Monday, October 28, 2019

Tales of strength and endurance (Following folktales around the world 128. - Namibia)

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!

Haiseb ​and the man who cooked himself
and other folktales from the Khoi of Namibia
Sigrid Schmidt & Veronica Eiases
Macmillan Education Namibia, 2008.

This book was written for entertainment reading, and contains 29 stories from the Khoi people of Namibia. There are no introduction or notes, only black-and-white illustrations, but the name of the storyteller is noted with every story.


The tale of the girl who married a springbok would be an excellent story for therapy. It belonged to the type where the girl marries into the spirit world and then has to escape, but it was a particularly powerful variant. Here, the springbok-husband "softened the bones" of his wife so she could not stand up or get away from him; she crawled home on her stomach, and had to win back her family's support before they helped her regain her strength. Another therapy-worthy story was that of the lazy horse. It told about a place where people had to cross lion-infested lands to get food; everyone hurried to make the trip faster, except for a man with a "lazy horse" that kept stopping to eat and drink. When the lions did attack, however, that horse was the only one that had the strength to get away.
I enjoyed the story of the chameleon and his twenty wives. The chameleon did not have the resources to care for that many women, so he kept feeding them some of his own flesh in secret. When they found out, they all left him, leaving their colorful dresses behind... and he has been wearing those every since.


There was yet another story that explained why chickens scratch the dirt (looking for a needle they borrowed from falcon and then lost). I knew the tale of the three elephants from Mali; the animals truned themselves into pretty women to trick a hunter into telling them all his secrets. His mother warned him to be more careful, and the kept one trick up his sleeve that helped him get away from the vengeful elephants.
It was interesting to encounter a story that I read from Venezuela before: a cannibal woman killed a pregnant mother and raised her twins as her own. The sister of the twins, Aga-abes, eventually revealed the truth to them, and they trapped and killed the cannibal, and revived their mother.
The resident trickster was Jackal, who in one story turned into grass just to be reincarnated as a calf and steal some cow milk. He also played the classic horse-riding trick with Lion and Lion's wife.

Where to next?
South Africa!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Unlikely heroes, diverse tricksters (Following folktales around the world 127. - Angola)

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-tales of Angola
Fifty tales, with Kimbundu text, literal English translation, introduction, and notes
Héli Chatelain
The American Folk-Lore Society, 1894.

This is a very old book: the very first volume of the American Folk-Lore society series! It contains fifty folktales collected from the Mbundu people of Angola. The collector was a linguist who traveled to the country to help missionaries learn the local languages. Most of the tales came from a student of his named Jeremiah, who even accompanied him to America to help put the stories into writing.
The long and detailed (although definitely dated) introduction talks about Angola's geography, natural resources, climate, population, languages, societies, folklore, and oral traditions. A separate chapter deals with phonetics and pronunciation, since all the stories are printed in mirror translation, both in the original language and in English. They have been translated carefully word for word, which makes the English rendering hard to read and enjoy (even though, I still found quite a few fun stories in it). At the end of the book we get extensive notes for each tale to help with the understanding of linguistic and cultural details. This book was definitely ahead of its time.


I have read a similar story before, but I really liked this version of The son of Kimanaueze and the Daughter of the Sun and the Moon. A mortal man wanted to marry the celestial girl, but there was no one to carry his letters to her. Frog figured out a way to make the trip back and forth (in the water jugs of heavenly maidens), and managed to arrange the marriage through multiple visits.
The tale of Dinianga Dia Ngombe was strange but very entertaining. The hunter killed a deer and skinned it, but then the animal suddenly jumped up and got away. The hunter yelled after it, shaming it for running around "naked" - to which the deer responded that the hunter looked even more embarrassing, going home with an empty deer skin and nothing else. The humor was similarly poignant in the story of The young man and the skull; here the protagonist met a talking skull that warned him that his wits will be his undoing. The young man went around boasting that a talking skull told him he's so smart it will be his end... until they told him to prove his story. The skull, however, refused to talk, and the young man was beheaded, his own skull joining the family of talking skulls that should have known better.
I was fascinated by the tale of the two men who competed for the same girl. The father gave them the difficult task of catching a live deer. One of them considered his options and decided not to try, while the other stubbornly completed the task. The father gave the girl to the former, claiming that a man who followed senseless orders without thinking will make a terrible husband, and will beat his wife if she makes a mistake. Whoa.


Pic from here
The story of the (beautifully named) Na Nzua Dia Kimanaueze was similar to the European "boy who turned into animals" tales, except here the hero could take on the form of any animal, not just three, and besides rescuing a princess, he also used his forms to hunt for food when he was hungry. The princess, by the way, had to be rescued from slavery in Portugal. The story had a similar beginning than that of The woman who ate too much fish, except in that one, she did not have to give up her child to the God of Fish (eco-tales!), but rather, a particularly large fish came to life in her stomach, just like in the African-American story of the Singing Geese.
Once again I encountered a story about a woman (Ngana Samba) who married into the spirit world - here, against her will - and managed a daring escape together with her children. There was also another story where a little sister saved her siblings from the evil Ma-kishi spirits by keeping vigil at night and keeping them occupied. She eventually convinced her sisters to run away from the spirit world; in their escape they were helped by a hawk, which, strangely reminded me of a story I read from Kiribati.
There was a whole host of resident tricksters, including Hare and Monkey. In a Tar Baby variant they actually appeared together, and were caught by the tar-women set up by Leopard (but obviously they got away). In the tale about the shared food secretly stolen, Fox was tricked by a wily Mole, but he managed to take revenge in the end. In the story where the "male goat gave birth to kids" trial had to be decided, it was clever Duiker (a distant relative to Mouse Deer) who helped the defendant; while the infamous horse-riding trick of Br'er Rabbit was played on Elephant by Frog. I was also reminded of Br'er Rabbit stories by the "briar patch" tale, where Turtle made people believe he could only be killed by being thrown into the river. The ungrateful predator rescued from a trap (and then put back in) was Leopard, tricked by Hare. Leopard was also the villain of the story where he invited animals along to his family, played tricks on them on the way, and had them killed in the end. It was Monkey who managed to outsmart him (in other African traditions it used to be Antelope who tricked wily Tortoise).

Where to next?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Tales in the Cathedral: Storytelling in Aachen

I already blogged about this year's FEST conference, but I still owed a report from the amazing storytelling event that followed after. I always love it when a gathering of international storytellers is followed by a festival, and this time Regina Sommer and the Haus der Märchen und Geschichten organized a truly special treat: We told stories inside the Aachen Cathedral at night!

We visited the cathedral during the conference that was organized by three different countries. It was my first time seeing it in person, and I was absolutely stunned by how beautiful it is. When we returned for the storytelling event (after a very friendly dinner), I could barely believe that this was going to be our venue for the night. We got a chapel for a green room (best green room ever, see the photo on the right), and they even opened the sacristy for us so that we could use the bathroom... (talk about being behind the scenes). The pre-event mood was cheerful, friendly, and filled with awe, underscored with Davide Bardi tuning his guitar in the chapel.

We were in excellent hands to help us explore: A group of young guides, trained by art historian Wirtz Ágnes (incidentally also the founder of the Világszép Foundation, the NGO I work for) when they were children, returned for the evening to offer special tours to visitors, telling us about the history and secrets of the cathedral. We got to see Charlemagne's throne built from stone slabs brought from Jerusalem, and also his golden sarcophagus. While we were on stage, the latter was visible behind us, and if we looked up over the audience, we could see the empty throne facing us from the first floor gallery. It was thrilling to imagine that someone that famous was listening to our stories... along with about three hundred people in the audience, who filled up all the seats. We had a full house... or rather, a full cathedral.

Storytellers were invited to represent carious cultures and traditions that had a connection to Charlemagne, the cathedral, the school he founded there, and the Carolingian renaissance era. For example, I was there because the cathedral has a Hungarian chapel, built in the 14th century; it has been an important place of pilgrimage ever since. Everyone told one story, and in-between performances we got to hear enchanting organ and saxophone music that filled the entire space, and transported us through time and space. The story I brought was a Hungarian legend from the time of the Mongolian invasion - it tells about how refugees were helped across the Danube by Fairy Queen Tündér Ilona, and the magician Göncöl táltos, who gave up their own powers for 777 years for them. This story holds a special significance this year, because the Mongolian invasion ended 777 years ago. I could hear the audience gasp when I told them that. It was an unforgettable moment. I was a little worried before for bringing such a pagan story into a cathedral, but since the event was opened by George Macpherson doing an ancient Celtic invocation, we both agreed that we would be fine. The Dom handled our stories well.

The other performances were all captivating, and although I could not follow the ones in German very well, I still enjoyed them. Davide Bardi and Paola Balbi brought us their incredible telling of Jesus' death and return from the points of view of Mary Magdalene and Peter. Michaela Sauber told us about Parsifal, Nuala Hayes brought us the Children of Lir, Gidon Horowitz the legend of the first temple in Jerusalem, Sam Cannarozzi legends of alchemy, Raymond den Boestert a tale of Till Uilenspiegel, and Abbi Patrix a creation myth from Africa about the spirit of creativity. Wirtz Ágnes and the young guides told us a story about Aachen together.

The whole evening was an amazing experience that connected people across time, space, and cultures, and I was incredibly honored to be a part of it. I wondered if the people building the Hungarian chapel centuries ago would have ever thought one day a Hungarian storyteller would visit, and talk about magicians and fairies under the arches...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Roosters, dogs, tortoises (Following folktales around the world 126. - São Tomé and Príncipe)

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!

Sadly, once again I ran into a country where I could not get a folktale collection from. I searched for stories on the Internet, and came up with a few anyway (it would have been a lot easier if I read Portuguese...):

Why dogs don't talk
A short tale about a dog who helped its owner carry a burden home, but asked him not to tell anyone that the dog could talk. The owner's wife, however, managed to coax the secret out of her husband, and the dog got so offended that it stopped talking for good.
(I found this story in other versions as well)

The clever tortoise
Tortoise won the king's daughter in marriage by winning a bet, proving that chickens are never not hungry.

The singing roosters
Story says that the island of São Tomé used to be inhabited by roosters that crowed happily all day. Some people liked this, some tolerated it, but some were annoyed and eventually threatened the roosters with war if they did not leave. The roosters made the sensible choice, and with the leadership of a black rooster they moved somewhere else.
(This is also a popular tale, I found it on several sites)

I also found a reference to a Tortoise and the Hare tale, noting that Tortoise the resident trickster of the islands.

The tortoise and the dream
Tortoise claims that he can guess anyone's dream, so the Emperor puts him to the test. Tortoise uses colorful feathers to disguise himself as a bird, and spies on the ruler who talks about his dream about a breadfruit. (I have seen this tale with Anansi as well).

The legend of King Amador
Historical legend about the slave revolt in 1595 led by a man named Amador. The Portuguese colonizers beat down the revolt a year later and executed the king, but he became a legendary national hero and a symbol of independence.

Where to next?

Monday, October 7, 2019

Courage against cruelty (Following folktales around the world 125. - Equatorial Guinea)

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!

Leyendas ​y cuentos bujebas
de la Guinea Española
Arcadio de Larrea Palacin, Carlos Gonzalez Echegaray
Instituto de Estudios Africanos, 1955.

The 26 tales in the book were collected in 1952 (before the independence of the country) from members of the Bujeba (Kwasio) people, most of all a woman named Carmen Nsié. The introduction talks about the collection and translation process, the Bujeba storytelling tradition, and the indigenous way of life as portrayed in the folktales. The first chapter organizes all characters from the stories, listing information about them from the text, which is an interesting addition to a folktale collection, but not very useful up front until one has actually read the stories. Another smaller chapter listed other West African collections, and their comparisons to the tales in this book. The second half of the volume contains all the stories in Spanish mirror translation with the original Bujeba text.


Pic from here
I loved the story of the Rescue of Miánlumba, in which a mother protected her infant daughter with a machete from a father who would only let male children live. The girl was cast into the river, and found and raised by another woman with great care. Eventually news of her reached the birth mother, who thanked the foster-mother for her help; from that day on "the girl had two mothers", the tale concludes. Violence was similarly judged in the story about The cruelty of Ntung, a brother who tortured his sister until their aunt showed up from the Land of Dwarves (where she'd married), took the girl with her, and healed her. She later showed up to tell the father and brother that the girl was better off living with her - and she did. In a third story, a girl named Yanga wandered into the house of a man-eating monster, and made friends with his daughter. When the monster tried to eat Yanga, the two girls ran away together, found a new home, married at the same time, and lived happily. Cruelty reached a more tragic result in the story of Nzambi and the Chimpanzee, in which an ape cradled a human child left by the river and talked to the mother, but the father came along, saw the animal, grew angry, and shot at her, killing the baby in the process.
Among the animal tales my favorite was the one where Tortoise, Boa, and Genet set out on a journey together, but because of all their special things (Genet always ran home to poop, Boa digested lunch for days, Tortoise could not climb over obstacles) the trip became a disaster.


I found yet another fire theft story in this book (I love those!); here the rebellious son of the sky god(ess, hard to tell) stole the spark with the help of Eagle and a dry vine.

I was reminded of Sindbad's Old Man of the Sea by the story where Nquion met the Forest Spirit while hunting in a forbidden place. The spirit clung to his back and did not let go; finally the hero was told by his grandmother in a dream how to get rid of the demon weighing down on his shoulders. I was reminded of Red Riding Hood by the tale of Guambo and the Demon Chief, where a girl, cursed by her sister, met various demons on her way home through the forest. She managed to avoid them by singing, but their chief swallowed her. She was rescued from the demon's stomach, by her parents.
I was reminded of a tale from Gabon by the story where Tortoise won a girl's hand (by cutting a tree down with the help of all his relatives). Leopard took the wife from him by force, but Tortoise got her back by hiding in the latrine and clinging to Leopard's testicles until he admitted defeat.
The trickster in residence is, once again, Tortoise.

Where to next?
São Tomé and Príncipe!