Monday, May 20, 2019

Tricksters and oceans (Following folktales around the world 107. - Cape Verde)

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-lore from the Cape Verde Islands
Elsie Clews Parsons
American Folk-Lore Society, 1923.

Elsie Clews Parsons was a very prolific collector; I read a lot of her books for the Caribbean countries. The 133 folktales in this book were collected by her from Cape Verde immigrants settled in the US. At the beginning of the 20th century, they formed closed communities, often separated by island even in their new home. Parsons collected the tales with the help of a Cape Verde interpreter, who first translated them to standard Portuguese, and then to English. Storytelling was a community event that Parsons participated in. She recorded variants for most of the stories, and each one comes with abundant footnotes and comments, pointing out the variations in plot and motif.


One of my favorite stories in the book was the tale of The girl who would dance. I liked it for its symbolism: A girl was chased away from home because she wanted to dance all the time and do nothing else. She allowed a seven-headed dragon into her new home, who kidnapped her. She sang a desperate song, asking for help from her parents, godparents, and friends, but everyone told her to give in, this was the fate of women. Eventually, her olderst friend rescued her when she asked, and she ended up sharing his house, living together "as brother and sister." Another favorite was The magic ship and the three temptresses. In this one, the middle son (!) was the hero; he was also mute, and communicated with everyone in writing. He set out for Australia on a ship, got into a naval battle with a mysterious vessel that surfaced from below the ocean, traveled to the underwater realm, found a wife, lost her, rescued her again, and even got his voice back.
Among the many trickster tales in the book, I enjoyed the one about Uncle Caramba, and how he made a transatlantic trip by tricking people into thinking he was an excellent sailor, champion swimmer, and fortune-teller - while he didn't actually do any work. 
Good Maria and Bad Maria was a fascinating variant of the Kind and Unkind Girls tale type. Here, Good Maria was rewarded with the power that "her smile summoned clouds, and her laughter brought rain", while Bad Maria was punished so that "her smile summoned wind, her laughter brought a storm." I'm not sure which one is better or worse.
One of the most amusing stories in the book was that of The things that talked - namely, a fig tree, a dog, and a stick, effectively freaking out some humans just for fun.


Parsons points out in the introduction that the Cape Verde folktale repertoire mostly features internationally known tale types, and many of them are familiar to the European reader. The book features many classics such as Ali Baba (and the Seven robbers), the Seven Kids (although there were only three of them, and an ant saved them from the wolf's belly), Three kidnapped princesses (here rescued by a hero raised by a donkey), Treasures of the giant (Frigajonsi), Extraordinary helpers (three of them, who rescued a girl who married a serpent), Three gifts (with a mirror that showed the past, very useful), Magic Flight (several variants), Fish lover (last time I encountered this was in the Caribbean), Brementown musicians, Fortunatus (who killed off the whole royal family in the end), King's hares (the very adult version), Golden-haired hardener (raised by a shark), Dancing princesses (rejected by the hero, but one of the tales actually listed all the dances!), Man in search of his luck (or rather, a woman, visiting the Mother of the Sun), and Magician's Apprentice.
Of course this book did not lack animals running a race - one variant featured a mollusk and a dolphin, while another had turtle and gazelle.
The resident tricksters were Wolf and his Nephew - Wolf was usually tricked by his clever nephew, although in some cases he was the smart one. A human trickster (and liar) named Little John also appeared in multiple stories. There were many classic trickster tale types, such as the Tar Baby, and the one where Rabbit got Elephant and Whale (or Elephant and Wolf) to play tug-o-war.

Where to next?


  1. I love trickster tales! This sounds like an amazing collection. That era was quite a time for collecting folk tales, wasn’t it?