Monday, February 19, 2018

Giants, vampires, lady foxes (Following folktales around the world 59. - Ukraine)

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!

Ukrainian Folk Tales
Anatole Bilenko
Dnipro Publishers, 1974.

This English-language volume, published in the Soviet era, contains twenty folktales from the Ukraine. Some have origins specified by region ("Transcarpathian folktale", "Bukovinian folktale"), but other than those, we don't learn much about their backgrounds. The text sometimes reads odd, like something not translated by a native English speaker, using phrases that are amusingly out of context for the tales. The book is illustrated in black-white-gold drawings. Entertaining read, but other than a few footnotes, not very useful for further research.


The best story in the book was The Poor Man and His Sons, in which a boy, chased away from home by his father, was raised by a wise giant, and sent out on quests to defeat vampires and save kingdoms. I also liked The Poor Man and the Raven Czar, a tale of haunting imagery, in which a poor man did not unwittingly promise his son away, and the magic mill did not end up sinking into the ocean.
The most amusing of the animal tales was The Goat and the Ram - a smart but small goat, and a strong but cowardly ram ran away together, and managed to outwit a bunch of wolves. I could almost see the Pixar movie...
The tale of Oh was essentially that of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, with some really nice embellishments. A lazy boy was trained by the dwarf king Oh in an underground kingdom, burned and revived multiple times until he turned into a shapeshifting hero. Ilya Muromets and the Nightingale Robber were already familiar to me; I included that story in my own book, because of the robber's unique ability to create a sonic blast with his whistle.
I also liked Boris Son O'Three for his name: The abandoned boy was raised by three brothers who all loved him like a son, so they named him "Son of Three [Fathers]". Yay for non-traditional family models!


In a very amusing variant of the Fox and the Wolf, a vixen named Foxy-Loxy outwitted a (male) wolf in several classic ways (tail trapped in the ice, etc.), in order to punish him for breaking the sledge she had made herself. She also featured into the story of Pan Kotsky, the tomcat that became the ruler of the forest by scaring the wits out of all animals (after shacking up with the vixen). And it was also the clever fox-girl who ended up devouring the runaway Kolobok the Johnnycake (a Ukrainian version of the gingerbread boy). I am not entirely sure what was translated into English as johnnycake, though.

Where to next?

Monday, February 12, 2018

A basketful of Belarusian folktales (Following folktales around the world 58. - Belarus)

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!

For the second time over the course of this challenge, I have run into a country where I could not locate a folktale collection in any of the languages I speak. As a result, I tracked down several Belarusian folktales from various sources, and I am presenting all of them below. Some were in Hungarian, and some in English.

The gifts of the storm
Belarusian version for the common folktale type of the magical tablecloth and the gold-pooping sheep, except this time it is not God who gives them to the poor man, but rather the Storm, who feels guilty for scattering the poor man's flour.

The peasant and the nobleman
Another classic folktale, about the poor man that brings a gift to the king and the noble only lets him in if he promises to share the king's rewards with him. So the peasant asks for a hundred lashes, and generously shares them with the noble (to the king's great amusement).

The wicked wizard's servant
A variant of the Magic Flight, with a boy unwittingly promised to an evil wizard, and ultimately rescued by the handmaid who works for the same evil master.

The fox. the wold, and the bell
The fox receives a bell from a man, the wolf borrows the bell and loses it. Man is so angry that his gift was disrespected that he chases the animals into the woods, and they have been afraid of the sound of bells ever since. Reverse Pavlov...

The piece of gold
A clever peasant pretends that he has a valuable piece of gold, and tricks the landlord into treating him as a noble guest.

The wolf and the she-wolf

She-wolf claims that she is invisible to humans - they only see wolf (the male). To prove her point she runs out of the woods, and people stat screaming "wolf! wolf!" I am assuming this tale got lost in translation, and it originally played on wolf and she-wold being two different words, and people not being able to tell make from female.

The redhead and the bald man
A man is cheated by a red-headed innkeeper, but a bald man helps him trick the innkeeper to give the money back. Once again, a play on language: The bald man asks the innkeeper "How much does your flank cost?" and when he gets the price, he proceeds to try to cut the flank off the innkeeper.

Wits over strenght
A woodcutter tricks a bear into putting his paw in the wedge of a tree, therefore proving that he can defeat the beast without having to wrestle it.

The spotted hen
Chain story in which the hen's eggs break, therefore all other animals succumb to mass hysteria, and eventually the bear loses his tail.

How hen saved rooster
Chain story in which hen saves rooster from a bean he choked on by starting a chain reaction and getting him some water.

Fox and heron
Classic animal fable: Fox feeds Heron from a plate, Heron feeds Fox from a bottle, they both go hungry in the end.

Where to next?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mythic marriage, mythic divorce (Following folktales around the world 57. - Lithuania)

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!

A csodamalom
Balti népmesék
Bojtár Endre, Bojtár Anna, Nagy Ilona
Akadémiai Kiadó, 1989.

This book is the fist publication that contained Lithuanian folktales translated into Hungarian. It also has some Latvian stories, but I already read a separate book for that, so in this one, I focused on the 44 Lithuanian folktales included. The volume contains an afterword about Lithuanian (and Latvian) history an culture, a glossary, and a tale type index, so it is a fairly informative book to read. The stories themselves did not really enchant me as a whole, but there were, of course, some wonderful highlights that made it worth the read.
(For English speakers, I recommend this book, or this one)


The most intriguing story in the book, that of Perkunas and the Prince, is a Beauty and the Beast variant - except the youngest daughter is given away to Perkunas, the God of Thunder himself. When the father changes his mind, the god destroys his lands, and all around behaves like a storm deity could be expected to behave. He did reconcile with his wandering wife in the end. On the other hand, the theme was definitely divorce in Why the Sun shines during the day and the Moon at night, in which the celestial couple decided to separate, but they had to agree on custody for their daughter - the Earth. That is why half the time one watches over her, and half the other.
The Magic Duck combined two of my favorite tale types: That of the boys who can spit gold (I included a Mongolian version of that in my book, because it's such a unique superpower), and that of Fortunatus, where magic fruit grows antlers on the mean princess' head. Similarly complex and fascinating was the tale of The youth and the snake, in which an enchanted snake-princess trained the wandering hero in swordsmanship (and also civilized behavior, because he was "like a bear"). After the youth was almost murdered by a princess they forced to marry him, he returned to marry the snake girl instead.
I loved the tale of Death deceived for its unique characters. It is a classic story about trapping Death in a water skin - except Death in this case was a "large woman," and she also had a sister, who determined people's fate in the hour of their birth (I'm assuming she was Destiny). I have seen someone like her in an Irish tale before, called the Queen of the Planets.


The tale of The enchanted girl and the dragon was a reverse Cupid and Psyche: It was the girl who visited her husband in secret at night, until he spied on her - at which point she threw him out the window. He had to defeat a dragon to get back into her good graces. Bonus points to the story because the death of the dragon dried up the sea, and that is how America was born. (Yup, it says so in the story).
The tale of Unlucky Jonas was mostly the same as the Devil's three golden hairs, and the Merciful son combined two popular tale types about respecting the elders - it was a story in which old people were ordered to die, but one man hid his old father, and managed to help the king following his sage advice.
Because we are still in the Baltic countries, of course there was a Magic Mill, explaining why the sea is salty.

Where to next?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

NEW BOOK! Dancing on Blades: Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains

This Folklore Thursday's theme is "Your favorite folk and fairy tales" - and I am in the very lucky position that I have many of mine in one place. On a related note: My new folktale collection is out!

Dancing on Blades
Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains
Csenge Virág Zalka
Parkhurst Brothers Publishers, 2018.
Find it on Amazon, find it on Bookdepository

This book contains 30 folktales from my favorite traditional storyteller, Anna Pályuk (nicknamed Anica, 1858-1951?). She was a Rusyn woman who married into a Hungarian family, and told her tales in Hungarian. In her stories, the magical world of the Carpathians mingles with her own boundless creativity, and eye for natural beauty. I have been telling these stories from ten years, and I am absolutely in love with them.

Here are my five favorite folklorific details about the book:

The subtitle
I was having trouble trying to encompass the "ethnic identity" of these tales. They are included in the Hungarian folktale catalog, but Anica herself was Rusyn. At the time of the collecting, the village where she lived belonged to 5 different countries within the span of 20 years, so it would have been hard to assign just one country of origin. The historic region, Transcarpathia, is too obscure to be written on a cover... In the end, I stuck with what describes the tales best: The mountains of Anica's childhood, and the backdrop of many of her tales, the Carpathians.

The cover art
The image for the cover was created by Katalin Jámbor. She hid some symbols in the skirt and the backdrop that directly relate to stories in the book.

The archives
Out of the 100 folktales recorded from Anica, only about 35 have ever been published before (and none in English). I went digging in the archives of the Hungarian Museum of Ethnography for the thick folder of hand-typed papers that contained the rest. Half of the stories in this book have never appeared in print before, either in Hungarian or in any other language. Which baffles me, because some of my favorites are among them.

The fan favorites 
I put "rare and exquisite" in the title, and I mean it. Among many others, you'll find in this book...
... a variant of Rumpelstiltskin (The Cheerful Prince) that features a compassionate female helper, a gentle and loving prince, and a smart, strong, kind mother-in-law.
... a variant of the Dancing Princesses tale type (The Shoe-shredding Princesses) which contains a slowly budding love story between the youngest princess and the shepherd boy.
... a variant of the False Bride tale type where the false bride is respected and loved (The Maiden with the Red-Gold Hair)
... a love story between a jaded mortal man, and a Fairy Queen who keeps forgetting about things (The Dream of the Fairy Queen)
... a tale about a princess who can't walk, but becomes Queen of the Cloud Kingdom in the end (The Daughter of the Táltos King), and a corresponding story about The Boy Who Wanted to Walk on the Clouds.

The permissions
I really want to see these tales known and appreciated by more people. I want them to travel and take new shapes and be a part of the international storytelling tradition. So, the book contains a blanket permission for the telling of these tales (while the publisher still holds the rights for recording or printing). My secret dream is that eventually, one day, I'll run into someone telling one of them at an event.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Museum Storytelling: Paleolithic Tales

With the new year, I embark on a new adventure: A storytelling series in collaboration with the Hungarian National Museum! I match storytelling programs to temporary and permanent exhibitions, telling to family audiences regularly. Since museum storytelling has always been one of my top favorite things to do, I was preparing for the inaugural event with a lot of excitement!

Since we planned to do the series in a vaguely chronological order, the first performance took place in the first, paleolithic hall of the museum's permanent archaeological exhibit. The question immediately arose: What should a storyteller do in the absence of "authentic" sources for caveman folklore? As much as I would love to know what tales were told to little cavemen thousands of years ago, I had to turn elsewhere to build my repertoire for the program.

Here is the thing: Even though we don't have tales from the prehistoric era, we do have tales all around the world about things that happened in those times. Humans have always wondered, and told stories, about how we got fire, how we made friends with the dog, tamed the horse, and many other things that happened too long ago to really remember. So, for my first show in the museum, I picked out a handful of these stories, and created a program titled Fire Thieves.

The program originally included a list of 10-12 stories, out of which 5 were told in the one-hour show (selected on the spot based on the audience's interests and reaction, as usual). I started out with the Ilocano Fire Thieves story from the Philippines, a classic teamwork tale where a trickster and animals work together in a running relay to get fire from two evil giants. The kids (5-10 years old) enjoyed the participation where they got to make animal sounds and mimic running. We also talked about how and when taming the fire probably happened in human history. Next, I told a Kamba folktale from the Congo about how Dog and Jackal used to be friends, until Dog wandered into a human camp, and decided to stay there. The kids were very enthusiastic in making desperate jackal sounds. Since w already tamed the dog, they obviously wanted to know about horses next - so I told them the legend of Sasruquo and the Wild Stallion from the Nart sagas, which not only contains a very interesting hero, but also an early real-life technique for breaking a wild horse by riding it into a river.
The last two stories of the show were both folktales about ancient clay pots being found in the ground. One was from Sabah on Borneo, about a large jar that turned into a mischievous mangas dragon, and the other from Papua New-Guinea that explained why people keep finding shards of pottery underground. The archaeologists present were greatly amused at both.

All in all, I had a great audience for the show. It was by registration only, and filled up very fast; we ended up with 25 people, give or take some museum staff and wandering visitors. The kids were mostly between 5 and 10 with some younger siblings, and they were not only interested and engaged in the stories - but also had some cool archaeological questions throughout the show. I was glad that I was able to use my (8 year old, mint condition) Archaeology MA in answering them.

Museum storytelling is still one of my favorite gigs to do. I am really looking forward to the next one.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Kokles-music saves the day (Following folktales around the world 56. - Latvia)

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!

A Laima és a két anya
Lett népmesék
Voight Vilmos
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1972.

Once again I had the luck of reading a volume of Tales of Nations, because I already had it on my shelf, and because it is a very useful, high quality publication. It contains 164 Latvian folktales, selected to show a range of folk genres, from origin legends and pourquoi stories through elaborate fairy tales all the way to jokes and anecdotes. The editor, famous folklorist Vilmos Voight, penned the afterword on the history of Latvia (up to Soviet times, obviously), the origins of the Latvian folklore movement, and the Latvian folklore archives that contain more than 150k stories. The book contains extensive notes, sources, tale type numbers, and a glossary. The translation aims to reflect the original, uncensored language of the oral tradition.
For those of you who don't read Hungarian, I recommend reading other collections of Latvian folktales, like this one or this one.


Among the pourquoi stories, my favorite was titled How the birds learned their songs. It features a whole bunch of birds that all went out to see the world, observe sounds, and learn their song. It would make a great educational story.

The kokles is a folk instrument
Among the fairy tales, I especially liked the Strange deer, in which a princess fell in love with a poor kokles-player, and they could only be together after a series of marvelous transformations. Kokles-players were definitely the elite of folktale heroes: One of them tamed a wolf with music, whole another was helped by the mysterious Green Man in defeating giants and winning a princess.
The tale of the Magic Word came to a less celebratory ending: After the hero released his spirit-servant, the spirit disappeared along with all his wealth. The tale ended with the hero sending his princess-wife back home, so that she would not have to live in poverty.
The most adventurous of the legends was that of The Siege of Riga, in which a soldier hero shot silver bullets at a witch transformed into a magpie - and the magpie shot back. The most endearing was The peasant who wrote a letter to the emperor. The letter was a series of doodles, explaining a claim, but since the emperor met the peasant in disguise, he could later pretend at court that he could read exactly what the doodles meant, granting the poor man his request. I also really liked the Devil and the clerk, in which the Devil refused to take anyone who was wished to hell, because people were not saying "go to hell" from their true heart.


There were two variants in the book for the Beanstalk tale, except it was not jack who climbed up to the sky, but two very capable maidens, who won their fortune by helping an old man, rather than robbing him. The Witch's Birch Tree was a variant on the Twin Princes tale type, except in this one the witch was a lot harder to kill, and the companion animals (wolves! bears! deer! goats! foxes! rabbits! lynxes! dogs!) got a more active role (you can find this story in a picture book format in English here).
The golden apple tree, golden bird, and three princes story was a variant of what is usually known as the Firebird, Golden rain and Tar rain was a variant of Frau Holle, and the Radiant Bird was that of the Princess on the Glass Mountain, except this one also featured a tiny, feathered underground gnome king (which is pretty cool). Reading the title of the Flying Boat I was all ready for some Extraordinary Helpers, but the story really did only feature a flying boat...
The frogs from Riga and Liepaja were the Latvian cousins of the Japanese frogs from Osaka and Kyoto. No news is a favorite of American storytellers, and the Old man's glove was a variant of the Ukrainian Mitten tale. And of course, because we are still in the Baltic countries, there was a Magic Mill grinding salt into the sea.

Where to next?

Monday, January 22, 2018

The strange beauty of Estonian folktales (Following folktales around the world 55. - Estonia)

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!

Az aranyfonó lányok
Észt népmesék
Bereczki Gábor
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1968.

Once again, a volume from the Hungarian "Tales of Nations" series - and probably one of my instant favorites. It contains thirty-five tales, many of which I completely fell in love with at first read. They have been selected from various Estonian folktale collections by the editor, making sure that they represented narratives and motifs that are typically Estonian, rather than just versions of generally well-known tale types. He had a lot to pick from: According to the detailed Afterword, Estonian folklore archives hold almost one hundred thousand folktales (at least they did in the 1960s). I also learned that most of the famous storytellers were male, while most famous singers of the epic stories were female. I would definitely love to read more from those archives.
To read Estonian folktales in English, try this collection.


The title story (The three gold-spinners) has been a favorite story of mine for a long time (I even included it in my book). It is a long and complex tale full of intrigue, magic, love, Finnish wizards, talking birds, witches, and everything else you need for a good adventure. Similarly adventurous is the Theft of Thunder, in which a poor man helps the Devil steal the Thunder from a thunder-god, and then feels guilty and helps the god recover it.
Mushroom King (Estonian postcard)
I liked the tale of the Mushroom King especially for its imagery and its outcome. A prince rescues the tiny, captured King of the Mushrooms, and in exchange the little kind helps him along his exile, helps him fight dragons, and introduces him to his three daughters. In the end, instead of marrying a rescued princess, the princes marries one of the mushroom girls.
There were several tales involving water, and the beings that inhabit it. In the Underwater People, a man whose father fell through the ice on a lake visited the underwater world, and found out what happened to the people that went there. In The Gift of the Water Mother, the mysterious helper lady told about the strange upside-down world she had come from. In The Mischievous sons of Father Frost, three increasingly cold guests visited a poor man, who put up with them patiently, and in exchange he won the ability to influence the weather.
The animal and nature tales of the collection were also enchanting. A Magic Bird distracted an evil hunter from shooting at the birds of the forest; a Hedgehog wanted to cook a beetle, but was outsmarted by it; and a Sparrow brewed beer from one grain of barley in a pond, and none of the other animals had the heart to tell him it was not delicious.


I was reminded of many other superpower stories by the tale of Swift-foot, Dexterous Hands, and Sharp-eye (some titles are my own translation, but that's the general idea). All three of the brothers had his own separate adventure in this long story, and then they came together to win a princess. They agreed beforehand that they will draw lots on who will marry her at the end, eliminating the dilemma part of this popular dilemma tale like sensible people (it helped that they all looked exactly alike).
Estonian folk dress
The tale of the Talking Flax combined two tale types in a very interesting way. A girl was pursued by a supernatural suitor she knew was dangerous; she hid in the barn from him, and the flax bundles stored there talked about what awaited everyone in the barn: Tearing, breaking, cutting, etc. (basically, the process of making clothes). The suitor got terrified and left. The first part of the tale is that of the Demon Lover, while the latter usually happens with bread instead of cloth.
Waiting for Death was a story I have already encountered as a Hodja tale, while The Bear and the Three Sisters was another variant of the favorite story of mine where the clever girl rescues herself and her sisters from a monster husband (see Denmark).

Where to next?