Monday, March 19, 2018

The Greeks tell great stories (Following folktales around the world 63. - Greece)

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 series is going on a short break after this week, and it will resume in May, after the end of the A to Z Challenge! In the meantime, tune in for some Hungarian folktale weirdness from April 1st!

Modern Greek Folktales
Richard McGillivray Dawkins
Greenwood Press, 1974.

This book is a classic. And a very thorough one, too. Dawkins selected 84 stories with the aim to represent the entire scope of Greek folktales. While one can definitely argue with that, it is impressive that most popular folktale types are indeed represented in the volume (and a few unique gems as well). Where applicable, Dawkins notes the ATU numbers for the tale types, and also cites all other Greek variants of the same type (which is awesome for research). All chapters are structured the same: Introduction of the tale type, discussion of the Greek variants and their differences, comparison to tales from other cultures, list of Greek variant sources, and analysis of certain symbols and elements - followed by the text (or texts, if they provide nice contrast), translated by Dawkins. In some cases, there is no text, because the Greek version did not diverge from the well-known stories (e.g. Snow White).
I did not only read the stories for fun, but also learned a whole lot about Greek folktales in general. I especially enjoyed the discussion of various motifs and symbols; among other things, I learned theories about why "open, sesame" has sesame in it, and why "three apples" fall from heaven at the end of a story.
"Complete" list of tale types or not, every country should have a collection like this.


Showing how much I liked this book
One of the best tales in the book is The Mountain of Jewels and the Dove Maiden. It combines one of my favorite tale types, Gemstone Mountain (I wrote about it here), with a friendly ogre, and the search for a lost wife that takes the hero back to the mountain a second time (and he completely disregards the gemstones). In the end, even the ogre got his eyes back. I was also happy to encounter a variant of another favorite tale of mine, called The Magic Bird. I knew it as the Gold-spitting Prince (included in my book for the unique superpower). In this case, the powers given to the three heroes were not gold-related, but nonetheless intriguing; one of them even gained the ability to see into the hearts of people. One of the other stories in the same book came from this very collection: The Son of the Hunter, a version of the "extraordinary helpers" tale which I especially like because one helper has the ability to cause earthquakes. The three men and the umpire was a close version of "Three fastidious men" (also in my collection), all displaying keen superhuman senses and Sherlock Holmes-like deductive powers.
I really enjoyed Is it a Girl? Is it a Boy?, where a king sent a daughter, and another king sent a son, to fetch the Water of Life, in order to see whether boys or girls were more useful. The girl, disguised as a boy, won the bet, and managed to confuse the hell out of her helper, Sir Northwind in the process (but they did fall in love in the end).
One of the most fun stories in the book is the one about The young man and his three friends. It is a turducken of stories: The hero sets out to find a beautiful woman, and meets three companions on the way - Son of the Sun, Son of the Moon, and Son of the Sea. He gets wives for each of them through completing side-quests in the form of other tale types: The first, the Princess on Glass Mountain; the second, a Dancing Princess; and the third, a Silent Princess, whom they make talk through telling yet another embedded story, that of the Magician's Apprentice. The Silent Princess, yet another favorite of mine, is also represented in a separate text in the book, and contains a version of the Louse Skin tale. I like my favorite stories wrapped in other favorite stories of mine.
I also enjoyed the tale of The Quest for the Fair One of the World. Here, the hero had to find a hidden princess, who ended up helping him do so by giving secret directions. I also liked The Princess' Kerchief, in which a girl that everyone thought was "crazy" helped the princess find her lost love.
The tale of the Underworld Marriage felt distinctly mythical; a girl wandered into the Underworld, and returned with an armful of flowers, only to go back later, and marry the king of the Underworld (hello, Persephone!). A very similar thing happened in the tale about Eating Human Flesh - the King of the Underworld demanded what a girl who wanted to be his wife should eat some human flesh. In addition, his true wife found a key in his navel, and opened a door to the entire world - a great motif that Dawkins examines in detail (and we will encounter later on in Albania). And talking about the underworld: The tale of The woman who could see the Angel of Death was unique and a little sad. She asked for this as a gift from the angels, and from that point on, she could see what happened to people in the moment of their death. Less somber, and more horrifying was the tale of the Strigla, in which the hero had to fight his own sister who turned into a vampire-like creature.
Morningstar and Pleiades
Many of the tale types were familiar, but some had interesting twists on them. Little Brother and Little Sister, for example, had the stepbrother save his stepsister from their evil mother, and they eventually fled into the sky, turning into the Morning Star and the Pleiades. The Son of the Sea was very similar to Grimm's Nixie in the Millpond, except combined with the type where the hero could turn into a lion, an eagle, and an ant, and used all three of his abilities to get away from the curse.
I found the tale of The girl who had two husbands fascinating - I knew it in a Turkish version, but in this one, a girl actually killed her own mother following the manipulations of her (would-be) stepmother, and she had to do penitence for her sin by taming the Dragon Prince. The story did not have a happy end. Killing a mother also appeared in the Greek Cinderella, except it was the two older sisters who did it. Cruelty had less dire consequences in the Greek version of Love Like Salt, in which the king did not exile his youngest daughter, but instead married her off to the first poor man to pass the palace (who turned out to be a great husband).
In many tales it was the reversal of genders that was interesting. The girl who married an animal (actually, an ogre named Musk and Amber) was essentially the gender-swapped version of the Master Maid; the Boy who had a dream, according to some notes, also has a Greek variant where the dreamer destined for greatness is a girl. This boy, by the way, did not only marry the princess that saved him, but also the other one that kept sending riddles to be solved - and ended up with two wives. In an Animal Husband tale, it was the crab-prince who came out when nobody was home, and cleaned the house (yay for equality of chores). In Searching for Luck, the hero who set out to find luck was an old woman, looking for the Undying Sun. She helped others along the way, and returned home, content, but not any wealthier than she started. In the contrasting tale, however, a man tried to loosen the fountain of his fortune (literally), and broke a stick into the pipe; after that, his life was an endless series of misfortune. A note also mentioned a male "prince and the pea," but didn't include the text.


After the Ukraine, Moldove, and Bulgaria, I once again found a tale about the girl and her brothers who were kidnapped by a dragon, for their late-born little brother to save. In this case, the boy was born from his widow mother drinking her own tears. I last encountered the tale type of The Goldsmith's Wife in the USA; in this version, two princes helped a woman escape from her abusive husband.
The Magic Brothers-in-Law was a close variant of Grimm's Crystal Ball, except the villain here did not hide himself in one, but three eggs: One had his sight, one had his strength, and one had his life (hello, Voldemort). The Boy and his Guardian was a straight up "grateful dead" tale, but I liked the moment where the king threatened to have his son executed if he did not make at least one friend. The tale of The girl whose father wanted to marry her was a version of Catskins, but in this case, it was the girl who took the prince's ring at the ball, so that she could come back for him later. Three Measures of Salt was a classic case of the clever wife taunting her husband, like in the American Basil Maiden, or the Pentamerone's Violetta. The Girl who went to war was a sex-change folktale (and notes also said there are variants where the prince turns into a princess, instead of the other way around). The clever peasant girl in this case focused on speaking in riddles - called "crow language" - which a prince used to make sure his bride would be clever.

Where to next?

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