Monday, November 25, 2019

Tricksters in the bush (Following folktales around the world 132. - Botswana)

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!

Bushman ​folktales
Oral traditions of the Nharo of Botswana and the /Xam of the Cape
Mathias Guenther
F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1989.

The book contains tales from two San (Bushman) ethnic groups, one of which, the Nharo, live in Botswana. Their stories were collected by the author himself from the oral tradition between 1968 and 70, while the Xam tales are from archival sources from the turn of the last century. There are a total of 78 Nharo and 16 Xam stories (including variants). While the two groups are divided by distance, language, and time, the tales form a common tradition and mythology.
The introduction is very lengthy, and talks in detail about Bushman society, lifestyle, traditions, and the collection process. The Nharo stories were collected from 14 men; female storytellers refused to talk to the male collector, and he notes that this probably skewed the contents of the repertoire in the book as well. The introduction talks about each storyteller in detail, as well as San mythology and religion, and the main characters in the stories. On top of this, each story comes with extensive notes and comments, often longer than the story text itself. Even with all this extra information, however, most of the stories were a very difficult read for the European reader.


It was fascinating to read the variants of The hare and the moon one after another. They were all basically the same story, but the details only formed the full picture together. First, the fragments only talked about how Moon wanted to make people immortal, but Hare repeated his message wrong, and people became mortal instead. Next, we found out that Hare was not Moon's intended messenger; she derailed the real one, and gave the false message on purpose. Finally, a longer version revealed that the Moon lured Hare into his hut and assaulted her - which is why she took revenge by distorting his message of immortality.
The story of The ostrich and the gemsbok was the reverse of many wife-kidnapping tales. Here, an old ostrich woman kidnapped herself a handsome gembsok man, and other young women had to figure out a way to steal him back.


It was very interesting that the collector included stories that were from the Bible, retold with local Nharo colors and sentiments. For example, in the myth of Adam and Eve, when god found them hiding in shame after eating the apple, he said "Come out, I didn't say I'm going to kill you, I just told you not to eat the apple, because it's bad." And he allowed them back home. There were also some folktales locals learned from European settlers, such as the story of Wren and Eagle from Grimm (here with local bird species).
Once again there was an animal race folktale, here between Ostrich and Tortoise - one variant even stated that Ostrich's legs got skinny from all the hard running.
Tricksters got their own chapter in the book. One of them was a small, flat-headed person named Bi; he was responsible for stealing fire from Ostrich (while in some other versions ostrich women stole the fire from an ostrich man). Animal tricksters were represented by Hare and Jackal. The latter did the horseback riding trick with Lion; stuck to the tar baby while stealing vegetables; and decided the dilemma of the ungrateful rescued snake to save Fox's life. Human tricksters, next to Bi, included the Khoisan Eyes-on-the-Feet, Pate (his whole body covered in toes), and the very rowdy and crude Pisamboro.

Where to next?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Spin the globe, tell a story

"Come, sit next to me! Spin the globe, and stop it by pointing somewhere. I will tell you a story from whichever country your finger lands on..."

I have been developing and testing this storytelling program for years; I started the Following folktales around the world blog series because of it. It took lot of waiting and hoping but it finally happened - a local library ordered the program! I got to go and see if I really can tell a story on the spot from anywhere the kids point at on the globe.

It appears that I can.

The library was a lovely setting for the program. I was asked  to sign my books, I got tea, and I was surrounded by an art exhibit. I brought my own globe (the first one I found at home still had the Soviet Union on it, but I managed to rustle up another one that can be dated to the mid-1990s). When the kids and families arrived, I told them they could come up in pairs, one kid to spin the globe, and the other to point. The program I prepared has one story for every country, plus a couple of extras for outlying territories (such as Greenland or Hawaii), and at least one for each ocean and larger body of water. I also had a few "joker" tales I could resort to if I drew a blank - tricksters, for example, cover admirable stretches of land.

I held my breath, waiting to see what place the kids would land on.

Even though I was prepared that they would end up pointing at the 97% water surface, the kids specifically made sure to aim at dry land instead. The first little girl pointed at India, which is a pretty easy start in storytelling terms. In order to cater to the younger audience, as well as pick a shorter story so that we had more time to spin, I told the tale about how once upon a time the elephants could fly, and how they lost their wings. This story allows for a lot of humor and a lot of speculation (what problems can flying elephants present?), and it was a great way to kick off the show.
Next, a girl's finger landed on one of the triple borders of Central Asia, which, after some hesitation, was decided was closest to Tajikistan. I owe great gratitude to Dana Sherry at the Berkeley Silk Road House for sharing so many Central Asian tales with us over the years; I ended up telling a Goldilocks-like tale about an old couple who end up sneaking into the home of some bears in the winter. It was a fun story, and perfect for the age group.
The globe continued spinning, and next we landed on the Korean Peninsula (the tiny hand covered both Koreas). I chose to tell the folktale of the Story Spirits that vow to take revenge on a prince who wouldn't allow them to travel. It is not only an old favorite of mine, and a fun story to tell, but it also conveyed a message about storytelling which the kids easily picked up on. "So, this is why you are telling us stories!"
After this old favorite, I got to premiere a new one. A girl pointed at Uganda, and I just happened to have a brand new favorite folktale from there that I discovered the other day. It's about a king who has a private zoo he is proud of, but the animals suffer in it. At this point, we had a great conversation about what makes a zoo good for the animals, and the kids had a lot of smart things to say - "they get good food", "they have enough space", "there are not too many people", or "their essential sustenance needs are properly met" (hello there, Hermione Granger). The king in the tale eventually learns to appreciate open nature, and lets his animals go home. It's a beautiful tale to tell, and I'm definitely keeping it.
In the last round a boy landed on the USA - Florida, to be more specific. It's lucky that one of my favorite American folktales - Mockingbirds on Fridays - just happens to be from Florida. It's a fun but also touching tale about friendship, and about seeing a glimmer of good in everyone.

The spinning and pointing was completely random, and yet it ended up creating a wonderful lineup of stories. The kids were engaged, enthusiastic, and wicked smart; I had a great time spending the hour traveling around the globe with them. This is definitely one of y favorite storytelling programs to do. Can't wait for the next invitation...

Monday, November 18, 2019

Many kinds of transformations (Following folktales around the world 131. - Eswatini)

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!

Fairy ​tales from South Africa
E. J. Bourhill · J. B. Drake
Macmillan & Co., 1908.

This book contains 20 stories, out of which 12 are Swazi folktales (the others are from the Zulu and other neighboring traditions). It is more than a century old, and it shows; for one, it consistently calls all black people "Kafir" (which is an outdated term), and also uses eurocentric translations for many things - among them, referring to anything supernatural as "fairy" or "ogre" (e.g. "fairy bird" instead of "magic bird"). It is a book written for (European) children, therefore the introduction is a short and easy read about local customs, life, and storytelling traditions. The stories are enchanting and entertaining, and they are accompanied by elegant illustrations.


Setuli, King of the Birds is an epic tale about a deaf boy who becomes the king of the birds through his own courage and curiosity. With his bird-army he discovers new lands, fights monsters, saves people from curses, and settles in a new homeland in a journey that reminded me of European hero sagas. Transformed birds were also the protagonists of The cock's kraal, in which warriors wandered into a village full of hens; their chief, a golden rooster, revealed that they had been cursed into fowl until they can defeat a chief stronger than themselves. Later on, when a chief heard about the hen-village and thought it would be easy to conquer, the rooster and his people soundly defeated his armies, and won their human forms back. Transformation was also at the center of The enchanted buck. In this story a bull slaughtered for a girl's wedding magically turned into a man and then a buck, and ran away; the girl got accused of witchcraft and sent home, since no one wanted her as a wife anymore. She eventually found the buck in the wilderness, and helped him regain his human form for good.

The story of The unnatural mother, despite the horrible title, actually took a very nice turn. A woman was chased away from home by her son, because she secretly put on his clothes and ate his food. He told her to bring water from which no animal had ever drunk - but in the end it was the animals who helped her and saved her. I also loved the ending of The three little eggs, where a woman ran away from her abusive husband with her two little children, and after going through various adventures she killed a monster, and became queen.
The tale of Semai-mai, the cannibal king, was both dark and fascinating. A cruel tyrant was turned into a supernatural dog by a fairy, doomed to stay in that from until he loyally served someone. He kept eating human flesh in a cannibal king's court, until he actually became friends with a prince, helped him escape... but when he tried to start a new life, Semai-mai became jealous and ate him. At the end of the story a wise chief defeated the dog, who lost all his supernatural powers, became an ordinary canine, and returned to the other cannibal king to live as a pet for the rest of his life...


The story of the Fairy Frog reminded me of the European tales of the Frog Prince, except here the frog rescued the girl multiple times when her sisters, and a later a monster, tried to kill her. He even carried her around in his stomach for a while to keep her safe. The moss-green princess reminded me of the Frog Bride folktale; it was a lovely variant where a father got a monster skin to cover his unloved daughter in, and where the two sisters were not rivals but friends (and even the favorite daughter got her own happy ending). There was once again a false bride folktale with a man-eating monster with a carnivorous tail under her skirt.

Where to next?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

MythOff Budapest: Bestiary

Fall is here, and it was time to have another MythOff in Budapest! We met at our usual place, the Premier Kultcafé, to tell myths to adults (although this time we also had three very attentive children, under parental supervision). The evening was themed Bestiary, and we all brought stories that involved legendary animals and mythical creatures. It seemed to be a popular idea: we had more than seventy people in the audience!
The emcee of the evening was Nagy Enikő, who made sure everything went smoothly and well. Here is the rundown:

Round one: Beasts in the family
This round featured myths where the creatures formed a part of the family. Varga-Fogarasi Szilvia told the story of Greek creation, from Chaos to the rise of the Olympians. Hajós Erika told a melancholy Japanese story about a kitsune and her love for a moral man. 
Voting question: Which myth would you name your music band after?
Winner: Japanese mythology, and a theoretical punk band named Fox Fur Smell

Round two: Female beasts
This round had two myths were women turned into mythical creatures - and both of them from Greek mythology. Klitsie-Szabad Boglárka brought us the story of Medusa with wit and humor, while Bumberák Maja told the lyrical, touching story of Arachne. They made a great pair.
Voting question: Which would you rather take on, fighting Medusa or competing with Athena?
Winner: Everyone would rather fight Medusa (go figure)

Round three: Beasts in the wild
This last round had myths where people crossed over into the wilderness. First I told the myth of the Boongurunguru, Umaroa's mythical boar, from the Solomon Islands (one of my favorite mythical creatures!). Next, Stenszky Cecília told a Khanty story about a woman who died in the woods and was reborn as a bear, raised by a bear family.
Voting question: What would you rather plant in your garden, Knathy pines of ferns growing on the back of the Boongurunguru?
Winner: Solomon Islands

The tellers of the winning myths received coffee cups painted with mythical creatures (courtesy of Enikő) - the fourth mug was raffled off to the audience. The evening went great, and we are already preparing for the next one: telling love myths for Valentine's Day!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Adventures are for girls (Following folktales around the world 130. - Lesotho)

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 from the Basotho
Minnie Postma
University of Texas Press, 2014.

The book contains 23 folktales, translated from Sesotho to Afrikaans, and then to English. The translator's introduction talks about the culture of the country and the Basotho storytelling tradition; among many interesting things I learned that Lesotho is the country, Sesotho is the language, Mosotho is the people of the country, and Basotho is both the plural of the people and the adjective. The stories were collected by a white African woman, Minnie Postma, who heard them in her childhood and learned to tell them in their original language. As an adult, she became a teller and collector, retaining the rhythm and language and life of the folktales. They were written down from her oral telling, which makes the texts exciting and enjoyable. The book also contains a type and motif index for the tales, and a bibliography.


I knew in advance what my favorite story was going to be from this book: Nanabolele shines in the night is the tale of a girl raising her two brothers alone. The boys want special outfits for their initiation, made from the shining skins of the water-dragons known as nanabolele. She sets out with a group of people, descends into the underwater realm, and gets the skins for her brothers.
There was a beautiful story about an exiled girl who was fed and protected by the spirits of her ancestors until she found an invisible husband, and settled down. She was only cared for by her grandmother (her mother abused her), so she ended up bringing the grandmother to her new wealthy home.
Whirlwind and the half-men was once again a variant of the tale about the girl who married into the spirit world, except here the girl was found and rescued (through various clever tricks) by her brother.


Minnie Postma
The tale of the kind and unkind girls featured a giant bird, Mothemelle, giving out reward and punishment. In the end, however, the unkind girl also managed to carve out her own happy ending, and hat the giant bird hunted down for trying to punish her... The story of Fenya-fenyane was a classic "false bride" tale, but with some fascinating details. The bride was sent to her groom's house alone because her brother had been killed by a water monster, and her mother was too deep in mourning to arrange her wedding procession. On the road she was joined by a monster who had a tail with a mouth under her skirt, and the monster took her place as bride. The girl was eventually helped by a kind old woman to regain her place in her husband's home.
I was reminded of Irish stories by the tale of an old woman dragged out of her grave who clung to the back of a young man until he found a way to get rid of the talking corpse.
There was once again a story about why chickens scratch in the dirt (still looking for hawk's borrowed needle), and the tortoise that talked too much, and while a friendly dove was flying it across a river, it spoke and let go of the branch it's been biting on (luckily, it fell into the water and became a turtle).
The resident trickster was once again Jackal, who rode on the back of Wolf. There was also a tale where Jackal threatened Dove, trying to eat her children, but Heron intervened, and risked his life to save the little birds, proving that Jackal was no threat to her because he could not climb trees. Jackal was also tricked by Hen in the story where he tried to convince her that world peace had been declared.

Where to next?
Eswatini! (Formerly known as Swaziland)

Monday, November 4, 2019

Diverse tales from a diverse country (Following folktales around the world 129. - South African Republic)

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!

11 ​South African Folk Tales – 11 Official Languages
A Celebration of Democracy and Cultural Diversity
Aré Van Schalkwyk
Zytek Publishing, 2005.

The book, true to its title, contains 11 tales representing the 11 official languages of the country, retold by authors who create in those languages. Each story is presented in the original text and in English translation, and each is prefaced with a short introduction about the language, the culture, the customs, and the traditional dresses that belong to them. The book contains a foreword from the Minister of Art and Culture, and is closed by the lyrics of the South African anthem.


The English language was represented by Kwenda and the Tortoise, told by Margaret Kollmer. It was a lovely story about a mean old widower, whom a chief tricked into enjoying life again by sending him on a mission to gather colors along with his tortoise.
In the Xitsonga story a family set out on a journey, and the husband told the wife that if they encounter a wild beast, she should hold it by the tail so that he could kill it. When they were attacked by a lion, the woman grabbed the tail, but the husband got scared and fled, leaving her to wrestle the beast alone. Eventually the wife left in trouble was found and rescued by other people, and the husband was eaten by something in the bush.


I have encountered a similar story to the Zulu tale before. Here a single mother named Nanana was chased out of her community, and established her own home by the road, signaling that she was not afraid. When an elephant devoured her children, she set out to find it and kill it, saving everyone from the elephant's stomach. The Sesotho language was represented by a Cinderella variant about a girl named Analeti, while siSwati was represented by the tale of kind and unkind girls named Tsandzekile and Tondzekile, where the former was saved and vindicated by the village of her uncle.
Hare appeared as the trickster in the Xhosa story where he tricked King Lion into jumping down a well to fight his own reflection. In the Setswana story Hare, Tortoise, and Jackal all appeared as tricksters. Tortoise trapped Jackal (who was stealing water from the communal dam) by smearing himself in sticky gum - this is the first story I have ever seen where the trickster himself was also the tar baby...

Where to next?

Saturday, November 2, 2019

StorySpotting: Princesses ditching their own weddings (Disenchantment)

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!

Disenchantment is a Netflix show created by Matt Groening, with the usual humor and style. While this kind of humor makes my brain hurt after a few minutes, I did watch a couple of episodes, and it was definitely entertaining.

Where was the story spotted?

Disenchantment, season 1, episodes 1-2 (A Princess, an Elf and a Demon Walk into a Bar / For Whom the Pig Oinks)

What happens?

Princess Bean of Dreamland is supposed to marry a prince in a political match, but she ends up running away from her own wedding (after accidentally killing her first fiance, and being chased by the second in line). She is eventually captured and dragged back home, only to get away from her own wedding a second time.

What's the story?

Princesses running away from fairy tale weddings seems like a modern day feminist subversion of old story tropes - except, it already exists in old stories. Surprise! When you look into less well-known stories, it turns out ditching an unwanted suitor is totally in line with how some fairy tale princesses behave. And some non-princesses as well.

The most famous example would be, no doubt, Princess Gráinne, who ditched her wedding to legendary Irish hero Fionn Mac Cool to run away with a much younger warrior, Diarmuid ua Duibhne (some say she fell in love with him because he had a mark on his forehead that made him irresistible to all women, and he accidentally uncovered it during the wedding). Diarmuid doesn't want to run away with her at first, but Gráinne places him under geasa, an unbreakable bond, and essentially forces him to elope with her. Theirs is the most adventurous love-hate love story of ancient Ireland. Spoilers, though: It doesn't end well.
In the Italian folktale of The Dragon and the Enchanted Filly, a king and queen have a baby boy with a curse: if he doesn't kill his wife the same moment he gets married, he will turn into a dragon. Keeping this a secret, when he grows up they arrange for a marriage between him and the Queen of England. Luckily, the queen has an enchanted filly, her best friend, who warns her of the danger, and rides away with her from the wedding procession. The queen, just like Princess Bean, exchanges her wedding gown for a shirt and breeches, and works disguised as a stable boy until she finds love with another, non-cursed prince. The dragon is eventually killed by her and the filly (who turns out to be a girl cursed into being a horse until she kills a dragon, because this tale is epic).
In a folktale from Kashmir titled How the princess found her husband, a princess is promised to a prince, but when his father dies the engagement is broken, and her father finds a better suitor. The princess decides to run away with her original fiance, but while she is waiting for him in the darkness outside the palace, a robber comes along and she thinks it's the prince. Once she notices the mistake, she goes through a series of adventures until they are reunited.

By the way, the motif number for a princess accidentally running away with the wrong person is T92.4. You can find other tales like this here and here.

The Jewish tale of The Pirate Princess has a similar plot: A princess is engaged to someone she loves, but they are separated on a deserted island, and she is picked up by a rich merchant and forced to promise her hand in marriage. She manages to get away from him by getting everyone drunk, and then repeats the trick with a bunch of pirates, until she eventually becomes king (in disguise) over a kingdom, and manages to find her original fiance.
The Algerian tale of Aicha the Demon-killer features a clever, brave, and strong heroine, the daughter of a merchant, who kills monsters in her spare time. When a prince proposes to her, she says she will only marry him if he hunts down all the monsters in a forest. He is too much of a coward to do so, but spends a few days camping in the woods and returns, telling a lie about a job well done. Aicha, however, had been in the forest herself, and she calls the prince out on his lies in front of the whole court, rejecting his marriage proposal.

Last but not least: The Faun and the Woodcutter's Daughter is not a folktale, but it is one of my favorite love stories. It's a literary fairy tale by Barbara Laonie Picard, about the friendship and then love of a human girl and a forest faun. At the end of the story she runs away from her own wedding to a rich merchant to live in the woods with her faun.


Ladies, if the prince is not right for you: Remember, ditching him can also be a fairy tale ending!