Thursday, January 2, 2020

Queen Anait (Feminist Folktales 1.)

Today I start a new blog series: Feminist Folktales! It will be a collection 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 will find the list of posts here.

I wanted to kick off this series with a story that has been part of my repertoire for a long time, and is one of the first tales that come to my mind when I hear "feminist folktale."
Here we go.

Queen Anait

Origin: Armenia

The story


Illustration from
The Weave of Words
A prince named Vachagan goes hunting with his most loyal servant and his favorite dog. At noon, parched and exhausted, they stop at a spring by a village, and the prince asks for water from a local girl. When she hands him her jar, another girl, Anait, grabs it and pours out the water six times in a row before she lets the prince have a drink. When questioned by the annoyed Vachagan, she tells him that drinking ice cold water would have hurt his overheated body. The prince takes a liking to the clever girl, and once he returns home he announces that he wants her for his wife.
However, when the messengers arrive with the royal proposal, Anait refuses, telling them she will only marry a man who has a real trade. Vachagan decides to learn brocade weaving. After one year of hard work, he sends his own brocade to Anait with a new proposal, and this time she happily accepts.
In time, Vachagan and Anait become king and queen. The king decides to go traveling in plain clothes to see how things are going in the realm, and leaves Anait behind as regent. However, he is kidnapped by evil priests, and they only let him live because he knows a trade. They lock him in a dungeon and force him to weave. Vachagan weaves a piece of gold brocade, with a secret message only the queen can read. When the bandits try to sell her the cloth, she reads the message, calls her men to arms, and leads the way to breaking her husband and all the prisoners out of the dungeon. When they are freed, Vachagan notes that she'd saved him a long time ago, on the day she insisted he should have a trade.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

Queen Anait is an amazing female folktale character. She is clever, wise, and brave (and also beautiful, but this is not highlighted in the tale, even at first sight the prince is more impressed by her intelligence). Next to having a great deal of common sense, we also find out she is quite the adept weaver herself, and is teaching all the people in the village how to read and write. She does it so well that they all consider her their master tutor, and cover the rocks, trees, and walls with writing. She builds a community based on education and shared labor. Even her father respects her independence, and allows her to make her own decisions about marriage.
All through the course of the tale, Anait stands up for herself and for her decisions. First off, she doesn't let the prince hurt himself by drinking, even if he things she is crazy or mean for doing it. It is more important to her to do the right thing than what she appears like while doing it. In today's world where women are still judged for how well the behave (see "polite feminists" vs "angry feminists"), Anait is an excellent role model for not caring how 'feminine' one appears while getting important things done. Secondly, she declines a royal marriage proposal because she wants to stick to her principle of choosing a partner who has a trade of his own, and does not rely on wealth and rank. This is a serious privilege check for the prince - Anait questions what he would do if he did not inherit the crown. Third, when it comes to saving her husband and her people, she is the first one to take up arms and ride to the rescue, and no one questions her leadership.
While Anait is wise and determined, she is in no was cold or hard. She loves her husband, cares for him and others, and when he disappears, she is seriously worried, plagued by nightmares and anxiety. She keeps the realm in hand, but she is just as human as anyone else, nervous when her loved ones are in danger.

This folktale would not be nearly this awesome, however, if Anait had a husband who was not worthy of her. But he is. It is a lovely moment in the story when Vachagan sends her his golden brocade, and she sends one of her carpets in return. This shows them as equal partners, who make equal, independent, mutual decisions about whom they choose to share their life with. Vachagan is also a likable male character: he likes smart women (yay), and when Anait turns his proposal down, and checks his privilege, he does not get angry or frustrated. Instead, he gets right to work and is willing to learn new things, putting in a whole year to become worthy of her. He does not seek loopholes or shortcuts. Later on, he always listens to Anait, taking her advice in important matters, and when he gets into trouble, she is the first one he reaches out to, as someone who can understand his secret message as his closest confidante. They have a relationship based on mutual respect, open communication, and appreciation. Vachagan doesn't only do things because "she told him to" or "to make her happy" (or, in real life examples, "to make her stop nagging") - instead, he takes the time and the effort to understand - and appreciate - the reasons behind her words. Big, BIG difference, people.

Things to consider

I read a lot of versions of this story, but most of them were for Soviet folktale collections, so I am not entirely sure the "evil, greedy priests" were not common bandits originally...

Sources

One of the first known retellings of this tale came from Ghazaros Aghayan 19. century Armenian writer.

Kathleen Ragan: Fearless girls, wise women, and beloved sisters (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.)
Avril Pyman: The Golden Fleece: Tales from the Caucasus (Progress Publishers, 1971.)
Gerard Shelley: Folk tales of the peoples of the Soviet Union (Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1945.)
Iakov Samsonovich Khatchatrianz: Armenian Folk Tales (Colonial House, 1946.)
David Kerdian: The golden bracelet (Holiday House, 1998.)
Robert D. San Souci: The weave words (Orchard Books, 1995.)
Lucretia Samson: Wise Anait and the woven words (Clean Slate Press, 2017.)
Irina Zheleznova: A mountain of gems: Fairy tales of the peoples of the Soviet land (Raduga Publishers, 1975.)
Susie Hoogasian Villa: 100 Armenian tales and their folkloristic relevance (Wayne State University Press, 1966.)
https://www.storiestogrowby.org/story/queen-anait/
There is a recent animated movie based on this story, you can watch it on YouTube. Anait was also featured in the Rejected Princesses series, you can find the page here.

Notes

This story belongs to the tale type ATU 888A* (The basket-weaver). You can read an arab version here. There are also many other versions, among them Russian, Jewish, Irish, and Moroccan.
Before Christianity, Anahit was an Armenian goddess, the Golden Mother, sometimes compared to the Greek Artemis.

6 comments:

  1. Love this story and will value it more with your commentary.

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  2. This is a wonderful story and the interpetation is so insightful

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  3. Wonderful and very interesting interpretation. The story can be used in different contexts.
    Thanks for the share.

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  4. I have always loved this story and really appreciate your comments and sourcing. I am excited for more!

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  5. Thank you for this story and your inciteful interpretation.

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  6. Thank you, enjoyed reading your comments. Great research on sources. Looking forward to more.

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