Monday, July 27, 2020

From the sky fell three apples (Following folktales around the world 166. - Armenia)

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!

100 ​Armenian Tales and Their Folkloristic Relevance
Susie Hoogasian-Villa
Wayne State University Press, 1966.

The book contains a total of one hundred Armenian stories, organized into chapters by genre: fairy tales, myths, legends, humorous tales, anecdotes, and "anti-feminine" tales. The author is an American researcher of Armenian descent, who collected the stories from Armenian immigrants (including her own family) living in Delray, Detroit, in the 1940s. The texts are a part of the Wayne State University archival collection that also contributed a few tales to the book from other sources. The tales were recorded in Armenian and then translated into English, keeping close to the original wording; the collector made sure the stories came from the oral tradition, and not from books the tellers might have read. The introduction gives ample information about the Armenian community of Delray, Armenian society and family structure, history, cuisine, and other cultural elements that appear in the tales. It also gives information about Armenian folklore research, and the cultures that have the most similar tales (Russian, Greek, Turkish, Georgian, Azerbaijani, Siberian, Roma, Hungarian, Italian, Persian, Basque, Israeli, Scottish, Arabian, and Polish). These parallels from other traditions are listed in detail in the notes at the end of the book, along with tale type numbers, the names of the storytellers, and interesting additional information. This book is not only an entertaining read, but also a very useful source for researchers.

Side note: Storytellers around the world love to use "three apples fell from the sky..." as a story ending formula; it is associated with Armenian tales first and foremost. Interestingly enough, the version that keeps showing up in this book says "From the sky fell three apples: One to me, one to the storyteller, and one to the person who has entertained you." Turns out, all three apples belong to the storyteller...


The best tale in the book is the very last one: Sunset Lad is about a man who complains about the sun, so Mother of the Sun curses him. He dies at sunrise every day, and comes back to life at sunset. Eventually he sets out to find Mother of the Sun and apologize. Beautiful, symbolic story.
Nourie Hadig was a lovely Snow White variant, involving a "false bride" who became friends with the heroine, and when said heroine fell into fake death, the best friend and the prince watched over her body together. In another cute love story it was the work of the genii that made a match between a young man and a young woman; when they got separated, the woman dressed as a man and accidentally married a princess, and in the end, the three of them found happiness together. Turtle Skin was a similarly cute animal bride tale, where the hero married a very pretty turtle (who eventually turned into a lady). I liked it because of how kind and gentle he was with the turtle. Also, talking about love stories: There was one about a princess locked in a tower who eventually made herself a prince out of dough. When her father was angered by the secret affair, she took her case to court, arguing that love and companionship was "nature's way," and it should not be punished.
I loved the story of The halva-maker, in which a magical dervish did not only help a poor man start a successful pastry business which led to a meet-cute with a princess, but also came to the rescue when the angry king wanted to hang the pastry maker. Due to the dervish's magic, when they tried to hang the guy he fell to pieces, and there was nothing to put the rope on... so the king gave him permission to marry.
I liked the moral of The soul-taker: three girls found a pot full of gold and ran away screaming that it would take their soul. Six robbers heard them and laughed at their folly, taking the gold for themselves... and then then promptly killed each other for it, proving the girls right. Money also paid an important role in The test, where a beggar (who was secretly rich) asked the suitor of his daughter to go and beg for money, making sure he would be willing to do so if he ever needed to support his family that way. Talking about suitors: I was happy to see a recent favorite tale type again, about a Patient suitor who went town to town, collecting the mysterious stories of strangers to win the hand of his beloved. It took him years to collect all the embedded tales.
Among supernatural creatures the strangest was the elk, a goblin that takes out people's liver, washes it, and eats it, causing illness and death. In the story of The curse, a man stopped an elk from stealing a young woman's liver, and held on to the creature as a servant. When the elk was finally set free, it promised that the worst curse it would ever put on the family would be that their wooden spoons break easily...
Among the tales of wit my favorite Happened in the bath, where a poor man accidentally took the place of the king's jester (who looked a lot like him, and dropped dead while bathing). He used a lot of very clever tricks to find out who he was supposed to be. I also enjoyed Matching wits, where two robbers (one nighttime and one daytime robber) found out they share the same wife, and started a contest to see who  deserves her more. I don't usually like these tales, but this one was funny and not crude at all. The same goes for the story of the Robbers, where a man raised his nephew to be a good criminal. The boy outwitted the king multiple times, and in the end even managed to kidnap the Russian tsar, proving his skills on an international level.
Next to wits, justice was also an important part of the stories. In one, a young shepherd-turned-treasurer came Under suspicion for stealing diamonds, and skillfully managed to prove he had been falsely accused (and that the court officials are corrupt). In The servant at the monastery, a man with magic powers turned an annoying rich youth into a donkey. When the rich father attacked the monastery in revenge, the magician used his powers to repel the attack and save the monks.
Among the legends the most memorable was that of Lochman Hehkeem, a legendary healer who spoke the language of plants and found the secret of immortality. He managed to make his servant immortal, but when it was his turn God sent an angel to destroy his notes.

It doesn't appear in this book, but I also want to give a shout out to my favorite Armenian tale, Queen Anait.


The book contains many familiar tale types; according to the collector, most stories have parallels in other cultures, only a few of them were "typically Armenian." A few examples for types that appeared: Animal brothers-in-law (The ogre's soul), raven brothers (The seven giant brothers), magic flight (Abo Beckeer), puss in boots (The miller and the fox), the magic bird's heart, Fortunatus (The magic figs), The hunter's son, Dreamer's dream (combined with some extraordinary helpers), Aladdin (The magic ring), All-kinds-of-fur (The golden box; they executed the evil father in the end), Cinderella (with cannibal sisters), Golden-haired twins (with lots of helpful women), handless maiden (Mariam), animal-brother (Stag-brother), stolen apples (The world below, with the obligatory emerald bird), three stolen princesses (Son of the Grey Horse, a long, elaborate multi-generational tale), Rumpelstiltskin (Buzz-Buzz Aunty, where the girl got away by pretending to be crazy), Godfather Death (here with Gabriel, The soul-taking angel), poor woman and the devil (The talkative wife), "no news" cumulative tales (From bad to worse; Munuck), and a golden-haired gardener (The monster's hairs). In the latter three princesses chose their husbands by shooting arrows into a crowd of young men, and they used watermelon divination to see if they were ready for marriage.
The magic box was the tale type where a man seeks his luck (here: child) and carries many questions to God with him. On the way home he ate the magic fertility apple that made him pregnant... I also once again encountered the tale where a princess is married to a poor man, but manages to find happiness through wits and hard work, and magic pomegranate treasures Wisely spent. I also recognized The ashman's money as the tale type where someone trusts his money to a rich man who does not want to return it; a clever woman once again came to the rescue. In the end, even the rich man agreed it was a good trick.
There were multiple motifs that were similar to Greek mythology. The magic horse was a parallel to the Argonauts, with mountains smashing into each other, and a king killed by a "rejuvenating" bath. The prize bull was the story of Europe, with a prince instead of Zeus.
I once again encountered the motif of a hero striking the monster only once, because the second hit would bring it back to life.

Where to next?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

StorySpotting: Sometimes the forest eats people (Cursed)

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!

So, this new Netflix fantasy series is out, and it's pretty bad. The whole thing is (very loosely) based on King Arthur legends (obviously), so I'm not going to bother with those. But it also contains some smaller details in the mix that are interesting enough to blog about.

Where was the story spotted?

Cursed, Season 1 (all the way through)

What happens?

The main hero of the series, a Fey girl named Nimue (a.k.a. future Lady of the Lake), has magic powers that allow her to call on the spirits of nature (?) to help her when she is in danger. Despite the fact that they refer to her people as "Sky Folk", her powers are mainly connected to plant life; she makes roots and vines attack and kill people, and even seems to have some kind of a floral healing ability. In one scene she lures a small army into the woods, and then makes the trees murder them. The forest fills up with screams and no one returns.

What's the story?

The most obvious reference to the forest-murder scene is the historical event of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In 9CE, German tribes lured three Roman legions, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, into the wilderness of modern day Lower Saxony, and pretty much made them all disappear like a very bloody magic trick. It was one of the most humiliating defeats of Roman military history, in no small part because of the outrageous incompetence of Varus (Suetonius, who likes juicy gossip, claims that when Augustus heard the news he banged his head on a wall yelling "Varus, give me back my legions!"). Legend sprang up about bloody pagan rituals and human sacrifices in the deep woods, and the remains of the legions were not found until about six years later. Some claim that the battle left its mark on the legends of the Niebelungs.

Image from here

Apart from the bloody forests of Germania, there are other stories around the world that deal with carnivorous and martial plant life:

The Wonderful Wood is a ballad-folktale from Warwickshire, in which a girl flees into the forest from a murderous king who likes to hunt people. She treats the trees with respect and reverence and they let her through, but when the hunting party busts in after her, the oak trees close in... and the king is never seen again.

The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) is one of my favorite Welsh legends. In it, the magician Gwydion calls the forest into battle against an underworld army of monsters. Each tree has its own personality, and role in the fight. (Talking about pop culture: This is the story Tolkien based the Ents on.). A linguist named Mark Williams wrote a "fake" version of this legend in Welsh a few year back, tricking the internet into believing he had found a lost manuscript. He owned up to the joke, but the story he wrote is still damn good, and I enjoy telling it.

In the Oroqen folktale of Lunjishan and Ayijilun, the plants of the forest come to the hero's aid when he goes out to rescue his bride, a huntress kidnapped by a demon. A birch leaf flies him to his destination, and the vines of a morning glory entwine and choke the demon to death.

In the Hungarian folktale The Dream of the Fairy Queen, a mortal man wonders into the forest and gets trapped in an enchanted clearing. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the Forest Spirit in single combat. His lover, the Fairy Queen Tündér Ilona, ends up taking his place in the fight, and she soundly beats up the Forest Spirit, breaking the curse.

The Demon in the Tree is a Jewish legend from Germany, reminiscent of The Corpse Bride story. A young man puts a wedding ring on a branch (as a joke), and thus accidentally engages himself to a tree spirit. The spirit keeps killing his brides, until one clever bride takes the effort to talk to her and come to an understanding to share their husband.

For similar stories, see also the British tale of the Elder Tree Witch, and the Solomon Islands legend of the Boongurunguru. Read about man-eating trees here.


Sometimes the forest eats people.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Fairy tales are crystal (Following folktales around the world 165. - Turkey)

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!

Forty-four ​Turkish Fairy Tales
Kúnos Ignác
George G. Harrap, 1913.

One of the first collections of Turkish folktales, by Hungarian collector Kúnos Ignác, published in English. As the title claims, it contains 44 stories. The short introduction tells us about the world of Turkish fairy tales which, according to Kúnos, "are as crystal, reflecting the sun's rays in a thousand dazzling colours." The book itself is pretty, too, with elaborate decorative motifs, and the sometimes beautiful, sometimes caricature-esque illustrations of Will Pogány - although the latter often divide the text into two parallel columns, which makes it hard to read. The book has a short glossary at the end. While some of the illustrations are definitely weird and the tales have some questionable moments in terms of portraying "black Arabs," this book is still a classic, with a lot of very beautiful stories.


One of my old favorites from this book is The silent princess, in which a roguish prince tricks the girl into speaking up by telling her riddle tales, and deliberately giving the wrong answer. She can't help but correct him, breaking her silence. Another old favorite of mine is The dragon prince, in which a queen gives birth to a dragon, and only a clever servant girl is persistent enough to tame him. They get married, but they get separated again; she has another husband and children, and then the dragon prince returns she has to make a choice. The best dragon story in the book, however, is no doubt The black dragon and the red dragon. Here, a padisah sets out to find his forty kidnapped children, and he succeeds with the help of two dragons. It turns out the children were taken by a dev whose own son had been kidnapped by another villain. Everything turns out all right in the end. My favorite moment is the one where the padisah, wandering in the desert, finds a brood of baby dragons, still blind like newborn kittens...
The horse-dew and the witch is a very pretty version of the "magic flight" folktale type. The horse is an enchanted prince, and the witch is his mother, who gives her son's bride all kinds of impossible tasks until the young lovers flee from her together. They could only get away after the bride gave up her little finger to the witch. Another steed, Kamer-taj the Moon-horse, rescued a princess from a demon multiple times. In the end when he died, the princess and her children hid in his stomach for a night - and by the morning, the horse turned into a palace (I have read a similar Italian tale too).

The bird of sorrow was a story about a princess who wanted to know what sorrow was. The bird took her on a wild adventure of a series of misfortunes, but it did reward her in the end for her perseverance (I have read similar Greek and Italian tales, but with Fate). Fate also places an important role in the story of the Fortune-teller, who told three sisters that their fortune would come from unusual places - a well, a cemetery, and shame - and in the end, all three of them found it.
The story of Prince Ahmed was exciting in a lot of ways. The prince's own father tried to have him killed multiple times, but with the aid of his mother and three gemstone fairies (who started a war against the king), Prince Ahmed managed to find happiness in the end.
I really enjoyed the story of The enchanted pomegranate branch, mostly because of the motif of the secret garden - and because of the princess who punched the false bridegroom in the end. The story of Shah Jussuf was a similarly beautiful version of Beauty and the Beast. Here, the wife seeking her lost husband was taken in and adopted by a dew (div) family, who did not only help her raise her child, but also devised a plan to make sure her returning husband would treat her better from that point on.
I was amused by a story that illustrated why the study of Astrology is important. It was about a skeptical man who picked up an astrology book, and was transported into another world. When, after many adventures, he finally got back home, he had to admit that astrology is a powerful topic... (this story started out with the Gemstone Mountain episode, which I love).
There was also a motif that appeared in multiple stories: when the hero struck down a monster (dew, dragon, etc.), it usually goaded him to strike again to show "he is man enough." The clever hero always refused, which was good, because a second strike would have brought the monster back to life. Control and decisiveness over blind rage.


Among the popular tale types I found Animal Sibling (Brother and sister), hero seeking Fear, Three Oranges, Valiant Tailor (Kara Mustafa), Magic flight (The wizard-dervish), Shoes danced to pieces (The magic turban, the magic whip, the magic carpet), Son of the hunter (The crow-peri), Snow White (The magic hairpins), Devil and the woman (Imp in the well), Fake fortune-teller, Magician's apprentice, and False bride (Rose Beauty - which started with thee girls shooting arrows and following them to seek husbands; also, the false bride gave birth to the child of the real wife somehow).
I also encountered the tale type from the Balkans (?) where a girl takes lunch to her brothers working in the woods, and is kidnapped by a monster along with them. Only the youngest, "Simpleton" brother can save everyone. In the second half of the story he descends into the Underworld and encounters the Emerald Griffin (also known in Cyprus). The storm fiend was a beautiful, colorful tale, a mix of Water of Life and Koschei the Deathless (and yes, this one had an Emerald Griffin too).

Where to next?

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Girl in the chair: Seven blind queens raise a child in prison

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

I did another research workshop for storytelling students recently (online, live from Berlin), and it was tons of fun, with lots of intriguing questions at the end. Once again, I am highlighting one of them, to show the steps of my search process.

The question

The person asking me was looking for a folktale where "seven blind queens raise a child together in prison."
Yes, this story exists. In more than one version.

Step one: Where have I read this before?...

I could have sworn I read a version of this in a Spanish folktale collection, but when I went through it, there was no trace of blind queens. I went through two other volumes of Spanish tales from the same publisher (the Siruela folktale series has large hardcover books with colorful covers, and I usually remember my reads visually). No luck. Sometimes, my memory tricks me.

*Edit*: In the end I remembered that I knew this story from Bierhorst's Latin American Folktales, but the Spanish edition. I wasn't entirely wrong!

Step two: Google Books

On to the starting point: I go to Google Books, and type in the most obvious search phrase, "blind queens." I get a few immediate results:
John Bierhorst's Latin American Folktales, under the title Seven Blind Queens, from Chile (this is the story the student asked about)
Joseph Jacobs's Indian Fairy Tales, where the story is called The Son of Seven Queens.
Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, under the story title The Three Blind Queens.
Flora Annie Steel's Tales of the Punjab, with the title The Son of Seven Mothers.
Arifa Naeem's Folk Tales from the Deccan, with the title The Seven Blind Queens.
A folktale collection from Pakistan that talks about seven blind queens.

It seems like this tale type is popular in India and South Asia, with occasional occurrences elsewhere.

I put in the search term in Spanish too, since the original question was about Latin America. I get a hit for "reinas ciegas" in the Spanish edition of the ATU index.

Step three: Tale type number

Even if the Spanish index didn't yield results, the Latin American folktale collection notes the type number in the end notes: ATU 462, The Outcast Queens and the Ogress Queen. The note says this type is "widespread in India, but not indexed in Europe or elsewhere Latin America." It does reference another version of Chile, noted in Hansen's tale type index (The types of the folktale in Cuba, Puerto Rico,the Dominican Republic, and Spanish South America)

Step four: Tale type indexes

I go to the Hansen index first, since it is specific to Central and South America. Sadly, it doesn't note type 462 at all; the story reference above is grouped under type 455, in which a jealous queen blinds her husband's nieces. There is no child or prison involved, they are rescued by their brother with the lion milk (still, interesting story).
Talking about lion milk...

Step five: The story basics

In the Chilean version (originally from this book) a cruel king blinds his queens one by one, and throws them into prison. Six queens eat their babies in hunger, but the first one manages to keep her son alive in secret. As the boy grows up he manages to find a way out of the dungeon, and keeps bringing in fruit from the garden to keep all seven queens alive. They all love him. One day he is caught by the gardeners and taken to the king (who has married an eighth, cruel woman in the meantime). The king takes a liking to him and, without knowing who the boy is, gives him free reign of the palace. The boy keeps feeding his mothers in secret. One day the cruel queen decides to get rid of him, so she pretends to be sick and demands lion's milk. With advice from his mother, the boy succeeds in bringing some. Next the queen demands a singing, dancing castle; the boy goes to an Enchanted city where he plays his guitar, and with the help of a sorceress finds the small castle, as well as water that cures blindness, candles that are human lives, and a pig that is the life of the cruel queen. He kills the pig, cures his mothers, the king remarries the first queen, and they all live happily ever after.
(I'm a little miffed the king gets away with everything.)

Step six: Variants

In the Italian version (from the Abruzzi) there are three queens (married to three kings), blinded by a jealous nurse and left out in the mountains. They also eat their babies, only the youngest is saved. When he is taken in by his father the king, the nurse sends him on a quest to rescue a princess. With his mothers' advice he succeeds, and the nurse is killed.
In the Indian version from Joseph Jacobs, the king encounters a bewitching maiden on a hunt, but she'll only marry him if he blinds his seven queens. He does. One of the queens has a son, who finds a way out of the dungeon and keeps bringing food to the queens. King eventually finds him and takes him in. The boy manages to piss off the wicked wife, who sends him to her mother to get killed. On the way, however, he marries a princess (who only wanted to marry a man "with seven mothers"), who rewrites the letter he is carrying, changing death sentence to reward. The prince gets the eyes of his mothers back (minus one), plus a cow with endless milk, plus ever-expanding rice, and all is well in the end. Music also plays a part in this story.
In the Deccan version a cunning maiden seduces the king and frames his seven wives for the murder of his favorite horse and dog. The queens are blinded an exiled, and as they give birth the babies are devoured by wolves, except the youngest. He ends up at his father's court and the wicked queen tries to have him killed by sending him to her wizard brother with a death message. A wise man helps him out. The boy kills a parrot that was the wizard's soul, and makes a potion to heal his mothers. Once again the king gets away scot free.
The Punjabi version is pretty much the same as Joseph Jacobs'. That explains a lot.

Step seven: The ATU index

According to the ATU, type 462 is not extremely widespread: It mostly has variants from India, South Asia, East Asia (China, Nepal, Laos), the Middle East, Spain and Catalonia, and Chile. Also, the Romani tradition, which would explain how these stories spread West. The only outliers are Iceland and Canada.
The ATU also notes motifs within the folktale type. There is no specific motif for this tale, but there is one (L71) for "Only the youngest of group of imprisoned women refuses to eat her newborn child." The reference points to the Thompson-Balys  motif index of India.
After so many references to India and South Asia, I refer to the Types of Indic Oral Tales index, the folktale index for South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka). This one lists a ton of variants to the story. I would have to sift through all of them if I wanted to dig deeper.

Conclusions and Musings

This tale type seems to be centered on South Asia. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it spread west with the Roma to Spain, and then on to South America with colonization. There is also something distinctly celestial about the Punjabi version - the seven queens, one half-blind (Pleiades?), the endless stream of milk (Milky Way?), the countless grains of rice (stars?)... It might just be my imagination.
Anyway. Fascinating rabbit hole.
Thank you for the question, Johanna!

Monday, July 13, 2020

Love and integrity (Following folktales around the world 164. - Cyprus)

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!

A ​fügemagbeli szép leány
Ciprusi török népmesék
Mustafa Gökçeoğlu
Attraktor, 2007.

This book contains 24 Turkish folktales from Cyprus, collected by Mustafa Gökçeoğlu in the 1990s (sadly, I don't think this collection has an English translation). Each story comes with notes that list the place and time of the collection and the name, education, occupation, and age of the storyteller.There is a glossary at the end, and an afterword that talks about folktale opening formulas, the past of collecting Turkish folktales (including the work of Kúnos Ignác, who wrote the book I'm reading for Turkey), and details about the folktale tradition.
(I would have liked a more complete collection from Cyprus, but this was the only one I could get my hands on.)


Image from here
The title story of the collection, The fig seed girl, was an interesting love story: a prince fell in love with a girl born from a fig seed, then abandoned her, then started courting her again. She tossed all his gifts and messages aside, and only forgave him when he apologized honestly in person. In the story of Mehmed the Fisherman a mermaid fell in love with a fisherman, and insisted on marrying him even though he constantly worried that having such an exotic wife would bring trouble. It did, but every time they solved the problems with the mermaid's magic, until the husband accepted that everything can work out just fine.
There were some rare stories in the book too. One was about a king who got so into magic spells that he used them to cause havoc in the kingdom. Eventually a man saved his daughter (accidentally turned into a snake) and convinced the king to stop practicing magic. Basket of pears was a simple yet lovely story about three brothers who took baskets of pears to a king as a gift - but the only one who made a successful journey was the one who honestly declared what he was carrying.
My favorite tale in the whole book was titled The hodja with the bells. In it, a traveler went from one town to another, seeing strange things and asking people to tell their stories to explain them. One story led to another, and the traveler listened patiently to all.


There were once again a lot of familiar tale types. Three oranges, magic flight (Rose Honey), stolen golden apples and descent into the underworld (The emerald griffin), Love like Salt, Koschei the deathless (Lentilfire), animal husband (Ahmed the Fish - including the motif of a clever little girl bringing news to the princess about her lost love), prince made of jewels (Pearls and Coral), tablecloth, donkey, stick, Cinderella (The elder daughter of the jam maker), and the classic chain story where people get anxious about the fate of a child they don't even have yet (My dear son). Once again I encountered one of my favorite folktale types, about a magic pot that steals things and brings them to a girl - food, clothes, and eventually a husband. In another familiar story a clever woman helped a man get his stolen money back from a crooked pawnshop owner.

Where to next?

Monday, July 6, 2020

A map made of stories (Following folktales around the world 163. - Syria)

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!

Syrian ​Folktales
Muna Imady
Msi Press, 2012.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters, according to the fourteen districts of Syria, and each chapter contains one or two folktales from that region. Next to the tales each chapter also has riddles, songs, sayings by the Prophet, and a few local recipes. For example, I now know how to make roast camel.
The end of the book has a glossary, and the introduction talks about Syria and its storytelling traditions (for example the claim that if you tell stories by daylight you'll turn into a donkey). Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the region's history, famous places, and economy.


The tale of Boujhayesh the donkey was entertaining, and had a nice ending. The donkey and his friends - a goose, a duck, and a pigeon - planted a field together, and then all of them ate from it in secret. In the end when it all came to light they admitted their weakness and continued being friends.
I really liked the story of The enchanted snake where a girl wandered into a ghoul's cave, and when she refused to become her accomplice, the ghoul cursed her into a snake. The curse could only be broken if someone jumped over her three times without fear - but every time someone was scared of her, she'd become even uglier. The tale had a happy ending, and I especially liked that we got to hear all of it from the snake-girl's perspective.
The woodcutter and the lion was also a good story, where a poor man visited a lion's forest-island, and the kind lion allowed him to cut some wood. However, when he grew rich, he forgot about the animal's kindness and began to mock him, and even tried to kill him. The hurt lion then took back his island, saying "wounds can heal, but hurtful words last forever." I have read a similar story from Tunisia.


There were many familiar tale types in the book (no wonder, since Syria has always been a crossroads of trade routes). I encountered Treasures of the giant (Nuss-insais or Tiny), a Cinderella / Kind and unkind girls combination like the one from Lebanon (The wicked stepmother), the three gifts (and A cow that told lies), doctor and the devil (or jinn; the two scary wives were called Tunnay and Runnay and became synonymous with fake news), chain story about a cat who lost its tail, a "chatty wife" story ("When it rained meat"), and three clever men and the blind camel (The wise qadi).
I once again encountered my favorite Middle Eastern tale, where a clever girl is married to a kind beggar (The secret of the pomegranate), and the story from Palestine where a family is threatened by a ghoul, and the wife and daughters escape while the father, who didn't listen to their worries, is devoured (Sherehan Abu Khabeza).
The trickster in residence was the sly fox, who tricked several animals into believing he was going on a pilgrimage. Eventually a duck outwitted him. In another classic tale the fox and the raven invited each other for dinner, but when they discovered neither can eat well at the other's place, they apologized and made peace. There was also a version of the African folktale type where the fox decided to give all the food to the lion, after he witnessed the wolf being punished for an equal division.

Where to next?

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Fake news folktales: Talk to your kids about checking sources

Information and media literacy is becoming essential in today's world. The volume of information flooding our days in unprecedented, and children are not immune to it either. We need to start teaching them early not to take things at face value; to ask questions, check sources, and evaluate the information they are provided. And yes, a lot of adults are still learning to do the same.
Stories are a great way to teach, and luckily, there are many of them that touch upon the question of truth and lies. Here is a selection of some of the most interesting ones.

The king of the monkeys (Liberia)

An ugly bird moves into a hole in the ground, and makes the monkeys believe he is some all-powerful, terrifying monster. He holds this power over them, making them bring him food and gifts - that is, until the baby monkeys, who don't know better, actually start poking into the hole, and discover that the "terrifying monster" is just a very ugly, but not very scary bird.

The cat and the fox (Hungarian)

This tale type goes under ATU 103A, and has variants all over Europe. In it, a lazy cat is chased out of the house, and he goes to live in a forest. Since forest animals have never seen a cat before, he manages convince first a fox, and then with her help everyone else that he is a terrifying beast. The animals pay him respect and bring him food, and the lazy cat finds a comfortable kingdom for himself.
This is very similar to the previous story, but also highlights the role of those who support the deceit and benefit from it (the fox).

The Deceiver (Somalia)

Pretty dark story. A deceitful, lying person is exiled from the village of humans, and goes into the wilderness. There, he incites the animals and the elements to rebel against humans. Once they raid the village, however, he begins to accuse his helpers, one after another ("Did you see how the fire burned the village? What if it turns against you next? Let's put it out before that happens!"), and he turns his followers on each other, until no one is left. Then he happily walks away with all the loot. However, in the end he discovers that wealth doesn't make him happy, and he is miserable in exile.

Lies hurt more than a wound (Suriname)

A king keeps insisting that words can't hurt anyone - "sticks and stones", and all of that. Anansi, the spider-trickster, decides to teach him a lesson. He defecates in the hallways of the palace, and starts spreading a rumor that it's the king who can't control his bowels. The rumors spread like wildfire, and the king soon learns that words can, indeed, have very serious consequences.

Cat and rat bathe together (Grenada)

This story is about learned prejudice. A kitten and a young rat go bathing together every day, and they become good friends. However, when their parents find out, they start teaching their young that they should not be friends because they are different from each other. The kitten is told rats are lowly food, and the rat is told cats are dangerous killers. The friendship ends.
(I do want to re-tell this story with a more positive ending, and you might too.)

Qamar Al-Zamaan and Shams Al-Dunya (Lebanon)

A prince is engaged to a beautiful girl, but on his way to the wedding a bunch of jealous women convince him that his bride (whom he has not seen yet, according to custom) is actually ugly and awful. The prince runs away from the marriage. The bride finds out and goes looking for him; she befriends him without telling him who she is, and eventually they get to know each other and fall in love.
(This tale also has a nice version from Palestine.)

The Pincers of Pagan (Burma / Myanmar)

This story is about how "blind justice" is not always the fairest option (or, as you'd say, the difference between equality and equity). A king has a set of magic pincers he uses to dole out justice: the accused has to put his hands between the pincers, and if they are lying, the pincers cut the hands off. However, a thief manages to outsmart the pincers in the story, proving that they can't be solely relied upon for justice.
(There are similar stories about the Bocca della Veritá in Rome.)

Brave Mouse-Deer (Borneo)

A human comes into the forest, and the animals are all scared of the new visitor. Mouse Deer sets out to spy on the human, and observes it doing things animals have never seen before (taking off his shirt, smoking, etc.). Every time Mouse Deer returns with news, the story gets wilder and wilder ("he eats clouds!", "he takes off his skin!"), and panic rises in the jungle. Once the human departs without trouble, however, the animals accuse Mouse Deer of making it all up.

Tunnay and Runnay (Syria)

This is a classic "devil and the fake doctor" type tale, where someone chases the devil away in the end by scaring him into thinking his wife is coming. It features two terrifying women, and it became a phrase in Syria, "Tunnay and Runnay" being synonymous with "fake news."

Plop! Splash! (Tibet)

Hare hears a strange sound that scares him, and starts running, making everyone else think the sky is falling (yes, very Henny Penny). Eventually someone things to check where the sound was coming from, and discovers it was fruit falling into water.

Go to sleep, gecko! (Bali)

I mentioned this one before in relation to quarantine stories, but I'm repeating it here, because it is also about looking into why others do things that annoy us. Gecko is angry at the fireflies flashing, but when Lion investigates, it turns out they have been trying to warn travelers on the road at night. And so on. Gecko learns in the end that all the animals he thought were annoying and wrong had good reasons to do what they were doing.

Anansi seeks a fool (Ghana)

Anansi seeks someone who is foolish enough to do all the work for him while he rests and reaps the results. Crow, however, beats the trickster at his own game, by making him believe that they can spit up work and effort. Anansi ends up doing all the work while Crow pretends to be taking on all the "tiredness" from it. I am including this story here to talk a little bit about checking "fine print" on what a job/social position really is about.

If you have other stories that would fit the list, let me know in the comments!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The first sail (Feminist Folktales 20.)

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: Marshall Islands

The story

Twelve brothers organize a boat race to decide who gets to rule the "eastern islands". While they are getting ready, their mother Loktanur appears, carrying a large, heavy bundle. She asks her eldest to allow her in the canoe, but he is afraid she would slow him down so he declines. She then asks all the others in turn, but only the youngest, Jebro agrees to take her on. The race starts, and right away Loktanur delays her son, telling him to pull the boat up on shore. It's worth the delay: turns out Loktanur has invented sailing. Mother and son put the mast and the sail and the rigging up, and they set out flying, soon overtaking all the other brothers.
When they reach the eldest, he demands to be given the sailing ship, because he "deserves" it. Jebro wants to decline but his mother tells him to hand the ship over... after taking out some of the rigging. Not knowing how to work the sail, the elder brother flops around in circles, while Jebro and his mother comfortably win the race. They go on to teach people how to sail, and Jebro eventually becomes the Pleiades, signaling the start of the sailing season.

What makes it a feminist story?

I like stories where the brave / clever / wily female hero is not a young girl, but a grown woman or even a mother - one who did not lose her creativity, independence, and initiative just because she had children. In this case Loktanur doesn't only show up to help her youngest son: She has an invention of her own, something she dreamed up, created, and learned to use. She owns her knowledge, and she only shares it with those who show her respect. She hands the ship to her eldest, but not the knowledge that goes with it (and not all the essential parts). She knows her worth and her boundaries, and knows that the only one who deserves her invention and her knowledge is the one who respects her as a person, not just wants her stuff.
And of course she is a good role model, because how cool is it that she invented sailing?!

Things to consider

In multiple cultures of Oceania navigation was something women did; there are legends about them learning the secrets of wayfinding, or inventing tools to help sailing (see the Sources below). They are fascinating stories, worth digging into.


Laurence M. Carucci: From the Spaces to the Holes: Ralik-Ratak remembrances of World War II (Isla III, 1995.)
Gerald Knight: A History of the Marshall Islands (Micronitor News and Printing Co., 1999.)
Jack A. Tobin: Stories from the Marshall Islands (University of Hawaii Press, 2002.)
Anono Lieom Loeak, Veronica C. Kiluwe, Linda Crowl: Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (University of the South Pacific, 2004.)


This is not the only culture that believes a woman invented sailing. I read a similar story from Qatar too.