Friday, May 20, 2022

Sisterhood of the Wolf: The hunt for female werewolves (Girl in the chair)

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

I am preparing for this year's Story Camp that my organization (the Világszép Foundation) runs for children in the foster system. This year's theme is Transformations/Shapeshifting. First step is usually for the camp staff to choose folktale roles for themselves, so we can greet the children in character. I have spent the past few weeks researching tales about shapeshifters. When it came to picking my own character, I decided I'd like to turn into a wolf. 
(I recently read the book about Wolf 21 and I am in love with positive wolf representation. In addition, Werewolf is one of my favorite RPGs.)

So, I set out to find folktales or legends or myths about female werewolves or wolf shifters. I set some pretty specific criteria:

1. It has to be a traditional story with a narrative (folktale, legend, myth)
2. It has to be a good story
3. It has to feature a female character who can turn into a wolf
4. This female character has to be portrayed in a positive light, and has to achieve a happy ending
5. Wolves have to be portrayed in a positive (or non-negative) light
6.The transformation should happen at will, not as a curse or a one-time thing

Yeah. The bar was pretty high.

1. Thompson Motif Index

I turned to the motif index first, looking for "transformation: man to wolf" (D113.1). Werewolves do get their own motif number (D113.1.1), but I did not want to dig into those one by one unless I had to - werewolves are almost always male. Since Thompson usually notes when transformation happens to a woman, I filed this away for later. Too broad.

2. Keyword search

I set out with the most obvious search terms on Google Books and Google Scholar: "female werewolf", "she turned into a wolf", "wolf princess", "wolf fairy", etc., combined with "folktales", "legends" and other keywords. I had to work through a lot of fantasy novels (Google autocorrects "folktale" to "story" for some godforsaken reason), and several references to Princess Mononoke and Angela Carter.
No story really jumped out at me, but I did flag a book about the cultural history of female werewolves.

3. She-Wolf

The aforementioned book is a fascinating collection of articles on female werewolves. Only one really goes into folktales, but that one is a treasure trove, about female werewolves in Estonia (apparently, Estonia is unique with its strong female wolf tradition, go figure). I did get a couple of stories from it, but they didn't tick all the boxes: either the wolf was cursed, or evil, or it died in the end, or the story was simply not all that interesting. Still, great book.
(There was also a study on Burgundian werewolf trials, but the women accused of lycanthropy were all executed.)

4. I take to Twitter

When in doubt, tweet about it. The online folklore community rallied around my question, and I received quite a few suggestions from lovely people. Some were literary examples (again, Angela Carter, also Sergeant Angua),but others were promising. 


A Croatian friend was kind enough to send me translations of two She-Wolf folktales, both variants of the "swan bride" tale type, with a girl whose wolf fur is stolen by her husband. I loved these, but I couldn't really use them in the story camp setting. 


Multiple people pointed me to the Werewolves of Ossory. It's an interesting tale, but once again it is short, with nameless characters, and the wolves are cursed. But it did point me to the Irish wolf tradition, which I circled back to later.


Someone brought up Romulus and Remus. I went on a side quest, looking into the lupa of Rome, and Acca Larentia as a possible wolf goddess - but in the end, Romulus and Remus is not a story that gets me excited either. And I thought a wolf mom to abandoned babies would hit a little too close to home with the foster kids.


Someone suggested looking into the Wulver, but I couldn't find a tale with a female Wulver. Or any tale, really. Some say this whole thing might be fakelore.


Someone linked me to a Chinese tale about an old woman who turns into a wolf, and eventually has to leave her family. It was a touching story, but with a sad ending.


Jürgen Hubert mentioned a tale about a wolf-woman who fell into a trap, and later killed the hunter with his own rifle. I liked this one, but it's not really much to build a character on. Translation forthcoming.

INTERLUDE: Pinkola Estés

Yes, a bunch of people mentioned Women Who Run With the Wolves. While I have a bone to pick (heh) with CPE and her treatment of folktales, I did look up the book to refresh my memory. One of my problems with this book is that it comes with notes, but it does not cite the sources for the stories - and she tends to change them a lot. And then everyone quotes her as a folklore source. I checked both in English and Spanish, and could not find the story she references.

5. Peeira

Fables, 1001 Nights
of Snowfall
My "wolf fairy" search took me to the topic of the peeira, a Portuguese creature of legend often translated as "fairy of the wolves." These women are usually seventh daughters in their family, and at one point they run off to live with wolf packs who take care of them.
It gets a mention in this book (which a Twitter friend kindly looked up for me), but the story itself attached only deals with wolves symbolically (as punishment for an unkind girl). Also this one, which looks fun, but I could't get a copy. Following the trail, I found this video which tells an amazing peeira legend, but it is kind of dark and bloody. I found a source in Portuguese as well, but it didn't really give a full story, just a belief. I found a reference to another (non-peeira) Portuguese female werewolf story, but in this one the girl was definitely evil, and she ate a baby. Boo.
(Here is a blog post on Portuguese werewolves)
All in all, I like the peeira as a concept, but couldn't find any convincing narratives to use.

6. Irish wolves

I circled back to the Irish tradition, as one of the Portuguese sources cited a source about Irish wolves. The source cited is pretty short; it says the Irish word for female werewolf was conoel (which Google promptly autocorrected to colonel), and mentions women who go into wolf shape, but alas no stories. Conoel did not yield any as a search term either.
The mentions of the Werewolves of Ossory led me to look into Laignech Faelad, a legendary figure whose descendants can turn into wolves. Couldn't find a direct reference to women, though.
I did get a few hits here and there. I found a literary poem featuring the warriors of the Fianna, and a Wolf-Girl whose curse is broken by a kiss from Oisín. In one of the folktales collected by Curtin a woman cursed into the shape of a wolf gave birth to a human baby (but then promptly died). The Acallam na Senórach mentions the three wolf-daughters of Airitech who came out of their cave to hunt, but they are murdered by warriors in the end. There was also a tale about a family of shapeshifting wolves, and a man they rewarded for saving and healing one of their pups. The family included a fierce mother, so this tale was a definite maybe.
I also found some references to lycanthropy and women in Ireland, such as this article, but no convincing stories. There was an entire side quest about the wolf-woman to be tamed by Irish kings through marriage (see references here). Some sources that looked interesting I could not track down (like this study from this book. It referenced a 17th century text here, but I did not have the bandwidth to go through it in search of the mention of a female wolf).

7. More keywords

I found a reference to a Persian tale called "The Wolf-Girl and the Fairy", but despite the enticing title, it turned out to be one of those tales were a hero's sister transforms into a monster. You can find it in this book. I also found a reference to ATU tale type 409, "Girl as Wolf", but it was another "woman cursed to be a wolf" story.

8. Wolf Queen

And then it dawned on me that might not have searched for "Wolf Queen" earlier. So I did. Lo and behold: a story! A Cape Malay story, specifically, from Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales. (This is the original source.) It's a version of the Donkeyskin tale type: a girl tries to avoid marrying a sultan by transforming into a wolf - and then occasionally forgets to transform back. In the end, her true love recognizes her anyway. And she has a name! (Amina.) And she lives happily ever after!

WHEW! That was an intense three-day dive into a rabbit hole... wolf den? I am sure there is more to rustle up, but I'm satisfied for now.

The real treasure was the citations I found along the way!

Monday, May 9, 2022

Brave girls and great loves (Folktales of Chinese minorities 21. - Kam/Dong)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

I gathered the stories of the Kam people (officially called Dong in China) from various books - herehere, here and here. I managed to find a total of eight folktales. The Kam are an ethnic minority numbering close to three million people in Southern China and in Vietnam. They are known for their beautiful folk songs and embroidery. You can read more about their culture here.


The tale of the Long Haired Girl was a lovely story about a girl who discovered a hidden spring and saved her people from drought. A monster wanted to punish her for disclosing the secret of the spring, but an old man helped create a statue that looked just like her, and the monster punished the statue instead. (This story appears in another collection as well.)

The story of the two brothers reached a sad end. The elder brother gave all the fish he caught to his little brother, and only kept the heads for himself. A mean neighbor told the younger boy that the heads were the best part, and he got so upset that he pushed his brother into the river. Once he found out the truth, he turned into an egret, and he has been calling his brother ever since. Another sad story was that of Ding Lang and the Dragon Princess; the girl brought him good fortune and prosperity, but he chased her away for not giving birth to children - and she took the luck with her.

The story of Suo Lao is one of the famous Kam love songs. A girl was not allowed to marry the man she loved, and she died of heartbreak. Another girl, Shu Mei, managed to find a happier ending: while a jealous man tried to separate her from her beloved (with whom she stayed in contact from a distance with the help of a magic scarf), in the end they found their way back together, and the troublemaker turned into a crow.


The Kam tradition also had a myth about saving the sun, and an especially beautiful one too! A demon hid the sun underground, and two siblings, brother and sister, set out to rescue it. The girl found it and tied a rope around it, and the boy pulled it back to the sky. The girl, sadly, was killed by the demon - from her blood came sunflowers.

The story of the stonecutter was familiar: a man wanted to turn into something stronger, and each time a fairy fulfilled his wish. He became a rich merchant, then an official, then a Kam warrior (and thus stronger than the Han Chinese), then sun, cloud, wind, and stone, until he returned to his old self. The story of the older brother who neglected his siblings was also familiar - his wife pretended that he'd killed a man, and only the siblings showed up to help bury the body. Go figure.

Who is next?

The Hezhe/Nanai people!

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

White dragon, golden frog (Folktales of Chinese Minorities 20. - Tu/Monguor)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

China's Monguor minority
Ethnography and folktales
Kevin Stuart & Limusishiden
Sino-Platonic Papers, 1994.

The Tu/Monguor are a Mongolic ethnic group with strong cultural ties to Tibet. They number about one hundred thousand people. The book contains 94 folktales, translated from written and oral sources.
In the first part of the book we get a lot of information on the traditional Monguor way of life. Some of this text is strongly political (e.g. "in the days before the Liberation, when people were exploited by the ruling class", etc.). Shorter chapters introduce us to beliefs, Buddhism, traditions, marriage, folk arts, history, clothing, etc. - as well as mythology, epics, and proverbs. The stories themselves are divided into two chapters: Huzhu Monguor and Minhe Monguor tales.


The myth about the origin of the five elements and the creation of the earth was interesting: the first dry land was placed on the belly of a golden frog. Another, very beautiful origin story concerned the tung tree: a boy set out to find a way to make the moon shine and give warmth every night. He acquired a potion from an old sage, which turned him into a tung tree. The oil of the tree has been used for lamps for centuries, so the boy is still bringing people light and warmth. I also loved the legend of the White Dragon Horse, who brought rain to people against the orders of the Heavenly Emperor, and was sent to hell for it. People solved an impossible riddle to win his freedom back.
One of my favorite stories was the love between Dala and Shalan Gu. A poor boy borrowed money from his rich uncle, and lied that he needed it for a wedding. When the uncle came to visit, the boy needed a fake wife, and decided to steal a goddess statue. In the darkness, however, he accidentally stole a real girl who was sleeping in the temple. They fell in love, obviously. Prime romcom material.
There was a story about three abandoned sisters that illustrated how women are just as valuable as men. The girls had been abandoned because their parents wanted sons. They found their fortune and lived happily; when later on they returned to help their old, miserable parents, they found them still mourning that they could not have sons. So the girls left them to their own devices. I also liked the story where three brothers set out to find their fortune; two became wealthy merchants, and the youngest became a musician. The daughter of the Lake King fell in love with the latter's music, and fulfilled all his wishes. The funniest moment was the proof of a perfect wife: when a piece of noodle fell onto her shoe while cooking, she gracefully flicked it back into the pot with her foot.
This book also had of the best versions I have ever read for a "language of animals" story: a young man found out, with the help of a small green stone, that an earthquake was imminent. However, people wouldn't believe him until he disclosed where he got the knowledge - and he willingly broke the secret, turning into stone to save his people.


There were several familiar story types in the book, including some unexpected complications. The Black Horse, for example, started as a "three kidnapped princesses" tale, but then turned into one of those stories where someone borrows fire from a monster. In the end, the three brothers killed the monster together. Bawo Mori was a classic Frog Husband story, but in the end we found out that if the frog skin had not been burned ahead of time, the hero would have ended social injustices... There was also a "princess in the shroud" tale, where the hero exchanged his dead father's head for useful gifts that helped him defeat serpents that crawled out of the cursed princess' nose (yup). I also found another tale about the magpie teaching birds how to build a nest, as well as a myth about a hero shooting down nine suns.

Further familiar tale types: contest of Truth and Lies (The blind healer), kidnapped princesses (The evil whirlwind), donkey, stick, tablecloth (Stick of revenge), Brementown musicians (where animals and objects helped an old woman get rid of a monster), multiple "kind and unkind" tales with boys and girls (the best one was about a girl who stole a chicken for her mother-in-law), frog husband, unjustly punished animal (here a monkey protected a baby from a wolf). I was reminded of Vasilisa the Beautiful by the story where a kind girl was helped in her journey by a doll gifted to her by her mother-in-law. There was also a tale where a man wanted to abandon his old, feeble father by taking him to the wilderness in a basket - and his little son reminded him to bring the basket back, because one day he'll need it too. There was a "clever girl" tale with a boy hero who outwitted an evil lama. I was reminded of the story of the ay-ay-ay nuts by the story where a boy had to bring a pot full of "ow" for a rich man.

The trickster in residence is Huairighasuu, a boy born from a lamb's tail, who played a series of tricks on an evil lama. Further tricksters included Fox (who played the classic tail-fishing trick on Wolf), Hare (who cruelly tricked wolf and other animals), and occasionally Frog. The latter was featured in the "animals racing" tale where he did not only defeat Tiger, but also managed to convince him he ate tigers for dinner. Frog also starred in the "talkative animal" story where he was carried by birds while holding on to a stick (but couldn't keep quiet, and fell down), as well as a "monkey heart" type tale where he tried to trick Fox out of his fur.

Who's next?
The Kam/Dong people

Monday, May 2, 2022

A to Z Challenge Reflections: Gemstone Folklore

#AtoZChallenge 2022 WINNER badge

I have completed my 10th A to Z Challenge!

My theme this year was Gemstone Folklore. You can now find a list of all my posts on this page. It was a theme years in the making, and probably the one that has required the most research ever. I greatly enjoyed it, and it seemed to resonate with people too!

Over the course of April, the blog had more than 10k hits and almost 300 comments (fun fact: diamonds got the most comments, go figure). Hits and comments both tapered off a little towards the end of the month - likely because every participant was running out of steam, and also because I got covid a week ago (owww), and did not have the energy to do as much visiting as I wanted to.

I have a lot to catch up on, in terms of visiting - there were a lot of awesome blogs and themes this year!

Here is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order:

Fanni Sütő's Ink, Maps & Macaroons - she is a writer friend of mine who participated for the first time this year, and I had great fun reading her personal and honest posts about life intermingled with fiction

From Cave Walls - a fellow mineral & gemstone theme which I loved reading

Brizzy Mays Books and Bruschetta - a theme of Trailblazing Australian Women, from which I learned a whole lot, and put a bunch of books on my TBR about women's history

Sarah Zama's The Old Shelter - an A to Z veteran, Sarah once again brought a really cool historical theme to the challenge, this time about the birth of the New Woman in the 1920s

Anne E.G. Nydam's Black and White - an amazing and artistic theme about designing mythical creatures, and the many features they can have. You can tell it's well researched because she showed me a bunch of new creatures I didn't know about!

Story Crossroads - a fellow veteran with a folktale theme, about dualities in folktales :)

Literacious - the theme was Reaching Reluctant Readers, with a whole lot of cool advice on how to inspire childen to read

Deborah Weber - Pointed Ponderings, a series of posts based on rare and fascinating words. Deborah's A to Z posts always inspire me

Timothy S. Brannan's The Other Side - an A to Z of conspiracy theories, which was great fun to read, and also sometimes mind-numbing

Shout out to the A to Z Challenge team! I love working with you guys :)