Monday, March 23, 2020

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?

No comments:

Post a Comment