Thursday, December 31, 2020

346 earworms

Do you often wake up with a song stuck in your head?

This is the third year that I noted every morning what song was stuck in my head when I first woke up, and I tallied the results. I usually have music in my head all day, like my own personal internal radio station, but mornings are the easiest to pin down. The results don't always overlap with that I actually like listening to, and are only tangentially related to what I listen to often. It seems like some songs are just more adhesive than others.
(You can fin the 2019 and 2018 lists on the link.)

This year there were 346 mornings when I woke up with a song in my head, which is more than ever before. I noted 149 different songs, returning with more or less frequency (compared to last year's 137, and 2018's 150).
The Top 5 is as follows:

First place with 15 mornings (a personal record):
(I actually like this one a lot, and in my opinion it is musically better than either Let it go or Into the Unknown.)

Second place with 13 mornings:
(I made the mistake of watching Greatest Showman, which is an awful movie, but the soundtrack is super enjoyable, and apparently was designed to stick forever and ever from now on. From now on...)

Third place with 12 mornings:
(Told ya)

Shared third place with also 12 mornings:

Fourth place with 10 mornings:
(It's all in the name... This person makes a mash-up of the year's pop hits every December, and 2019 was especially well done.)

Fifth place, 9 mornings:
(I'll talk about this album below)

Shared fifth place, also 9 mornings:

Sixth place, which is not technically Top 5, but I was very happy to wake up with this on 7 mornings:

The numbers by albums: Onbiously, Greatest Showman took the cake, with 58 mornings total (Other side 13, Greatest Show 12, From now on 9, Million dreams 7, This is me - Come alive - Rewrite the stars 4, Tightrope 4, Never enough 1). 

Second place goes to Birds of Prey, which was definitely my favorite soundtrack this year. I listened to it a lot, as it is great for confidently stomping around town. I woke up to it on 33 occasions, evenly distributed, which signals the quality of the album, methinks. (Feeling good 9, Joke's on you 5, Hit me with your best shot 4, I'm gonna love you 3, Smile 2, Sway with me 2, Lonely gun 2, Bad memory 2, Man's world 1, Experiment on me 1, Diamonds 1, Danger 1).

Third place goes to Hamilton, etched into my brain forever, popping up on 20 mornings. It is closely followed by 17 mornings of Moana (You're welcome 6, Shiny 5, We know the way 4, How far I'll go 2), and 16 of DJ Earworm, prominently featuring 2010 and 2017. The musical numbers of Magicians made an appearance on 14 mornings (One day more 7, Here I go again 5).

There are always days when my brain just goes to weird musical places. One of these WTF mornings was this lovely song, linked to me by the friend, listened to once (I was greatly amused), and then crawling back from the depths of my memory several weeks later. The other was a little tune with lyrics by a very creative friend of mine, Fanni Sütő

Who else has this thing with taking up to songs? What sticks in your head most often?...

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 - The year in (good) books

This is the regularly scheduled end-of-the-year list of the most interesting books I read this year.

In 2020 I finished a total of 124 books, amounting to about 29000 pages. It is fewer books than last year, but more pages, which I guess means I read heftier volumes this year (and fewer comics). Out of these, 41 belonged to the "Following folktales around the world" reading challenge; I finished Africa, went through the Middle East and Central and South Asia, and I am 3 books away from the finish line! 
(There will be a sequel challenge, obviously.)

This year's top favorites

Space Opera (Catherynne M. Valente)
- My absolute favorite this year. I have always loved the author, but now that she's snorted the ashes of Douglas Adams she is writing even better. I loved the whole concept of the Intergalactic Eurovision Song Contest, and I loved every crazy sentence of this book.

Biological exuberance (Bruce Bagemihl) - An amazing, brick-sized, appropriately sourced scientific book on homo- and bisexuality in the animal world (limited to mammals and birds, for brevity; it's still 800 pages long). It is not only filed with amazing tidbits of information (e.g. how hummingbirds masturbate with leaves stuck in spiderwebs), but also re-frames how we think about what is "natural" - for example, the fact that sex among animals has never been only about procreation. It also includes intimacy, fun, and caring.

Complete stories (Dorothy Parker) - My first encounter with Dorothy Parker, in the shape of her short stories, and I am totally sold. Funny, witty, with deep emotions and laser-accurate social commentary. She doesn't make mistakes.

Twenty years after (Alexandre Dumas) - As a child, I loved The three musketeers and I read it many times, but I never got around to the sequel. Now, appropriately twenty years later, I thought it was time. I really enjoyed this book; I'd venture it is an even better novel than the first one. It was good to return to Dumas' world.

The Dreaming (Simon Spurrier) - I caught up on all volumes of this one at the end of the year, and I think this should be mandatory reading for all storytellers. The visual elements are surrel, and humor is great and dark, and the plot revolves around the nature of stories and dreams.

Harleen (Stjepan Šejić)
- A Harley Quinn origin story, with amazing art and a good plot. Definitely one of the best of the genre this year. 

Favorite non-fiction

The Last Battle (Stephen Harding) - A book on one of the last, and most interesting, battles of World War II, where American and German soldiers together defended a medieval castle full of French prisoners of war. Micro-history, parallel lives, and an actual siege. A really well written, detailed book, and a story that should have been a movie a long time ago.

The story of life in 25 fossils (Donald R. Prothero)
- I wanted to read about paleontology, and I came across this book. I really enjoyed how it used 25 famous finds (and the scientists who found and argued about them) to trace the history of life on Earth from the first microbes to humans. It was a fun read, and I learned a lot from it.

The disappearing spoon (Sam Keane) - Since I hated Chemistry as a teenager, I thought it would only be fair to give it a second try. This book traces the history of the periodic table, and the uses and most interesting features of the elements. There are a lot of anecdotes about scientific discovery, and easy-to-follow descriptions of how atoms work. 

Favorite storytelling books

Finn & the Fianna, Scottish Myths and Legends (Daniel Allison)
- Two great books from a Scottish professinal storyteller. Both reflect the liveliness of oral storytelling, and both are based on a lot of background research. I especially loved the Fianna book, which is hish praise, because I am very picky about Fianna stories. Lovely reads, I recommend both books to storytellers and story-lovers.

Woman writers and women's history

My story (Marilyn Monroe)
- I was never really interested in Marilyn before, but I came across her (unfinished) autobiography and I got curious. The person behind the words is likable and kind, and treated awfully by the age and the Hollywood she lived in.

Lieutenant Nun (Catalina de Erauso) - A nun in the early 1600s decided to leave the convent, dress as a man, and run away to South America to become a conquistador. And then years later wrote his autobiography, and handed it to the king. And asked for a pension. Noting that he was still an untouched virgin. Which, by the era's standards, was probably true, because he only had sex with (lots of) women... "I'm the devil", he says about herself, and he is not a likable or easily understood person (especially when it comes to colonial warfare), but his life is endlessly fascinating.
(Pronouns note: In the Spanish original "Lieutenant Nun" refers to himself in the masculine, with a few well-placed exceptions. So, technically this book is not by a woman author, but I included it here anyway.)

Wonderful adventures or Mrs. Seacole in many lands (Mary Seacole) - The autobiography of a woman who could have been as famous as Florence Nightingale. Free born in Jamaica, Mrs. Seacole's mother already ran a hospital, and yet she was not accepted by the British when she wanted to be a nurse in the Crimean war. Instead, Mother Seacole traveled to the Crimea on her own money, put up an inn and restaurant, and fed hearty home-cooked meals to "her boys." The book is witty, enjoyable, and fascinating.

The fossil hunter (Shelley Emling) - A well-written biography of Mary Anning, one of the first paleontologists in history from before "dinosaur" was even a word. It is a great read, although it made me endlessly sad that she got almost no credit for any of her work in her lifetime. 

Born to rebel (Mary Allsebrook)
- Biography of Harriet Boyd Hawes, archaeologist and nurse and jane-of-all-trades, written by her granddaughter using a lot of quotes from letters and diaries. She excavated Minoan palaces in Crete, and also established a hospital in World War I, among other adventures. The book is almost impossible to find, and she is not very well known, which is a shame, because she became one of my favorite historical women.

Wishful drinking, The princess diaries (Carrie Fisher) - I was missing Space Mom, so I read her books. What an amazing, witty lady.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

2020 - The year in (good) TV shows

I could claim that I had a lot of time to watch TV because of the lockdown... but honestly, I watch a lot of TV anyway, so it is not exactly anything out of the ordinary. I'll just own up to it:

I watched 101 TV series this year,
out of those I finished 73,
and 7 of them were re-watching binges.

New favorites
(In no particular order)

Brave new world - I admit, I have not read the book. I'm sure it is better than the adaptation, but with the lack of comparison I really enjoyed the show. Good actors, good world building, and while the moral is very much on the nose, I enjoyed the journey. Sadly, it has been cancelled.

- While on the topic of dystopias, here is another classic, starring Daveed Diggs. I liked the movie too, and the show takes it to a whole new level, in casting as well as world building. I still don't understand why the survivors of humanity require two train cars of lavender, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief on the altar of story and visuals. Second season coming soon.

Upload - This was the year of utopias and dystopias. Go figure. Upload is kind of Black Mirror Light, with a world where people can be uploaded into a virtual world after their death (for money). There is a love plot, and a lot of very obvious humor. There will be a second season. 

The plot against America - Talking about dystopias, here is a very strong alternative history miniseries from HBO (which may not be very far from our actual timeline). It creates a second world war where the USA elects a German-leaning president, and shows how politically generated discrimination trickles down into the everyday life of people. It is more complex than Man in the high castle. No news about a second season yet.

The Great
- Talking about alternative history: here is one of the lighter kind, about the early years of Catherine the Great. Solid casting, tongue-in-cheek story, grotesque humor. Second season coming up. Huzzah!

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist - One of the feel-good surprises of the year. I started it as background noise, but it soon won me over with its upbeat humor and colorful musical numbers. If you want to watch something light, likable, and occasionally tear-jerking, I recommend this one.

Locke & Key - Out of this year's new fantasy shows, this one was probably my favorite. Creepy, trippy, dark, exciting, and obviously based on comics. It has been renewed for two more seasons.

Returning classics

The Mandalorian - Obviously. The second season sustained the well paced, likable, exciting space western we all expect and love. This show is single-handedly dragging the Star Wars Cinematic Universe out of the Sarlacc pit. 

Umbrella Academy - Watched the second season and liked it. The cast is still stellar, the soundtrack is memorable, and the plot was enjoyable too. Looking forward to the third one. 

Better Call Saul
- Even though I'm listing it among the returners, this show is still definitely top 3 for me overall. They can do no wrong. You are all invited to my TED talk about how BCS is much better done than Breaking Bad was. That's the gospel truth. 

Dragon Prince - Still lovable, fun, exciting, and warms the hearts of fans of Avatar and D&D alike. It also showcases how fantasy can get a whole lot better with more diversity. 

Doom Patrol - Talking about lovable: another top 3 for me, with the burnt out superheroes and their found family shenanigans. Anxiously awaiting season 3. Danny The Street For President. 

"Late to the party"
(Older series that I just got around to somehow)

The Boys
- One of my big new faves for this year. I have not read the comics yet, but the show is epic in many ways - casting, humor, message, action. The only problem is that I will never be able to watch a DC movie with a straight face again.
(Who am I kidding, I already can't.)

Cobra Kai - I never thought I'd be a fan of a Karate Kid show out of all things, but this one won me over big time. It is likable, fun, and has a lot of great nods to the original. Third season coming soon. We'll see.

Star Trek: Discovery - My big conversion for this year. The first season, in my opinion, was godawful and unwatchable, and I only started the second because I had nothing better to do. And yet, they managed to turn it around big time: it became coherent and darn likable, and they fixed a lot of the initial mistakes. This whole "big misfit family" thing fits them a lot better than the original plot.

Peaky Blinders - Better late than never. Although I am sure this wretched family will never, ever catch a break, I am looking forward to any upcoming.

Society - One of the fun fairy tale adaptations of the year. A group of teenagers has to rebuild society in an abandoned town, without adults.
(Bonus if you can name the original story.)

Outgoing favorites

- I bid a teary goodbye to High Queen Margo the Destroyer, and her merry band of messed up magicians. Good thing they had enough of a heads up that they could wrap the story very neatly. I already started a rewatch, because the boif has not seen it yet.

The Good Place - This series won a place in my hall of fame with the last season. It was likable, heartwarming, and gave us a lot to think about. A definite candidate for rewatch.

Shame, shame, same

Raised by wolves - I still can't get over WTF this show was meant to be. I have so many questions. Like... did they want to restart humanity with six embryos?... Why did they need a Dad Bot if Mom Bot was just as strong and more useful? And why did they not build a damn fence so humanity could not toddle off and die?... This show is the textbook definition of "you had one job."

Emily in Paris - Emily was the kind of American tourist I really wanted to slap in the face with a bagel. 

Another life - This one was actually pretty fun, especially with the classic sci-fi references, but I have a creeping suspicion that they meant it seriously. 

Cursed - Release Floki back into his natural habitat, you monsters!

Bridgerton - My Facebook friends can't agree whether this show was supposed to be a parody or not. That in itself says it all. The casting is amazing (Polly Walker is still a goddess), too bad they all have to appear in a mediocre bodice-ripping virgin-romance fantasy. 


I wonder how many of my favorites accidentally feature Giancarlo Esposito.

On a more serious note:

What were your favorites this year, and what are you looking forward to in 2021?

Monday, December 28, 2020

The fantastic fauna of the Himalayas (Following folktales around the world 183. - Bhutan)

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!

Folktales of Bhutan
Kunzang Choden
White Lotus Press, 1995.

The book contains 27 folktales and 11 legends. The foreword was written by a Bhutanese princess who praises the book for being the country's first folktale collection. A second foreword talks about the author's childhood, storytelling memories, and the unique features of the Bhutanese oral tradition - for example, that the audience has to say "and then" periodically, or the spirits will steal the tale. I also liked that in their original language tales are not told, but "released" or "unraveled". 
The book's introduction talks about the history, culture, and geography of Bhutan, and  includes a map. At the end there is a glossary explaining the Bhutanese terms that appear in the tales.


I found a classic cumulative tale in a version that I could finally get behind - mostly because it was about stories. Bhutanese tales begin with Dangbo, dingbo (or, if they happened long ago, dangboooo, dingbooo). According to this story, Dingbo keeps chasing Dangbo, but he can never catch up, or stories would disappear from the world. Dangbo steps in a thorn, and he asks for help from a series of entities, before the thorn is finally pulled and he can keep running...
Acho La La
was a pretty great magic flight tale where a girl escaped from a monster's house with the help of an old dog and a louse. She kept tossing back seeds to create forests, until the (somewhat lazy and slow) Moon threw her a rope, and she climbed up into the sky. In the story of Bum Sing Sing Yangdonma another girl was also captured by a monster, and did not only escape disguised as an old woman, but also managed to find herself a kind and caring husband. Among the many memorable monsters, the most disgusting was the ghost with the water goiter; if not checked with fire, the goiter kept growing until it exploded and flooded everything. (Ew.). Another creepy creature was the rolong, a sort of Bhutanese zombi, with limbs locked in rigor mortis and a mouth full of maggots. Also, the stewa rutu, an octopus-like water creature who sucks people's blood through their shadow. In one story it was captured with an elephant as bait. In another, it was found as a shriveled up piece of meat, but when someone tried to cook it, it revived and ate people. 
There was also a chillingly realistic tale about a girl devoured by a python, who managed to cut herself free.
There was a "faithless mother" tale, which is a tale type I generally hate, but this one managed to be interesting. A mother helped a spirit against her son - but only because the spirit convinced her it was an innocent mortal that the son tried to kill. In the end she found out the truth and regretted her actions.
Of course there would be no Himalayan collection without abominable snowman legends. Here, we had the large and shaggy migoi, and also the smaller, mischievous mirgola


The most surprising find: after Switzerland I once again found a tale about a man spending time in the cave of a hibernating dragon. He survives on dragon milk until the creature wakes up and shows him the way out. I wonder what the connection is...
The tale of Dawa Zangpo was a classic magic ring (Aladdin) story; here a cat, a dog, and a monkey helped the hero get the ring back. Interestingly, the story of the wife and husband swapping work here featured a hen and a monkey - and in the end, in a move not unlike the Brementown musicians, the hen got rid of the lazy monkey. There were kind and unkind girls rewarded by a mouse (Aming Niwa), magic tablecloth (The magic phob), and a Fortunatus-tale about a poor boy and flowers that turned his evil wife into a monkey. There was a strange animal bridegroom story where the groom was a goat tail. His wife burned his animal skin too soon - so in their magic home every object ended up having a small flaw. The role of puss-in-boots was played by a lame monkey.
Nyala Lungma, the woman who washes the innards of people who are bound to die soon, reminded me of the Celtic washerwomen doing the same with heroes' clothes. The legend of Nyala Dermo reminded me of fairy midwife tales: here, a female shaman was asked by a spirit to cure her son... a spirit-son who became sick when he was exorcised from a human. 
Among the tricksters there was a frog who made a tiger believe it regularly eats tigers.

Where to next?
Taking a big jump to Japan!

Saturday, December 26, 2020

StorySpotting: Recipe for a perfect husband (Bridgerton)

 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!

Netflix dropped a new regency drama on Christmas Day, and people (including me) are binge-watching it. It quickly devolves into light syrupy bodice-ripping erotica, but it has some memorable moments and characters.

Where was the story spotted?

Bridgerton, Season 1, Episode 2 (Shock and delight)

What happens?

Eloise, the main heroine Daphne's sharp-witted proto-feminist little sister, is taking a walk with her best friend, discussing Daphne's sudden (fake) courtship with the dashing Duke Hastings. Quote: "So Daphne may be in love. Does she think it an accomplishment? What exactly has she accomplished, then? [scoff] She certainly did not build that man or bake him. He simply showed up."

What's the story?

This is just a throwaway comment on Eloise's part, pointing out how society values courtship as some kind of a feminine accomplishment, even though literally all they have to do is sit there and look pretty. 
However, in the world of legend and folklore, building or baking a husband (or a wife) is actually not outside the realm of possibility. 

The most famous example that comes to mind is from Giambattista Basile's 17th century Neapolitan fairy tale collection, the Pentamerone. The book contains a variant of the Cupid and Psyche myth (belonging to tale type ATU 425 - In search for the lost husband). The title of the tale is Pintosmalto, and it begins with a rich merchant's daughter who refuses to choose a husband for herself. Instead, she asks her father to provide her a set of very specific ingredients, and she builds her own perfect husband out of marzipan. (In case you are curious: "half a hundredweight of Palermo sugar, and as much again of sweet almonds, four to six bottles of scented water, a little musk and amber, forty pearls, two sapphires, a few garnets and rubies, some gold thread"). After bringing the perfect prince to life with prayers, she happily marries him - but Pintosmalto is kidnapped from the wedding by an evil queen, and the bride has to go on a long journey to rescue him. 

There is also a Calabrian version of this folktale type in Italo Calvino's collection, aptly titled The Handmade King (originally called Re Pipi, which means King Pepper, and also sounds hilarious). In this one, a princess sets out to make herself the perfect husband out of 176 lbs of flour and the same amount of sugar (which probably adds up to a whole lot of husband). At first she is not satisfied with the results, so she destroys her creation and tries again. She uses a pepper for a nose, and names the newly animated man King Pepper. I think we can truly say she found someone after her own tastes...

I also once heard an Italian storyteller tell a version where a princess, after burning the first attempted bread-husband and leaving the second half-baked, on the third try manages to create the perfect... pizza (on account of using cheese for his white skin, tomatoes for his red cheeks, olives for his eyes, etc.). Ultimately she discovers that pizza makes her much happier than a husband. 

On a more... direct note, there is the Inuit legend of Blubber Boy. A girl loses her lover who drowns in the sea, and since she doesn't want to marry anyone else, she carves his perfect likeness out of whale blubber, and then rubs her genitals on him until he comes to life. They marry, but hot weather eventually destroys the husband, so she carves another one...

Apart from handmade husbands being very popular all over Italy (Calvino lists other versions too), there is also a common folktale type where men create a perfect woman. 
There is a folktale motif numbered F1023 - Creation of a person by cooperation of skillful men, and it is a dilemma tale usually embedded into longer stories. Three or four men traveling together take turns keeping watch at night, and each of them contributes to the creation of a beautiful woman: a carpenter carves her shape, a tailor dresses her, a jeweler makes her adornments, and finally a teacher/wise man gives her life, and/or the ability to speak. The dilemma is, which one of them should marry her? The riddle has its own motif number: H621 - Skillful companions create a woman: to whom does she belong? There can be various answers depending on the version, or the story can be open ended. In the cases where we get an answer, she usually belongs to the one who gives her life. 

And of course, honorable mention goes to the well-known Greek myth of King Pygmalion and his lovely statuesque wife Galatea. Also, to Blodeuwedd, the woman made out of flowers for a man who was not allowed to have a human wife. One of these marriages worked out better than the other.


One could argue that some of Daphne's story actually follows the Pintosmalto tale: she marries a mysterious husband, then loses him, and has to go through various trials until they are (emotionally) reunited. 
Also, for FMA fans: do no try any of this at home. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Demons, spirits, clever women (Following folktales around the world 182. - Nepal)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folk tales of Nepal
Karuna Kar Vaidya
Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1979.

This book with a memorable cover contains 11 folktales. The short introduction says the tales were collected from traditional storytellers and translated word for word. The editors selected the stories to represent the diversity of different types of tales in the oral tradition of Nepal. The book is decorated with black-and-white illustrations. 


The best tale in the book was that of a bamboo cutter who got kidnapped by a demon. The creature took his place, but his clever wife figured out the truth, and managed to kill the demon with various home-made tricks. In the end, she also got rid of a band of robbers, and saved her husband.
I liked the tale about the miserly old woman who would not let her five daughters-in-law eat their fill from the family's food stores. The youngest wife figured out a way to get the food, and make the old woman believe it had been stolen by spirits. In the end, the mother-in-law learned her lesson.
There was a tale about the god of death that was a very dark version of the "appointment in Samarra" story. A black snake told a man the place and hour of his death, and he ran far away from it. However, when the time came, he was lured back by a winged horse, and met his horrible end anyway. (TW)


Dhon Cholecha was a version of the kind and unkind girls, while Sinhapata Maiju reminded me of the story of the wedding of the bug and the mouse: the lady, after several ill-fitting suitors, married a mouse and lived in the royal treasury. However, the mouse drowned in a pot of oil, and the king ended up taking care of the bereaved widow.
The trickster in residence was a man nicknamed Kakaju, who tricked various people out of their money and belongings (e.g. with the classic "donkey that drops gold"), until he became rich.

Where to next?

Monday, December 14, 2020

Tales like shining jewels (Following folktales around the world 181. - Bangladesh)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folk tales of Bangladesh
Roy Choudhury & Pranab Chandra
Sterling, 1982.

The book contains 16 folktales. The short introduction talks about the history, culture, and storytelling traditions of Bangladesh; there is also some advance information about the individual stories. The tales are accompanied by black-and-white illustrations, and in some cases short introductions about the traditional storytelling performances, and their connections to Bangladeshi cultural history. 


According to the translator, the story of Malanchamala is the crown jewel of Bangladeshi folktales, and I am inclined to agree. It is a rich and beautiful story about a brave girl who takes care of a husband who was married to her at the age of 7 days, to circumvent a curse. She is helped through hardships by a tiger family (who don't care for human social norms at all) and a flying horse that sometimes eats people. It is a fascinating tale, collected from a woman who was more than 100 years old at the time. 
I also enjoyed the story of Behula, another faithful young woman - especially because of the involvement of the gods. A minor snake deity, Mansa Devi, wanted to enter the pantheon of the gods, but she could only do so if a rich merchant worshiped her. When he refused, she killed his son with a snake bite in revenge. The son's wife boarded the funeral ship of her husband, and went through a long series of adventures, until the gods began to worry that she would become a greater goddess whens he died. Instead, they asked Mansa Devi to revive the husband - and they accepted her into the pantheon in exchange. Win-win. 
The story of Chandravati was a spiritual love ballad about a girl who fell in love with a man - only for it to turn out on their wedding day that he was already married outside his caste. After that, since she could not be engaged a second time, she turned to devotion to Shiva, and started working on writing a Bengali Ramayana. She worked diligently on her poetry, even with her former lover crying under her window. I looked it up: Chandravati's 16th century "woman's Ramayana" does exist, and it tells the story from Sita's point of view. 
In the legend of Ferozkhan and Sakina a prince and princess from two enemy kingdoms eloped together. When the wife's father started a war over this, they defended their kingdom, and when the husband was captured, the wife took up arms and fought until she was killed by trickery.  
I really appreciated the story of The king and the sparrow, where a vain king could not handle the harmless jokes of a tiny bird, and he resorted to increasingly drastic measures to shut the sparrow up - every time embarrassing himself even more. 


Because of their shared history, I once again encountered Mahua's tragic love story, after having read it from Pakistan. There were also some classic Panchatantra stories, such as "who is stronger" where a hermit marries his (mouse) daughter to a mouse, or the hermit's dog that he turns into increasingly stronger animals until it tries to eat him. 
There was once again a "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" trickster tale, with a clever and a naive old lady (the latter eventually got help for righting things) - as well as a whole chapter of well-known dilemma tales, such as the wooden doll, ferrying goat and cabbage across a river, or the four legs-two legs-three legs riddle known from Greek mythology.

Where to next?

Monday, December 7, 2020

Tales of the endless ocean (Following folktales around the world 180. - Maldives)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folk tales of the Maldives
Xavier Romero-Frías
Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2012.

This book contains 80 folktales from the Maldives, collected by the author between 1979 and 2007. It begins with a glossary and an introduction; the latter tells us about the oral tradition, religious literature, and literacy of the islands, as well as the creation of the book, which is the first collection of folktales from the Maldives. Stories are grouped into traditional categories: tales of spirits and monsters, humorous anecdotes, animal tales, seafaring stories (including sung, poetic "verbal maps"), and historical legends. Each category gets its own introduction, and each story comes with footnotes that explain certain elements and name the original storyteller. The notes also explain Maldivian words and expressions, and give the Latin names of the animal and plant species. At the end of the book we find a bibliography and an index.
The book also has illustrations: black-and-white drawings, pictures of fish and bird species, and he occasional black-and-white photograph. 


A big favorite of mine in this book is the legend of The first tuna, where a famous master navigator is offended by his crew, so he refuses to navigate, and the ship almost sails off the edge of the world. In the last minute he changes his mind and steers the ship home safely, picking up a school of tuna along the way, and having a scary encounter with a giant hermit crab. In another, 17th century seafaring legend some people were shipwrecked on the far island of Hollavai. The story describes how they survived, and how they eventually realized they can send messages home with the help of migrating frigate birds. Also among the sea legends was one about The man who lived on the back of a whale - he never went ashore, lived in good friendship with the whale, ate raw fish, and had barnacles all over his lower body. The story of the Sandara shell told of the king and queen of the Moon: The queen dove into the sea to get the magic shell, which gave her husband strength to fight a demon. In the end, the king gave all the credit for the victory to his brave wife.

There was a lovely story about a girl who accidentally met a ghost at night instead of her lover, and it gave her skin disease. She was shunned by people, but her lover didn't give up, and he found a way to heal and save her. Disease (leprosy) played the main role in the story of Havva Didi as well - she was also exiled. Interestingly enough, in the end she found her way to an airbase, was healed in the hospital, and started a new life far from her faithless family. Mental health also appeared in a story: it was about a girl who couldn't stop crying, until her sister discovered a white disc hovering over her at night. Their father found a way to chase the spirit away.
The story of the two merchants was an exciting realistic tale, where one man kidnapped his friend's wife and kept her locked in. Truth was revealed by a young boy who had been keeping an eye on the shady merchant, even though everyone else believed he was an upstanding citizen. Another realistic tale told of The Queen of the Mangrove Forest, a beautiful girl who grew up in the wilderness and only ate mangrove fruit. However, when a king married her and "tamed" her into a refined lady, she forgot what mangrove even was... (apparently, "queen of the mangrove forest" is a Maldivian expression for people who are in a hurry to forget where they came from). 
I was amused by the story where a man escaped from a shapeshifting monster (who took on the form of his friend) because he was munching on fried breadfruit chips, and the crunching scared the monster. Definitely the scariest of the monsters was a graveyard demon named Fulu Digu Hadi, who pushed its squirming umbilical chord into people's houses through the roof - until someone cut it off and rubbed chili and salt in the wound. The Maldivian tooth fairy, Santimariyambu was also a bit chilling: she takes out the dirty teeth of people while they sleep, and puts in clean ones. But once a man yelled at her, and she threw her entire bag of teeth in his face... and they stuck. Yikes. I enjoyed the legend of Oditan Kalege, the sorcerer who fought a magic duel against his wife who turned out to be a man-eating monster in disguise.  
Among the realistic tales, there were some fairly new ones - like the story about the first scuba diver, from Japan, who brought his gear to the islands. Legends claim he was eaten by a giant crab (he wasn't). Another story told of a stray seal that the people of Himiti island mistook for a sea monster.


The collector called Dombeyya a "Maldivian Odyssey", and he was not wrong. It is a long and complex story about a man who wanders from seven years from island to island, encountering cannibals, giant crabs, bandits, crocodiles, rhinos, and other assorted dangers, until he finds his way home to his faithful wife. In another familiar story a girl was swallowed by a shark, and later rescued by fishermen.
The story of Handi Don Kamana reminded me of the legends of Melusine, where a husband (after years of happy marriage) spies on his wife, and realizes that she is not a mortal woman.
There was a story explaining the origin of the first coconuts; here, a sorcerer saved people from famine by making palm trees grow from graves. I was reminded of African folktales by The skull under the tree, which got a man into trouble simply by talking too much. The tale where someone exchanges useless things for increasingly more useful ones had a grey heron (Makana) as its protagonist, while the stereotypical false fortune-teller was a false master navigator here.
I was reminded of fairy legends by the story of the two-headed birds, which, when they found out humans are clever enough to trap even a tiger, decided to fly away from this world. Another fairy parallel was the story where The king of the seas summoned a human midwife to his daughter, and rewarded her handsomely - as long as she didn't talk about where she'd been. 
There was a chain story, featuring Amboffulu (mango seed) and Damboffulu (plum seed). One of them was trapped, and the other tried to get help through a long chain of helpers. Another classic, a trickster story about "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" featured a grey heron and his brother-in-law. 

Where to next?

Sunday, December 6, 2020

StorySpotting: Birds that never land (Alien Worlds)

 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!

Netflix has dropped a new speculative show titled Alien Worlds. Every episode talks about how life would develop on different types of alien planets.

Where was the story spotted?

Alien Worlds, season 1, episode 1 (Atlas)

What happens?

On Atlas, gravity is twice as strong as on Earth, and life has adapted to that. One of the creatures introduced in the episode is a "sky grazer", a flying herbivore that feeds on the floating seeds of plant life. Because of the denser atmosphere of the planet, sky grazers never land in their life - except for then the females lay their eggs. And then, because they can't lift off again due to their body weight, they die.

What's the story?

Besides the mythological reference in the planet's name (which seems to be a running theme), I knew I have read this "never lands" part in folklore before. Turns out, the idea of birds that never have to land pops up in more than one place here on Planet Earth.
And many of those even figured out the breeding problem. 

The most well-known example of a never-landing bird would the the Huma (Homa) of Persian mythology. According to lore, it spends its entire life flying, never touching the ground. Some legends even posit that it has no legs at all. Some sources hold that it drops its eggs from the sky, and they hatch and the chicks take flight before they hit the ground. Unlike the sky grazers in Alien Worlds, the Huma of folklore is said to have a male and a female half, unifying both sexes (and genders) in one body. The Huma is believed to be a good omen and brings luck to those who see it.
In a folktale from Kashmir, a poor woodcutter is helped by a Huma bird that lays a golden egg for him. However, the woodcutter catches the bird and accidentally strangles it instead. He ends up visiting the Huma bird's kingdom in penance, and eventually becomes rich. In another folktale from India, which is a variant of Cupid and Psyche, a poor woodcutter's daughter marries a mysterious husband. When he is spirited away by his evil mother, she has to acquire a Huma egg (here they have nests), and hatch it under her shirt, so that the bird can peck out the snake-eyes of the evil queen. She is helped in her quest by friendly squirrels and bumblebees.

The folklore of Wisconsin has a creature beautifully named the Wild Blue Yonder Eagle, which "soars eternally above the earth and never lands." Instead of building a nest, much like the Homa it also drops its eggs, and they hatch before they reach the ground. The hatchlings immediately know what to do, and start flying as their feathers come in. By the time they are adults, they "have flown in great circles into the Wild Blue Yonder." This is a classic tall tale creature, but it still has a nice ring to it.
(Also, I know it's an expression, and yet I can't help but picture them with blue feathers.)

At the end of the 16th century Samuel de Champlain wrote about his voyages to Central and South America. Among the many wonders he's allegedly seen he mentions a bird named "pacho del ciello" (pájaro del cielo? - sky bird) which never lands, spending its entire life in the sky. It is the size of a sparrow, greenish-brown with a hint of red, and has no legs but a tail almost two feet long. The female lays her eggs on the back of the male, where they are kept warm until they hatch. According to Champlain these birds live in Chile and Peru. Most likely he was referring to exotic birds whose prepared skins did not include the feet as they were used for ornaments. 

The Mashona people of Southern Africa have a similar belief about the bateleur eagle - in their language called Chapungu, "spirit of a departed one." They believe this bird carries away the spirit of important people when they die. The folklore of other cultures in the area holds that this bird never lands either.


There would be a lot of logistical questions around a creature that evolves to never stop flying. It is clearly and idea that has intrigued people here on Earth for a very long time. 
Now I want to see a study go into detail about what all this kind of lifestyle would entail on a biological level...

Monday, November 30, 2020

Jackals, spirits, Mouse Deer (Following folktales around the world 179. - Sri Lanka)

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!

Village folk-tales of Ceylon

H. Parker
Luzac, 1910.

The book contains 75 folktales; the whole series is actually three volumes, but this first one was hefty enough that I left the other two for later. At the beginning of the book we get a long, narrative introduction to life in the interior of Sri Lanka, from cultivation through beliefs, festivals, and games, all the way to costumes. The narrator talks about the local flora and fauna - we have returned to Mouse Deer territory! The introduction also elaborates on some interesting topics, such as the snake-charming tricks of the Telugu-speaking traveling communities (author calls them "gypsies"). It also talks about the caste system, since the stories in the book are arranged by caste (from higher to lower). 
The tales were collected by the author, sometimes from dictation, but mostly written down by locals and then translated to English. The translation is literal, and complicated expressions come with footnotes. In general, all the stories come with a lot of notes. While the author claims these stories are from an "untouched" Sinhalese tradition, in fact there are a lot of international types among them, and their South Asian (Indian, Punjabi, Bengali, etc.) parallels are duly noted.


There was a legend based in history about three questions that were posed to a vain king. A young man did not only answer the mysterious questions, but also managed to convince the king to give him the throne - and then never returned it. Another king was outwitted in the story of the talking horse, where he ordered a wise man to teach his horse human speech. The wise man promised to do so, in seven years - and before the deadline was up, luckily the king died. Talking about wits: there is a version of the Two thieves tale in this book that I really liked. They were competing for the hand of a young woman, but they made sure no one was harmed in the process - so the people they tricked could also laugh with them in the end.
The tale Aet-kanda Leniya was a beautiful story about a prince seeking his lost wife. It featured a female Rukh (by the name in the title of the story), and a whole lot of grateful animals: elephants, pigs, turtle doves, and fireflies. The notes of the story mention another version where the hero is helped by a young Rukh, a young demon dog, and a young bear... 
Among the trickster tales y favorite was that of the grateful jackal, saved from a giant snake by a boy. When the snake attacked the boy, the jackal ran for help, stealing people's clothes to lead them to the rescue. I also liked the tale about the boar who was raised in a village by a carpenter; when he escaped back into the wilderness, he taught the other boars how to build a tiger trap.


Despite the author's claims of "untouched" tradition, there are a whole lot of familiar tale types in the book. The creation story, for example, features the popular motifs of bringing soil up from the bottom of the ocean to create land, and also the claim that the sky used to be a lot closer to earth, until people chased it away.
Other familiar tale types included: magic bird heart (The turtle dove), princess who ran away with the wrong person but managed to overcome obstacles and find her love (The prince and the princess), false fortune-teller (Kurulu-gama Appu), seven blind queens (The prince and the yaksani), chain tale with a bird (The female quail), puss in boots (here with a monkey, and a man named Mr. Janel Sinna), Rapunzel (Wimali), brave little tailor (Sigiris Sinno, the giant), and brave maiden (The seven princesses; also combined with seven blind queens). The daughter of black storks reminded me of the Indian tale of Little Surya Bai, a beautiful Sleeping Beauty variant.  
The story of Senasura reminded me of the Nart sagas. Here a man was cursed, to only make one bushel of rice from every stack - so he started making very tiny stacks, and got rich on a technicality. 
The resident tricksters are Jackal and Mouse Deer. Mother Mouse Deer, for example, chased a leopard away by making him believe that her children loved leopard meat. Jackal outwitted crocodiles by making them shuttle him back and forth across the river in the promise of a wedding. He also played the wise helper's part in tale types such as "millstone gives birth to colt" and "ungrateful crocodile returned into trap." In turn, Jackal was outwitted by Turtle, more than once - and Turtle had his own misadventure with flying, when he could not keep his mouth shut.
The classic tale of "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" featured a rich man and a poor washerman. 

Where to next?
The Maldives!

Monday, November 23, 2020

Little known India (Following folktales around the world 178. - India)

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!

I have read a lot of folktale collections from India, so this was a rare case where I had too many things to choose from. I decided to pick up a book from my TBR list, one that had the most intriguing title...

And Other Tales They Don't Tell You
Devdutt Pattanaik
Zubaan Books, 2015.

This book contains 30 stories from the myth and folktale traditions of India. I have read other books by the author before, and he always does a lot of background research, unearthing fascinating stories. This was true in this case as well. The concept of the book is that it collects tales and myths that reflect the gender diversity and queer elements of the traditions of India, from a third gender (hijra), through same-sex relationships all the way to sex change. These "queer" tales have been a part of the traditions of India for thousands of years, but they rarely ever show up in books aimed at a western audience. 
The book is a fascinating read. Each story comes with an abundance of notes and comments on its sources, cultural/historical/literary background, similar stories, and significance in contemporary society. There is a detailed introduction about Hindu mythology and the definitions of queerness, and a bibliography at the end. The stories are accompanied by lively black-and-white illustrations. 


Honestly, I could highlight all 30 stories, but I'll try to pick some of the most interesting ones: 

There was a lovely story about a young woman in labor, whose mother could not get to her in time, so Shiva took on the appearance of the mother and acted as a midwife for the birth. I was amused by the tale of Chudala, the wise woman who could not get her husband to listen to her teachings... so she turned into a man, and the husband was suddenly listening with rapt attention. From then on, she taught him as a man during the day, and slept with him as a woman at night, until she finally revealed the truth, and he had to admit that he had been wrong. I was also amused by the story of Samavan, where two poor friends were trying to win gifts from a queen, who only gave them to married couples - so one of the lads disguised himself as a woman. The queen's prayers unexpectedly turned him into one... but she didn't mind, she married her friend, and they lived on happily as a couple. 
Many of the stories were from, or connected to, the great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For example, the book includes the famous story where a prince tries to take advantage of Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers - but when he approaches her bed, he finds Bhima, the strongest husband, dressed in Draupadi's clothes under the covers. 
In the story of Ila a prince wandered into an enchanted forest and turned into a woman. She begged Shiva to change the spell (it couldn't be broken), so she ended up being a woman under the waning moon, and a man under the waxing moon. Anxious that no person would want to marry them, they encountered Boodh, the god of Mercury, who is neither man nor woman (or both, depending on the story), and they lived happily together.
The story of King Kopperumcholan was beautiful too. A poet and a king had a deep connection without every meeting each other; the king loved the poet's works, and the poet loved the king's wisdom. When the king was about to die, he ordered an empty tomb to be built next to his own - because he knew his poet friend would come to be buried beside him. Another beautiful story was from the hijra tradition about the Ramayana. When Rama went into exile, he told his people trying to follow him "Men and women of Ayodhaya! Go home!" When he returned 14 years later, he found the hijras still patiently waiting... because they had not been told what to do. Touched, Rama promised them they would not be invisible in his kingdom.
The book also contains an old favorite of mine, the myth of Bharigath, son of two mothers, born from the love of two queens, who grows up to be a great king who brings the river Ganges to Earth. 


The hero of the title story, Shikhandi, also comes from the Mahabharatha. Born female, he is raised as a prince. When he gets married, a yaksha loans him his genitals for the wedding night... then decides the prince can keep them. This transition is later turned into an advantage against the enemy on the great battlefield of the epic, when Bhisma, the enemy's hero refuses to fight the prince saying he is "a woman". This is how Bhisma is defeated, bringing vengeance from Shikandi who had been dishonored by him in a previous life. Genitals borrowed and princesses turned into princes is a common motif in world folklore; it appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and even in folktales such as ATU 514.
The tale of Madhata's birth began with a king drinking magic water meant for his wives, and getting pregnant from it. This motif also exists elsewhere; last time I read a similar story from Armenia. The myth of Bhangashvana was similar to the Greek story of Tiresias, centered on the question of whether men or women enjoy sex more. The answer was "women" here as well, and it was especially interesting that this question was posed to a hero on his death bed, as the most important thing he needed to answer...
I was reminded of Scottish and Irish tales by the story of Naranda, who bathed in a lake, turned into a woman, and then lived as a wife and mother until she lost her family and went back to the lake.

Where to next?
Sri Lanka!