Monday, October 23, 2017

Is there such a thing as a white American folktale? (Following folktales around the world 48. - USA)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

TL;DR: Hell yes there is.

I have heard it a lot from white Americans (even storytellers): "But... I don't have a culture! What tradition should I be drawing from?..." Not liking some stories is totally okay, but claiming they don't exist is a whole other issue. This is why I picked this wonderful collection for today's post.
(While it does contain some indigenous tales, I am planning on doing a whole separate reading challenge for indigenous nations soon). 

Cinderella in America
A book of folk and fairy tales
William Bernard McCarthy
University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

The goal of this collection is to offer a diverse selection of tales (122 to be exact) that are of European origin, but have become thoroughly and deeply American over the course of generations and centuries. They are American in their symbols, their performance, their setting, their characters, and their exceptional cultural diversity. The author accomplishes his goal with great efficiency, and includes delicious end notes, sources, and comments, making the book both enjoyable and fascinating. Chapters are divided by culture; after introducing some of the earliest collected tales, we get to read selections from Iberian, French, British, German, etc. traditions (including some rarities such as Armenian and Roma tales), as well as examples of European (or European-sounding) motifs that surface in African-American and indigenous traditions. Every chapter highlights a new slice of cultural diversity in the USA: For example, inside the Ibero-American chapter, we get sub-sections for Puerto Rican, Southwestern Hispanic, Louisiana Isleño, and New England Cape Verdean folktales. It was a treat to browse carefully selected gems from all of these sources.
Folklore map of the USA
The author states that the book focuses on American tales of European origins. If the collection was expanded to African, Asian, Native, etc. traditions, it might be a series of several volumes (and some volumes like that are already available separately). It still acknowledges the existence and richness of those other cultural sources, and manages to offer glimpses into them. It also accomplishes a very important goal: Showcasing that there are various "white American" story traditions that are rich, lively, and thoroughly representative of American culture.
If you don't believe me, read the book.

Highlights


One of the prettiest stories in the book is also one of the earliest: Lady Featherflight, a version of the Magic Flight tale type, was collected in Massachusetts in the 19th century. It is especially interesting (and stunning, so close to Salem) that the fairy princess that sits in a tree is accused of being a witch by the villages that find her, and almost ends up executed - until the priest shows up, listens to her side of the story, and finds Jack, the hero that eloped with her in the first place.
One of my favorite tale types, the Basil Maiden, also made an appearance among the Puerto Rican folktales. In it, a clever girl and a young king try to out-sass each other... until the girl wins, and they get married.
My love for Cajun folktales was affirmed through such wonderful selections in the book as Golden Hair (once again, a favorite tale type of mine) and Snow Bella, the Cajun Snow White who ended up marrying the youngest dwarf brother after he repeatedly saved her from the witch's assassination attempts (instead of meandering into the tale at the end).
From the African-American traditions came the tale of Peazy and Beanzy, a "Kind and Unkind Girls" type story, which was unusual because here the unkind girl ventured forth first, and the mother loved them both, instead of being cruel to the younger one. Also from black storytellers came a short, rhyming variant of Sleeping Beauty (La Dora), in which the girl was saved and awakened by a princess. This was explained by the author as the result of a mishearing... but it did not seem to bother the original teller.
From the Polish tradition came the tale of the Black Kitty, in which the hero had to cuddle and pet a black kitten (princess) while all kinds of horrors and illusions tried to get him to give her up. From Scandinavian sources came the legend of the Powder Snake, a giant reptile that spat venomous powder at everyone until a poor boy managed to kill it. The Armenian story tradition was represented by two variants (mother's and daughter's) of the same tale of the Two Dreams, in which a man followed his dream to find the love of his life - and then rescue her by trickery from her tyrannical husband.
Of course the Appalachian tale tradition was also fairly represented in the book. My favorites were Rawhead and Bloodybones, and other kind-unkind type tale, in which a girl had to clean and bleach talking, bloody skull drawn from a well - and White Bear Whittington, which, if my personal opinion was asked, I would nominate as the most beautiful American fairy tale I know.

Connections

I am not going to list all the connections, since by definition all tales in the book have their European counterparts. I simply want to highlight some less common examples: The book contained variants of Molly Whoopie (Polly, Nancy, and Muncimeg), Grimm's Crystal Ball (The enchanted sisters), the Irish's favorite Fairy Midwife (The fairy birth), The Princess in the Shroud (The Bewitched Princess), and Mistress Cockroach (Mousie Perez).
Due to the great cultural diversity, of course, the book's pages were teeming with tricksters. Hermana Zorra outfoxed Coyote with the help of a tar baby; Quevedo (Spanish author turned trickser) switched places with a shepherd who got punished instead of him; Lapin drank Bouqui's wine and claimed he'd beet at a baptism; Br'er Rabbit did the same with Fox, Wolf, and Bear, and then fell for the tar baby too; Hodja Nasreddin taught and learned important lessons; Coyote was defeated by Little Pig, and then a cannibal baby; and Tyl Eileschpijjel shared his crops with the devil, coming out the winner every time. And Jack... Jack was, of course, everywhere.

Where to next?
Saying goodbye to the Americas with Canada!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Gods and storytellers (Following folktales around the world 47. - Mexico)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while; I found it in an antique store in the USA, sitting under a pile of porcelain cups. Not the most authentic source (not a folklore publication), but I really wanted to read it. I plan on circling back anyway, to read some indigenous collections later.

Star Mountain
and other legends of Mexico
Camilla Campbell
Whittlesey House, 1946.

This volume is old, and it shows: The tales are definitely re-told, not collected from tellers word by word. With that said, most of them hold up the structure and feel of the original legend or folktale pretty well, despite occasional dated words and phrases (such as calling the Aztecs "red" or a Chinese girl "oriental"). It does include some conquest era legends, but doesn't pretend that the Spanish were heroes. There is a pronunciation guide in the end, but no sources or comments on the tales whatsoever, which I sorely missed. All in all, it was a pretty read with pretty pictures, but I'll definitely come back to Mexico for more later.

Highlights 


I absolutely adored the legend of Baby Jesus and Brown Sugar (El Niño de la Panelita). It was about a jolly monk who lived in Puebla and brought food every day to the monastery, but his fellow monks believed that he kept sugar cones for himself. One say they caught him in the chapel, handing the sugar to the statue of the baby Jesus, who was giggling happily... According to Campbell, the statue still has a panela in his hand.
Without much historical credit, but also lovely is the origin legend of the "china poblana" folk costume, said to have originated from a Chinese girl that ended up living in Mexico. She told stories to children, and they brought flowers to decorate her dress. As a storyteller, of course I enjoyed this tale a lot. Storytelling also saved the day in the legend of the Brave Mixtec warrior, who fought an archery duel against the Sun (or so said the Mixtecs to scare the Aztecs away).
The Mayan tale of the Moon God and the Turtle was similarly great. The Moon used to be always full, until a turtle started to show up in his bed while he was away, and it got bigger and bigger. Ever since then, the Moon tends to leave a bit of himself at home, to guard the bed from the intruder...
In the beautiful legend of the Street of the Deer, a girl was almost kidnapped by some men, but her pet deer fought them off.

China poblana fountain, Puebla

Connections

Of course we can't be done with Mexico without talking about La Llorona - in this book, her legend was waved into that of Malinche, but it noted that not everyone believed the lover of Cortez was the Crying Woman.
The story of the Cú bird was another variant of "showing off with someone else's feathers" - and the Cú did, and then vainly took off, and the birds (doves, owls, roardrunners) have been looking for him ever since.
The local trickster is Hermano Coyote.

Where to next?
U! S! A!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Guardians of Nature (Following folktales around the world 46. - Belize)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


If Di Pin Neva Ben
Folktales and legends of Belize
Timothy Hagerty & Mary Gomez Parham
Cubola Productions, 2000.

The stories in this book have been collected in the 1970s, mostly by the two editors, in Spanish and Creole, and then translated to English. The volume has two parts: legends and folktales, grouped into smaller sections by topic. They mention in the Introduction that they considered grouping them by culture, but too many motifs reach across cultural groups to make that distinction. In the ten folktales included in the second part they left the dialogues in Creole, to show the flavor of the original language; once again, I had to read aloud to understand what was being said... Every story came with a source, as well as the place of collection, and the age of the storyteller.

Highlights


There are many legends in the book about guardians of nature, beings responsible for keeping people from torturing animals, or killing more than what they need. One of them was Tata Balam, the "owner" of nature; Burucat, his helper (a donkey with a man's face) watched out for animals specifically. Warri Massa was responsible for wild pigs (and whipped a hunter for shooting all over the place). Nohochtat, the Lord of the Forest, chastised a hunter for wounding animals without killing them - but was also willing to show him a grow of valuable gum trees. Coconut groves also had their guardian, but the most important of all was Tata Duende, the guardian of the forest, who watched over all of nature (and sometimes kidnapped children).
Another, chilling and beautiful legend was that of the Day of the Dead (Los Finados), when people lay a table full of food for the returning souls of their deceased relatives (and a separate place for the forgotten souls). In this story, a sick little girl saw the ghost-women come to the feast, even though no one else could see them.
Out of all the folktales, one of the best was that of the Bird of Seven Colors, a Belizean variant of Cinderfella (yes, there is a male Cinderella tale type). In this story, a a farmer's peanut-field was being eaten up by a magic bird, until the youngest son managed to catch it - and then the bird talked him into letting it go, and they stuffed a parrot with peanuts instead, to trick the father. The bird helped the boy through various adventures - including a test where people riding a horse at full speed had to slip a ring onto a princess' finger (but she only held the finger straight for the one suitor she liked).
There was also an amusing pourquoi tale about Why mosquitoes buzz in people's ears (there are various story-answers for this question around the world). In this story, Mosquito lent money to his friend, Wax, but Wax never paid it back; it hid in people's ears instead, and Mosquito has been demanding his money ever since... Ew.

Connections

Belize also has beliefs of female demons haunting the riversides. Here they are known as Xtabay, and they don't only punish men, they also have a protective role: One of them scared a little boy away from shooting randomly at birds. There were also witches that could take off their skin and fly around at night (here called Heg).
The Sisimite monster that kidnapped people reminded me of the Sisimiquí story from Costa Rica; and so did the story of Rabbit and the Giant, which was a local variant of the same Costa Rican tale. There were also several Anansi stories among the folktales; I suspect that we have seen the last of Anansi until we cross over into Africa...

Bonus: If you'd like to know more about the Beliezan oral tradition, and how it can be used in education, I highly recommend storyteller Kristin Pedemonti's book on the subject!

Where to next?
With Mexico, we officially arrive to North America!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Red-haired girl goes traveling - Storytelling festival in Transylvania!

This fall I was invited to be a featured teller at a Hungarian language storytelling festival in Transylvania (which is a region within Romania with a large Hungarian and Hungarian-speaking Székely minority). I could not have been more excited about the invitation. The last time I visited Transylvania I was 9 years old, and the place stuck in my memory as a land of endless beauty and magic. In addition, the program they requested also holds special meaning to me: My new storytelling show, titled The Cheerful Prince and the Girl with Red-gold Hair, contains folktales from my upcoming collection, Dancing on Blades (available January 2018). These stories, collected from uniquely talented folk teller Pályuk Anna at the turn of the last century, have been with me since the beginning of my storytelling career, and I am just as much in love with them now as I was 10 years ago. I finished the last round of editing on the book the day before I left for the festival.

The festival, attached to the Day of the Hungarian Folktale (September 30), lasted a whole week. I visited three cities, and had eight performances. The first two days were spent at the Székely National Museum, where schools brought in groups of children to listen to stories. To the little ones I told world folktales (Utgard-Loki and the Pumpkin Girl won best of show), while for the 6th graders I brought dragon legends (including Dietrich and Sistram), and medieval stories such as Dame Ragnell.

I also had the chance to tell in an almost 500 year old fortress church in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe). The audience consisted of the local Calvinist community, parents and children together, and there was a special magic to telling tales with values (kindness, love, hard work) inside the medieval walls.

In Csíkszereda (Miercurea Ciuc) I told tales on the main square on a chilly yet sunny day, surrounded by children, curious adults, and various TV reporters (watch the video here). It was a dubious choice to make the kids stand in the cold wind, but they cheerfully followed me into the stories, and listened while they wiggled. The best moment of the whole day was when I told Pályuk Anna's tale about the Boy who walked on the clouds, and we all looked up at the fluffy clouds above us while I was telling. It was a bright, unforgettable experience.

In Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș) I told at the Spectrum Theater, to an audience of almost 100 people (and therefore a lovely full house). There were children in the audience, but a lot less than adults, so I could bring out the tale of the Cheerful Prince (Anna's lovely, mother-in-law-positive variant of Rumpelstiltskin), which speaks to adults through emotion and imagery. It was my first time telling it in Hungary (English-speaking audiences always love it), and it worked great.

Returning to Sepsiszentgyörgy for the actual Day of the Hungarian Folktale, we closed the festival with a two-hour storytelling event. In the first hour I told tales from Dancing on Blades (once again, we had a fairly full house of about 100 people), and then handed the stage over to two Csángó tradition-bearers, elder ladies who still carry the oral tradition of folktales, and speak in an archaic Hungarian dialect. Their presentation was lively and lovely (and occasionally hilarious, since they were telling Jesus and St. Peter legends), but I had to work hard to follow what they were saying. It was definitely a unique cultural experience. And fun.

St. Anne's Lake in a volcanic
crater
In the midst of all the telling, I also had time to play tourist a little bit. I visited the former home of Hungary's famous storyteller and story collector Benedek Elek (I would not be a storyteller without him!), the Lake of Saint Anne (according to legend, fairies used to live in it, until they were chased away by the sound of church bell - there's an amazing story about it), Bran Castle (which is a nice historic site, with absolutely nothing to do with Dracula), the Castle of Déva (subject of our most famous folk ballad in which a woman is killed so that the castle can be built), and other famous sites of history and culture. Many of the Hungarian and Székely folktales I read and love were collected in these towns and all over this landscape, which made every river, every mountain, and every castle special, and every forest filled with fairies. Transylvania is still a land full of history, beauty, and tradition. 
(After this, if one more person asks me if I have met Dracula over there, I'm going to beat them with a folktale collection.)

In addition to the travels, I was also grateful for the chance to bring Pályuk Anna's tales to audiences in Transylvania (she was Transcarpathian). The stories took a new life, worked their magic, and, hopefully, will travel on to new places in people's memory. 

I hope to return again soon. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Trickster Jesus and corn spirits (Following folktales around the world 45. - Guatemala)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


According to our ancestors
Folk texts from Guatemala and Honduras
Mary Shaw
Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of Oklahoma, 1971.

This volume contains stories from Mayan storytellers (and lorekeepers), mixed in with a few Carib and Jicaque texts. All were collected by linguists working with various groups in Guatemala (crossing over to Honduras and Belize). The book contains a total of 103 stories in the original language and English translation, as well as a long and detailed introduction, and copious footnotes and references. Stories (of which most are folktales, with the occasional myth, historical legend, and folk belief) are grouped by language, divided by illustrations. It is a detailed and informative collection, with a lot of good stories.

Highlights


I was struck by the legend of the Food of the Holy Earth. It told that when people first began to cultivate the land, the earth cried out and complained, and trees and plants that were cut down screamed in pain. They went to God to complain about the people torturing them, and God made them a deal: They would feed His children, but in exchange the earth can eat them when they are dead. The teller claimed that diseases and disasters happen because people put their dead in coffins and mausoleums, instead of giving them back to the earth as agreed.
I also found  the story of the Man and the Buzzard interesting; in it, a lazy farmer switched places (bodies) with a buzzard, because he thought it would be easier to be a bird. He was wrong.
The true highlights of the volume, however, were the local Biblical legends. In one, Jesus Christ's name got tagged onto a local trickster; the story told about how he repeatedly outwitted the Jews that persecuted him (once by throwing chili into their eyes and running away). In the origin story of the copal, two men visited Jesus' pregnant sister (!) and brought incense; the smoke colored the face of one of them black (a picture of the Three Wise Men?). Also Biblical was the legend of Adam (sic) and the Flood, in which not only rain fell from the sky, but also resin, and it trapped hiding people underground - a story explaining urn burials unearthed by people in the mountains. The origin of domesticated animals was explained with Jesus planting the bones of animals his brothers (!) had eaten, and reviving them after three days. Some escaped the farm, however, and those became the wild animals....

Connections

Obviously, there was a race between animals (Frog and Deer this time), and multiple Magic Flights (with objects thrown over the shoulder, and a princess born from a grapefruit). There were also common tale types such as Open, sesame!, and the Contest between magicians.
Quetzal, Guatemala's
national symbol
Last week in Salvador there was a myth about God hiding the corn from people, and the leafcutter ants finding it; that story was included in this volume too. The Guatemalan version also noted that since corn is the most important food source, and it has a soul, hiding it meant all other food ceased to exist as well. Similar to Honduras, Guatemala had its vengeful female demons too - a girl that made men disappear if they treated their wives badly, and a woman with horse legs and horse eyes who lured men into the river if they beat their wives. I was reminded of North American myths by The serpent and the angels of lightning, in which angels shot (with guns) at a snake that caused rivers to overflow (in the North, they are Thunderbirds). In the legend, a mortal hunter joined them too, to take part in defending the world.
Illustration from the book
I was reminded of Loki by the legend where the three goddesses of corn chained the giant Sipac under a mountain. He had been moving mountains around, and selling land to the whites, so they tricked him into captivity - whenever he tugs on his chains, he causes earthquakes. And talking about earth: After Thailand, I once again encountered a mythical person who could swim in the soil as if it was water. This time, it was Yew Achi, the evil, cannibal king of the Quiche.
Among the tricksters, Pedro Urdemalas made an appearance (here called Pedro Tecomate, Pedro Gourd), as well as Rabbit, who once again fell for the usual tar baby trick (but eventually pawned it off on Coyote). Rabbit was the protagonist of various trickster classics such as "Trickster seeks endowments", and "Trickster rides his enemy like a horse." The suffering party was usually Cougar, Tiger, or Lion.

Where to next?
Belize!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Ants digging up folktales (Following folktales around the world 44. - El Salvador)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


Leyendas, cuentos y adivinanzas de El Salvador
Victoria Díaz de Marroquín
BANCASA, 1995.

The volume contains five legends and six folktales, along with several riddles and rhymes. Most stories have been re-told by the author, but she makes sure to note the original tellers and sources as well. It was a short, but entertaining read, with most legends taken from indigenous traditions, and most folktales showing motifs from European and African sources alike.

 Highlights


I immediately liked the opening story of the volume, in which the gods decided to hide corn from the people who were not respectful to them anymore. Luckily, the zompopo ants (giant winged leaf-cutter ants) dug up the corn, for which the gods tried to punish them by trying them to a tree. The insects broke free, but during the struggle their ties cinched their waists tiny. I liked how the introduction to the book compared the ants digging up life-giving corn to storytellers digging up stories.
I also found the tale of two best friends of supernatural descent, Ifraín and Mausimolú, very exciting. They set out together to find a princess, but then had to go through all kinds of adventures, shipwrecks, and strange islands, to finally find her.

Connections

The legend of the Siguanaba had much in common both with La Llorona, and La Sucia from Honduras. She was a careless mother who left her child alone to admire herself in the water; Tlaloc, god of the waters, cursed her into a demon that haunts riversides and seduces careless men.
The story of Money and Luck was another common one - this time with the twist that the two powers competing by making or breaking a man's life were actually husband and wife. There was, of course, a variant of the Singing Bones, called Flor de Olivar - except this time the youngest prince was not actually killed by his brothers - rather, beaten senseless, and he learned about his own past from the song of the magic bush.
The local trickster is Tío Conejo, Rabbit, who managed to trick Coyote with the age-old tar baby move while stealing some watermelons.

Where to next?
Guatemala!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Horror from Honduras (Following folktales around the world 43. - Honduras)

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 under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


Cuentos y Leyendas de Honduras
Jorge Montenegro
Litografía López, 1976.

One hundred and fifty ghost stories, urban legends, folk beliefs, and other tales from Honduras, representing some of the most popular spooky tropes around the world - from tormented souls to vanishing hitchhikers, from witchcraft to demonic possession. It is real, living-breathing 20th century folklore, peppered with motifs from more ancient traditions.
This extremely popular collection was gathered by author and journalist Jorge Montenegro, who has been sharing them in a radio program since 1964, and published the first volume in 1972. The book now has a 50th anniversary edition. Most of the stories can be found all over the Internet (including the La Prensa newspaper's archive here); since I don't have access to ILL anymore, I read them online.
And the cherry on top: Some of these stories were turned into a horror movie in 2014!

Highlights


Ocote, or Montezuma pine
My favorite story in the book (and one of the few non-spooky ones) was that of the Ocote Tree, in which a young boy learned from his grandma that people should talk to trees, and invited a giant pine to their house for Christmas.
My little feminist heart also loved the Old Man in Love, who was not in love at all, but rather a notorious cat-caller, at least until a pretty young girl seemed to give in to his propositions, and asked him to meet by the river at night. Of course she was not a girl at all, but rather the La Sucia female demon, there to teach the old lech a lesson about "compliments"... A similar lesson was taught to the Mocking Girl, who liked to scare people at night, hiding behind a window and pretending to be a ghost or the devil. One day, she accidentally scared someone to death, so the real Devil showed up, and turned her into an old woman as punishment. And while we are on the topic of morals: the legend of the Grumpy Gravedigger (heh) told the story of how a mean old man was taught a lesson about the spirit of Christmas by being scared half to death by the souls of the dead (Christmas Carol much?).
The story of The Worms was an interesting reverse take on Bluebeard or Mr. Fox: This time, the young wife found hidden treasure in the basement of her husband, and decided to kill him for it... but when she succeeded, the Devil turned all the money into worms in front of her. Similarly, there was an interesting variant of the Vanishing Hitchhiker (the Moramulca cliffs) where someone rescued a girl from a car wreck, only to find out later that the wreck had happened ten years earlier...
Tegucigalpa, site of most stories
Some stories were dark, but also meaningful. In the tale of the Cruel father, a young man was abused physically and verbally. When he fell in love, the father killed his girlfriend to keep her from taking the boy away. Of course her ghost returned - she beheaded the father, and took her lover with her. Similarly, in the story of the Girl from Catacamas, a child was beaten regularly by both parents, until she subconsciously cursed their home, and turned it into a place full of terrifying occurrences.
Some ghosts, however, were nicer than others. For example, there was the Nurse that kept visiting and treating patients in the hospital where she worked, long after her death; and also the Girl with the flowers, who befriended a lonely woman who visited the cemetery every day.

Connections


There are few "real folktales" (magic tales) in the book, but several stories contained recognizable motifs from older traditions - for example, that of the Serpent Bride, where a young pianist fell in love with a woman, just to see her turn into a serpent on their wedding night (reminiscent of Melusine, and other serpent bride tales). There were several versions of classic urban legends and ghost stories, such as The Ring (where grave robbers try to cut off a dead woman's ring with her finger, just to find out she was not actually dead); grateful ghosts pointing out the place of buried treasure; Vanishing Hitchhikers (several of them); and even a ghost bus, this time filled with nuns for some reason...
I have already encountered stories about loyal dogs that protected their owners even after death; Angelina's Dog was one of them, attacking and mangling men who had killed it to get close to the defenseless girl.

Where to next?
El Salvador!