Monday, September 7, 2020

Roses, dervishes, warrior women (Following folktales around the world 167. - Azerbaijan)

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!

Százegy azerbajdzsáni népmese I-III.
Abdullájeva Szvetlána
Magyar-Azerbajdzsán Baráti Társaság, 2014.

An amazing and unique book even on an international level (I was having a hard time locating an Azerbaijani collection in English). It contains 101 folktales translated from a five-volume publication from 2005 (the tales were originally collected at the beginning of the 20th century). The introduction talks about how the book came to be, and how selections were made - with an eye to parallels in Hungarian folklore. Regardless of this, however, I found many of the tales unique, and many variants fun and unexpected; it is a true journey into Azerbaijani culture and tradition, and a great read. Stories come with footnotes that explain cultural elements, and there is a glossary at the end of each volume. The book has gorgeous illustrations, and cover art by Arif Huseynov (see some of his work below). There seem to be an English series with some of the tales and the same illustrations: try here.


I especially liked this collection because it had so many tales about brave, clever, independent women. My favorite was the tale of Lady Nardan - I blogged about that one in detail here. In the story of Lala and Nergiz twins, a boy and a girl ran away from their stepmother and were separated. The girl, Nergiz, killed a giant, a dragon, and a sea monster before she was reunited with her brother and found happiness. In the legend of Ibrahim, son of Adjem, the hero's mother, Lady Dostu put on armor and protected her daughter-in-law from an invading army. She killed a lot of soldiers before she was defeated with a trick. She did survive, however, and got to live happily with her family. In the story of the Apple of Seven Mountains a princess named Perinous chose her own husband, a gardener, and through various clever tricks managed to convince her father to let them get married (among other things, the young man had to bring an enchanted apple, and burning mummies from the Nile, to prove his worthiness). Lady Gülnar fought giants and read spells in forty different languages to save a kidnapped prince. In the story of Gara Hasan a padisah wanted to kill all women because one had been unfaithful, but the hero convinced him with a story that there are just as many heroic and honest women in the world.
The most complex and intriguing story in the book was that of the hero Tapdig, who, however, was kind of a side character in his own adventure. The main story revolved around a cosmic family feud between the Sun and her daughter. The Sun fell in love with the King of the Underworld, but her daughter disapproved of the match, and the two women fought tooth and nail, involving bystanders like a djinn prince, a kidnapped princess, and Tapdig himself. At the end of the story heroes and anti-heroes all got to live, and the sun princess had to accept that her mother was happy with her underworld lover.
 Another adventurous story was that of Semi, about a traveling prince who first became a pastry maker and then fell in love with a princess who loved his pastries. His boss, however, wanted the girl for himself, and the prince had to weather many challenges with the help of a friendly shepherd before he could get married.
The qadi of Shirvan
was a tale of a young and innocent padisah who was taken advantage of by criminals (pretending to be family). Eventually he set out into the world, and having learned from his mistakes he helped uncover conspiracies and rescue kidnapped maidens. Similarly, the tale of Dasdemir was a full on multi-generational murder mystery, where the hero uncovered corruption inside the padisah's court.
I liked reading about Logman, the famous doctor and historical person who performed all kinds of tricky healing procedures (even brain surgery). On the other hand, I was also greatly amused by the simple little story of Jirtan, a small boy who rescued his friends from giants with a trick known to many parents the world over: he refused to go to sleep...
There were interesting smaller moments and motifs in some of the tales. For example, I learned from The snake and the girl how long it takes for a snake to evolve into a dragon, and from the dragon into an evil human being. The tale of Ohaj and Ahmed was a magician's apprentice story, where the palace of the evil magician was literally built from the pain and suffering of his victims; it was described in amazing detail. In the second half of the story the magician's daughter, who helped the hero escape, gave him a quest of her own to see "how far you'd go for my sake."


It is not very surprising that the collection had a lot of familiar tale types, some of them in more than one version. An incomplete list would include: Silent princess (Melik Mehmed; Jagub and the Fish Padisah), three fastidious men (The three princes;The ruby), various Three Kidnapped Princesses tales, sometimes with stolen golden apples (Südemen; Melikmemmed; The little prince), ebony horse (Nazik Beden), cursed brothers (The seven brothers), clever girl and a king learning a trade (Sah Abbas the weaver), grumpy wife and fake fortune-teller (God save us from Hamperi), secret dream (The tailor's apprentice), puss in boots, or rather fox (Mr. Pear), a hero collecting stories from people (The tale of Hatem), various glass mountain princesses and animal in-laws (Kösa Three-Moustaches; The tale of Melik Jamil), all-kinds-of-fur (Hosgedem), girl rescuing her sisters from a murderous husband (The story of the three sisters), Gemstone Mountain (The tale of Telet története; also featuring a Simurgh bird), golden-haired gardener (The boy on the white horse), various Aladdin / magic ring tales (Janig; The magic ring), a firebird-type tale with a series of challenges (The white bird, named after the helper), trickster maiden (Haji's daughter), clever wife who seduces his own husband three times (Pour water on my hands!), ungrateful animal (Good for good), Magical helpers (The six companions), Fortunatus (Emir and the shah's daughter; The useless boy), three oranges (Pomegranate girl), the hunter's son (Hunter Pirim; Jusif and Senuber), princess who turned into a prince (The secret of Benidas), cannibal girl defeated by her own brother (Iron-tooth girl), and the tale about why elders are not executed anymore (The tyrant padisah). 
I was happy to read another version of the tale about the kind man who wanted to be a robbers' apprentice, but kept messing up the jobs with his kindness (Mehemmed). There was also a tale about the unjust king who hung the person who fit the noose best, not the actual criminals (Logman and his servant). Iskender Zülkarnejn was an Alexander-legend, combining the parts about the king with the horse's ears and the Land of Darkness where the king sought the Water of Life. I also once again encountered the motif of a king checking his daughter's readiness to marry by cutting open watermelons (Semsi Gemer).
I especially liked it when well-known tale types had unexpected twists. There was a creepy version of the "laughing fish" tale, by the way, where the hero was born because his mother ate a powdered mummy head (yup). He then revealed to the padisah his wife's unfaithfulness. At the end of the story he turned back into a mummy head and rolled away, looking for his next victim... The tale of Rejhan was a version of the "kidnapped princesses in the underworld" type, but here we got to find out where the little man with the long beard (a staple character in these tales) actually came from. In the story of The prince and the frog it was the princes who tossed golden apples to girls they wanted to marry (not the other way around). By the way this was a Frog Bride story, where the frog befriended a bunch of other animals, and in the end they summoned an animal army and defeated a tyrant.
However, my very favorite was a Cinderella variant (Beautiful Fatma) where a clever old woman helped the girl with sorting out mixed seeds: she brought her three bowls of new seeds, and tossed the mixed pile out to the chickens. Work smarter, not harder.

Where to next?

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