Tuesday, August 30, 2022

StorySpotting: Body and soul mix-and-match (Locke & Key)

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!

Locke & Key, in my opinion, is a seriously underrated show (I haven't read the comics but I hear they are good too). With the new season out, they gave me multiple things to Story Spot.

Where was the story spotted?

Season 3, episodes 4-6.

What happens?

The basic premise of Locke & Key is about an old house that hides various old keys, each with its own magical property. The Ghost Key has been a staple since Season 1. It essentially opens a door that separates one's soul from their body when they walk through. It has been used in various creative ways over the course of the show.
In this season Dodge, the demon who has been the main heroes' arch nemesis, manages to use the door to knock the young boy Bode's soul out of his body. She then leaves her own mortal shell, and takes over the boy's body instead. Bode, left as a floating ghost, eventually manages to regain his own body by projecting his soul into a sparrow, and then transforming back into human shape. (Complicated, I know, but kinda genius).

What's the story?

The whole body-snatching-taking-refuge-in-a-bird thing is actually one of the creepiest pieces of folklore I have ever encountered. And as I looked into it again, it seemed a lot more common than I had believed. It even has a couple of Thompson motif numbers: E725.1 - Soul leaves the body and enters an animal's, and K1175 - Minister dupe raja into entering body of a dead parrot, then enters raja's body. And yes, that latter one is hella specific.

The first time I encountered this trope was in a collection of Tibetan folktales titled Tales of the Golden Corpse. The tale of The Travelling Spirit was about two friends, a prince and a minister's son, who went to school together. The prince was lazy, but the other lad learned the secret art of projecting his soul out of his body (known as phowa). Jealous that the minister's son might upstage him, the prince tricked his friend into showing off his skills - and destroyed the unattended body. Seeking a new place, the boy's lost soul entered an old woman's dead parrot, reanimating it. Later on, the parrot managed to catch up to the prince, and tricked him into falling out of a window... And then the minister's son's soul entered the prince's empty body, and walked away home.
Excellent creepy revenge ending.

As I was reading my way around the world, I encountered this trope again in a collection from Thailand, in a tale titled The Weaverbird Princess. In this story, a silent princess is promised to the suitor who can make her talk. A prince comes along with his mentor, both of them versed in the art of projecting their soul. The mentor projects his soul into various objects in the princess' room, and the prince has conversations with the objects, telling them clever stories. The princess can't help but interject, and thus the prince wins her hand. 
Later on, the prince goes to the forest with his mentor, and, seeing a dead deer, decides to project his soul into the animal and go exploring. He trusts his body to his mentor. However, the evil mentor in turn takes over the prince's abandoned body, burns his own, and goes home to take the prince's place. The prince, not finding a body to return to, transfers himself into a dead parrot. He flies home and tells his wife what happened. The princess manages to trick the mentor into leaving the body and transferring into a goat to show off. The prince thus gets back into his body, and kills the goat in revenge.

Once I started pulling on the king-in-the-dead-parrot thread, a whole lot of other tales came tumbling out. 

There is one in the Turkish story collection titled The history of the forty vezirs, where the evil vezir, instead of burning his own body, puts a slave's soul into it for safekeeping (and the king, while in parrot form, also judges some court cases). Interestingly, in this version the queen recognizes that her husband is not behaving like himself, and refuses to sleep with him.
There is also a version from Pakistan in this book, where the king takes on the parrot's body to pick mangos for his queen. The queen, who is aware of the evil servant's soul in her husband's body from the get-go, devises a clever plan to trick the soul into a lamb's body.
The tale also appears in The Three Princes of Serendip, the English translation of the Italian translation of a medieval Persian tale collection. You can read the story about The Emperor who turned into a parrot here. Once again, the wife's suspicion plays an important part in restoring her husband to his body. Added bonus: the Emperor uses his body-switching ability to travel his kingdom in the disguise of birds, and right wrongs.
Another version of the story can be found in Hatim's Tales, a book of Kashmiri stories collected from storyteller Hatim Tilwon in 1896. The fun part of this one is that the vezir loses the king's stolen body when he goes hunting, and decides to inhabit a bear for greater efficiency. The king then shoots the bear, saying "we can't have a bear for a vezir"... The tale also appears in other Kashmiri collections. It even has a variation in the famous Ocean of the Streams of Stories. Here, a person takes over a recently deceased king's body, but a minister suspects the change. Still, the minister decides an impostor is better than the child heir, and makes sure the soul doesn't have another body to return to. Now this would make a great movie...

In India, the story is known as The Metamorphoses of King Vikramaditya (you can read it in two versions in this volume of North Indian Notes and Queries). In this one, the parrot ends up at his father-in-law's house, judging court cases. Once he actually judges the case of a woman whose husband has been replaced by a shapeshifting dev. Eventually his wife (who is suspicious of her "husband") hears of the parrot and discovers the truth. In the second variant, the evil servant is tricked into the body of a goat and then beheaded, and the head of the goat still laughs and weeps as it's hung in the bazaar.
(I even found a popular comic book adaptation of this story from India.)

A distant relative to this motif is a story from Melanesia, where an evil spirit pushes a girl off a cliff, and takes over her body and identity.


So here we have a folktale type that spans a continent at least, and also several centuries in time, all the way from 11th century Kashmir to 21st century Netflix. Traveling souls and body-snatchers are a rich topic for people to think about. It probably has something to do with our mortality...

(Fun fact: I originally started working on this post when I was watching The 100)

Friday, August 19, 2022

StorySpotting: The monster in the wilderness (Prey)

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!

So I just watched Prey, which is an amazing movie, and immediately fell down a rabbit hole. This is not just a cool action flick, but also fascinating in terms of how it incorporated Comanche culture, tradition, and even language (as the first major Hollywood production with full Comanche dubs at its release). I recommend this article for more details.

Where was the story spotted?

Prey (Hulu, 2022.)

What happens?

Naru, the movie's main hero, flees from her first encounter with the Predator (that kills a bear in front of her). She meets young men in the woods and tries to describe what she has seen: 

"It was huge. I couldn't see it until it was covered in blood, but it looked like... like a mupitsl."

One of the young men scoffs. "You saw a monster from a children's story?"

What's the story?

Okay, disclaimer first: there are a million people out there who could do this better than me, because I only found out about this creature like a day ago. But I went down the rabbit hole, and got excited, so this is me nerding out. I am citing all my sources in the links for accuracy.

So, mupitsl. Also known (or rather, spelled) as Pia Mupitsl, Pia Mupitsi, piamupits, piamupitz, mu pitz, mupits, piamupitsi, and a bunch of other variations.

The name, apparently, means 'great owl' or 'giant owl', and refers to the monster's owlish features. It is also translated in some places as 'big old giant' or 'cannibal owl.' Apparently large owls were admired by the Comanche by their ability to hunt quietly and stealthily in the night.

The earliest mention I found is a Spanish-Comanche dictionary from 1865, written by Manuel García Rejon and published in Mexico. In it, the piamupitz is described as "an imaginary being, human-shaped and gigantic, that carries an extraordinarily large staff as a walking stick, devours humans, and lives in caves in the mountains of the distant North. It is believed that if the staff breaks, it dies."
1994 article about Comanche tradition of topography also mentions the piamupits' mountain habitat, and the actual caves it was supposed to live in.

So far, the Predator does a pretty great job with this impersonation.

A Comanche medicine woman named Sanapia, whose knowledge of medicine was recorded, used bone fragments (mammoth fossils) in her work. She called them piamupits bones. She described the piamupits as a large, hairy giant, tall, with big feet, and with a face like a man. She claimed their bones ended up in the ground when they died of old age.
Turns out the bones of the piamupits were valuable medicine. An article from 1942 mentions pieces of fossil bones that were believed to be the bones of the Piamupits (a "supernatural being"), and used to treat sprains and broken bones. Sanapia also used them for the same thing.

Fossil bones and legendary creatures took me to Adrienne Mayor, who researches traditions around the world involving fossils. She does not only describe Mu pitz traditions in detail in the book linked above, but she also went straight to the source, talking to contemporary Comanche storytellers and tradition bearers. One of whom - drumroll! - was the same Juanita Pahdopony who consulted on Prey. Well, that explains a whole lot. We love it when storytellers consult on movies! The storytellers confirmed that both forms of the creature - the hairy giant and the large owl - existed parallel in tradition.

Most of the actual stories I found came from a book on Comanche Ethnography. There is one story about a group of children who get left behind when their camp moves, and they end up at a piamupits' cave. They manage to make an escape with the help of various animals (a frog, a crane, an eagle, a buffalo, and a calf). In the end, the owl-mupits is thrown up into the moon where it lives today.
In another story, a hunter encounters a piamupits (in the form of a giant man) while hunting buffalo. it offers the creature meat, but the piamupits wants to eat the hunter instead. He flees, but the piamupits tracks him down to his camp. Eventually, the hunter manages to kill the invulnerable creature by sticking a sharp pole up its anus.
In yet another story, the piamupits enters a hunter's tipi while he is away, and kills his pregnant wife in a very graphic way. The twins she had in her belly, however, survive, and their father later finds them.
There is also a story in the collection where the piamupits functions as the dragon in European stories: a girl is supposed to be devoured by the eight-headed creature, but a young man saves her. Another young man tries to take credit for the kill, but the girl tells her father the truth.

The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center also has a short introduction to the Pia Mupits who uses a cottonwood tree as a cane, and was mentioned to scare children into quieting down. Many of the sources seem to agree that the piamupits was a child-scaring creature in folklore.


Early in the movie, after witnessing the Predator's ship in the sky, Naru calls it a Thunderbird. Thunderbird lore is vast and well documented, but I came across one thing in one of the articles I read about the piamupits: it mentions a Thunderbird that fell into a ravine from the sky, killed some men with lightning, and burned out a large patch of grass "in the shape of a bird" where it landed. So.


The more I read about piamupitsl folklore, the more impressed I got with how one throwaway line from the movie integrates so much of tradition so seamlessly into the movie-mythology of the Predator. On purpose, and with consulting Comanche educators. Let's face it, the two might be centuries apart, but the 'masterful, deadly hunter stalking its prey in the wilderness' is an age-old story that keeps surfacing again and again...

Monday, August 8, 2022

StorySpotting: "This b*** I've never heard about before" (Canada's Drag Race)

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!

Yeah, I watch Drag Race sometimes, when my overworked brain needs the mental equivalent of a chewing gum. I am fascinated by the makeup and the sewing challenges. 
One thing I learned is that these shows are usually hilariously off the mark whenever it comes to geek culture... or mythology. And then recently I saw one thing I needed to blog about.

Where was the story spotted?

Canada's Drag Race, season 3, episode 2 (The Who-Knows)

What happens?

The runway theme for this episode was Goddesses of the Ancient World. All of the contestants would be worth a post... but I'll focus on one: Kimmy Couture, who walked the runway in a Vegas showgirl-esque orange dress and headpiece. During the critique round, this conversation happened between the judges and Kimmy:

"Tell us about your goddess."

"So, I went on Google, and I searched it, and then I found this b*tch that I've never heard before... I just really wanted to show some sun because I feel like, I'm like a ball of fire."

"Well, you nailed it. It all worked out."

Kimmy went on to win this episode.

What's the story?

Okay, yeah, it irked me that someone on TV would refer to a mythical character in this manner, and lack of attention to... basic facts, like her name. Because Kimmy herself could not tell us who the goddess was, I became curious to see if she'd just made up a generic sun deity for fun. After some searching, I found a post on her Instagam, and was surprised that she named the goddess there: her name was Alectrona or Elektryone.

So, here is what Kimmy didn't tell you:

Elektryone belongs to the Greek pantheon. She was a demigoddess venerated on the island of Rhodes, as the daughter of the sun god Helios and the island's own patron goddess Rhode (whom the locals worshiped as an aspect of Athena). Rhode herself was a sea nymph, the daughter of Poseidon. So Elektryone belonged to not one, but two illustrious divine families: that of the ocean, and that of the sun. Very fitting for an island deity. She had seven brothers, all kings of Rhodes.

According to some sources, Elektryone was the (demi)goddess of the sunrise. Her name is related to the Greek word for amber, which was always associated with the sun for its color, and its ability to create sparks. Elektryone was also a personification of youth, since according to myth she died a virgin, before she became elevated to the rank of a local deity. Youth and the sunrise go hand in hand.

By the way, the whole myth about Helios' family on Rhodes is pretty interesting. According to one story when the Greek gods divided up the world among themselves, Helios was not present, because, well, he was doing sun things in the sky at the time. So, they conveniently forgot about him, and gave him no realm. However, just at that time the island of Rhodes rose up from the sea, and Helios made his claim of that new piece of land. Other sources say Helios himself raised the island from the sea, after falling in love with Rhode.

You can read more about Rhode here, and Helios' family in Rhodes here.


I have a soft spot for Helios' family in mythology (going all the way back to Kerényi Károly's mythology books, and, most recently, Circe). That look Kimmy served did not read Greek, or mythical, to me at all - but then again, I'm not a fashion expert. I am happy for the chance to introduce some lesser known deities in this post, though. So... yay?