Monday, May 21, 2018

God and taxes (Following folktales around the world 66. - Macedonia)

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!

19th century Macedonian Folktales
Marko Cepenkov
Macquarie University, 1991.

This book (which you can find online) contains 66 tales from the 19th century collection of Marko Cepenkov. Interestingly enough, even though Cepenkov gathered more than 800 folktales in his life (as well as legends and other folk texts), he was not really a folklorist or researcher. Rather, he listened to the stories, then mulled about them until they were "ready", and then wrote them down with his own words. In that way, he is another link in the chain of oral tradition that formed the stories, rather than an academic.
There are not many classic "fairy tales" in this collection. Most of the stories are legendary tales, funny anecdotes, and realistic tales. In exchange, they really are an excellent lineup of stories: The jokes are amusing, the legends are clever, and many stories mirror directly some issues and social situations that exist even to this very day (you'll see). The translation is also entertaining, although I wished there had been some notes accompanying the tales.


I was sad that the Bulgarian volume did not contain the tale of Silyan the Stork... and lo and behold, I found it in this one! The book says it is one of Cepenkov's most famous tales. Not sure if the Bulgarians would agree with that statement, but it is a great story anyway. Silyan the good-for-nothing husband and father goes out into the world, and gets shipwrecked on the Island of Storks. The storks of the world are people, who live as humans for half a year, and as birds the other half. Silyan also learns the secret of transformation, and flies home with them... but then gets stuck in bird form, and can only watch his family from afar. Eventually, the tale does have a happy ending, and we also learn a lot about storks along the way. The people's love for animals (and storks especially) also showed through in other tales. One had a poignant moral: If you help a wicked man, you help the devil. In this, a kind man saved a snake and a stork, and they both helped him in return; then he saved a wicked man, and almost got executed because of his shenanigans. The story concluded: "You don't have to harm wicked people, but you should not help them either." Words to live by...
I also loved the moral of the tale of The rich man who bought a liver for a poor man. A rich man bought a liver as a gift to a poor man, and then asked him to carry his own shopping home "as a thank you." On the way, the rich man boasted to everyone what a great charity he had done, then made the poor man do some more chores "as a thank you," while basking in his own charity. Finally, the poor man decided one liver was not worth the humiliation, and left. I want to use this tale for teaching about privilege... Similarly, the one titled The poor man who lost a thousand eggs on the way to Istambul. In this one, the poor man had to give his eggs away little by little to corrupt customs officers. Eventually, he decided to set up a toll booth at the cemetery, and grew rich from taking a "burial tax." Only at the end of his life did the Emperor discover the trick, and with it, the corruption in his kingdom. (Fun fact: This story still goes around on the Internet as an urban legend!).
I had a feeling of déja vu reading the tale of The man who had the emperor's permission to murder. A man made a bet that the judges of the city were so corrupt that he could get away with killing someone on the marketplace in broad daylight, if he paid them off. He did prove his point, and won the bet, by presenting a "licence" made of money to the judge. Hmmm.
Some of the animal tales were also delightful. That of The Wolf told about a hungry wolf that tried to devour various animals, but they all tricked him in various ways. Even better was The fox who had a hundred ideas, and the badger who only had two: The fox kept taking advantage of the badger and stealing his ideas, until he outsmarted her in the end.
There were several religious legends in the book where humor and moral went hand in hand. My favorite was that of St. Peter and the poor man. The saint took pity on a freezing beggar, and asked God to make it so that it would be summer all year round. But he soon found out that eternal summer came with consequences: Amphibians and reptiles began to proliferate, grow, and become sentient. Eventually, when King Toad asked for Peter's daughter in marriage, he had to admit the whole thing was a bad idea... I was also amused by The poor man and St. Nikola, in which the protagonist bought two icons, that of the Virgin and that of St. Nikola, to guard his house from thieves. When the house was robbed anyway (obviously), he threatened Nikola until the saint made sure the goods were returned. I loved it that the poor man decided to let the Virgin off easy, because "she was probably changing diapers at the time."
The tale of Truth and Falsehood was similar to the popular "Truth and Story" tale, except here the truth was dressed up in lies, and felt very embarrassed about it. Finally, there was a very clever story about A man who kept a written record of all the female wiles. He collected all the tricks that women used to cheat on their husbands with him (!!!), and then tried to control his own wife by consulting the list. Of course, the wife, who was actually faithful, still managed to prove that she could have tricked him if he wanted to.


It is not all that surprising that there is a Macedonian version of King Midas - except instead of donkey ears, here The king had a horn in the middle of his forehead. The lucky boy's story was very similar to that of the Devil's three golden hairs, except here the boy's lucky fate was decided by The Three Fates (and written down), and it was the daughter herself who changed the letters to be able to marry him. Also, I loved the variant of the Blacksmith and the devil in which the protagonist showed up in Heaven with twelve devils in the end (his card-playing buddies), and insisted that if he had to treat all the twelve apostles when Jesus visited him, then he was entitled to bring his friends in too. St. Peter couldn't argue.
There was also another variant of 'why old people are not killed anymore' - in this one, The old folks were taken up to the mountain to die. Interestingly, in this one the king gave young people impossible tasks on purpose, to make the realize they needed their elders' wisdom. There was also another tale where a child helped serve justice to thieves (and his name just happened to be Solomon).
After Greece, I once again found a tale about a man who would his Fountain of Luck... and tried to broaden the tap with a stick, but the stick broke, and blocked his luck. He eventually died from an accidental self-inflicted cannonball wound.
I grew up hearing the story of the stubborn donkey and the chili pepper from my grandfather. Here, there was yet another version after Nasruddin, but with Six donkeys.

Where to next?

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