Monday, March 1, 2021

Pit stop in Laos (Following folktales around the world 191. - Laos)

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!

Lao folktales
Wajuppa Tossa, Kongdeuane Nettavong, Margaret Read MacDonald
Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

I usually love the Libraries Unlimited folktale series, because they are very high quality collections, but this one I was a bit slow to get through. I'm not sure if it was the language or the tales, but I found my attention wandering quite often. With that said, this is still a very good book. It has historical background, cultural explanations, it notes the names and background of the storytellers, and a separate chapter has recipes, games, and even crafts from Laos. There is also a good wide range of stories, from animal tales to folk epics.


There were a few tales that stood out to me. One of my favorites was a small story about why dogs lift their leg when they pee (because their fourth leg was given to them by the god Indra, and they are very careful with it). One of the folk epics was also fascinating; it told about the quarrel between a husband and wife that lasted through several rebirths, underpinned by the quarrel of two dragon kings who could not agree whether a porcupine is larger than an elephant. 


I found several connections to Chinese tales, such as the one where a king promises to pick an heir based on who grows the most beautiful flower from the seeds he hands out. However, the seeds are boiled, and the king picks the only boy who is brave enough to tell him the truth. (Story also known as the Empty Pot). 
I was surprised to find a Flying Turtle tale in the collection; so far I've only known it as a North American indigenous story. From the notes it turns out it exists around the world.

Where to next?

Saturday, February 27, 2021

StorySpotting: What did King Solomon actually decide? (New Amsterdam)

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!

New Amsterdam just dropped on Netflix, and since I can't resist a ridiculous, over-the-top-feel-good, I can fall-asleep-and-miss-nothing medical drama, of course I have been binging it. 

Where was the story spotted?

New Amsterdam, season 1, episode 18 (Five Miles West)

What happens?

A young pregnant woman is brought to the hospital, where she has an emergency C-section and delivers a healthy baby boy. However, due to complications she falls into a coma. Turns out she was a surrogate mother, and the baby's biological father is there, ready to take the baby. So are her parents, who also have a claim, because the surrogacy contract is not legal in the state of New York. They go to court, and the judge decides the baby has to go into the foster system. Heartbroken, the father gives up the baby to the grandparents, rather than give him to Social Services. The grandparents, of course, are so touched by his sacrifice that they give the baby back to him. 

What's the story?

By the way, no one in these paintings
is handling babies correctly
Did someone say King Solomon? Ding, ding, ding! The story of the Judgment of King Solomon from the Bible deals with the custody of a baby with a very similar result (First Book of Kings, 3:16-3:28). Two women fight over a baby, and the king suggests they should cut him in half, dividing him equally. The false mother (kidnapper) agrees, but the real mother is ready to give up her child just to save his life. Solomon, wisely, sees who the true parent is. 

(I have a bone to pick here, by the way: a lot of people think "Solomon's judgment" means cutting a baby in half. To be clear: Solomon never wanted to cut the baby in half. He wanted to see which woman loved the baby enough to let him go rather than let him die. So next time you use this story as a metaphor, make sure you leave the baby-cutting out.)

Unsurprisingly, this story is not unique to the Bible. It belongs to a folktale type numbered ATU 926 (aptly named Judgment of Solomon). A very similar story exists in the Jataka tales from India that chronicle the Buddha's previous lives; it is he who makes a similar decision to tell a demoness (yakshini) from a human mother. The same story also appears in the Ummagga Jataka from Sri Lanka. A woman goes to take a bath, and a demoness takes on her form, claiming the baby is her own. The Buddha suggests they should grab the baby and pull - but the real mother is not willing to cause pain to her child. In a Telugu story from India, two widowed mothers have a custody battle over their son, and the one that actually loves him refuses to have him cut in half.

The story exists in many variants all around Europe and Asia, all the way to Japan, and in West and South Africa. It even migrated across the Atlantic, where we can find it among the tales of the Dominican Republic. Here the frantic mother even tries to point out a birthmark, but in the end it is the sword (machete) trick that reveals the truth. 

The story can be found as far as China, where it takes a very Chinese twist. Two women have babies, but one of the infants die, and the bereaved mother kidnaps the other (the story hints at the fact that she wants to get rid of the baby to make the other woman equally miserable). They take their case to a magistrate, who decides that the baby should be taken into his own household and raised to be an official. The real mother agrees to this, hoping for a good life for her child, while the kidnapper wants to keep the baby at all costs. The clever magistrate figures out the truth. 
(This is actually very similar to what happens in New Amsterdam)

(The same source also notes a tale where a woman finds herself facing two identical husbands, one of whom is a shapeshifter. She solves the problem by setting a tiger loose on them, because apparently tigers like to eat shapeshifters.)

A less dramatic judgment is rendered in a Swahili tale where two women give birth in the same bed, and later they can't decide which one of them had a girl and which one a boy (they both want the boy, obviously). A wise man tells them that the one whose breasts are heavier with milk is the mother of the girl. I am thinking something got lost in translation here. Here is yet another version from Africa (in Gothic letters, good luck).

This tale type also shows up in an Early English version of the Gesta Romanorum, in a slightly different way. The wise Roman emperor Polemius' wife reveals to him that out of his three sons only one is his biological child (oops), but refuses to tell which one, the dying emperor leaves a ring to his sons, and the mission to figure out which one is his true heir. The three princes go to the King of Jerusalem (Solomon, is that you?), and the wise king tells them to dig up the corpse of their father. Whoever shoots an arrow into the middle of his heart will be the heir. However, the youngest son refuses to hurt his father, even in death. He is declared the true heir. (There is also a love story version of this, from the Philippines!)
Find out more about this tale here.


Real love does not hurt.
Also, it was a nice twist from New Amsterdam to have a father make the loving decision rather than a mother.
Also, when in doubt, set a tiger loose. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

StorySpotting: Murder and garden works (As seen on the news)

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!

Unlike usually, this post is not about a folktale posted in a movie or TV show. Nope. This time, I spotted an actual folktale in the actual news! Or rather, someone taking a page out of a very old book...

Where was the story spotted? What happens?

According to a news source from Transcarpathia in the Ukraine, a man had enough of the authorities not sending any snow plows to his snowed-in town of Chernihiv. So he called the police and told them he had accidentally stabbed someone to death, and he was ready to give himself up. The police showed up with a snow plow to access the town, effectively clearing the way for everyone. The man was fined about $5 for the false confession. 
(Here is the news item in English)

What's the story?

This age-old trick in the book has already made the jump from folktales to urban legends (it even has a Snopes page!). It also proliferates on the Internet as a joke or funny anecdote. I have heard it from Irish storytellers, and even as a "true story" from my own grandfather's village. I am especially delighted by all this because it shows how well-done trickster stories can survive several centuries...

The tale type number is 910E (Find the treasure in our vineyard!)

The earliest known version of the story is from Aesop's fables. In The farmer and his sons, a dying man tells his children that he has hidden treasure in the vineyard. The three greedy sons dig all over the vineyard, and find no treasure - but they earn a great harvest. The story is supposed to illustrate the value of hard work. Almost the same story was also collected in India in the last century, and from the Italian-American community in the 1960s. It is included in protestant teaching narratives from Hungary from the 19th century, and it appears in several Jewish folktales. Margaret Read MacDonald lists a bunch of other parallels too.

The story has its own motif number: H588.7 - Father's counsel: Find buried treasure. 

I could not quite trace the moment when the teaching tale became a humorous trickster anecdote, but it suddenly starts popping up in all kinds of story collections


Side note: I can't even tell if this news item an urban legend, or someone taking genius advantage of an urban legend. Either way, folklore is alive and well!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Royal wisdom and trickery (Following folktales around the world 190. - Myanmar)

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!

The Snake Prince, and Other Stories
Burmese folk tales
Edna Ledgard
Interlink Books, 2000.

I usually love Interlink folktale collections, but this one was not my favorite. Not because of the stories - they were great - but rather the collector's attitude. Edna Ledgard is the child of American Baptist missionaries who spent the first 9 years of her life in Burma in the 1930s. She has love and nostalgia for the country, which colors this book with romantic notions as well. In addition, she says the morals of these tales "had to be changed for Western audiences" (ouch). According to Buddhist tradition, villains don't necessarily have to be punished at the end of folktales, because everyone is aware they will be punished in the next life. Ledgard, however, added all kinds of arbitrary punishments to the end of the tales, for "improvement" (including a dragon climbing out of the sea and eating the greedy rich man). At least she tells us in the Notes what she changed, but still, not ideal for a folktale collection.


There were several great tales in the book. One of my favorites was Princess Learned-in-the-Law, who rendered judgment in classic tales such as "smell of fool, clinking of coins." I also loved the legend about the Magic Pincers, which cut off people's hands if they lied - until a young monk tricked them on a technicality, proving that blind tools can't always render justice.
My top favorite tale, however, was The Shy Quilt Bird. The Lion, king of the land animals, agrees to fight the evil Naga, ruler of the seas. The animals of the land decide to work together to save their king, lead by the wise trickster, Golden Rabbit. They make a plan to pretend they are the giant Galon bird to scare the Naga off, helped by the giant but shy Quilt Bird, who, by the end of the story, turns into the tiny wren. It is a lovely cooperation, community, and teamwork tale, and it became an instant favorite in my repertoire. 


There was a snake-husband story that appears in multiple countries around Southeast Asia - here, an old woman sold her daughter to a snake for some fresh fruit.
The resident trickster is Golden Rabbit, who had a tale similar to Mouse Deer stories I know.

Where to next?

Monday, February 15, 2021

Leggings for ants (Following folktales around the world 189. - China)

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!

Full disclosure: So, back when I started this challenge I started with China, but I only began posting in English a few countries later. So these posts, while they are the end of the list, were actually the first ones I made 5 years ago. I'm just translating them now.

I started the challenge with this book because I got it for Christmas and I was intrigued. I am planning on returning to Chinese Han and minority tales after I finish the challenge.

South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan
Szerk. Lucien Miller
University of Washington Press, 1994.

The book contains folktales from the twenty-five ethnic minorities of Yunnan Province in Southern China; it contains a total of 54 stories. It's an academic publication, so it comes with a long introduction, a glossary, notes, maps, and other useful resources. It also notes the names and origins of the storytellers, and the names of the collectors and translators. Brownie points for that.

The tales were collected as part of the folklore collection campaign of the Chinese government. The introduction talks about how difficult it is to find original folk texts outside of obscure archives, and how published folktale collections "edit" the tales they include (the American translators hint that "politically incorrect" messages and morals might be left out). This does show in the collection, because all rich people in the tales are evil, and all kings are tyrants. I wonder how many good kings are hidden in the archives... Still, this book is a well edited and fascinating read.
(It also speaks volumes that the American introduction praises the minority policy of China, while the Chinese introduction calls Yunnan minorities "superstitious" and "primitive" a couple of times.)


There were multiple myths about why the sky and the earth were pushed apart. According to a Zhuang tale, bamboo is flexible because in the old days it used to grow up to the low-hanging sky and it had to bend. A Derung legend claims the mountain that connected earth and sky disappeared because ants undermined it. They were in the right: they just wanted to ask people to give them leggings, but our ancestors cruelly refused.
I have a soft spot for Zhuang tales. I especially liked the five-story cycle about the fight between a mortal trickster and the God of Thunder. At the high point of the tale the hero, Bubo fought the god while sailing in an upside-down umbrella. 
There were also some beautiful tales in the collection, such as Wild Goose Lake, where a mortal girl befriends a dragon's daughter (and they end up living together), or the girl with tufty eyebrows, whom a boy married despite everyone thinking she was bad luck (moral: don't believe old superstitions when your happiness depends on it). I also loved Gathering of the Birds, about a girl who embroidered 360 different birds who all came to life, and they still gather on the anniversary of her death.


The Mythology chapter contains a lot of similar flood myths. It was intriguing that many of them addressed the fact that the siblings who survived (brother and sister) would have to commit incest if they wanted to repopulate the earth. In some stories the gods sent them meaningful signs to let them know they were exempt from sin for the sake of humanity. 

Where to next?

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Valentine's Day folktales: Tricksters in Love

Two years ago my Valentine's Day post was about polyamory in folktales. This year, once again, I put up a poll on Twitter to see what love-related folktale theme I should blog about, and the winner was Tricksters in Love. I adore trickster tales, and I'm currently working on a whole book of them, so here are some of the stories I found about tricksters falling in love.

Side note: Trickster relationships are very rarely easy or harmonious. Probably for the obvious reason that tricksters themselves are very rarely easy or harmonious characters; breaking rules, tricking others, and going outside the ordinary is within their nature. So, the following tales might not be what people would describe as romantic...

Links in the titles.

How Ananse the Spider got Aso in marriage (Ghana)

Ananse (or Anansi) the Spider is one of the world's most well-known tricksters. His wife, Aso Yaa features into many of his stories; sometimes she helps him, but more often they mutually trick each other. Aso is a clever lady, and she can certainly hold her own against Ananse. In their 'origin story', she is married to an abusive and jealous man who keeps her hidden from everyone else. Ananse uses trickery to approach her in secret, and eventually he gets her pregnant. When the truth comes out, Aso is returned to her community, and marries Ananse. All in all it is a fun story, except for the end, where they sacrifice their first baby for some reason. (I tend to blatantly disregard that part.)

Anansi and Miss Flame (Jamaica)

In another story Anansi falls in love with Fire herself, and Fire flirts with him (he is "drawn to her like ants to sugar"). However, when she comes to visit him at night, she shows up as a "full grown woman" rather than a nice little flame, and Anansi flees from her. Fire burns his house down. In other versions, he puts her out with water.

Coyote dances with a star (Klamath)

Coyote falls in love with a star and wants to woo her. At first he sings to her, but she doesn't respond, so he climbs up a mountain and jumps up to the sky to dance with her. They dance around and around the night sky but Coyote gets exhausted and scared, and eventually the star lets go. Coyote falls back down to earth, creating a great big crater. 

Coyote and the Whirlwind Woman (Mandan-Hidatsa)

Coyote falls in love with a strange woman who claims that no one wants to marry her because she moves camp too often. Coyote claims he loves to move and travel, so they marry. However, when it is time to move camp, the woman turns out to be the Whirlwind, and she drags and tosses Coyote along. After a few moves, he leaves her with Groundhog's help.

Brother Rabbit's Courtship (African-American, USA)

This is a story from one of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus collections, also rewritten by Julius Lester. Br'er Rabbit falls in love with one of the daughters of Miss Meadows, and she likes him too, but they are both very awkward, and she does not want to marry until she gets a sign through some love magic. So, Br'er Rabbit manufactures a sign himself, and they get happily married. Cute story. 

Jack and the King's Girl (Appalachia, USA)

A classic tale type where a foolish young man does everything wrong following someone else's advice. However, here we have a princess who never laughs, and she is the one talking to Jack every day - so the whole story comes off as Jack doing silly, funny things just to make the princess laugh.

Zaynab the Coney-catcher and Mercury Ali (1001 Nights)

Okay, so this one is full of problematic elements, but if you leave those out, it is a pretty fun story. Zaynab is a second-generation trickster; the chapter preceding hers is about how her mother, Dalilah the Wily, made a fool of the entire city guard of Bagdad multiple times. Mercury Ali is an infamous trickster in his own right, who comes to Bagdad and has a run-in with Zaynab. They immediately like each other, and start a very intense prank war as foreplay to their marriage. In the end, Ali marries three other women as well as Zaynab, and they have their adventures written down for posterity. 

Kuzunoha (Japan)

One of the most famous kitsune (fox spirit) legends is about a kitsune named Kuzunoha who falls in love with a mortal man who saves her life. Her son, Abe no Seimei, inherits some of her powers, and becomes a famous magician who speaks the language of animals. Eventually he discovers his mother's secret and she leaves the family, but her husband searches for her and finds her again.

Nasreddin Hodja's perfect wife (Middle East)

A short and poignant tale about the trickster and wise fool Nasreddin seeking the perfect wife around the world... only to find out that the perfect woman won't marry him, because she is looking for the perfect husband.

The First Love of Khodja Nasruddin (Temur Zulfiqorov)

This is not technically a folktale, but rather a very beautiful short story from a Tajik author about how the young Nasreddin Hodja first falls in love with the forbidden daughter of a very rich man. He manages to visit her, but they can't run away together, and eventually he is exiled into the world to become the traveling wise man, fool, and trickster he is known as. 

If there are other trickster love stories you'd like to see on this list, let me know in the comments! Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Career tricksters (Following folktales around the world 188. - Mongolia)

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!

Mongolian Traditional Literature

An Anthology
Charles R. Bawden
Routledge, 2013.

This book is almost 900 pages long, and contains a selection of texts from Mongolian traditional literature, from the Secret History all the way to folk songs. Since it's a hefty volume, in this post I'll be focusing on the Folktales chapter (which was still almost 300 pages, and contains 110 stories). The tales were divided into sub-sections by topic: supernatural tales, trickster tales, Balansengge, mendicant tales, Shagdar, animal tales, nonsense tales, myths, triads, conversations.
The book itself is an essential volume for reading Mongolian literature in English. The Introduction talks about other available translations, as well as the history of Mongolian literature from the Middle Ages to the modern era. It talks about the Secret History, epics, legends, didactic stories, ritual texts, texts of Indian origin, Chinese-Mongolian literature, and other interesting sources. The book is an academic publication, so it comes with notes, sources, and language guides.


I loved the tales of Balansengge, the Mongolian trickster. Many of them were familiar (such as "the pot gave birth" and "I don't have time to trick you"), but there were also many original tricks, such as the one where Balansengge made a rich man believe his bag was full of gems, but they would turn to ash if an unworthy person saw them. His favorite targets were greedy rich men. The longest tale started when he tricked a bunch of them into jumping in the river. The souls of the greedy men went to Erlig khan, the ruler of the Underworld, to complain. Erlig khan started sending his demons to fetch Balansengge, but he tricked all of them in turn, until the Underworld was in full on panic mode, and Erlig went to fetch the trickster himself. Balansengge outwitted him too, took his clothes, and became khan of the Underworld. Happy end.
Another great trickster tale was about a boy who made a khan eat dog crap (and also did other embarrassing things to him, and got away without being punished). I also liked the story about the old magician who showed a greedy khan a dream about how miserable his subjects were.
Among the myths I liked the story of Erkhii Mergen, the archer who shot six suns out of the sky to save the world. He failed to shoot the seventh, so in shame he turned into a marmot, and transformed his horse into a jerboa. Another lovely story was about the hares who thought they were the most miserable animals in the world for no one was afraid of them. They changed their mind when they managed to spook a bunch of sheep by jumping up in front of them.
There was a short but sweet tale about thoughtful animals: the bat who hangs upside down to make sure the sky doesn't fall; the grasshopper who keeps watch in case of a flood; and the crane that steps carefully to avoid caving the earth in. 
There was also a surprising number of origins stories about the Creator handing out balls and penises to various animals. 


Among the animal tales there was a seven kids story - here with two goat kids only, but it also explained how goats became domesticated (after a woodcutter saved them from a wolf). The faithful animal who saves a baby and gets punished was, surprisingly, a cat this time, killed by a hasty woman who regretted her action. There was once again a "how the camel was left out of the animal calendar" story (here the camel competed with the rat over who sees the rising sun first).
The tale of Solombo khan was the type where a young man seeks answers to his fortune; he had to go to Erlig khan with his questions. There was also another answer-seeking tale (Scripture Joy and Jewel Joy), a magic bird story (The sons of the hunter), a fake fortune-teller (Grasshopper Namjil), puss in boots (here a Cunning Yellow Fox) and extraordinary helpers (Jivaa the White). The ungrateful animal was a snake, tricked back into the trap by a clever girl. There was also a classic clever maid story, where she did not only solve the khan's impossible riddles, but also saved her father-in-law when he was kidnapped by the enemy. The cyclops story known from the Odyssey featured three mendicants. 
I have already mentioned the resident trickster above, but there was also another trickster-like figure, Shagdar, a mendicant born in 1869, who traveled the land and made fun of greedy, vain, or mean people such as corrupt officials, rich men, and questionable religious leaders. He usually did so in witty, short verse.

Where to next?

Monday, January 25, 2021

Serpents, leopards, rainbows (Following folktales around the world 187. - Taiwan)

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!

Aboriginal Folk Tales of Taiwan 
Animals, heroes, and heroic adventures 
Charles P. Beaupre 
Edwin Mellen Press, 2008.

The book contains 44 folktales divided into 3 categories: Animal stories, Heroes, and Heroic Adventures. The tales have been collected from the aboriginal inhabitants of Taiwan, who roughly make up 2% of the island's population. The introduction talks about their storytelling traditions and their history. There used to be several plains and mountains tribes, but with the arrival of the Han Chinese the plains people were assimilated and their stories didn't survive. The book therefore contains folktales from 13 mountain tribes (which are noted at the end of each story). Each chapter gets its own short introduction, which mainly talk about the strong connection between indigenous people and nature. The book is a fascinating read, I found a lot of great stories in it.


The legend about the snake warrior was interesting because he did not lose his snake aspect in the end. Quite the opposite: with the help of his serpent ancestors he learned to fly and shapeshift, and helped defeat his tribe's enemies in the form of a giant snake. Serpents figured into multiple stories. A Bunun tale talked about a time when humans and snakes lived in friendship (they still have the same word for snake and friend), but a careless woman accidentally killed a baby snake, and the close friendship was replaced by a mutual treaty. In another story a giant evil serpent caused a flood, and a heroic giant crab fought it, rearranging the island's topography and saving people from extinction. This epic battle had another version in the book too, where a brave toad and a blackbird helped people get fire so they could survive the flood. In fact, great battles were a common theme in the tales: one legend talked about the war between humans and giants (won with special fire arrows), and another about the war between humans and the Little People who lived underground. 
The tale of the rainbow fish was a beautiful story about a girl whose body shone with radiant rainbow light that could not be obscured. She was abducted by the Spirit of the Sea, and her parents turned into rainbow fish to go find her.
I liked the story that claimed that in the old days firewood used to come to the house voluntarily, and millet multiplied magically - until a woman got frustrated with them and offended them. She got turned into a mouse, but people forgave her for her mistake, and allowed her to keep living in houses to this day. Other transformations also happened: for example, two competing but loving brothers became a bear and a clouded leopard. The latter appeared in another tale too, where a tame leopard led a hunter to a beautiful place in the mountains where he could establish a new home.


There was a beautiful "sun seeking" legend in the book: three warriors set out with three babies to shoot the sun for being too scorching hot. The journey took long, and eventually the children took over, splitting the sun in two so day and night were created. In another story a grieving father wounded one of the two suns, and created the moon. I also liked the origin story of sweet potatoes, where a windowed father wanted to take care of his grieving son from beyond the grave, so he sent up the first potato plants. 
The serpent husband was similar to a Beauty and the Beast / False Bride tale. The serpent was not a cursed human but an actual serpent spirit, who lived in his own village with his people. However, his sister killed the human bride, and the tale ended in tragedy. There were also other animal grooms in the book, such as a bear (also with a tragic ending) and a dog (who turned into a man, eloped with a girl, and became the ancestor of the people of Taiwan). The most interesting supernatural bride was a flint stone, who turned into a human at night to visit a lonely man. The tale did not offer a solution, but rather her husband was happy to live with her as is.
There was a nice trickster tale about Crab and Monkey who kept trying to prank each other, but when monkey was accidentally hurt, crab gave him a piece of his own heart. There was also a similar story about a Raven and a Pangolin

Where to next?
Last big jump, to Mongolia!

Monday, January 18, 2021

Murderous foxes, loving tigers (Following folktales around the world 186. - South Korea)

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 from Korea

Zong In-Sob
Holly International C., 1982.

The book contains 99 folktales. The foreword tells us about the author, who was born in 1905 and spent his childhood listening to Korean folktales from friends and family. Later on he was among the founders of the Korean Folklore Society, aiming to collect and preserve folklore traditions for future generations. The tales in the book were gathered after World War II, and the author, being a linguist and literary scholar, translated them into English himself. 
In the introduction the author praises Korean culture, history, language, and inventions; he holds all of these in world-class high esteem, including the storytelling tradition. While he lists many international parallels for the tales, he points out that they are still essentially Korean. The introduction delves into the types of myths and tales in Korean tradition, as well as Korean Buddhism, shamanism, and folk belief. In the end, he mentions the partition of North and South Korea, and wonders if it will appear in folk stories in the future.


Naturally my favorite tale in the book was The story spirits (which is well known to storytellers worldwide). It is about a boy who loves listening to stories, but never passes them on, so the spirits of the tales plot to take revenge on him, and he is barely rescued by his old teacher.
The best origin myth claimed that in ancient times people sometimes randomly turned into oxen, and then accidentally ate each other (that is, humans ate the oxen). A man discovered that if one ate onions they never turned into an ox again - and that ended both shapeshifting and cannibalism among the people.
The tale of Yoni and her stepmother was a beautiful love story where a girl was chased into the woods in the winter to find fruit. She met a boy named Willow, who gave her fruit, and they fell in love. When the evil stepmother killed Willow, Yoni managed to revive him with a magic potion - and her turned out to be the deity of rain himself. He married Yoni and took her up to the heavens.
Another love story featured a Tiger girl. She took on human form and fell in love with a man, but because of this, she had to die. She wished to die by her lover's hands, and she made it happen by attacking the king's daughter. Her lover then got to marry the princess he rescued, as a last gift from the tiger girl. The most unique love story, however, was that of the Centipede girl, who also took on human form, and lived with a man (who helped break her curse). It was especially interesting because the man already had a family, and he met the girl after he tried to drown himself in the river. The centipede sent money to support the family, and eventually returned to heaven. 
I liked the tale in which all men in a family were cursed to be devoured by a tiger very young. One cursed son was rescued from the tiger by two clever girls, and he ended up marrying both of them. 
The legend of the nine-tailed fox was both exciting and very dark. The fox spirit disguised herself as a girl, and killed ninety-nine men with her kiss, aiming to rise to heaven. The hundredth man, however, outsmarted her, and stole her jewel that contained all the wisdom in the world. In another exciting tale a fox witch took over a mountain goddess' realm, and a mortal man had to fight her with the aid of the Dragon King.


The legend about the birth of the Sun and the Moon resembled the story of the seven kids; a tiger in disguise tried to trick two children, but they ran away from him and climbed up into the sky, where they were turned into celestial bodies. There was also a flood myth, combined with the folktale motif of the grateful animals.
The tale of the woodcutter and the heavenly maiden was a bird bride story, where the husband followed his wife into the sky after she managed to get her stolen wings back. Eventually he returned to earth to visit his mother, fell off the heavenly horse (á la Oisín), and turned into a rooster. The story of why dogs and cats hate each other was an Aladdin type magic ring (magic mortar) tale; the legend of Lake Zangze belonged to that type where a greedy man is punished by water flooding his house, turning the village into a lake.
The two brothers and the magistrate belonged to my favorite "detective" folktale type, where two men solved mysteries with keen observation. The "gift of the little people" tale type here featured goblins, who gave the kind man a magic mallet, and stretched the unkind man's tongue so long he used it as a bridge. Eventually, the kind person helped him reduce his tongue to its normal size. The man and the tiger was an entertaining version of the Brementown musicians; here the hero saved a girl from a tiger by hiding his friends around her house. The extraoridnary helpers tale here presented four sworn brothers who all had their own supernatural ability - for example, one of the could pee a whole river...
I was reminded of Mediterranean stories by The fox girl and her brother, where once again a girl turned out to be a man-eating demon, and after she ate the whole village, it was her brother who managed to kill her.
The trickster in residence was the rabbit, who managed to trick a hungry tiger multiple times (e.g. with the tail-fishing trick). The ungrateful animal sprung from a trap was a tiger, who was tricked back in by a wise toad. The story of Zibong put an interesting twist on trickster tales: he was a clever servant who tricked his master multiple times, and in the end made him jump into the river with his family so he could marry his daughter. The daughter, however, did not want a trickster husband, and jumped after her parents.

Where to next?

Monday, January 11, 2021

Trickster propaganda (Following folktales around the world 185. - North Korea)

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 didn't manage to find a folktale collection from North Korea, so I read this fascinating new article instead.

Hero of the People: Reimagining the Trickster in North Korea

Charles La Shure
The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 133, No. 529, pp. 259-284.

The article explores how the North Korean regime uses a popular trickster figure from folklore, Kim Sondal, to broadcast its own message to the people through reframing old stories. 
The beginning of the article introduces the Trickster archetype, then we get a short description to Korean trickster figures whose tales go all the way back to feudalism (14th to 19th centuries). Some of them are noblemen (which is rare for tricksters), some are clever servants, and Kim Sondal exists somewhere between the two. His tales are also popular in South Korea, but the character himself hails from Pyongyang, so North Koreans lay claim to him as local. This, by the way, serves as grounds for comparison (I'm curious to see if I'll read about him in the next book). It seems like North Korea has been publishing dozens of Kim Sondal story collections since the 90s, and even had some novels based on him. The main body of the article explores how these tales have been rewritten to fit propaganda, and brings some parallels from other nationalist movements and their relationship with folklore.

The tales

There is even a movie in South
Korea about Kim Sondal
In most of the North Korean tales Kim Sondal is a poor man oppressed by rich landlords. He is touched by the suffering of peasants, and uses his wits to trick greedy rich people and corrupt officials (who are often likened to pigs). 
In one story Kim Sondal tricks a bunch of vain noblewomen into publicly confessing all their sins, and punishes the ones who had been cruel to their servants. Sometimes noblemen try to trap him, but they never succeed. Poor people like Kim Sondal so much that when he has to wander without food or shelter (because of the officials' cruelty) they feed him and shelter him - without him having to trick them into it.
I liked the story where Kim Sondal fed spoiled bean stew to a rich man, claiming it was rare gourmet 'fermented beans'. He also played the role of "fake fortune-teller", although here the moral of the story was that religion and spirituality are lies to trick the people. There was another popular tale about how the king closed all public toilets, so Kim Sondal was forced to use someone's private outhouse - and then refused to come out until he was paid. 
The children's adaptations of the stories highlight the suffering of poor people, the evilness of the rich, and Kim Sondal's generosity to the former (he steals from the rich and gives to the poor, basically). They also add a lot of stuff against religion - for example, Kim Sondal openly denounces shamans (this carries on into the novels). Here, he wants to change he whole world by tricking the rich and build a new system where everyone is equal. Rich people are even more horrible, "barely human", and morals are clearly spelled out for the education of the children.


Comparing the stories to the South Korean versions it turns out that the southern Kim Sondal often tricks random people, instead of noblemen who deserve it. He usually does so for his own fortune and entertainment. He especially likes tricking the blind, and while in North Korean versions these blind people are "evil money lenders", in the South they are simply an easy target for the trickster. He also tricks monks sometimes, but not usually because of their religion. The structure of many tales is the same, but the motivations vastly differ in the North and the South. 
According to the author, North Korean Kim Sondal, who serves the system, can't be called a trickster because he is not an ambivalent, liminal, rule-defying character anymore. He became some kind of a propagandistic culture hero, re-drawn even stronger with every adaptation.

Where to next?
South Korea!

Monday, January 4, 2021

Kitsune, tanuki, and other Japanese classics (Following folktales around the world 184. - Japan)

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!

Japanese folk tales
Yanagita Kunio
Tokyo News Service, 1954.

The book contains 108 Japanese folktales from a national folklore collecting campaign, the story of which we find out from the short introduction. The foreword talks to the younger generations especially, explaining the working and the importance or oral tradition in simple terms. The tales included in the book are common Japanese types that appear in various regions in one shape or another. Their titles are given in Japanese as well as Latin letters, and in most cases the city or region of collection is also noted. Cultural references and Japanese words are explained in footnotes. Stories are arranged by similarity, with multiple variants of the same type following each other.


I really liked The mountain spirit's quiver, in which a blind musician was lost in the mountains, and for his beautiful songs the mountains spirit took care of him in magical ways. I also enjoyed the legend of Kosai Osho and the sea turtles, which reminded me of the Greek myth of Arion: a kind priest saved large turtles from fishermen, and the turtles saved him when pirates attacked his ship. Another grateful animal featured into the story of Monkey Masamune, where two kind messengers rescued a monkey from an octopus, and received a valuable antique sword in exchange.
I liked magical transformation stories, like the one where a pine tree turned into a girl named Matsuko, and went on pilgrimage; or the one where a talking snapping turtle warned the fisherman that caught him that he would be back home in the lake soon enough.
There was a beautiful story about an old man who received a magic hood, one that allowed him to understand the language of plants and animals. He discovered a tree stump under a house that could not die but could not grow either, and found out that its tree-friends visited it every night to give words of sympathy and encouragement. 
Dragons featured into multiple stories. In one, a samurai was invited by the Dragon King of the sea to help him defeat a giant evil serpent - and in exchange given a bell for his temple. And of course there is no Japanese folklore collection without yokai. Yama-haha, for example, is a demon disguised as a mortal woman, with a giant mouth in the back of her head. Her husband had to get rid of her by trickery (and with the use of some flowers). 
The book had the classic, lovely story of the Jizo statues and their New Year hats, and also one of my favorite tales, about the Rice dumpling that rolled into the Underworld. Here, an old many followed the dumpling and became rich - but his jealous neighbor did not fare similarly well at all. After many years I finally found here the folktale version of the Three strong women picture book, about a supernaturally strong girl named Oiko, who trained a wrestler for his championship.
I liked the touching story of the old man who came across the skeleton of a girl in a spring meadow, and helped the girl's spirit find her family and eternal peace.


The tale of the monkey, the cat and the rat was an Aladdin-style magic ring story. The monkey bridegroom resembled Beauty and the Beast... up to the point where the bride pushed the persistent monkey husband into the river from a bridge. There was a Cinderella variant (Komebukuro és Awabukuro) that I especially liked because the girl was helped by her friends in completing the stepmother's task.
There was a version of the story where someone exchanges useless things for exponentially more useful ones (starting with a piece of straw), and also multiple "dream sold" tales, with bees or dragonflies crawling out of sleeping people's mouths. A "fairy gift" tale featured two old men, one showered in gold and one showered in pitch, and also two priests who danced with demons at night (the nice one got his birthmark removed, and the mean one had it doubled). 
There were many familiar trickster tales in the book. The "tail fishing" trick was played by a bear on a monkey (that's why monkey tails are short). The monkey's liver is probably one of the most often recognized Japanese folktales (and it also explains why jellyfish have no bones). Animal races happened between a badger and a mud snail (the snail won), and also between a monkey and a bullfrog. The latter was funny because they were both chasing a pot of pastry rolling down a hill, but the monkey didn't notice that the pastry fell out of the pot, so the slow frog got to eat it. There was also a version of the story where a bunch of people pass a dead body around, here with the help of a trickster named Clever Yasohachi
Naturally, the collection features many kitsune and tanuki tales (the latter is mistranslated as badger). I loved the one where a priest named Kongo-in startled a fox as a joke - and in revenge the fox make other priests believe that Kongo-in himself was a fox in disguise. In another tale a man was so confident that he couldn't be tricked by a fox... that the foxes used this to trick him, and before he knew it, he took priestly vows and shaved his head. There was also a cute story about a beginner fox who tried to disguise himself as a samurai, but his face remained hairy - and in the end he laughed about it together with the humans. I enjoyed the tale about the two tanuki who had a contest of illusions - and one of them mistook an actual royal parade for an illusion.

Where to next?
North Korea!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

StorySpotting: Swimming for love (Bridgerton)

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?

Bridgerton, Season 1, Episode 7 (Oceans apart)

What happens?

Daphne has a conversation with her brother Colin, who is in love with the disgraced (pregnant) Miss Thompson. Daphne is trying to convince him to give up on his love and avoid scandal:
Daphne: You cannot visit her.
Colin: Leander swam Abydos to Sestos every single night in complete darkness just to see his love.
Daphne: Leander also lost his way and drowned. So the story goes. 

What's the story?

Roman coin from Abydos,
depicting the story
Daphne is right, the Greek tale of Hero and Leandros is not a happy one. Hero is the "virgin priestess" of Aphrodite, and she lives in Sestos, on the northern shore of the Hellespont (the Dardanelles strait). Her lover, Leandros, lives on the opposite shore in the city of Abydos. In order to meet in secret, he swims across the strait every night, guided by the light of a lantern in Hero's window on top of a tower. However, one night a storm blows out the candle, Leandros loses his way, and drowns. When Hero finds out about his fate, she throws herself from top of the tower.
Yup, this really is not a love story one should strive for.  

The story echoes in a tale from the Faroe Islands about a young man from Koltur who swam across in secret to the island of Hestur to visit his lover. One day, however, the girl's father found out, and when the lad showed up on the shore, he chased him back into the water with an ax. The suitor was never heard from again; according to the legend, he drowned on the way back. 

The Pakistani legend of Sohni and Mahinwal has a similarly tragic ending. Here, the girl swims across a river every night, using an upturned pot for buoyancy, to be with her lover. One time, however, the pot breaks, and a storms sweeps both her and her lover away. 

On a more upbeat note, we have the Maori legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai. A high-born girl falls in love with a youth who is not noble enough to be her husband. He plays his flute every night, calling to her, but her family hides all the canoes to keep her from crossing the lake to her lover. Eventually she sets out swimming, with six hollow gourds to hold her up (clever girl). She follows the music, and managed to reach Tutanekai's island. They get married, and live happily. 

In another story, from the Tuamotu islands, we learn about a girl named Hina who sets out swimming to the island of Motu-tapu, to find the perfect prince she wants to marry. She tries to enlist the help of various sea creatures, but they are either not strong enough to carry her beyond the reef, or she pisses them off one way or another (in a shark's case, literally, as she pees on him), and they all leave her floating in the ocean. Eventually, she makes her way to the island, leaving a trail of much changed (and disgruntled) sea animals in her wake, and she marries her prince. 


If you have to cross large bodies of water for love, make sure you have something to keep you buoyant. Or better yet, hitch a ride.