Saturday, April 30, 2016

Z is for a Zillion Other Stories

By the time this post automatically appears, I'll be at the Northlands Storytelling Conference, presenting my workshop on diversity and representation for storytellers!

Thank you SO MUCH for visiting this month, leaving amazing comments, and contributing stories to the list! I hope that these 26 posts will become a starting point and resource for storytellers, as well as writers, teachers, parents, and other wonderful people working with story.

As I said at the beginning of the Challenge: These stories are merely a taste. I was looking at what is there, in tradition, to prove that "it has always been this way" is not a good enough excuse to not include certain groups of people, identities, or perspectives in our line of work - because what "has been there" is often misrepresented, glossed over, or not talked about enough. I also wanted to offer help for storytellers who are invested and interested in diversity, but also have a soft spot for fairy tales, folktales, and other old stories. You can have both, and tell it too!

I encourage everyone to pay attention to representation and diversity. We need diverse stories. We need diverse voices. We need diverse characters. Folktales, personal stories, or movies - we need to pay more attention to who is being included, who is being excluded, and how people are portrayed. Don't settle for the stereotypes. Don't settle for the same 5-10 "canon" fairy tales. Keep exploring. Keep asking. Keep reading. Keep telling.

And, most importantly: Keep creating new stories, to fill in the gaps!

See you next week (May 9th) for the Reflections post! In the meantime, feel free to:

Check out my book on traditional stories and superpowers! It contains 55 amazing tales featuring 61 superpowers :)

Follow me on Twitter!

Check out this IndieGoGo campaign from a Peruvian storytelling festival that wants to invite me to perform! Perks include Peruvian and Hungarian folktales, postcards, and more!

Thank you all for an amazing A to Z! 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Y is for Young Wizards and Sorcerers

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

No, I am not talking about Harry Potter...
I decided to do a lighter post for today, partly because this post is scheduled and I am at a conference, and partly because we have had some heavy themes this week. I decided on Young Wizards, because "wizard" in traditional tales is often portrayed as old, wise, and Gandalfesque, and I think there is no reason why young people should not also be portrayed as capable of wisdom, and the mental capacities required to wield magic. Take it as the folklore parallel to encouraging young people to go into STEM fields.

Aisha the Demon-hunter
Not only a kick-ass female hero, but also versed in the art of geomancy and looking into the future. I could talk about Aisha for days (I have a full-hour storytelling show about her).
(I included part of her story in my book)

The Three Gold-spinners
In this Estonian folktale, next to an evil old witch, a young Finnish "wind-wizard" also makes an appearance. He speaks the language of the birds, and helps a prince rescue three cursed princesses from the witch.
(Read about the story here)

The Rooster Beam
While the magician's age is not specified in this Grimm story, his illusion is broken and called out by a clever young girl (for which he later takes revenge). How the girl sees through the illusion, and who the wizard is, varies from version to version.
(Read the story, and find sources for other versions here)

The Cave of Salamanca
In Spain and Latin-America several legends exist about the Cave of Salamanca, a place where people can study magical arts from the Devil himself. When they leave after seven years, one of them has to stay behind. In many stories, a clever student who is last in line leaving tells the Devil to get "the one behind him" and the Devil takes his shadow. He becomes a powerful magician, but never has a shadow until the day he dies.
(Read about the legends here)

Very similarly to the previous, garabonciás are Hungarian weather wizards that study in a secret school for thirteen years, and one of them has to die for the others to gain magic powers. They usually take off curses, fight witches, summon dragons, and do other cool stuff.
(Read about them here)

The Master Maid
This is a story type (ATU 313A) in which a young man serves in the court/house of some powerful and evil person (the Devil, a dragon, an evil sorcerer, an evil king, etc.). He falls in love with the man's daughter, who is a very capable young woman also versed in the art of magic (in some Hungarian versions, she learns to use it from a book).
(Read about the story here)

Kampó táltos
A legendary figure of Hungarian folklore, blessed with superhuman powers. In some version of the story he is a small, strong man, and in some versions he is a young hero who learns magic from a group of fairies after he sneaks into their castle.
(I included a legend about him in my book)

The tale of the Red Princess
From Nizami's Seven Wise princesses. This story features a young and beautiful princess that is known as "the Princess of the Fort" since she prefers living in a fortress guarded by magic statues and studying books and stars instead of getting married. Whoever wants to marry her has to fight his way in, and also answer her riddles. A young prince wins her hand by his own wits, and some help from an old magician.
(Read the story in this book)

Any other young wizards, magicians, and sorceresses that come to mind? I didn't include some of the most well-known ones...

Thursday, April 28, 2016

X is for SeX positivity

(I know, I know. Sue me.)

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.


Today, I'll be selecting traditional stories that are sex-positive - and by that I mean they portray sex as something to be enjoyed, something that is natural, and not a deed that is shameful or dangerous. It's not an easy topic; folklorist Dr. Jeana Jorgensen wrote an amazing blog post about why sex-positivity is a particularly underrepresented theme. Still, I wanted to pick a few stories that have some interesting, sex-related themes.

(I am excluding stories where sex is a means to an end - world folklore is full of seductresses who are not to be trusted, and I am not very fond of that trope. I am also excluding tales where sex is a secret, illicit affair.)

Contest in repartee
A folktale type (ATU 853) that relies heavily on symbolic sexual banter between a princess and her suitors. She will only marry a man who can match her in "banter" (and, by implication, in other skills as well). The contest is eventually won by a "foolish" boy who is more observant and empathic than his brothers. The level of symbolism in the banter depends on the version of the story, but some are fairly explicit:
"You have pretty white legs, princess!"
"There is also fire between them!"
The banter usually ends with mutual laughter and marriage.

The princess that became a man
This one depends on the version, but the Hungarian text focuses a lot on the sexual relations between the princess and her female-turned-male husband. First, the disguised husband doesn't have sex with his wife on the wedding night, which angers the princess; when the husband returns, in a fully male body, he immediately initiates sex with the princess, who is incredibly happy about this development, so much so that she "even takes her husband's tongue into her mouth," and they immediately "play" five or six times in a row.
(Read my translation of the Hungarian text here)

The troll that thought he was pregnant
I heard this straaaange Norwegian folktale from Heidi Dahlsveen at the Mysteries of Europe conference. In it, a peasant girl learns what sex is from a handsome young farm hand (he calls it "brushing"), and she likes it so much that when her father chases the guy away, she goes out to find someone else to "brush" her some more. She comes across a bridge troll, pushes him down, and thoroughly has herself "brushed" (yes, this is a folktale in which a girl rapes a troll). The story then goes on to tell how the troll thinks he is pregnant (because, according to troll logic, whoever is on the bottom is the one that gets pregnant).
While rape is not a positive thing regardless of who it happens to, the story relates to sex education (or lack thereof), and the girl's enjoyment of sex.

**Note: There are several folktales where a girl is tricked into sex by calling it something else, and doesn't really know what is happening to her. This is clearly problematic, and sadly, does happen in real life as well. I included the tale above as an example for discussion, but I am not including all the others.**

Adam, Eve, and the dishes
In this Hungarian folktale based on biblical themes, Adam and Eve make a bet about who can last longer without talking (loser does the dishes). Eve breaks her stubborn silence when she sees a kitten trying to attack Adam's fig-leaf-covered man parts, declaring that "THOSE ARE MINE!" The future of humanity is saved.
(Read the story here)

**Additional confession: There are several collections of "bawdy folktales" from various parts of the world, including Hungary. Most of those tales always made me cringe. While they do talk about sexuality, they often involve the above mentioned trope of 'losing virginity without knowing it' as well as rape, slut-shaming, and other questionable themes (not to mention just plain bad jokes). I have yet to find a "bawdy folktale" that I'd like to tell. Also, personally I would not count everything that is sexually explicit as automatically "sex-positive" too.**

I encountered this very likable female character in the Panher Skin Knight, the national epic of Georgia. She keeps young lovers and is not ashamed of it one bit; she also helps the two lovers who are the heroes of the story.
(Read about her and the epic here)

Any other sex-positive stories that come to mind?...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

W is for Warriors of all genders

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

I already posted about balance and equality in marriages; today I wanted to present a selection of stories where male and female warriors fight shoulder to shoulder, instead of against each other. Many times female warriors are presented as lone characters or enemies, instead of allies, and I think it benefits people to hear more stories of warriors of all genders standing side by side - and the women don't have to be disguised as men to do so.

Scáthach is a female warrior who appears in the Irish Ulster Cycle; she runs a school for heroes on a remote island, and trains Cú Chulainn in the martial arts (and also, according to some stories, in... other skills). She also leads her select group of warriors into battle against her sister and rival Aoife, whom Cú Chulainn ends up defeating in single combat. She is a formidable woman.
(Read about her here)

I already mentioned her earlier, but I am putting her on this list too, because Gulaim does not only lead an army of girls into battle, but she also fights side by side with the man she loves, and they help each other save their respective kingdoms.
(Read about her here)

While she has her own backstory, Camilla also takes part (and dies) in the battle against Aeneas on the side of Turnus, the king of the Rutuli. The war breaks out between the Italian tribes and Aeneas' men arriving from Troy; the excuse for the conflict is the hand of Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, but it really is about conquest and resistance, which is probably why Camilla supports the Italian side against the Troyans.
(Read about here here, and in the Aeneid)

Water Margin
Out of the 108 heroes of this amazing Chinese epic (also often known as Heroes of the Marsh, or All Men Are Brothers) 3 are women: Hu Sanniang ("Ten Feet of Blue"; she fights with two sabers and a lasso), Sun Erniang ("Female Yaksha"; she is a martial artist who runs a tavern with her husband), and Gu Dasao ("Female Tiger"; excels at using spear and staff). They all get their own storylines, and they are numbered among the 108 Stars of Destiny.
(Read about the epic here)

The Amazon Queen Penthesilea participates in the Troyan War on the Troyan side, attempting to kill Achilles on the battlefield. She brings twelve women with her to join the war, ready to prove that they can hold their own alongside male warriors.
(Read about her here)

Lady Nart Sana
I mentioned before that the Nart sagas include several warrior women, and were probably responsible for the spread of the Amazon legends. This particular story features such a female warrior, who accidentally kills her lover in battle, and kills herself out of sorrow, turning into a fountain of medicinal water. I put this story on the list because it begins with how once upon a time Nart women rode into battle along with the men.
(Read the story in this book)

The only female hero on the Argo during its mission for the Golden Fleece, Atalanta could certainly hold her own along with blockbuster names like Hercules, Jason, Castor and Pollux, and several others. There is some debate about whether she is the same Atalanta that participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt, but she is generally believed so. That story also features her as the only female hunter, and also the person who wounded the monster boar first.
(Read about her here)

The Sacred Band of Thebes
Historical rather than mythical, but definitely epic - a legendary troop of 300 men, composed of 150 pairs of male lovers. You only need to know one thing about them: They kicked the Spartans' ass in the Battle of Leuctra.
(The band had a long and illustrious history, until all 300 of them perished in the Battle of Chaeronea against Alexander the Great's father. They were praised as heroes even by their enemy, and a lion statue was erected over their grave)
While this is more about sexuality than gender, I wanted it on the list. For representation.
(Read about them here)

Just... mention any of these women next time someone says "you fight like a girl."

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V is for Violence against women

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

Here is the thing about violence against women in traditional stories: It is often portrayed, but rarely ever punished. Unless it was committed by another woman, e.g. a stepmother, in which case it is punished horribly. I have been trying to find stories where a man who beats/abuses a woman receives just punishment for it, either from the law, or from divine intervention, but it is hard to find any. Sometimes wife-beating is a joke or a resolution, and I cringe every time I hear one of those stories told.
Note: If you want to believe that all folktales carry the ancient, universal wisdom of our Ancestors, do not Google "wife beating folktales." It is a depressing lineup.

So, for today, I included both (kinda) positive examples, and stories that we should think about, and maybe re-imagine. 

The Woman and the King's Treasury
One of the more positive tales comes from a collection of stories from Syrian refugees. In it, a kind and little simple woman is abused by her husband, until one day he throws her out of the home. She wanders away, and accidentally witnesses two thieves dividing up treasure they stole from the King. She tells her husband, who takes the treasure, covers his tracks, and threatens her into silence. She decides to stand up for herself, and goes to report it all to the King - the thieves and the husband are arrested, the woman gets half the treasure, and she can live in wealth and peace for the rest of her life.
(Read this story in Timeless Tales)

The spirits of the hearth
In this Vietnamese legend, a childless couple quarrels a lot until the husband beats the wife in a fit of rage. She runs away, meets a kind man, and lives with him as his wife for a while. One day her former husband appears as a beggar, and she hides him in a haystack. Her new husband comes home and goes to work on the fields - starting by burning the haystack. Desperate, she throws herself into the flames too, and the new husband kills himself out of guilt. All three become Gods of the Hearth by the Jade Emperor's order.
(Read the story here)

The Siren Wife
In this Italian folktale, a sailor husband returns home after a long absence to find that his wife has become a rich man's lover. He takes her out to sea and throws her into the water to drown. Instead, she becomes a siren (it is implied that sirens are women who died from abuse of some sort), and spends her time luring men to their watery death with her siren-sisters. One day they lure her own husband into the sea, but she takes pity on him and saves his life. In return, he decides to save hers, and makes a deal with the fairies of the land to break the curse on her.
(Read the story in Italo Calvino's folktale collection)

The tale of Aso Yaa
I have mentioned Aso in earlier posts, but I am mentioning her again. In this tale, she is a poor woman lying at the side of the road covered in sores and ulcers, until Ananse comes along, sees the beauty in her eyes, and takes her in, miraculously peeling off her sores and making her beautiful. She lives with him as his wife, but when he goes on a long trading journey, he returns to find that she has been sleeping with other men. The tale at this point says that any man would have beat her for this, but Ananse was patient... They have a fight, and later in the evening Ananse shows up at a dance party where Aso is dancing, calls her out in front of everyone, and releases the sores from his magic calabash back onto her body.
This is a very complex story, and I am really tempted to play around with it. On the one hand, it talks of trust and betrayal, but on the other hand, it implies that a man who is kind to a woman in need can feel entitled to her body. There is a lot to think about.
(Read this story in West African folktales)

The Dark Men
In this Italian folktale collected in America, the abuse of a woman by her husband is described in great realistic detail, and witnessed by their little son. The man finally strangles his wife in a fit of drunken rage, after which Dark Men appear in the house and tear him limb from limb. That night, the boy find a trap door in his room, and takes a trip into Hell, where is told his mother is in Heaven, and he witnesses his father being tortured by the Dark Men in various ways for his cruelty.
(Read the story in this book)

The wife who would not be beaten
This is folktale type ATU 888A, known all over India. A prince will only marry a woman who agrees to be beaten every morning and evening. A woman marries him, but at the first beating she refuses to submit, telling him he has to prove himself first. When he fails spectacularly at a trading expedition, and becomes a slave, his wife rescues her through cunning and courage. The next time he wants to beat her, she reminds him of how she saved her, and he never attempts a beating again.
(Read one version of the story in this book)

Physician in spite of himself
Folktale type ATU 1641B. A husband beats his wife, and she takes revenge on him by telling the King he is a doctor, but he likes to hide his life-saving talents, and only prescribes medicine when he is beaten first. The husband gets a sound and repeated beating.
(See tale XCVIII in this collection, in German. Not all versions of the tale type feature the abuse-and-revenge storyline - in a lot of them, the wife is simply foolish. The motif number for the "will work when beaten" trope is J1545.1)

A reason to beat your wife
In this delightful Egyptian folktale, a man is told by his friend that he has to beat his wife at least once to teach her who is the "master of the house." In order to create an excuse to beat her, the husband orders her to cook a bunch of fish, planning to beat her for not preparing the fish the way he wanted. She prepares the fish in carious different ways, and while she is doing so, her toddler poops on the floor next to the table. She covers the pile with a bowl just as her husband walks through the door. He keeps asking for different kinds of fish, and she keeps serving them right away. Finally he says "shit!" in confusion, and she triumphantly lifts the bowl: "We have that too!"
(You can find the folktale in this book, and also other versions here)

Shout out: Joy at the Joyous Living blog has been doing an amazing A to Z theme on child abuse and sexual assault awareness.

What do you think about these stories? Would you tell them? Would you change them? How? Do any other stories come to mind?

Monday, April 25, 2016

U is for Unexpected pregnancies

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

This billboard kicked up
quite a bit of debate in 2011.
Today I want to diverge a little from positive representations, and talk about the touchy and often dark subject of unwanted pregnancies in traditional tales. And by "unwanted" I mean not condoned by the families / societies in general. Teen pregnancy especially is still a very common occurrence and a very complex issue, even in highly developed countries (*cough* USA *cough*) and it has a lot to do with how children and adolescents are educated about sexuality (I'll post about sex-positive stories later this week). Traditionally, many cultures believed that women's main purpose in life was to pop out children - but only under highly regulated circumstances. Therefore, today I collected a couple of tales that present the issue of underage / unexpected / out-of-wedlock pregnancies in interesting ways.

I was surprised how many commenters said under my Pregnancy post that they didn't know about this part of the story. I especially love the pregnancy plot inf Rapunzel because it portrays a girl who is literally locked in a tower, kept innocent and hidden, and somehow she still manages to get pregnant - and even worse, she doesn't even know what is happening to her until the witch tells her. "Abstinence only" education doesn't work, people. Not even in fairy tales.
(Again, read the story in this edition)

Daughter of the Sun
A variation on the Rapunzel trope, in this Italina folktale a princess' fortune says she'll give birth to a child by the Sun before she turns twenty. In order to prevent this (the Sun won't marry her, after all), her father locks her in a tower. GUESS WHAT: It doesn't work. The scared princess sends the baby to be put out into the woods, where she gets found and adopted by a neighboring king.
(The rest of the story is pretty spectacular too. I love telling it)
(Read the tale in Italo Calvino's collection. I also included a version in my book.)

Little Eve and the Dwarves
One of my favorite stories from the famous "500 New Fairytales Discovered in Germany" Schönwerth collection. A mysterious maidservant gets hired by a strict stewardess to keep a castle clean. She makes friends with the Dwarves that live in the castle, and they not only help her hide her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but also serve as midwives and care for the baby every day while she goes about her chores. In the end, they even go and find the baby's father so they can marry, and move with Eve to her new home to continue their babysitting work.
(Read it in English in Original Bavarian Folktales)

The three spindles
Another tale from the Schönwerth collection. In this one a pregnant girl who is kicked out by her parents saves the life of a forest sprite (fairy), and in exchange the fairies take her in and take care of her until her baby is born. They ask her if they can keep the child, and the girl agrees, knowing it will be a good place for the baby. They also give her gifts to start her life over, and she returns to her parents, and goes on to marry and have a happy family. There is a lot to say about this story in relation to the adoption stories I started the Challenge with.
(Read this story in The Turnip Princess)

Soslan's birth
Okay, so in most versions of this Nart legend, a baby is born from a stone after a man ejaculates on it, watching Satana, the wise and beautiful matriarch of the Narts take a bath in the river. The boulder grows big, and when a blacksmith splits it open, a baby is found inside - very mythical birth, similar to the birth of Erichthonius. In one variation, however, Satana is actually violated by the man by the river, and she asks the blacksmith's help to fake a magical birth, and cover up the origin of the baby. It is interesting to ponder which version could have existed first.
(Read multiple versions in the Nart sagas)

Aso and Ananse
While Ananse is most often known as the happy-go-lucky West African trickster figure, he also has quite an interesting history with his wife. Aso, a beautiful young woman, is married to a barren/impotent man, who hides her away from the world in jealousy. Ananse comes up with a plan to catch a glimpse of her - and once he does, he also finds a way to sleep with her, repeatedly. Aso soon becomes pregnant, and her enraged husband returns her to her family in disgrace. When she walks into the village, and points out Ananse as the child's father, he falls off a roof in surprise... Aso later marries Ananse, but in a very dark turn reflecting the values of the era the tale comes from, the out-of-wedlock child is killed by the family.
(Read the story in Akan-Ashanti Folk-tales)

Fair Janet
One of my favorite - sad and beautiful - English ballads. Fair Janet gets pregnant out of wedlock, from Sweet William (don't you love ballad names), even though she is promised to someone else. She hides her pregnancy, and William's three sisters help her deliver the baby in secret, and take it home to his mother. The next day, Janet has to go to her own wedding; during the celebration, she asks William to a dance, and dies in his arms. He dies too, and they are buried together, with the obligatory ballad ending of intertwined plants growing on their graves.
(Read about the ballad here)

Angoli Borbála
A Hungarian ballad, similar to the previous one. Echoing the Rapunzel story, it begins with a girls' skirt not fitting right - it is short in the front and long in the back (meaning she is pregnant). She first blames the seamstress, but when she is found out, she is condemned to death. She sends off a letter to the noble boy who got her pregnant, and he shows up, but too late, and kills himself from sorrow (because ballads). There are several versions of this ballad, and they portray very well the desperation of the young girl trying to hide her condition.
(Listen to an old lady singing this ballad, with lyrics in English and Hungarian, here)

Any other stories I should add to the list?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

T is for Trickster women

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

I have a soft spot for tricksters. A huge, huge, huge soft spot. As a storyteller, no one sticks by you better than a good trickster story - kids love them, adults love them, I love them. And yet, when it comes to trickery and shenanigans, male tricksters are definitely in the majority in the world's folklore. Think Loki, think Hermes, think Coyote, think Ananse, think Monkey King, think Kanchil... So, since tricksters rock, I wanted to spend a post talking about the women.

Trickster women.

NOTE: I am very picky about what characters I'd consider a trickster - it is not enough to have tricked someone once, and not enough to trick someone just for survival (this is why Scheherazade did not make this list). Similarly, a lot of books call women who cheat on their husbands "tricksters," but I don't like that definition. Tricksters need a certain liminality and playfulness, a certain disrespect for rules mixed with innate curiosity - a trickster is someone that messes with the rules just for the heck of it.
For the sake of brevity, I am also excluding male trickster figures that sometimes shape-shift into female bodies (which is pretty common in tricksterdom)

Dalila and Zaynab
Probably the most badass female trickster mother-daughter duo out there. Their story is included in the 1001 Nights. Dalilah the Wily is a widow, living with her spinster daughter Zaynab the Coney-catcher. She is described as "mistress in all manner of craft and trickery and double dealing." Dalilah and Zaynab go toe to toe with some infamous male tricksters (with delightful names like Calamity Ahmed and Mercury Ali) and come out on top. Pretty epic stories.
(Read them here)

While the wives of tricksters are not always automatically tricksters themselves, Aso, the wife of Ananse the Spider, definitely fits the bill. She even tricks her own husband a couple of times - or calls him on his bluffs. Among others, she once catches him coming back from the grave and stealing food from their garden, by applying a tar scarecrow, the same trick used in stories of Br'er Rabbit.
(Read about her in Akan-Ashanti Folk-tales)

Probably the most famous female trickster figure in world folklore, Kitsune is a type of trickster, rather than one person. They are more commonly known as the "fox fairies" of Japanese folklore. They are almost always female, and deal mostly with seduction and illusions, in all kinds of genius ways.
(Read about them here)

Madame Malice
Apart from the awesome name, this lady is pretty cool too. She exists in Haitian folktales along with her male counterpart, Ti Malice. No one is exactly sure what they are, but they are said to have evolved from some kind of an African animal trickster - most likely a rabbit.
(Read about her and Ti Malice in The piece of fire)

The Princess of Tomboso
This is the French-Canadian version of a fairly popular folktale type, featuring three brothers who inherit magical items, and a princess that cheats them out of all three. While she is the "villain" of the story, she usually gets away with being taught a lesson in the end (by magically growing antlers and then losing them when she apologizes). In most versions of the story, she does not end up marrying anyone, and it seems like she was just swindling people out of their magical treasures for fun.
(Read the story in this book. I also included a version in my own collection of folktales about superpowers)

Wicked Girl
I have mentioned this Turkish lady before, talking about female friendships, but I am mentioning her again, because she is just cheeky, and goes out of her way to mess with men.
(Read her story here)

The old woman and Death
I also mentioned her before in detail, but she should be on this list - not many people cheat Death permanently, even among tricksters!
(Read about here in my previous post)

For more female trickster tales (in a broader definition than mine), read the wonderful book titled Scheherazade's Sisters.

Any other crafty women I should add to the list? :)

Friday, April 22, 2016

S is for Stories of Slavery

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

How do we tell stories of slavery? Every semester, I spend a class talking about how history is told, and I usually learn 2 things:
1. That almost none of my undergraduate students know what Uncle Remus tales are, and
2. That many of my undergraduate students would "rather talk about something happy."

This is not unique to students, however. Several articles have addressed the issue recently, pointing out how the history of slavery is often:

1. Sanitized (e.g. slaves called "workers" in textbooks)
2. Focused on white saviors
3. Presented as something that "wasn't so bad."
The fact that people don't know how talk about slavery is reflected in this hilarious YouTube series by a historical interpreter who portrays a slave character at Mr. Vernon, titled "Ask a Slave." Pay attention to the questions people ask her.

So, what do storytellers have to add to all of this?
Books. The stories are there. The books are there. Here is a list of some of the best ones:

People could fly
An American black folktale, published in a gorgeous book by Virginia Hamilton. The book contains several black folktales of slavery and freedom. The story that is named in the title talks about people finding their innate powers to fly, and flying away from a plantation to freedom.
(Read it the book with the same title. I also included a version in my own book, because it beautifully illustrates why people dream of superpowers in the first place)

Old Master and John
A group of folktales about John, the clever slave, tricking the Old Master. There are several of them, in several sources, portraying the endless struggle of power between oppression and resistance.
(You can read an entire chapter full of these stories in African American Folktales)

Adventures of High John the Conqueror
High John the Conqueror is an African-American folk hero surrounded by legends, folktales, and traditions. He is a trickster figure that looks out for his people, and plays the slaveholders for fools. There are many stories about him.
(Read them in this book of the same title)

Uncle Remus tales
Usually known as cute, funny animal tales, these stories were collected from slave communities, who told them as a form of subtle resistance, keeping their traditions, and making fun of the people in power through symbolism and metaphors.
(Read the book here)

You can also find several slavery-era American folktales and anecdotes in:
An Anthology of American folktales and legends
American folktales from the Library of Congress
American Negro Folktales
African American Folktales
A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore
Monsters, Tricksters, and Sacred Cows

In addition to folktales and historical legends from America, there are also some older stories involving slaves that are worth mentioning - because they are good stories. I tell my versions of both of them frequently, and they are always a great experience.

One of the earliest appearances of the Cinderella tale type takes us back to Ancient Greece and Egypt. Rhodopis was a beautiful Thracian slave girl, bought and sold multiple times until she ended up in Egypt, and became a courtesan. It is not clear that the Cinderella story that follows (an eagle stealing her sandal and the pharaoh searching for her) is about her or another Egyptian courtesan named Rhodopis... but it is still a fascinating piece of story. Added bonus that for a while Rhodopis was a slave in the same household as Aesop, one of the most famous storytellers in Antiquity.
(Read about Rhodopis here)

Dionysus and the Pirates
A group of Tyrrhenian pirates decide to kidnap Dionysus, God of Wine and Pleasure (thinking he's just a pretty boy) and sell him into slavery. The deity wreaks havoc on their ship, burying it in vines and summoning wild animals, until finally all the pirates jump into the sea and turn into dolphins.
(Read the story here)

Also, for true stories of slavery, check out the amazing Finding Eliza blog, participating in the A to Z Challenge for the past 4 years!

What other books or stories should I add to the list?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

R is for Religious diversity

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

Representing religious diversity, especially in Western legend and folklore, is something that either happens very rarely, or when it does, happens in very stereotypical ways (such as "Moors" or "Jews" being mentioned in German or Italian folktales with negative connotations). For today's post, I wanted to pick some tales that feature positive encounters, and even collaboration, between people of different religious backgrounds.

Ogier the Dane
I talked about this epic last year, but I am bringing it up because it features friendship and collaboration between a Christian knight and a Muslim knight, who save each other's lives and fight shoulder to shoulder for honor (without either of them converting to the other's religion).
(I wrote about the story in detail here)

The legend of the almond trees
Also mentioned this one earlier in the Challenge, but putting it on this list took, because it features a Norse, Christian princess falling in love with a young Muslim sultan.
(Read about the story here)

Sir Palomides
I know I know, I am repeating myself, and also, Palomides eventually converts to Christianity. And yet, I find it endlessly cool that King Arthur's court accepted a Muslim knight in the first place. Somehow a lot of sources don't talk about this part.
(Read about him here)

The honest neighbor
This Jewish folktale features a Christian and a Jewish merchant who are friends. When the Jews are banished for the kingdom, the Christian promises to take care of his friend's money until the law is overturned and he can return. Years later, when the new king invites the Jews back, the merchant finds his Chirstian friend in poverty - his shop burnt down, but he refused to use the money to help himself. They open shop together in the end.
(Read this tale in Stories for the gathering)

Akyazili Baba and St. Athanasius
There is an Ottoman era türbe in Obrochiste, Bulgaria that is a place of pilgrimage both for Christians and Muslims - it is said to be the resting place of both Muslim saint Akyazili Baba, and Chirstian saint Athanasius. Local legend claims that they were great friends in life. One of them (depending on the version) fell in love with a girl from the other religion, and since it was forbidden, they got executed for it. Before they died, however, they asked their friend to build a grave site for them in one night, and the surviving friend fulfilled the wish with the help of magical powers (in some cases, they had to lie and say it was to be their own grave, since burying the executed would not have been allowed).
(Read about the story in this book, and this article)

Kanchil, the Mouse-Deer
Okay, so Kanchil stories are from Southeast Asia (mostly Malaysia and Indonesia), and since Indonesia hosts 12% of the world's Muslim population alone, it makes sense that Kanchil is usually portrayed as Muslim as well. Nothing out of context. BUT I am putting him on the list anyway, because as a storyteller, I want to pay attention to likable folktale characters that just happen to be Muslim, and Kanchil is a rock star. I have had parents in the US clutch their pearls when Kanchil happened to say "Allah" instead of "God" in a folktale. That is exactly the reaction why we should pay attention to these stories. For less pearl-clutching.

In addition, check out amazing storyteller Pam Faro's story CD "Andalusian Trilogy: Stories of Jews, Christians, and Muslims of Medieval Spain"

What other tales of religious coexistence should I add to the list?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Q is for Queens without kings

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

Since Q is a notoriously hard letter to do, and I am not done talking about feminist stories yet, I wanted to spend today's post on Queens that don't have a King at their side. I already discussed marital bliss and equality and partnership, which is obviously the ideal case, but when it comes to traditional tales, stand-alone kings are a lot more common than independent queens. I wanted to find some stories that represent strong, capable, independent queens by their own right. With no king attached.

There is an Algerian folktale about a girl called Aisha (or Aicha) who kicks major demon ass. After being injured by a ghoul she kills, she is destined to wonder the world, killing monsters. Multiple cities she saves invite her to become their queen - when she finally gets rid of the ghoul's curse, she becomes a queen in her own right.
(I included the first part of Aicha's adventures in my book)

Better known world-wide as the Queen of Sheba. While she is most commonly known for visiting King Solomon, and having a son with him, she is a queen with her own sovereign kingdom, who interacts with the legendary king as an equal, and goes back home to her people instead of giving up sovereignty for marriage.
(I especially liked Bilquis' story as it is told in Fabled Cities, Princes and Jinn)

Tündér Ilona
While she is often the love interest of heroes in Hungarian folk tales, Tündér Ilona is the ruling Queen of the fairies. She is said to live in a palace under water or on an island, and have long golden hair. In some stories she moves her people out of the world of mortals, and up to the Milky Way; she only comes back once a year to see if she can find one decent person to give them hope for return.
(Read in detail about Hungarian fairies here)

Queen of Tír na nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth in Irish legend. She shows up one day out of the blue, picks up the hottest guy on the block (Oisín, the bard of the Fianna), and takes him home as a lover. While Oisín eventually leaves Niamh and goes home, we get a glimpse of her, and what life is like in a land ruled by an immortal queen.
(Read the story in Gods and Fighting Men here)

The Queen of Many Colors
This Hungarian folktale features a widow queen who has a special power - her face changes color every hour of the day - and who gives very stern, specific directions to her son: He can only marry a girl who has the same color-changing ability. While she is not the protagonist of the story, she is clearly an exceptional lady.
(I included this tale in my book as well)

A prince in search of immortality
While there are many versions of this folktale, about a prince who seeks a land where he'd never have to die, the Hungarian variant in particular features not one, but two queens. The first one is the sole and wise ruler of the Blue Kingdom, destined to live as long as she has needles to work with. The second one is the Queen of Life and Death who admits the prince into her kingdom, and saves him from death in the end.
(Read the story in English here)

The City of Brass
In this, my very favorite story from the 1001 Nights, an expedition of wise men and adventurers sets out to find the fabled City of Brass in the middle of the desert. When they get there, and manage to get the gates open through positively D&D-style adventures, they find that everyone in the city has been dead a long time... including their queen (protected by Indiana Jones-style traps), who left a written note telling the story of her city.
(Read the story here)

What other queens should I add to the list? Which one of them would you like to see on a throne?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

P is for Pregnant and capable

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

I ran into a storyteller a while ago who claimed that pregnancy is such a sacred mystery that traditional stories don't even talk about it. Because I am by nature a contrarian, I could not restrain my instinct of "Actually..." and I started collecting stories about women who are pregnant, and in addition to that, very much capable. Here are some of my favorites!

One of the Internet's favorite bits of fairy tale trivia: Rapunzel does not get rescued from the tower by the prince. She gets visited by the prince, and then gets kicked out by the witch when she becomes pregnant. With twins. And then she goes to live in the woods, and that's where the prince finds her again.
Pregnancy actually figures twice into this tale - in many versions Rapunzel is taken by the witch in the first place because her mother had cravings for parsley, and sneaked into the witch's garden. Go figure. (This part actually symbolically features into Disney's Tangled)
(For the uncut, uncensored first edition of Grimm tales, including pregnant Rapunzel, read Jack Zipes' new translation)

The Irish legend of the Curse of Macha features a mysterious woman that marries a mortal man, and warns him never to brag about her. When he does so anyway (claiming she runs faster than anyone), the King orders Macha, who is nine months pregnant, to run a race with his horses. Macha does not only win the race (and gives birth to twins right after), but she also curses the men of Ulster who did not protect her, to have labor pains for three days whenever their land is in danger.
(Read the story here)

In this Zhuang (Chinese minority) legend, a pregnant woman named Malei sets out to save the world by bringing back the sun that had disappeared. She takes on the quest saying that if she can't fulfill it, her child will.
(I wrote about this story in detail here)

This Scottish ballad is most well known as a love story - but not many people realize that Janet, the girl that saves Tamlin from the spell of the Fairy Queen is pregnant while doing so.
(Read about the ballad here)

In the love story of Eros and Psyche, Psyche is given tasks to fulfill by her jealous mother-in-law, Aphrodite. Since she is already carrying Eros' child, she fulfills the tasks while pregnant, before she is reunited with her husband and they can live happily ever after.
(Read the story here)

What other stories should I add to the list? Do you have a favorite portrayal of pregnancy?

Monday, April 18, 2016

O is for Old heroes

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

And by that, obviously, I mean "senior" or "elderly" or "not a teenager", but I needed the letter O...
Generally, I was trying to collect stories where the hero is not young. People, regardless of age, have the potential to be the hero of their own story. In order to combat ageism, here are some stories that prove just that:

The old woman and Death
In this folktale type, popular all over Europe, and old woman (sometimes man) attempts to avoid Death knocking on her door, because she loves living so much. She manages to convince Death to come back the next day, asking him to write "TOMORROW" on the door frame. The next day, when Death returns, she points out that the sign says "tomorrow" and sends him away. Getting away on a technicality this way she continues to live, until Death erases the sign. The next day, trying to hide from her fate, she first hides in a barrel of honey, and then in the bed, turning into a honey-and-feather "monster" - when Death shows up to take her, he is so scared he never returns.
I like this story because 1. It features a female trickster, and 2. It shows that the love of life and living (and the right to fight for it) does not solely belong to the young.
(Read this story in Dan Keding's Elder tales)

By the way, Elder tales is an amazing collection of traditional stories that feature elder protagonists. Dan Keding has pretty much done my job for this post, so I'll just mention some that I particularly like.

Old woman returns fire to people
I heard this Greek folktale at the FEST conference last year, on the island of Kea. It said that God took the fire away from people for their sins, and then an angel appeared, selling burning embers for outrageous prices - years of life, eyesight, other things people were not willing to give up, even if they suffered without fire. Finally an old woman showed up, asking the angel about the prices of embers, poking at them with her walking cane. What the angel didn't know was that the cane was hollow, with straw inside, and this way the old lady managed to steal fire back to the people. This is clearly a version of the myth of Prometheus - although it is questionable which one came first, the titan or the wise old woman...

Old Rinkrank
In this unusually dark Grimm tale, a princess falls into the depths of the Glass Mountain, and is imprisoned by a little old man, who threatens to kill her if she does not do his household chores. He leaves every day, and comes back with gold, but never lets her leave. The princess grows old, and the man named Old Rinkrank starts calling her Mother Mansrot. Finally one day she figures out how to set a trap for him, and rescues herself.
(Read the story here)

Old Man's Wisdom Saves the Kingdom
This is a folktale type, ATU 981, popular in several parts of the world. In it, a king orders to kill off all old people in the kingdom, either because of a famine, or just because he is crazy. One young man saves his old father/parents and hides them in a secret location. Later, when the kingdom is in trouble, the solution is provided by the elders to the young man, who manages to save the kingdom, change the king's mind, and/or become a just king himself.
(Read one version in Latin American Folktales)

Ilya Muromets
Not "old," but still unusual in the world of tales - this Russian legends tells about a hero that lived at home with his parents, doing nothing, until he was thirty (or forty) - when one day he finally decided to go out into the world and be a hero. It is never too late to start out on one's hero's journey.
(I included part of his story in my book, Tales of Superhuman Powers)

What other tales should I add to the list?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

N is for Neurodiversity

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

Neurodiversity is a fairly new term (my spellcheck doesn't even recognize it yet) for the concept that neurological conditions like autism, ADHD, etc. are variations in the human genome, rather than "mistakes." Here is an excellent rundown on how the concept works.
I used neurodiversity for N, but today I also want to post some examples of traditional tales that handle mental illness. Part of the topic of representation is how these things are presented and handled, and while traditional tales are not usually very sensitive to them, there are a few interesting examples.

The tale of Ivar Ingimundarson
This old Icelandic story tells of a bard who loses the love of his life (she marries his brother in secret) and falls into depression. His king, who likes him a lot, tries to drag him out of it by offering all kinds of things - money, lands, a bride, etc., but nothing works. In the end, the king offers the only thing left: He sits down with Ivar every night, and listens to him talk. I love this story, because it shows the importance of listening, instead of simply trying to "fix things" for someone else.
(Read the story in The complete sagas of the Icelanders)

The Sleepy Lady
Yet another folktale collected from Pályuk Anna. A rich girl sleeps all the time, and is always too tired to live her life. Her father is worried about her, but doesn't know what to do - in the end, three sisters from a poor family volunteer to help, and by spending time with the girl, they figure out ways to keep her awake until she can go on with her life.
(I will include an English translation of this tale in my upcoming folktale collection)

The tiger's whiskers
I already mentioned this tale twice, but I am putting it on this list too, because it is often used by storytellers to illustrate how family members might deal with someone they love having PTSD.
(Read it in this book)

The white disk
This Maldivian folktale tells about a girl that cries every night, and her family is at a loss of how to cheer her up. They try kindness and all kinds of tricks, and the father gets angry and scolds her, but nothing stops her from being sad. One night her sister notices a glowing white disk above her bed, and she and their father try to figure out a way to break the spell.
(This story equates the "sadness" with the influence of a spirit, but it can also be read symbolically. Also I am including it because it starts with a very good description of how the girls "sadness" affects the rest of the family)
(Read it in Folk-tales of the Maldives)

Contest in repartee
This is not one story, but a folktale type, ATU 853, which seems to exist all around the world. A princess wants to marry a man who can defeat her in banter. Three brothers set out to try - the youngest one is mocked and bullied by his brothers for being "slow" and "simple." He keeps falling behind on the road, picking up useless objects like dead birds, rusty nails, etc.,which only earns him more mockery. But when they get to the princess, the "simpleton" boy floors everyone with his quick and witty answers, using the "useless" items as props, and wins her hand in the end. The story shows that seeing the world differently is not necessarily a bad thing.
(You can read a Norwegian version here, a Russian version here, and an Appalachian version here)

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship
This is the title of the Russian version of the extremely popular folktale type ATU 513, the Extraordinary Helpers. In it, three brothers set out to win a princess whose father requires a flying ship. The youngest is mocked and left behind by his brothers for being a "fool," but he demonstrates traits the others don't: Kindness, patience, and trust. With it, she does not only win a flying ship, but also makes friends with people who have superpowers and become his companions.
There was an old Hungarian term used for mentally challenged people: "Good with others." I always liked it, because it referred to how, as long as the community supported them, they were just as "good" as anyone else.
(Read about the Russian tale here. I also included several version of this folktale type in my book about folktales and superpowers)

The boy who wanted to walk on the clouds
Yet another folktale from Pályuk Anna, about a boy who daydreams about walking on the clouds, and everyone labels him "lazy" and "good for nothing." After his mother dies, he sets out to make his dream come true, and achieves it by never showing fear in front of anyone.
(This story will also be included in my upcoming folktale collection)

There are many folk- and fairy tales about people labeled "fools" or "simpletons" who become heroes in the end. Which ones should I add to the list?

Friday, April 15, 2016

M is for Minority heroes

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

Once again, a very important part of representation - offering stories that feature heroes from minority groups. For this post, I focused on stories where these heroes appear as a minority in their social context - because all too often those are the situations where they are portrayed negatively (think of the "False Bride" fairy tale type, ATU 533, where the real bride is usually blonde and beautiful, while the fake bride is often either black-skinned or a Gypsy - see the illustration on the left). I also focused on ethnic minorities, over other kinds that will be (or have been) represented elsewhere in the challenge.

The clever girl
In this Hungarian Roma version of the well known "clever maiden" folktale type, a Gypsy girl is seen bathing by a king, and he demands to marry her. She first gives a mathematical riddle to the king to solve (he fails to do so), and then solves all the king's riddles, including the classic "come to me not clothed but not naked, walking but not walking, etc." She becomes queen in the end.
I especially like this story because girls, especially girls from marginalized groups, are rarely ever portrayed as, or encouraged to be, good at things like mathematics. By the way, the riddle says: "I am as old as I am. My mother is twice as old as I am. My father is two years older than my mother, and together the three of us are 100 years old!" Can you solve it?
(Hungarian text here)

The stolen bairn and the Sídh
A Scottish folktale about a mother whose baby is taken by the fairies. She goes to search for him, and she is helped by an old Gypsy (not clear if Roma or Traveler) grandmother who instructs her on how to get the baby back.
(You can read this story in Thistle and Thyme)

Once again, I am referring back to the Romance of Antar, because while Antar is accepted into his Arab tribe, he is also referred to as a "raven" for being born from a black African (slave) mother.
(I blogged about this epic here)

The King, the Vizier, and the Clever Jew
In this Moroccan Jewish folktale, a jealous vizier tries to turn a king against the Jewish community and the rabbi he respects. The rabbi is tasked with counting the stars in the sky and measuring the water of the ocean. When all seems lost, a drunkard from the community volunteers to give a clever answer to the king, and save his people from punishment.
(This tale type, about counting stars and water, also exists in other cultures.)
(Read the story in this book)

The servant's dream 
A very famous Peruvian folktale, collected by writer José Maria Arguedas. In it, an indigenous servant is humiliated and tortured by his master, who takes enjoyment in his power. In the end, the servant claims he had a prophetic dream about what will happen after death, and the master demands to hear it. The dream portrays the master treated well by angels and covered in honey, and the servant covered in excrement. And then, just when the master is most satisfied with the "prophetic dream," comes the surprise ending: "... and then we were told to lick each other clean."
(If he had a mic, he probably would have dropped it)
(Read the Spanish text here)

Uncle Monday
Florida legend about a powerful medicine man that leads his fellow slaves to freedom, and then turns into a giant alligator that is still said to haunt the swamps in Florida. Sometimes he turns back into a man, and rewards or punishes people according to their deeds.
(Read his story in this book)

The Metlicani and the Gypsy
This folktale from Slovenia tells about a Gypsy sentenced to death for theft who tricks the baronass that sentenced him, and gets away alive. I am including it for two reasons, one, because the story highlights that he stole the goose out of hunger and to provide for his family, and two, because he wins his life and freedom with ingenuity against power.
(Found the English translation in the Journal of the Ohio Folklore Society I/2, 1972)

Coyote and the anthropologist
I am including this story here because it says a lot about the relationship between "researchers" and indigenous communities. According to this story from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, an anthropologist comes across a trapped Coyote (who is a famous indigenous trickster figure) and offers to free it in exchange for money and a long story. Coyote forks over the money and tells a story until the recording tape runs out. But once he is free and away, and the researcher returns home, he discovers that the money turned to leaves and the tape recorder is full of Coyote droppings...
(Read the story, and many other Coyote tales, in this book)

What other stories should I add to this list?