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!


  1. Thank you. I have been telling Stone Soup, as the people around me are hording toilet paper.

  2. That awkward moment when you stumble into another world and become a sickness spirit...

  3. I want to read all of these stories.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing! Inspired by your list, I've set about creating some 'Stories for lockdown' podcasts that share stories like these and then spend a bit of time exploring what they might mean for us during this Coronavirus crisis.

  5. I am very interested in the Black Kitty story but cannot read the tale on the link you provided (only parts of the book are visible). Do you know of any other source?

    1. You can also find it in Western Folklore vol. 8, p. 25-52. It is free to read on JSTOR if you make yourself a login.