Friday, December 31, 2021

312 earworms

It has now become tradition on this blog to post on the last day of the year about the earworms I wake up with every morning. For some reason I rarely wake up without something playing on my inner radio, so I started making notes, and doing the statistics at the end of the year. You can find the previous posts for 2020, 2019, and 2018 on the links. The breakdown:

2018: I woke up with music in my head on 306 mornings, with a total of 150 individual songs in one year

2019: 316 mornings, 137 songs

2020: 346 mornings, 149 songs

This year's stats: 312 mornings, 124 songs. There were 54 that I only had once, the rest repeated multiple times throughout the year. This year I had a large number of songs that kept coming back on four, five, or more occasions. As usual, here is the Top 5 list: 

First place, with 16 mornings, a new personal record:
(I loved this show and the music, and this scene was especially well done. But I did not expect it to stick this much...)

On second, third, and fourth place, we have music from In the Heights. They had absolute success in my brain this year. I woke up to the soundtrack on 66 mornings. The most common, with 10 of those mornings, was this song:

Basically the entire soundtrack made an appearance quite often: Paciencia y fe (8), Respira (7), When you're home (7), It won't be long now (7), Cold champagne (4), Benny's dispatch (3), 96,000 (3), Home all summer (3), Blackout (3), Carnaval del barrio (3), Finale (3), No me diga (2), The club (2), Piragua (1).

In shared third place, also with 8 mornings, I had this classic (I blame The Boys, and the year 2020):

And still in third with 8 mornings, I had the song below, from Julie and the Phantoms. The show was cute but forgettable, but its music stuck: I woke up to it 19 times. Next to this song, I also had Other side of Hollywood (7) and Wake up (4).

The fourth place is equally crowded. Next to In the Heights and Julie, I had an individual contestant here too, from a movie I haven't even seen. I woke up to it on 7 mornings, and it always put me in a feminist mood.

Fifth place goes to three individual contestants, with 6 mornings each:

Next to the Top 5, I have also had a blast with the soundtrack of Encanto. It could not catch up to the others in one month, but it is going strong. So far I have had it stuck in my head on 17 mornings, including today. It has no bad song, which shows in the numbers: All of you (4), Surface pressure (3), Dos oroguitas (3), Family Madrigal (2), What else can I do (2), We don't talk about Bruno (2), Waiting on a miracle (1).

Between Encanto, In the Heights, Moana and Hamilton it seems like this year Lin-Manuel Miranda was single-handedly responsible for a third of my earworm music (95 mornings). 

I am also a little ashamed to admit that the soundtrack of the latest Cinderella movie also stuck, even though the movie was atrociously unwatchable. Still, the music took up 8 of my mornings so far.

And here comes this year's WTF pick: a song I have not heard in decades and has no meaning to me. And yet one day I woke up with this playing in my head.

That's all. The experiment continues. It doesn't really mean anything, but I am greatly entertained by it. Do you have earworms too? What was your music this year?

Happy 2022!

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

StorySpotting: Madrigal magic powers (Encanto)

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!

I watched Encanto in the movie theater and then went and immediately watched it again. It is a stunning, deeply moving film. It also emotionally knocked me on my ass for a whole day.

Where was the story spotted?

Encanto (Disney, 2021.)

What happens?

The main characters of the movie, the members of the Madrigal family, all have special supernatural powers (except for Mirabel, our hero). They gain their powers from a magic candle, gifted once upon a time to the family's matriarch.

What's the story?

All the powers granted to the Madrigal family have their counterparts in folklore and legend. Since this is one of my areas of interest (or nerdiness) as a storyteller, I couldn't pass up blogging about them. Let's see in order:

Pepa Madrigal - Weather control

In a folktale from Cape Verde two girls encounter three fairies, with vastly different results. Similarly to the Frau Holle story the hard-working girl is rewarded, while the lazy girl is punished. Both reward and punishment, however, are unusual. Good Maria gains powers so that "when she laughs the rain may fall, and when she smiles the weather thickens", while Bad Maria gets powers so "when she smiles, a strong wind blows, and when she laughs, a tempest uproots all the trees on the shore and wrecks all the ships at sea." Their mood, just like Pepa's, directly affects the weather.
There is also a queen who controls the weather in a Transcarpathian folktale I published in English a while ago.

Julieta Madrigal - Healing

Julieta, Mirabel's mother, has the magic power to heal people with the food she cooks. It is one of the loveliest symbolic powers in the movie. She is one in a long line of legendary women, both of folklore and history, who knew the secrets of folk remedies and healing herbs. In European folklore, we have famous ladies such as Biddy Early or Anne Jeffries, or Hungary's lesser known but endlessly fascinating Macska Róza (Rose of the Cats). There is a lovely folktale from Tajikistan about a brave girl who sets out to find a magic plant, and learns the art of healing in the process. From the Maya South America, there is a story about a wise old woman who cures toothaches and thus saves her village.

Bruno Madrigal - Visions of the future

Seeing the future is not exactly rare in folklore and mythology. Practically everyone is doing it, from queens to strange old beggars on the roadside. But Bruno's story has two components: the fact that he sees the future, and the fact that his family basically exiles him for it. And that, in itself, is also a folktale type. It's numbered ATU 725 ("The Dream"). In it, a boy usually sees a dream or a vision of how in the future he will be a great sovereign, and his father/parents will bow down to him (Joseph, anyone?). In anger, the family kicks him out, and he has to go through a whole lot of ordeals until the vision inevitably becomes reality. (The Motif Number for this is L425). Interestingly, this tale type also exists with a female hero in a Greek collection.

Dolores Madrigal - Sharp hearing

Dolores can hear a pin drop from a mile away. Unusually sharp hearing, actually, is not at all unusual in folktales. It even has it's own motif number: F641, Person of Remarkable Hearing. These heroes usually appear in the folktale type ATU 513, Extraordinary Companions, and they are a staple member of the team in almost every variant of the story. They can hear the grass grow, ants walk, or a feather fall halfway across the world. They usually aid the tale's main hero by telling him of impending danger.
(You can find a long list of these folktales in my thesis online.)

Camilo Madrigal - Shapeshifting

Continuing with the cousins: Camilo can take on the appearance of other people, and change his body at will. Now, while shapeshifting is quite common in folklore, taking on other humans' appearances is more of a rarity. In general, human shapeshifting is reserved to... people who are not quite human. In a Roman myth, for example, Vertumnus, minor god of the changing seasons turns into various attractive men to seduce a reclusive nymph. In another myth (also from Ovid's aptly named Metamorphoses) a girl named Mestra gains the power to change her shape at will, and she uses it to get away from her abusive father. In the medieval ballads about Robin Goodfellow (a.k.a. Shakespeare's Puck) he is half mortal, half fae, and can change his shape into whatever he wants to be, including humans and animals. Since Camilo has a trickster nature in the movie, Robin is probably closest to him in personality. Another shapeshifting trickster spirit that appears as various humans is Rübezahl, the goblin king of the Silesian mountains.

Antonio Madrigal - Animal speech

Antonio, the youngest of the Madrigal children, has the power to talk to animals. Once again, this is a classic. The motif number is B216 (Knowledge of animal languages) or B217 (Animal language learned). There are too many tales to list, although unfortunately many of them involve wife-beating or even murder. So I'm only highlighting some that are better. The legend of the Da-Trang crabs from Vietnam tells of a man who gains a magic pearl that helps him understand the language of all animals. He uses his powers for good in various creative ways (until one day he loses the pearl, and his senses with it). The Italian tale where a clever boy named Bobo learns animal speech ends better: he uses his gifts to help people, and is eventually elected Pope with the help of a pair of doves. A boy named Jack from the Traveller tradition also puts his knowledge to good use, and grows rich from the secret he learns from the birds (about how to find hidden treasure while the trees go dancing). Finally, a personal favorite: in a Japanese tale an old man receives a listening hood that allows him to hear the speech of animals and plants. He uses this knowledge to help them, and also the people who don't realize the damage they are doing to nature.

Luisa Madrigal - Super strength

Super strength in folklore is as common as dirt, but it becomes a tad more interesting when we talk about super strong women. Many people might be familiar with the picture book Three Strong Women, which is based on a Japanese folktale. In it, a three-generation family of brawny ladies teach an important lesson to a sumo wrestler. It took me a while to track down the original story, about a strong girl named Oiko, in this folktale collection. She also trains a sumo wrestler to be stronger, and also teaches a lesson to villagers who try to mess with her.

Isabela Madrigal - Flower power

Isabela makes flowers grow everywhere (as well as "a hurricane of jacarandas, strangling figs, hanging wines", which is a line from her song I adore). She reminded me of a princess from Hungarian folklore: The Princess Who Makes the Forests Green and the Meadows Bloom. Wherever she walks, she brings nature to life. An Indian princess has similar abilities in a tale titled A story in search of an audience - here, she receives her gift because her pregnant mother listens to a legend no one else is willing to hear. In another, even more beautiful tale from India, a girl has the power to turn herself into a Flowering tree, providing fresh flowers for her family to sell. In the same collection we can also read about The Princess of Seven Jasmines, from whose lips jasmine flowers drop when she laughs. By the way, flowers blooming from a girl's laughter, footprints, or hair is a common motif in folklore (numbered H71.4 or D1454.2.1 in the Motif Index). It is usually a blessing that distinguishes her as a "good bride" or a "kind sister."

Mirabel Madrigal

Isn't it the entire point of the movie that Mirabel doesn't have a superpower? Well, yeah, it is. But her story is not without parallels anyway. There is a dark prophecy about her, one that everyone thinks means she will wreck the family. This reminded me of an Icelandic folktale, titled Hild, the Good Stepmother. While it is about the No. 1 rule of folklore that a prophecy always come to pass, this story goes in the opposite direction. A princess is foretold to bring ruin to her family before she turns 18: burn down the palace, get pregnant out of wedlock, and kill a man. Her stepmother, however, helps her figure out ways to bypass all three on technicalities, and in the end, she lives happily ever after with her family. (Find another version here.)


And since the house and the home of the Madrigal itself is a character in the story, I can't miss mentioning the Encante of Amazonian legends: a hidden, magical city full of magical creatures. It is usually believed to be the home of the encantados, shapeshifter people that like to appear as Amazon river dolphins. People who are lucky enough to make the journey to the Encante usually return wiser, and kinder, than before.


I have a soft spot for superpowers in folklore (I even wrote a book about it). And Encanto does an excellent job of using them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Storytellers' Secret Santa

Who wouldn't want to receive a shiny, new, exciting story for the winter holiday of their choice - from a fellow storyteller?

This winter, I am giving a new idea a try: Secret Santa for storytellers around the globe!

Here's the rules:

1. We are sending stories as gifts to each other. You draw another storyteller's name in secret (I'll take care of this), and you send them a story. Someone else sends a story to you. That's it. Joy all around. (No, this is not a chain email!)

2. YOU GIVE A STORY, you get a story. This is important. Secret Santa kinda sucks if your gift never arrives. So, only commit if you are sure you can send your gift out in time! Don't ruin someone else's miracle.

3. Please observe copyright (see below*). This means it is easiest if we mostly work with folktales, or stories in the public domain. Be mindful of cultural appropriation.

4. We are doing this in English. For now. Only do another language if you are sure the person you send your story to shares your native language.

5. With that said, this will be extra fun if the stories are not easily accessible in English! Translating something that most people don't have access to is a very nice gift!

6. In fact, MAKE AN EFFORT. Don't just copy-paste a text from the Internet. Find something rare. Old. Shiny. Not readily available. Do some digging. Make it fun. Share the fun! Give the gift of research.

7. It is assumed that the story you gift to someone is theirs to tell. No strings attached. (Do check with your Santa if you want to publish it in the future, though!)

8. TIMELINE: Sign up on the form below by DECEMBER 6th (midnight, wherever your midnight is). The day after, you will receive an email with the name of the person you are gifting to. Then, you have until DECEMBER 24th THE LATEST to send your story, in an email! Make it nice. Put a bow on it.

9. On the form, you will get the chance to give 3 keywords about what kinds of stories you generally like. This will be a guideline for your Secret Santa, but not a guarantee! Be open to new stories.

10. Keep the stories family friendly, unless explicitly stated in the keywords otherwise.

Are we good? Good.

Here's the form:

Please, don't troll this. Just, don't be a troll. Seriously.

* On copyright: In many countries, folktales are not under copyright. However, someone's retelling of a folktale can be. Also, specific translations can be protected by copyright too. It is worth checking the rules in your home country. Look for sources that are in the public domain (also depends on the country, but online archives are a great place to start!). If you work with a folktale, try to find multiple versions, and craft your own telling of it.

You can also craft your own story. But be aware that this is a Secret Santa for storytellers, so no novelettes or literary short stories, please. We are sharing tellable tales. Fairy tales. Fables. Legends. You get the idea.

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Greenland Bestiary (Island folktales 1. - Greenland)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. "Island folktales" is a series where I read stories from islands that are not sovereign nations. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

THIS BOOK IS FOR 18+ only. CW: basically everything. Be warned.

Bestiarium Greenlandica

A compendium of the mythical creatures, spirits, and strange beings of Greenland
Maria Bach Kreutzmann
Eye of Newt Books, 2021.

If you think the krampus is the epitome of folk horror, don't read this book. Or do. If you dare.
I found the book at the National Museum of Denmark, and I immediately had to buy it. It is a real treat for storytellers, folklorists, horror fans, and artists alike: An encyclopedia of the mythical creatures of Greenland that does not only contain descriptions and short legends, but also an illustration for every single creature. Artists from Greenland created illustrations that are equal parts gorgeous, fascinating, and sometimes nightmare-inducing.
Next to the high quality, the book also contains a lot of in-depth information. There is an introduction about how the collection was born, a chapter on Greenland's history, a list of alternate names and their spelling, a bibliography, a glossary, a map, artist bios, and even a short essay on Greenland shamanism. Every creature comes with a pronunciation guide (which really comes in handy, you'll see why). The culture presented on the page is rich, enchanting, and probably unknown to a lot of people (especially because many think Greenland is just like Iceland, but bigger) (the Vikings thought so too).
The stories only appear in shortened versions, but I found a good number of them online in this book.


Sassuma Arnaa, the Mother of the Sea, is a character I have loved for a long time. She is the goddess of the ocean. When the sins and carelessness of humans tangles and dirties her hair, the animals get stuck in it, and life disappears from the waters. Then, a shaman has to descent into her realm to clean and untangle her hair.
Another interesting character was Asiaq, goddess of the wind, whose body is all topsy-turvy (her mouth is vertical, for example), and so is her home. No one wanted to marry her, so she stole a baby and raised it to be her husband. When she gets bored with him, she turns him into a baby again. She makes rain by shaking his urine out of the diapers... A third powerful figure was Pissaap Inua, the Lord of Strength, a human-faced fox who gifts strength to the weak. In one story a bullied orphan boy asked him for help, and grew so strong that he could kill polar bears with his hands. The Lord of Strength gave him the gift by throwing him into the air with his tail, and shaking all the childhood toys out of his pockets (read the story here).

Art by Agust Kristinsson
I was fascinated by the creature called aassik, basically a giant worm (like in Dune, but with ice instead of sand). According to legend, they can be tamed and harnessed to pull a sled. In one story a young man harnessed a polar bear, and aassik, and an amaroq to his sled to go rescue his sister. Amaroq are giant wolves that can also change into humans sometimes. In one story a young man died in the wilderness, and his body was consumed by amaroq. Their grandmother collected their excrement, covered it with moss, and brought the man back to life. He became a famous hunter.
Art by Jonatan Brüsch

Another exciting creature was the eqalussuak, a Greenland shark that can walk on land, and despite its terrifying appearance it protects orphans, widows, and single women. The award for best name, however, goes to the ikkiillineqanngeqqissaartoq (something akin to a fox, but with a sharp blade on its back that it can use to disembowel giants). The nicest beings were the little people called qamallarlutik who can never sit still, and sometimes turn into ptarmigans. 
Among the shaman legends the strangest was the one about a young man who did not want to accept his calling as a shaman, so one of his helper spirits, a nappaasilat (giant polar bear) dragged him out of the house by the testicles and tossed him into the sea, where another helper, and aaverpak (walrus) bit him and kicked him around until he agreed to become a shaman. (By the way, the nappaasilat can also possess a shaman, and make them turn into a polar bear with healing powers). There were other exciting shaman legends as well, such as the one where children were kidnapped by a monster named amaarsisartoq. A shaman rescued them, but then the monster stuffed him into its hood instead. Eventually, the shaman was rescued by his helper spirits. 
Art by Maja-Lisa Kehlet
There was a beautiful story about a girl abandoned by her lover, who was invited into the home of a woman in black clothes. At the end, it turned out that the mysterious woman who consoled the girl was an inorrooq, a raven shapeshifter.
One of the creepiest creatures was the akueqqutit, an invisible spirit, a kind of reverse conscience: it whispers to people, making them do all the wrong things. Allegedly it is so evil that not even flesh can grow on it, which is why it is invisible.
Another haunting belief was about the qivittut: if someone wants to acquire magic powers, they have to walk into the wilderness, and freeze to death in five days. After that, they become magical creatures, and the women even turn into half polar bear.


Next to all the mythical creatures and shaman beliefs, Christianity also made an appearance. A shaman called Aattaaritaa decided to convert, after he saw a vision of the end of the world. One of his helper spirits tried to talk him out of it ("If the world ends, I will start it again!"), but the shaman turned his back on the spirit world in the end.

Art by Agust Kristinsson

Monday, November 22, 2021

Tales of the Sea Nomads (Folktales of Asian minorities 2. - Moken)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Rings ​of Coral
Moken folktales
Jacques Ivanoff
White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2001.

The 44 stories in this book were collected in the 1980s from the Moken people, sea nomads who travel in their ships among the islands between Thailand and Myanmar. The introduction tells us about their lifestyle, the islands, the storytelling tradition, and the collection process. It was fascinating to read about the connection between the collector and the Mokens - like the shaman who secretly recorded an extra myth that the collector only found on the tape after he returned home. The Moken believe their epics have power: some of them can even summon a storm. The introduction lists the storytellers, many of whom were members of the shaman's family, but knew different stories.
Each tale comes with end notes, which are vital (but you have to turn the pages back and forth a lot). There are some black-and-white and some color illustrations too.


Several stories were about the origin of taboos and traditions. For example, in the story of Péma Alang a husband told his wife what not to do while he was harvesting swallow nests (combing hair summons sharks, shaking clothes makes wind, etc.). The wife did not listen, and her husband fell to his death in the caves. In another legend a captain, also called Péma, did not give respect to the monkeys of Surin Island (monkeys are revered by the Moken), and tried to fight them, so the monkeys, led by a spirit, bit him to death. In the story of Pinang and the Sea Spirit a mysterious woman climbed aboard a man's ship, and they fell in love. The woman told him not to kill anything that "comes from the sea and has eyes." (Especially turtles, although he wasn't sure if she was a turtle or a dugong spirit). Surprisingly, the husband kept the taboo.
Naturally, ships and sailing played an important role in the stories. I was fascinated by the legend of the crying rope, where a sea snake bit a ship's rudder, and its venom was so potent that it killed everyone on board. Then, a rope came to life, slithered into the noses of the dead, and brought them back to life. That rope has been considered a living spirit ever since.
According to Moken belief, the ebb and tide are caused by a giant crab that lives in a cave under a sky-high mango tree. The tree has other inhabitants as well: a Gaurda bird nests among its branches with its daughter, and below it lives a beautiful woman who seduces sailors and feeds them to the sharks.
In one legend the Moken sailed west, to reach the Land of Amber, and reached the Ficus that grew all kinds of food. There, they got shipwrecked, and the three Moken ancestors made their way back home three different ways: one on the back of a ray, one on the back of a giant bird, and one on an Indian ship.
I also liked the story about an evil giant who killed a woman and took her place; the woman's spirit turned into various things, and finally her son managed to break the spell, winning back his parents.

Image from here


In the epic of Nyonya, sung in the Malay language, Nyonya marries a man named Jawan Moda after her husband's death. When the new husband cheats on her, she flies home to her parents. Her husband follows, and manages to win back her respect by defending her island from an invading army with the help of monkeys and bears. The battle reminded me of the Ramayana.
Awang the Frog was a frog husband tale, complete with an epic battle, while the story of Kaét was a snake husband story (there were multiple of those in the book). Kaét's father killed her snake lover many times, but he kept coming back to life, and finally the woman, disappointed by her father's cruelty, took her family and moved up to the sky.
The legend of Kechot and Death was about a woman who met walking dead people on an island. The dead asked her to ferry them to another place, but she refused - that is why people do not come back to life after their death anymore.
As for tricksters: There was a Mouse Deer story, but it was pretty jumbled, as if the storyteller only remembered parts of it. At the end of the book, however, among the stories from other collections I found an excellent Mouse Deer and Tiger tale, with tricks I have not heard before.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Goodnight stories for headhunters (Folktales of Asian minorities 1. - Iban / Sea Dyak)

 As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

I know I have not finished the Chinese minorities series yet, but I have gotten my hands on some awesome books recently, so I am taking a detour.

The Girl Sudan Painted Like a Gold Ring

Folktales from the Sea Dyaks of Sarawak, Borneo
Theresa Fuller
Bare Bear Media, 2022.

The Iban (Sea Dyak/Dayak) people number about one million, and live on the island of Borneo in the area of Sarawak, along the seashore and rivers. They live in longhouses that house several families, and until recently they had a tradition of headhunting.
The author, storyteller Theresa Fuller, sent me an ARC copy of this book. I was happy about it, because I like folktales from Borneo and I have not read any from the Dyak tradition before. The book contains ten stories, many of them multiple chapters long; they are interspersed with shorter legends and trickster tales. Each comes with a short cultural introduction, and the re-told texts contain many fascinating details about Dyak everyday life. The author added two parts to two longer stories that came from her own imagination, describing parts of the narrative from the women's point of view. These (carefully noted) sections were more novel-like than the folktales, but very beautiful, and rich in detail. At the end of the book we also get a glossary, and a chapter on Dyak culture.


The title story was beautiful and fascinating. The protagonist, Siu, was one of those hunters who accidentally wander into the spirit realm and learn that animals are also human in their own world. He marries the daughter of the king of spirits, and promises never to hunt birds again. When he inevitably breaks his promise, she leaves him. He goes on a  journey, raising their son in the wilderness. After many exciting adventures, they find her again, and the (now grown) son has to prove that, as a half-spirit, he is worthy of being a member of her family. One of the challenges was a spinning top competition, which I especially liked.
Another person who wandered into the spirit realm was Pulang-Gana, who followed a porcupine, and fell in love with another spirit princess. When he returned home, and his brothers treated him badly, he became the god of the earth that everyone has to respect.
Headhunting played an important role in the tale of Danjai and the Were-tiger's Sister. Here the tiger killed a young woman, and her husband, Danjai, set out to take revenge. Entering the tiger's realm he met his sister, who was kind, and helped the hero behead her evil brother. They fell in love, she returned the dead wife's head, and the hero set out to find another head - as a wedding present.
I liked the apocalyptic tale where people tortured a dog, and in punishment a terrible storm turned them all into stone (except for one kind family). In another story, girls made fun of innocent animals, and met the same fate.


The trickster in residence was our favorite Mouse Deer, here known as Akal Pelandok (Ageless Mouse Deer). He was featured in multiple trickster tales, such as Pelandok and the Giant (where he outwitted a giant that stole fish from the animals), or Pelandok, Sambar and Pig (where the animals fell into a pit, and Pelandok used the others to get free). In the latter, the two outwitted animals tried to hunt him down, but Mouse Deer tricked them with classic tricks he also uses on Tiger in other stories. In a third tale, Pelandok and Kikura the Tortoise mutually played tricks on each other, and also on a monkey and a bear.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Storytelling on the shoulders of tradition: FEST Storytelling Conference, 2021.

After a missed year, and half a year of further delays, this October we finally had a FEST (Federation for European Storytelling) conference again! Until the last minute there was a lot of excitement and anxiety around whether we can travel and gather, since everyone is still sad about having to cancel the conference in Turkey last summer - but in the end, we got the green light. The conference took place in Denmark, on the island of Fyn, in a lovely town called Svendborg. The island, among other things, is famous as the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen.

I arrived to Svendborg Wednesday morning, after a long and pleasant train ride. Since we could not check into the hotel till the afternoon, some of headed to a restaurant for lunch and catching up. I got to meet Isabelle Hauser from Switzerland, who was at FEST for the first time, and I immediately wanted to be her friend. By the time we returned to the hotel, the other participants were also gathering: we had more than 100 storytellers, despite the travel and pandemic complications. It was amazing to see friendly and familiar faces again; the conference hall echoed with chatter and laughter. Some countries were missing or underrepresented this year for various reasons (I missed seeing more English, Spanish, and Turkish tellers), but it was still a great gathering. 

After a short welcome speech we got to hear Henrik Lübker, curator of the Andersen Museum, talk about the museum's renovation and future plans, preparing us for our visit on Friday. After a noisy and happy dinner (storytellers had a lot to catch up on after 2 years), we had an evening lecture as well: Vigga Bro, one of the iconic persons of Danish storytelling, talked to us about her life and her art. She invited Abbi Patrix on stage for a conversation, and they discussed theater, storytelling, and even Andersen's tales (which were a topic of varied opinions throughout the weekend). It was an enjoyable way to start the conference.

The real work began Thursday morning. We had a General Assembly, where the board and EC of Fest told us about projects, plans, and budgeting, and then we held elections for new board and EC members. After the heavy lifting was done, we moved on to the professional workshops in the afternoon. There was a lot to choose from, but not for me: I did my workshop twice, 90 minutes each. It was titled Carrying the Story Bag: Continuing the oral tradition in the 21st century. I basically lead a discussion and brainstorming session with 20 people each time, about what tradition is, how we define traditional storytelling (do we need to?), and what we can do with it in the 21st century. I had a list of open-ended questions to spark thoughts and opinion (e.g. "What do you think of other people telling stories from your own tradition?" or "What would you like to pass on to the next generation?"). The discussion was lively and fascinating. We had a good mix of people, from traditional tellers to personal tellers, from Croatia to Sweden. I think we all learned a lot from each other, and I received a lot of enthusiastic feedback for the topic.

After the workshops Elena Asciutti from Italy organized a radio interview for Diffusione Fiaba with me and with Agnieszka Aysen Kaim. We discussed folktales and oral tradition, and had a lot of fun sharing our thoughts. We caught up with the other participants at dinner at a lovely restaurant, and that was not yet the end of the day. 

We got quite the bedtime story. Two Danish tellers, Jesper la Cour és Troels Kirk Ejsing performed their telling of Beowulf in 90 minutes. We were not only listeners, but also all active participants in the storytelling: we sat along the two sides of the stage, facing each other, and sometimes we were guests in a feasting hall, while others we were rowing a ship on the sea. The music and sound effects of the performance were supplied by a watering can, which was both hilarious and creative. It was playful, participatory storytelling at its finest, with a lot of fun moments and improvised jokes. I loved every minute of it.

We spent Friday at another location, in Odense. In the morning we heard lectures in the local university's building, had lunch at a street food restaurant (loved it), and then returned for some more presentations. Dr. Ane-Grum Schwensen told us about her work with Andersen's manuscrips, and let us in on a few secrets about how he changed his stories multiple times before publication. Swedish storyteller Göran Hemberg gave us a philosophical yet enjoyable lecture about how storytelling creates shared space. Frank Belt and Paul Groos from the Netherlands expanded the FEST competence model, working on descriptions of levels of what each competence entails. This was especially interesting because it helps storytellers define professional development, but doesn't try to constrict it. Last but definitely not least Mimesis Heidi Dahlsveen gave us a talk/performance on how digital storytelling has shaped our lives in the past two years. It was thought-provoking and unexpected.

After the lectures came the treat of the day: a visit to the Andersen House. Because renovations have not been quite completed yet, we could visit at a reduced price, and we even got a few glimpses behind the scenes. At this point, I have to confess that I have never liked Andersen stories (they made me cry and feel miserable as a child), but the museum managed to be a fascinating experience even for me. It presents Andersen as a person with a hint of humor, and the spaces designed by a Japanese architect were really beautiful. The museum is filled with interactive things, from a touch screen to explore Andersen's drawings all the way to a two-way mirror for the emperor's imaginary clothes. We also got to visit the children's play room, filled with tiny houses, crochet food, and colorful costumes. All of us immediately turned into children and barely wanted to leave the place at all.

Friday night concluded with an elegant candlelit gourmet dinner, singing, and dancing. The Danish organizers handed the flame of the conference to Lithuania. We drank wine, talked, and laughed together.

Saturday morning had another round of workshops for those who were not leaving yet. I joined Trine Krarup's three hour workshop on environmental storytelling, but could only stay for the first part. It was interesting to exchange our thoughts on stories and en environment, and how storytellers can reach new audiences. I left a little early, because I still had storytelling to do in the afternoon...

The conference officially ended with lunch. We said our goodbyes. Many people headed back home, but some of us stayed. Parallel to the conference there was also a week-long Danish storytelling festival in town, and we got invited for the closing day. After lunch we gathered at a local cultural center for a lively, crowded International Story Hour. Five of us performed: Susanne Schoppmeier from Germany told a "clever maid" tale; Kathleen Rappolt also from Germany told Barking Mouse and also a touching tale about a bird and freedom; Milda Varnauskaite from Lithuania told a gorgeous Lithuanian legend (I have never heard her before but now I am a total fan); Mattia Di Pierro from Italy told a funny story about a little gnome-like creature. I told last: a Hungarian legend about a fairy woman who turned people into flowers to save them from an invading army.

I spent the afternoon at a nice cafe with Pintér Zsolt and Kántor Szilvia, who were there representing the organizers of the 2023 FEST conference in Hungary. From there, we moved on to another cafe where we got a dinner of panini sandwiches in the company of happy and talkative Danish storytellers from the festival. And the day was not over yet: the closing performance took place in the harbor, in the building of a costume museum. We got to hear a lot of good stories, some in English and some in Danish. My dear friend Annemarie Krarup helped me understand the latter. I was especially happy to hear Maria Junghaus tell; she was the main organizer of the conference, and spent her time running around getting things done, so it was good to hear her tell a story as a treat. In English we got to hear Paul Groos from the Netherlands who told a local legend about the Devil's Mountain, and Paola Balbi from Italy who told us a stunning myth about the Mother Goddess. On my part, I added the Florida folktale about Mockingbirds on Fridays.

We walked back to the hotel late at night, taking the scenic route. The four days of the conference had flown by. I was filled with happy memories, new stories, and the excitement of being the part of a colorful and friendly storytelling community. As well as we managed to adapt to the digital world, nothing quite measures up to spending time together in person.

See you all on the road!

Monday, September 20, 2021

Kindness over violence (Folktales of Chinese minorities 19. - Jino)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again I encountered a minority that I could not find a full collection for, so I browsed various sources for individual tales. The Jino (Jinuo) people live in Yunnan province in Southern China, and number a little more than twenty thousand people. They are one of the smallest minorities, and the last one of the 55 that were officially recognized (in 1979). They are known for their colorful woven outfits. Next to hunting and gathering, they cultivate land cleared from forests by burning.


The tale of Lady Fish was both beautiful and sad: a dragon king's daughter married a mortal man, but her husband started cheating on her after a while, so she left him. The husband learned of a way to win back his wife through magic, but he was too lazy to do it properly, so the relationship ended for good.


The myth of the goddess Amoyaobai was the most beautiful "shooting the suns" story that I have encountered so far. The goddess gave humans intelligence so that they could solve their problems with thinking, rather than violence. Then seven suns rose into the sky and threatened the world, people threw rocks at them first, but then decided to negotiate in a kinder way. They managed to convince the suns to rise one by one and take turns.
I also read a Jino flood myth: after the flood, the first people of every ethnicity climbed out of a giant gourd planted by a brother and sister. The story explained why the Jino have no written language (they are the ox hide they had written their characters on), as well as the speech and skin color of various peoples. This myth is a very popular part of the Jino tradition: I found it in two more books, here and here.
Tricksters were represented by a man named Atui, in a story where in good trickster fashion he managed to steal other people's food instead of eating his own. 

Who's next?
The Monguor (Tu) people

Monday, September 13, 2021

Heroes make the world (Folktales of Chinese minorities 18. - Hani)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again, sadly, I could not find a full book of folktales for the Hani tradition, so I read stories from multiple different publications. The Hani live in Southern China and other countries of Southeast Asia, numbering almost three million people. Among others, they are famous for their folk songs, folk music, dancing, and beautiful silver jewelry. 


The most beautiful origin myth was about a goddess named Lady Yao, who stole from her strict father the seeds of 77 useful plants, and gave them to the people. her father turned her into a dog as punishment, sending her to live with humans. Commemorating her sacrifice, the Hani give the first plate of food from the harvest sacrifice to dogs every year. Selflessness also played a central role in another legend, which explained the origin of rice: here an abused servant girl discovered that the seeds of rice are edible. She used her discovery to save her fellow servants, and get rid of a cruel queen. 
Nimaxingtian was a dragon-slaying hero who would put many others to shame: according to legend he had one eye and one, axe-sharp ear. He defeated two evil dragons by shooting blinding light from his eye, and chopping them up with his ear. Another dragon-slayer was a female hero named Amatu; in her legend she first convinced a monster to eat cows instead of people, and then dressed his two sons up as girls to help them sneak up on the monster and kill it. 


The Hani also have a myth about shooting down suns: here an archer named Erpupolo shot down eight out of nine of them. The last sun hid, and had to be lured out by the crowing of a rooster (which was not a pretty song, but very honest). Another legend explained why sun and moon alternate in the sky: two brave siblings, Ah Lang and Ah Ang, flew up to the heavens to convince them to keep a regular schedule. They are commemorated every year with a spring festival. 
Culture heroes were represented by Maumay, a monkey who became a man, who, according to legend, stole the first rice seeds from the sky, sacrificing the life of himself and his horse. Another story told of a bird who turned into a man named Ahli, who created a wine water spring for the people as he was dying. 

Who's next?
The Jino people

Monday, September 6, 2021

Shamans and spirits (Folktales of Chinese minorities 17. - Daur)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

China's Dagur Minority
Society, Shamanism, and Folklore 
Kevin Stuart, Li Xuewei & Shelear
Sino-Platonic Papers 1994.

The Daur live on the Chinese side of the border with Mongolia, they are related to Mongolians, and number about 130 thousand people.This detailed book is divided into three parts: The first introduces Daur culture, the second discusses Daur shamanism, and the third contains all the stories - 82 tales and 6 myths total. From the first chapter I learned a lot about Daur life, language, traditions, history, festivals, poetry, music, and crafts. The shamanism essay was very Chinese in the way it labeled all beliefs antiquated superstitions ("all religions are absurd"), but at least it admitted that recording them can be useful from an ethnographic point of view. The folktales in the third chapter have been recorded by a Daur native collector named Sayintana in the 1980s; 50 of them were told by an old storyteller named Qiker. The stories came with their own introduction about translation and cultural elements.


The best story in the book was the legend of Nisang Yadgan, a long and epic underworld journey undertaken by a famous female shaman to bring a young man back from the dead. They met (and bargained with) gods, demons, spirits, Nisang's ex-husband, and other obstacles; they witnessed afterlife punishments that would put Dante to shame. Nisang appears in other neighboring cultural traditions as well. She must have bee a remarkable lady.
 I also loved the story of the man who (unwittingly) married a Ginseng Spirit. The feud between ginseng girls and spider demons became a complex multi-generational tragedy, but luckily it ended on a good note. Among the less happy love stories my favorite was the Yearning Swans, in which a boy and the girl fell in love while they studied together. Outside of romance, I loved the tale about the friendship between a kind boy and a tiger.
There was a memorable tale about a hunter and his nephew. The hunter's sister was half-eaten by a monster, so the hunter tried to get rid of her; her son, when he grew up, managed to return the other half of his mother's body, and even befriended the monster. When the hunter attacked them, he tied ten thousand bags of chili powder to birds' feet, and chili-bombed the enemy soldiers...
An interesting legend explained why the Daur don't have writing. It was about the monk Tang Seng who brought the holy scriptures of Buddhism (see Journey to the West). On the way, he lied to a giant turtle, and it ate him in revenge. The scriptures were scattered in the ocean, and the peoples who managed to fish some out are the ones with written literature.
Among the origin myths, the one about Holier Barken was the most fascinating. It was about a magical antelope that brought havoc to all the land; the Chinese tried to kill it multiple times but failed. In the end the antelope and an Oroqen man (see later) were struck by lightning at the same time, and their spirits combined into one deity. Combined spirits like this were actually common in Daur mythology.
Among the shaman legends the stories of Gahucha yadgan were memorable: he could make a river freeze over in the summer, but it cost him 10 years of his life. I also loved the short legend that claimed that trees have their own shamans that heal other trees. 

Image from here


Once again there was a myth about raising the sky; it said that it used to rain oil and snow flour, but when people started wasting food, the sky grew angry and rose up high out of reach. There was also a flood myth, combined with the tale type where animals rescued from the water are grateful, but humans aren't.
This book contained the best "princess in the shroud" variant I have ever read. In the tale of The boy and the demon, a young man married a dead girl unwittingly, and then they went through all kinds of adventures until an old drunk was brave enough to break her curse and bring her back to life. There was a great variant for "why old people are respected" as well: here the rescued father helped his son climb up to the sky, and find tools to defeat a giant rat demon.
There were other familiar tale types, such as three kidnapped princesses (Bear's Son), handless maiden, magic flight (here with a snake wife), sister turned into a monster (here a vulture spirit), and dragon slayer (here a pearl diver who blew up a sea serpent with gunpowder). The story of Aqinbu was also a kidnapped princesses tale, very similar to an Oroqen story I know.
As for tricksters: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King appeared in a legend - he was responsible for creating caves in the mountains. Tricksters got their own chapter in the book, and were mostly nameless poor boys or orphans. Many stories were familiar: fake fortune-teller, master thief, exchanged punishment, and other classic (and often bloody) tricks. I especially liked the tale where the Chinese tried to build a military camp by a Daur village - so the people moved the camp across the river at night, and pretended it had been blown over by the wind.

Image from here

Who's next?
The Hani people

Monday, August 30, 2021

Treasures and rainbows (Folktales of Chinese minorities 16. - Yao)

 As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again I could not find a whole book, but luckily there were many Yao tales scattered in the volumes I have at home. The Yao number about three and a half million people and live in China and Vietnam. Their stories seem to be popular with the editors of folktale collections, even in English. Yao women are famous for their long, gorgeous hair, which they only cut once in their lifetime (when they turn 18), and wear wrapped around their head. 


The legend of Liu Sain Mei (Maiden Liu) is one of the most well-known of the Yao tradition. It is about a Han girl who became a friend and ally of the Yao against oppression. She was a famous songstress who created many songs, and won many song contests with her quick wit, eloquence, and lovely voice. She defeated famous scholars and Han officials in song banter too. She married a Yao man of equal talent; together they turned into rocks, and their spirits became immortal.
One of my favorite legends from the Yao is the story of the Moon Hunters: When a scorching moon appears in the sky, famous archer Ya La and his clever wife Ni Wo set out to shoot it down. In the end the flames of the moon are extinguished, and the couple flies up to live on it - their figures still visible in the full moon (this story appeared in multiple sources). I also loved the tale of Longsi and the Third Princess, in which a young hunter and a clever princess fell in love and solved her father's tasks together. Unlike many Chinese love stories, this one had a happy ending. So did the story of the One-horned ox, about a boy whose drawings came to life. The ox he drew helped him travel to the sky where he fell in love with a fairy. When an evil lord tried to kidnap her, the boy drew a winged tiger and rescued his bride. The hero of The golden reed flute, Bayberry, saved his own sister from a(n evil) dragon, making it dance to the music until it died. 
The legend of the Gathering of the Birds was gorgeous. It claims that every October 360 different kinds of birds gather in the Yao mountains to commemorate a maiden named Azhamana. She could embroider such beautiful birds that all of them came to life. When she was kidnapped by an evil lord, people tried to rescue her, but she died in the attempt and rose to the sky in the shape of a golden peacock.
One book had a pangolin story, about how a clever pangolin managed to trick all the ants it wanted to devour. 


The legend of the rainbow was a classic swan bride tale, but it was much more beautiful than the others. Here the sky maiden hid her own wings voluntarily so she would not have to return to her cruel father. She married a mortal man and had a child, but eventually she had to return to the sky (her husband combed her wings for her). Her family followed, but the Jade Emperor pushed the son back to earth. The grieving parents' tears became rain, and they let the rainbow down occasionally to see if their child would climb back up to them...
I knew the cute story of the magpie's nest as an English folktale. The magpie tried to teach other birds how to build a good nest, but not many of them had the patience to follow all the way through. Treasure Mountain was a legend much like all the magic table cloth tales; here, the greedy king got locked into a cave for good in the end. (This story also appeared in multiple sources.)

Image from here

Who's next?
The daur (dagur) people