Saturday, October 19, 2019

Tales in the Cathedral: Storytelling in Aachen

I already blogged about this year's FEST conference, but I still owed a report from the amazing storytelling event that followed after. I always love it when a gathering of international storytellers is followed by a festival, and this time Regina Sommer and the Haus der Märchen und Geschichten organized a truly special treat: We told stories inside the Aachen Cathedral at night!

We visited the cathedral during the conference that was organized by three different countries. It was my first time seeing it in person, and I was absolutely stunned by how beautiful it is. When we returned for the storytelling event (after a very friendly dinner), I could barely believe that this was going to be our venue for the night. We got a chapel for a green room (best green room ever, see the photo on the right), and they even opened the sacristy for us so that we could use the bathroom... (talk about being behind the scenes). The pre-event mood was cheerful, friendly, and filled with awe, underscored with Davide Bardi tuning his guitar in the chapel.

We were in excellent hands to help us explore: A group of young guides, trained by art historian Wirtz Ágnes (incidentally also the founder of the Világszép Foundation, the NGO I work for) when they were children, returned for the evening to offer special tours to visitors, telling us about the history and secrets of the cathedral. We got to see Charlemagne's throne built from stone slabs brought from Jerusalem, and also his golden sarcophagus. While we were on stage, the latter was visible behind us, and if we looked up over the audience, we could see the empty throne facing us from the first floor gallery. It was thrilling to imagine that someone that famous was listening to our stories... along with about three hundred people in the audience, who filled up all the seats. We had a full house... or rather, a full cathedral.

Storytellers were invited to represent carious cultures and traditions that had a connection to Charlemagne, the cathedral, the school he founded there, and the Carolingian renaissance era. For example, I was there because the cathedral has a Hungarian chapel, built in the 14th century; it has been an important place of pilgrimage ever since. Everyone told one story, and in-between performances we got to hear enchanting organ and saxophone music that filled the entire space, and transported us through time and space. The story I brought was a Hungarian legend from the time of the Mongolian invasion - it tells about how refugees were helped across the Danube by Fairy Queen Tündér Ilona, and the magician Göncöl táltos, who gave up their own powers for 777 years for them. This story holds a special significance this year, because the Mongolian invasion ended 777 years ago. I could hear the audience gasp when I told them that. It was an unforgettable moment. I was a little worried before for bringing such a pagan story into a cathedral, but since the event was opened by George Macpherson doing an ancient Celtic invocation, we both agreed that we would be fine. The Dom handled our stories well.

The other performances were all captivating, and although I could not follow the ones in German very well, I still enjoyed them. Davide Bardi and Paola Balbi brought us their incredible telling of Jesus' death and return from the points of view of Mary Magdalene and Peter. Michaela Sauber told us about Parsifal, Nuala Hayes brought us the Children of Lir, Gidon Horowitz the legend of the first temple in Jerusalem, Sam Cannarozzi legends of alchemy, Raymond den Boestert a tale of Till Uilenspiegel, and Abbi Patrix a creation myth from Africa about the spirit of creativity. Wirtz Ágnes and the young guides told us a story about Aachen together.

The whole evening was an amazing experience that connected people across time, space, and cultures, and I was incredibly honored to be a part of it. I wondered if the people building the Hungarian chapel centuries ago would have ever thought one day a Hungarian storyteller would visit, and talk about magicians and fairies under the arches...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Roosters, dogs, tortoises (Following folktales around the world 126. - São Tomé and Príncipe)

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!

Sadly, once again I ran into a country where I could not get a folktale collection from. I searched for stories on the Internet, and came up with a few anyway (it would have been a lot easier if I read Portuguese...):

Why dogs don't talk
A short tale about a dog who helped its owner carry a burden home, but asked him not to tell anyone that the dog could talk. The owner's wife, however, managed to coax the secret out of her husband, and the dog got so offended that it stopped talking for good.
(I found this story in other versions as well)

The clever tortoise
Tortoise won the king's daughter in marriage by winning a bet, proving that chickens are never not hungry.

The singing roosters
Story says that the island of São Tomé used to be inhabited by roosters that crowed happily all day. Some people liked this, some tolerated it, but some were annoyed and eventually threatened the roosters with war if they did not leave. The roosters made the sensible choice, and with the leadership of a black rooster they moved somewhere else.
(This is also a popular tale, I found it on several sites)

I also found a reference to a Tortoise and the Hare tale, noting that Tortoise the resident trickster of the islands.

The tortoise and the dream
Tortoise claims that he can guess anyone's dream, so the Emperor puts him to the test. Tortoise uses colorful feathers to disguise himself as a bird, and spies on the ruler who talks about his dream about a breadfruit. (I have seen this tale with Anansi as well).

The legend of King Amador
Historical legend about the slave revolt in 1595 led by a man named Amador. The Portuguese colonizers beat down the revolt a year later and executed the king, but he became a legendary national hero and a symbol of independence.

Where to next?

Monday, October 7, 2019

Courage against cruelty (Following folktales around the world 125. - Equatorial Guinea)

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!

Leyendas ​y cuentos bujebas
de la Guinea Española
Arcadio de Larrea Palacin, Carlos Gonzalez Echegaray
Instituto de Estudios Africanos, 1955.

The 26 tales in the book were collected in 1952 (before the independence of the country) from members of the Bujeba (Kwasio) people, most of all a woman named Carmen Nsié. The introduction talks about the collection and translation process, the Bujeba storytelling tradition, and the indigenous way of life as portrayed in the folktales. The first chapter organizes all characters from the stories, listing information about them from the text, which is an interesting addition to a folktale collection, but not very useful up front until one has actually read the stories. Another smaller chapter listed other West African collections, and their comparisons to the tales in this book. The second half of the volume contains all the stories in Spanish mirror translation with the original Bujeba text.


Pic from here
I loved the story of the Rescue of Miánlumba, in which a mother protected her infant daughter with a machete from a father who would only let male children live. The girl was cast into the river, and found and raised by another woman with great care. Eventually news of her reached the birth mother, who thanked the foster-mother for her help; from that day on "the girl had two mothers", the tale concludes. Violence was similarly judged in the story about The cruelty of Ntung, a brother who tortured his sister until their aunt showed up from the Land of Dwarves (where she'd married), took the girl with her, and healed her. She later showed up to tell the father and brother that the girl was better off living with her - and she did. In a third story, a girl named Yanga wandered into the house of a man-eating monster, and made friends with his daughter. When the monster tried to eat Yanga, the two girls ran away together, found a new home, married at the same time, and lived happily. Cruelty reached a more tragic result in the story of Nzambi and the Chimpanzee, in which an ape cradled a human child left by the river and talked to the mother, but the father came along, saw the animal, grew angry, and shot at her, killing the baby in the process.
Among the animal tales my favorite was the one where Tortoise, Boa, and Genet set out on a journey together, but because of all their special things (Genet always ran home to poop, Boa digested lunch for days, Tortoise could not climb over obstacles) the trip became a disaster.


I found yet another fire theft story in this book (I love those!); here the rebellious son of the sky god(ess, hard to tell) stole the spark with the help of Eagle and a dry vine.

I was reminded of Sindbad's Old Man of the Sea by the story where Nquion met the Forest Spirit while hunting in a forbidden place. The spirit clung to his back and did not let go; finally the hero was told by his grandmother in a dream how to get rid of the demon weighing down on his shoulders. I was reminded of Red Riding Hood by the tale of Guambo and the Demon Chief, where a girl, cursed by her sister, met various demons on her way home through the forest. She managed to avoid them by singing, but their chief swallowed her. She was rescued from the demon's stomach, by her parents.
I was reminded of a tale from Gabon by the story where Tortoise won a girl's hand (by cutting a tree down with the help of all his relatives). Leopard took the wife from him by force, but Tortoise got her back by hiding in the latrine and clinging to Leopard's testicles until he admitted defeat.
The trickster in residence is, once again, Tortoise.

Where to next?
São Tomé and Príncipe!

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Beauty in the Tale: Medieval Story Camp with the Világszép Foundation

Gather around, people, I'm going to tell you about my day job.
Two years ago I joined the Világszép Foundation as one of their resident storytellers. The Foundation was started in 2010 with the goal of aiding and supporting children in the state care system. Originally it organized summer camps, and then they added a volunteer storytelling program that sends tellers to group homes to tell bedtime stories to the children (we don't call these orphanages because most of the kids are not orphans, they just can't live with their family for various reasons). Since then, we have added several new programs, such as an inclusive kindergarten, inclusive after school programs, volunteer mentors, and career and crisis help. Still, the summer camps remain a large part of our work; we organize 6 or 7 of them every summer in the Story Center in Paloznak, a magical, peaceful lace by Lake Balaton. Storytelling is an integral part of every camp, but for kids aged 8-11 we specifically organize Story Camps around a theme. This year, our theme was Knights and Chivalry, and I would like to tell you more about it.

The camp was five beautiful, sunny days long. We started off each day with nursery rhymes and storytelling, and closed each one with a story and a lullaby (it might seem like nursery rhymes and lullabies are strange for this age group, but they create a connection that the kids rarely get to experience). The theme was all about chivalry, especially virtues: we used the stories to start discussions and activities about how real knights treat each other and the people around them. We had many adventures, built castles, made shields, and even held a tournament at the end of the week, after which we knighted all fourteen children.

Of course all of this would not have been a coherent whole without the storytelling. Story Camp is always especially fun for the tellers because we get to tell to the same audience regularly, opening and closing every day. The story collection for the camp took a lot of research, planning, and collecting to fit the age group, the virtues, the themes, the activities, and the Világszép philosophy - I had a lot of fun compiling it, and I was quite proud of the result. We ended up having nine "official" stories:
Prince Milinkuc (Hungarian folktale about a prince who has an incredible dream that he holds on to through many trials, and an evil ing who sends him various riddles to solve)
Dame Ragnell (A 15th century feminist classic, asking the big question: "What is it that all women want the most?")
Sistram and the Dragon (King Dietrich and his mentor drag a young knight out of a dragon's mouth - teamwork, people!)
The Kitchen Knight (Sir Gareth arrives to Camelot as a kitchen lad, but then goes on a quest with sassy Lady Lynet and proves his worth)
Astolfo travels to the Moon (A snippet from Orlando Furioso where an English knight takes a hippogriff to the Moon to find the lost common sense of his best friend)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (I LOVE telling a classic to an audience that has not heard it before!)
The Bonny Lass of Anglesey (Scottish ballad about an epic dance-off between a brave lady and some English lords)
Culhwch and Olwen (Old Welsh superhero team-up with a brave prince and some famous knights from Arthur's court)
Damon and Pythias (A medieval retelling of an old Greek tale of Friendship where one friends offers to die in the place of another)

It is always great fun for a storyteller to tell to the same audience for days. Kids get used to the stories and the medieval world, and become familiar with some of the characters (Sir Gawain, obviously, became a fan favorite). Three of us shared the nine stories above, so the kids also got to hear different styles of storytelling. You could tell that they were very much engaged because they made comments, asked questions, and even corrected us when we said something wrong (sometimes to the point where I had to take a pause to laugh myself).

Beside the "official" storytelling times, I also adored spontaneous storytelling moments, of which we had quite a lot. We had afternoon nap time every day, but since this age group doesn't really nap (or stay quiet) anymore, I offered them that they could join me in the Story Room (yes, we have one) and lie down to listen to some tales. These were my favorite moments of the entire camp: I sat on a couch surrounded by children - some listening intently, some dozing off, and some lying quietly until it was their turn to open their eyes and tell me what I should tell next. They were peaceful, beautiful afternoons filled with stories. At one point the kids discovered that I like superheroes and I speak Marvel (we got into a conversation over lunch about whether or not Thor's hammer is made of vibranium) (it isn't) they came to the afternoon sessions to ask for "superhero stories." I defaulted to Thor and Loki since the interest was already there... and I ended up telling them my entire Norse mythology repertoire. They listened with rapt attention, asked questions, discussed details, compared myth to Marvel, and even acted out some fun moments of the stories (such as Thor pretending to be a bride). Once again, I discovered how pop culture can be a bridge to traditional stories, and I got to nerd out to my heart's extent.
Every once in a while a kid asked for a story when no one else was around. These moments also had a certain kind of magic, and I tried my best to select stories that would fit that very special one-person audience.

I told twenty-three stories in five days, and each of them was a very memorable, unique experience. Whether it was with the whole group, or with a few kids, or just one child, they all carried the story-magic of Paloznak and the Világszép (lit. "Beauty of the World") atmosphere. They were days filled with smiles, hugs, sunshine, swimming, fruit straight from the trees, and peace. It was the perfect place to be, and I would not trade it for any other gig or performance.
I'm already counting down the days for next summer!

Animal tale bonanza (Following folktales around the world 124. - Gabon)

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!

Where Animals Talk
West African Folk Lore Tales
Robert H. Nassau
The Gorham Press, 1918.

These tales have been collected by the author at the end of the 19th century from local Bantu peoples along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. The first chapter presents folktales from Mpongwe storytellers from Libreville, the second from Benga tellers from the island of Corisco, and the third from a Batanga teller who learned his tales from Bulu people from Cameroon. (In this post I will only talk about the sixteen stories of the first chapter, since Equatorial Guinea has a whole other book). The collector took notes during oral storytelling evenings, trying to keep as much of the vernacular as possible, but he also translated a few of the stories from other written sources. The book comes with a short introduction, and a long list of local animal names at the end. Each tale comes with a list of characters and settings (almost like a theater play), and comments from the collector.


The book is full of animal and trickster tales, both familiar and new types. One of the resident tricksters, obviously, was Tortoise. In one story he fulfilled various clever tasks to win a wife, and though Leopard stole her for a moment, eventually Tortoise had the last laugh.
Next to Tortoise, the other popular trickster figure was Rat, who also was in the business of making a fool of stronger animals. Like Tortoise, he also stole a wife from Leopard, this time by changing his name to "Strangers", so that every time the bridal party was addressed, he claimed all the goods. In another story he stole back the meat that Leopard kept taking from him by force. Leopard eventually caught Rat with the classic "tar baby" trick, but when he came to see the thief, Rat started yelling "I got him! I got the thief! I'm holding him!", which is pretty genius. In the end, Rat managed to take what was his.
In a third similar story Leopard pretended to be dead, to catch animals who came to pay their respects. Gazelle did not fall for the trick, and with the help of Tortoise came up with some tests: He threw bees, ants, and pepper at the corpse, which immediately came alive...
One of my favorite stories in the book was about animals gathering for Crocodile's funeral, and trying to decide who the next of kin was. Birds claimed it was them, because they are also born from eggs, while beasts said they walk on four legs and so did Crocodile. The argument was never fully decided. (In another chapter there was a similar tale, but with Bat).
In another fin tale Manatee, Oyster, and Hog were having a contest over who had the most fat, and used it to decide where they will live. Manatee (the winner) moved into the rivers, Oyster into the edge of the salt water, and Hog, who messed up the contest, lost its horns forever. I was also thoroughly entertained by the story that explained why mosquitoes buzz in people's ears. Apparently, Ear promised some oil to Mosquito, but never delivered, and the insects have been bugging Ear ever since, asking for some ear wax.


There was yet another classic tug-o-war trickster tale: here Tortoise claimed to be as strong as Elephant and Hippo. Another classic, about two animals making trick feasts for each other, featured Tortoise and Monkey. The story about the suitors of Princess Gorilla reminded me of all the tortoise-and-hare tales: Here, suitors had to drink an entire barrel of rum. The contest was won by a family of tiny monkeys, who all pretended to be one monkey that sometimes ran away into the tall grass to pee.
Among the longer stories there was once again a variant for the mysterious and dangerous husband - here, a Leopard in disguise. The girl who married him was rescued by her faithful horse.

Where to next?
Equatorial Guinea!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Strange dilemmas and just decisions (Following folktales around the world 123. - Republic of Congo)

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!

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Fjort
(French Congo)
R. E. Dennett
The Folk-lore Society, 1898.

It is tricky to find folktale collections from some parts of Africa, because political and cultural borders shifted around so much in the past two centuries. This book contains folktales from French Congo, mostly from the regions that are now the Republic of Congo (and a small part of Gabon). Since I could not locate any more recent folktale collections from the RC, I settled for this one, collected by a British merchant in the 19th century. He spent 17 years in the colonies, learned the local languages, and studied customs, folklore, and religion. The book was organized and edited by famous traveler Mary Kingsley, who also wrote an introduction and some additional studies for it. There is a separate chapter that introduces storytelling traditions, complete with examples of call-and-response stories and story-songs. At the end of the book we find some local songs, in the original language as well as English and Latin (translated with the help of Ms. Kingsley). The book was not always easy to follow, and parts of it are definitely dated, but I found a lot of cool stories on its pages!


I appreciated the tale about the married couple that went on a journey and entrusted their son to a neighbor. The neighbor mistreated the boy, who fled into the forest, and was threatened by chimbindi (ghosts). Luckily, his parents got home, decided not to believe the neighbor's lies, and went looking for their son. They arrived just in time to chase the ghosts away with a gun loaded with chili pepper, and a basketful of pepper powder.
The story of How gazelle got married was thoroughly entertaining. The suitor had to find out the secret names of two girls in order to marry them. His dog spied on the girls and found out the names, but on the way home was always distracted by something and forgot them, so he had to keep returning. Eventually he made it to the gazelle and disclosed the names... but on the way to the girls' home they both forgot them again, so the names had to be retrieved one more time.
My favorite story from the collection was the surprisingly titled Ngomba's balloon. A girl was abandoned by her mean sisters, and kidnapped by a monster. While the monster was away, she worked together with the other prisoners to create a balloon, and they eventually flew safely home. When the monster followed them, the villagers helped chase it away. I also loved the story about The younger brother who knew more than the elder. They lived apart, but when the younger brother almost lost his wife as a result of his pride and a bad agreement with someone, the elder showed up just in time to trick the other party, and help save the wife.
I was very happy to find a new fire-theft tale in the collection, in which a team of animals - spider, tortoise, woodpecker, sand fly - stole fire from heaven together. Since spider was their leader, he would have won a wife for the effort, but the girl's father decided not to make her life miserable, so he gave everyone money instead. This was not the only wise decision in the book, either. A crafty woman overreached herself when she set a trap for someone in the hopes of demanding a payment for her stolen goods. However, the judges examining the case decided that her loss was intentional, and thus the decision was not made in favor of the trickster. Even Nzambi, the creator mother goddess was called in front of judges once, for stealing the world's first drum made by a small wagtail bird. She claimed that as creator, she had a right to everything, but the judges declared that she did not create drums, only creatures with free will who had a right to their own inventions. Therefore Nzambi had to pay for the drum, and also had to pay a fine for stealing it.
Flora and fauna featured prominently into the stories. In one "true story" a local man described a fight between a gorilla and a chimpanzee ( in which the latter lost). Another tale explained Why crocodile doesn't eat chicken - with the fact that chicken convinced him that they are related, since they are both born from eggs.


I once again encountered the tale about the wives who saved their husband together. Dreamer, Guide, and Raiser of the Dead brought the man back to life, and then demanded to know which one of them was the most valuable. The man chose the last one, and the men of the village agreed, but the women declared that he should have given each of his wives equal appreciation.
The story of the Twin Brothers is well known in Europe, and I have also seen it in Africa before. One brother sets out on an adventure and dies, but the other saves him. In this version there was an intriguing house full of mirrors that all showed different places (including the forbidden village where the first brother perished). Sadly, after the rescue, the two brothers had an argument and they killed each other.
Among the local beliefs there were mentions of people who could shapeshift into crocodiles or leopards - the crocodile-people even had their own village on a river island.
A nameless trickster started a fight between two friends by walking between them in a coat that was half red and half blue. I knew this story with the Yoruba trickster Eshu. Another trickster tale featured Rabbit secretly eating up the food he stored with Antelope - for which Antelope captured with with the use of the classic "tar baby" trick.

Where to next?

Monday, September 16, 2019

Genets and genesis (Following folktales around the world 122. - Democratic Republic of Congo)

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!

Tortoise and Crocodile
and other folktales from the Komo People of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Barbara Thomas
Amazon Kindle Services, 2011.

The twenty tales in this book were collected from the Komo people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The collection is intended as a children's book, but it does contain stories that might be "sensitive" for Western readers. These have been marked with parental guidance warnings. The book notes the names of the original storytellers, but doesn't assign them to the tales, and the introduction is mostly just a foreword about sensitive content.


I was fascinated by the tale of Motondo, the Magic Carpet, in which sisters went fishing and wanted to leave their little brother behind. He followed anyway, and when at night Father Spider stole the eyes of the girls (repeatedly), he stole them back. Eventually he warned his sisters of danger, and they wove a magic carpet and flew away to safety. The same moral (don't leave at home someone who wants to go with you) showed up in some of the Ashanti folktales in Ghana as well.
I was delighted to find a tale featuring one of my favorite feline creatures, the genet. The story was fairy simple; Rooster tricked Genet, and Genet died as a result, so his children have been revenge-hunting poultry ever since. The tale of Ingee's betrothal was one of the "parental warning" tales - a man heading out to find a wife took a dump where he was not supposed to, and his feces kept rolling after him everywhere as an ever-present reminder of shame. Needless to say, he did not get a wife.
Tortoise, the resident trickster, appeared as a fairly questionable character in many of the stories. In Tortoise and his friends, he invited animals along on a journey, then tricked them out of their food and weapons, framed them for theft, and had them killed. He did so with Endo, the red antelope (a symbol for death), and many others, until Mboko, the white antelope turned the tricks against him. In another tale Tortoise pretended to be a midwife for Crocodile's wife, and ate up all her eggs - that's why crocodiles have been hunting tortoises ever since.


I was reminded of Adam and Eve by the story of Abha-Betombetombe, Father of the Forest, where he warned fisherwomen not to eat from his sacred plantains. Of course they did, so he cursed them with monthly bleeding. After last week I once again encountered the story about why hens scratch the ground, looking for tasty morsels. The tale of Kaunga and Tombai was an all-devouring type folktale where a monster ate up everything and everyone, until a wild man named Kaunga had himself swallowed and rescued everyone by cutting the monster open from the inside, and staring a new world.
As I said before, the local trickster is Tortoise. I was reminded of Anansi and his moss-covered rock by the tale where Tortoise tricked animals into climbing a tree and being eaten by Leopard, until Mboko, the white antelope, once again came to the rescue. There was also another trickster figure, He-Spider, who tried to copy elephants and got hurt in the process, as tricksters sometimes do.

Where to next?
The Republic of Congo!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Animal friendships, animal enemies (Following folktales around the world 121. - Central 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!

Central ​African Folk Tales
An Imaginative Collection of Wisdom for Children
Thomas G. Schaefer
XLibris US, 2014.

This book features twenty short folktales collected by a Peace Corps employee in the 1970s. Before violence broke out in the country, the oral tradition was still uninterrupted and stories could be gathered. Schaefer used these tales to teach English and show children that their own stories were just as valuable as the foreign literature used to teach French. He published a larger collection for educational purposes; this current ebook is a short selection from those stories. All tales are included in English and French, and accompanied by cute little drawings.


Out of the origin stories, the one about the origin of rivers was the most intriguing. It claimed that in the beginning people lived without water, drinking juices of fruit and animal blood, until a hunter found a well, and released the first rivers into the world.
The strange and eerie tale of Birds, birs, and more birds was included in the book in two slightly different versions. This story said that originally there was only one bird in the world, the Bird of God. A hunter trapped it and ate it, despite the warnings of his wife, and was punished: In one story his stomach burst and birds flew out, in another he himself transformed into thousands of birds.
Among the animal tales my favorite was the story of Pig and Tortoise. Tortoise lent his shell to Pig, who forgot where he put it, and has been rooting around in shame ever since, trying to find it and give it back. The scratching of hens was similarly explained in a tale where Dog and Hen shared a meal, but the impatient hen ate the top of the rice, and left the choice parts in the bottom of the dish. She has been scratching ever since to make sure she gets the best bits of food.


Image from here
Animals sometimes helped, and sometimes tried to outdo each other in the stories. Bee and Pigeon saved each other; Elephant and Hen had an eating contest (which hen won, on account of number of items consumed), and Lion and Mosquito fought for the throne of the jungle (Mosquito won). There was also once again a tale where a hunter was rescued from a lion by a mouse that pretended to be a lion-hungry monster.
I was reminded of all the sky-raising myths by the tale that explain why there is rainfall. It was a story of war between earth and sky; earth tried to shatter sky with mountains, while sky tried to melt earth with rain, even though the moon tried to bring them to peace.
There is not one famous trickster in residence here, according to the collector, but rather many tricky animal characters. Still, there was a mention of a mischievous character named Tere, but only in one tiny story.

Where to next?
The Democratic Republic of Kongo!

Monday, September 2, 2019

The story door (Following folktales around the world 120. - Cameroon)

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!

The Sacred Door and Other Stories
Cameroon folktales of the Beba
Ohio University Press, 2007.

The thirty-six tales in this book were recorded between 1979 and 1989 by a lady from Cameroon who emigrated into the USA. Makuchi is Beba, and she grew up in a living oral tradition with regular storytelling in the evenings (children were told that if they told stories in the daylight, the ghosts would take their voice). She also wrote her master's thesis on folktales she collected and translated, but she only started working on this book when she began sharing the stories with American children, to bring Beba culture closer to them. Each story comes with useful footnotes, and they are peppered with proverbs and wisdom. From the Afterword we can learn about the history of Cameroon and the Beba, as well as the Beba oral tradition, and we even find a collection of riddles to open storytelling sessions with.


I really enjoyed the story of the curious and brave little girl who saved herself from a man-eating lion. I also encountered women who turned down all suitors in favor of a handsome stranger who turned out to be a cannibal spirit; this should be under the Connections category, but all of them were so unique that I wanted to mention them here. In one of them a bunch of fish disguised themselves as suitors (they even borrowed a car!), while in another the girl was rescued from the spirit world inside the belly of a toad, with a straw in her mouth so that she could breathe. The storyteller explains that these stories were supposed to warn young people that a marriage unites two families, and you should not run off and marry strangers.
I was also thoroughly entertained by the most R-rated story of the book, about the friendship of Penis, Testicles, and Vagina.Or rather, the friendship of Penis and Vagina, because Testicles offended Vagina, and she has been refusing to have anything to do with them ever since.


There was yet another story about why bats fly at night (in this case, due to their quarrel with the sun, because the latter did not shine long enough for bat's mother's funeral). The story of the feast in the sky was also familiar from both sides of the ocean. Tortoise joined in with the help of borrowed feathers, but when he ate up all the food, his bird-friends took the feathers back, and he had to jump and crack his shell. Another traveling story motif that made an appearance is "a bundle of sticks is harder to break than a single one."
I was reminded of Aesop's tales by the story of the monkey and the bee, whose friendship was tested when they tricked each other out of shared meals. In this case, however, they made up in the end and became friends again. There are also Aesopic parallels to the story of the flutes, where a boy lost her flute, and the spirits offered him a golden one instead that he humbly refused, earning a reward. Another boy was not so humble, and got punished. These "kind and unkind" type tales appeared in quite a few versions in the book, both with boys and girls. Out of the latter kind, the best one was the story where the two sisters were hosted and tested by a mysterious drum-maker who did everything - talking, cooking - with his buttocks.
Cameroon has a good football team
The story of Sense-Pass-King was a variant on the Clever Maid story with a male hero, while the unhappy stepchild was a straight up male Cinderella story, where they even tried the shoe on his foot. It was accompanied by a female Cinderella as well, called Dance in the Sky, where the girl had crocodile skin, and wings in her armpits. Mbaka and the magic ring was a classic dog-and-cat Aladdin type tale, except here the magic ring brought success to the hero's soccer career...
The evil predator that got tricked back into the trap was Leopard, defeated by Monkey and Cow. The trickster in residence is Torokee the Tortoise; he did the tug-o-war trick with Elephant and Hippo, and ran the infamous race against Hare with the help of his family.

Where to next?
The Central African Republic!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Spirits and tortoises (Following folktales around the world 119. - Nigeria)

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 Stories from Southern Nigeria 
Elphinstone Dayrell
Longmans, Green & Co., 1910.

This is a fairly old book from British colonial times. It contains forty folktales from Southern Nigeria, collected by a colonial officer. The introduction was written by Andrew Lang himself, who also made notes for some of the stories, comparing them to European fairy tales. Many of the tales come with footnotes explaining certain cultural and historical elements, and sometimes they even come with an expressed moral at the end - although the moral is not always what one would expect from the story.


Among the more mythical tales my favorite was the one that explained why Sun and Moon live in the sky. According to the story, they invited their friend the Sea over as a guest, but when the Sea appeared with all of his volume and residents, Sun and Moon had to flee to the roof first, and then to the sky, where they have been ever since.

The long and elaborate story of The king and the ju ju tree was especially great. In it, a king tried to cut down a magic tree to clear space around his favorite bathing place, but a splinter got into his eye, causing horrible pain. A man appeared to cure him, but asked for his daughter in exchange - of course the man was a spirit, planning on eating the girl. The princess, however, managed to get away from him with the help of a talking skull, and after many adventures found her way out of the spirit world and back home.
As for the animal tales, the one that stuck with me the most was the ominous story that explained why worms live underground. It was the story of a great battle between the worms and the terrifying driver ants, obviously won by the latter.
The story of the fat woman who melted in the sun, despite the strange title, was a story of beauty. Women were traditionally fattened up before marriage, and this one big beautiful lady was very popular - but also made of oil, so she was forbidden from going out in the sun. A jealous co-wife, however, tricked her into going to the fields, and the lady melted, down to her big toe. Luckily, she managed to pull herself together after a while.
The story of the king and the 'nsiat (weaver) bird, on the other hand, was a tale of breaking with traditions. The king married the beautiful daughter of the bird, despite the warning that women in her family give birth to twins - and offense traditionally punished by death. When the twins were born, however, the king loved his family so much that they ended up moving to the wilderness together to live with the bird family - and they have been living as weaver birds ever since.


I was reminded of the Cajun story of Marie Jolie by the tale of the disobedient girl who married a skull. The skull came from the spirit world, borrowing body parts from other spirits to form the perfect man, and the girl was helped by a friendly old woman in her escape back home before the spirits would have devoured her.
The pretty stranger who killed the king carried the internationally popular motif of a beautiful new wife (in this case, an old witch in disguise) beheading a king while he was asleep, thus bringing down the entire kingdom.
This Nigerian tortoise is more than
 300 years old!
The local trickster is, once again, Tortoise. He had many adventures, such as finding out the hippo's secret name (and thus exiling him into the waters), or playing tug-o-war with Elephant and Hippo. The latter story had a nice twist in the end: both animals decided they wanted Tortoise to be their friend. Tortoise moved to the water with Hippo, and sent his son to live with Elephant - that's why we have turtles and tortoises now. Tortoise also played the leading role in the story of the king's magic drum that created food out of nowhere. The trickster managed to get the drum from the king, but broke the taboo associated with it, so instead of food the drum now summoned people who beat everybody up. Using this new ability, Tortoise managed to get a second deal, and acquire a tree that grew foo-foo... until his sons broke that taboo as well, and the entire family had to move to the prickly bushes out of shame.

Where to next?

Monday, August 19, 2019

Dawn to Dusk (Following folktales around the world 118. - Benin)

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!

Dawn to Dusk
Folk Tales from Benin
Iro Eweka
Routledge, 1998.

This book is not just any folktale collection: It was written by a member of the Edo royal family. Iro Eweka, author, poet, psychologist, belonged to the last generation of the family that had the chance to listen to the traditional storytellers in the original context of court entertainment. While working on his doctorate in the USA, he had the inspiration to write the stories of his childhood down to preserve them. He arranged them in a sort of mythical chronology, from Creation to the fall of the Edo Empire in the 19th century. Each chapter opens with a quote (most often an Edo proverb). At the end of the book there is a whole chapter of Edo wisdom and proverbs, and another one that tells about the origin of Benin's name. The stories themselves are retold in beautiful, poetic language, which made this book a truly amazing read.


The book begins with a creation myth. I especially liked how all animals and plants, once they were created with the strike of a whip, greeted the Creator and introduced themselves by their own name. So did men, women, and children. The mythology around birth was especially fascinating: according to Edo belief, everyone decides what they want their life to be before they are born, and they tell it to the Creator. Then they are sent down to Earth with their invisible twin, live their lives, die, then return to heaven, and make modifications to their life based on their experiences. Then it's the invisible twin's turn to be born, and so on and so forth, for 14 cycles. Prayers made during a lifetime are added to the modifications for the next round. The story also pointed out that this is why parents have to be grateful to their children, because the child chooses them and not the other way around.
The story of creation was followed up by the Great Debate, when arguments first arose between plants, animals, and humans. Ósánóbuá, the Creator was called down from the sky to do justice. The Debate was mostly carried by the wise trickster Tortoise, who listed the problems with the current state of things (especially with how humans behaved). In the end the Creator decided to put more rules in place, and give each creature their own language so they wouldn't understand each other anymore.
I really enjoyed the historical legend of Prince Ogun, who was exiled from his kingdom and lived in the jungle for seven years. He made friends with plants and animals, learned all the healing arts, saved a lion, an antelope, and a tree. When he was told that he would regain his thorne if he sacrificed a tiger, he refused, saying he would rather stay in the jungle than kill an animal. In the end, of course, he fulfilled his destiny and became king (but didn't kill a tiger). He was the one that named Edo after a slave who saved his life. 
Among the folktales I liked the one that explained why leopard has spots. It featured the Mother of all animals, who one day accidentally broke leopard's clay pot, angering the creature. She was defended by Ram, with the help of wise Tortoise (who helped him protect his large testicles in the fight). The wounds that Leopard received in the fight became his spots. Tortoise played similarly important roles in many other stories, as the trickster-advisor to the sacred kings. I especially loved the story where he warned the king to only declare plans with the caveat "barring any obstacles." When the king said no obstacles can ever derail his plans, Tortoise climbed a tree and tossed roasted nuts at the king's workers - who immediately abandoned their job to eat all the delicacies.


Once again there was a myth about the raising of the shy. In this one, people did not have to gather their own food at the beginning of time, because they could just take pieces of the low-hanging sky to eat. One day a frantic mother tore off too much sky, and threw out the leftovers. The sky got so offended that it asked for the Creator's permission to rise higher, out of reach. Humans were lucky that Tortoise already knew how to cultivate crops, and he taught them.
I was reminded of the story of the lion and the mouse by the tale of the spider and the deer. Spider asked Deer to carry him across a river, promising to return the favor one day. He did, by the classic spider trick of weaving webs to conceal Deer's footprints when hunters wanted to trap him, making it look like the prints were from many days earlier.

Where to next?

Monday, August 12, 2019

Tricksters and more tricksters (Following folktales around the world 117. - Togo)

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 told in Togoland
A. W. Cardinall
Oxford University Press, 1970.

This book contains folktales and legends from Togo, collected by the author in the first half of the 20th century from hunters and farmers. Cardinall admits that he is not an anthropologist, he merely wanted to record the stories in fear that a trained collector might not get to Togo in time before they disappeared. There is a detailed introduction about the country's geography, cultures, and history. The stories themselves are grouped into thematic chapters, in which they follow each other without sub-titles, connected by information on customs, beliefs, and folklore. The last chapter is taken up by the oral history of the country from the times before colonization. The book is a very enjoyable read, and while the text is occasionally dated (referring to some things as "primitive"), it contains a whole lot of really great stories.


I found the first cool story right in the Introduction. According to local beliefs, animals could only be killed with bullets specifically crafted for that species. A man went to the blacksmith for buffalo bullets, and when he returned to pick them up, a hunter followed him into the bush - and saw the man turn into a buffalo. He shot at the animal, but the bullets bounced off, since the buffalo used the magic of the buffalo bullets to protect himself from harm. How cool is that?
Since there were many, many trickster tales in the book, I also found some new favorites. I loved the one where a chief had a competition with a boy about who can trick the other - and when the chief lost, he turned into a spider in his shame. It was an Anansi origin story! I also liked another story that explained why Anansi hides in shame - in that one, he tried to trick Chameleon, but ended up being tricked himself (with the help of a cloak made of living flies). In yet another story it was Nyame who punished the spider for his pride, burning his house down; Anansi only managed to save his pillow, which is why even today you can find small, white pillow-like nests in spiderwebs. I also enjoyed the tale in which a kind-hearted hunter found food with the help of a chichiriga, a forest spirit, but when Anansi tried to copy the trick, he did not treat the spirit well enough, and thus received nothing.
Last but not least, there was a fun story explaining the origin of wasps. A girl called her mother a witch, and the furious mom started chasing her to punish her. Various animals tried to help the girl, but they were all intimidated by the mother, until the wasp swallowed her whole. The wasp tied a rope around its waist so that the old woman could not come out (hence the tiny waists) - and since she went in face first, her sharp tongue became the wasp's stinger.


Since we are deep into West Africa here, many stories were familiar not just from other African countries, but also from the Caribbean and the USA. I have already heard the creation story in which the sky was raised as a punishment for people annoying the Sky God. Dilemma stories continue to be popular, similar to other African countries - there was the one about the three wives who saved their husband together and argued over who did the most (the husband declared they were all equally important), and another about four men saving a child from a snake, and then arguing about who deserved the snake's skin the most. In fact, dilemma tales had half a chapter to themselves.
After Mali I once again encountered a story about animals trying to take revenge on a hunter. He revealed almost all his secrets to his animal-wife, except for one, which helped him get away when she lured him unarmed into the bush (honestly, I was rooting for the animals). Another man had a similarly lucky escape from a crocodile, when he helped the animal and it wanted to devour him instead of a thank you. The man was helped by the clever little red-flanked duiker, a distant relative of the famous Southeast Asian trickster Mouse Deer. A third daring escape featured a man about to be devoured by a hyena that was about to be devoured by a leopard that was about to be devoured by a lion, and then all of them scared off by a rat that claimed he was about to devour them all (I knew this story from another African collection, with a muskrat as the hero). And while we are on the topic of hunting, I found a variant of the tale about the hunter's son from Ghana, in which a lion tried to take revenge on the boy when it saw the trophies of his kin.
There was a story similar to tales I know from Brazil, in which a hunter wounded an antelope and chased it into the village of the kulparga (little people, "fairies"), where he discovered that all animals are kulparga in disguise, and he had to watch the young antelope-man die. These little creatures, by the way, were similar to European fairies in that they also hated iron, and played the main role in the story where a hunter joined their celebration and sang the days of the week with them ("gift of the fairies" tale type). In this case, their gift was a large amount of cowrie shells.
Kép innen
The two main local tricksters were Anansi the Spider and Soamba the Hare (both of them traveled to the Americas from here). Next to such classics as the tar baby story there were also some familiar from Ghana, such as Anansi and Wisdom, or Anansi trading things up until he got a hundred slaves for one ear of corn. I was also already familiar with the "bring me something" tale, in which Anansi spied on Nyame in the disguise of a bird to find out what the deity wanted him to bring; as well as the one where Anansi killed the chief's sheep and tried to blame another spider for it, but then in his greed gave himself away.
I noticed some European parallels in the story of the Golden Twins (here Nyame's five wives competed in doing the best for their husband; the youngest gave birth to a silver and a gold child who were stolen by the others, but wise Anansi figured out the truth) and the Twin Princes (who were two friends that looked alike, and ended up saving each other). There was even a Bible parallel in the Ashanti myth in which Tano, younger son of Nyame, tricked his father into giving him the blessed lands he intended for his eldest son.

Where to next?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The true history of the Great Kanchil Stalking

Adventure! Drama! High speed chases! Plot twists! Jungles!

We visited the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich.

Meeting a live Mouse Deer has been on my bucket list for years. Some people travel hundreds of miles to meet their favorite actors, or see their favorite band live. Me, I got on a train and traveled six hours to Munich to see a tiny ungulate that looks like a chihuahua got bitten by a vampire. Sue me.

Mouse Deer bookmarks for
my new book, art by Diána Laurent
Of course if you know me you probably know why I am so obsessed with the little critters. Mouse Deer, or Kanchil is the trickster figure of the folklore of Indonesia and Malaysia. What Loki is to the Norse, Anansi is to the Ashanti, and Br'er Rabbit is to African-American tradition, that's Kanchil for Southeast Asia. Over the course of centuries of oral tradition he's turned from prey animal into the worst nightmare of bigger, stronger, dumber bullies wish as Tiger. In one story he tricks Tiger into eating elephant dung (claiming it is the king's gourmet pudding), and in another he escapes a pit trap by making everyone believe Doomsday is coming. Both tales, and many others, have been a part of my storytelling repertoire, and they never disappoint. Kanchil is a star whether the audience consists of children, adults, or even moody teenagers. Long story short: I was not visiting the zoo to look at animals. I was meeting a celebrity.

Obviously it is not easy to get an appointment with a trickster. I already tried once at the Prague zoo last year, where, after hours of searching, I was informed by a zookeeper that Kanchil is "staff only." Oh well, I thought, there have to be other Mouse Deer in Europe, so I got on this very useful website that lists all zoo holdings. Bingo: Munich, Hellabrunn Zoo, one Javan Mouse Deer. From here, it was easy-peasy to put the zoo on the itinerary of our Bavarian vacation.
(Any allegations that the whole vacation was planned around Mouse Deer have no basis in reality and I have a boyfriend who will confirm that statement.)

Wolverine having a splash
We visited the zoo on a nice, cloudy Thursday. It is an amazing place, one of the best I have ever seen - green, spacious,  lush, with large habitats and all kinds of modern comforts. We got there shortly after opening time at 9am, and spent a good six hours wandering around. The animals seemed content and active - the wolverine splashed around, the pallas cat was hunting frogs, the polar bears were diving, the tortoises raced each other, the red panda was climbing a tree, so all in all, there was a lot to see and enjoy. Kanchil was not marked on any map, but we kept our eyes open, thinking that eventually we would run into it. We did see a bunch of Chinese muntjaks, which are related to Kanchil and also appear in some stories, but no matter how we looked, we could not locate the genuine article. Eventually, around noon we sat down for an ice cream and turned to the Internet for help. With my sporadic knowledge of German (including the essential terms "wo ist" and "kleinkantschil") I figured out that we need to look for Kanchil in the Jungle House. We had already been there and missed him, but now we were going to do better. And not get distracted by the neighboring pallas cat.

Find anything in this, I dare you
The Jungle House is essentially a large tropical green house without fences or walls, in which many different animals share a space with visitors in peace, respect, and 90% humidity. The most noticeable residents are the tropical birds like the pretty white Bali mynas (one of my favorite birds) and the busy little crested partridges (under the amazing Latin name Rollulus rouloul) - but there is also a Mouse Deer in there. Somewhere.
Pretty birb
The problem with tropical green houses is that they emulate the jungle really well - so much so that you can't really find anything in them that does not want to be found. Case in point: we spent more than an hour poking our heads under palm leaves and into bushes, searching high and low, climbing on rocks and observing the foliage from the bridge above - but there was nor hide nor hair of Mouse Deer anywhere. The other visitors (of which there were many) must have thought we were some special kind of weirdos as we rustled around, looking for some imaginary being, and occasionally shot nasty glances at smaller toddling primates that ran around screaming, chasing the partridges. The latter in particular were getting on my nerves: every time something moved in the shadows, it turned out to be just another damn partridge.
There was a sign, someone just turned it
I was starting to get very annoyed at the jungle chickens when I finally spotted something else: a zookeper. I ran up to her and inquired about Kanchil; she told me that there were indeed Kanchil in the Jungle House, three in total, but they tend to hide from crowds and loud noises, and one only has a chance of seeing them early in the morning. I was very disappointed to hear that: for one, not one, but THREE Kanchil were hiding from me somewhere in there, and two, I had absolutely no chance to actually see them until people took their dozens of screaming children home from the zoo. With an aching heart I gave up the search, noting that one can only meet a trickster if the trickster itself wills it so.

Or... early in the morning.

I spent that evening weighing the pros and cons of returning to the zoo the next day (Daryl, my significant other, knows me well enough that he already knew we were going back). Paying the entrance fee another time just to see one puny Kanchil (or three) did not seem like a logical decision. On the other hand, my storyteller self pointed out, we could have been a mere arm's length away from the Mouse Deer the whole time, and trying once more is still cheaper than traveling all the way to Munich a second time, right? It's how you save money. Besides, if we failed again, at least we could say that we have done everything possible, paid the learning fees, and gave the whole mission maximum effort. The rest would be up to the trickster gods.

Jungle in the morning
Long story short, we returned to the zoo on Friday morning. We made a detailed action plan: We showed up half an hour before opening time at the back entrance, because it is closer to the Jungle House. We stood first in line at the gate, wallet at the ready, and spotted the closest cashier in advance. When the gates opened, we took a running start, left the other people behind, bought our tickets, and took off to the Jungle House at a brisk pace. We hurried past elephants and sleepy gibbons, and the few pensioners who got in before us because they have zoo passes, and we made it to the Jungle House way before any other visitor even got close.

There was no one there, except for us... and the maintenance crew.

Take a Boy Scout to the zoo
When we entered in Stealth Mode, we were greeted by metallic clanging and loud conversation: Two men were fixing something on top of one of the habitats. The sound almost made me cry. I could see my chances to meet Mouse Deet evaporating into thin air. It was a pity, really, because apart from the noise, the Jungle House was lovely in the early morning: Mist was covering everything, water dripped from the leaves, the fruit bats were fighting up in the trees, and there were colorful birds gathering in all the sunny spots. Even though I did not have much hope left for spotting a Mouse Deer, we still started on a close sweep of the area. We poked our heads into bushes and shrubbery for a good ten to fifteen minutes, when, walking off the jungle bridge, I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting in a rolling camp chair, staring at a sunny spot on the ground. When I got closer, he smiled at me, and started talking in German, pointing at the spot. I did not get what he was saying at all, except for one very important word. "Kleinkantschil?" I asked hopefully. He nodded with a smile. "Ja, kleinkantschil."
Kanchil chose that exact moment to poke his nose out into the clearing.

There is a Mouse Deer
in this photo
I am happy to say that I managed to cover my mouth before I squealed out in delight. Kanchil, placing his dainty little stick legs carefully on the fallen leaves, jogged across the clearing and hid behind a rock; then, a few moments later, poked his head out again, and jogged back the other way. It was too short an encounter to do anything but marvel and fangirl, but it was for sure: I had just seen my very first live Mouse Deer! While I kept staring at the sunny spot, Daryl, who has the practical training of a Boy Scout, circled around the bushes to the other side, and waved at me to follow. There, across the little stream, was Kanchil again, in person and full profile, a mere six feet away from us! He stared at us a little suspiciously, scratched his ears, nibbled on his own rump, then lifted one hind leg up and started licking it (at first I thought he was eating a stick, which says a lot about Kanchil aesthetics). I stared at the stunning display for long minutes until my legs fell asleep, and the Mouse Deer got bored and walked off into the bush.
Kanchil and Csenge
By now, however, we were on to Kanchil and his tricks: We knew exactly where to look. We returned to the sunny clearing, where we spotted Mouse Deer again. In fact, we spent the next hour and a half going back and forth between the clearing and the stream - and it only took us about thirty minutes to figure out that we were not looking at one Mouse Deer, but two (so much about the Tortoise and the Hare). Kanchil were doing their morning routine licking their fur, drinking water, licking their own eyes, and shaking their little tails. They even graciously allowed us to take some photos (despite the jungle chickens that kept trying to photobomb everything).
The fun came to a close when more and more people started showing up with their children, and the noise chased the Mouse Deer into the deeper shadows of the jungle. But by then I was content: For an hour and a half in that nice morning, we were at a private audience with Mouse Deer! We paid our price for the experience, but it was totally, completely worth it.

Go out into the world, people, and chase down your Mouse Deer!