Monday, May 20, 2019

Folktales about climate change

While "cimate change" as a scientific term is too recent to feature into traditional stories, make no mistake: People have been telling legends, myths, and folktales about our fragile relationship with Nature for many centuries. Since it is a very timely topic, here are some of my favorite examples of traditional tales with messages for the future:

The Lady of Stavoren
(Read versions here, here, or here.)

A legend from the Netherlands, with written versions dating back to the 16th century. A wealthy merchant lady orders a ship's captain to bring her the greatest treasure in the world. The captain goes on a long voyage, and after searching all over the world (and probably some introspection), he returns with a ship full of wheat, claiming that there is no greater treasure in the world than food. The lady grows angry, and, despite the begging of the poor of the city, orders him to dump the entire cargo into the harbor. The captain does so, and then leaves. The wheat, however, causes a sand bank to form, blocks the entrance, and trade coming into the city. The lady loses her fortune, becomes a beggar, and eventually, rising waters destroy the city itself.

How the Women Saved Guam
(Read versions here, here, here, or here.)

Chamorro legend from Guam. People anger the spirits of nature by taking from land and sea, and not giving anything back. First comes draught, and then famine, and then a giant parrot fish that keeps taking bites out of the island. Men set out but fail to trap it in their nets. Eventually, women discover where the fish is hiding in a cave under the island. They get together, weave a stronger net from their own hair, put their own strength and determination into it, and catch the fish with collective effort.

(Read about her here, here, here, or here.)

Sedna, also known by several other names, is the Mother of the Sea in Inuit mythology. When the ocean is polluted, when people commit too many sins or dirty the waters with too many abominations, the animals of the sea get tangled in Sedna's dirty hair, water rushes into her house instead of out of is, and there is no food for the hunters to be found. At times like this, a shaman has to descend into Sedna's realm, patiently comb and untangle her hair (she can't do it herself since she has no fingers), and release the animals trapped in it. In some legends, he has to make a promise to treat the Sea with respect, and not kill more animals than people are allowed.

King Erysichthon
(Read here.)

The King of Thessaly angers the goddess Demeter by cutting down her sacred trees. The nymphs responsible for the trees run to the goddess, and she orders Famine to enter the king's stomach. Erysichthon is cursed by horrible hunger, and he devours everything, until people flee from his palace, and he is left with only one person - his daughter. He sells her for food, but she escapes (thanks to her shapeshifting abilities)... so he sells her again and again. But even so, there is less and less food to be found, and he eventually devours himself.

Saint Peter and the Frogs
(Read about the collection here.)

Macedonian folktale, originally titled Saint Peter and the Poor Man. Peter encounters a poor beggar who complains about winter, and how the cold weather is miserable for the poor. Peter asks God to make sure it is always summer. God warns him it is a bad idea, but Peter insists. God creates eternal summer, and in the warm weather, Nature goes wild - amphibians proliferate, and soon the entire world is covered in frogs. Frogs grow bigger and more intelligent over time, and Peter eventually admits that his idea was bad - when one of the frogs wants to marry his daughter. God sends a hailstorm, and all frogs freeze. Seasons return.

(Read about it here.)

There are many legends from the Amazonas basin about the boto, the pink river dolphin. Some of them tell about fishermen who wound a dolphin for sport or for entertainment. Dolphins drag the fisherman underwater, and take him to the Encante, the Enchanted City, where dolphins appear as humans. They show him the harm he has done, and make him tend to the wounded dolphins in a hospital until they are healed. The fisherman is released back to the land with a warning to treat the dolphins with the same respect as people.

The Revolt of the Utensils
(Read here, here, or here.)

A Moche myth, mostly reconsturcted from vase and wall paintings, and some Mayan parallels. From what researchers can piece together, it deals with an upside-down, apocalyptic time (either in the past, in the future, or happening periodically), when man-made objects and domesticated animals revolt against humans, allegedly for being mistreated, or being thrown away. Led by the goddess of Moon or Night (?), and they subdue, enslave, and/or kill humans in revenge.

Drop of Honey
(Read here, here, or here.)

A king drips some honey on the ground while eating, and refuses to have it cleaned up, claiming that it is "not his problem." The honey attracts a fly, which attracts a lizard, which attracts a cat, which attracts a dog, and the chain of events escalates from there to all-out civil war, until the palace burns down around him. The king has to finally admit - too late - that the drop of honey might have been his problem after all.

*Note: Not all of the stories above are foktales, some of them are myths or folk legends. I just wanted to make the title simpler than "traditional narratives." 


  1. A good collection. Thank you.

  2. Thank you! I have been looking for tales about climate change ....and had not found these ones!

  3. this is wonderful thank you so much

  4. Really interesting collection. Finding a balance with nature has been a lesson since time immemorial, but I think the one that most applies to us today is "the drop of honey" - as we lived farther removed from nature on a day-to-day basis, we started thinking it wasn't our problem. Turns out it was.
    But I have to say I'm intrigued by the idea of the world overrun with intelligent frog!

  5. Interesting there were nature-aware folk centuries ago. And those who ignored them and still do.

  6. Thank you for this a beautiful collection