper" royalty, and go through the mother-in-law's ridiculous tests (gotta give it to the woman, though, her suspicions were right). She blunders sometimes - says things she shouldn't say, or drags her expensive dress in the mud. And yet, the prince falls in love with her.
This is not a tale about a princess who can't sleep on a pea. This is a tale about a girl who is faking it until she makes it.


Oh yeah, about the title.

Conclusion No. 2: The Princess in this story is actually the Marquise de Carabas. 


Monday, January 15, 2018

Women from the sea (Following folktales around the world 54. - Finland)

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!

Férfiszülte leány
Finn népmesék
Pirkko-Liisa Rausmaa
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1969.

For the first time in the history of Following Folktales, I read a book from the "Népek Meséi" ("Tales of Nations") series. This is an 80-volume series of folktale collections published in Hungarian between the 1950s and the 1980s; it is famous among Hungarian storytellers, and has volumes of tales from various small indigenous ethnicities.
Much like the other books in the series, the Finnish collection is well edited, well selected, and contains a lot of valuable information. Selected by a Finnish folklorist to represent the various story types in the oral tradition, the book has fairy tales, animal tales, humorous tales, etc. Each story comes with end notes that contain tale type numbers, the name of the storyteller, the name of the collector, and other interesting information. The Afterword talks about the history of Finnish folktale collection, the work of Finnish scholars on the tale type index, and the building of the Finnish folktale archives that contain tens of thousands of stories. The book itself definitely does a good job picking out the most interesting ones...
(You can also find various folktale collections edited by Pirkko-Liisa Rausmaa in English)


Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Aino
One of the most beautiful and most intriguing tales of the book is The Beautiful Daughter of the Blue Sea. it is full of mythical elements, and the hero is helped by a shape-shifting white griffin (that he feeds four people to, by the way, but let's not talk about that). I also enjoyed The Prince and the Sea Spirit, in which the prince had several animal helpers that took turns competing with the son of the Sea Spirit in what they were best at. It was like a superhero team-up, but with animals.
I found the tale of The wife that looked like the sister very interesting. In it, a man wanted to marry a woman who looked just like his sister; the courageous girl set out, saved a princess just like herself from the underworld, and brought her back home (and then the brother had to figure out which one was which).
The book also contained some more recent folktales, such as that of the American journey, which was basically an updated version of an older trickster tale. In it, a Finnish man made Americans believe that he made the journey to the New World swimming...


The tale of Snotty Risto was a delightful variant for the story usually known from the Grimm collection as Bearskin. In this one, the poor man could collect great treasure by not wiping his nose or going to the bathroom for three years. Two girls fled from him, but the youngest one, desperately trying to get money to save her family, agreed to kiss him - and then threw up right after. Very realistic for a folktale. On the other hand, there was a version of the tale where a father wants to marry his own daughter that took quite an unexpected turn. When he failed to catch her, the father tore off his own testicles, and threw him around his daughter's neck. She went mute as a result, and it took her a long time to get rid of the testicles around her neck. Talk about being silenced by the patriarchy...
The emperor's daughter in the church was a variant of The Princess in the Shroud - except the exorcism of the monster princess here included beating her up repeatedly. The Triangular house on the seashore was a version of the Devil's three golden hairs, with the addition of a "woman of the sea" that devoured the evil king at the end. I especially loved the Finnish variant of the Extraordinary Helpers, in which each helper added a piece to the flying ship, and thus they built it together.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela:
The forging of the Sampo
There was a variant of Puss in Boots where the hero was a poor girl instead of a poor boy, and also a variant of the Clever Maiden with a clever boy instead of a clever girl (he did not have to be half dressed and half naked, though, go figure). And of course because we are in the Baltic, there was a version of Why the sea is salt (here called The Mill of Hell). The Magic Scythe was a story I already encountered in Iceland, while The great fighter looks for someone stronger than him reminded me of an Ossetian Nart saga.

Where to next?

Monday, January 8, 2018

The magic pisspot, and some squirrels (Following folktales around the world 53. - Sweden)

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!

The Magic Pisspot
Swedish folk tales
Per Gustavsson, Richard Martin
Land of Legends, 2017.

I got a copy of this book from Richard Martin, who translated it from Per Gustavsson's Swedish collection. The book was published by the Museum of Legends. It contains twenty-three Swedish folktales, selected by Gustavsson from various older sources, and retold in a clear oral storytelling style, which carries over well into the English translation. Each story comes with notes, sources, and tale type numbers, which I was especially grateful for. Most tales belong to tale types that are very common all around Europe, with some local Swedish coloring in them. The authors did not shy away from the darker or more vulgar themes of the original stories either. The book has black-and-white and color illustrations which make it pretty as well as enjoyable.


The book was already worth reading just for its title story. The Magic Pisspot is a very rare tale type that I have only encountered once before (in Turkey), featuring a mischievous and independent pisspot that makes its owners rich through a series of tricks. It is a really fun story.
I also liked the two tales about the Ugly Frog and the Pretty Squirrel; the former a beautiful princess who wanted to get away from obnoxious suitors by turning into an ugly frog, and the latter an ugly prince who wanted to become the most beautiful creature in the world - and found himself turning into a squirrel. To be fair, squirrels are rather handsome.


There is a gorgeous variant of the Snow White tale included in this book, titled The little gold bird. We do not only get the evil (biological!) mother's backstory, but we also have seven princes cursed into chimera monsters, who return at the end of the long and elaborate story to save the princess they took in as their sister. I also liked the Swedish Hansel and Gretel, known here as The hut with the sausage roof (no gingerbread), and the tale of the Pleiades, which was a nice variant of Six Against the World. I especially liked in the latter that the five brothers rescuing the princess specifically learned their trades with professional princess-rescuing in mind.
The Giant and the Squirrel was a story that sounded familiar to me from the Appalachian folktale known as Soy Sallyratus (and also a very popular Hungarian folktale). Also common in European traditions is the story of how Husband and wife swapped work for a day, and the classic story of the Stone Soup, here known as Nail Soup.
As for tricksters, Fox showed up in the collections, being responsible in not one, but two tales for Why Bear has a short tail.

Where to next?