Tuesday, May 4, 2021

I read a folktale collection from each country in the world, and this is what I learned

Historic moment: I finished my Following folktales around the world reading project! I started it almost exactly five years ago, in early 2016. The idea (inspired by this challenge) was to read a folktale collection from every single country around the world.

I can't believe I made it!

Let's see the numbers first:

I read folktales from 200 countries.

I started with China and arrived in Mongolia in 5 years and 1 month (I started blogging in English a little bit later in the challenge, hence the discrepancy in the posts).

I read more than 10,284 folktales (these are the ones I counted, but there were books that contained multiple tales per chapter). 

There were 12 countries from where I could not find complete books. In these cases I read articles of folktales, or looked up stories on the Internet (Barbados, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, North Korea, Belarus, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mozambique, Tuvalu, Uruguay). If I happen to find books for them later on, I'll include them (recommendations welcome). I did find tales from all of them in the end; Burundi was the hardest one, I could only locate one single myth.

For three countries I read epics, because I could not find folktale collections (Guinea, Kosovo, Senegal)

The number of tales by continent:

Europe: 3859

Africa: 1642

Asia: 1542

Australia and Oceania: 1211

Central America and the Caribbean: 1124

South America: 756

North America: 150

I read the most stories from these individual countries:

Hungary (756) (one of our country's first folklore collections)

Papua New Guinea (602) (half of the 1001 Papua New Guinean Nights)

Dominican Republic (304) (each tale came with several variants)

Italy (200) (Calvino's classic collection)

Latvia (164

Australia (157) (I'd like to circle back for more)

Honduras, Suriname, Argentina (150/country)

You can find the complete list of countries and posts here

What did I learn from all this?

Tricksters are everywhere (even North Korea)

I barely read any collections where tricksters did not appear. They seem to be the most universal archetype of folktale characters around the world; where there are stories, there are tricksters, bringing their favorite pranks and antics over and over again, from tar dolls to tug-o'-wars to cunningly exchanged punishments. It's a trickster's world out there.

The most popular tale types are not the ones Westerners would think

The Western (mostly European) folktale canon has its big classics and favorites, mostly based on Grimm and French fairy tales: Cinderella, Snow White, etc. Many people tend to think these are the most popular stories around the world - but after 200 countries I see things differently. Cinderella is not even in the same ballpark as some other tale types you wouldn't think of right away. I was not keeping an exact count, but here are some of the most common stories that kept popping up over and over and over again:

The Kind and Unkind Girls (or boys) (see: Frau Holle) (ATU 480)
Magic Flight (you probably know it as Master Maid) (ATU 313)
Animals running a race (Tortoise and the Hare) (ATU 275)
Extraordinary helpers (commonly known as The Flying Ship) (ATU 513)
The gift of the little people (where a friendly person is rewarded for participating in the fairies' song, but a mean one is punished) (ATU 503)
Aladdin (a.k.a. the lost magic item) (ATU 561)
And, obviously, tricksters. 

You can find parallels in surprising places

I was sometimes stunned to find almost identical tales separated by great cultural and geographical distances. A dragon story popped up in Switzerland and Bhutan, but nowhere in-between. A witch tale appeared in Kiribati and Angola. I found a legend in the Philippines that I knew as a Native American story. The list goes on and on, but the point is: stories can travel incredible distances, and they often pop up independently from each other in very similar forms. Human imagination is a wonderful thing.

Some countries are luckier with folklore collections than others

In the case of some countries I had a very hard time finding a folktale collection in any of the languages I read (English, Spanish, and Hungarian, but I can also read Italian and German very slowly). History left its mark on folklore collections. Nation-building movements valued (and sometimes took advantage of) tradition, while war, colonization, and genocide often wiped out stories as well as people. In the case of some smaller countries it was a matter of sheer luck: the birth of one person who fell in love with stories, and spent their life collecting and preserving them, kicking off a folklore movement in a time when traditional tellers still carried the old tales. Hungary in particular is lucky in this regard. You walk into any used book shop, and you will find shelves of folktale collections. Our collecting started shortly after the Grimms, and our struggle for national independence boosted folklore studies early on. Not all countries are nearly this lucky. 
(Wherever I could support new publications and collection projects, I tended to buy books with this in mind.)

There is an endless supply of folktales, but not all are equally fun

As a storyteller, I have a subjective opinion of tales: there are stories I fall in love with, and others that are forgettable or don't really speak to me. There are types I love more than others, and obviously the ones I noted along this journey were the ones that I personally found the most fascinating. This challenge proved what I already knew about folktale collections: if a book has more than two stories I fall in love with, it is an exceptionally good book. There were a few collections that were especially memorable for the high number of amazing stories, but usually there were one or two tales per country that really stuck with me. This is nothing out of the ordinary, it's just the human nature of the storyteller. This is why we have to read a lot to expand our repertoire.

There is more!

I could talk a lot more about this challenge, and my experiences and adventures with it. If anyone is interested, hit me up :)

Where to next?

I have been wondering for a while about what I was gonna do once this challenge ended. And now, here we are. I was always aware that political borders don't often mean cultural borders, and that there are many rich cultures and traditions that I skipped along the way. I want to make up or these omissions, and start a new challenge where I read minority and indigenous folktales around the world! Right now, I'm feeling like starting with Chinese ethnic groups, but I'd also love to circle back to Siberian indigenous peoples, as well as indigenous groups of North and South America and Australia, and some European minority groups as well. 

Stories just go on and on...

Monday, May 3, 2021

A to Z Reflections: Tarot Tales

I can't believe April is already over! It feels like the whole month consisted of two Saturdays. Or maybe it's just me. A to Z 2021 is done, and even though I only had half the posts written ahead of time, I managed to finish all of them. Yay!

I ended up selecting folktales and legends for 46 cards of the tarot deck (which is 78 cards total). I might finish the rest at one point. I am especially proud that I managed to include stories from six continents, although with more research the deck could get even more diverse.

You can find the page with all my Tarot Tales posts here. I had a little over 11,700 hits in April, which is pretty good. The most popular posts were A, C, B, E, and P. Every post received somewhere between 30 and 10 comments, from visitors who kept returning all through the month. I really enjoyed the visits and the comments, thank you all!

I could not visit as much or as often as I usually do. Pandemic fatigue has been hitting me hard, sometimes I can barely get up, and I had writing deadlines. I'm still catching up. I really enjoyed following several blogs this year, here are some of my favorite themes (in no particular order):

Herbal medicine embedded in a science fiction story (Tea, Sigh, Create)

Imaginary places A to Z (Black and White)

Dante's Divine Comedy (My Magick Theater)

Ludic Lexicon (Deborah Weber)

Greek mythology (with excellent book recommendations) (The Great Raven)

DC characters and their background stories (The Confusing Middle)

How to write technobabble for science fiction (Storytellergirl)

Poetic styles from A to Z, with original poetry examples (The Versesmith)

Steampunk Mythology (Alicia Hawks)

WWI (Sarah Zama)

Ichigo Ichie (My Ordinary Moments)

Thank you all for visiting, commenting, and for writing such interesting things! You made this month awesome even in the middle of the pandemic fatigue. :)

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Crocodile island (Following folktales around the world 200. - East Timor)

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!


Legends and poems from the land of the sleeping crocodile
Cliff Morris
H.C. Morris, 1984.

A small, but super fascinating volume. It is a bilingual edition (Tetum-English), containing mirror translations, so it was only a hundred-odd pages to read. The tales have all been collected by people who were born and raised in East Timor and then moved somewhere else (Australia, Portugal, etc.). Each story came with a short introduction about the teller. The English translation was a bit odd at times, but it was still an enjoyable read.
The book starts with short poems that seem like proverbs, and each of them is explained (which is lucky, because I would not have drawn "don't sweat the small things" from "pigeon hiccups in the jungle, fruit remains"). 
By the way, in case you were wondering, this is where East Timor is located:


According to the origin myth of the island, Timor was originally a young crocodile, saved by a human boy from death, who turned into an island as a thank you to people. Crocodiles appeared as helpers or heroes in multiple stories, and only attacked people who deserved it.
The tale of Bui Iku was haunting: a girl was locked in a house built in a mango tree by her six brothers, and only the youngest cared for her. When she got pregnant from a divine prince her five brothers killed her, but her lover brought her back. Their child was born among the stars, and returned to earth to punish the evil brothers, and reward the kind one.
There were two legends about how Christianity arrived to Timor, both from the perspective of the native people. They claim the "holy man" of the white people threatened to drag the whole island to Portugal if they did not convert; he put an anchor into the seashore and pretended to pull it with his ship. In that moment, the earth shook, and everyone was scared into converting... While the story was told as a positive thing, it does carry some of the pain over colonization. 
There was a fascinating twist on the "stolen bride" tale type: a boy spied on the seven daughters of the Sun, and tried to kidnap the youngest to make her his wife (this is a common folktale motif). She, however, fought back: she flew up into the sky with her attacker, burned him, then threw him down.


The most interesting connection was the story of Joao the Gambler (John in English). The hero was taken to a castle by a giant bird he had to feed on the way (he used his own flesh for the last few bites). It was  Master Maid story where the giant's daughter helped the hero fulfill tasks, and turn into various things during a magic flight scene. It was a common tale type, but with nice local colors: one of the "impossible tasks" was to find mangos out of season.
The tale of the sacred machete also reminded me of European tale types; here the hero was helped by three giants, and revived by them when his enemies killed him. There was also a Cinderella story (Daughter of the sun), and a magic tablecloth type tale (Bui Kiak and Mau Kiak).
It is not very surprising to see European connection, given the colonial history of the island. However, all the familiar stories merged nicely with the local culture, flora and fauna. In addition, burning the skin of animal husbands (snakes and eels) was an actual solution in these tales, while in European stories it is usually presented as a mistake.
There was a version of the magic fishhook story that I knew from Japan: in the story of the sick princess a man lost a hook borrowed from his brother, and had to descend into the ocean to find it. He managed to locate the hook in the mouth of the Sea King's daughter.

Where to next?
We are done! I'll take a short break, write a summary of this adventure, and start a new challenge...