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?