Monday, June 19, 2017

Trickster continuity (Following folktales around the world 30. - Barbados)

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!

Because I could not find a book of folktales for Barbados, I once again turned to folklore articles for appropriate reading. 

Barbados Folklore
Elsie Clews Parsons
The Journal of American Folklore, 38/148 (1925), pp. 267-292.

Exploring the Folk Culture of Barbados through the Medium of the Folk Tale
Linden Lewis
Caribbean Studies, 23/3 (1990), pp. 85-94.

The first article contains fifteen folktales, and more than a hundred riddles. It was written by the same author that wrote Folk-lore of the Antilles, but her collection of Barbados folktales was published here separately. The presentation is the same: The stories are written phonetically, in dialect, and sometimes you have to read them out loud to understand what is going on. The second article contains more "modern stories," anecdotes and later versions of folktales, embedded in a study of Barbados folklore. The stories in it focus on two main themes - thievery and necromancy (obeah) -, but other beliefs and folk creatures also make an appearance.


There was a great version in the first article for the Brave Little Tailor - and accompanying it another, shorter one, which I especially loved, because the tailor spoke in his sleep and revealed that "seven at a whack" was actually seven flies, and both princess and king got really angry at him for that. When I was little, I always thought it was stupid that no one asked him "sever what?!", so I really appreciated the practicality.
There was an interesting tale in the second article about a boy who stole pumpkins, and his community cursed him with a ritual so that he grew up to be a kleptomaniac. He eventually was caught because he stole a wet dish rag, and his pants soaked through...
I also found a creature called the bacco quite fascinating. It is kept in a bottle or in a blanket, feed it bananas and milk, and it can be both useful and harmful, depending on its owner. The only way to get rid of it is to throw it in water. All cultures in the region blame someone else for it: Barbados people say they came from Guyana, Guyana people say they came from Suriname, and in Suriname, they say the Dutch sailors brought them in...


In "Trickster seeks trouble", this time Anansi (Brer Nancy) teaches Brer Rabbit what trouble is, by setting him up to be eaten by Tiger - but in the end, he also saves his fellow trickster, which is pretty nice. Rabbit, in turn, does what he does in the Uncle Remus tales, and rides Monkey like a horse, pretending to be sick. There was, of course, the classic mock plea story, where the captured Rabbit begs not to be thrown into the bushes - and then he is, he gets away laughing. I also found a Magic Flight tale - this type appears to be one of the most common I have encountered in this journey so far.

Where to next?
Saint Lucia!

Monday, June 12, 2017

King Rufus gambles with the Devil (Following folktales around the world 29. - St. Vincent and the Grenadines)

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!

Folk-lore of the Antilles, French and English I.
Elsie Clews Parsons - Gladys A. Reichard
American Folk-lore Society, 1933.

For those small Caribbean countries where I could not find an individual book of folktales, I'll be reading chapters from this collection. Folk-lore of the Antilles is a three-volume opus that contains hundreds of folktales in French and English, organized by island. The Saint Vincent chapter contained ten tales, collected from four storytellers whose cultural backgrounds were diverse, to say the least - they were a mix of German, Portuguese, Carib, African, Cuban, and "sailor." The youngest (and the fountain of Anansi stories) was only 14 years old. All 10 tales had been recorded in English.


The best tale out of the ten was the one titled King Rufus gambles with the Devil. In it, Prince Rufus the Second decided to learn a trade - and he picked gambling. He was not very good at it, though, because he promptly lost all his belongings to Don Pedro, the Devil, along with his own life. After the game, he set out to meet Don Pedro at the seven gates of Hell by the River of Ever Ever of Crystal. He was pointed in the right direction by three consecutive old women who all combed coffee and sugar from their hair. In Hell, he encountered the three foster-daughters of Don Pedro (Roses of Night, Moonlight of Night, Sunlight of Day). From this point on, it was a Master Maid story, with the exception that in the end, Rufus made a mistake and ended up in Hell anyway...

There was also a lovely story about the doctor bird (story and teller came from Jamaica where the bird is very popular). In it, a pregnant woman sent the bird to tell her husband she was in labor - then rewarded the helpful animal with a pretty velvet cap it still wears today.


Of course there are no trickster - especially Anansi - stories without the classics: The tar baby, the cheating of execution, the deadly rock, the tricking of other animals (Shark and Lion), and the tug-o-war between Elephant and Whale. Note: I don't know if it happened because of the place, or the era of collection, but Anansi was not always his usual spider-self - he was named as a cat and a wolf too, among others.
There was also a fun version of the Magic tablecloth story - the last gift in the lineup was a bottle full of fairies. If someone opened the bottle, the fairies came out; in the end, the thieves who had stolen the previous magic items from the poor man got their asses handed to them by a jarful of fairies...
Where to next?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Susan and the Sesame (Following folktales around the world 28. - Grenada)

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!

Folk-lore of the Antilles, French and English I.
Elsie Clews Parsons - Gladys A. Reichard
American Folk-lore Society, 1933.

For those small Caribbean countries where I could not find an individual book of folktales, I'll be reading chapters from this collection. Folk-lore of the Antilles is a three-volume opus that contains hundreds of folktales in French and English, organized by island. The Grenada chapter contained 32 tales, most of them in English and some in French with English variants. All texts were transcribed phonetically, which made reading a little hard sometimes. Especially interesting was the list of informants: Most of them were between 13 and 18 years old, and the oldest was 35.


My favorite story from the collection was from the island of Carriacou, and told about a girl who knew all the Nancy stories ("Nancy story" or Anansi story is the generic term used for folktales and especially trickster tales). In this tale, the girl wanted to marry a man who could tell her a story with a meaning she could not understand. A boy, whose mother was trying to kill him, managed to recount a series of adventures that baffled the girl in the end.
Another tiny but deep story was Cat and Rat bathe together. In this, a young kitten and a young rat were friends and went bathing together every day until their parents told them they were supposed to be natural enemies. The story had a very clear point to make, about hate being a learned behavior...


After Ecuador I once again encountered a "Trickster asks for a boon" type tale (of African origins). Rabbit asked God for wits, and had to bring various things (lion's teeth, large snake) to prove that he was worthy. There were also other classic trickster tale types, such as swapping places before an execution, the deadly rock (a.k.a. Anansi and the Moss-covered rock), and Trickster looks for trouble, which I have also read from Trinidad last week.
I also found a Grenadian Hansel and Gretel, a "Mother killed me, father ate me" fairy tale, and a version of the Haitian tale of Tayzanne about the friendship (or maybe love) of a girl and a fish. Also from Haiti (or rather, from Diane Wolkstein's Haitian story collection) I knew the story of Filomena, where the cruelty of a stepmother comes back to destroy her own children - this one showed up in the Suriname collection as well. Here, the stepchild was called Crocodile.
I chuckled a lot at a tale where thieves could open a door with a magic word - but instead of "Open, Sesame!" the call was "Open, Susan!" I wonder how that happened...

Where to next?
In the logical line of succession: St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Road of the Warriors - Archaeology Day storytelling, 2017.

Once again, I just got back to Hungary in time for Archaeology Day (the last weekend of May). Following the tradition of the past two years, I was invited to the Damjanich János Museum in Szolnok, to participate in their weekend events with a brand new storytelling program tailored to this year's theme. After Sarmatians in 2015, and Gepids and Goths last year, 2017 was the year of the nomadic cultures of the steppe - Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, Hungarians, Cumans, and the Jász people. 

I love dressing up for museum gigs, and this one was no exception (after the past 2 years, I felt kind of obligated to keep up the trend). Luckily, I already had a Hungarian conquest era (9th century) outfit lying around with all the necessary accessories (from my days as a traditional archery reenactor). I left the bow and arrows at home, but the final appearance was pretty complete anyway. The belt ornaments, pouch decorations, and the braid disc in my hair were all replicas of actual conquest era archaeological finds. The traditional belt pouch was also great for storing such authentic items as my cellphone, room keys, and lipstick. 

After last year's scramble to find Gepid stories, this year I had the opposite problem: I had a wealth of folktales, legends, and traditions to pick from. I made sure that I had at least one story for every culture listed above - while some were easier than others, I still ended up with a colorful and rich lineup of tales to tell (and once again, I had tons of fun with the month-long research). There were two sets of storytelling on Saturday afternoon, one for younger kids and families, and one for adults and older children. 

The first set was titled Treasure of Griffins. I filled it out with traditional Hungarian folktales that preserved a lot of the motifs and symbols of our pre-Christian, shamanistic world view and traditions. I told the story of the Winged Wolf (one of my all-time Hungarian favorites), the tale of the Seven-legged Horse (this one has a female protagonist that rescues the Sun, Moon, and Stars from the Dragon King), and the story of Csorha János, a folktale hero from the Jász region of our country, who has magic powers and uses them to hide from a princess who can see everything. It was great to see how these old, formulaic stories work wonders in live telling with an audience - especially with children. There was a little boy in the front row who kept muttering out what will happen next in the story, and then nodded sagely when he turned out to be right... Event the adults rewarded certain plot twists with laughter or gasps. 

I was happy to see that several people returned for the second set as well. This one bore the title Footprints on the Road of the Warriors (the Road being our name for the Milky Way), and it was my chance to tell the longer, more complex historical legends of my repertoire. In chronological order, I started with the Scythians, telling the tale of Arsakomas and his blood brothers from Lucian of Samosata's Toxaris, or Friendhsip. It is a story of adventure, where a Scythian warrior proves that friends are more valuable than money or land, and his two blood brothers help him elope with his love, and win a war. It was tons of fun to tell. Next up came the Huns. For them, I told my version of Attila and the Comedians, a tale that I crafted and fleshed out from a medieval chronicle. It was both familiar and new for a Hungarian audience, and got great reactions from them (we do love our King Attila). For the Avars, I told the legend of the Csörsz ditch (Csörsz-árok), a system of Roman era fortifications that people later made up stories about. Since it is very close to Szolnok, it played well with the local audience. In the end, since I had time left over, I added the Ossetian Nart legend of Alimbeg's daughter to the lineup - one of my favorite Nart sagas, and also a story that features intriguing representations of gender.
This second set was especially lovely. People stayed and listened, allowing me to take my time fleshing out and delivering each story without a hurry. Some of them specifically showed up to the event for the storytelling, and they stayed to talk afterwards. I also loved the fact that I was telling these stories inside the museum, surrounded by archaeologists knowledgeable of all these cultures, and artifacts that represented them. If there was ever a perfect setting for telling these age-old tales, this was definitely it.

I am looking forward to what next year's Archaeology Day may bring!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Wise crabs, sweet crabs, grumpy crabs (Following folktales around the world 27. - Trinidad and Tobago)

Today I continue new 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!

Today we begin our Caribbean cruise!

Trinidad and Tobago Folk Tales
Eaulin Ashtine
U.W.I. Extra-Mural Department, 1966.

The book contains nine folktales, all collected and re-told by a local author who wanted to help the children of Trinidad and Tobago become familiar with the stories of their own cultural tradition, rather than just reading fairy tales from Europe. The tales show a lot of similarities with African and South American traditions, and even some European connections, reflecting the cultural diversity of the islands. They were a very enjoyable read, and it clearly shows that they would be even more entertaining in spoken word.

Frigate bird
One of my favorite tales in the book was How Pelican got his beak. It featured several local birds such as the Booby, the Frigate Bird, and of course the Pelican, and described how a group of them managed to trick the haughty Frigate Bird into giving up his very practical beak to Pelican. (It was good to see a frigate bird again, after several tales about them from Oceania).
The powerful story of Young Nelson and Old Nelson was about a great old bull who ruled the pastures in tyranny, killing all young bull calves. The forest animals helped a pregnant cow get away, so that a young bull could grow up, and take revenge on the tyrant.
On a lighter note, How Agouti lost its tale told about Dog who tried to infiltrate a party reserved for horned animals only (by wearing fake horns), and how he was outed by Agouti.


How Tortoise's shell was cracked was familiar from some South American cultures. It featured Tortoise who wanted to be a bird, and flew up to the sky wearing feathers, to join a party - but was kicked out when he proved to be rude and greedy. In Madam Crab loses her head, an old witch captured a girl, and would only let her go if she guessed her name - which she did, with the help of Old Madam Crab (similar to the Rumpelstiltskin stories, except the name here was En-Bois-Chinan).
Crabs also featured into my favorite story from the book, How crab's shell got cracked. This was basically a Frau Holle story, except instead of girls there was a kind crab (Mamselle Sweet) and an unkind crab (Mamselle Sour). I really loved this one.
The local trickster is Compare Rabbit, who usually tricks Compare Tigercat. In one story, he managed to make Tiger believe that he could wither animals simply by looking at them. Talk about a superpower.

Where to next?
To Grenada! (Which is not the same as Granada, and also not the same as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which will be the next stop after)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Enter Anansi! (Following folktales around the world 26. - Suriname)

Today I continue new 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!

It's Anansi time!!!

Suriname folk-lore
Melville J. Herskovits - Frances S. Herskovits
Ams Press, 1969.

This book was first published in 1936, and it definitely carries the signs of its time ("Notes on the culture of the Paramaribo Negroes"). It is quite heavy, being almost 800 pages long. The upside is that it is a folklore publication, which managed to dodge the judgmental tone, reporting facts and observations instead, about the culture, beliefs, and customs of the black population (of African descent) of Paramaribo and its region. The folktale chapter contains almost 150 stories in mirror translation, along with ample footnotes (including sources for other variations of each tale), an introduction to the storytellers, and multiple versions of certain stories collected and published side by side.
The introduction chapter on folklore and folk belief was just as fascinating. There was an entire section on the meanings of head kerchiefs tied in different ways, and the stories they told by each variation. I also read about such intriguing things as the mati (a birthday party organized to celebrate lesbian relationships), the trefu (individual food-related taboos that people inherited from their parents), the various souls each person has, and the personal gods that regulated their life and their worship (which, interestingly, could be of African descent, but also local indigenous gods). In the back of the book, there are chapters of dreams, riddles, sayings, and musical notes for the songs inserted into the folktales.


With this book, we arrive to the home turf of Anansi the Spider! More than half of the tales were Anansi stories, and the entire folktale chapter was traditionally labeled as Anansi-tori (Anansi stories), a common name for tales in general.
I was very excited to find several Anansi stories that I have not encountered before. For example, Lies hurt more than a wound featured Anansi proving the title proverb by (quite literally) smearing a king's reputation. In Monkey's urine is sweet, he tricked Tiger into drinking monkey pee repeatedly (poor monkey did not fare well in the process). There was a fun story where Anansi competed in eating hot peppers to win a princess' hand, and another one where his wife enchanted kitchenware so that it would run away from her greedy husband. I especially loved the story where Anansi pretended to be American, putting on a hilarious fake accent, in order to be welcomed as a special guest to a feast. In another story, he pretended to be an angel. Spider-angels for the win.
If course there were also cool stories that did not feature Anansi. For example, in Plot to Cook Goat, Tiger and Dog captured a goat for dinner - but Dog felt sorry for it, and helped it get away. In Animal Gratitude and Human Duplicity, a hunter rescued a Rat, a Snake, and a Human Being. Guess which one betrayed him, and who saved him, in the end...


Orlando Jones as (an amazing) Anansi
in Starz's new American Gods show
Most of the well-known, classic trickster tales appeared in the book, many of them in several variations. Of course we had the Tar Baby, the tug-o-war between Elephant and Whale, the Magic Rock, Riding Tiger and Escape by Switching Places (see also: Br'er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus tales), Eating Tiger's intestines (as opposed to balls or tail, in other versions), and the Feast of Anansi and Tortoise, where they mutually tricked each other.
Of course, once again, we had a race-running tale (Tortoise vs Deer), and also the Contest of the Birds about who can fly the highest (won by Hummingbird hitching a ride on Eagle's back). There was also a version of King Midas' ears, featuring Anansi and the unusual beard of a Pharaoh, and a version of the fairy tale known as Filomena from Haiti, where the cruelty of a stepmother comes back to harm her own children.
The second half of the tale collection featured a lot of classic fairy tale types. I found a close variation on the story that I know as Marie Jolie from J. J. Reneaux's Cajun folktales. There were also local variants for Cinderella, the Magic Flight, the Extraordinary Companions, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin (Akantiudu), the Marks of the Princess, and even the tale I know as the Canary Prince from Italy.

Where to next?
Next week, we are entering the Caribbean! Starting with Trinidad and Tobago.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Speak Story Series, Shepherdstown, WV

I could not have asked for a more perfect goodbye performance for my American experience.

Four days before leaving the USA, and after six years spent studying, traveling, and performing in this vast and fascinating country, I was invited to tell stories in the Speak Story Series of Shepherdstown, WV, courtesy of Adam Booth. I said yes, and I am glad I did. As far as gigs go, this one was pretty close to ideal.

I flew to West Virginia from Ohio; Adam drove me from the Baltimore airport to Shepherdstown. It was a beautiful drive, and I happily immersed myself one last time in Appalachia. Shepherdstown itself is an enchanting place, with a pretty, historic main street, a university, good food, and lots of extremely friendly people. They are used to storytellers visiting, and that makes them great hosts - and an even better audience.

Both of my performances happened on the same day. In the morning I visited the Morgan Academy, a small local school where seventy children, from the ages of five to fourteen, piled into the building's main room to hear my stories. It was an interesting system for a performance: After the first story, the little ones left, and after the second, the next youngest group left too, until I was left with the older kids, whose attention span was longer. I told Hungarian folktales - Princess Hide-and-Seek, Kingdoms of Ice and Fire, Bird with the beautiful voice - because they are fit for wider age groups (for the last one, I asked if a scary story was okay, to which they all yelled YEEES!). The kids had a lot of great questions, and seemed to enjoy the stories; the biggest compliment, however, was that they asked for an encore. One little girl wanted to know what the most popular folktale was in Hungary, and after I tried to shorthand-explain Son of the White Horse, I eventually just asked if they wanted to hear it. The answer was a resounding YES, so I told a fourth story, and had great fun with it. Bonus point: This folktale type also exists as an Appalachian Jack tale. I was told by the teachers that the kids have never asked for an extra story before. This is the best kind of compliment.
(I also loved that the school had its own ducklings and chickens, hatched and raised by the students right there in the hallway.)

The evening concert took place on a theater stage downtown, and was attended by more than a hundred people. I was happy to discover that there were several people in the audience who were Hungarian, or of Hungarian descent. It is a treat to be far away from home, and yet telling to people who have a personal connection to the culture I come from. My set consisted of all Hungarian folktales - stories from my upcoming book, Dancing on Blades, told a hundred years ago by Transcarpathian storyteller Pályuk Anna. I selected my favorites. I told Three princesses and a ring, which is a funny and lovely tale about a king who is too willing to give his daughters away for treasure; then I told the Cheerful Prince, which was Anica's kinder, more feminist telling of Rumpelstiltskin (with a good mother-in-law). Next, I decided to tell Mistress Tuberose, because my hosts told me they had an upcoming Garden Tour event, and I assumed I had a audience of gardeners. I did. The story worked like a charm, and at the moment where the cruel father tears up the flowers his daughter has planted, the entire audience gasped in horror as one.
I ended my set with Pályuk's version of The twelve dancing princesses. It is my favorite telling of that tale, and one that is kinder to the princesses than all others I have read. When I have time to tell it fully and comfortably, it is a fantastic experience.
This audience also had a lot of questions. I spend almost another half an hour on stage, answering them one by one; once they ran out, and I was presented a gift basket by the organizers, I still stayed for a long time, signing books and talking to friendly, curious people.

The trip only took three days, but I'll treasure the memory for a long time. I hope I will be back one day, and visit Shepherdstown again. Every storyteller dreams of performances like this.