Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Dear 'gemstone lore' writers

This is going to be a weirdly specific rage post. Deal with it.

So, I have been researching folktales, legends, and myths about gemstones for a few weeks now, and I have some things I need to say. To anyone who writes content (digital or print) about "gem lore."

From a professional storyteller and folklore researcher, all y'all. Listen up.


You might think what you are doing is not academic writing, so why cite anything at all, right? Wrong. If your entire spiel is about the ancient traditions and age-old beliefs surrounding gems, then you better be able to demonstrate that your stories are actually real traditions. Or at least that you got them from somewhere more substantial than the 'gem lore' site directly above yours on the Google hit list.

This is what happens when I search:

- "Oh, look! That sounds like a neat story. I'll look it up in Google Books." (Because I already know better than to do plain Google.)

- First 10 hits: "Crystal Healing", "Lore of Precious Stones", "Crystal Power", etc.

- "Okay, so maybe one of these actually published books cites a source for the myth/folktale/legend I am looking for?"

- No, they don't.

- "Alright, let's try searching pre-1950s, crystals were not a thing yet."

- No trace of the story.

- "Okay, there is no way I have an MA in Roman archaeology and I have never heard of this one oddly specific Roman myth before."

- No Roman primary source databases mention anything of the sort.

- I do, however, start noticing that the story's wording barely changes from book to book, or from website to website. Copy and Paste are at work.

- 4.5 hours in, still no source in sight.

- My hair is turning grey.

Please, for the love of god, or Goddess, or spirits, or angels, or anything that's holy, do your homework before you make claims no one can verify! Primary sources (Ancient Greek or Roman authors, Egyptian papyrus texts, medieval manuscripts, etc.) are best, but sure, I'll take any other publication in a pinch. With a source.

If you don't know the source... try to find it. Or preface with "the Internet claims..."


The other thing that bugs me. You need to straighten out your terminology. Because most of what is listed under "Legends and Folktales" sections is usually neither.

"Ancient Romans used to believe emeralds improved eye sight" is interesting, it is even verifiable (Suetonius! Is the source!), but it is not a story. It is neither myth, nor legend, nor folktale. It is a belief. Traditionally speaking, beliefs turn into stories when they acquire a plot. Where someone does something once upon a time.

And while we are on this topic:


This is for advanced learners right here, because most writers don't know the difference either. But there is a difference. All of the above belong to the large umbrella of "traditional stories", which means, they have been around for centuries. But.

Myths belong to belief systems and religions, and are (or were) generally believed to be true. Legends were originally religious stories of saints that were also believed to be true. Generally, legends were supposed to be historical - taking place in a more specific past, rather than a mythical past, an attached to historical persons, places, or events. Some languages (like Hungarian) even have separate words for religious and non-religious legends. Folktales are stories that are handed down through generations in the oral tradition. They don't have an author, they exist in many variants, and they change from telling to telling. They take place in a generic "once upon a time world" or simply the human world, and they are usually told as entertainment, rather than plain truth.

So. The tears of Phaethon's sisters turning into amber, when they cry for their brother who tried to drive the sun god's chariot: Greek myth. Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos wearing an emerald ring that is lost and recovered in a stroke of luck: Greek legend. The prince who climbs a mountain of gemstones and rescues an enchanted princess: Greek folktale.

"Fairy tales" can be a sub-genre of folktales (more accurately called wonder tales), but they can also be stories written by someone. Which takes us to...


Stories. Written by someone. Are not "ancient lore." Now, I don't actually fault you for this one. Sometimes it is super hard to tell real traditional stories from written ones, especially when the Internet picks them up and throws them around without acknowledging the author. Case in point: the legend of "the maiden Amethyst and Dionysos" I keep coming across is actually not a Greek myth at all. It was invented by a 16th century French poet. It was never the part of the Greek mythical tradition.

Sometimes authors also publish their own stories as "folktales", either because they don't understand the term, or because they think it will sell better. This is how you get hundreds of fake "ancient Chinese wisdoms" and "old Native American legends" and such crap on the Internet.

Which is bad. Because then you are attributing something fake to someone else's tradition. 

Which is why you need to check your sources. Full circle!


Seriously, just stop.

Whew. Okay. So now I feel better. So I'm gonna end on a positive note:

Researching stories and citing sources is a skill set you can learn. When in doubt, ask a research librarian, a folklorist, an archivist, or a storyteller. We are all happy to help with oddly specific research questions! And the good news is, those stories are out there. And they are marvelous, I promise.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Hispanic Snow Whites do exist

Once again, for the people in the back: folktales have variants. In the oral tradition, they exist in many versions. Snow White is not a single story (even though most people only know the Grimm version). It's the name of a tale type, which exists pretty much all around the world. Therefore no, Snow White is not always white, neither literally, nor figuratively. For example, in some cases, she is orange. In the earliest Grimm manuscript, she is blonde with black eyes. And many versions don't note color at all, just that she is beautiful.

People have been getting their undies in a bunch about Disney casting a Hispanic actress for a live-action Snow White. Discussion on artificial categories aside, here is a select list of Hispanic Snow White folktales. 

You might note that the princess' coloring is the least exciting thing about them.

Blanca Flor (Spain)

Aurelio Espinosa collected some versions of Snow White, one of them called Blanca Flor (White Flower). In this one the (birth) mother tries to get rid of the beautiful girl by reading spells from a spellbook, and sinking her into a rock. She is rescued with the help of the Virgin Mary, and taken in by robbers. The mother poisons her with a silk shirt, but when a sexton takes the shirt off, she comes back to life.
In another version, from Asturias, the stepmother tries to lock the princess in to keep her beauty hidden, but doesn't succeed. She is rescued by a group of men, and in the end decides to marry the servant who revived her.

Blanca De Nieve (Dominican Republic)

Andrade's classic collection of folktales from the Dominican Republic has a whole lot of Snow White variants. My favorite is the one where the queen (named Snow) is not Snow White's mother at all; she just finds out from her mirror about the beautiful girl, and sends out a firefly to find her. Turns out, Snow White lives among the dwarfs in the woods. She is engaged to a prince, and he has ordered the dwarfs to guard her. When she is poisoned, a fairy appears and wakes her up from her death-like state so she can marry her prince.

Blanca Nieves (Puerto Rico)

There are several Snow White variants collected from Puerto Rico (link above). My favorite is the one where the queen's servants feel pity for Snow White, so instead of killing her, they drop her off in the mountains at the dwarfs' house. When she is later poisoned by her stepmother, the dwarfs simply take her to a doctor, who removes the piece of poisoned apple from her throat. She then falls in love with one of the dwarfs and marries him.
In another version in the same collection, the girl is adopted by robbers. The envious (birth) mother hires a beggar woman to stick a pin into the girl's head. The robbers find her dead; their leader pulls the pin out, reviving her, and then they go and hunt the assassin down.

Blanca (Mexico)

Also known as "the princess who studied to be a priest", collected in Los Altos. A vain queen sends out spies, strategically eliminating women who are more beautiful than her. This includes her own daughter, who manages to survive and find refuge in the wilderness, where she becomes the Queen of Thieves. Her mother manages to kill him with some enchanted slippers, and the thieves put her in a coffin and float her out to sea. Monks find the coffin, take her slippers off, and she comes back to life. They dress her as a man, and she studies for priesthood, until one day her parents come to hear her preach. She takes her father's confession, and tells him the whole story. Her father kills the mother, and restores Blanca to being a princess.
In another Mexican version, from Jalisco, the princess is chased into the woods by her stepmother. She befriends three wolves, who are actually princes cursed by the evil queen. The wolves attack the palace, kill the queen, and then the eldest asks the princess to split his head with an ax. He turns back into a prince, and they get happily married.

(Apparently, poison slippers are the preferred method in many Mexican versions.)

Blanca Rosa (Chile)

In this version, the girl exiled by her stepmother ends up in the abode of forty thieves, who worship her as the Virgin Mary. The queen finds her and sticks a poisoned pin into her head. The thieves put the dead girl into a coffin and float her out to sea. A prince finds her, but when he pulls the needle out of her head, Blanca Rosa wakes up so frantic and panicking that he just sticks it back in... He revives her again later, and asks her to be his wife. His spinster sisters try to get rid of Blanca, but of course, she survives in the end.

The envious stepmother (Argentina)

In this version, the (nameless) princess is chased into the wilderness by her (birth) mother, and a gang of robbers adopts her as their mom (!). In the end, when a kind revives her by taking off her enchanted ring, the princess only agrees to marry him if he pardons all of her robber sons.

Now, let's be real: none of this means that the Disney movie is going to be any good. (Most live action Disney films... *cough* aren't.) If you ask me, anyone would be better off if any of these awesome variants were adapted instead.

But honestly neither the whiteness, nor the European-ness of Snow White is a constant thing in folklore. Just sayin'.