Monday, December 7, 2020

Tales of the endless ocean (Following folktales around the world 180. - Maldives)

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 the Maldives
Xavier Romero-Frías
Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2012.

This book contains 80 folktales from the Maldives, collected by the author between 1979 and 2007. It begins with a glossary and an introduction; the latter tells us about the oral tradition, religious literature, and literacy of the islands, as well as the creation of the book, which is the first collection of folktales from the Maldives. Stories are grouped into traditional categories: tales of spirits and monsters, humorous anecdotes, animal tales, seafaring stories (including sung, poetic "verbal maps"), and historical legends. Each category gets its own introduction, and each story comes with footnotes that explain certain elements and name the original storyteller. The notes also explain Maldivian words and expressions, and give the Latin names of the animal and plant species. At the end of the book we find a bibliography and an index.
The book also has illustrations: black-and-white drawings, pictures of fish and bird species, and he occasional black-and-white photograph. 


A big favorite of mine in this book is the legend of The first tuna, where a famous master navigator is offended by his crew, so he refuses to navigate, and the ship almost sails off the edge of the world. In the last minute he changes his mind and steers the ship home safely, picking up a school of tuna along the way, and having a scary encounter with a giant hermit crab. In another, 17th century seafaring legend some people were shipwrecked on the far island of Hollavai. The story describes how they survived, and how they eventually realized they can send messages home with the help of migrating frigate birds. Also among the sea legends was one about The man who lived on the back of a whale - he never went ashore, lived in good friendship with the whale, ate raw fish, and had barnacles all over his lower body. The story of the Sandara shell told of the king and queen of the Moon: The queen dove into the sea to get the magic shell, which gave her husband strength to fight a demon. In the end, the king gave all the credit for the victory to his brave wife.

There was a lovely story about a girl who accidentally met a ghost at night instead of her lover, and it gave her skin disease. She was shunned by people, but her lover didn't give up, and he found a way to heal and save her. Disease (leprosy) played the main role in the story of Havva Didi as well - she was also exiled. Interestingly enough, in the end she found her way to an airbase, was healed in the hospital, and started a new life far from her faithless family. Mental health also appeared in a story: it was about a girl who couldn't stop crying, until her sister discovered a white disc hovering over her at night. Their father found a way to chase the spirit away.
The story of the two merchants was an exciting realistic tale, where one man kidnapped his friend's wife and kept her locked in. Truth was revealed by a young boy who had been keeping an eye on the shady merchant, even though everyone else believed he was an upstanding citizen. Another realistic tale told of The Queen of the Mangrove Forest, a beautiful girl who grew up in the wilderness and only ate mangrove fruit. However, when a king married her and "tamed" her into a refined lady, she forgot what mangrove even was... (apparently, "queen of the mangrove forest" is a Maldivian expression for people who are in a hurry to forget where they came from). 
I was amused by the story where a man escaped from a shapeshifting monster (who took on the form of his friend) because he was munching on fried breadfruit chips, and the crunching scared the monster. Definitely the scariest of the monsters was a graveyard demon named Fulu Digu Hadi, who pushed its squirming umbilical chord into people's houses through the roof - until someone cut it off and rubbed chili and salt in the wound. The Maldivian tooth fairy, Santimariyambu was also a bit chilling: she takes out the dirty teeth of people while they sleep, and puts in clean ones. But once a man yelled at her, and she threw her entire bag of teeth in his face... and they stuck. Yikes. I enjoyed the legend of Oditan Kalege, the sorcerer who fought a magic duel against his wife who turned out to be a man-eating monster in disguise.  
Among the realistic tales, there were some fairly new ones - like the story about the first scuba diver, from Japan, who brought his gear to the islands. Legends claim he was eaten by a giant crab (he wasn't). Another story told of a stray seal that the people of Himiti island mistook for a sea monster.


The collector called Dombeyya a "Maldivian Odyssey", and he was not wrong. It is a long and complex story about a man who wanders from seven years from island to island, encountering cannibals, giant crabs, bandits, crocodiles, rhinos, and other assorted dangers, until he finds his way home to his faithful wife. In another familiar story a girl was swallowed by a shark, and later rescued by fishermen.
The story of Handi Don Kamana reminded me of the legends of Melusine, where a husband (after years of happy marriage) spies on his wife, and realizes that she is not a mortal woman.
There was a story explaining the origin of the first coconuts; here, a sorcerer saved people from famine by making palm trees grow from graves. I was reminded of African folktales by The skull under the tree, which got a man into trouble simply by talking too much. The tale where someone exchanges useless things for increasingly more useful ones had a grey heron (Makana) as its protagonist, while the stereotypical false fortune-teller was a false master navigator here.
I was reminded of fairy legends by the story of the two-headed birds, which, when they found out humans are clever enough to trap even a tiger, decided to fly away from this world. Another fairy parallel was the story where The king of the seas summoned a human midwife to his daughter, and rewarded her handsomely - as long as she didn't talk about where she'd been. 
There was a chain story, featuring Amboffulu (mango seed) and Damboffulu (plum seed). One of them was trapped, and the other tried to get help through a long chain of helpers. Another classic, a trickster story about "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" featured a grey heron and his brother-in-law. 

Where to next?

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