Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Badass Grandmas of Hungarian Folktales (a #FolkloreThursday special)

Tomorrow is International Women's Day. I have been working on a Feminist Hungarian Folktales collection, and the deeper I dug into out folklore archives, the more often I encountered old women who were smart, active, and all-around badass. I decided that I would like to highlight them in this year's post. So, without further ado:


The ex-princess

In a folktale by a traditional teller from Rozsály, a young Scythian king makes a name for himself by rescuing a cursed princess. Her father had punished her because she fell in love with the wrong person; when the Scythian prince sets her free, she promises to repay his kindness one day. Time flies, the king has sons, the sons grow up, and set out to seek their fortune. On the way, an old woman joins them, not-so-subtly helping them along. She rescues them from bandits, and packs the bandit chief's head away in her purse. Later on, when a king promises his daughter to whoever can rid the woods of bandits, Granny pulls out the severed head, and demands the princess for one of the lads. The king is not too enthusiastic about the match, and orders his servants to toss the prince out of the highest tower at night... but luckily, the prince falls right into the arms of the old woman, who has been waiting around below the tower, with her back to the wall. To catch him. As the story progresses, she blinds an entire army, secures the match for one brother, and finds another princess for the other, until all is well in the end. Once a double wedding is celebrated, the cursed-princess-turned-badass-grandma turns into a dove, and flies away.

The salty witch

You know that story, right? "I love you like people love salt"? Well, in a Hungarian Roma variant the princess, exiled by her narcissistic father, ends up in the woods, and is found by an old woman everyone in the area is scared of. Granny states that the king is a real piece of work, and adopts the princess. Eventually, a young man joins them as a servant. One day, Granny decides it is time to teach the king a lesson, and takes the princess home to the palace, where they cook an unsalted feast together. The king, of course, learns his lesson about the importance of seasoning - and to drive the point home, Granny starts shaking salt out of a magic bag, filling up the room, yelling "Is that enough salt yet? Is that enough?" When the king begs for forgiveness, the old lady nods: "Good. And don't ever make me save your daughter from you again."

The dragon slayer

In another Roma folktale, an old man is imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, and his wife is left alone. The old woman sets out to rescue her husband, walking through a forest everyone warns her not to enter - it belongs to a dragon. On the way, the old woman meets the dragon (it has 28 heads!). She offers it some milk, and manages to lull and hum and pet it to sleep. While the dragon is sleeping, she cuts off her long hair, and ties the beast up so thoroughly that when it wakes and struggles, it strangles itself. Once people in town hear what she's done, they let her husband go free.

The smart mother-in-law

This Transcarpathian story (included in my book) is a variant of Rumpelstiltskin that is much kinder, and all-around nicer, than the Grimm version. More importantly, it features a dowager queen, the king's mother, who is on her daughter-in-law's side from the first moment. To cover up the lie about spinning gold, day after day she stands in the door of the girl's room, spinning stories about why the gold is not ready. No one dares question her word, so she keeps winning time until the whole situation is resolved.

The demon hunter

Hungarian folklore features a type of demonic being known as a lidérc. Most often it appears as an ugly chicken with magical properties: It can bring you whatever you want, in great quantities, and it will make you rich - but the moment it gets bored, it takes your soul to hell. Owners of lidérc chicken have to continuously keep them busy, because their soul is on the line. In one story, a widow finds such a creature, but soon discovers that it is impossible to coexist with - when it is not piling things into the house, it keeps chirping "What? What? WHAT?" until it is given another task. Eventually, the wise old neighbor woman comes up with a solution for how to get rid of the demon (you have to give it an impossible task). Following the sage advice, the widow frees herself, and splits the spoils with her neighbor.

Bonus: The Virgin Mary

There is a Transylvanian folktale that is very similar to Bluebeard, but has a better ending. In this one, the heroine helps her sisters escape from the murderer's castle, and finds a new life for herself as well. However, her evil ex-husband eventually catches up to her, kidnaps her, and drags her back home by the hair. On the way, the scene is noticed by the Virgin Mary, who stops the man, and demands to know what is going on. When the man claims that he has the right to punish his runaway wife, the Virgin says "No, you don't. You are a devil, and you have no claim on any woman." And with that, she turns the man into stone, and escorts the woman back home.

Happy International Women's Day to all real life badass grandmas, aunties, godmothers, and other legendary elders!