Monday, September 28, 2020

A magic garden of stories (Following folktales around the world 170. - Kazakhstan)

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!

Stories of the Steppes
Kazakh folktales
Mary Lou Masey 
David McKay, 1968.

The book contains 19 folktales, translated from Russian language sources listed inside. They are not literal translations, but rather enjoyable re-tellings by the author, true to the original plot of the stories. They are accompanied by black and white illustrations, and a glossary at the end. The book was a fairly quick read; I would have enjoyed more folktales of the same style.


The most beautiful tale in the book by far is The magic garden, in which a boy sets out to plant a beautiful garden for everyone who wants to eat the fruit, drink the water, or enjoy the shade. An evil khan tries to build a wall around it (*cough*), but the garden protect itself, and remains a shelter for all people. I also loved the story that warns that Whoever knows a tale should tell it - or otherwise the tales take revenge. In this case, it's a man's sister-in-law who rescues him from the vengeful story spirits that don't want to exist in secret.
There was a lovely story about A little camel who got lost and almost eaten by wolves. When later two man argued about who the camel belonged to, a clever judge howled like a wolf, and watched which flock the little animal ran to for shelter. The camel was a less likable character in the story about The animals' quarrel that explained the origin of the animal calendar. Since it was the mouse who saw the rising sun first in a contest (standing on the hump of the camel), the cycle starts with the Year of the Mouse.
I liked the story about the Three suitors who were all promised the same girl. Eventually, a judge discovered that the girl already loved one of them, and made sure she got to marry him. This was not the only story with clever and independent girls: The woodcutter's daughter, for example, tricked a rich man multiple times when he wanted to take all her inheritance; eventually she defeated him in a storytelling contest. In the strange tale of The magic ring, golden shoe, twigs, the hero defeated three fairy women without realizing it, and eventually, when he met them, he married all three and lived happily ever after. Even though they all ate people...
The illustration was the best thing about The stupid wolf, who was tricked by various prey animals.


There were familiar tale types in the book, such as a valiant tailor (in this case, Old Man Kurai), or puss in boots (Salakhbai and the Fox). Also, Segizbai and the Mouse-girl was a variant of the story where a father wants to give his daughter to the strongest suitor - and after Sun, Wind, and Rock, he eventually marries her to a mouse. 
The resident trickster is Aldar-Kos. In one story he tricked a rich man who kept hiding food from him. There was alos a clever fox who tried to make a quail believe that World Peace is here - but the clever bird didn't fall for the trick.

Where to next?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Cinderfella, Sleeping Prince: Less-known versions of popular folktales (Feminist Folktales, special edition)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Today's post is a special edition: I have collected variants of well known folktales where the gender of the hero is different from what we are used to (not saying "opposite" because gender is not a binary, people). My goal was to show off how - while people tend to bash/praise folktales for promoting "traditional gender roles" - oral folklore around the world is a lot more flexible than we tend to give credit for. 
(Links in the titles.)

Cinderella is often brought up when people discuss gender roles in fairy tales (see "if Cinderella were a guy" by the creators of - the otherwise amazing - Rebel Girls). And yet, a whole lot of Cinderfellas exist in folktales around the world. There is a Hungarian folktale called Prince Cinderella (although, despite the title, the cinder-boy walks a whole different journey), and the folktale type of The princess on the Glass Mountain (ATU 530) also often revolves around an abused youngest brother showing up in disguise three times to win a princess. 
The Cameroon folktale of The unhappy stepson follows the Cinderella plot to a letter. A boy is left at home by his stepmother to sort beans, while the princess is having a ball to pick a husband. The boy is dressed for the ball by the spirit of his mother. In the end, he even leaves his shoe behind, and the princess uses it to find him. 

Sleepig beauties are not always women - in many tales, it is a sleeping prince who needs to be awakened. In the Turkish fairy tale of The dragon prince and the stepmother, the female hero wakes and rescues a prince enchanted by peris. There is a similar Greek folktale, as well as an entire folktale type (ATU 425g), where the female hero has to sit vigil over a prince for many days and nights until the curse is broken. Often she is replaced in the last minute by a false bride - but I also know at least one variant where the women become friends instead.

Boudin-Boudine is a French folktale, where the role of Little Red Riding Hood is taken up by the boy. Also, in the end the wolf is chased away by a broom-wielding grandma.

The Swedish folktale that Andersen based his Princess and the Pea on is actually much more fun than his version. It is essentially a Puss in Boots tale, except the hero is a clever girl, and she is helped by a clever dog. And she is not bothered by the pea at all.

There is a folktale type (ATU 725) about a hero who sees a prophetic dream of wealth and fortune, but either refuses to tell his parents about it, or tells them and they are angered by his inpertinence (see Joseph and his brothers). In the end, of course, the dream comes true. Well, in the Greek folktale of The Wild Man's daughter, it's a girl who sees herself as a powerful queen in a dream, and her father chases her away. She is adopted by a wild man in the woods, who takes good care of her, and makes sure her dream comes true.
(This is also a lovely adoption story.)

The story of the Clever Maid is internationally well known: this is the tale where a girl has to visit a king "walking and not walking, dressed but not dressed," etc. In at least one version I know, from Finland, this tale is told with a clever male hero. 

In another well known folktale motif, a man usually spies on fairy women who take off their bird / swan / feather dresses while they bathe. He steals the dress/skin of the most beautiful girl, so she can't escape from him (sometimes, this backfires). Creepy, right? In the Armenian tale of The magic box, it is a girl who spies on bird men, and steals a feather cloak. In her defense, it is her stolen husband she is trying to find again.

We get used to princes in folktales setting out to seek beautiful princesses. In the Greek tale of Fair as the Sun, however, it is a princess that takes on the journey to find a legendarily beautiful prince, and make him her husband (even though he already has a lover... but that's beside the point).

There are many variants of the Silent princess folktale, where a hero has to make a princess speak three times through various means - usually with telling some very clever dilemma tales. In a Georgian folktale, however, it is a king who has to break the enchantment on a silent prince, and he is helped by a talking golden apple.

You know the folktale motif where a mortal woman marries a mysterious supernatural husband, who only visits her at night, and refuses to show his true (beautiful) face? Well, in a Lithuanian folktale it is a mortal man who marries a mysterious woman, and when he spies on her, she tosses him out the window.
(They do reunite in the end, though.)

The Love of Three Oranges (ATU 408) is a folktale type where a man sets out, obtains three magical fruits, and cuts them open to summon beautiful women. The first two usually die or disappear, but the third eventually becomes his wife.  
Well, in one tale from the Dominican Republic, it is a girl who sets out to pick grapefruit, and by burning them she summons three princes. However, she can't talk to any of them, so all three disappear. Later on, when her life is in danger, they return to help her.

You might be familiar with the motif from many "animal bride" folktales where three brothers shoot arrows in three directions, and follow the arrows to find a bride. In the Turkish tale of Rose Beauty, the archery trick is done by three princesses, who then set out to seek husbands.

This is what they call the folktale type where two brothers accidentally eat the heart / liver / head etc. of a magic bird, and gain superpowers from them. After they get separated and go through many adventures, their powers bring them good fortune and they eventually find each other again (ATU 567A). 
In the Azeri version of the story, the siblings are a boy and a girl, Lala and Nergiz, and it is the girl who has the most exciting adventures - among others, she defeats a dragon, a giant, and a sea monster too! 


Hungarian, Russian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian folktales often contain the motif of a tree of golden apples being robbed every night, until the youngest of three princes manages to stay awake to spy on the mysterious thief. I recently found a Hungarian folktale variant, where a king's silk meadow is grazed every night. He sets his three daughters to guard it, but only the youngest princess manages to stay awake, with the help of a little mouse. At the end of the story, the mouse turns into a prince.

Jill and the Beanstalk

The well known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk belongs to folktale type ATU 328, Treasures of the Giant. It is a very interesting type, because it exists both with male and female heroes. The version with the female hero is especially well known in the Hungarian tradition. I translated one text here.
There are also other tales around the world where women climb up into the sky on a beanstalk. I read one from Nauru, and another one from Latvia.

"But the traditional gender roles in folktales..."

Monday, September 21, 2020

Ivans and Vasilisas everywhere (Following folktales around the world 169. - Russia)

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!

A tűzmadár
Orosz varázsmesék
Alekszandr Nyikolajevics Afanaszjev
Magvető, 2006.

This book is a Hungarian selection of Afanasyev's classic 19th century Russian folktale collection (see an English version here). It contains 75 wonder tales (according to the collector, these were the most important group of folktales), and seven chapbook tales from the 18th and 19th centuries. The book didn't come with any notes, but the tale types were numbered, and the Afterword gives details about Afanasyev's life, and the history of the collection. The latter was especially interesting. Afanasyev only collected a few tales first hand, the rest he found in the archives of the Russian Geographical Society (geographers also collected folklore materials on the side). In addition, he used Vladimir Dal's folktale collection; Dal collected stories via a network of mailing partners, researching the Russian language and its dialects.
The book is a fun read, it contains many of the "great classics" of Russian folklore, and it's illustrated by the amazing pictures of Ivan Bilibin (although, sadly, in black and white). I also have the English volume I linked above, and there is a lot of overlap.


One of my favorite Russian folktales is featured in this book: Elena the Wise flies in a chariot drawn by dragons, and teaches magic to girls who sneak away from home at night. The hero wins her hand by hiding from her sharp sight. The tale of The Sun's sister and the witch is a lovely variant of the "prince seeking immortality" tale type - especially because the hero didn't use his magic objects to save himself, but rather to help others who needed them (e.g. the brush that turns into a forest, for a woodcutter). In the end, the people he helped saved him from the witch (his own sister). I also love the Future dream, a variant of the tale where the hero refuses to tell his dream to anyone; here the dream foretold that he was going to help his best friend win the hand of a princess.
I was amused by the tale about How the soldier cured the tsar's daughter, by outwitting various devils (and he didn't even marry her in the end). I also liked the tale about The blind and the legless soldier, where the true hero was a prince's magical helper, Uncle Katoma. He defended the naive prince from the intrigues of an evil princess, and when she cut off his legs in revenge, Uncle Katoma teamed up with a blind old soldier, and together they managed to set things right.
The Bear Tsar was a fascinating story, included in more than one version. Two children, promised to an evil bear, tried to escape with the help of various animals unsuccessfully, until a young bull managed to rescue them. I also enjoyed the long and intricate tale of "Go I-don't-know-where and bring me I-don't-know-what", where the hero eventually managed to complete the vague mission by finding a mysterious invisible helper named Sense. Another symbolic figure in the stories was Sorrow, who attached itself to a poor man and made him drink away all his fortune, until he found a clever way of getting rid of the mean spirit. Sorrow then attached itself to a rich man, but, surprisingly, this victim also managed to outwit it.
There are many classic Russian tales in this book that might already be familiar to international readers. For example, the tale of Morozko, Father Frost, who rewards the kind girl but freezes her unkind stepsister. Or the legendary Vasilisa the Beautiful, who sets out deep into the woods to bring fire from Baba Yaga. Or Maria Morevna, the warrior maiden, and her arch-enemy Koschei the Deathless, who hides his life inside an egg. Or the Frog Princess, who brings valuable items to her prince and dances a dance of creation; or Ivan and the Grey Wolf, setting out to find the legendary Firebird; or Finist the Radiant Falcon, a well-known Russian variant of the hurt-and-rescued bird prince tale type.
Obviously, many tales feature Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch who flies in a mortar, lives in a house with chicken legs, and often eats people. My favorite was a little tale about a cat, a sparrow, and a "nimble youth" (possibly a gnome) living together; whenever the cat and the bird left, Baba Yaga came into their house to count their spoons... Eventually, the nimble youth managed to get rid of her.


Texts in this book were arranged in a way that similar tales followed each other, sometimes in more than one version. There were many familiar stories: Kind and unkind girls (The girl and her stepsister, where a mouse helped the kind girl get away from a bear), three kidnapped princesses (Copper Kingdom, Silver Kingdom, Gold Kingdom, where Baba Yaga's bird flew the hero back to the surface; also Dawn, Evening, and Midnight, where the older boys pulled their younger brother back up instead of betraying him), extraordinary helpers (The flying ship; The Seven Simeons - the latter also featured a magical Siberian cat, and a lad whose power was to submerge ships and then bring them back to the surface, á la Pirates of the Caribbean), twin princes (The Two Ivans, who were sadly hunted down by the dragon's sister after the happy end), animal brothers-in-law (or, in the case of Fyodor Tugarin, Wind, Hail, and Thunder), princess on the glass mountain (Sivko-Burko, Silly Ivan), Aladdin (The magic ring), Fortunatus (Horns), gold-spitting princes (The duck and the golden eggs), Snow White (The magic mirror), magic flight (The sea tsar and Vasilisa the Wise), gemstone mountain (or, in this case, Gold Mountain), magician's apprentice (The secret knowledge), Bearskins (Unwashed soldier, who was basically the thesis work of a little devil), golden-haired gardener (I don't know), and the devil's three golden hairs (Marko the Rich and Unhappy Vasily).
The kind and unkind girls type was especially interesting in the case of The swans; here a girl's brother was kidnapped by birds, and she set out to rescue him. She was both kind and unkind: on the way there she refused to help the trees and animals, but on the way back she changed her mind.
I once again encountered the trope where a hero only strikes a villain once.

Where to next?

Saturday, September 19, 2020

StorySpotting: People marrying trees (As seen on the news)

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!

StorySpotting is usually for film, comics, TV shows, and other popular media, but every once in a while, I see something on the news that is also worth including. Like, in this case, where a true story reminds me of a few folktales...

Where was the story spotted?

A bunch of articles came out last week about "a woman married to a tree", who is celebrating her first wedding anniversary. Just google "Kate Cunningham" and "tree."

What happens?

Her maiden name is Kate Cunningham, and her married name is Kate Elder, since her tree-spouse is an elder (she also has a human boyfriend and two children). She is an environmental activist who married the elder tree in Rimrose Valley Park last year, in an attempt to stop a road being built through the park. She got the idea from Mexican activists who do the same to halt illegal logging. It is basically a very dedicated (and newsworthy) form of tree-hugging for environmental conservation. It even has its own Wikipedia page

What's the story?

Marrying trees is not exactly unheard of in world folklore. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't, but either way, it makes for a good story. 

In a Sangu folktale from Tanzania a woman marries a tree while her sisters take animal husbands. She later discovers that her tree-husband sheds its bark at night in the form of a pangolin, and turns into a handsome human man. At dawn, the pangolin returns, and the man becomes a tree again. The marriage goes on like this until the woman eventually kills the pangolin (poor pangolin!), and the husband remains human.
There is a Makka legend from Paraguay about a woman who marries a lignum vitae tree. She falls in love with the beautiful tree and scratches it gently every day, until the tree bleeds, and visits her at night, becoming her husband. It brings abundance to the crops of the village, and has a child with the woman, but when she cheats on it, the lignum vitae ascends to the sky. But even then, it makes sure child and family never go hungry. 
In a Tlingit legend, a girl dreams about a man visiting her multiple times, and then gives birth to a boy. No one knows who the father is, and no man takes responsibility, so the girl's father invites all the "people of the trees". When they arrive, the boy crawls straight to the old man by the door, who turns out to be the spirit of an old spruce tree. The mother marries him.
In an Indonesian folktale from Sumatra, a brave princess named Kemang falls in love with a beautiful mango tree who turns out to be an enchanted prince. She manages to find a way to break the enchantment, and transform the entire forest into a kingdom.
In the heartbreaking Japanese tale of the Willow Wife, a young man saves a willow tree from being cut down for timber. Soon, a mysterious woman appears in his life, and turns out to be the spirit of the willow tree he loved so much. Sadly, people eventually cut the tree down anyway, and the willow wife disappears in the same instant. 
The Indian folktale of The Flowering Tree features a girl who has the power to transform herself into a tree filled with beautiful flowers. Eventually some jealous women trap her in her half-transformed stage and tear her branches and flowers, and she has to go through a lot of pain and suffering until her husband's love restores her.
In a Jamaican folktale, a lonely hunter sees a pretty tree, and wishes it was a woman, because I would love to marry her. Lo and behold, the tree transforms into a woman, and she marries the man. Later on another man kidnaps her, but her husband goes to the rescue.
Some tales are even darker than that. A storyteller named Emily Dean, of mixed Fox Indian and Black heritage, told a tale in the 19th century about a hunter who married a pretty but mysterious girl by the forest. At night, he felt like he was touching bark and branches, and during the day the girl disappeared, until he eventually figured out he is married to a tree spirit, and managed to reveal her as an old hag that turned into a hollow log. The Jewish tale of The demon in the tree is very similar to the story known (thanks to Tim Burton) as The Corpse Bride. Here, a young man practicing his wedding vows puts a ring on a tree branch, just to find himself married to a tree demon. The demon kills all his brides, until he marries a woman sensible enough to strike a deal with her. The double marriage is resolved by negotiation in the end.


I guess one could do worse than a tree for a spouse.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

MythOff Aquincum: Back to the Classics

We have not had a MythOff since February, due to the coronavirus crisis. Hence, when the Aquincum Museum invited us to bring MythOff to the museum's open archaeological park, we were more than happy to oblige. Last weekend was their Roman Festival, and we didn't only prepare with Greek and Roman mythology - but we even dressed for the occasion!

MythOff took place in the afternoon (following right after the gladiator combat). Since it was very hot outside, we abandoned the open air theater and set up under a large tree so that our audience could sit in the share. It turned out to be a great idea: it created a lovely atmosphere, and about 50-60 people stuck around to listen to myths for two hours. Voting was done by dropping pieces of pottery into urns, and the prizes were antefix replicas provided by the museum.

Here is how things went down: 

Round one: Life and death
The lineup opened with Hajós Erika. She told the myth of King Erysichthon, who disrespected the goddess Demeter, and was punished by eternal hunger. The other myth was that of Aeneas' journey into the Underworld, told by Gregus László.
Voting question: Which one would you rather take on: eternal hunger, or a trip into the Underworld?
Winner: Aeneas. People would rather go to the Underworld than go hungry.

Round two: Love
This was my round, and I got to tell a brand new myth from my repertoire: that of Dea Muta, the silent goddess, who saved a nymph from being raped by Jupiter, and then became the secret lover of Mercury. Nagy Enikő told the lovely story of Philemon and Baucis wishing to leave the world in their old age together.
Voting question: Which love would you rather choose, one that is rich but has to be kept a secret, or one that is poor but you don't have to hide?
Winner: Philemon and Baucis. People would rather not hide their love. 

Round three: Troy
Stenszky Cecília told the myth of Philoktetes, the unlucky archer whose story kicks of the fall of Troy. Dala Dániel joined her with the prequel to the prequel: the death of Heracles (a story which is depicted in a mosaic in Aquincum). 
Voting question: Who would you rather have as an archery master?
Winner: Heracles. More people would rather have an angry master than a stinky one.

It was amazing to tell ancient myths among the ancient ruins. We hope to do it again sometime soon!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Heroes in the wilderness (Following folktales around the world 168. - Georgia)

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!

Georgian Folk Tales

Marjory Wardrop
David Nutt, 1894.

The book contains 38 folktales, grouped into three chapters: 15 Georgian tales, 8 Mingrelian tales, and 14 Gurian tales (the latter two are smaller ethnic groups in the western part of Georgia). It was one of the first English translations of the Georgian oral tradition. The author selected the tales from collections published in the Georgian language, and listed the sources in the introduction. The archaic language makes them hard to read occasionally, but the cultural references and more obscure phrases are explained in the footnotes.


My favorite story in the book was the one about The prince and the fox. A prince, running away from his abusive father, found shelter in the woods, where he befriended a fox, a wolf, a bear, and an eagle. At first he was afraid of the animals, but they soon proved they could take care of him. With the fox's leadership they built a palace, carved furniture, planted a garden, and even brought a princess from the city. The princess' father, however, sent a wily old woman who stole her back. The animals got her again, at which point the king sent an army against them. In a great battle the animals defeated the army. The prince could have lived happily with his bride... except he became ungrateful and mistreated the animals. The fox cursed him, and he died soon without an heir. From that day, the story concludes, the animals ruled the forest again...


There were quite a few familiar tale types in the book: Magician's apprentice (Master and pupil), frog bride (Frog skin, in which the hero also took a trip into the Underworld), twin princes who turned to stone (Ghvthisavari), magic flight (The prince), Cinderella (Conkiajgharuna, once again with a clever old woman), Two thieves, hidden strength (Kazha-ndii), princess who saw everything (The prince who befriended the beasts - his final helper was a giant jackal that burrowed under the palace), and princess on the glass mountain (The priest's youngest son). 
I once again encountered the tale type where a girl bringing food to her brothers is kidnapped by a monster, and eventually all the siblings are rescued by their newly born younger brother (Aspurtzela). Here, the tale was combined with the "three princesses in the underworld" type. In the end, the hero asked whether it was the princesses' or his brothers' fault that he had been left in the underworld, and the princesses declared that they had been forced to comply, therefore they can't be blamed (this tale type often blames the kidnapped women too). In another "hidden strength" tale (Geria, the poor man's son) the hero was killed, and his bride kidnapped by the villain. She gave him an ultimatum: either fight her in single combat, or let her grieve for six months. The villain was too scared to fight the feisty princess. In a "golden haired twins" type tale (The three girls and the stepmother), the girls tossed into a well were rescued by the youngest sister, whose hands turned into a shovel and pickaxe, and she dug her way out. The story of The king and the apple was an interesting variant of the "silent princess" type - here, a sleeping prince had to be awakened with the help of witty dilemma stories told by a magical apple. 
We had a guest appearance by a trickster: Nasreddin Hodja showed up to tell Shah Ali a story that made the king say "that is impossible!", thus winning a bet. Among other witty stories there was the one about a scholar who judges a sailor for not knowing how to read - only to find out soon that the himself doesn't know how to swim. And also the one where a wise man wonders why pumpkins don't grow on trees... until one falls on his head. 

Where to next?

Monday, September 7, 2020

Roses, dervishes, warrior women (Following folktales around the world 167. - Azerbaijan)

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!

Százegy azerbajdzsáni népmese I-III.
Abdullájeva Szvetlána
Magyar-Azerbajdzsán Baráti Társaság, 2014.

An amazing and unique book even on an international level (I was having a hard time locating an Azerbaijani collection in English). It contains 101 folktales translated from a five-volume publication from 2005 (the tales were originally collected at the beginning of the 20th century). The introduction talks about how the book came to be, and how selections were made - with an eye to parallels in Hungarian folklore. Regardless of this, however, I found many of the tales unique, and many variants fun and unexpected; it is a true journey into Azerbaijani culture and tradition, and a great read. Stories come with footnotes that explain cultural elements, and there is a glossary at the end of each volume. The book has gorgeous illustrations, and cover art by Arif Huseynov (see some of his work below). There seem to be an English series with some of the tales and the same illustrations: try here.


I especially liked this collection because it had so many tales about brave, clever, independent women. My favorite was the tale of Lady Nardan - I blogged about that one in detail here. In the story of Lala and Nergiz twins, a boy and a girl ran away from their stepmother and were separated. The girl, Nergiz, killed a giant, a dragon, and a sea monster before she was reunited with her brother and found happiness. In the legend of Ibrahim, son of Adjem, the hero's mother, Lady Dostu put on armor and protected her daughter-in-law from an invading army. She killed a lot of soldiers before she was defeated with a trick. She did survive, however, and got to live happily with her family. In the story of the Apple of Seven Mountains a princess named Perinous chose her own husband, a gardener, and through various clever tricks managed to convince her father to let them get married (among other things, the young man had to bring an enchanted apple, and burning mummies from the Nile, to prove his worthiness). Lady Gülnar fought giants and read spells in forty different languages to save a kidnapped prince. In the story of Gara Hasan a padisah wanted to kill all women because one had been unfaithful, but the hero convinced him with a story that there are just as many heroic and honest women in the world.
The most complex and intriguing story in the book was that of the hero Tapdig, who, however, was kind of a side character in his own adventure. The main story revolved around a cosmic family feud between the Sun and her daughter. The Sun fell in love with the King of the Underworld, but her daughter disapproved of the match, and the two women fought tooth and nail, involving bystanders like a djinn prince, a kidnapped princess, and Tapdig himself. At the end of the story heroes and anti-heroes all got to live, and the sun princess had to accept that her mother was happy with her underworld lover.
 Another adventurous story was that of Semi, about a traveling prince who first became a pastry maker and then fell in love with a princess who loved his pastries. His boss, however, wanted the girl for himself, and the prince had to weather many challenges with the help of a friendly shepherd before he could get married.
The qadi of Shirvan
was a tale of a young and innocent padisah who was taken advantage of by criminals (pretending to be family). Eventually he set out into the world, and having learned from his mistakes he helped uncover conspiracies and rescue kidnapped maidens. Similarly, the tale of Dasdemir was a full on multi-generational murder mystery, where the hero uncovered corruption inside the padisah's court.
I liked reading about Logman, the famous doctor and historical person who performed all kinds of tricky healing procedures (even brain surgery). On the other hand, I was also greatly amused by the simple little story of Jirtan, a small boy who rescued his friends from giants with a trick known to many parents the world over: he refused to go to sleep...
There were interesting smaller moments and motifs in some of the tales. For example, I learned from The snake and the girl how long it takes for a snake to evolve into a dragon, and from the dragon into an evil human being. The tale of Ohaj and Ahmed was a magician's apprentice story, where the palace of the evil magician was literally built from the pain and suffering of his victims; it was described in amazing detail. In the second half of the story the magician's daughter, who helped the hero escape, gave him a quest of her own to see "how far you'd go for my sake."


It is not very surprising that the collection had a lot of familiar tale types, some of them in more than one version. An incomplete list would include: Silent princess (Melik Mehmed; Jagub and the Fish Padisah), three fastidious men (The three princes;The ruby), various Three Kidnapped Princesses tales, sometimes with stolen golden apples (Südemen; Melikmemmed; The little prince), ebony horse (Nazik Beden), cursed brothers (The seven brothers), clever girl and a king learning a trade (Sah Abbas the weaver), grumpy wife and fake fortune-teller (God save us from Hamperi), secret dream (The tailor's apprentice), puss in boots, or rather fox (Mr. Pear), a hero collecting stories from people (The tale of Hatem), various glass mountain princesses and animal in-laws (Kösa Three-Moustaches; The tale of Melik Jamil), all-kinds-of-fur (Hosgedem), girl rescuing her sisters from a murderous husband (The story of the three sisters), Gemstone Mountain (The tale of Telet története; also featuring a Simurgh bird), golden-haired gardener (The boy on the white horse), various Aladdin / magic ring tales (Janig; The magic ring), a firebird-type tale with a series of challenges (The white bird, named after the helper), trickster maiden (Haji's daughter), clever wife who seduces his own husband three times (Pour water on my hands!), ungrateful animal (Good for good), Magical helpers (The six companions), Fortunatus (Emir and the shah's daughter; The useless boy), three oranges (Pomegranate girl), the hunter's son (Hunter Pirim; Jusif and Senuber), princess who turned into a prince (The secret of Benidas), cannibal girl defeated by her own brother (Iron-tooth girl), and the tale about why elders are not executed anymore (The tyrant padisah). 
I was happy to read another version of the tale about the kind man who wanted to be a robbers' apprentice, but kept messing up the jobs with his kindness (Mehemmed). There was also a tale about the unjust king who hung the person who fit the noose best, not the actual criminals (Logman and his servant). Iskender Zülkarnejn was an Alexander-legend, combining the parts about the king with the horse's ears and the Land of Darkness where the king sought the Water of Life. I also once again encountered the motif of a king checking his daughter's readiness to marry by cutting open watermelons (Semsi Gemer).
I especially liked it when well-known tale types had unexpected twists. There was a creepy version of the "laughing fish" tale, by the way, where the hero was born because his mother ate a powdered mummy head (yup). He then revealed to the padisah his wife's unfaithfulness. At the end of the story he turned back into a mummy head and rolled away, looking for his next victim... The tale of Rejhan was a version of the "kidnapped princesses in the underworld" type, but here we got to find out where the little man with the long beard (a staple character in these tales) actually came from. In the story of The prince and the frog it was the princes who tossed golden apples to girls they wanted to marry (not the other way around). By the way this was a Frog Bride story, where the frog befriended a bunch of other animals, and in the end they summoned an animal army and defeated a tyrant.
However, my very favorite was a Cinderella variant (Beautiful Fatma) where a clever old woman helped the girl with sorting out mixed seeds: she brought her three bowls of new seeds, and tossed the mixed pile out to the chickens. Work smarter, not harder.

Where to next?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Lady Nardan (Feminist Folktales 21.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Azerbaijan

The story

A cruel padisah named Goguz has a dream that foretells that his reign will be ended by a 14 year old girl. He orders in secret that all girl children should be kidnapped and killed, all the while pretending to be furiously investigating the kidnappings. Meanwhile, his vizier buys a box from a mysterious stranger, and finds a pomegranate in it. Out of the pomegranate springs a 10 year old girl named Nardan. She had been transformed into a fruit by her father to keep her safe from another cruel padisah. News of the vizier's beautiful daughter eventually reach Goguz, who wants her as his wife. She refuses, and the padisah has the vizier killed in revenge. At this, Nardan disguises herself as a boy, and starts to investigate the disappearances in the city. She discovers details about the cruelty of the padisah, and eventually catches Goguz in the act of kidnapping a baby. She confronts him, but his guards capture her, and they burn the building that houses the kidnapped girls. Goguz announces that they caught the evil kidnapper, and publicly sentences Nardan to death. However, on the day of the execution a sand storm blows in, and Nardan escapes.
Dressed as a man, she ventures into another kingdom, where she meets a princess who's so far refused to marry anyone who isn't her choice. The princess falls in love with the mysterious stranger... and Nardan falls in love with the princess' gardener. She splits her time between the princess and the gardener, changing between male and female appearance. Eventually the princess' father sees her as a girl, and wants her as his wife. Nardan reject him, and when he tries to rape her she punches his face bloody. The padisah throws her and he gardener into prison, but with the help of the princess they escape. Nardan duels the padisah and kills him, then sets out to return to Goguz's kingdom. The princess and the gardener accompany her. Nardan defeats Goguz's soldiers, then duels the padisah and kills him too. From there, she travels back home to her birth family, and duels and kills the third evil padisah (the one because of whom she had been turned into fruit). After all that, she marries the gardener, and lives happily ever after.

What makes it a feminist story?

What doesn't? This story could be the textbook example of "strong female hero" anywhere. Nardan ends the reign of not one, but three cruel kings, as she is prophesied to do so (a favorite trope of YA novels). She is brave, clever, persistent, a good investigator and a great warrior. She faces many challenges, occasionally fails, and has to deal with loss and grief (when her foster father dies, or when she can't stop the killing of the girls), but she picks herself up again and again, and keeps fighting. I especially like that she is not simply fighting for herself, or for a romantic partner - she is fighting for her city and her people. She is a female hero who is trying to protect the girls of the next generation, and save people from tyranny. And all this while her origins are also not privileged: Her father, a shepherd, gave her to a childless padisah, hoping she'd be raised as a princess. Instead, the padisah wanted her as a wife by the time she was ten, which is why she was rescued by being turned into a pomegranate.

We should also talk about the cast of supporting characters. Zernigar, the princess who thinks Nardan is a man, is a lady who knows her own mind (and extracted a promise from her father that she can choose her own husband). When she finds out the truth, she doesn't only not get upset, but also faithfully accompanies Nardan on her quest. Another interesting character is an old man whose bride had been stolen by Goguz once upon a time; his legs don't work anymore, but he is raising two children, a boy and a girl, to take revenge for him one day. They both grow up to be formidable warriors. And the girl is the better wrestler.

Things to consider

I personally think that Nardan, the princess, and the gardener should have ended up as a throuple. Just sayin'. 


Százegy azerbajdzsáni népmese II. (Magyar-Azerbajdzsán Baráti Társaság, 2014.)


I can't find this tale in English anywhere online. If you have any leads, do share in the comments, so that English-speaking readers can find it too!

Monday, July 27, 2020

From the sky fell three apples (Following folktales around the world 166. - Armenia)

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!

100 ​Armenian Tales and Their Folkloristic Relevance
Susie Hoogasian-Villa
Wayne State University Press, 1966.

The book contains a total of one hundred Armenian stories, organized into chapters by genre: fairy tales, myths, legends, humorous tales, anecdotes, and "anti-feminine" tales. The author is an American researcher of Armenian descent, who collected the stories from Armenian immigrants (including her own family) living in Delray, Detroit, in the 1940s. The texts are a part of the Wayne State University archival collection that also contributed a few tales to the book from other sources. The tales were recorded in Armenian and then translated into English, keeping close to the original wording; the collector made sure the stories came from the oral tradition, and not from books the tellers might have read. The introduction gives ample information about the Armenian community of Delray, Armenian society and family structure, history, cuisine, and other cultural elements that appear in the tales. It also gives information about Armenian folklore research, and the cultures that have the most similar tales (Russian, Greek, Turkish, Georgian, Azerbaijani, Siberian, Roma, Hungarian, Italian, Persian, Basque, Israeli, Scottish, Arabian, and Polish). These parallels from other traditions are listed in detail in the notes at the end of the book, along with tale type numbers, the names of the storytellers, and interesting additional information. This book is not only an entertaining read, but also a very useful source for researchers.

Side note: Storytellers around the world love to use "three apples fell from the sky..." as a story ending formula; it is associated with Armenian tales first and foremost. Interestingly enough, the version that keeps showing up in this book says "From the sky fell three apples: One to me, one to the storyteller, and one to the person who has entertained you." Turns out, all three apples belong to the storyteller...


The best tale in the book is the very last one: Sunset Lad is about a man who complains about the sun, so Mother of the Sun curses him. He dies at sunrise every day, and comes back to life at sunset. Eventually he sets out to find Mother of the Sun and apologize. Beautiful, symbolic story.
Nourie Hadig was a lovely Snow White variant, involving a "false bride" who became friends with the heroine, and when said heroine fell into fake death, the best friend and the prince watched over her body together. In another cute love story it was the work of the genii that made a match between a young man and a young woman; when they got separated, the woman dressed as a man and accidentally married a princess, and in the end, the three of them found happiness together. Turtle Skin was a similarly cute animal bride tale, where the hero married a very pretty turtle (who eventually turned into a lady). I liked it because of how kind and gentle he was with the turtle. Also, talking about love stories: There was one about a princess locked in a tower who eventually made herself a prince out of dough. When her father was angered by the secret affair, she took her case to court, arguing that love and companionship was "nature's way," and it should not be punished.
I loved the story of The halva-maker, in which a magical dervish did not only help a poor man start a successful pastry business which led to a meet-cute with a princess, but also came to the rescue when the angry king wanted to hang the pastry maker. Due to the dervish's magic, when they tried to hang the guy he fell to pieces, and there was nothing to put the rope on... so the king gave him permission to marry.
I liked the moral of The soul-taker: three girls found a pot full of gold and ran away screaming that it would take their soul. Six robbers heard them and laughed at their folly, taking the gold for themselves... and then then promptly killed each other for it, proving the girls right. Money also paid an important role in The test, where a beggar (who was secretly rich) asked the suitor of his daughter to go and beg for money, making sure he would be willing to do so if he ever needed to support his family that way. Talking about suitors: I was happy to see a recent favorite tale type again, about a Patient suitor who went town to town, collecting the mysterious stories of strangers to win the hand of his beloved. It took him years to collect all the embedded tales.
Among supernatural creatures the strangest was the elk, a goblin that takes out people's liver, washes it, and eats it, causing illness and death. In the story of The curse, a man stopped an elk from stealing a young woman's liver, and held on to the creature as a servant. When the elk was finally set free, it promised that the worst curse it would ever put on the family would be that their wooden spoons break easily...
Among the tales of wit my favorite Happened in the bath, where a poor man accidentally took the place of the king's jester (who looked a lot like him, and dropped dead while bathing). He used a lot of very clever tricks to find out who he was supposed to be. I also enjoyed Matching wits, where two robbers (one nighttime and one daytime robber) found out they share the same wife, and started a contest to see who  deserves her more. I don't usually like these tales, but this one was funny and not crude at all. The same goes for the story of the Robbers, where a man raised his nephew to be a good criminal. The boy outwitted the king multiple times, and in the end even managed to kidnap the Russian tsar, proving his skills on an international level.
Next to wits, justice was also an important part of the stories. In one, a young shepherd-turned-treasurer came Under suspicion for stealing diamonds, and skillfully managed to prove he had been falsely accused (and that the court officials are corrupt). In The servant at the monastery, a man with magic powers turned an annoying rich youth into a donkey. When the rich father attacked the monastery in revenge, the magician used his powers to repel the attack and save the monks.
Among the legends the most memorable was that of Lochman Hehkeem, a legendary healer who spoke the language of plants and found the secret of immortality. He managed to make his servant immortal, but when it was his turn God sent an angel to destroy his notes.

It doesn't appear in this book, but I also want to give a shout out to my favorite Armenian tale, Queen Anait.


The book contains many familiar tale types; according to the collector, most stories have parallels in other cultures, only a few of them were "typically Armenian." A few examples for types that appeared: Animal brothers-in-law (The ogre's soul), raven brothers (The seven giant brothers), magic flight (Abo Beckeer), puss in boots (The miller and the fox), the magic bird's heart, Fortunatus (The magic figs), The hunter's son, Dreamer's dream (combined with some extraordinary helpers), Aladdin (The magic ring), All-kinds-of-fur (The golden box; they executed the evil father in the end), Cinderella (with cannibal sisters), Golden-haired twins (with lots of helpful women), handless maiden (Mariam), animal-brother (Stag-brother), stolen apples (The world below, with the obligatory emerald bird), three stolen princesses (Son of the Grey Horse, a long, elaborate multi-generational tale), Rumpelstiltskin (Buzz-Buzz Aunty, where the girl got away by pretending to be crazy), Godfather Death (here with Gabriel, The soul-taking angel), poor woman and the devil (The talkative wife), "no news" cumulative tales (From bad to worse; Munuck), and a golden-haired gardener (The monster's hairs). In the latter three princesses chose their husbands by shooting arrows into a crowd of young men, and they used watermelon divination to see if they were ready for marriage.
The magic box was the tale type where a man seeks his luck (here: child) and carries many questions to God with him. On the way home he ate the magic fertility apple that made him pregnant... I also once again encountered the tale where a princess is married to a poor man, but manages to find happiness through wits and hard work, and magic pomegranate treasures Wisely spent. I also recognized The ashman's money as the tale type where someone trusts his money to a rich man who does not want to return it; a clever woman once again came to the rescue. In the end, even the rich man agreed it was a good trick.
There were multiple motifs that were similar to Greek mythology. The magic horse was a parallel to the Argonauts, with mountains smashing into each other, and a king killed by a "rejuvenating" bath. The prize bull was the story of Europe, with a prince instead of Zeus.
I once again encountered the motif of a hero striking the monster only once, because the second hit would bring it back to life.

Where to next?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

StorySpotting: Sometimes the forest eats people (Cursed)

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!

So, this new Netflix fantasy series is out, and it's pretty bad. The whole thing is (very loosely) based on King Arthur legends (obviously), so I'm not going to bother with those. But it also contains some smaller details in the mix that are interesting enough to blog about.

Where was the story spotted?

Cursed, Season 1 (all the way through)

What happens?

The main hero of the series, a Fey girl named Nimue (a.k.a. future Lady of the Lake), has magic powers that allow her to call on the spirits of nature (?) to help her when she is in danger. Despite the fact that they refer to her people as "Sky Folk", her powers are mainly connected to plant life; she makes roots and vines attack and kill people, and even seems to have some kind of a floral healing ability. In one scene she lures a small army into the woods, and then makes the trees murder them. The forest fills up with screams and no one returns.

What's the story?

The most obvious reference to the forest-murder scene is the historical event of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In 9CE, German tribes lured three Roman legions, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, into the wilderness of modern day Lower Saxony, and pretty much made them all disappear like a very bloody magic trick. It was one of the most humiliating defeats of Roman military history, in no small part because of the outrageous incompetence of Varus (Suetonius, who likes juicy gossip, claims that when Augustus heard the news he banged his head on a wall yelling "Varus, give me back my legions!"). Legend sprang up about bloody pagan rituals and human sacrifices in the deep woods, and the remains of the legions were not found until about six years later. Some claim that the battle left its mark on the legends of the Niebelungs.

Image from here

Apart from the bloody forests of Germania, there are other stories around the world that deal with carnivorous and martial plant life:

The Wonderful Wood is a ballad-folktale from Warwickshire, in which a girl flees into the forest from a murderous king who likes to hunt people. She treats the trees with respect and reverence and they let her through, but when the hunting party busts in after her, the oak trees close in... and the king is never seen again.

The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) is one of my favorite Welsh legends. In it, the magician Gwydion calls the forest into battle against an underworld army of monsters. Each tree has its own personality, and role in the fight. (Talking about pop culture: This is the story Tolkien based the Ents on.). A linguist named Mark Williams wrote a "fake" version of this legend in Welsh a few year back, tricking the internet into believing he had found a lost manuscript. He owned up to the joke, but the story he wrote is still damn good, and I enjoy telling it.

In the Oroqen folktale of Lunjishan and Ayijilun, the plants of the forest come to the hero's aid when he goes out to rescue his bride, a huntress kidnapped by a demon. A birch leaf flies him to his destination, and the vines of a morning glory entwine and choke the demon to death.

In the Hungarian folktale The Dream of the Fairy Queen, a mortal man wonders into the forest and gets trapped in an enchanted clearing. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the Forest Spirit in single combat. His lover, the Fairy Queen Tündér Ilona, ends up taking his place in the fight, and she soundly beats up the Forest Spirit, breaking the curse.

The Demon in the Tree is a Jewish legend from Germany, reminiscent of The Corpse Bride story. A young man puts a wedding ring on a branch (as a joke), and thus accidentally engages himself to a tree spirit. The spirit keeps killing his brides, until one clever bride takes the effort to talk to her and come to an understanding to share their husband.

For similar stories, see also the British tale of the Elder Tree Witch, and the Solomon Islands legend of the Boongurunguru. Read about man-eating trees here.


Sometimes the forest eats people.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Fairy tales are crystal (Following folktales around the world 165. - Turkey)

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!

Forty-four ​Turkish Fairy Tales
Kúnos Ignác
George G. Harrap, 1913.

One of the first collections of Turkish folktales, by Hungarian collector Kúnos Ignác, published in English. As the title claims, it contains 44 stories. The short introduction tells us about the world of Turkish fairy tales which, according to Kúnos, "are as crystal, reflecting the sun's rays in a thousand dazzling colours." The book itself is pretty, too, with elaborate decorative motifs, and the sometimes beautiful, sometimes caricature-esque illustrations of Will Pogány - although the latter often divide the text into two parallel columns, which makes it hard to read. The book has a short glossary at the end. While some of the illustrations are definitely weird and the tales have some questionable moments in terms of portraying "black Arabs," this book is still a classic, with a lot of very beautiful stories.


One of my old favorites from this book is The silent princess, in which a roguish prince tricks the girl into speaking up by telling her riddle tales, and deliberately giving the wrong answer. She can't help but correct him, breaking her silence. Another old favorite of mine is The dragon prince, in which a queen gives birth to a dragon, and only a clever servant girl is persistent enough to tame him. They get married, but they get separated again; she has another husband and children, and then the dragon prince returns she has to make a choice. The best dragon story in the book, however, is no doubt The black dragon and the red dragon. Here, a padisah sets out to find his forty kidnapped children, and he succeeds with the help of two dragons. It turns out the children were taken by a dev whose own son had been kidnapped by another villain. Everything turns out all right in the end. My favorite moment is the one where the padisah, wandering in the desert, finds a brood of baby dragons, still blind like newborn kittens...
The horse-dew and the witch is a very pretty version of the "magic flight" folktale type. The horse is an enchanted prince, and the witch is his mother, who gives her son's bride all kinds of impossible tasks until the young lovers flee from her together. They could only get away after the bride gave up her little finger to the witch. Another steed, Kamer-taj the Moon-horse, rescued a princess from a demon multiple times. In the end when he died, the princess and her children hid in his stomach for a night - and by the morning, the horse turned into a palace (I have read a similar Italian tale too).

The bird of sorrow was a story about a princess who wanted to know what sorrow was. The bird took her on a wild adventure of a series of misfortunes, but it did reward her in the end for her perseverance (I have read similar Greek and Italian tales, but with Fate). Fate also places an important role in the story of the Fortune-teller, who told three sisters that their fortune would come from unusual places - a well, a cemetery, and shame - and in the end, all three of them found it.
The story of Prince Ahmed was exciting in a lot of ways. The prince's own father tried to have him killed multiple times, but with the aid of his mother and three gemstone fairies (who started a war against the king), Prince Ahmed managed to find happiness in the end.
I really enjoyed the story of The enchanted pomegranate branch, mostly because of the motif of the secret garden - and because of the princess who punched the false bridegroom in the end. The story of Shah Jussuf was a similarly beautiful version of Beauty and the Beast. Here, the wife seeking her lost husband was taken in and adopted by a dew (div) family, who did not only help her raise her child, but also devised a plan to make sure her returning husband would treat her better from that point on.
I was amused by a story that illustrated why the study of Astrology is important. It was about a skeptical man who picked up an astrology book, and was transported into another world. When, after many adventures, he finally got back home, he had to admit that astrology is a powerful topic... (this story started out with the Gemstone Mountain episode, which I love).
There was also a motif that appeared in multiple stories: when the hero struck down a monster (dew, dragon, etc.), it usually goaded him to strike again to show "he is man enough." The clever hero always refused, which was good, because a second strike would have brought the monster back to life. Control and decisiveness over blind rage.


Among the popular tale types I found Animal Sibling (Brother and sister), hero seeking Fear, Three Oranges, Valiant Tailor (Kara Mustafa), Magic flight (The wizard-dervish), Shoes danced to pieces (The magic turban, the magic whip, the magic carpet), Son of the hunter (The crow-peri), Snow White (The magic hairpins), Devil and the woman (Imp in the well), Fake fortune-teller, Magician's apprentice, and False bride (Rose Beauty - which started with thee girls shooting arrows and following them to seek husbands; also, the false bride gave birth to the child of the real wife somehow).
I also encountered the tale type from the Balkans (?) where a girl takes lunch to her brothers working in the woods, and is kidnapped by a monster along with them. Only the youngest, "Simpleton" brother can save everyone. In the second half of the story he descends into the Underworld and encounters the Emerald Griffin (also known in Cyprus). The storm fiend was a beautiful, colorful tale, a mix of Water of Life and Koschei the Deathless (and yes, this one had an Emerald Griffin too).

Where to next?

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Girl in the chair: Seven blind queens raise a child in prison

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

I did another research workshop for storytelling students recently (online, live from Berlin), and it was tons of fun, with lots of intriguing questions at the end. Once again, I am highlighting one of them, to show the steps of my search process.

The question

The person asking me was looking for a folktale where "seven blind queens raise a child together in prison."
Yes, this story exists. In more than one version.

Step one: Where have I read this before?...

I could have sworn I read a version of this in a Spanish folktale collection, but when I went through it, there was no trace of blind queens. I went through two other volumes of Spanish tales from the same publisher (the Siruela folktale series has large hardcover books with colorful covers, and I usually remember my reads visually). No luck. Sometimes, my memory tricks me.

*Edit*: In the end I remembered that I knew this story from Bierhorst's Latin American Folktales, but the Spanish edition. I wasn't entirely wrong!

Step two: Google Books

On to the starting point: I go to Google Books, and type in the most obvious search phrase, "blind queens." I get a few immediate results:
John Bierhorst's Latin American Folktales, under the title Seven Blind Queens, from Chile (this is the story the student asked about)
Joseph Jacobs's Indian Fairy Tales, where the story is called The Son of Seven Queens.
Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, under the story title The Three Blind Queens.
Flora Annie Steel's Tales of the Punjab, with the title The Son of Seven Mothers.
Arifa Naeem's Folk Tales from the Deccan, with the title The Seven Blind Queens.
A folktale collection from Pakistan that talks about seven blind queens.

It seems like this tale type is popular in India and South Asia, with occasional occurrences elsewhere.

I put in the search term in Spanish too, since the original question was about Latin America. I get a hit for "reinas ciegas" in the Spanish edition of the ATU index.

Step three: Tale type number

Even if the Spanish index didn't yield results, the Latin American folktale collection notes the type number in the end notes: ATU 462, The Outcast Queens and the Ogress Queen. The note says this type is "widespread in India, but not indexed in Europe or elsewhere Latin America." It does reference another version of Chile, noted in Hansen's tale type index (The types of the folktale in Cuba, Puerto Rico,the Dominican Republic, and Spanish South America)

Step four: Tale type indexes

I go to the Hansen index first, since it is specific to Central and South America. Sadly, it doesn't note type 462 at all; the story reference above is grouped under type 455, in which a jealous queen blinds her husband's nieces. There is no child or prison involved, they are rescued by their brother with the lion milk (still, interesting story).
Talking about lion milk...

Step five: The story basics

In the Chilean version (originally from this book) a cruel king blinds his queens one by one, and throws them into prison. Six queens eat their babies in hunger, but the first one manages to keep her son alive in secret. As the boy grows up he manages to find a way out of the dungeon, and keeps bringing in fruit from the garden to keep all seven queens alive. They all love him. One day he is caught by the gardeners and taken to the king (who has married an eighth, cruel woman in the meantime). The king takes a liking to him and, without knowing who the boy is, gives him free reign of the palace. The boy keeps feeding his mothers in secret. One day the cruel queen decides to get rid of him, so she pretends to be sick and demands lion's milk. With advice from his mother, the boy succeeds in bringing some. Next the queen demands a singing, dancing castle; the boy goes to an Enchanted city where he plays his guitar, and with the help of a sorceress finds the small castle, as well as water that cures blindness, candles that are human lives, and a pig that is the life of the cruel queen. He kills the pig, cures his mothers, the king remarries the first queen, and they all live happily ever after.
(I'm a little miffed the king gets away with everything.)

Step six: Variants

In the Italian version (from the Abruzzi) there are three queens (married to three kings), blinded by a jealous nurse and left out in the mountains. They also eat their babies, only the youngest is saved. When he is taken in by his father the king, the nurse sends him on a quest to rescue a princess. With his mothers' advice he succeeds, and the nurse is killed.
In the Indian version from Joseph Jacobs, the king encounters a bewitching maiden on a hunt, but she'll only marry him if he blinds his seven queens. He does. One of the queens has a son, who finds a way out of the dungeon and keeps bringing food to the queens. King eventually finds him and takes him in. The boy manages to piss off the wicked wife, who sends him to her mother to get killed. On the way, however, he marries a princess (who only wanted to marry a man "with seven mothers"), who rewrites the letter he is carrying, changing death sentence to reward. The prince gets the eyes of his mothers back (minus one), plus a cow with endless milk, plus ever-expanding rice, and all is well in the end. Music also plays a part in this story.
In the Deccan version a cunning maiden seduces the king and frames his seven wives for the murder of his favorite horse and dog. The queens are blinded an exiled, and as they give birth the babies are devoured by wolves, except the youngest. He ends up at his father's court and the wicked queen tries to have him killed by sending him to her wizard brother with a death message. A wise man helps him out. The boy kills a parrot that was the wizard's soul, and makes a potion to heal his mothers. Once again the king gets away scot free.
The Punjabi version is pretty much the same as Joseph Jacobs'. That explains a lot.

Step seven: The ATU index

According to the ATU, type 462 is not extremely widespread: It mostly has variants from India, South Asia, East Asia (China, Nepal, Laos), the Middle East, Spain and Catalonia, and Chile. Also, the Romani tradition, which would explain how these stories spread West. The only outliers are Iceland and Canada.
The ATU also notes motifs within the folktale type. There is no specific motif for this tale, but there is one (L71) for "Only the youngest of group of imprisoned women refuses to eat her newborn child." The reference points to the Thompson-Balys  motif index of India.
After so many references to India and South Asia, I refer to the Types of Indic Oral Tales index, the folktale index for South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka). This one lists a ton of variants to the story. I would have to sift through all of them if I wanted to dig deeper.

Conclusions and Musings

This tale type seems to be centered on South Asia. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it spread west with the Roma to Spain, and then on to South America with colonization. There is also something distinctly celestial about the Punjabi version - the seven queens, one half-blind (Pleiades?), the endless stream of milk (Milky Way?), the countless grains of rice (stars?)... It might just be my imagination.
Anyway. Fascinating rabbit hole.
Thank you for the question, Johanna!