Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Research behind the scenes: Sibling tales from India

I like to show my work, so here is another behind-the-scene post about a fun project.
I was invited by the Hopp Ferenc Museum of Asian Art to tell stories at their Raksha Bandhan Siblings Day event. It sounded like an exciting theme, and I do love museum gigs, so I decided to bring a whole new bouquet of stories. Building the program was an adventure.

Here is what I had to go on: I needed stories from INDIA, about SIBLINGS. Of course, the usual criteria still applied:
1. I only tell stories that I enjoy and am excited about
2. I needed to prepare stories for various age groups, since at a family event you never know who is going to show up
3. I had to fill 30 minutes with stories, multiplied by possible age groups that meant I needed to prepare 6-8 stories
4. I have a habit of bringing at least one new story to every gig, just to keep my repertoire fresh
5. And, of course, I wanted to focus on stories where siblings love and help each other, or at least are not binary good/evil and murderous

I started building the program by looking at my existing repertoire. I do have some tales from India (I love folktales from South Asia), so I ran through my index cards, and fished out some that fit the sibling theme. I found three, but two went into the "maybe" pile, because one only really featured one of the siblings, and the other I needed permission for. I concluded that I will need a lot more than that, therefore I began my usual drill of finding new folktales for a theme.

Step One: Buy a lottery ticket
Sometimes it is easier to find stories than one would think, especially if someone else has already done the legwork. So I put folktales from India about siblings into Google Books, and waited for a lucky find. While the search did not bring up a full collection, it did show me a book about sibling relations in cultures in India, as well as a folktale collection that had a "brothers and sisters" chapter. Both had Preview options, so I flipped through them, and filed some possible stories away for later research.

Step Two: Open, Sesame
Then came the key phrase search in Google Books. I typed in phrases that might lead to a folktale text I wanted: "loved his sister", "helped her brother", "helps her brother", "rescues her sister", etc. All in all four he/she combinations, past and present tenses, etc. (because "" tells Google to look for the exact phrase only). I opened all likely results in new tabs.

Step Three: Sifting for gold
One by one, I looked at the Google Books results. Did the book have Preview? If not, was it available in a digital format? I use JSTOR, HathiTrust, Archive.org, Gutenberg, Sacred Texts,and occasionally Kindle for these, and pray to get lucky, since here in Hungary I am cut off from free Inter-Library Loan (which is, frankly, painful). Wherever I could get a glimpse of parts of a story, I tried to guess if it would be worth investigating further; many common tale types are recognizable from a paragraph. I threw out tales where siblings killed or tortured each other - and also the ones where they... um, were a little too close.

Step Four: Back to the source
Because the book search only yielded limited results, it was time to get serious: Go and hit up the Thompson Motif Index. Luckily, it has a searchable version, where I could type in "brother" and "sister", and search for India in the results. Sisters got 301 hits, brothers got 346, but not all from India. I jotted down the numbers that sounded promising (H1151.18: Husband rescues wife's sister from box in an elephant's ear).

Step Five: Sources of sources
The Motif Index itself has the nasty habit of referencing other motif indexes. In the case of India, the source noted is usually the Thompson-Balys Indian Motif Index, which I was lucky enough to acquire while I was studying in the US. So, with the numbers I noted down, I turned to this other book, and looked up the motifs again, searching for the texts they cited. Once again I did the "is there a digital version?" rounds on the Internet. Wherever I got lucky, I finally had the chance to read the story itself, and see if I liked it.

[At this point, I have been researching for 6-7 hours, too bad they don't pay me by the hour for gigs]

Step Six: Story selection
Now that I havecombed through forty or fifty folktales, it was time to pick the ones that I liked best, and wanted to include in the program. There were some that I loved at first sight, some that were new and exciting versions of tale types I love (such as the Gold-spitting Prince), and some I selected because I loved the message of the story (portraying humans and animals as brothers). I even picked one that was probably too violent for kids, but I was intrigued by the dedicated friendship of two half-brothers, one human and one half-rakshasa, who killed monsters together. Slowly, the new story collection began to take shape. I felt like a pearl diver coming up from the deep with magical treasures.

Step Seven: Bringing the tales to life
Of course, this was only the beginning. In order to make a performance good, I had to learn, digest, embody, and color the stories for live telling. I researched all the cultural elements, strange words, flora and fauna in each tale, and read up on the regions they originated from. I was happy to notice that, without paying attention, I managed to pick tales from various different parts of India, showing wonderful cultural diversity. The rest was the fun part: Practice the stories, taste them, love them... and tell them.

Step Eight: The performance
As it usually happens, I prepared way more stories than I needed. In the end, I had time to tell two of them at the event, to a lovely, attentive audience of mostly adults and older children. It was raining that day, which is probably why we didn't get a lot of the smaller kids at the museum, but the storytelling worked out wonderfully. I told about a brother and a sister who set out to find Soma, a washerwoman with magical powers, to help break a curse on the girl, and crossed seven seas together, and then I told about two brothers, a human and a tiger, running a race to see who gets to live in cities. In this latter one, the strength and speed of the tiger was balanced out by the human's cleverness, and a little help for their third brother, who was a spirit. Both tales were fun to tell, and the audiences seemed to enjoy them.

All in a good day's work.

One of the tales had baby eagles

Monday, August 27, 2018

Alpine wonderland (Following folktales around the world 80. - Switzerland)

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 here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Legends of Switzerland
H. A. Guerber
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909.

I chose this book because I really enjoyed the author's other collection, Legends of the Rhine, and I was curious what stories she collected from Switzerland. Heléne Adeline Guerber was a 19th century British historian, who had a knack for organizing stories; in this book, she arranges them by canton, and by the landscape they are connected to. The volume contains about 100 stories, ranging across the mountains as well as across several historical eras, presenting the most exciting tales, legends,and beliefs. The stories don't have any sources, sadly, but she does quote other books occasionally.


It should go without saying that William Tell, and the legends of Swiss independence, are featured in the book. We also catch a glimpse of Odin (Wotan), who tries to flood the canton of Vaud, but when his powers prove to be useless against Christianity, he retires to a mountain to hold witches' sabbaths. He is also credited as the leader of the Wild Hunt in Switzerland. And talking about typically Swiss things: There was a story about how a shepherd acquired the alpine horn from three mysterious visitors who offered him a choice between superhuman strength, wealth, and music.

The Castle of Vufflens had a very beautiful legend about a lord who wanted a son, and when his wife kept giving birth to daughters, he imprisoned all of them in the towers of the castle. Eventually, with the help of the faithful servant, the wife was reunited with her lost daughters, and the sisters lived happily.
One of my favorite tales from the book was that of the tailor from Conthey, who liked to call his wife a witch because she believed in ghosts and fairies. Then one night a dwarf showed up, and dragged the tailor along on a crazy ride across the mountains, showing him monsters, ghosts, dragons, dragon-maidens, the spirit of Nero, souls of lawyers condemned to be fishing in murky waters, fire-breathing boars, and other fun things, until the tailor got home in the morning and apologized to his wife for doubting her. I was also amused by the story where a naturalist used a box of live snakes to cure a customs officer's curiosity...

Picture from here
Of course there is no European mountain land without Dwarves, Fairies,and Giants - Switzerland has plenty of all three. Fairies usually inhabited caves, forests, or waters. For example, there was the legend of a fairy ship drawn by large swans on Lake Geneva; wherever the fairy woman stepped on shore from it, she brought prosperity, until steamboats chased the fairy skiff away from the lake. I also loved the fairy godmother that saved two doomed lovers by sternly scolding the angry father (and springing water from a rock). The legend of the Lake of Zug was a tad more eerie. A young man fell in love with a water fae, and went to live with her, but eventually he became homesick. As a solution, the fairy brought part of the city, along with all his friends, into the lake, so that they could all love together under the water forever... As for giants, most of them were helpful and benevolent. Among them the most famous was Gargantua, who rearranged the Swiss landscape in various ways.

It was fascinating how the famous image of Phyllis and Aristotle (in which the lady rides the philosopher like a horse) displayed in the priory of Romainmotier, gave birth to a whole other story, since locals did not know the original. In the local legend, the gatekeeper turned away a poor girl who wanted to pray for her sick mother. The girl died,and began to haunt the gatekeeper, forcing him to carry her on his back every night to pray at the chapel.
Other classics also made an appearance: The ghost of Pilate, for example, haunted Mount Pilatus, until a master of the Black Arts from Salamanca exorcised him into a small mountain lake. Mount Pilatus had other legends as well, some claiming that it was inhabited by gnomes, while another one telling about a cooper who accidentally got lost, and spent the winter living with two hibernating dragons. They got along great, except he got so used to dragon food that he could not digest normal food after that.
Another Master of the Black Arts appeared in the amusing legend of the Monster Sheep. A shepherd sprinkled holy water on a sheep to protect it, but it unexpectedly turned the animal into a monster that ravaged the area until a sorcerer managed to raise a white bull to fight it off.


Among the giant legends I found one of my favorites, the one about a giant's daughter taking a farmer home in her apron, just to be told by her father that people are not toys. There were also other familiar tale types such as Mare's Egg, Town of Fools (here, Merlingen), Sunken Cities, maiden rescued from dragon (by her father this time), etc. The story of Sintram and Beltram was reminiscent of a Dietrich-legend; here, two brothers set out to hunt a dragon, but one was immediately swallowed whole, and the other had to defeat the beast alone to rescue his sibling. I once again got to read the Ring of Fastrada - because, according to Swiss legend, the magic ring was presented to Charlemagne in Zürich. There were also knights sleeping under mountains (here, the leaders of Swiss independence), and an appearance from the Wandering Jew, who loved the Swiss landscape. I even found yet another mouse-army story - this time, the evil lords of Güttingen were devoured by the flood of rodents.
I was reminded of the Greek legend of Marathon by the story of the Battle of Murten, after which a Swiss soldier ran home with the good news - and barely said "Victory!" before he dropped dead from exhaustion. Other Greek parallels were brought up by the story of an eighty-year-old lady who managed to talk her rich grandson into granting as much tax-free land to the peasants as she could walk around in one day. The old, lame, and weak lady walked around no less than a thousand acres in one day, out of sheer love and determination.

Where to next?
San Marino!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Tiny tales from a tiny country (Following folktales around the world 79. - Liechtenstein)

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 here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Mivel Liechtensteinből nem sikerült mesegyűjteményt szereznem, megelégszem azzal az öt népmesével, amik az ország hivatalos turisztikai weboldalán szerepelnek. 

The three sisters
Instead of going to church on the feast of Ascension, three sisters go go gather berries in the mountains. On the way home, they refuse to give any to an old woman - who turns out to be the Virgin herself, and turns the three ungrateful girls to stone.

The hound of Santamerta
A ghost tells a young man that at midnight a chest of gold will appear in the chapel of Santamerta, with a hound on top. If he can move the hound, he can get the gold. The man and  his two friends try their best, but the hound doesn't budge, and the gold eventually disappears. The ghost reveals that the next chance will come along in 1000 years.

The white horse of Lochgass
A notorious horse thief finds a beautiful white horse outside the church on Christmas Eve. He steals it, and tries to ride it home, but the horse rides with him all over the place, and eventually throws him and breaks his neck. The horse turns out to be the Devil, who haunts that road in Vaduz until people erect a cross to keep him away.

Golden Boos
Apparently the most well known tale in Liechtenstein. It's about a stout woman who carries a chest on hr back wherever she goes, and when she stays somewhere, she puts it in a separate room. Then, a small man climbs out of the chest, and robs the place. The end.

The Guschg herdsmen's doll
Herdsmen spend the summer up in the mountains, and they entertain themselves  with making a life-size doll out of rags. They do "many things" to the doll, until in the autumn she suddenly comes to life, and declares that one herdsman has to stay with her. The others go home, and when they look back up, they can see that the doll has skinned the herdsman, and put his skin on the roof of the cottage to dry. She is sitting next to it, laughing.
I did not expect this, Liechtenstein.

Where to next? 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Legends of the Rhine (Following folktales around the world 78. - Germany)

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 here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

I bet you thought Germany would be represented by the Grimms! But since I recently worked my way through the early Grimm tales, and also already blogged about the Schönwerth collection, I decided to read something else this time. 

Legends of the Rhine
Wilhelm Ruland
Hoursch & Bechstedt, 1906.

This book contains 94 legends. It proceeds geographically from the source of the Rhine in Switzerland all the way to the Netherlands, retelling tales and legends city by city, castle by castle. Because of the borders, the book contains some Swiss stories at the beginning, and some Dutch at the end, but it is still very much a collection of German lore. The language is poetic and romantic, which is occasionally very fitting, and other times annoying, but at least it represents an era of re-telling German legends that precedes WWII. Because it is a literary collection, there are no notes or sources for the stories, but it was still a very entertaining read - I encountered some old favorites, and found new ones as well. If you even decide to take a trip along the Rhine, don't go without this book.


Obviously the Niebelungenlied is featured in the book, in two parts: Siegfried's death and Kriemhilde's revenge are attached to the city of Worms, while Siegfried's childhood and the slaying of the dragon are told in Xanten. Other famous classics also made an appearance: I read about Lorelei (St. Goar), Roland (Rolandseck) - the knight here survived his last battle and returned to his German love, but she was already dead -,  Lohengrin (Cleve), and the infamous Lady of Stavoren.
Several legends along the Rhine feature Charlemagne. I especially liked Eginhard és Emma (Ingelheim), in which the king's favorite daughter fell in love with a young courtier, and when snow fell, she carried him on her back across the courtyard, so that the footprints would not give his visit away. Charlemagne did find out in the end, and exiled the lovers - but they lived happily together anyway. The legends of Aachen also featured the king. There was the story of the famous cathedral, in which people threw a wolf in first, so that the Devil waiting for his payment (for helping build the cathedral), a "living creature's soul", would kill the wolf and not the first person to walk in. Also, my personal favorite, the Ring of Fastrada: A magic ring that made Charlemagne fall madly in love with whoever was wearing it - including his wife's corpse, and his good friend Bishop Turpin.
As a collection of romantic legends, the book contains quite a few love stories, both of the tragic and the happy variety. Gerda és Helmbrecht (Rheinstein), for example, live happily ever after - after the girl is almost married to an evil old suitor, but her horse goes wild in the wedding procession, kicks the guy into a ravine, cripples the stern father, and throws the bride right into the arms of the true love. The Minstrel of Neuenahr was a beautiful, but tragic tale of a singer who went off to the Holy Land to earn the hand of the lady he loved - but returned too late, after she died of loneliness.
Of the less well known stories, I really liked the Knave of Bergen (Frankfort), a dashing stranger who danced with the empress all through a masquerade - until it was revealed that he was an executioner by trade. The story had a happy ending, in which the executioner convinced the emperor to knight him, to wash the "stain" of his profession off the empress. Smart guy. I also liked the Blind archer of Burg Sooneck, who was kept as a prisoner by an evil robber baron, until he was called on to show off his skills of shooting after sound - and, unsurprisingly, he shot the baron dead, after he clinked his glass.
German common sense featured into the legend of the Cathedral of Cologne. The building master made a bet with the Devil that the cathedral would be ready faster than the Devil could dig a canal to the city, with cheerful ducks swimming in it. The underground canal was done quickly, but the Devil could not really get the ducks to cheerfully swim in it... until he tricked the master into disclosing that the ducks needed air holes along the underground tunnel. Holes were made, the ducks moved in, the bet was lost, the master killed himself, and the cathedral was only finished by the 19th century.
As an archaeologist, I also enjoyed the legend of the Roman ghosts in Bonn. Roman martyrs Cassius, Florentius and Melusius helped a poor man out with some gold - but they only spoke Latin, which the man did not understand, so all that they could say together was "Vivat!"


Giants appeared in various stories. In one, a giantess picked up a farmer from the fields, and took him home as a toy - but her father told her to take it back where she found it (people are friends, not toys). In the story of the Seven Mountains, people paid the giants to cut a path for the river, and they did so - and surprisingly, no one got cheated or killed in the deal.
The legend of the Orloj in Prague was repeated about the cathedral clock in Strassbourg - the clockmaker was blinded so that he could never make another one (it was tough to be a clockmaker in the middle ages). The Polish legend of Popiel was repeated in the Mouse Tower of Bingen, where an evil archbishop was eaten by mice. There was also a virgin offered to a dragon (naturally), but this time she was rescued by her own faith, and the cross she was carrying (Drachenfels).
The story of Richmodis of Aducht from Cologne still goes around today as an urban legend - it's the one about the wife who is buried alive, and wakes up when grave robbers try to cut her rings off. Cologne also had a connection to the Grimm tales: legend says goblins used to live in its workshops, helping people with their crafts, until a tailor's wife left out peas on the floor to watch them trip and fall. Ever since then there have been no shoe-making elves in Cologne (or trade elves of any kind).

Where to next?

Monday, August 6, 2018

Giants, Dwarves, Kobolds (Following folktales around the world 77. - Austria)

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 here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

In the Land of Marvels
Folk-tales from Austria and Bohemia
Theodor Vernaleken
Swan Sonnenchein, 1889.

The sixty tales included in this book were collected in Lower Austria and Bohemia in the second half of the 1800s by a professor named Theodor Vernaleken. He  gathered them from the oral tradition, aiming to create a supplement to the already famous Grimm collection. While the language of the stories is sometimes a little hard to follow, there were quite a few great, unusual fairy tales in the book; I left out the Bohemian ones from this post with a heavy heart, but I highly recommend reading them! Each story comes with notes, including the place where it was collected.


I really enjoyed the tale of Stupid Peter (despite the horrible title), in which a peasant boy found out about a magical castle from a knight, and proceeded to conquer it. He cot in through various tricks (including luring a lion into a bag, and throwing bacon at a dragon), and made friends with a woman named Pest. He threw an apple to an evil giant, and the woman got into the giant's stomach with the apple, and killed him. Don't eat unwashed fruit, children.
The story of Wild-Cat, regardless of the title, was not an animal tale, but a wild fairy tale adventure. The hero had for a godfather a wild man who rode a large black cat, and gave him gold (some godfathers are better than others). Wild-Cat fell in love with a princess, and even after the king kicked him out of the court, he managed to save the palace from being pillaged by robbers.
The story of Winterkolble was familiar, and yet unusual. A girl exiled from home (Grete, without Hansel) was raised by a dwarf, who only let a prince marry her if he could guess his name. When the prince did, the foster-father went back to the woods, since he did not want to live in a castle. Dwarves like him figured into other stories as well, in various ways. In The tailor and the hunter the two travelers lived with a dwarf for a while, but only the tailor treated him politely and kindly. When the hunter later left him in the underworld to die, grateful dwarves built him a staircase back to the human world. Dwarves were less kind in the story of Hondiddledo and the Fiddle. The tale started out with three brothers having to guard a tree of golden apples - but unlike the usual form, this time even the youngest one failed, and he fled into the world to avoid punishment. He encountered "small men," who tricked him out of his fiddle and his money, until our hero committed suicide in the end... Another tale with a similarly dark and unexpected tone was that of the Nine birds, in which a princess murdered nine of her suitors, until the tenth managed to outwit her with magic. The nine ghosts turned into nine birds, and sang the princess' guilt until she repented, at which point they turned back to men, and forgave her.


I found a very pretty version for the Golden-haired Gardener folktale type in this book. The hero was called Ferdinand, and he was helped by a white horse; he gardened only at night, wearing an outfit studded with stars, and gathered milk from a wolf, a bear, and a deer to cure an old king. My favorite moment was when the king still refused to allow his daughter to marry a gardener - at which point the princess "became enraged", and demanded the marriage.
Winterkolble was also not the only variant of the Rumpelstiltskin tale in the book. Kruzimügeli (I love the names in this tale type) was also one; here, the helpful little man even told his name to the girl, all she had to do was remember it for three years. Would you?...
The Brementown Musicians in this case were led by an old tomcat, and set out on Saint Martin's night to seek a new home. The Brave Little Tailor ended up in a kingdom where clothes were forbidden and tailors executed, but lucky for him, he multiclassed as a giant-killer, so all was well in the end. He got help from an old woman who handed him a hedgehog and a bird (bird was used as a "stone" in a throwing contest, while the hedgehog doubled as a bowling ball). In the end, the tailor-made-king used his magic scissors to cut good men out of bad ones, and his thimble to repair the wounds of soldiers.
In the story of the Outcast Son the hero was raised by a friendly giant, who also gave him advice on where to find a wife. However, when he stole the crown of a fairy maiden while she was bathing, the girl smacked him and got her crown back. Twice. Girl Power!
Once again there was a man seeking his luck (or rather, going to God to ask why he was not giving For one kreutzer a hundred, like the priest promised when collecting alms). There were also familiar tale types like Frau Holle (who was not making snow fall, but did have some souls trapped in bottles), Raven brothers, Catskins, Twin princes, Rabbit-herd, Gifts of the Wind, Magic Flight, and Animal Bride (except in this case the bride was a nightcap, instead of an animal...). There was also a magic tree that a hero named Hansl climbed, visiting old women named after the days of the week, and when he reached the top he just... stayed there, end of story.
The tale of the Shepherd and the Dwarfs reminded me of The Hobbit in many ways. The exiled king of the Dwarves and his sons asked a brave man to help them re-conquer their kingdom under the mountains, after it had been taken over by a dragon hungry for treasure...

Where to next?