Thursday, April 6, 2023

E is for Elbows (Body Folktales)

This year, my A to Z Challenge theme is Body Folktales. Enjoy!

I could have done Eyes or Ears for this one, but I accidentally ran into a folktale type that I really wanted to explore, so I went with Elbows instead.

Turns out that there are several variants of a story about villains who have sharp elbows in North American indigenous cultures (the motif number is G341). It sounded fascinating, so I dug into the various texts, and here is what I found.

Aiini (Menominee)

The protagonist of this story happens upon a mouse den with two mice sitting at the door. He can tell that they are not mice, however, but two old women with knives in their elbows, using an illusion to lure people in. Aiini pokes his bow through the door, ringing the alarm bells that make the women attack - and thus they accidentally stab each other to death with their elbow knives. (Other source here.)

The son of Aioswé (Cree)

Aoiswé wants to get rid of his son because the young man slept with his other wife. He abandons Aoiswé on an island. The rest of the story is about the young protagonist making his way back home, battling various obstacles conjured by his father, with the help of blessings conjured by his mother. One of the threats is a wigwam with two blind old hags who have sharp bones protruding from their elbows. Instead of sitting between them, the young man holds out a sheet of rattling parchment. The blind hags turn their backs to the parchment and begin stabbing at it with their elbows, until they stab each other to death.

The awl-elbow witches (Assiniboine)

In this story, two old women live together and stab visitors with the awls at their elbows. A man tricks them into sitting back to back and puts his blanket between them, so they stab each other instead of him. They also have other medicine he uses to make sure they don't revive.

Travels of Gloskap (Mi'kmaq)

Gloskap goes traveling, but eventually he decides to return home. On the way an old woman warns him that there will be many dangers along the way. He comes across two wigwams, both inhabited by an old woman who eats people. The second one is sharpening her elbow on a stone, making it as sharp and as awl, to stab him in the heart. Luckily, Gloskap has two dogs that guard him form every danger while he sleeps, so he gets away unstabbed.

Dreadnought (Shoshone)

A fearless young man goes on a journey. Various people warn him of various dangers, but he prepares for each one and powers through them. When he comes to a house with two old, sharp-elbowed women, he passes his blanket between them, and they stab each other through it. The young man takes their food and continues on his way.

The younger brother (Dakota)

A jealous older brother sends his younger sibling out to an uninhabited island and leaves him stranded. On the way back, the young man has to face various dangers. Among them, a bark lodge where two old women called Arm-awls live. He enters the lodge, but on the way out he throws his blanket first, and the old women stab each other through it.

Filcher-of-Meat (Ojibwe)

Filcher-of-Meat grows angry at his son because of the intrigues of his wife, and abandons him on an island. The young man makes his way home, encountering various perils and adventures on the way. One of them is a wigwam with two blind women with awls sticking out of their elbows. When he tries to leave, they move to the two sides of the door, so he touches them with his blanket, and they stab each other to death.

Ayase and the origin of bats (Ojibwe)

I worked my way through all the above versions of this story before I got to this one, and had an AHA! moment. 

In this story, after several people disappear, a man goes out to solve the mystery. He finds a house made of rocks, with skulls hanging in the doorway. He manages to get inside without rattling them, and finds two blind women with sharp pointed bones at their elbows. He hides inside the house while they look for him, and finally makes them stab each other by tossing his fur coat between them.

He then drags them outside and realizes they were monster-bats who ate people. He cuts up their bodies, and the pieces all transform into smaller bats, flying away.

ELBOW BONES! Now it makes sense...

Are you feeling the "aha" moment? Or did you call it ahead of time? :)


  1. Good heavens - folklore with elbows in it! Elbows must have meaning in Native American lore.

  2. There must be some deeper meaning to American Indigenous people's fascination/fear of elbows. Maybe it's some kind of warning against having too many old ladies in one place. Or maybe there is some creature or animal with dangerous arm joints that we're not aware of...

  3. Amazing at the amount of commonality between the stories!

    My A to Z Blogs
    DB McNicol - Small Delights, Simple Pleasures, and Significant Memories
    My Snap Memories - My Life in Black & White

  4. So loving your posts.

  5. Nope. I didn't conjure a bat in my imagination of these stories.

  6. I have not noticed my elbows sharpening with age. Nor did I think of giant bats being the culprits.

  7. The giant bat theory is all very well, but I assure you that I have encountered people in crowds who had knives for elbows!

  8. It really was an eureka moment! I wonder if all the stories came from the same one but the last piece of information got lost, or if there was a special symbolism about the old hags. Quite exciting variants.
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