Monday, March 30, 2020

Afar folktales of foxes and hyenas (Following folktales around the world 149. - Djibouti)

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!

Image from here
Sadly I could not find a folktale book from Djibouti, not even an online collection of tales. I decided to read Afar folktales instead, since the Afar people live both in Ethiopia and in Djibouti.

I found fourteen Afar folktales this website. They were collected in the 1990s from the oral tradition in the region of Ethiopia that borders Eritrea.


In the story of the four brothers and the hyena four young men were attacked by hyenas in the woods. Each one of them puts his faith in someone else: one in God, one in his clan, one in Mother Earth, and one in the kindness of the hyenas. Naturally, the fourth brother gets devoured. Similarly sad was the story about the hyena and the donkey, where the donkey admired the hyena and wanted to be his friend, while the hyena only wanted to eat him.
I really liked the story about the clever girl who married an equally clever crown prince after several rounds of riddles and flirting. Even when her husband was later killed by bandits, he still managed to send her a coded message to help her take revenge for his murder.


There was a classic trickster story where three travelers decided to give their food to the one who had the best dream (and while two of them slept the third ate the food). There was also a man that exchanged useless things to increasingly more valuable ones, but in the end he got too clever, and destroyed his entire family. Oops.
The trickster in residence was the fox; when the lion stole a calf and claimed it was birthed by his bill, the fox was the one who revealed the lie. He also defeated hyena in a similar debate. In other cases his cleverness helped him escape predators, such as the lion, when he had to pick between his food and his life...

Where to next?

Saturday, March 28, 2020

StorySpotting: The farmer and the viper (Cloak & Dagger)

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!

Where was the story spotted?

Cloak & Dagger, season 2, episode 5 (Alignment Chart)

What happens?

Leading up to a betrayal twist at the end of the episode, Tandy (Dagger) tells the story of a farmer who saves the viper's life, only to be bitten to death by the same viper later on. She narrates the tale throughout the episode, and in the end, she also talks about the different meanings this tale can have. Tandy reveals that she is telling this story not to talk about ungrateful people, but to highlight the kindness of the farmer who gives the dangerous animal a chance. She compares the good farmer to her best friend, Tyrone (Cloak).

What's the story?

This story is a very commonly known folktale type, numbered ATU 155 - The Ungrateful Snake Returned to Captivity. The title is a bit misleading, since in many versions, like the one used in Cloak & Dagger, the snake is not returned to captivity at all. Rather, the farmer finds the poor half-frozen serpent, warms it up on his chest under his clothes, and is bitten to death for his troubles.

The most popular version of the tale comes from Aesop's fables. It comes with various morals: "The wicked show no thanks," "Kindness will not bind the ungrateful," "Beware how you entertain traitors," or "No pity for a scoundrel." In some versions the farmer kills the snake just in time to protect himself and his family. Either way, the story carries a deep sense of hurt and betrayal.

In many other versions of the same tale type, the farmer/benefactor receives help. Most often, some wise man or animal comes along, and insists on making judgment after they have seen the original situation. The snake returns to the trap it had been in, and the judge advises the poor man to leave it right there, and not help it a second time.

This story is so commonly known in European folklore that it even became a proverb: "to nourish a serpent on your bosom" means to waste kindness on someone who is ungrateful.


It is an interesting twist for this show to use the story as an example of kindness (while also using it as a metaphor for betrayal). It is a nice contrast to the one billion movies and TV shows that love to use "The Scorpion and the Frog" (a tale so often mentioned I decided never to do StorySpotting for it) to prove that "some people are just born bad." In this one, Tandy decides to highlight how the kind the farmer was to pick the snake up in the first place, and the outcome doesn't change that.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

How the women saved Guam (Feminist Folktales 13.)

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: Guam (Micronesia)

The story

Image from here
The people of Guam anger the spirits of nature, and one day they wake up to an earthquake: a giant fish is eating the island. They manage to spot the giant palakse (parrot fish), but they can't capture it. The men hold a council but keep the women out, and when they go up against the fish they tell the women to stay behind, because fishing and hunting is a man's job.
Meanwhile, the women have their own council, and come up with a plan. They all cut their hair and use it to weave a large, strong net. A girl notices orange peel floating in the bay, and knows women on the other side of the island use orange peel to wash their hair; this is how they figure out there must be a tunnel under the island. They cast the net at the exit of the tunnel, catch the fish, and manage to pull it ashore with the help of the men and children. The island is saved.

What makes it a feminist story?

This is one of those rare traditional stories where women act as a community. While men try to push them aside in a time of crisis - not letting them into the council, not letting them go fishing - they come together and thing of alternative solutions, since it is obvious that the direct approach is yielding no result. The women's council listens to everyone (in various versions little girls and old women all get a turn to speak), and they pool their knowledge to come up with a solution. Someone discovers the orange peel (observation); someone knows where it's from (knowledge); someone realizes the meaning of their presence (logic); someone suggests possible next steps (strategy); someone suggests tools to use (practicality); and in the end, they all contribute their hair, work together, and catch the fish. (Added bonus that they sacrifice their hear, a symbol of feminine beauty - highlighting that the survival of the community is more important that beauty standards.)
The women of Guam are a symbol of good teamwork and supportive community. At the end of the story, the men join them in pulling the net, admitting that they had made a mistake when they kept the women out of trying to solve the problem. The island is saved, the community comes together.

Image from here

Things to consider

When I tell this story, some things usually need explaining (e.g. the shape of the island of Guam, or what a palakse is). This story only really comes alive in its cultural context.


Eve Grey: Legends of Micronesia (Department of Education, 1951.)
Bo Flood, William Flood, Beret E. Strong: Micronesian Legends (Bess Press, 2002.)
Bo Flood, William Flood, Beret E. Strong: Pacific Island Legends (Bess Press, 1999.)
Evelyn Flores, Emelihter Kihleng: Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia (University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)
Lawrence J. Cunningham, Janice J. Beaty: A history of Guam (Bess Press, 2001.)


It's a great story about the relationship between humans and nature. I had it on my folktales and climate change list.

Monday, March 23, 2020

More folktales for a time of quarantine

Since a lot of people found my previous post useful, I have collected some more tales that might be a good fit for storytelling these days.
As usual, stay safe, stay connected!

Fire on the mountain (Ethiopia)
A folktale type known in various countries from Bosnia to the Comoros Islands. A slave wants to win his freedom by making a bet with his master: he will survive one night alone, cold and naked on top of a mountain. A friend helps him by kindling a fire on the neighboring mountain top, so that the distant light signals there is someone out there thinking of him and cheering him on. The slave survives the night and wins the bet - but when the master finds out about the fire, he claims he cheated. A wise man comes to the rescue, proving to the master that a distant fire cannot warm anyone's body (but it does warm their soul).
Let's keep our fires burning for each other!

The noisy house (Jewish folktale)
I wrote a blog post about this one in StorySpotting recently, you can find the sources there.
A well-known folktale in which a man is annoyed by all the noise going on in his tiny house. He turns to a wise rabbi for advice, and the rabbi tells him to bring the animals inside - gradually, he has the goat, the cow, the chickens, etc. in his living room, and things get exponentially worse. Eventually the rabbi tells him to take the animals outside again - and lo and behold, the house seems blessedly peaceful.

The mermaid of Gob Ny Ooyl (Isle of Man)
A fisherman makes friends with a mermaid, who fills his nets with fish in exchange for "land eggs" (apples). Their friendship continues until the young man decides to go on a journey and see the world. Before he leaves, he plants apple trees along a stream, so that the apples can float down to the sea for the mermaid, even when he is not there.
Let's keep our apples floating along to each other, even from a distance!

Watermelon Island (Vietnam)
After a storm a boy is found on the seashore, and adopted by a king. When he grows up he marries one of the king's daughters, and lives happily - until jealous people tell the king the young man is not grateful for his gifts. The king exiles him, his wife, and two servants to a deserted island to see how they survive on their own. The four people settle in really well for the long haul; they make a new home, discover watermelons, and build a wealthy community on the island over time.

Filling the house (Various)
A man gives a challenge to his three children: fill an entire house (or barn) with one coin's worth of something. The two eldest try filling it with straw, feathers, sand, etc. The youngest lights a candle, and fills the house with light. In other stories, s/he buys a flute and fills the house with music, and/or laughter.
It does not require much money to fill the house with joy.

The skull (Tyrol)
An orphan girl is chased away from home by her aunt, and wanders in the forest until she finds an enchanted castle. The castle's only inhabitant is a female skull. The girl befriends the skull, and they get along well. However, there is a headless skeleton that keeps trying to steal the skull; the girl keeps her safe by hugging her to her chest and holding on all night. With her perseverance and kindness she breaks the curse on the skull lady, and inherits the castle.

Sister of the Birds (Roma tale)
I can't quite tell if this is a folktale or not (I found it in the Introduction of a folktale collection), but it's a lovely story. It's about a girl who can talk to birds, and call on them with the colors of her clothes. When she is kidnapped an held captive by a witch, the birds all get together, contribute their feathers, and slowly she builds herself wings from the feathers in the tower, until one day she can fly away.
Let's keep collecting feathers for the next time we can fly!

The cooper and the dragons (Switzerland)
A nice local legend about a man who gets lost in the mountains in the fall, and ends up hibernating in a cave with two friendly dragons. In the spring the dragons go flying, and he makes his way home.
(In the original legend he dies shortly after, because he got used to dragon food. I don't usually tell it that way, though.)

Why Bear sleeps in the winter (African-American folktale)
Bear is causing a lot of trouble to the smaller animals, so one day, when they find him sleeping inside a hollow log, they decide to trap him inside. The trick succeeds so well that Bear likes his cozy new shelter, and spends the entire winter snoozing. In fact, he has been doing so ever since.

The son of Gobhaun Saor shortens the road (Ireland)
A young man figures out that the best way to shorten a long journey is through storytelling, because stories make the time fly.
Keep the stories going! :)

Old knowledge of ancient things (Following folktales around the world 148. - Eritrea)

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!

Publications of the Princeton Expedition to Abyssinia 
Enno Littmann
E. J. Brill, 1910.

This book contains the English translation of 125 folk texts collected from the Tigré people of Eritrea at the beginning of the last century. The (German) collector did not have a very high opinion of the indigenous storytelling traditions; he did things like translate "jackal" as "fox" because he firmly believed all tricksters have to be foxes.
Despite the translator's attitude, the book is a very interesting, well rounded read. It contains hero legends, animal tales, beliefs, religious stories, and fabled explanations of proverbs. Next to the about 80 narratives it also has chapters on religion, astronomical calculations, customs, traditions, naming, and even the various colors of cows.


There were some fun riddle tales in the book that make you think hard, such as the classic "rowing a wolf, a goat, and a leaf across the river" conundrum, or other mathematical stories about dividing camels.
I loved the tradition that claimed that fallen stars lose their light and turn into little fuzzy grey creatures. If someone keeps such a creature in his purse, as long as it is healthy and alive, the purse will never run empty. I also liked the legends about the small creature named debbi that can scare even the largest predators; in one story a man collected a debbi hair, and didn't understand why everyon who saw him ran away screaming. 
One of the animal stories claimed that all camels used to belong to a bird, but people stole them. The bird knew the cures to all the camels' illnesses, but the raven kept her from divulging them to the humans, because he wanted more dead camels to feast on. (Moral of the story: "don't listen to the advice of ravens."). According to another story the qerqer (honeyguide) bird shows people where the bee hives are because once upon a time the bees stung her child to death.
As an archaeologist I appreciated the story about the giant race called Rom. According to legend God asked them if they want to go extinct by a blessing or a curse. They chose blessing, and from that day on they only had male children. Eventually they all build their own stone funeral huts, locked themselves in, and perished.


There was once again a bystander folktale; here the white kite was saved from the wily fox (jackal) by the advice of a raven. The man who understood the language of animals here divorced his wife instead of beating her; this is the first version I have seen that saved both of them, from death and beating respectively (and resulted in the world's first divorce).
The resident trickster (as I have mentioned above) was Jackal, but there was also a character named Beiho who sounded human, but "belonged to the jackal family." Abunawas also made an appearance; he tricked a merchant into thinking he could draw goats from a well, and he served justice in the classic story of the fire on the mountain.

Where to next?

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Bahram Gur and Fitna (Feminist Folktales 12.)

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: Iran

The story

The king Barham Gur loves to hunt, and loves even more to show off his hunting skills. One concubine forced watch and applaud him gives him an impossible challenge: to pin an antelope's back hoof to its horn with one arrow. The king wins the challenge, but the lady, named Fitna, only shrugs: "Practice makes perfect." The lack of praise angers the king, and he exiles her into the mountains to die.
Fitna finds a new home in a tower, and the first thing she does is buying a calf from a nearby village. After that, ever day she carries the calf up the stairs of the tower on her shoulders. As the calf grows, so Fitna grows stronger, until she can easily carry a fully grown ox up the stairs. Four years later the king shows up, and is amazed by the sight of a lady carrying an ox. Fitna just smiles at him, and makes her point: "Practice makes perfect." Bahram Gur admits she was right.

What makes it a feminist story?

Well, if we are talking strong female characters, here is one who is literally, amazingly strong - as an audience member once told me after this story, "that lady musta been ripped!" Fitna manages to prove that physical strength and stamina can be built up over time with patience and perseverance. This might seem like an obvious thing, especially because other famous characters in legend have also done the calf thing (Milo of Croton, the famous Greek Olympic wrestler, was one of them). However, the fact that this feat is done by a woman - a concubine, singer, handmaid, or queen, depending on the text - is extra important. Even today, there are many debates concerning women doing jobs that require high physical strength (military, law enforcement, firefighters, etc.), and one of the arguments that keeps coming up is "how is she going to carry someone who injured?" The question is flawed from the start: it should be "who can carry the weight required to do this job?" regardless of gender whatsoever. 
Fitna's name means "rebel." She stands up to the king. Instead of politely applauding his bragging, she takes him to task about the meaningless slaughter of his hunting trips. In some versions she specifically comes up with the impossible shooting challenge to make him stop killing animals left and right. She is not impressed by a show of strength, but rather looks at the values behind it. And she speaks up when she dislikes them. She is not supporting the king's (her master's, ruler's, husband's, etc.) ego by pretending that he has done some amazing thing. Women are often expected by society to be the main supporters of the male ego: admire them, praise them, applaud them for helping with chores, depend on them, serve them, or even be shorter so they can literally look up to them. Fitna rebels against this notion. "Practice makes perfect" is an obvious claim, and yet the king's fragile ego takes it as a threat, and he reacts the only way he knows how: with violence. But, by the end of the story, Fitna presents undeniable proof that her claim had been right, and shows a spectacular feat of strength - and Bahram Gur, in his wisdom, admits that she had been right, and he had been wrong. This is a very important message.

Things to consider

Or not. In the older versions of the tale (such as the Shahnameh) the king orders the lady, here called Azada, to be trampled to death by a camel for her impertinence.  Obviously I don't like this version as much as Nizami's tale about Fitna.


Nizami Ganjavi: Haft Paykar (c. 1197)
Sir John Malcolm: The History of Persia (John Murray, 1815.)
W. S. W. Vaux: Nineveh and Persepolis (Arthur Hall, Virtue & Co., 1855.)
H. Beveridge: Nizami’s Haft Paykar (The Asiatic Quarterly Review, I/1-2, 1913.)


I wonder if Milo of Croton had this great idea first (metaphorically) and then it spread to the Middle East, or if it was the other way around...

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Folktales for a time of quarantine

Almost a year ago I collected folktales about climate change. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about folktales for dark times. It was a popular post, and seemingly much needed. Well, a lot happened since then, and times got darker in a very specific way. I am currently working from home in self-isolation. So, here is another selection of stories that all have something to do with isolation, cocooning, and weathering the storm. Even if we can't physically be together, we have the means to send messages across the distance.
To send stories.

Stay safe, stay connected!

The Ollisdale Fox (Scotland)
An old widow lives all one; a friendly neighbor brings her provisions regularly. However, one winter such a storm sweeps in that he can't get through to the glen where she lives; after weeks he is sure she's perished. However, when he finally makes his way to the cottage, completely buried in snow, he finds the old lady safe and snug inside. She says a fox has been bringing her supplies. She has been on good terms with the fairies for a long time - maybe the fox was one of them too?

The Elder Tree Witch (England)
An elder tree, who is a witch in disguise, keeps sneaking closer and closer to a farmer's house, causing great panic. While the family tries to keep it outside by locking doors and windows, and the brave and calm grandmother figures out a way to get rid of the witch for good.

The Little Date Tree (Italy)
A merchant leaves his three daughters locked inside the house while he goes on a journey; however, being locked inside does not keep the youngest daughter, Ninetta, from going on her own adventure, down the well and into an enchanted garden. (Isn't that just what stories do?)

The Black Dog of the Wild Forest (Irish Traveller)
A boy named Prince John is destined to be devoured by the Black Dog of the Wild Forest before he turns twenty-one - it is literally written in his future. However, once he sets out to seek his fortune, he finds helpers along the way: three dogs who keep watch while he sleeps, and keep the Black Dog at bay. The Black Dog eventually manages to wound Prince John, but his loyal friends save his life, and he saves theirs in return.

The Ant People (Hopi)
In this indigenous myth, while the world is re-created people wait in the underground realm of the Ant People. The ants are kind and hospitable to the humans, and in order to ration their food and help everyone, they tighten their belts and eat less. This is why they still have thin waists today, as a reminder of their selflessness. (Read another text here.)

The Horned Women (Ireland)
A woman's home is taken over by horned witches at night, but a disembodied voice helps her break their spell and get rid of them, protecting her sleeping family, and keeping all other evil out of the house.

Father of Sickness (Nganasan)
A man accidentally stumbles through a portal into another world, where, he discovers, he is invisible, and his touch hurts people. Following along, feeling sorry for a girl he hurt, he finds out that he is actually a sickness spirit. A clever young shaman finds a way to talk to him and send him home to his world.

The story of Anniko (Senegal)
After she alone survives an epidemic, Anniko sets out to find a new home - and she finds it in the village of strange, long-necked people. They take her in, and she teaches them to sing. When she later gets lost in the woods, the entire village sings to her to help find her way back home again.

The legend of the almond trees (Portugal)
A girl from far North ends up in the warm kingdom of Al-Garb, and marries a Moorish prince. They love each other, but the queen is never quite happy, because she misses the cold white winters of her homeland. Her husbands figures out a way to bring snowfall to her - by planting white-blossomed almond trees all around the castle. (I'm including this story here for all the things people long for while in isolation - and the people who help others in creative ways!)

Rama Puran Tsan and the Nine Witches (Nepal)
Rama Puran Tsan is a kind-hearted boy with nine evil witch sisters who bring illness. To keep him from interfering with them, the witches cast him into the Underworld. The boy spends his time down below honing his skills, preparing for the fight against the witches, and gathering helpers in the form of animal spirits. When he returns, he becomes a powerful shaman who defeats the sickness-witches with the help of his spirit friends.

The boy who was carried into the World Below (Greece)
A young and clever man, in love with a bookworm princess, is cast into the World Below by an evil sorcerer, and can't find his way out. Eventually he meets three magicians, who give him a magic powder and tell him to take it every day for three long years. At the end of three years he finds his way back to our world, and sets everything right. (This also doubles as a "take your meds" tale.)

The princess of seven jasmines (India)
Because the King of Snakes has a headache, the entire world is overrun by snakes. A prince sets out to find the cure: jasmines from a princess' rare laughter. His quest is long and hard, but in the end, laughter sets the balance of the world right.

The Black Kitty (USA)
I'm repeating this one from the previous post because it's one of my favorite tales ever. The hero, locked in a castle, has to hold on to a cursed kitten, pet her, and tell her everything is going to be alright, until the terrors go away and dawn comes, three times in a row.

Note: I'm in a lucky position to have a salaried job. A lot of storytellers and other freelance performers are losing serious income with the cancellation of public events. Please do what you can to help them: support them on Patreon, buy their books, pay them for storytelling online. 
Keep the stories going!

Monday, March 16, 2020

A to Z 2020 Theme Reveal!

Today is the day! The day when all the bloggers participating in the A to Z Challenge reveal their planned themes for this year. I have been participating in A to Z since 2012, and I have been doing themes since 2013. They are always "Mythology and Folklore" related (duh). In the past years, my themes have been:

Weird Princesses (2013)
Tales with Colors (2014)
Epics A to Z (2015)
Diversity A to Z (2016)
WTF - Weird Things in Folktales (2017)
WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales (2018)
Fruit Folktales (2019)

This year, once again, I am doing a folktale-related theme. Drumroll, please! The theme for the 2020 A to Z Challenge on this blog is


I am going to dive deep into researching the traditional lore of some of the planet's most critically endangered animal species. All animal species are precious and unique and fascinating, but human activity has brought many of them to the brink of extinction. In order to raise awareness of this, and of the role these creatures play in our collective human imagination, I am going to present you some rare folktales about rare animals.

I am going to be mostly looking at the IUCN list of critically endangered species, but for the letters I can't fill I'll be selecting some species that are "just" endangered. I am also hoping to provide some information on how we all can contribute to preserving them and their habitats.

Some things I will observe:
- I want the stories to be from the same places as the animal species
- I want to make sure the stories actually refer to the right species (as far as it can be ascertained)
- I want the stories to portray the animal in a positive light
- I want to note the actual sources of each story

See you all in April! :)

Javan slow loris

Philippine pangolin

Kindness and wisdom (Following folktales around the world 147. - Ethiopia)

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!

The ​rich man and the singer
Folktales from Ethiopia
Mesfin Habte-Mariam
Dutton, 1971.

The book contains thirty folktales, apart from a few all of them are of Amhara origin. Most of them were written down by the author from memory, from the tales of his mother from childhood. The introduction offers a brief glimpse into the history and cultures of Ethiopia.


I liked the story of The man and the snake, where a rich man fell on hard times, and learned, being helped by a rat, a monkey, and a snake, than the animals had way more kindness and empathy than his human friends (despite their negative opinions about the snake).
Another tale about kindness was the one where a father offered a reward to one of his three sons, the one that did the greatest act of kindness. One returned money he was entrusted with (that was honesty), one saved a drowning child (that was bravery), and the last saved his drunk enemy from rolling off a cliff. The last one won the reward.
I was amused by the story where three wise men revived a dead lion to prove their wisdom, despite the warnings of a bystander. They were, obviously, eaten. Very Jurassic Park.
The classic Ethiopian tale of The lion's hair had a variant in this book too. A woman learned how to slowly gain her husband's trust the same way she slowly tamed a lion.


There was a familiar tale about a husband who wanted to do household chores (and realized they were a lot harder than they looked). (Sadly, this story was counteracted by another one that claimed that women are too gossipy to hold responsible positions.)
There was the classic wisdom tale of a father showing his sons they are stronger together using a bundle of sticks. The king's riddles were answered by a clever man rather than a clever maid this time. The ungrateful animal rescued from a trap was leopard, who was lured back into the trap by a clever baboon.
A girl was rescued by three men from a crocodile: a musician played music to distract the beast, the hunter shot it, and the swimmer pulled the girl out of the water. The tale ended in a dilemma: who should marry her?
The resident trickster was baboon, who outwitted lion and hyena, and also a man named Aleka Gebrehanna, whose witty stories reminded me of Nasredding Hodja.

Where to next?

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Dwarf (Feminist Folktales 11.)

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: Spain

The story

Traditional costume
from Asturias
A girl accidentally runs away with a stranger instead of her lover. Since she doesn't want to return home, she sets out wandering, and finds a new home with a childless couple in a small shepherd village. She lives happily with her new family.
However, tragedy strikes the king of their land: his only daughter becomes sick, and whoever watches over her at night dies by the morning. The king starts drawing names to designate people to watch every night, hoping one will survive and solve the mystery. When her foster-mother's name is called, the girl volunteers (insists) to go in her place.
At night she pretends to be asleep in the princess' bedroom, and witnesses a horrible scene: a Dwarf sneaks into the room, and strikes a pin into the princess' ear. She starts screaming, thinking she is being consumed by fire. When the Dwarf takes a break in her torture, she begs him to let the girl live. The Dwarf decides the girl is indeed pretty, and promises to let her live until morning. The he continues the torture. Eventually he leaves through a secret door, and the girl follows, finding his secret chamber. There she observes as he writes spells on pieces of paper; every time he throws a paper into a large cauldron, she can hear the princess scream. Eventually the Dwarf goes to sleep; the girl takes the chance to pour the contents of the cauldron over him, and he burns to ash.
The next morning the king is surprised and delighted to see both girls alive and healthy. He announces the name of the heroine in his kingdom. Eventually the news reach the poor guy who has been looking for his lover. They are reunited, and get happily married.

What makes it a feminist story?

Once again, we have a brave girl who knows what she wants. She doesn't just feel sorry for herself; rather, she makes a decision to elope with her lover, get married, and start a new life elsewhere. Sadly, it turns out she ran away with the wrong guy (it happens...). Let's also give a shout out to this stranger, who, while he doesn't question his luck when a girl drops into his lap, stops his horse at the first "no!" and lets her go her way.
I also like seeing adoptive families that work, instead of just being a temporary stop before the hero returns to the "real" family. The girl and her adoptive parents have a loving, caring relationship, and she is willing to sacrifice herself to save her mother's life.
It is interesting to note that in this story the heroine is not helped by a magic item or helper - she conquers the task by sheer force of will. This is accompanied by her bravery, which lets her act when she has the chance to destroy the villain.
I especially love this story because a girl saves a girl in it. Traditional stories with this motif are extremely rare, especially the kind where the two women are about the same age (as I assume they are here).

Things to consider

It would be worth it to look deeper into the folklore of Asturias to find out more about Dwarfs. To some audiences "Dwarf" might be a sensitive term; in those cases, another villain, eg. a demon could be substituted.


José María Guelbenzu: Cuentos populares españoles (Siruela, 2011.) Aurelio de Llano Roza de Ampudia: Cuentos asturianos: recogidos de la tradición oral (Impr. de R. Caro Raggio, 1925.)


Volunteering as tribute will no doubt remind some audiences of the Hunger Games. You can play this up or down as needed.

Monday, March 9, 2020

How and why stories (Following folktales around the world 146. - South Sudan)

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!

Nuer ​folktales, proverbs and riddles
Christian Carlassare
Paulines Publications Africa, 2016.

The book contains fifty-one Nuer folktales, as well as many proverbs, riddles, and tongue twisters, both in English and in the original language. Interestingly enough, this collection was published by Christiam missionaries, in order to preserve traditional storytelling. According to the new mission guidelines of the Church, missionaries have a responsibility to help preserve the traditional cultures and identities of the people they work with. The book is illustrated by simple black and white drawings, and it is a fairly quick read, since all the stories are short.


In a story about The wedding of vulture's daughter the birds got into a huge fight, which resulted in a lot of them gaining their current voice, behaviors, and appearance. In another wedding tale the constellations Scorpius and Orion were portrayed as friends - until Orion made fun of his friend's big head at his own wedding. Ever since the two constellations have been avoiding each other.
Among the trickster tales I really loved the one about Fox and the monster, where Fox found all kinds of novel ways to get out of paying his life debt to a monster - including setting up his own tattooing business.


There was once again a cool "bystander intervention" story - here it was Stork who threw her eggs down to Fox, until Pelican told her Fox could not climb trees and therefore his threats were empty against her. There was also a Monkey's heart tale (here with a crocodile) and a race between Hare and Frog (frog won).
There was a tale explaining why marabou is bald (Fox did it, in a "party in the sky" type story), and another one about why dog lives with humans (despite the warnings of Fox that they will treat him badly). I also found a more classic "Tortoise goes to the party in the sky" story, where he used the usual 'my name is Everyone' trick to get all the food.
I was surprised to see a tale type I have last encountered in Oceania, about how originally women always gave birth by C-section. In this version, a mouse eventually taught humans how to give birth properly, without killing the mother. The story of the girls and the monster was similar to one from the neighboring Sudan - they lived in a house in the bush and kept the monster at bay. One of them even defeated it in wrestling.
The trickster-in-residence was the Fox, who usually tricked Hyena or Vulture, and was at least once outwitted by Nightjar. He even made two friends fight, the way Eshu does in Yoruba folktales.

Where to next?

Sunday, March 8, 2020

International Women's Day: Folktales about women helping women

So I asked Twitter what I should blog about for International Women's Day this year (after last year's Badass Grandmas), and several people suggested "women helping women." This topic is near and dear to my heart, so here are some of my top favorites. Links in the titles!

Happy International Women's Day! 

I blogged about this one in Feminist Folktales. An abused queen is helped by a gardener woman who feels sorry for her, and they come up with a plan together to teach the king a lesson about power.

The pig (Denmark)
Also from Feminist Folktales, in this folktale type a girl rescues her sisters and various other women from a monster (occasionally also their husband, as this tale type is related to Bluebeard).

Swan Sisters (various)
This was a StorySpotting blog post I wrote about stories where women gang up on abusers. In one of them, a hunter shoots a swan maiden and drags her home as his wife, but when she is healed she turns back into an angry swan, and she and her sisters drown the dude in a pond.

In this tale a girl sets out to save her village from drought. With her singing she gains an unexpected friend: the daughter of a dragon king. The two girls together make a plan to steal the dragon king's key to open the flood gates of Wild Goose Lake. In the end, they even move in together.

Riina and her amazons (Solomon Islands)
When two women are kidnapped by spirits men try to rescue them, but they all fail. Eventually a blond woman named Riina appears with her amazon entourage, and volunteers to rescue the women. The amazons fight and kill the spirits, and free the kidnapped women, all in a good day's work.

Bujeba legends (Equatorial Guinea)
The book of Bujeba stories I read recently contained multiple stories where women helped women. In one, a man wanted to kill his child because it was a girl, but the mother spirited the baby away, and another woman raised her. In another, a girl saved her best friend from her own cannibal father. In a third, a girl was rescued from her abusive brother by an aunt.

Diirawic's brother wants to marry her, so she decides to run away into the wilderness. All the other girls in the village decide to go with her. They build a new home for themselves in the forest, they tame a lion, and Diirawic's little sister keeps watch over her when she sleeps. Eventually the girls return home as powerful women. With their own lion brother.

A girl is kidnapped by a monster, and he makes her mistress of his household. In secret, Ngomba teaches the other prisoners how to make a hot air balloon. The monster almost figures out the trick, but luckily one of the prisoner girls comes up with a clever way of saving Ngomba's life. All the prisoners escape in the hot air balloon.

A princess and a prince are set to be married, but the groom disappears before the wedding. The princess waits for him for years, but he never returns. In the same town there is a girl who everyone thinks is crazy because she wanders around the town and is curious about things. In the end, with her curiosity and wandering she helps the princess find her lost love.

The Dwarf (Spain)
A girl accidentally runs away with the wrong man. She finds a new home, however, and rescues a princess from the spell of an evil Dwarf through bravery and perseverance. Even the lost lover turns up in the end. 

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Herburt and Hild (Feminist Folktales 10.)

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: German, from an Old Norse source

The story

Count Herthegh has three sons. The youngest, Tristram, accidentally kills his middle brother in a duel, and flees from home. The father blames the eldest son, Herburt, for not keeping his siblings out of trouble, and chases him away. Herburt goes to the court of his uncle, King Thidrek (Dietrich, Theodoric the Great), and becomes a knight. He serves his uncle so valiantly than when Thidrek decides to marry King Arthur's daughter, Hild, he sends Herburt do deliver his proposal.
Herburt goes to King Arthur's court where he distinguishes himself as a knight, but can't get near the princess. By law no one can lay eyes on her. Eventually one day when she goes to church he finds a way to catch her gaze (he sets a bunch of mice free inside the church), they exchange smiles, and even a few words in secret. Hild soon asks her father to give Herburt ho her as a personal servant. Herburt now has a chance to deliver Thidrek's proposal, as he spends time with the princess every day. They talk, they get to know each other, and Hild asks a lot of questions about Thidrek (Herburt even draws his face for her). She decides she doesn't want to marry the king - she is in love with Herburt, and he with her.
The lovers decide to run away together. Arthur soon notices the escape and sends soldiers to bring back Hild and kill Herburt. The lovers decide their only chance is for Hild to not be a maiden anymore, so they jump into some bushes and do the deed. By the time the soldiers catch up, she has lost her virginity, and thus by custom belongs to Herburt. Herburt fights and kills anyone who objects, and the lovers flee to another kingdom, where they marry and live happily ever after.

What makes it a feminist story?

I picked this story for the series because it is such a beautiful counterpart to Tristan and Iseult. T&I's tragedy is started by a love potion, and the devastating ending is the result of the tension between love and honor: Tristan loves Iseult, but he owes his loyalty to his uncle King Mark of Cornwall, so he hands over the lady out of honor.
Herburt's story also features a Tristram, but he is a violent and dumb fellow. Herburt is the sensible eldest sibling who has to take the blame for everything. Leaving this toxic family environment behind, he finds honor and a new home at his uncle Thidrek's court... but he is not blindly loyal to him. When he first finds a way to talk to Hild, he delivers the proposal without an ulterior motive, praising Thidrek and painting him (literally) as a great king. He is not trying to seduce Hild, but they fall in love anyway. They have two choices from that point on: Herburt delivers the bride to Thidrek and keeps his honor at the expense of her living in an unhappy marriage forever - or they elope together, leaving both their honors sullied, and seek happiness elsewhere together.
In this story love conquers social pressure. Herburt does not sacrifice his own (and Hild's) happiness for his honor and status. In the end, they find a third solution: a third kingdom where they can be happy together, and where the king hold Herburt in "great honor" and his service results in "many stories of his deeds."
Hild makes an independent choice as well. She decides who she wants to spend her life with, and stands up for her choice; she doesn't become a martyr for her honor, or for Herburt's protection. She trusts him, and trusts that they can find happiness together; she gets on a horse and rides away with him, leaving her status and wealth as Arthur's daughter and Thidrek's bride in the dust. This is a bold, daring choice, but not an impulsive one. Herburt and Hild are not brought together by an accidental potion, or love at a distance: They know, love, and trust each other.
The end of the story takes a very practical turn. The lovers get down to business among the bushes, taking advantage of their time's general ideas of purity to tie their lives together. They know Thidrek would not marry a woman who has been 'spoiled' by one of his knights. This is an outdated, literally medieval way of looking at virginity, which serves as a genius loophole for our heroes. If someone values a woman as much as her virginity... well, tough luck.
What I love about this story (apart from the cute romance) is that it doesn't include any self-inflicted angst. Herburt and Hild step over social limits that stands between them and their happiness, and demonstrate how those limits are useless and arbitrary. "Honor" is subjective, and no royal pat on the head is worth a lifetime spend in an unhappy marriage.
(Thidrek, by the way, happily marries some other random princess in the end.)

Things to consider

Age limits, obviously. I'd totally tell this to teens, though.


The saga of Thidrek of Bern (Garland, 1988.)


I would love to tell this story parallel to Tristan and Iseult. Especially because I like to imagine that the Tristram in this story is the same as Tristan in the other one...

Monday, March 2, 2020

Nuggets of story wisdom (Following folktales around the world 145. - Kenya)

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!

East ​African Folktales 
For all ages from the voice of Mukamba
Vincent Muli Wa Kituku
August House Publishers, 2005.

The book contains eighteen short Kamba folktales in English and in the original Kikamba language. The author was born and grew up in Kenya, and then moved to the United States where he decided to write down the teaching stories of his mother's tradition in the 1990s. Each story comes with comments about the moral, but the author does note that stories can mean different things to different people. The book has black-and white illustrations, and motifs from Kenyan cloth patterns. The introduction was written by none other than David Novak, one of my favorite American storytellers.


There was a very poignant story in which Hamster's grandmother was handing out tails to the animals so that they could keep the flies away. Hamster did not bother to show up early for a tail, thinking his grandmother was going to put one aside for him anyway. However, grandma did not play favorites, and hamster was left with a small stub of a tail.
In a tale about the origin of death Raven and Chameleon competed in getting a message to the people. If Chameleon had won, people would come back to life after death - but Chameleon walks very slowly, so Raven got to us first with a more depressing message.
I also liked the small story about Hyena and the rock, in which nice king Hyena tried to start a conversation with a rock, and when all attempts failed, he peacefully walked away saying "at least you listened."


The story of the monkey's heart was familiar from many other places; here once again it was the shark who got tricked. The story of the dog who fought his own reflection for a bone was a classic teaching tale. Matema, who cut the tree under himself was familiar from Nasreddin hodja's antics, and the man who cried hyena got into trouble just like the boy who cried wolf.
The resident trickster was Hare, who scared a hungry hyena away.

Where to next?
South Sudan!