Monday, November 30, 2020

Jackals, spirits, Mouse Deer (Following folktales around the world 179. - Sri Lanka)

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!

Village folk-tales of Ceylon

H. Parker
Luzac, 1910.

The book contains 75 folktales; the whole series is actually three volumes, but this first one was hefty enough that I left the other two for later. At the beginning of the book we get a long, narrative introduction to life in the interior of Sri Lanka, from cultivation through beliefs, festivals, and games, all the way to costumes. The narrator talks about the local flora and fauna - we have returned to Mouse Deer territory! The introduction also elaborates on some interesting topics, such as the snake-charming tricks of the Telugu-speaking traveling communities (author calls them "gypsies"). It also talks about the caste system, since the stories in the book are arranged by caste (from higher to lower). 
The tales were collected by the author, sometimes from dictation, but mostly written down by locals and then translated to English. The translation is literal, and complicated expressions come with footnotes. In general, all the stories come with a lot of notes. While the author claims these stories are from an "untouched" Sinhalese tradition, in fact there are a lot of international types among them, and their South Asian (Indian, Punjabi, Bengali, etc.) parallels are duly noted.


There was a legend based in history about three questions that were posed to a vain king. A young man did not only answer the mysterious questions, but also managed to convince the king to give him the throne - and then never returned it. Another king was outwitted in the story of the talking horse, where he ordered a wise man to teach his horse human speech. The wise man promised to do so, in seven years - and before the deadline was up, luckily the king died. Talking about wits: there is a version of the Two thieves tale in this book that I really liked. They were competing for the hand of a young woman, but they made sure no one was harmed in the process - so the people they tricked could also laugh with them in the end.
The tale Aet-kanda Leniya was a beautiful story about a prince seeking his lost wife. It featured a female Rukh (by the name in the title of the story), and a whole lot of grateful animals: elephants, pigs, turtle doves, and fireflies. The notes of the story mention another version where the hero is helped by a young Rukh, a young demon dog, and a young bear... 
Among the trickster tales y favorite was that of the grateful jackal, saved from a giant snake by a boy. When the snake attacked the boy, the jackal ran for help, stealing people's clothes to lead them to the rescue. I also liked the tale about the boar who was raised in a village by a carpenter; when he escaped back into the wilderness, he taught the other boars how to build a tiger trap.


Despite the author's claims of "untouched" tradition, there are a whole lot of familiar tale types in the book. The creation story, for example, features the popular motifs of bringing soil up from the bottom of the ocean to create land, and also the claim that the sky used to be a lot closer to earth, until people chased it away.
Other familiar tale types included: magic bird heart (The turtle dove), princess who ran away with the wrong person but managed to overcome obstacles and find her love (The prince and the princess), false fortune-teller (Kurulu-gama Appu), seven blind queens (The prince and the yaksani), chain tale with a bird (The female quail), puss in boots (here with a monkey, and a man named Mr. Janel Sinna), Rapunzel (Wimali), brave little tailor (Sigiris Sinno, the giant), and brave maiden (The seven princesses; also combined with seven blind queens). The daughter of black storks reminded me of the Indian tale of Little Surya Bai, a beautiful Sleeping Beauty variant.  
The story of Senasura reminded me of the Nart sagas. Here a man was cursed, to only make one bushel of rice from every stack - so he started making very tiny stacks, and got rich on a technicality. 
The resident tricksters are Jackal and Mouse Deer. Mother Mouse Deer, for example, chased a leopard away by making him believe that her children loved leopard meat. Jackal outwitted crocodiles by making them shuttle him back and forth across the river in the promise of a wedding. He also played the wise helper's part in tale types such as "millstone gives birth to colt" and "ungrateful crocodile returned into trap." In turn, Jackal was outwitted by Turtle, more than once - and Turtle had his own misadventure with flying, when he could not keep his mouth shut.
The classic tale of "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" featured a rich man and a poor washerman. 

Where to next?
The Maldives!

Monday, November 23, 2020

Little known India (Following folktales around the world 178. - India)

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!

I have read a lot of folktale collections from India, so this was a rare case where I had too many things to choose from. I decided to pick up a book from my TBR list, one that had the most intriguing title...

And Other Tales They Don't Tell You
Devdutt Pattanaik
Zubaan Books, 2015.

This book contains 30 stories from the myth and folktale traditions of India. I have read other books by the author before, and he always does a lot of background research, unearthing fascinating stories. This was true in this case as well. The concept of the book is that it collects tales and myths that reflect the gender diversity and queer elements of the traditions of India, from a third gender (hijra), through same-sex relationships all the way to sex change. These "queer" tales have been a part of the traditions of India for thousands of years, but they rarely ever show up in books aimed at a western audience. 
The book is a fascinating read. Each story comes with an abundance of notes and comments on its sources, cultural/historical/literary background, similar stories, and significance in contemporary society. There is a detailed introduction about Hindu mythology and the definitions of queerness, and a bibliography at the end. The stories are accompanied by lively black-and-white illustrations. 


Honestly, I could highlight all 30 stories, but I'll try to pick some of the most interesting ones: 

There was a lovely story about a young woman in labor, whose mother could not get to her in time, so Shiva took on the appearance of the mother and acted as a midwife for the birth. I was amused by the tale of Chudala, the wise woman who could not get her husband to listen to her teachings... so she turned into a man, and the husband was suddenly listening with rapt attention. From then on, she taught him as a man during the day, and slept with him as a woman at night, until she finally revealed the truth, and he had to admit that he had been wrong. I was also amused by the story of Samavan, where two poor friends were trying to win gifts from a queen, who only gave them to married couples - so one of the lads disguised himself as a woman. The queen's prayers unexpectedly turned him into one... but she didn't mind, she married her friend, and they lived on happily as a couple. 
Many of the stories were from, or connected to, the great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For example, the book includes the famous story where a prince tries to take advantage of Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers - but when he approaches her bed, he finds Bhima, the strongest husband, dressed in Draupadi's clothes under the covers. 
In the story of Ila a prince wandered into an enchanted forest and turned into a woman. She begged Shiva to change the spell (it couldn't be broken), so she ended up being a woman under the waning moon, and a man under the waxing moon. Anxious that no person would want to marry them, they encountered Boodh, the god of Mercury, who is neither man nor woman (or both, depending on the story), and they lived happily together.
The story of King Kopperumcholan was beautiful too. A poet and a king had a deep connection without every meeting each other; the king loved the poet's works, and the poet loved the king's wisdom. When the king was about to die, he ordered an empty tomb to be built next to his own - because he knew his poet friend would come to be buried beside him. Another beautiful story was from the hijra tradition about the Ramayana. When Rama went into exile, he told his people trying to follow him "Men and women of Ayodhaya! Go home!" When he returned 14 years later, he found the hijras still patiently waiting... because they had not been told what to do. Touched, Rama promised them they would not be invisible in his kingdom.
The book also contains an old favorite of mine, the myth of Bharigath, son of two mothers, born from the love of two queens, who grows up to be a great king who brings the river Ganges to Earth. 


The hero of the title story, Shikhandi, also comes from the Mahabharatha. Born female, he is raised as a prince. When he gets married, a yaksha loans him his genitals for the wedding night... then decides the prince can keep them. This transition is later turned into an advantage against the enemy on the great battlefield of the epic, when Bhisma, the enemy's hero refuses to fight the prince saying he is "a woman". This is how Bhisma is defeated, bringing vengeance from Shikandi who had been dishonored by him in a previous life. Genitals borrowed and princesses turned into princes is a common motif in world folklore; it appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and even in folktales such as ATU 514.
The tale of Madhata's birth began with a king drinking magic water meant for his wives, and getting pregnant from it. This motif also exists elsewhere; last time I read a similar story from Armenia. The myth of Bhangashvana was similar to the Greek story of Tiresias, centered on the question of whether men or women enjoy sex more. The answer was "women" here as well, and it was especially interesting that this question was posed to a hero on his death bed, as the most important thing he needed to answer...
I was reminded of Scottish and Irish tales by the story of Naranda, who bathed in a lake, turned into a woman, and then lived as a wife and mother until she lost her family and went back to the lake.

Where to next?
Sri Lanka!

Saturday, November 21, 2020

StorySpotting: Rubies and royalty (The Crown)

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?

The Crown, season 4, episode 3 (Fairytale)

What happens?

Lady Diana is selecting an engagement ring for herself from a box of royal jewels, supervised by the Queen and the Crown Jeweller. She picks up a ring with a gorgeous ruby stone in it, and the Jeweller asks if she knows where the Mogok Valley is. She doesn't, so he launches into a legend about a time when only beasts and serpents lived in northern Burma... at which point Lady Di changes her mind, and picks as sapphire instead, interrupting the story. 

What's the story?

I don't like it when a story gets interrupted, so here is the whole thing. 
(Side note: I really like shiny things, and I recently read a whole book about rubies, it was fascinating.)

The legend of the ruby mines of the Mogok Valley was reported by G. F. Kunz in 1915. It's a short story: a female naga laid three eggs in the mountains. From one came Pyusawti, King of Pagan; from one came a Chinese emperor; and from the third came the rubies of the Mogok ruby mines.

A more elaborate version of this legend comes from the Glass Palace Chronicle, a historical record compiled in the early 19th century in Myanmar and translated to English in the 1920s. 
According to this story, a Naga princess named Zanthi came from her realm to the world of humans to practice virtue. While living near Mt. Mali she fell in love and slept with the Sun prince, and became pregnant. However, the Sun abandoned her. When she was about to give birth she sent a white crow to bring her rubies from the Sun. At the bird's insistence, the Sun bundled up some gems and handed them over. The crow, however, was distracted by the food of some human merchants on the way, and left the bundle unattended. The humans switched the rubies for dry dung. Disappointed by the bundle, Zanthi returned home, leaving her eggs on the mountain. 

A hunter, carried away by spirits, found the egg(s?) some time later. However, on the way down, he had to cross a flooding river; the eggs slipped away. A gold-colored one broke in the Mogok Valley, filling it with rubies and iron. One black egg floated downriver and hatched a beautiful girl who later became a queen. A white egg floated down the river Irrawaddy and hatched a boy, who was prophesied to become the great King Pyusawhti. 

There are countless variations in gemstone-related literature about the "dragon" egg bursting open to fill the Mogok Valley with gemstones. It is a very appealing image. 


Diana's sapphire engagement ring became famous, and now it is worn by the Duchess of Cambridge. As for royal rubies, here is a blog post about some of them. And here is a picture of the ruby engagement ring of Sarah, Duchess of York (it apparently cost a lot of money):

Monday, November 16, 2020

Tragic love stories all the way down (Following folktales around the world 177. - Pakistan)

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!

Folk tales of Pakistan
Zainab Ghulam Abbas
Pakistan Publications, 1957.

The book contains nine stories, each of them quite long, from various parts and ethnicities of Pakistan: there are Bengali, Sindhi, Punjabi and Pushto stories among them. There are no notes or introduction, so it was a bit difficult to tell what the origin or the sources of the collection might have been, but that did not affect the overall reading experience.


The whole book is basically a collection of beautiful yet tragic love stories. Mahua, the Wild Flower, for example, is a girl who falls in love with a Brahman man, and they even run away together, but when her father catches up with them the girl kills herself rather than betraying her lover. The Song of Bhelua is about a wife who gets kidnapped, and even though her husband fights valiantly to get her back, he arrives too late; Sassi és Punnu are also a couple, but here the husband gets kidnapped, and the wife perishes searching for him in the desert (which is too bad, because the beginning of this tale is really nice; the rich man gives up his fortune to become a launderer, to be able to marry his sweetheart). The marriage of Momal, the wise queen to Rano ends in a tragic divorce when she tries to make her husband jealous by dressing her sister up as a man (not a wise idea). The musical love story of Adam and Durkhane ends with the girl dying to the sound of the music of her perished lover; a tree grows on their grave, providing wood for many lovers' musical instruments over the years.
The only exception in the book is the story of Manjurma. This one started out nice, with a grumpy old healer who adopted an orphan girl. Except, when she grew up, he decided to marry her... so she ran away with her beloved, leaving him alone. Apart from them, there was only one couple who survived this book, a side character in the Story of Heer, named Sehti, and her sweetheart. She befriended the heroine, and they eloped with their lovers together. Except Sehti and her sweetheart Murad had a camel, so they rode off into the sunset; Heer did not have a steed, so she got captured, and her family poisoned her. 


I was reminded of the story of Hero and Leander by Sohni and Mahinwal. Here, a rich merchant gave up his fortune to be with the girl he loved, except they were not able to marry so he met her in secret. Every night the girl swam across the river to be with her lover, but one night a storm drowned them both.
After the Azerbaijan collection I once again encountered the belief that snakes can turn into dragons, and dragons can turn into humans over time. Here a Chinese princess turned out to be a lamia monster, and her disappointed husband needed a wise man's help to get rid of her.

Where to next?

Thursday, November 12, 2020

StorySpotting: Dragon slaying 101 (The Mandalorian)

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?

The Mandalorian, season 2, episode 1 (The Marshal)

What happens?

The Mandalorian stops by in a small town on Tatooine, and in exchange for something he wants he promises to help the locals kill a giant sand shark Krayt dragon. The local miners team up with the Tusken raiders, and together they make a plan for killing the giant monster. First, they try to blow it up from below (since the belly is the only soft part), and when that doesn't work, Mando volunteers himself to get swallowed by the dragon, along with a pile of explosives, and blow it up from the inside. The dragon, by the way, spews acid everywhere, but the Mandaloria armor protects out hero from being digested. 
(Hint hint, wink wink.)

What's the story?

Killing dragons is a very popular pastime in folklore, so I'm not going to list all the options, just some fancy ones that come to mind. 

When I saw the Tuskens burying a bunch of explosives in a pit, trying to lure the dragon into slithering over then, I was immediately reminded of the Icelandic Völsunga saga, and its later German descendant, the Niebelungenlied. In this legend cycle, the hero Sigurd / Siegfried kills the dragon Fafnir by digging a pit, and stabbing it with his sword below (also getting drenched in dragon blood in the process, which makes him invulnerable). 

As for killing dragons with explosives: there is a legend in Kraków about the Wawel Dragon, a monster that used to inhabit the cave below the Wawel Castle. Two princes, Lech and Krakus, killed it by feeding it a sheep skin filled with sulphur, causing the dragon to combust from the inside. In a Hui legend from China, the hero Lilang subdues a mean dragon by feeding it cakes, in which he has hidden iron chains. By yanking the iron chains, he takes hold of the dragon's heart from the inside. For leverage.

Getting swallowed by a dragon and killing it from the inside also has a long international tradition. In a Nez Perce Coyote story, Coyote has himself voluntarily swallowed by Monster, so that he can burn and cut the creature's heart until it dies, rescuing all the people that have been swallowed. (I mean, look at that illustration! It's from this book.)

In the Irish Fianna legend known as The chase above Lough Derg, the Fianna faces a terrible (female) dragon that swallows people by the hundreds, including some of Fionn's best warriors (and his son Oisín). Fionn ends up wrestling the monster onto her back, and his son Dáire jumps down her throat, cutting a way from the inside out, rescuing the swallowed warriors. Fun fact: they all come out without their clothes, and with no hair left on their body. Talk about acid...

In Christian mythology, it is Saint Margaret who gets swallowed by a dragon (usually Satan himself in dragon form) and is portrayed victoriously bursting forth from the monster's stomach, because it could not handle the cross she was carrying. 

In another personal favorite of mine, a Puerto Rican folktale, a brave lad named Juan rescues people by volunteering to get swallowed by a shark - and then causing it such a bad toothache from the inside, that is has to go do the dentist. Shark dentist.

In a Hungarian Roma folktale, a village is threatened by a dragon that inhabits a swamp. A brave young Roma man spies on the dragon's feeding habits by hiding himself in a hollow tree, and then organizes the entire village into a dragon-slaying party. By coordinating their attack with scythes, pitchforks, and guns, they manage to lure the dragon from the swamp, and then kill it. 

In the legend of Princess Minne and Dietwart, a dragon attacks an unsuspecting hunting party in the woods, and the brave princess and her suitor face it together. In the end, Dietwart manages to stab the monster through the jaws, and the carcass falls on top of him, injuring him with fire and acid. (Could have used some Mandalorian armor...)

In the end, let's give a shout out to my favorite dragon-killing legend ever, Sistram and the Dragon, in which a half-swallowed knight instructs two other knights in slaying a dragon without accidentally cutting his legs off along with the monster's neck. Safety first, people. 


To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton: Stories don't exist to tell people dragons exist. Stories exist to tell people dragons can be defeated. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Persian tales come alive (Following folktales around the world 176. - Iran)

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!

My Mother's Persian Stories 
Folk tales for all ages in English and Farsi
Saeid Shammass & Shaunie Shammass
Kotarim International Publishing, 2018.

The book is bilingual - English from one side, Farsi from the other - and contains 30 tales, out of which 27 were told by the author's mother in Iran. The last three stories are the author's invention, contributing to the ongoing oral tradition. There is a short introduction, but no notes or comments for the individual stories. The illustrations are not great, but the texts more than make up for them: they carry on the motifs and plots of folklore, but also show the creative storytelling of the author's mother. This is truly a book of living oral tradition.


This is one of those rare books where I found a whole lot of intriguing new tales in one volume. The story of The bird of seven colors, for example, was a classic quest where a prince set out to find a mate for his father's lonely magic bird; he managed to break into a castle with some clever tricks, and rescue the other bird. Beebee Chaghzeh was a clever girl who got kidnapped by a witch, along with her whole family, on a cart filled with magic items. She managed to outwit the witch, rescue her family. The title of The citron princess made me think of "three oranges" tales, but I was pleasantly surprised to read a story instead where a girl, turned into a lemon by magic, was saved by a prince who slowly and carefully peeled back the lemon layers. Similarly, Hassan Ali started out as a "girl elopes with the wrong guy" tale, but here the wrong guy turned out to be a much better guy, and they even helped a cursed princess save her kingdom together.
One of my favorite stories in the book was The wheel of fortune, where a man without good fortune turned his life around by helping someone else turn their life around. There was a similarly good message in The lazy children, where three siblings refused to do any chores, until each found something they really wanted to do. The story of The jeweler and the apprentice had a heartwarming conclusion, where a grateful apprentice helped his teacher regain his wealth - in such a clever way that the old man's pride was not hurt.
The magic zucchini was a fun variant of the "donkey, table, stick" story type - especially because here the stick, instead of beating people, herded the donkey along, and showed the hero the way. On the other hand, I was surprised by the story of The selfish pussycat, where a girl didn't have genitalia, so she borrowed some for her wedding night from her cat (who had two sets)... but when the cat demanded a higher payment for the loan, she managed to get rid of her. (So many puns...).
The tales created by the author fit into the traditional lineup very well. I especially liked the last one, Blanket ears and the waq-waqs, a story about a journey to exotic places, where two groups of magical creatures managed to live peacefully together after they defeated an evil, strife-sowing witch. 


There were familiar tale types in the book too. Sometimes in new clothes, quite literally: The tale of GreenRobe was a story of a wife seeking her lost husband (similar to tales of East of the Sun, West of the Moon), following him across the changing of the seasons, until she found him and they could go home to their tree house together. There was also a "golden-haired twins" story (The little wooden horse), and a false fortune-teller (The caliph and the clown). 
The mother-in-law and the snake was similar to all the "devil's wife" stories where a loud woman chases a demon away - except here at the end of the story, the king decided she would make a great wife, and married the mother-in-law.
The tale of The two brothers was an Iranian version of the legend of the first temple (here, the brothers were rewarded by fairies). The land of darkness was the classic Alexander legend, except here we got a lot more interesting detail about the enchanted dark lands (e.g. that the ground is magnetic).

Where to next?

Monday, November 2, 2020

Heroic princesses and important lessons (Following folktales around the world 175. - Afghanistan)

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!

Folk tales of Afghanistan
Asha Dhar
Learners Press, 1999.

The book contains 22 folktales translated into English from the Dari language. The author re-told these stories to make the book more accessible to younger readers. Since the author is from India, short introduction and some of the tales highlight the cultural connections and encounters between India and Afghanistan.  
Each tale comes with short footnotes that explain some of the foreign words and expressions in the text. Sometimes the English phrasing sounded very modern, but it did not make the stories any less entertaining.


Image from here
By far the best story in the book was that of Princess Liyan (although it is so perfect I am not even sure it is a folktale). It's a great tale of adventure, where an evil magician takes over a kingdom, and the king's daughter sets out to destroy him and save her people. She is helped along the way by cat-peris, and flies on the back of the legendary Simurgh bird. 
I also loved the tale of The lock of the heart, where a mean miser saved a jinn princess, and in exchange he received a key that opened the lock of his heart, and helped him become a kind and generous person. In another wisdom tale a rich merchant's spoiled son kept skipping gold coins on a lake (instead of pebbles), until his father sent him out to find work. After working a whole year for one gold coin, he learned the value of money.


There were some familiar tales in the book too, such as the spider that saves the Prophet's life by covering a cave's entrance (The prophet and the khalifa), or Justice and Injustice (here Good Khan and Bad Khan - although in the end we find out that the Good Khan has also done some very questionable stuff while he was seeking his fortune). There was also a version of the classic, tragic love story of Ferhad and Shirin
The trickster in residence is Abu Khan, who is a lot like the Hodja Nasreddin. In one story he got a paper from the Amir proving he was allowed to kill flies anywhere anytime - and he used it to whack the Amir and his men on the head when they tried to take his house. He also took the role of the wise man in classic stories such as "scent of food, clinking of money", and "boiled eggs don't become chickens." 

Where to next?