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!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

StorySpotting: Into the briar patch (Veronica Mars)

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!

The new season of Veronica Mars is out on Hulu, and while this show missed me in its original run, I had a good time bingeing it.

Where was the story spotted?

Veronica Mars, season 4, episode 8 (Years, Continents, Bloodshed)

What happens?

Veronica investigates a series of explosions in her home town over the course of the season, until she manages to reveal and arrest the murderer (played by the amazing Patton Oswald). When the man is put into the police car in handcuffs, he tells Veronica that he plans on thriving in prison, publishing a book, and becoming a celebrity. He yells "You threw me in the briar patch, Mars!"

What's the story?

The "briar patch" is a reference to a well-known African-American trickster tale. Br'er Rabbit, the trickster character made famous by Joel Chandler Harris' "Uncle Remus" tales, is captured by Br'er Fox, who tries to find an appropriate punishment for the annoying hare. Br'er Rabbit begins to beg the fox to do anything but throw him into the briar patch. Fox falls for the trick and tosses the rabbit into the thorny thicket. The catch? Br'er Rabbit grew up in the briar patch, that is where he feels most at home. He's tricked the fox into putting him exactly where he wanted to be, and since the fox can't follow him into the thorny bush, he gets away once again.

This folktale motif has its own number: K581.2 - Briar-patch punishment for rabbit. Most often it appears as the second act of the (in)famous Tar Baby tale, where Br'er Rabbit is captured with the help of a human-shaped doll covered in sticky substance. You can read one version here. For further reading and more variants of this story, I recommend Bryan Wagner's book The Tar Baby: A Global History. For storytellers my favorite book to recommend is Affrilachian storyteller Lyn Ford's story collection, Beyond the Briar Patch. The trope also has its own TV Tropes page.


In the end, Veronica Mars fall for the same trick as Br'er Fox did, and pays for it dearly. The creators have been defending the ending of this season on various forums... we'll see what the next one brings.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Anxiety folktales (a #FolkloreThursday special)

I have been anxious pretty much all my life, but it wasn't until I was working on my PhD that I actually got diagnosed with it, and I could put a name to all the symptoms that accompanied me for the previous twenty-odd years. (Go figure, PhD and anxiety tend to go hand in hand). As a storyteller, obviously I have been looking for symbolic expressions of this experience ever since.

Before I got to traditional stories (my home turf), it was actually a webcomic that sparked my interest in representations of anxiety. I don't remember exactly what it was, but it compared anxiety to a superpower. As someone who adores superhero comics, and the X-men in particular, I'd shift that description a little: anxiety feels like the downside of a superpower. It's not the actual useful power, like telepathy, but the mandatory drawback that keeps the superhero from being Limitlessly Overkill, like a powerful telepath's inability to shut out mental voices. (Oh shit, I'm relating to bloody Jean Grey, save me!). My superpower is that I have a great imagination, good empathy, and excellent memory. The downside to that is that I can imagine in keen detail everything that can possibly go wrong in any given situation, and feel the emotional impact of it in advance. It might save my life. Or I might worry myself to death. So I definitely need to learn to control it.


Traditional stories work on a symbolic level. No folktale is going to say "the hero had anxiety" or "the hero had a panic attack." But when you pay attention to old stories, some patterns resonate with your experience - whatever it may be. The whole thing is entirely subjective. Over the course of the past years, I came across some stories I could relate my experience to. So, in the interest of representation (and because storytelling research is my happy place), I decided to share some of these stories and thoughts.



The thing about not looking back? I was always so angry at Orpheus for it. YOU HAD ONE JOB, DUDE! One very simple, incredibly easy instruction (superpower side: I'm very good at following rules). DON'T LOOK BACK. Except, eventually I rephrased the story for myself - "don't check." See, one of the symptoms of my anxiety is that I double-triple check important things. Phone, wallet, keys. Did I unplug the iron? Did I lock the door? Is my purse zipped? Upside: I have literally never lost anything in a public space. Downside: Compulsion to check that I still have things every time I open my purse. Once I thought about this, suddenly I started empathizing with Orpheus. Would I be able to not check on the most important person in my life on the way out of the Underworld?... Which one would win, my compulsion to follow rules, or the million things I'd be imagining about why she is not actually behind me?
(Especially after losing her once to a very unlikely accident.)


This is a Hungarian thing: a mitmit is a household demon in the form of a black chicken. Called so because it constantly asks mit-mit-mit? (what-what-what?). If you own one, it will bring you anything you want, but the moment it gets bored, it will drive you crazy with the "mit-mit-mit" (or it might even drag your soul to hell). In one story, a woman acquires a mitmit, and not believing her own luck says "bullshit" at the first question - at which point the chicken begins to fill her house with manure.
My brain kinda works like that. It can do incredible amounts of work in a short amount of time, but when I take a day off, there is the constant "what shall we do?" in the back of my mind. And if I don't distract it, it finds something juicy to peck at. Like possible future disasters. And I don't need that bullshit in my house.
(There are ways to get rid of a mitmit, like giving it an impossible task that exhausts it to death. I have not gotten this far in the allegory yet.)

The stone in the cellar

Another Hungarian folktale, but of an international type. A girl, about to get happily married, goes to the cellar to fetch wine, and sees a large stone in the corner (used to press pickled cabbages). She imagines being married, having a baby, and then imagines her darling little boy sneaking down into the cellar, and then pictures the stone accidentally falling on him and crushing him to death. The image is so vivid that she breaks down crying in the middle of the cellar. Her mother follows, hears what she is crying about, and breaks down as well. So does the father. Eventually the groom shows up, and when finds out that the entire family is crying about the unlikely death of a nonexistent child, he sets out saying that he will only marry the girl if he finds bigger fools than her. He goes out, and he does - turns out, the world is full of people with their own particular foolish ways. So he returns and marries her, and they live happily ever after.
(I think this one is kinda self-explanatory. I would still move the stone, just to be sure.)

The princess in the shroud

One of my favorite fairy tales (I have blogged about it here). I like it for the spook factor, but lately I have been taking a closer look at the symbolism of it too. In the story, the hero has to hide from a zombie princess that crawls out of her coffin every night to devour him. He survives a couple of nights, but only manages to break the curse when he jumps into her coffin, and survives the night inside it. To me, this story feels like a metaphor for dealing with intrusive anxious thoughts: you can hide under a pile of rattling bones, or up in the pulpit, or inside a church bell in the tower to drown out the noise, but in the end, the only real solution is to get inside the thought itself, right to where it comes from, and hold on until the scariness of it goes away.
(All story interpretations are personal, obviously.)

The barber's tale

This is a story from the Thousand and One Nights that I like to refer to as a FOMO tale. A shy barber desperately wants to make friends, so he joins a procession - that turns out to be made of convicts walking to execution. By the time he realizes his mistake, he doesn't want to make a fuss, so he goes along with the whole thing, and doesn't speak up. The story goes all the way to the actual execution before someone notices the extra person in the lineup in the last possible second. The barber gets to live, and learns something about speaking up for himself.
The one kind of anxiety I don't have is social - I'm an extremely extroverted person. But I do relate to the feeling of not wanting to speak up in an awkward situation, or the nervousness around complaining about basically anything, even if I am justified.


Anxiety tends to make someone hyper-aware of potential danger - even if there is no danger at all. Even when things are going well, an anxious brain can catalog, list, and highlight all the ways they might go wrong any minute. The symbolism of Damocles' sword is a pretty good one for this mental state: Damocles is surrounded by all possible luxuries, but hesitant to reach out for them due to the sword hanging on a single horse hair right above his head, threatening to fall any moment.

The wooden sword

A Jewish folktale about an anxious king with a bad case of "but what about tomorrow?", who makes friends with a cobbler who has the attitude of "God will provide." The king decides to put that attitude to the test, and keeps making the cobbler's life harder, taking away his ways of livelihood every day. The cobbler, however, always finds new ways to survive, until the king admits that he is wise - and makes him court advisor, to remind him that you can solve the problems of the future when you get there. It's a very healthy mentality for someone with an anxious mind that always wants to be prepared for every possible dreadful scenario way in advance.

This too shall pass

This one is a classic most people are familiar with. King Solomon looks for a magic ring that can make a desperate man happy, and a happy man humble. A wise man gives him a ring engraved with a phrase: "This too shall pass." Boom. I haven't quite figured it out yet if this is a good thing or not, because anxiety usually only does one half of the job of the damn ring - usually the part where it intrudes on happy moments. The trick is to get to understand that things work the same way with the bad moments too. Half win, right?

Do you have fairy tales or folktales to which you can relate your experiences with anxiety (or other mental issues)? Do you wish there were more? What part do you wish stories would convey better?

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Girl in the Chair: Hare rescues the sun

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

This request came from Coral Conant Gilles. She asked me to look into a story she found in a book a while ago. It's called How Hare Rescued the Sun, and she remembered reading it in Michael J. Caduto's Earth Tales from Around the World. She also supplied a reference to it from the Storyteller's Sourcebook. She asked me to see if I can find other variants of the story, other sources for it, or similar tales from other parts of the world.

What's the story?

In Caduto's book the story is marked as an Inuit tale from Siberia. Evil creatures named Tungaks steal the sun and hide it in a crystal vessel underground. The animals gather in the darkness, trying to select someone to go and get back the sun. Polar Bear and Wolf are suggested and rejected, until the wise Owl decides Hare should go. Hare sneaks into the Tungaks' underground cave and steals the sun. While fleeing, he breaks the vessel, breaking part of the sun off and kicking it into the sky - that part becomes the moon. Hare kicks the sun up as well, and as light floods the world, the Tungaks flee back underground.

Step One: Caduto's sources

Once again, the first step is to see if the collection references a source. Luckily, Caduto does: He says the story has been retold from "How the Sun was rescued" in James Riordan's The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon. Luckily, I own a copy of this book, so I can pull it from the shelf and see what the story looks like, and what sources Riordan references (see Step Four).

Step Two: Storyteller's Sourcebook

The Sourcebook references a picture book version of the tale, titled How snowshoe hare rescued the sun: A tale from the Arctic, by Emery Bernhard. The motif number is A721.1.3.1 - Sun harpooned and stolen by under earth demons standing on each other's backs. I wrote the title of the book into Google Books, but sadly, this picture book has no Preview. However, finding some reviews of the book I found out that it names the Siberian Yuit People as the source of the story. From another review I also found out that the book is retold from James Riordan's collection. So, I circle all the way back to Step Four.
(If you can't peek into a picture book that is based on a folktale, it is worth searching on Google for reviews of the book. They often refer to the original folk sources. If you are lucky.)

Step Three: Texts online

Typing the title of the story into Google yields some useful results too. I find a blog post that contains the Bernhard version, one unsourced retelling, and the text from Riordan as well.

Step Four: Riordan's story

There are some differences from Caduto and Bernhard's retellings here: the sun is not kept in a crystal vessel, but rather a "white stone pot." Riordan marks the story as "Eskimo" but doesn't specify an ethnicity. The entire book, according to the Introduction, is a collection of tales Riordan himself collected in 1977 and 1981 among the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and also from archival sources, but sadly he does not note which one came what source (or teller). Usually, when we hit the first collection (straight from the oral source) we have gone as far back as we could.

Step Five: Yuit culture

A quick Google search tells me that Yuit is another name for the Siberian Yup'ik (Yupighyt) people. Looking for information on "Yup'ik folklore" in Google I find this page, which also references some books such as Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos from Siberia. Sadly the book has no Google Books preview, so I can't tell if the Hare story is included in it. It might be worth a look, if for nothing else, then cultural context.
Another link, however, leads to a much older book, The Eskimo of Siberia by Waldemar Bogoras, which does contain a much shorter variant of this story. This book, in turn, claims the tale was borrowed from the Chukchee People, and points to another of Bogoras' books, Chukchee Mythology. This book is also in the public domain, so I found the Chukchee story online as well, here. These are two less elaborate, but more authentically sourced texts of the same tale.

Step Six: Motif index

I looked into the motif number noted by the Storyteller's Sourcebook to see if I can track down similar Inuit/Siberian tales. Sadly, the Sourcebook specified the motif number from A721.1 - Theft of Sun, which is too broad a motif to be useful to us. To be sure, I typed "A721.1.3.1." into Google Books, but got no useful results.

Step Seven: Tungak hunt

What are the tungaks, the key villains of the story? Once again I turn to Google Books, and search for "tungak" and various co-terms such as "Yupik", "Siberia", "Inuit", and "Eskimo". One of the first things that pops up that the term can also be spelled tuurngaq or toongak. I repeat the searches with those spellings too. Various books translate the word as "spirit" or "evil spirit" or even "devil"; occasionally "god", "shaman", or a shaman's spirit guide. I find a reference to more stories in this book that contains Siberian tales. Some call it The Great Tungak, and individual spirit that hates humans. I find some relevant info in this encyclopedia as well.
This volume seems to contain more information. Since it looks old enough to be in the public domain, I go to my favorite site, - and I am lucky: the volume is available online. But surprise! I can't find the part about tungaks in it. After some more poking at Google Books, turns out that somehow the results referred to another volume in the same publication series, The Labrador Eskimo, also available on So, now I have more info about Tungaks! (Search in the book's text to find all the relevant paragraphs)

Step Eight: Sun theft

Combing through stories where a trickster figure steals the sun and moon we can find quite a few indigenous examples from North America. Just like Hare is a trickster in many cultures, other tricksters also have similar exploits bringing back the light into the world. Google Books has quite a few results for "steals the sun" or "stole the sun" or "rescues the sun". These stories are not quite the same as the Yup'ik story above, but they can be valuable comparison. Some that I found useful (click for books):
Coyote Steals the Sun and Sun and Moon in a Box
Grandmother Spider steals the sun
Raven Steals the Light
We get the best results in Google searches if we search for various phrases in quotation marks, such as "steals the sun" or "stole the sun" or "rescues the sun" and add folktale or myth next to it. It takes multiple rounds of searching, but weeds out irrelevant hits. I also tried some of them with addig Yupik or Siberia or Eskimo or Inuit next to the phrases to narrow down the search. Some interesting results:
This article
This book
This book
This book
This book


Ideally, with indigenous stories like this, an in-depth researcher would reach out to the original communities. I only looked into this a little bit, and came across an interesting website, but the real would would require more effort, and probably a lot of asking around. Contacting actual tradition bearers might be the best way to uncover, verify, and ethically learn indigenous cultural materials such as myths of folktales. Additional search help from someone who reads Russian might also be helpful.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Anansiland (Following folktales around the world 116. - Ghana)

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!

Akan-Ashanti Folk-tales
R. S. Rattray
Clarendon Press, 1969.

This is a fairly old collection, from sometime in the 1930s when Ghana was still referred to as the Golden Coast. It contains 75 tales collected straight from the oral tradition, both in the original language and in English. They were transcribed by the author himself, who believed that asking locals to write stories down would result in losing the best phrases of oral language. This, and some other fascinating topics are discussed in the Introduction - for example, the question of the origin of Ashanti tales, why there are so many vulgar stories among them, and why most characters are named after animals. The book is illustrated by the drawing of local artists who tried their hand at making spoken stories visible for the first time (and apparently had arguments over whether Anansi should be portrayed as a spider or as a man).


Since the book is full of Anansi stories, obviously I had a lot of favorites among them. We find out a lot about the spider-trickster from these tales: why he is bald (because he tried to hide cooked beans under his hat and it burned his hair off), how he won Aso for his wife (with trickery, although the end of that story is fairly tragic, since their first, illegitimate child is killed), or why he runs on the surface of the water (because he is afraid of crocodiles).

Among my favorites was How Anansi distributed wisdom among people - he had all the wisdom in a gourd and he tried to climb up a tree to hide it, but he had a gourd hanging on his stomach and he could not climb. When his son told him to put the gourd on his back instead, Anansi got angry that all the wisdom in the world could not teach him that, so he shattered it to pieces. This was not the only thing Anansi was responsible for; there were many others, such as How white people got hoes (Anansi set off a magic hoe, that kept hoeing until it reached Europe), Why children play in the moonlight (because Anansi made peace between Sun, Moon, and Night), How illnesses came to be (Anansi scattered them around when Nyame took his wife), How disagreement was born (when Anansi defeated a man in a lying contest), or Why there is toothache (because a giant bird kept stealing people's jaws, and Anansi got them back, but got them mixed up). And of course the book contains the most famous Anansi story about How Anansi got all the stories in the world (with the help of his clever wife Aso), and why they are now called anansesem. Sometimes, however, it was Anansi that got the short end of the stick - in one story, when Anansi looked for a fool, it was Crow who turned the spider's own greed and laziness against him.
There was a great, although a little dark chain story about Why children should not be left alone. In it, a Leopard visited the lonely child of a hunter, and asked about all the trophies, and the boy chanted the names of all the animals his father had killed. When they got to the Leopard trophy, the boy got scared and started again, and his father got home just in time to kill the vengeful Leopard. On the other hand, in the story about The origin of friendship it was a human child and a leopard child who swore brotherhood to each other, and when bigoted people killed the leopard, the human man died too. On a lighter note, there was a lovely tale about Why the colobus monkey's tail is white, in which animal ing courting beat the poor monkey up and left him on a garbage heap - but a girl fell in love with him anyway.
Another tale I really enjoyed talked about how No one is useless in a tribe. A family chased a "foolish" boy away, but when they were later invaded by a mischievous spirit, it was the fool who managed to chase it away. Another tale had a very similar moral about how If a relative wants to go with you, you should not refuse - in this, two older brothers tried to leave the youngest behind, and on the way to the market they tricked him into buying useless things, but the boy managed to turn all of them into something profitable.


I once again encountered the tale of the husband and wife who understood each other from symbols. From Caribbean countries I was also familiar with the story of shapeshifters (in this case, pigs) who leave their animal skins behind, until people rub salt and pepper on the inside so they can't put them on again. In the Aladdin tale type where a cat and a dog bring back a boy's stolen magic ring the thief was, obviously, Anansi. I was also familiar with the story type where Anansi brought an entire village of people to Nyame, by repeatedly tricking people into trading him more valuable things.
There was an interesting "kind and unkind girls" variant that explained Why one should not ask payment for something that was lost. In this case, there was no evil stepmother, the two sisters sent each other out for impossible tasks, only one of them knew how to be polite, and the other didn't. Also, once again, there was the well-known dilemma tale about the girl rescued by three suitors together.

Where to next?

Saturday, August 3, 2019

MythOff Budapest: Living Planet

This Wednesday we had the ninth MythOff event in Budapest - for the second time in our wonderful new venue, the Premier Kultcafé. The theme, courtesy of Bumberák Maja, was Living Planet - we told myths about the relationship between humans and nature, which held important relevance to current world events. Despite it being the middle of summer, we had a great audience and a full house of more than ninety people! The emcee was Nagy Enikő, who did a wonderful job. She did not only print us voting forms in advance, but also sewed cloth baggies as prizes for Plastic-Free July, and even made sure we raffled one off to the audience.

This is how things went down:

Round one: Sacred plants

Hajós Erika told the Greek myth of King Erysichthon, who cut down Demeter's sacred grove, and the goddess punished him with eternal hunger. Eventually, the king devoured himself. Klitsie-Szabad Boglárka, told another Greek myth, that of Daphne and Apollo. Erika's telling was dramatic, while Bogi's was humorous, and the two went great together.
Voting question: Which tree would you plant in your garden, oak or laurel?
The winner: Laurel!

Round two: Sea and animals

I began this round with a story from Oceania about how the women saved Guam from a giant fish sent by the angered spirits of nature (I love this one a lot, especially because women use their hair to weave a net together). My partner Bumberák Maja told the Inuit myth of Sedna, Mother of the Sea, whose hair gets dirty and matter, and traps sea animals until someone combs them out.
Voting question: Whose hair would you rather comb, your own (heroically cut), or Sedna's?
The winner: Sedna!

Round three: Fertile land

This round focused on life, renewal, and fertility. Stenszky Cecília told us about Ishtar, goddess off fertility descending into the Underworld (she, just as Maja, used a drum for telling). Gregus László told a Tahiti myth about the God of the Sea destroying all land to punish over-eager fishermen - all land except one island where his mortal lover lived.
Voting question: With whom would you rather go out for a coffee, Ishtar or the Tahitian princess?
The winner: Ishtar!

All three votes were close, which means that we all brought good stories to the performance. Sine counting ninety-something (!) votes took a bit of time, we told some more stories in the meantime - I told about Saint Peter and global warming, and Maja told about Saint Peter and rainfall.

It was, once again, an amazing experience to tell together, and have such an enthusiastic and dedicated audience. I'm looking forward to the next occasion! For more info, follow MythOff on Facebook!

Tricky Borders: FEST Storytelling Conference, 2019.

"Tricky Borders" - this was the title given to the 2019 FEST storytelling conference by the organizers, who represented three countries together: Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The conference this year took place in the Euregio, where the borders of those three countries meet. Our headquarters was on the Netherlands side in Rolduc Abbey, and we took short trips to Aachen and the Belgian countryside. No wonder that in a place like this our main focus this year was borders - and tricksters who tend to cross them.

The day of arrival was mostly spent by talking, meeting new people, and greeting old friends (while consuming lots of cold drinks in the scorching heat). I was happy to see George Macpherson again - I met him at my first FEST conference in Lausanne in 2009, and I have read all of his books. Next to old friends I also made some new acquaintances from exciting places such as Luxembourg, Lithuania, and the Leprechaun Museum in Dublin (it was their first time at FEST, and I was happy to see them, as I am a big fan of their storytelling work).
On the first full day of the conference we had an all-day General Assembly which was smooth and well organized. We voted on the site of the 2022 conference (hello, Vilnius!) and a new Executive Committee member (hello, Agnieszka Aysen Kaim from Poland!), learned about the current and future storytelling projects FEST is supporting, and got a glimpse of the storytelling competency system that is being developed (more about that later). In the evening there was a performance titled Nowhere Lane, by Belgian storyteller Joe Boele who told stories about the life of Roma communities in the mid-20th century. The show was based on a book written by another white person who traveled with the Roma, and it was a well constructed performance, although there were some parts of it that made me feel uncomfortable about the authenticity of presenting these stories twice removed from the original source.

On the second morning of the conference we took a bus to a modern art museum in Aachen, where we spent the morning with lectures on the intersection of science and storytelling. George Macpherson told us a legend about Dian Cécht and related it to modern medicine; Giovanna Conforto talked about the importance of storytelling in science communication; Dr. Anke Groß-Kunkel from the University of Cologne introduced us to a fascinating multisensory storytelling project for people living with Profound Intellectual Multiple Disabilities. Over lunch break we wandered around downtown, visited the Aachen cathedral, ate ice cream, and talked, and then we got back on the bus and went on a short tour around three countries. We briefly ventured into Belgium, circled back to the Netherlands, got off the bus, walked across to Germany (visiting Charlemagne's huntingchapel on the way), then got back on the bus, and returned to Rolduc Abbey chased by a thunderstorm. It was a lovely trip, peppered by frequent text messages from my cellphone service provider, pinging "Welcome to Belgium/Germany/Netherlands" every few minutes... 

Friday afternoon was filled with various workshops and talks. I went to George Macpherson's "Traditional storytelling" session where he told us stories and we listened in awe, and occasionally asked questions. After that I migrated over to Sam Cannarozzi's "Science and Storytelling" talk, which was a delightful surprise: Sam decorated the whole room (including himself) with various versions of the periodic table. When we entered, everyone got assigned an element (by dice or by cards; I got Phosphorus), and Sam told us interesting facts and stories about each of them. We hunted for mythology references in the table together, and learned a lot about the history and discovery of many of the elements, from alchemists to chemists. Lots of fun!
The Friday evening presentation was brought to us by Chris Adriaanse, a storyteller and linguist from the UK, who told us about the various trickster-tools Trump and his campaign apply to manipulate people. The talk was peppered by trickster stories about Tyl Uilenspiegel (by Regina Sommer and Tom van Outryve), and sparked intense conversations among storytellers about whether or not Trump qualifies as a trickster. For the record, in my opinion, HE DOES NOT.

Saturday was another day full of workshops. In the morning I joined Regina Sommer's "The Tricksters of Tomorrow" circle, where we spent three hours brainstorming about what makes a trickster, what tools tricksters have in the modern world, and what role tricksters can/will play in social and historical change in the present and future. We came up with some fascinating ideas and systems, and we even considered organizing a trickster-themed gathering to work on them more.
In the afternoon, instead of going to workshops, I participated in creating videos for FEST's new storytelling competency system. The plan was introduced to us at the General Assembly by Veva Gerard. It is a great idea for organizing and outlining what competencies play an important part in training storytellers, and is detailed and organized enough to be the basis of accrediting storytelling programs in the EU. It contains competencies grouped by aspects of a storyteller's work such as Artist, Performer, Researcher, Team Player, etc. It is still in its testing phase, but it is flexible enough to be useful, color-coded, and the creators even brought us some games so that we could test and discuss it. In addition, they set up a studio to record short video snippets of storytellers talking about the importance of various competencies. I recorded three of them, and while I was waiting for my turn, I played around with the colorful little cards outside the door. The idea was to pick my eight most important competencies out of forty, and see what colors (themes) they represent. Here is my "storytelling fingerprint":

Purple: researcher, Blue: craftsman, Orange: team player,
Green: artist, Yellow: performer
I also shuffled them around and picked the eight competencies I personally deemed most important to teach to beginning storytellers. Here is my "teaching fingerprint":

Grey: entrepreneur
The system is still being tested and refined (they just put Tradition Bearer back into it, after some convincing from Irish, French, and, er, Hungarian participants), but I think it is a great system and a very useful idea. Congratulations to the developers!

All that was left for Saturday evening was the closing ceremony. First, we got to witness the performance of the people who participated in the mixed reality storytelling workshop. It was great fun to watch them tell stories and use virtual reality technology to illustrate them. After the show, the organizers of this year's conference handed the torch over to the Turkish delegates, who will host us next year. The evening concluded with a surprise: Paola Balbi, accompanied by a jazz musician, presented us an excerpt of a historical storytelling show about early feminism in Northern Italy. Paola is a storytelling powerhouse, and despite the late hour, her performance was utterly captivating.

Of course FEST conferences (like all storytelling gatherings) are a lot more than just workshops and presentations. In-between sessions there was a lat of talking, laughter, dancing, singing, debating, getting to know each other, and solving the great philosophical questions of our time (usually with beer). It was a fun, well organized, informative conference - in three countries at once.

We shall meet again next year in Turkey!