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?


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I've only skimmed it (because my children are all out of self-entertainment energy), but I'm excited to digest if fully. For a while now I've been thinking about putting together a show mixing personal narrative and folklore about my experience with anxiety. I was further encouraged at the recent NSN Summit and now this. I think the universe is sending me a message. Thanks.

  2. Love this. Thank you!
    I really like Orpheus as a tale about mental illness. I also tell the werewolf story, Bisclavret, which is a great analogy for some of the mood disorders.

  3. All fascinating. That zombie folktale sounds as if it might have been the basis of one of Sapkowski's short stories about the Witcher - and is the opening of the subsequent game.

  4. as usual a beautiful collection... the wooden sword is a personal favourite and i have shared it often :)

  5. Thank you for this list! I was feeling anxious today and it was good to read these.