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?


  1. Wow nice book.
    Thank you for sharing.

    New post

  2. Took me a long time to get to this post, but worth it--the book sounds terrific. Thanks for previewing it.