Thursday, December 29, 2016

A man in search of his luck (Folktale research post)

Once again, I am showing how the sausage is made. I dived way, way down into the rabbit hole, following a folktale that took me to all kinds of interesting places. In order to preserve my various post-it notes (and with them, my sanity), I am posting my process here. It might be useful for someone else too. It's a good story.

It all began with a book called Ready-to-Tell Tales. It contains a story retold by Richard Walker, titled The Edge of the World, labeled "a story from the British Isles." In it, a young man sets out to find God and ask why he does not have any luck. On the way, he encounters three suffering creatures - a skinny wolf, a withering tree, and a lonely woman - and they all send their questions with him to God. On the way back the lad has all the answers, but none of the sense to use them. He tells the lonely woman that God says she will soon find a husband - but then turns down her proposal. He tells the tree that it can't grow because of the treasure buried under its roots - but then walks on without digging it up. Finally, he tells the skinny wolf that it should eat the first stupid creature it encounters - and the wolf does just that. End of story. (Even God can't help you if you don't help yourself)

When I was a beginning storyteller, this tale worked like a charm. Now that it returned to be as the perfect fit for a performance I was building, I decided to dig deeper into it. Here is what I found:

Tale type: ATU 460A - Journey to the Deity (previously 461A)
Folktale motifs: H1291 (Questions asked on the way to other world), H1292 (Answers found in other world to questions propounded on the way) (this one has sub-numbers for the specific questions)

Armed with the tale type and motif index numbers, I dug up several versions of the story. It has variants all around the world, showing amazing diversity in their details:

The man who went to seek his fortune (Northern India, Simla village tales)
The deity: An old fakir
Questions: Castle that keeps falling down (until princess is married), turtle that has a stomach burn (until it gives some of its wisdom away), tree with bitter fruit (has buried treasure underneath)
Ending: The man wins all the rewards

The waters of Olive Lake (China, Many lands, many stories)
The deity: The God of the West
Questions: Girl who doesn't speak (until she sees her future husband), tree with treasure buried underneath, dragon that can't rise to Heaven (until it gives its pearl away)
Ending: Boy wins all the luck
(I especially like this one because the boy gives his own question away to ask the other three)

The Queen of the Planets (Ireland, Folktales of Ireland)
The deity: The Queen of the Planets (a woman who decides the fates of all children born)
Questions: A girl no one wants to marry (until she goes to church carrying her mother), a blacksmith that can't save money (works on the wrong days), and a farmer whose roof is always leaking (he stole thatch).
Ending: Boy reports answers, everyone goes their merry way
(This one also contains a gruesome and graphic way for the Queen to predict people's fate)

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs (Germany, Grimm collection)
The deity: The Devil
Questions: Well that ran dry (toad sits at the bottom), golden apple tree that withered (mouse is gnawing at the roots), ferryman that can't stop working (until hands off oar to someone else)
Ending: Boy gets princess and winds kingdom

Looking for his luck (Jewish, Tales of Elijah the Prophet)
The deity: Elijah the Prophet
Questions: Scrawny wolf (needs to eat a fool), weak kingdom (king is secretly a woman) (pffft), tree that bears bitter fruit (buried treasure)
Ending: Wolf eats foolish man.

The man who went to seek his fate (India, Indian Fairy Tales)
The deity: The man's fate (in the form of a stone)
Questions: Tired camel (carrying bags of gold), alligator with a stomach burn (swallowed a large ruby), tiger with a thorn in its foot (guards treasures)
Ending: Man gets treasures and lives happily

The sleeping nasib (India, Folklore in Wester India)
The deity: The man's nasib (fate), sleeping across the seven seas
Questions: Mango tree with bitter fruit (buried treasure), fish out of water (swallowed a piece of gold), tower that keeps collapsing (king has unmarried daughter), noble steed that no one rides
Ending: Man gets treasures, steed, and a second wife

The man who went to wake his luck (Bakhtiari, Iran, JBORS)
The deity: The man's luck (sleeping in a cave)
Questions: Orchard that bears no fruit (buried treasure), king whose subjects don't obey him (woman in disguise, needs husband), scrawny wolf (needs to eat a fool), exhausted bush-cutter (has to bear his fate)
Ending: Wolf eats foolish man

The man who fought with God (India, North Indian Notes and Queries)
The deity: God (Allah)
Questions: Kingdom burns down every night (king's daughter is unmarried), well filled with filthy water and two people (if they are taken out, well fills up with coin), dried-up tree (snake with sapphires in its belly gnawing on roots)
Ending: Man passes by opportunities the first time, but then marries princess and goes back for the treasures

The poor boy who went in search of Isvara (India, Folklore in Salsette)
The deity: Isvara
Questions: Breadfruit tree that bears no fruit (gold in trunk), mango tree no one eats from (buried treasure), building keeps collapsing (king needs to give his daughter and half kingdom to the first passer-by), beached whale (has precious gems in its stomach)
Ending: Boy gets all treasures, half kingdom, and princess

The man who searched for his luck (Jewish, Folktales of the Jews)
The deity: Woman with a wheel of fortune
Questions: Stranded fish (diamond stuck in fish's head), apple tree with bitter fruit (buried treasure)
Ending: Man gets treasures (plus his luck int he form of a wheel of fortune)

The sleeping karms (India, Tawi Tales)
The deity: Karms (fate-spirits, karma)
Questions: Mango tree no one eats from (used to be a learned man who never shared his knowledge), two wells no one drinks from (used to be women who only gave charity to each other), cow that is beaten by her calf every day (used to be the calf in the previous life and behaved badly), shepherd who wants to know if God knows of him (yes, he's a good man), large snake who wants to know why he was turned into a snake (was a miser in a previous life)
Ending: Man goes home and lives happily
(This one was interesting because the main hero was the rich older brother; and also because he asked everyone's respective karms for the answers)

There are also many other versions that I did not have the time (or linguistic skills) to track down, but this small sample already shows what a rich, diverse, colorful folktale type this is. In the end, for the performance I assembled my own version from various motifs in the list above, and it worked like a charm. It is definitely going into my permanent repertoire.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The many uses of seashells (Following folktales around the world 6. - Nauru)

Welcome back to 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, and you can also follow the series on its own Facebook page!

Nauru is the last Micronesian country on the list. Bye bye, Tiny Islands. The series is taking a short Christmas break, and will resume in the first week of January!

Legends, traditions, and tales of Nauru
A transcript of a series of lectures delivered by Native Teachers
Timothy Detudamo
University of the South Pacific, 2008.

This book could have done with an introduction. It didn't say anything about how or when the tales were collected, or who the storytellers were. It did include a "Traditional culture of Nauru" chapter, wedged in-between Legends and Tales, which was definitely an interesting read, and helped understand some elements of the stories. The Glossary was almost comically useless; it had at least six words defined as "a type of weapon" or "a type of fish", with no further comments. The stories themselves, however, were much worth reading.


Nauru from above
I really loved the Nauruan creation myth, where the world was born from inside a clam shell, and giants lifted the top half of the shell to become the sky. The same myth also contained a sky-high tree; when one of the gods climbed it, some leafs and twigs came loose and fell into the ocean, creating the islands. The leafs that fell face up became fertile islands, while the ones that fell face down remained barren.
There was a very interesting idea of rebirth in the story of Itijo and Araiman. The wife was instructed to but her dead husband inside a giant shell; three days later she found a live baby in his place. Raising the baby, she got her husband back. After a few rounds, she decided it would be better to wait a few more days and get him back as an adult so that she wouldn't have to raise him - but when she opened the shell, the corpse was still there, and the rebirth magic was off the table...
One of my favorite tales was the story of Eakeno, in which a god fell in love with a pretty young woman who already had a husband. The god let down a fishing hook with gifts from the sky, and managed to catch her and steal her away. She was eventually rescued with the help of a crab and two canary birds.


Nauru also has its own version of "in the beginning, women didn't know how to give birth" (a motif that seems to exist all over Micronesia). This one was my favorite so far. It told the story of a voyager named Deragoe, who after all kinds of adventures landed on Nauru. He married a local girl, and managed to save her from a C-section (performed by two old women with shark teeth) and teach the Nauruans how to deliver babies. And cook food. He sounds like a useful guy.
Another common motif that I encountered once again was the trick of putting shells on one's eyelids to look in the dark as if you were awake. This trick is usually used by people to avoid being devoured in their sleep by monsters (in this case, a witch).
There was a myth very much like Pandora's Box: The first god left behind three baskets that people were not supposed to open. The first two contained food and jewelry - but when the first one was opened too, all kinds of troubles and diseases swarmed out into the world. There was also, once again, a legend about the birth of the coconut palm, which, once again, grew out of the grave of a buried man.
I especially loved the Nauruan take on the giant beanstalk, called Egigu's Tree. In this story, a girl named Egigu climbed up into the sky and encountered the old blind mother of all kinds of natural phenomena. In exchange for healing her blindness, the old woman hid her in a clam shell. Eventually, the girl met and married her youngest son, the Moon, and you can still see the Moon embracing her at night. You can see the story illustrated on Nauruan stamps (left).

Where to next? 
Returning to Melanesia via the Solomon Islands.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Witches, sisters, fairy tales (Following folktales around the world 5. - Kiribati)

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!

Tales of Kiribati
Iango Mai Kiribati / Stories from Kiribati
Peter Kanere Koru, Ginette Sullivan
Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific, 1986.  

It was a short read - only ninety pages long, but since it it a bilingual edition, it actually took half the time to get through. The volume contains 8 folktales collected from three female storytellers. The photo and short biography of each of them are included, as well as delightful drawings and black-and-white photos illustrating the tales.


I had two favorite stories in the book (not bad, out of eight...). One was titled Kinibura and the Lions, and it was about a boy who got adopted and raised by lions before he was returned to his human family (Mowgli, is that you?...). I especially liked the scene where his little sister taught him how to speak.
Kiribati coat of arms
The other story, possibly my favorite, was the one called Atutababa and the Three Sisters. It featured three girls (all of them named Ikuiku) who wandered into the house of a cannibal witch, and then tried to escape from her. The flight had quite a few amazing scenes, such as the one where they fled to a tree, and while the hag was trying to chop it down the girls took turns peeing on the tree to make it grown and heal. I also liked that in the end, none of the three got eaten, and they all escaped together, helping each other.
(This is the story featured on the book's cover too, by the way)

Pawpaw fruit
Most stories felt like they had had some Western impact in the past. There were quite a few out-of-place elements in them such as bears, lions, and diamond rings, even though they didn't manage to overshadow the local flavor. There was a "brave little tailor" type story about a boy who tricks two giants (with the usual "squeeze water out of rock" thing), and also a "magic flight" story, the Kiribatian version of the Master Maid. This one was especially fun, since the villain in this case was the King of Cards, a spirit-being who liked to play games with mortals (and eat them if they lost). One of the tasks given to the boy was to poke a pawpaw fruit off the King's tree, which he failed to do at first, because there was a gigantic centipede on it... While the structure of the fairy tale was the same, the decorations were definitely local.

Where to?
The island nation of Nauru.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sailing from story to story (Following folktales around the world 4. - Marshall Islands)

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

Still wandering across the many many islands, and island nations of Micronesia. 

Stories from the Marshall Islands
Bwebwenato Jan Aelon Kein
Jack A. Tobin
University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

So far, this book was hands down the most difficult read of the entire challenge. It is an excellent publication, but very academic when it comes to the texts themselves. It contains 90 traditional tales from the Marshall islands (from creation myths to folk beliefs), and each comes with extensive footnotes, references, linguistic explanations, and brackets within brackets inside the text. The latter made reading a little frustrating at times. Many stories are printed both in English and in Marshallese, and there are abundant footnotes, so it was not as long a read as it might seem. What it was, however, was informative. I learned a whole lot about the history, culture, language, society, customs, flora, and fauna of the islands, and whenever something was not clear in a story, I could trust the author to explain it in the comments or the notes. All in all, it was a challenging but rewarding experience.


Outrigger boat and a frigate bird
I especially loved the legends and tales concerning navigation. I love sailing, and seafaring stories, and the book had plenty of both. There was one about twelve brothers who arranged a boat race to an island, but none of them wanted to take their mother along... except for the youngest, who was rewarded with the mother's secret knowledge of how to build and use a mast and a sail. This story (About a woman named Loktanur) was not even the only one when navigation was a woman'd gift. In another one, a young girl named Litarmelu was taught by mysterious men how to navigate the sea between the islands. They towed her, with her eyes closed, all over the place, and occasionally they asked her to tell where they were exactly, just by the movement of the water under the boat. It was a long and detailed story of trial and error - beyond being an origin tale, it also doubled as educational text for passing down knowledge about navigation signs. Navigation signs, as I learned from the ikid (story-songs) in the book, can be many things, from the shape of waves to animal behavior (frigate birds, porpoises, turtles, etc.) or island landmarks.
I also liked the historical story of how an American ship got wrecked near the islands in 1883, and how the Marshallese helped the Americans survive and fix their ship. I especially appreciated that the author attached the other half of the story from the ship's journal... Apparently, while the Americans were scared of the indigenous people, the encounter ended up being fairly friendly.
Frigate bird
I enjoyed the tale titled Low Tide, in which two women were tricked by an octopus, and then retaliated by cooking it. The octopus' gigantic mother came out of the sea to take revenge on them, but they ended up chopping it into pieces. I am a sucker for a good giant octopus fight, apparently... In another intriguing story, a man had to find a way to tell his own wife and a shape-changing demoness apart - and he picked wrong (despite obvious signs, such as the demoness could not cook). It took a while for that story to reach a happy ending...
I loved the moment in the creation myths where two deities, after creation was done, came down to Earth to tattoo colors on all living creatures. From the same myths I also learned that the Marshallese have dozens of words for every phase of the life of a coconut palm...
And, of course, the Marshallese have their own Trickster too. His name is Etao (a word also used for mischievous mortals).


Maui is now also a
Disney hero
The most interesting connection in the book was not a parallel - but rather, an actual visit from another mythology. Maui, the famous Polynesian trickster-hero shows up in one of the stories to have a competition with local heroes... and loses. I don't often see characters from other cultures visiting like this; but I guess all the seafaring was bound to mix some of the stories, and of course cultural pride would not allow the visitor to best the local heroes. There were also Marshallese legends of fishing up islands from the bottom of the sea, so the mixing definitely involved more than some trickster-versus-trickster.
There was also a "magic flight" story (The legend of Anidep) in which the girl running from a demon threw coconuts back over her shoulder. Bursting open, the coconuts released thousands of ants. The demon apparently loved ants so much that he had to stop and gather them all - which reminded me of European fairies and witches that tend to do the same.
In the tale titled The boy who met Jebro, a fisherman encountered a canoe with seven identical boys that turned out to be Jebro (the Pleiades) itself. They gave the secret of eternal life to the boy, who lived several lifetimes until he decided to divulge the secret - and turned into dust on the spot. This reminded me of several "eternal life" tales from around the world, such as Oisin, Urashima Taro, or all those folktales where telling a secret makes you turn to stone.
There was also a completely random tree-climbing octopus in one of the tales, which reminded me of this stellar piece of Internet tricksterness.

Where are we going next?
The Republic of Kiribati.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tales in color and style (Following folktales around the world 3. - Palau)

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

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

It is getting more and more difficult to find books for the islands I'm looking at. This time I accidentally ran into a small little volume in a digital archive. The upside: You can read it online too!

The Palauan handicraft guidebook, and 30 Storyboard stories
Goree Ramarui, Rita Limberg
Palau Community Action Committee, 1970.
(Online here)

This tiny collection is only 24 pages long - but it still contain the condensed version on no less than 30 folktales and legends, and even the bare bones are very much enjoyable. The book(let) opens with introducing the traditional crafts of Palau, ending on storyboards.

Storyboards are a traditional Palauan art form - they are essentially traditional stories carved out in a narrative, visual format. They used to decorate the rafters of men's gathering houses, but recently they have also been produced in smaller, more portable sizes for trade. According to the book, there are more than two hundred commonly carved stories - out of which these 30 were selected. The most popular ones were marked with an asterisk. Even in their condensed form, each tale included their most recognizable visual elements. For example, in the storyboard below you can see the tale of the magic breadfruit tree - the tide would push fish through the hollow trunk and the hollow branches, so it was easy for people to gather them. Eventually, as usual, envy and greediness ended the good times (you can read the story in the book). I was happy when I found this picture and recognized the story.

source of image

One of my favorite stories was the one about a "dandy," Ngiratumerang, who was accused by other men of being a coward. In order to prove them wrong, he went and found a master to teach him the martial arts. In the next battle, he killed five of the enemy's best warriors, proving everyone wrong. I especially liked the way he proved his courage to the master: He climbed a tall, thin betel nut tree until it bowed all the way down and he had to reach the top upside-down.
Another fun story was that of Skin and Bones, who used to be brothers. One day, they were attacked unexpectedly. Since Bones did not want to drag his skin-sack brother after him, he put Skin on like a shirt... and ever since then, we have skeletons inside out body.
This was by far not the only amusing story in the book. I also liked the one where a god fought another god by throwing various sea creatures (including rabbitfish) after him. Or the one about how two young lovers discovered the 15-day nesting cycle of sea turtles, because an unsuspecting turtle made off with the girl's discarded grass skirt, and only appeared again 15 days later...
There was even a tale about where the first dugong came from. According to legend, she had been the daughter of an overbearing mother, who eventually ran away into the sea.

Picture from here
I found a tale very similar to the fruit bat boy story in the Papua New Guinean collection. In this case, the single mother was rescued by her human son and owl daughter from a terrifying sea serpent.
I found another version about the origin of Palauan money (see image on the right). I also learned that the legendary Yapese giganic stone coins were also brought from this island. I also found a second version about how women originally gave birth via C-section - in this one, it was not another girl who taught them better (like in the Micronesian collection), but the spider-god husband of a pregnant woman. There was another monster-heron (this time, defeated by a spear-throwing technique learned from actual herons), and another vagina dentata, this time with two biting eels hidden in the wife's lady parts... I expected to see more Palauan stories repeated from the previous collection, but I was happy to find that most of the 30 were new to me. As short a read as it was, it was definitely enjoyable.

Where to?
The Marshall Islands.