Saturday, October 31, 2020

StorySpotting: WTF did I just see (Raised by Wolves)

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!

Where was the story spotted?

All over Raised by Wolves, Season 1. (HBO)

What happens?

Uhh... well. Lemme see if I get it straight: An android called Mother (a.k.a. Lamia) raises a bunch of human children on an alien planet, except she is very bad at her literal only job and loses 4 out of 5. Then she plugs into a virtual reality machine, where she meets the Creator who reprogrammed her (from being a Necromancer who can explode humans with her screaming, but only when her murdery eyeballs are in her head, because she usually carries those in a little pouch around her neck). She has virtual floaty sex with him, gets doused in... let's say milk, and then she wakes up pregnant. After feeding the baby with android goo and human blood, she gives birth (orally) to a flying serpent that she tries to kill by throwing it into the core of the planet, but somehow they all survive. 
Yes. I believe that about covers it.

What's the story?

Okay, let's unpack this a little item by item:

Item No. 1: Lamia

Lamia is a name from Greek mythology. She was originally a queen, one of Zeus' many lovers who had a couple of children by him. Eventually Hera found out and took her children, which made Lamia go mad. She tore out her own eyes in grief, and... was consoled by Zeus giving her the ability to take her eyes out and reinsert them (such a thoughtful gift for a grieving mother). In most versions of the story, she turned into a monster that preys on children.  

Item No. 2: Floaty eyeballs

Talking about taking one's eyes out: this happens in gruesome detail multiple times in the series. And also in folklore. Besides Lamia, there are other characters in stories who can do this neat trick. Coyote, the trickster of many Native American stories, is one of them. In a Hopi story, Mother Coyote searching for food for her children meets some Blue Jays that are playing a game, taking their eyes out and playing ball with them. She joins the game, tossing both her eyes into the air, but she ends up losing them. Going around blindly, she replaces them with tree sap, and she has had yellow eyes ever since. They tell a very similar story in Brazil about Jaguar and a crab. In fact, this story motif exists in many American indigenous cultures, under the motif number J2423: The Eye-Juggler.
In a Hungarian folktale a princess loses her eyes, and a helpful person accidentally replaces them with cat eyes, which makes her want to peer into every mouse hole. Bonus: he gets the eyes from a witch, who has a side hustle as an "eye dealer". 
The motif number for Removable Eyes in general is F541.11. This book has a great story that features people with removable eyes (as well as removable bones, jaws, etc.)

Item No. 3: I'm skipping "virgin birth", too obvious

Item No. 4: Sonic boom

I included a Russian story in my book Tales of Superhuman Powers about a robber nicknamed Nightingale who could whistle so loudly it would flat-out kill people. I could also mention Banshees, but as far as I know they never really murderize someone just with their voice...

Item No. 5: Snake birthing and snake suckling

Giving birth to snakes is actually extremely common in world folklore (go figure). It even has its own motif number: T554.7: Woman gives birth to snake. These stories can generally be divided into two categories: One where the snake baby is benign (and usually turns into a human by the end of the story), and one where the snake turns out to be an actual monster. One famous example of "a little bit of both" would be the legend of the Lindworm
As for the latter, there is a story from the Kwaza in South America that parallels the HBO show quite nicely. It talks about a woman who thinks she is pregnant with a child, but instead she gives birth to a snake. She and her father manage to chase the snake up a tree and cut its tail off; after that, the snake flees into the sky.  
Now, as for breastfeeding snakes: This also appears in tradition. There are Roma stories where a woman tames a serpent (or dragon) by offering it her own breastmilk (sometimes mixing it with alcohol which she drips down her breast). And there is one tale that knocks it out of the ballpark: The Traveller story of The Magic Shirt tells about a prince who receives a shirt from his evil stepmother. The moment he puts it on, the shirt turns into a snake he can't get rid of. Eventually he meets a wise woman and her daughter, and with their help he goes through a ritual that lures the snake off of him... by making it latch on to the girl's breast. Yikes. After the snake is killed, he marries her, and makes her a new breast out of gold.
(If you want to read a really great re-telling of a more elaborate version of this tale, I highly recommend Daniel Allison's Scottish Myths & Legends!)

Bonus: Three Little Pigs

Just for the record: Some actual storytelling happens in this show in episode 3, where MamaBot tells the tale of the Three Little Pigs to the children she's kidnapped. She tells it in a really creepy way and the kids don't like it at all. Whoever programmed her for taking care of minors should have programmed in some better bedtime stories. I mean, geez...


This show is bad, people. But props to Amanda Collin for making the most of her performance. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Wits are a matter of life and death (Following folktales around the world 174. - Uzbekistan)

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!

Karakalpak Folk Tales
Quatbay Utegenov
Trafford Publishing, 2006.

Since I could not find a collection of Uzbek folktales, I got this book instead. The Karakalpaks are a Turkic ethnic group that has belonged to various states in Central Asia, and since 1936 they have been living within the borders of Uzbekistan. The book contains 13 realistic folktales and 8 fairy tales, although sometimes it is hard to tell those two apart. The author is Karakalpak himself; after teaching English for a while he became a Central Asian correspondent for the BBC. In the introduction he gives us a detailed description of Karakalpak history.
The book is a bit larger than it should be (large letters and some strange spacing), but apart from a few editing errors it is an intriguing and enjoyable read.


The story of The dispute between the three young men and the clever girl was a very cool version of the "three fastidious men" folktale type. The three brothers - Advisor, Thinker, and Verifier - were seeking justice about their father's inheritance. After they dazzled the khan with their skills (e.g. telling the lamb they ate had been suckled by a dog), they decided he was not wise enough for their needs, so they moved on to a famously clever girl. She told them a dilemma tale, and based on their responses determined which one had been lying about the inheritance. I especially loved that this time the dilemma tale itself ended well - it was a "who deserves this woman the most" type story, where they usually send the poor woman back to a husband she didn't want, but here the girl changed the ending for the better. 
The story of Aqyl-Dana and Aqyl-Kamal was interesting for several reasons. It was about a boy and a girl who had been sworn to be siblings by their mothers even before they were born. The boy did not want to go to school, instead he asked his father to build him a library and locked himself in there. Eventually he fell in love with a mysterious girl who visited him, and his sworn sister helped him win her, through all kinds of adventures.
Among the fairy tales I really liked Gulziyba, the daughter of a khan, who accidentally ran away with the wrong guy, went through many adventures, found love, and then helped her husband fulfill a khan's impossible wishes. Part of the story reminded me of the "son of the hunter" folktale type - here, he had to build a palace of tiger teeth. Tigers helped him voluntarily, each donating one tooth, and made a small model palace, since the khan never specified how big it had to be... This tale also featured a return from the underworld on the back of a giant golden eagle. 
In another fairy tale, a stepmother chased two siblings into the wilderness; brother and sister raised each other. When a prince wanted to force the girl to marry him, she first yelled at him for not even asking her consent, and next (after the price murdered her brother), she beheaded him. After that she set out into the world, dressed as a man, and managed to win three wives and three magic items that could bring a dead man back to life - thus saving her brother. Bringing someone back from the dead was also a key plot point in the story of Abat-Batyr, whose wife revived him by tracking down three of his old friends who had magical powers. 
The tale of Jansap was a long and elaborate story that featured a lot of traveling, adventures, and the classic story of Gemstone Mountain. I especially liked that later on the hero, seeking his lost wife, went back to the evil merchant and got himself sent up the mountain again, to retrace the steps of his journey and find his love. 
I enjoyed the part of the story of The mullah's three sons where the mullah proved to be a horrible, abusive teacher who beat and took advantage of students - until his students revolted, and threw him in the outhouse.


We are still on the Central Asian crossroads of cultures, which means there were many familiar tales and motifs in the book. There was a clever boy telling the khan riddles (and saving his people from taxes); a clever old shepherd who gave mysterious answers to the khan (and cheated his evil ministers out of their money); a clever maiden who was a shepherd's daughter; and one of those stories about an innocent girl who keeps being threatened by men, until she gains control of her own life (Angel Inta).
I encountered a tale I have also heard in the USA, about a clever man (Yesim the mat weaver) who married his mean neighbor's wife. There was a secret tunnel between their houses, and the woman pretended to be her own twin sister. Later on, she helped her new husband get rich with all kinds of clever tricks. 
The resident trickster is Aldar-Kose, who here appeared in the company of two other like-minded men, Mukhtar-Kose and Dukhtar-Kose. He tricked both of them (with classics such as "who had the best dream" and "half a shoe lost on the road"), but in the end he teamed up with Dukhtar-Kose to scare a bunch of robbers and get their treasure.

Where to next?

Monday, October 19, 2020

Tales at the crossroads (Following folktales around the world 173. - Tajikistan)

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!

Tadzsik népmesék
Jeremiás Éva
Európa, 1970.

This is another volume of the Tales of Nations series, which is one of the best and most popular folklore publications in Hungary. It contains 30 folktales from Tajikistan, organized by type from animal tales to anecdotes. At the time of publication, it was the only collection of Tajik folktales in Hungarian (I think it still is, and I couldn't find an English edition either). The afterword talks about Tajik culture, history, and storytelling. The book comes with a source and tale type index, and a glossary of foreign words. The tales are beautiful, and eloquently written.


The wonder and hero tales of the book were definitely the best. The story of Iradjpahlavan, for example, was about a boy whose father had been abducted by devs; when he grew up, he went to his rescue, and succeeded after a series of epic battles. The tale titled Alive in the grave reminded me of some Nart sagas; the hero grew up inside the grave of his wrongly accused mother, and then emerged to bring justice to her. He went through many adventures, fighting devs and venturing into the kingdom of snakes.
Tajik woman, 19. c.,
image from here
The most beautiful story in the book was the one mentioned in the title: Moon Angel was a variant of the "silent princess" tale type. What I liked is that suitors had to keep the girl awake and intrigued (not make her speak). After the hero failed his friend succeeded (with riddles and stories), and the princess decided to marry him instead, even though he was a commoner.
Among the animal stories the most interesting was that of the bird and the elephant. The elephant kept knocking the bird's nest out of a tree while scratching, and he refused to take responsibility because he was stronger. The bird then recruited the wasps, the frogs, and a crow, and together they almost killed the elephant through a trick; in the last moment they granted him mercy, warning him that small animals can be strong too when they work together.
There was also a riddle tale where a king was warned of impending danger by a treasury guard who'd seen it in a dream. The king rewarded him then fired him. Why?... Because he fell asleep on duty.
I also felt like the tale of Lak and Pak was relevant to our times. A girl accidentally ate bread with dirty hands, and she was so ashamed that she asked the king to declare that no one can ever mention her eating with dirty hands, because she would be shamed if people found out...


Due to the cultural crossroads that is Central Asia, there were also many familiar tale types in the book. For example: Brementown musicians (The donkey's journey), golden-haird twins (The talking parrot; the girl sibling got incredible power in this one), innocent girl wrongly accused (Mehranbu), a king learning a trade (The shepherd girl and the padisah - here she married someone else instead), and a mass-hysteria chain story (Lak and Pak). 
I was reminded of a Hungarian folktale by the story of the djugara seed who went to see the world with an ember and a piece of straw. Crossing a river the ember burned the straw and they were washed away. The seen grew into a plant on the riverbank, keeping the memory of its friends.
The resident trickster is Nasreddin, who was referred to as Effendi or Mosfeqi. There were several familiar tales, such as the pot that gave birth, or the one-legged geese. My favorite was the one where the clever effendi brought a tree as witness to theft, making the culprit unwittingly confess his crime.
There was also a clever fox, once again outwitted by a pheasant, who rescued all the other prey animals too.

Where to next?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Prince Hlini (Feminist Folktales 22.)

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: Icelandic

The story

A king's only son, Prince Hlini, disappears during a hunt. The king offers a reward to anyone who can find him, but to no avail. A shepherd's clever daughter, Signy, sets out to seek the prince. She finds a cave, and inside, two beds - in one of them, there is Prince Hlini in an enchanted sleep. She hides and waits. Soon two troll women appear. They wake the prince up with the song of magic swans, and try to get him to marry one of them. Prince Hlini declines. The next day, while the troll women are away, Signy wakes the prince up, and they hatch a plan of escape.
That night Hlini pretends to be friendly with the trolls, and coaxes out of them the magic words that make the beds fly. He also learns that the trolls keep their life hidden in an egg they like to play with. The next day, after the trolls leave, Signy and Hlini take one of the beds and follow them in secret. When they start playing with the egg, Hlini breaks it, killing the trolls. The prince and the girl pile all the troll treasure on the two beds, and fly home to the palace together. They eventually get married. 

What makes it a feminist story?

I especially adore tales where male and female heroes work together to overcome challenges. This story begins with a classic Sleeping Beauty style situation, where the brave girl wakes up the enchanted prince (with patience, attention, and no kissing). However, from that point on, they both actively participate in the escape plan, and work together. On top of that, is is the prince who takes on the "sneaky" role in this plan, flattering the trolls to learn their secrets, which is often seen as a feminine role in folktales (thing women using their "wiles" to spy on people). Here, it is the prince who is trying to avoid unwanted marriage, and he finds a way out of the situation by following the girl's advice. This is another thing I love: Hlini trusts Signy, and trusts her advice.
In the second half of the story, we can see perfect cooperation between the two heroes. Signy notices the runes on the beds, Hlini finds out what they mean, Signy makes the bed fly, Hlini breaks the egg and kills the trolls. Finally, they fly home together, either one on a separate bed. I like this balance between the two roles. 
I also love the fact that a girl sets out to rescue an abducted prince.

Things to consider

Thanks to the movie franchise, many kids these days think of trolls as something cute and friendly. It is worth explaining up front that these are different kinds of (man-eating) trolls, before we traumatize the audience by killing them off. For smaller children, the fact that they turn into mushrooms can be a way of softening the description. 
Some kids I've told this story to were hung up on Hlini being a "girl name." We had some good conversations about what makes a name a "girl name", and how different languages have different naming customs. 


A. W. Hall: Icelandic Fairy Tales (Frederick Warne & Co., 1897.)

Reimund Kvideland & Henning K. Sehmsdorf: All the World's Reward: Folktales Told by Five Scandinavian Storytellers (University of Washington Press, 2011.)


This story was recommended to me by a fellow storyteller after my "gender-swapped folktales" post the other day :)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Mountains of gemstones (Following folktales around the world 172. - Turkmenistan)

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!

Turkmen Folk Tales: 
Turkmen national tales
Iqroriddin Sayfutdinov
Kindle, 2016.

I was hesitant about this book when I bought it on Kindle: the digital layout is a bit of a mess, and the text reads as if someone put the original folktales into Google Translate (possibly in Russian). With all of this said, I managed to read it (it is easy to follow if you have read folktales before), and it actually had quite a few great, entertaining and unique stories.


The favorite hero of Turkmen folktales is Yarty-Gulak, the tiny boy ("half a camel's ear"), who is also a trickster figure: he goes on adventures, gets into trouble, and especially enjoys tricking greedy rich men. His old father and mother find him in the desert and adopt him. In one story, Yarty goes into the neighbor's vineyard to eat some grapes, and accidentally manages to scare the lights out of the neighbor's family. In another, he is trapped in a clay pot that a greedy man takes from a poor potter - and he manages to trick the guy into smashing all of his own pots. In a third story he is taking three cakes to his father working the fields, and he gets into a series of adventures, including falling into a pit and being chased by a dog and a crow.
I loved the Turkmen version of the Bluebeard tale where a girl saves her two sisters. In it, a dev kidnapped three girls, and filled his palace with their tears that turned into beads. Eventually, the youngest girl managed to kill him. The story started out as a Beauty and Beast tale, by the way, with the youngest girl asking for beads as a gift, and the dev followed the father home along the trail of beads he dropped.
I enjoyed the tale of Ahmed, who wanted to be a merchant even though no one believed he could do it. He managed to gather a lot of pearls in secret, and prove people wrong. There was a dark tale about a princess whose father asked for an impossibly high bride price to keep a prince away - but the prince was so intent on marrying her that he ruined his whole family and kingdom, and sunk into crime. When he finally paid the bride prince he decided to spy on his bride - however, she mistook him for a bandit, and had him blinded by her maids. There was a similar moral to the story of the man who spoke the language of animals, and used it to sell his pets whenever they were about to die. In the end, he was about to die too, and there was no one left to help him.


There were some familiar tales in the book as well. The widow's son was a classic "three kidnapped princesses in the underworld" tale, with peris instead of princesses, divs instead of dragons, and a Simurgh bird instead of a griffin (we are close to Iran here). I especially liked that the hero didn't marry the underworld princess, instead he was adopted as her brother. In the end, when he found his bride, they flew back to the underworld on the Simurgh, and lived happily there.
There was a version of the "silent princess" tale; here the hero managed to get her to talk with the help of a golden carp. The dilemma tale embedded in this story was similar to the "woman carved from wood" stories, except here with wooden birds, which is a lot nicer.
The story of Mamed was an animal brothers-in-law tale (wolf, tiger, and lion in this case), combined with a "princess on a glass mountain" type plot. It was a neat combination.
There was once again an "ungrateful animal" story, this time with a snake locked in a box, who was tricked by a young boy to gab into the trap.
Turkmenistan is also the country where I originally got my version of Gemstone Mountain (the version I first told). This book has two versions of this tale type.

Where to next?

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Down the Rabbit Hole: More questions about researching stories

Today I taught my storytelling research workshop (Down the Rabbit Hole: The How and Why of Researching Stories) as part of the FEAST webinar series. I had a lovely group of people attending from around the globe, and a wonderful team helping me run the workshop (thanks to Sheila Wee, Roger Jenkins, and Krupa Vinayagamoorthi!).

As usual, there were a lot of questions, and I did not have time to answer all of them. Luckily, people typed them into the chat, so now I can go back and address the ones I've missed.

Here we go!

How often do you find a folk tale does not fit an ATU number?

Often. Especially when I venture further outside of Europe. In these cases I try to use other sources that might help, either regional tale type and motif indexes, or other handbooks. Here is a very useful one I didn't mention, that deals with African folktale types that also appear in the Americas. It that fails, it's back to keyword search...

Does anyone have resources for folk tales from the Punjab Region of India/Pakistan in the original language? I mostly have been finding English.

I don't, but I'm putting this out here so that other people might respond. All the sources I can come up with are also in English (like the India/Pakistan tale types and motif indexes I mentioned in the slides). 

How to search for the F number E number or H number story from the search result of

I talked about this in the workshop, but I want to share the resources. If you want to search by number, here is the motif index online (and here is the bibliography of sources it refers to). As you can see, the letters mark different groups of motifs, such as Tests or Magic. I did a really fun blog series about the weirdest motifs, you can read it here.

Also, when you have the number of a motif you are looking for, and you have already checked the motif index's own bibliography, I usually type the number into Google Books search, with quotation marks and an additional search term. For example: "S31" + "folktales"

What is your recommendation for pronunciation resources?

Usually other people, who speak the language as their native tongue. But there are also resources online, Forvo is a pretty good one for example, because people can add to it, and it gives you where the person is from.

What if I read a story in a book or watch a video of a story, and want to tell it enough to just mention about the author and the publisher or do we need to take permission from the author/publisher?

This is a whole long and complex conversation that revolves around copyright laws, and also around professional ethics. Checking whether you need copyright permission for a story is one of the main reasons people do background research. But even when something is a folktale, and not under copyright, storytellers tell the same tale very differently. We all make them our own, and out favorites become our "signature stories", as the Americans call it. Because of this, I feel it is polite to ask a teller if you like their signature version of a tale - or ask for the sources, so you can go, do your research, and come up with your own signature version! 

And finally, as usual: if anyone has any storytelling research questions, or specific stories you are looking for, feel free to reach out here, or through my Facebook page! And check out Girl in the Chair, my blog series on storytelling research. :)

Monday, October 5, 2020

Kindness, wits, bravery (Following folktales around the world 171. - Kyrgyzstan)

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 szürke héja
Kirgiz népmesék
Buda Ferenc
Európa, 1988.

The book contains 57 Kyrgyz folktales in thematic chapters: magic tales, animal tales, realistic tales, and origin stories (etiological tales).  The texts are eloquent, sometimes poetic, and peppered with traditional words and phrases in italics, with a glossary at the end of the book. This way, the stories kept their Kyrgyz flavor, and they are still easy to follow (I learned a lot of new words by the end). The afterword talks about Kyrgyz history, customs, culture, and traditional storytelling, even though there are no notes attached to the individual stories. I couldn't really find a Kygryz collection in English, sadly. You can read about their national epic here, though.  


I enjoyed the tale about The orphan boy who first saved a frog from a road accident, then revived various other animals, and in the end even the son of his enemy. While the other boy betrayed him, eventually he did find a happy ending, and forgave the villains. I also liked the story about The old many and a fox, where an old couple adopted a pregnant fox who in exchange hunted various animals for them. When the fox herself was being hunted, the old woman yelled at the hunters, shaming them until they left the household alone.
Image from here
The tale of The obozger's daughter was a fun variant of the silent princess type. Here a man left his bride of low birth to try and win the hand of a princess. He failed, however, and then his bride set out, disguised as a man, and managed to win the princess herself. In the end, the three of them went home together. Another story, Djapalak's wife, featured another clever woman; a khan tried to seduce her but she resisted, and then came up with a devious plan to show the khan's wife was not immune to seduction... 
The story of Tolubaj Sinchi gave me a lot to think about. It was about a khan who wanted to find a magic horse in his herds, but when a wise man pointed out the ugliest colt in the lot, the khan refused to believe him. There was also a tale where a clever khan proved that generosity comes from the heart, not from wealth. 
My favorite origin story was that of the hedgehog, who had smooth skin in the beginning, but when their wisdom was needed to defeat the devil, the animals gave them protective armor in gratitude.
One of the "golden-haired twins" tales had a lovely moment where the abandoned babies were found by a veteran warrior named Akmat, on his way home from Fairyland. He warmed the babies on his bare chest, and then raised them as his own; he even helped them from beyond the grave. I love father figures like him. Another nice moment was in the story of Akchükö and Kuchükö, where one of the heroes visited the king of dragons. The king did not only take good care of him, but also gave him a dragon to fly him where he needed to go. 


There were, once again, many familiar tale types in this book, such as extraordinary helpers (Seven sons of the old woman), sometimes along with Underworld adventures (Töstük), secret dream (Chinibek), Polyphemus (Djajil Mergen), cloth, donkey, stick (The grey hawk), Aladdin (The magic ring), firebird and grey wolf (The golden bird), magic bird heart (Akchükö and Kuchükö), magician's apprentice (The wizard boy), puss in boots (How the fox went courting), clever maid, valiant tailor (The coward warrior), false fortune-teller (Almikul Tüschü). Even one of my favorite tale types, that of the "pirate princess" showed up in the book, under the title Zar and Meer
There was a classic animal chain story (here started by a nightingale), and also a race between animals, here featuring a fox, a turtle, and a tick (the tick won). I also once again encountered the story about the animal calendar and the contest between the mouse and the camel
There were both animal and human tricksters in the stories. There was the clever fox (here outwitted by a partridge), Kösö (a smooth-faced trickster guy) and Apendi, who is very similar to the Hodja Nasreddin. 

Where to next?