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.