Saturday, May 30, 2020

Girl in the chair: Grief over a bowl of rice

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

CW: Grief for a child

"I'm looking for a story..."

I was teaching a workshop today on research for storytellers, and one of the participants brought in a question about a specific story:

"There is a story about a young woman who loses her child, and a wise man / spirit (?) tells her if she collects a bowl of rice from people who have never experienced loss, she can have the child back... of course she can't."

She asked me if I could find this story. I thought this was going to be easy to answer; I have encountered this tale type before. If only I remembered where...

Step One: Google Books

When in doubt, I usually search in Google Books first. I focused in on the bowl of rice aspect of the story (it was a mistake, see later), and tried search terms such as "bowl of rice" + "grief", "bowl of rice" + "mourning", "gather rice" + "grieving", etc. Random folktales did pop up, but they usually had something to do with rice and nothing to do with grieving. I even tried adding "Buddha", as I vaguely remembered this as a Buddhist story, but no luck.

Step Two: More Google Books

A small change in search terms yielded the first results: I put "grain of rice" instead of "bowl of rice." This brought up versions of the parable, but none of them came with a source. I found simplified texts posted online, such as this one, this one, and this one.

Step Three: Untouched by grief

At this point I was kind of annoyed, so I did a "long shot" search - these are searches were I use terms that are very specific, and it is kind of unlikely that they will yield a result, but screw it, I'm gonna try it anyway. So I typed in "untouched by grief" + "folktales" in quotation marks as a search term for Google Books.
Lo and behold, The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales came up. (Maybe I had the term floating around my brain somewhere, because I reviewed this book for a journal last year, and I highly recommend it to storytellers.) This one has a story actually titled "Untouched by Grief", in which King Darius loses his beloved wife, and Demokritos tells him he can have her back if he writes three names on her tomb: the names of three people in his kingdom never touched by grief. The great king fails, and learns a lesson about loss.

Step Four: Folktale type number

Luckily, the Book of Greek and Roman Folktales comes with a folktale type index, where this story was marked as ATU 844 - The Luck-bringing shirt. I know that story: a king is told he can be happy if he wears the shirt of a happy man, and soon finds out that in his kingdom no one is happy, except for a man so poor he has no shirt. (I'd argue with this message, put let's put that aside).
So, off to the ATU Catalog I go. I get a summary of the lucky shirt, but no mention of grieving mothers or grains of rice anywhere. Technically the same basic idea, but not the same story.

Step Five: Storyseeds

Usually around this point in the research process I take a shot at finding a key motif in the story in the Motif Index. So, I go to storyseeds, where I type in "rice" and "grief", but don't find a motif specifically for this story.
Back to search terms, then.

Step Six: Loss

It occurs to me that maybe the bowl of rice is not the key motif in this story at all. On the whole, this is a parable about grief and loss.
So, I focus on the mother this time, and try search terms such as "lost her son", "lost her child", "son died" + the usual "grain of rice" since it seems to yield better results than "bowl of rice." I get some more hits like the ones above, of short version of this story, but still no direct sources. Still, I'm getting closer.

Step Seven: Search phrase

I shift my search at this point. I still cycle through terms of losing a child, but instead of the rice motif, I try a phrase that would occur in a story like this: "from a house". Because the mother has to collect rice from a house where no one has experienced loss.
BINGO. This combination, finally, comes up in a book titled First Buddhist Women. And here the young mother has a name! Her name is Kisagotami. And she has to find a mustard seed.

Step Eight: Kisagotami

I type the name into Google, and turns out she has her own Wikipedia page (as Kisa Gotami), as a part of a series of articles on Buddhism. It is a pretty good starting point for further research: it has a bibliography, footnotes, and external links to go on.

Extra steps

Just to make sure, I also type "mustard" into Storyseeds to see if I find a motif number, but no luck. I do type "mustard seed" + "grief" + "folktales" into Google Books again, and this time I finally remember why the heck this tale was so familiar to me: I read it only a couple of weeks ago for my post on folktales from Bahrain. Duh.

Step Nine: Tale type revised

This book, by the way, marks the tale as 844A - House untouched by grief, but there is no such tale type listed in the ATU. I get curious, and think maybe it was in the older tale type catalog before the Uther revision, so I put "AT 844A" into Google Books (newer numbers are ATU, old numbers are AT, and sometimes they differ).
I get a hit from El-Shamy's invaluable Types of the Folktale in the Arab World. It is the same story as the one from Bahrain (the source of that one was from El-Shamy's own collection), except this catalog actually lists motif numbers!
[I later discover the Bahrain collection also listed motif numbers, but I got too excited and didn't read the whole paragraph. Pay attention, people!]
BOOM! The key motif here is H1394 - Quest for person who has not known sorrow.

I should have typed "sorrow" into Storyseeds.

Step Ten: This is just the beginning

So now we have a tale type number (AT 844a), a motif number (H1394), and the name of the most well-known version of the story (Kisa Gotami). One can now proceed in a couple of ways:
Follow up on the Wikipedia article (through the sources listed)
Follow up on the type number (through more Google searches)
Follow up on the motif number


Like, a lot. Don't give up.
Don't make assumptions about what the story's key motif is.
Type various words into Storyseeds to search for motifs.
Check footnotes and end notes. (And read the notes all the way through!)
Sometimes, a long shot is worth trying.

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