Tuesday, December 31, 2019

316 earworms

This time last year I blogged about how I wake up with a song stuck in my head almost every morning. For an entire year I wrote down the songs in my journal, and compiled a list. In 2019 I repeated the experiment, curious to see how the soundtrack changed this year, or whether it changed at all. It was definitely a fun thing to do!

Last year there were 306 days when I woke up to music stuck in my head. Usually they are stuck so strong that I keep humming them over and over until I listen to something else. This year there were 316 mornings like this; but while last year's list contained 150 different songs, this year only had 137. There is still no discernible system or reason for which song I wake up to which morning. Some of them I listen to a lot, others I have not heard for years. Songs I like tend to show up, but spaced out over months, rather than in a cluster.

Here is this year's Top 5. Don't judge.

First place, with 12 mornings:
(The Moana soundtrack is still in first place; I woke up to We know the way 8, You're welcome also 8, and Where you are 2 times)

Second place, 11 mornings:
(Yes, this is Scarlett Johansson as a porcupine)

Third place, 10 mornings:
(Yes, I know, the Sing soundtrack definitely stuck with me; I also woke up to I've got faith 4 times, it's one of my favorite songs to walk around the city to.)

Also third place with 10 mornings (sticking to her place on last year's list):

Fourth place, 9 mornings:
(I don't even listen to this one and it still stuck)

Fifth place, 8 mornings:

Also fifth pace, 8 mornings:
(Not counting the Moana songs again; Halsey's Castle, from last year's list, also got 8 mornigs).

+1 I listen to on repeat while walking to work, and yet I only woke up to it once, I don't get it:

I also compared this year's list to last year's. Last year's first place, Little Talks, only got 6 mornings, and the second place songs, Ed Sheeran's I see fire and Demi Lovato's Confident only got 2 mornings each.

It was also interesting to look at soundtracks. As I mentioned before, I woke up to Moana songs a total of 30 mornings this year. Next to them, I really got hooked on The Magicians soundtrack - together with Under pressure from the list above, they were the song of the day on 22 mornings (Take on me 7, Here I go again 6, One day more 1), and countless workdays. I also added some badass blues songs from new favorites Larkin Poe on 15 mornings (Look away 6, Dandelion 5, Bleach blonde bottle blues 4). Hamilton is still alive and well with 12 mornings (Wait for it 6, Alexander Hamilton 4, Someday 1, Satisfied 1).

On the other end of the list there were quite a few WTF moments this year. My "favorite" was a children's camp song aptly titled One hundred purple fake dumplings marching in the desert, which is basically a version of 99 bottles of beer on the wall, and it drives adults nuts. And also, to give a nod to subconscious childhood nostalgia, this:

Thank God I only had to wake up to it once.

I shall continue the experiment in 2020. Can't wait to see how it goes...

Do you often wake up with a song stuck in your hear? What is your experience?

Saturday, December 28, 2019

StorySpotting: Princess in the crypt (The Witcher)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Where was the story spotted?

The Witcher, season 1, episode 3 (Betrayer Moon)

What happens?

Pic from here
A cursed princess is turned into a striga, a terrible monster that kills people. In order to break the curse on her, Geralt has to keep her out of her coffin until the rooster crows three times in the morning. At the end of a long and brutal fight all night, he locks himself in the princess' sarcophagus, and thus keeps her out until the light of dawn. When the finally emerges, he finds a transformed princess lying naked on the floor.

What's the story?

Let's skip over the striga folklore, because that is a whole different can of worms. The rest of this plot is pretty well known to storytellers around the world: it's a folktale type known as ATU 307, The Princess in the Coffin.

The basic story is pretty much always the same: a cursed princess crawls out of her coffin/crypt every night and kills people. Whoever wants to break the curse has to avoid being killed for three nights in a row. A young and brave soldier receives life-saving advice from an old man (in exchange for half of his bounty), and survives two nights. On the third night he locks himself in the princess' coffin, and waits until morning, thus breaking the curse, and setting her free. In some versions he marries her; in others, he gets paid in coin.
In some versions the old man who helps the young soldier is a grateful dead person himself. In some versions, as promised, they split the princess in half. (But then they put her back together).

This story is very popular in the Hungarian tradition, I have blogged about it before. You can read a Danish version (The princess in the chest) here, a French version (Jean of Bordeaux) here, a Spanish one (La hija enterrada) here, a Polish-American version (The bewitched princess) here, and a Roma version (The three girls) here. It also exists (and is listed in the ATU catalog) in most of the Baltic countries, the Netherlands, German-speaking countries, all around the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Russia.

Fun fact: This folktale type is often attached to the end of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. After they are found out, in many variants the princesses are executed for sneaking out at night to do witchcraft. Their corpses are buried, and then they start coming back for revenge, until someone breaks the curse.


This story has been a part of my repertoire for a long time (you can watch me tell it in English here). It makes excellent Halloween telling, and teenagers love it. I was thrilled to recognize it in the show.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Familiar discoveries (Following folktales around the world 136. - Mozambique)

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!

This is the last post in the series before a short winter break. We'll be back after the holidays!

Makua Tales 
Second Series
H. W. Woodward
Bantu Studies 9/1, 1935.

Since I could not find a book for Mozambique, I dug up an article from the Bantu Studies journal. It contains 25 Makua folktales in the original language and English mirror translation. The Makua are a Bantu ethnic group who mostly live in Mozambique (and some of them are scattered in Tanzania). The end of the article also contains a series of riddles, but they are very hard to guess for someone not familiar with Makua culture (or local flora and fauna). Most of the tales in the article belonged to familiar types, but it was nice to see them again.


The story of Narikosha was simple and lovely. A handsome man decided not to pick a beautiful girl from among the ones that competed for him; instead, he picked a girl he loved, even though she was covered in sores.


I knew the story of The monkey's heart from many places (including Columbia). Here it was a catfish who got tricked by a monkey. The mutual invitation story, where neither host allowed the guest to eat at their party, here featured Tortoise and Monkey. There was a "flying turtle" tale as well, where turtle was being carried over water by his friend Falcon, but couldn't resist speaking, so he got dropped in the river - that's why turtles live in water.
I was happy to see my favorite "bystander intervention" folktale again - this time Rabbit tried to trick Dove into giving him her children, but Falcon showed up in time to tell her not to believe the empty threats, Rabbit can't actually hurt (or reach) her.
There was a short animal bride folktale featuring a civet cat that secretly turned into a woman when no one was looking, and cleaned a hunter's house..
The resident trickster is Hare, who usually tricked Hyena - for example, in the popular African tale type of going to visit relatives, and tricking his companion on the way multiple times. There was also a "deadly rock" type story; here Hare lured animals into a hollow log, and killed them when they got stuck (until Eland tricked him). In another story Hare kept scaring people, and eating their food when they ran away - until they caught him with the usual Tar Baby trick. On the other hand, it was also Hare who tricked the ungrateful Leopard back into the trap he had been saved from, saving Deer's life. And he also featured in a "silent princess" tale, where he made her speak by showing her a catfish in a cat trap, and a cat in a fish trap.

Where to next?
The Comoros!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Morals for the next generation (Following folktales around the world 135. - Malawi)

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! 

Malawi ​Folktales 1
Veronica Maele
AGLC Press, 2003.

The book contains fifteen folktales, collected by the author from her own older relatives. The goal of the book, according to the introduction, was to offer traditional stories to the next generation from their own culture, teaching them through morals that have not been passed through because of social changes between generations. To support this goal, the book has an educational chapter at the end, with questions and teaching help. There are also some black-and-white illustrations.


I really enjoyed the story of Kilapo and the witches. Kilapo was a sick boy (probably with leprosy), whom his own family wanted to exile into the wilderness, but he had one loyal friend who spent time with him even when he was not supposed to. He invited Kilapo along on a trip with other children, even though Kilapo waked slowly, and all the other kids made fun of them. The group ended up in a cave of witches, and, of course, it was Kilapo who saved everyone in the end.
The story of The woodcutter and the bird was also beautiful. The woodcutter found a beautiful rich forest, but every time he cut down some trees, the clearing disappeared by the next day. He eventually managed to catch a glimpse of a magic bird that flew in, and revived the trees with its song. The woodcutter gave up and moved elsewhere.
I also liked the story in which a kind bird gave wings to the grasshoppers so that they would not have to hop everywhere. Another pourquoi story explained why frogs look the way they do - and not the way they used to, back in the old days, when they had pretty horns and luscious white fur.


I was surprised to find a variant of the Ant and the Grasshopper - the moral was the same (gather food for hard times), but in the end the neighboring mouse took pity on the grasshopper, and gave him enough food to survive the winter.

The story of the red mangoes was similar to all the folktales about stolen golden apples, except here the youngest boy was very kind to the bird, and when his brothers wanted to take it from him, a wizard appeared out of nowhere, and chastised them. There was also a "kind and unkind girls" story.
I was reminded of a West African Anansi story by the tale of Lizard and his three wives. He won them by guessing their secret names - but in the end they ran away with other men, and Lizard was okay with it, as long as he could visit sometimes, which is why you tend to find lizards inside the house.
There was yet another "tricky invitation" tale where Tortoise and Monkey invited each other for lunch, but didn't actually get to eat any food; and also an ungrateful lion, tricked back into the trap by a clever Hare to help a medicine man.

Where to next?

Saturday, December 14, 2019

StorySpotting: Fae vs. Human (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I am not a fan of Disney's recent "live action" phase, but Maleficent is the one exception because it actually manages to create a new story instead of just CGI-ing the crap out of a cartoon.

Where was the story spotted?

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (aka Maleficent 2)

What happens?

Humans decide to start a war to get rid of those pesky fae creatures in the Enchanted Forest once and for all. The whole story culminates in an epic battle scene, and a bunch of fae locked in a church, being turned into flowers and plants by poison gas (yeah, I know.).

What's the story?

Sure, fairies and humans have their differences in various tales and legends, but all-out war and genocide? Really?


Illustration (Castle Sirok)
For starters, there is a Hungarian legend about Castle Backa in Transylvania. It claims that the castle was built by fairies, who lived at a distance from, but in general peace with, the humans - that is, until we started to build churches with bell towers. The fairies repeatedly warned humans the sound of the bells bothered them, and when that didn't work, they raised an army, attacked the human villages, and destroyed all churches. Some time later water disappeared from their castle. Dying of thirst they came to the humans to beg for water, but the humans, remembering the destruction, denied their pleas. The fairies left, and no one ever heard from them again.

Another tale, from Transcarpathia, takes an even darker turn. It's titled Where have all the fairies gone?, and it was recorded from storyteller Pályuk Anna about 100 years ago (I published it in English in by book Dancing on Blades). It is told in first person by a girl who sets out to investigate why all fairies are gone. A mysterious man tells her the story: one time human children started to die in great numbers, and someone claimed they were being killed by fairies - so humans set out and systematically hunted the fairies all down. Or so the mysterious man claims... and then he disappears.

There is a local legend in Ireland's County Leitrim about two neighboring cairns, Sigh Mor and Sigh Beg. It claims that under the piles of stones two warriors are buried who fell in a battle fighting each other. Since both sides in the battle had fairy allies, the fairies continued fighting long after the humans were gone, and they continued their battles for centuries.

Also, moving away from fairies to other mythical creatures, there is the legend of King Laurin's Rose Garden, one of my favorite medieval stories. In this one, humans accuse Dwarf King Laurin of kidnapping their princess, and set out to take revenge. In truth, the princess ran away with the Dwarf king out of love, but her family refuses to believe that. Even when they manage to start some diplomatic talks with the help of legendary King Dietrich of Bern, civility soon breaks down, and the human knights kidnap the Dwarf king. He manages to get a message to a relative of his, King Walberan, ruler of the Dwarfs and Giants of the Caucasus, and he shows up with an entire army to save Laurin and level Dietrich's human kingdom. The battle is averted in the last minute, and eventually Dwarfs and Humans manage to make peace.
(I have a full-hour storytelling show of this legend, called Roses in the Mountains)

Last but not least: Irish leprechauns are officially a protected species under the E. U. Habitats Directive. A man who met a leprechaun was told that there were only 236 of them left, and since no one can prove or disprove their existence, their habitat was declared protected.


I feel like we need to remember all these stories, and see what we can learn from them about acceptance, coexistence, cultural diplomacy, and other important topics.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Tales, word for word (Following folktales around the world 134. - Zambia)

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!

Folktales ​from Zambia
Texts In Six African Languages And In English
Dorothea Lehmann
Dietrich Reimer, 1983.

The book contains nineteen folktales, collected in the 1960s by a German linguist who was researching the languages of the newly independent country. The introduction tells us about the types and language of the stories, the context of collecting them, and the way they were transcribed from the original by students who spoke the native languages. There was also a lot of information about the storytelling tradition - for example, a taboo against telling stories in daylight (otherwise the teller's father turns into a monkey, and their mother into porridge).
The story texts appear on the same page, one column in the original language and the other in English, in very punctual mirror translation. The book also contains a bibliography and a map.


I have seen the story of the selfish husband before, but I really liked the version in this book. During a famine a family moved into the bush. The husband found lots of honey, but hid it, and refused to share with his children, even when they begged. Finally the mother went out to hunt, and killed a large animal, but could not drag it home. The village came to her help, gave her flour and corn, and now that she had support, she divorced her selfish husband.
There was also a classic shapeshifting story about a hunter who turned into a lion. There really is not much happening in the story, other than a hunter turning into a lion, and his companions pissing themselves in fear. The lion didn't hurt anyone, though, and eventually changed back.


The magic ring was an Aladdin-story, but here it was the mother-in-law who stole the ring, and an eagle and a rat helped to get it back. I have already seen a tale similar to The hornbill and the hare once; here, the bird threatened the hare into working for him, claiming his beak was red hot and dangerous. Once he fell asleep, however, the hare found out the truth about the beak being harmless.

Where to next?

Saturday, December 7, 2019

StorySpotting: Skin and bones (Terminator: Dark Fate)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I really wanted to do a Terminator post about strong women and female warriors and whatnot, but then this random tidbit was so funny that the post just wrote itself. Sorry.

Where was the story spotted?

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

What happens?

In this movie we see a new type of terminator, the REV-9, which is designed as an infiltrator. As Wikipedia so eloquently put it: the REV-9's "primary feature is the ability to split its mimetic polyalloy exterior and endoskeleton into two separate units." Basically, its skin separates from its (carbon-based) bones, and goes walking around separately, taking on other people's form.

What's the story?

The first one that came to mind was a folktale from Palau, titled Budel and Iuesel. They were brothers, the children of the same woman; Budel was just an empty skin, and Iuesel was a skeleton. Iuesel went fishing every day, but one time Budel wanted to go too. The skeleton carried his skin-brother down to the seashore, where he could sit on a rock and spear fish. However, suddenly they saw an enemy war canoe coming in. They had to run back to their village, but as Iuesel ran, Budel kept flapping behind him like a cape. Eventually, to make things easier, the skeleton slipped his brother on himself like a sweater - and skeletons have been wearing skin ever since.
(Find the story here.)
Taking off your skin and putting it back on is a surprisingly common thing in folktales. In a folktale from Liberia, titled Tola and the Sea Monster, a girl declares that she will only ever marry a man with perfect skin. A sea monster, hearing this, borrows the smooth, perfect skin of a sea goddess, puts it on, and seduces the girl, carrying her away into the underwater realms. (She is eventually rescued by her brother). There are also many stories in the Central American and Caribbean region about people (especially women) who take their skin off, and go flying around at night. In many cases someone (often the husband) eventually finds out, and rubs the empty skin's inside with salt and/or chili peppers, so when the person comes back, they can't put the skin on anymore. There are many variants of this story in Elsie Clews Parson's collections, and I also found some from Nicaragua and Belize.

Don't try this at home, kids.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Pig noses and exotic birds (Following folktales around the world 133. - Zimbabwe)

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!

Shangani ​Folk Tales
A collection of Shangani folk stories
C. Stockil & M. Dalton
Longman Zimbabwe, 1987.

The book contains thirty folktales from the Shangani (Tsonga) people of Zimbabwe. There are no notes or comments accompanying the stories, but there are a few black-and-white illustrations. The majority of the Shangani (a Bantu people) are located in Mozambique and South Africa, but a few thousand of them live in Zimbabwe, where the collection was published.


The hero (or anti-hero) of many stories was Nwapfundhla, the Hare - a true Trickster character. He did some very questionable things in some stories, while other were simply funny and entertaining. I enjoyed the story about The waterhole that the animals dug without Hare's help; when he kept stealing water from it anyway, Chibodze, the Tortoise, used his own shell as a tar baby trap to capture the thief. Trickster vs Trickster at its best.

There was an adorable story explaining why the warthog has a short nose, why the elephant shrew has a long nose, and why the nightjar has a wide mouth - the warthog fell off a tree and landed on his nose, which made the bird laugh and the shrew snort, and all of then acquired permanent new features that way. According to another tale Khumba, the pig has a short nose because he tried to imitate the lilac-breasted roller (see picture) who flies up high and then drops, only pulling up a hair's breadth before hitting the ground. Back then, pigs could fly but Khumba was not very good at it, so he hit the ground nose first, and has been too embarrassed to fly ever since. I also adored the story about how the warthog got his tail - God made tails for all the animals to pick from, but Elephant picked two, one for the back and one for the front, and the warthog was left out. In his shame, he dug up a root and stuck it to his back, and his tail has been sticking up ever since.


I have heard the story of Nganga, the python from storytellers before. A sick man needed a python-healer, but all his sons who went to fetch the serpent ran away in fear. Only the youngest child (already used to everyone being larger than him) was brave enough to carry the python around his shoulders.

The birds once again chose their own king; this time Eagle was bested by the tiny Fork-tailed drongo who flew higher on his back.
The resident trickster, as I mentioned, was Nwapfundhla the Hare. He featured into the story of the mutual dinner invitations with Baboon where neither let the other one eat. He also ran a race with Tortoise (and lost), and made Elephant and Hippo play tug-o-war. He also solved the problem when Baboon kept inviting animals to meet his in-laws, and then tricked them out of eating.

Where to next?

Monday, November 25, 2019

Tricksters in the bush (Following folktales around the world 132. - Botswana)

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!

Bushman ​folktales
Oral traditions of the Nharo of Botswana and the /Xam of the Cape
Mathias Guenther
F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1989.

The book contains tales from two San (Bushman) ethnic groups, one of which, the Nharo, live in Botswana. Their stories were collected by the author himself from the oral tradition between 1968 and 70, while the Xam tales are from archival sources from the turn of the last century. There are a total of 78 Nharo and 16 Xam stories (including variants). While the two groups are divided by distance, language, and time, the tales form a common tradition and mythology.
The introduction is very lengthy, and talks in detail about Bushman society, lifestyle, traditions, and the collection process. The Nharo stories were collected from 14 men; female storytellers refused to talk to the male collector, and he notes that this probably skewed the contents of the repertoire in the book as well. The introduction talks about each storyteller in detail, as well as San mythology and religion, and the main characters in the stories. On top of this, each story comes with extensive notes and comments, often longer than the story text itself. Even with all this extra information, however, most of the stories were a very difficult read for the European reader.


It was fascinating to read the variants of The hare and the moon one after another. They were all basically the same story, but the details only formed the full picture together. First, the fragments only talked about how Moon wanted to make people immortal, but Hare repeated his message wrong, and people became mortal instead. Next, we found out that Hare was not Moon's intended messenger; she derailed the real one, and gave the false message on purpose. Finally, a longer version revealed that the Moon lured Hare into his hut and assaulted her - which is why she took revenge by distorting his message of immortality.
The story of The ostrich and the gemsbok was the reverse of many wife-kidnapping tales. Here, an old ostrich woman kidnapped herself a handsome gembsok man, and other young women had to figure out a way to steal him back.


It was very interesting that the collector included stories that were from the Bible, retold with local Nharo colors and sentiments. For example, in the myth of Adam and Eve, when god found them hiding in shame after eating the apple, he said "Come out, I didn't say I'm going to kill you, I just told you not to eat the apple, because it's bad." And he allowed them back home. There were also some folktales locals learned from European settlers, such as the story of Wren and Eagle from Grimm (here with local bird species).
Once again there was an animal race folktale, here between Ostrich and Tortoise - one variant even stated that Ostrich's legs got skinny from all the hard running.
Tricksters got their own chapter in the book. One of them was a small, flat-headed person named Bi; he was responsible for stealing fire from Ostrich (while in some other versions ostrich women stole the fire from an ostrich man). Animal tricksters were represented by Hare and Jackal. The latter did the horseback riding trick with Lion; stuck to the tar baby while stealing vegetables; and decided the dilemma of the ungrateful rescued snake to save Fox's life. Human tricksters, next to Bi, included the Khoisan Eyes-on-the-Feet, Pate (his whole body covered in toes), and the very rowdy and crude Pisamboro.

Where to next?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Spin the globe, tell a story

"Come, sit next to me! Spin the globe, and stop it by pointing somewhere. I will tell you a story from whichever country your finger lands on..."

I have been developing and testing this storytelling program for years; I started the Following folktales around the world blog series because of it. It took lot of waiting and hoping but it finally happened - a local library ordered the program! I got to go and see if I really can tell a story on the spot from anywhere the kids point at on the globe.

It appears that I can.

The library was a lovely setting for the program. I was asked  to sign my books, I got tea, and I was surrounded by an art exhibit. I brought my own globe (the first one I found at home still had the Soviet Union on it, but I managed to rustle up another one that can be dated to the mid-1990s). When the kids and families arrived, I told them they could come up in pairs, one kid to spin the globe, and the other to point. The program I prepared has one story for every country, plus a couple of extras for outlying territories (such as Greenland or Hawaii), and at least one for each ocean and larger body of water. I also had a few "joker" tales I could resort to if I drew a blank - tricksters, for example, cover admirable stretches of land.

I held my breath, waiting to see what place the kids would land on.

Even though I was prepared that they would end up pointing at the 97% water surface, the kids specifically made sure to aim at dry land instead. The first little girl pointed at India, which is a pretty easy start in storytelling terms. In order to cater to the younger audience, as well as pick a shorter story so that we had more time to spin, I told the tale about how once upon a time the elephants could fly, and how they lost their wings. This story allows for a lot of humor and a lot of speculation (what problems can flying elephants present?), and it was a great way to kick off the show.
Next, a girl's finger landed on one of the triple borders of Central Asia, which, after some hesitation, was decided was closest to Tajikistan. I owe great gratitude to Dana Sherry at the Berkeley Silk Road House for sharing so many Central Asian tales with us over the years; I ended up telling a Goldilocks-like tale about an old couple who end up sneaking into the home of some bears in the winter. It was a fun story, and perfect for the age group.
The globe continued spinning, and next we landed on the Korean Peninsula (the tiny hand covered both Koreas). I chose to tell the folktale of the Story Spirits that vow to take revenge on a prince who wouldn't allow them to travel. It is not only an old favorite of mine, and a fun story to tell, but it also conveyed a message about storytelling which the kids easily picked up on. "So, this is why you are telling us stories!"
After this old favorite, I got to premiere a new one. A girl pointed at Uganda, and I just happened to have a brand new favorite folktale from there that I discovered the other day. It's about a king who has a private zoo he is proud of, but the animals suffer in it. At this point, we had a great conversation about what makes a zoo good for the animals, and the kids had a lot of smart things to say - "they get good food", "they have enough space", "there are not too many people", or "their essential sustenance needs are properly met" (hello there, Hermione Granger). The king in the tale eventually learns to appreciate open nature, and lets his animals go home. It's a beautiful tale to tell, and I'm definitely keeping it.
In the last round a boy landed on the USA - Florida, to be more specific. It's lucky that one of my favorite American folktales - Mockingbirds on Fridays - just happens to be from Florida. It's a fun but also touching tale about friendship, and about seeing a glimmer of good in everyone.

The spinning and pointing was completely random, and yet it ended up creating a wonderful lineup of stories. The kids were engaged, enthusiastic, and wicked smart; I had a great time spending the hour traveling around the globe with them. This is definitely one of y favorite storytelling programs to do. Can't wait for the next invitation...

Monday, November 18, 2019

Many kinds of transformations (Following folktales around the world 131. - Eswatini)

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!

Fairy ​tales from South Africa
E. J. Bourhill · J. B. Drake
Macmillan & Co., 1908.

This book contains 20 stories, out of which 12 are Swazi folktales (the others are from the Zulu and other neighboring traditions). It is more than a century old, and it shows; for one, it consistently calls all black people "Kafir" (which is an outdated term), and also uses eurocentric translations for many things - among them, referring to anything supernatural as "fairy" or "ogre" (e.g. "fairy bird" instead of "magic bird"). It is a book written for (European) children, therefore the introduction is a short and easy read about local customs, life, and storytelling traditions. The stories are enchanting and entertaining, and they are accompanied by elegant illustrations.


Setuli, King of the Birds is an epic tale about a deaf boy who becomes the king of the birds through his own courage and curiosity. With his bird-army he discovers new lands, fights monsters, saves people from curses, and settles in a new homeland in a journey that reminded me of European hero sagas. Transformed birds were also the protagonists of The cock's kraal, in which warriors wandered into a village full of hens; their chief, a golden rooster, revealed that they had been cursed into fowl until they can defeat a chief stronger than themselves. Later on, when a chief heard about the hen-village and thought it would be easy to conquer, the rooster and his people soundly defeated his armies, and won their human forms back. Transformation was also at the center of The enchanted buck. In this story a bull slaughtered for a girl's wedding magically turned into a man and then a buck, and ran away; the girl got accused of witchcraft and sent home, since no one wanted her as a wife anymore. She eventually found the buck in the wilderness, and helped him regain his human form for good.

The story of The unnatural mother, despite the horrible title, actually took a very nice turn. A woman was chased away from home by her son, because she secretly put on his clothes and ate his food. He told her to bring water from which no animal had ever drunk - but in the end it was the animals who helped her and saved her. I also loved the ending of The three little eggs, where a woman ran away from her abusive husband with her two little children, and after going through various adventures she killed a monster, and became queen.
The tale of Semai-mai, the cannibal king, was both dark and fascinating. A cruel tyrant was turned into a supernatural dog by a fairy, doomed to stay in that from until he loyally served someone. He kept eating human flesh in a cannibal king's court, until he actually became friends with a prince, helped him escape... but when he tried to start a new life, Semai-mai became jealous and ate him. At the end of the story a wise chief defeated the dog, who lost all his supernatural powers, became an ordinary canine, and returned to the other cannibal king to live as a pet for the rest of his life...


The story of the Fairy Frog reminded me of the European tales of the Frog Prince, except here the frog rescued the girl multiple times when her sisters, and a later a monster, tried to kill her. He even carried her around in his stomach for a while to keep her safe. The moss-green princess reminded me of the Frog Bride folktale; it was a lovely variant where a father got a monster skin to cover his unloved daughter in, and where the two sisters were not rivals but friends (and even the favorite daughter got her own happy ending). There was once again a false bride folktale with a man-eating monster with a carnivorous tail under her skirt.

Where to next?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

MythOff Budapest: Bestiary

Fall is here, and it was time to have another MythOff in Budapest! We met at our usual place, the Premier Kultcafé, to tell myths to adults (although this time we also had three very attentive children, under parental supervision). The evening was themed Bestiary, and we all brought stories that involved legendary animals and mythical creatures. It seemed to be a popular idea: we had more than seventy people in the audience!
The emcee of the evening was Nagy Enikő, who made sure everything went smoothly and well. Here is the rundown:

Round one: Beasts in the family
This round featured myths where the creatures formed a part of the family. Varga-Fogarasi Szilvia told the story of Greek creation, from Chaos to the rise of the Olympians. Hajós Erika told a melancholy Japanese story about a kitsune and her love for a moral man. 
Voting question: Which myth would you name your music band after?
Winner: Japanese mythology, and a theoretical punk band named Fox Fur Smell

Round two: Female beasts
This round had two myths were women turned into mythical creatures - and both of them from Greek mythology. Klitsie-Szabad Boglárka brought us the story of Medusa with wit and humor, while Bumberák Maja told the lyrical, touching story of Arachne. They made a great pair.
Voting question: Which would you rather take on, fighting Medusa or competing with Athena?
Winner: Everyone would rather fight Medusa (go figure)

Round three: Beasts in the wild
This last round had myths where people crossed over into the wilderness. First I told the myth of the Boongurunguru, Umaroa's mythical boar, from the Solomon Islands (one of my favorite mythical creatures!). Next, Stenszky Cecília told a Khanty story about a woman who died in the woods and was reborn as a bear, raised by a bear family.
Voting question: What would you rather plant in your garden, Knathy pines of ferns growing on the back of the Boongurunguru?
Winner: Solomon Islands

The tellers of the winning myths received coffee cups painted with mythical creatures (courtesy of Enikő) - the fourth mug was raffled off to the audience. The evening went great, and we are already preparing for the next one: telling love myths for Valentine's Day!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Adventures are for girls (Following folktales around the world 130. - Lesotho)

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!

Tales from the Basotho
Minnie Postma
University of Texas Press, 2014.

The book contains 23 folktales, translated from Sesotho to Afrikaans, and then to English. The translator's introduction talks about the culture of the country and the Basotho storytelling tradition; among many interesting things I learned that Lesotho is the country, Sesotho is the language, Mosotho is the people of the country, and Basotho is both the plural of the people and the adjective. The stories were collected by a white African woman, Minnie Postma, who heard them in her childhood and learned to tell them in their original language. As an adult, she became a teller and collector, retaining the rhythm and language and life of the folktales. They were written down from her oral telling, which makes the texts exciting and enjoyable. The book also contains a type and motif index for the tales, and a bibliography.


I knew in advance what my favorite story was going to be from this book: Nanabolele shines in the night is the tale of a girl raising her two brothers alone. The boys want special outfits for their initiation, made from the shining skins of the water-dragons known as nanabolele. She sets out with a group of people, descends into the underwater realm, and gets the skins for her brothers.
There was a beautiful story about an exiled girl who was fed and protected by the spirits of her ancestors until she found an invisible husband, and settled down. She was only cared for by her grandmother (her mother abused her), so she ended up bringing the grandmother to her new wealthy home.
Whirlwind and the half-men was once again a variant of the tale about the girl who married into the spirit world, except here the girl was found and rescued (through various clever tricks) by her brother.


Minnie Postma
The tale of the kind and unkind girls featured a giant bird, Mothemelle, giving out reward and punishment. In the end, however, the unkind girl also managed to carve out her own happy ending, and hat the giant bird hunted down for trying to punish her... The story of Fenya-fenyane was a classic "false bride" tale, but with some fascinating details. The bride was sent to her groom's house alone because her brother had been killed by a water monster, and her mother was too deep in mourning to arrange her wedding procession. On the road she was joined by a monster who had a tail with a mouth under her skirt, and the monster took her place as bride. The girl was eventually helped by a kind old woman to regain her place in her husband's home.
I was reminded of Irish stories by the tale of an old woman dragged out of her grave who clung to the back of a young man until he found a way to get rid of the talking corpse.
There was once again a story about why chickens scratch in the dirt (still looking for hawk's borrowed needle), and the tortoise that talked too much, and while a friendly dove was flying it across a river, it spoke and let go of the branch it's been biting on (luckily, it fell into the water and became a turtle).
The resident trickster was once again Jackal, who rode on the back of Wolf. There was also a tale where Jackal threatened Dove, trying to eat her children, but Heron intervened, and risked his life to save the little birds, proving that Jackal was no threat to her because he could not climb trees. Jackal was also tricked by Hen in the story where he tried to convince her that world peace had been declared.

Where to next?
Eswatini! (Formerly known as Swaziland)

Monday, November 4, 2019

Diverse tales from a diverse country (Following folktales around the world 129. - South African Republic)

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!

11 ​South African Folk Tales – 11 Official Languages
A Celebration of Democracy and Cultural Diversity
Aré Van Schalkwyk
Zytek Publishing, 2005.

The book, true to its title, contains 11 tales representing the 11 official languages of the country, retold by authors who create in those languages. Each story is presented in the original text and in English translation, and each is prefaced with a short introduction about the language, the culture, the customs, and the traditional dresses that belong to them. The book contains a foreword from the Minister of Art and Culture, and is closed by the lyrics of the South African anthem.


The English language was represented by Kwenda and the Tortoise, told by Margaret Kollmer. It was a lovely story about a mean old widower, whom a chief tricked into enjoying life again by sending him on a mission to gather colors along with his tortoise.
In the Xitsonga story a family set out on a journey, and the husband told the wife that if they encounter a wild beast, she should hold it by the tail so that he could kill it. When they were attacked by a lion, the woman grabbed the tail, but the husband got scared and fled, leaving her to wrestle the beast alone. Eventually the wife left in trouble was found and rescued by other people, and the husband was eaten by something in the bush.


I have encountered a similar story to the Zulu tale before. Here a single mother named Nanana was chased out of her community, and established her own home by the road, signaling that she was not afraid. When an elephant devoured her children, she set out to find it and kill it, saving everyone from the elephant's stomach. The Sesotho language was represented by a Cinderella variant about a girl named Analeti, while siSwati was represented by the tale of kind and unkind girls named Tsandzekile and Tondzekile, where the former was saved and vindicated by the village of her uncle.
Hare appeared as the trickster in the Xhosa story where he tricked King Lion into jumping down a well to fight his own reflection. In the Setswana story Hare, Tortoise, and Jackal all appeared as tricksters. Tortoise trapped Jackal (who was stealing water from the communal dam) by smearing himself in sticky gum - this is the first story I have ever seen where the trickster himself was also the tar baby...

Where to next?

Saturday, November 2, 2019

StorySpotting: Princesses ditching their own weddings (Disenchantment)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Disenchantment is a Netflix show created by Matt Groening, with the usual humor and style. While this kind of humor makes my brain hurt after a few minutes, I did watch a couple of episodes, and it was definitely entertaining.

Where was the story spotted?

Disenchantment, season 1, episodes 1-2 (A Princess, an Elf and a Demon Walk into a Bar / For Whom the Pig Oinks)

What happens?

Princess Bean of Dreamland is supposed to marry a prince in a political match, but she ends up running away from her own wedding (after accidentally killing her first fiance, and being chased by the second in line). She is eventually captured and dragged back home, only to get away from her own wedding a second time.

What's the story?

Princesses running away from fairy tale weddings seems like a modern day feminist subversion of old story tropes - except, it already exists in old stories. Surprise! When you look into less well-known stories, it turns out ditching an unwanted suitor is totally in line with how some fairy tale princesses behave. And some non-princesses as well.

The most famous example would be, no doubt, Princess Gráinne, who ditched her wedding to legendary Irish hero Fionn Mac Cool to run away with a much younger warrior, Diarmuid ua Duibhne (some say she fell in love with him because he had a mark on his forehead that made him irresistible to all women, and he accidentally uncovered it during the wedding). Diarmuid doesn't want to run away with her at first, but Gráinne places him under geasa, an unbreakable bond, and essentially forces him to elope with her. Theirs is the most adventurous love-hate love story of ancient Ireland. Spoilers, though: It doesn't end well.
In the Italian folktale of The Dragon and the Enchanted Filly, a king and queen have a baby boy with a curse: if he doesn't kill his wife the same moment he gets married, he will turn into a dragon. Keeping this a secret, when he grows up they arrange for a marriage between him and the Queen of England. Luckily, the queen has an enchanted filly, her best friend, who warns her of the danger, and rides away with her from the wedding procession. The queen, just like Princess Bean, exchanges her wedding gown for a shirt and breeches, and works disguised as a stable boy until she finds love with another, non-cursed prince. The dragon is eventually killed by her and the filly (who turns out to be a girl cursed into being a horse until she kills a dragon, because this tale is epic).
In a folktale from Kashmir titled How the princess found her husband, a princess is promised to a prince, but when his father dies the engagement is broken, and her father finds a better suitor. The princess decides to run away with her original fiance, but while she is waiting for him in the darkness outside the palace, a robber comes along and she thinks it's the prince. Once she notices the mistake, she goes through a series of adventures until they are reunited.

By the way, the motif number for a princess accidentally running away with the wrong person is T92.4. You can find other tales like this here and here.

The Jewish tale of The Pirate Princess has a similar plot: A princess is engaged to someone she loves, but they are separated on a deserted island, and she is picked up by a rich merchant and forced to promise her hand in marriage. She manages to get away from him by getting everyone drunk, and then repeats the trick with a bunch of pirates, until she eventually becomes king (in disguise) over a kingdom, and manages to find her original fiance.
The Algerian tale of Aicha the Demon-killer features a clever, brave, and strong heroine, the daughter of a merchant, who kills monsters in her spare time. When a prince proposes to her, she says she will only marry him if he hunts down all the monsters in a forest. He is too much of a coward to do so, but spends a few days camping in the woods and returns, telling a lie about a job well done. Aicha, however, had been in the forest herself, and she calls the prince out on his lies in front of the whole court, rejecting his marriage proposal.

Last but not least: The Faun and the Woodcutter's Daughter is not a folktale, but it is one of my favorite love stories. It's a literary fairy tale by Barbara Laonie Picard, about the friendship and then love of a human girl and a forest faun. At the end of the story she runs away from her own wedding to a rich merchant to live in the woods with her faun.


Ladies, if the prince is not right for you: Remember, ditching him can also be a fairy tale ending!

Monday, October 28, 2019

Tales of strength and endurance (Following folktales around the world 128. - Namibia)

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!

Haiseb ​and the man who cooked himself
and other folktales from the Khoi of Namibia
Sigrid Schmidt & Veronica Eiases
Macmillan Education Namibia, 2008.

This book was written for entertainment reading, and contains 29 stories from the Khoi people of Namibia. There are no introduction or notes, only black-and-white illustrations, but the name of the storyteller is noted with every story.


The tale of the girl who married a springbok would be an excellent story for therapy. It belonged to the type where the girl marries into the spirit world and then has to escape, but it was a particularly powerful variant. Here, the springbok-husband "softened the bones" of his wife so she could not stand up or get away from him; she crawled home on her stomach, and had to win back her family's support before they helped her regain her strength. Another therapy-worthy story was that of the lazy horse. It told about a place where people had to cross lion-infested lands to get food; everyone hurried to make the trip faster, except for a man with a "lazy horse" that kept stopping to eat and drink. When the lions did attack, however, that horse was the only one that had the strength to get away.
I enjoyed the story of the chameleon and his twenty wives. The chameleon did not have the resources to care for that many women, so he kept feeding them some of his own flesh in secret. When they found out, they all left him, leaving their colorful dresses behind... and he has been wearing those every since.


There was yet another story that explained why chickens scratch the dirt (looking for a needle they borrowed from falcon and then lost). I knew the tale of the three elephants from Mali; the animals truned themselves into pretty women to trick a hunter into telling them all his secrets. His mother warned him to be more careful, and the kept one trick up his sleeve that helped him get away from the vengeful elephants.
It was interesting to encounter a story that I read from Venezuela before: a cannibal woman killed a pregnant mother and raised her twins as her own. The sister of the twins, Aga-abes, eventually revealed the truth to them, and they trapped and killed the cannibal, and revived their mother.
The resident trickster was Jackal, who in one story turned into grass just to be reincarnated as a calf and steal some cow milk. He also played the classic horse-riding trick with Lion and Lion's wife.

Where to next?
South Africa!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Unlikely heroes, diverse tricksters (Following folktales around the world 127. - Angola)

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!

Folk-tales of Angola
Fifty tales, with Kimbundu text, literal English translation, introduction, and notes
Héli Chatelain
The American Folk-Lore Society, 1894.

This is a very old book: the very first volume of the American Folk-Lore society series! It contains fifty folktales collected from the Mbundu people of Angola. The collector was a linguist who traveled to the country to help missionaries learn the local languages. Most of the tales came from a student of his named Jeremiah, who even accompanied him to America to help put the stories into writing.
The long and detailed (although definitely dated) introduction talks about Angola's geography, natural resources, climate, population, languages, societies, folklore, and oral traditions. A separate chapter deals with phonetics and pronunciation, since all the stories are printed in mirror translation, both in the original language and in English. They have been translated carefully word for word, which makes the English rendering hard to read and enjoy (even though, I still found quite a few fun stories in it). At the end of the book we get extensive notes for each tale to help with the understanding of linguistic and cultural details. This book was definitely ahead of its time.


I have read a similar story before, but I really liked this version of The son of Kimanaueze and the Daughter of the Sun and the Moon. A mortal man wanted to marry the celestial girl, but there was no one to carry his letters to her. Frog figured out a way to make the trip back and forth (in the water jugs of heavenly maidens), and managed to arrange the marriage through multiple visits.
The tale of Dinianga Dia Ngombe was strange but very entertaining. The hunter killed a deer and skinned it, but then the animal suddenly jumped up and got away. The hunter yelled after it, shaming it for running around "naked" - to which the deer responded that the hunter looked even more embarrassing, going home with an empty deer skin and nothing else. The humor was similarly poignant in the story of The young man and the skull; here the protagonist met a talking skull that warned him that his wits will be his undoing. The young man went around boasting that a talking skull told him he's so smart it will be his end... until they told him to prove his story. The skull, however, refused to talk, and the young man was beheaded, his own skull joining the family of talking skulls that should have known better.
I was fascinated by the tale of the two men who competed for the same girl. The father gave them the difficult task of catching a live deer. One of them considered his options and decided not to try, while the other stubbornly completed the task. The father gave the girl to the former, claiming that a man who followed senseless orders without thinking will make a terrible husband, and will beat his wife if she makes a mistake. Whoa.


Pic from here
The story of the (beautifully named) Na Nzua Dia Kimanaueze was similar to the European "boy who turned into animals" tales, except here the hero could take on the form of any animal, not just three, and besides rescuing a princess, he also used his forms to hunt for food when he was hungry. The princess, by the way, had to be rescued from slavery in Portugal. The story had a similar beginning than that of The woman who ate too much fish, except in that one, she did not have to give up her child to the God of Fish (eco-tales!), but rather, a particularly large fish came to life in her stomach, just like in the African-American story of the Singing Geese.
Once again I encountered a story about a woman (Ngana Samba) who married into the spirit world - here, against her will - and managed a daring escape together with her children. There was also another story where a little sister saved her siblings from the evil Ma-kishi spirits by keeping vigil at night and keeping them occupied. She eventually convinced her sisters to run away from the spirit world; in their escape they were helped by a hawk, which, strangely reminded me of a story I read from Kiribati.
There was a whole host of resident tricksters, including Hare and Monkey. In a Tar Baby variant they actually appeared together, and were caught by the tar-women set up by Leopard (but obviously they got away). In the tale about the shared food secretly stolen, Fox was tricked by a wily Mole, but he managed to take revenge in the end. In the story where the "male goat gave birth to kids" trial had to be decided, it was clever Duiker (a distant relative to Mouse Deer) who helped the defendant; while the infamous horse-riding trick of Br'er Rabbit was played on Elephant by Frog. I was also reminded of Br'er Rabbit stories by the "briar patch" tale, where Turtle made people believe he could only be killed by being thrown into the river. The ungrateful predator rescued from a trap (and then put back in) was Leopard, tricked by Hare. Leopard was also the villain of the story where he invited animals along to his family, played tricks on them on the way, and had them killed in the end. It was Monkey who managed to outsmart him (in other African traditions it used to be Antelope who tricked wily Tortoise).

Where to next?