Monday, August 7, 2017

Trickster bonanza (Following folktales around the world 37. - Bahamas)

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!

Once was a time, a very good time,
Not in my time, but in b'o' Rabby time...

Folk-tales of Andros Island, Bahamas
Elsie Clews Parsons
American Folk-lore Society, 1918.

Once again, an early collection from Elsie Clews Parsons (I'm getting curious about this lady's life story). It contains 115 folktales (or more, since variants are listed under the same number), all collected from just one island of the Bahamas, Andros. Tales are transcribed meticulously and in dialect, which makes them difficult to read, but also gives a hint of what they originally sounded like. Each story comes with ample footnotes, references to other versions from the Caribbean and beyond, and the informants are all introduced as well. Parsons points out that not only was Andros a cultural melting pot at the turn of the last century (including tales from indigenous, Euro-American, and African traditions), but it was also a "dump" for refugees, adventurers, and other migratory people within the Bahamas. The result is an amazingly diverse mix of stories.
In the Introduction, Parsons notes how, when she initially asked for "storytellers," she was pointed to fortune-tellers; it took her time to figure out that she had to ask for people who "talk ol' story" to get the actual folktales. Also, almost all stories in the book begin with the same type of formula ("There was a time, a very good time, Monkey chew tobacco and spit white lime"), and end the same as well ("The bow bent, the story end", "If you think my story's not true, go ask the captain of the longboat crew"). I addition, much like I have read in the Haiti collection, many stories end with the storyteller claiming to have been present personally, until one of the characters slapped/kicked/pushed them, and they flew right here, to the audience, to tell them what happened.


The book itself (based on claims from informants) gives a definite answer to 'what is the most popular tale on Andros Island?'. It is a story I have encountered before on the island of St. Vincent as well: A woman in labor sends a message to her husband, trying various birds before the hummingbird manages to track the man down and bring him home. It is kind of an unexpected candidate for popularity, but a lovely story.
There was a very neat local variant for the Magic Flight tale type. A girl kidnapped by the Devil was rescued by her brother, Jack, who was adept in witchcraft. I liked how the transformations during the flight were also obstacles, combining the two usual forms of the story: Every transformation made the Devil turn and go back home to get something (e.g. a pole for the banana tree and the ripe bananas). An yet another Magic Flight Jack ran away with the Devil's daughter named Greenheart-Er-Knowledge, and when he forgot about her and left her on a tree (as it usually happens in these stories), the "ugly servant girl" that found her did not try to take the true bride's place, but rather ran and reminded Jack about her. And while we are on the topic of Jack saving women, there was also a lovely version of the Maiden saved from the gallows ballad, where Jack fell in love with a princess at school, and came to her aid when she was accused of theft and about to be hanged.
The tale of the Witch Wife gave me some chills. In this story, a wife never ate at home, but rather secretly turned into an egret and went hunting. When her husband found out, he sang the magic song that slowly turned his wife into a bird, and then killed her. On a more light-hearted note, I found a new trick in the Trickster bag of tales: Rabbit got away from Lion by suggesting that he should be dipped in ashes before killed, for flavor (?), and rolled around in the ashes so much that Lion was blinded by the cloud.


The cultural diversity of the island showed beautifully in the lineup of local tricksters: Rabbit, Bouki (sometimes the trickster, sometimes the fool), Anansi, and even Jack all made an appearance. Sometimes they were even related in various ways; e.g. in one story Jack and Rabbit were brothers. With them, of course most of the classic trickster tales had versions in the book: The tar baby (which in these stories was female, and people who tried to grope her or kiss her got stuck), the secretly eaten cream, the mock plea, the trickster's horse, the deadly rock, the tug-o-war, etc.
And of course there were tales of races between animals; this time it was Conch that raced Lobster and Horse (separately), and won both times. I especially liked the former story, since it combined the two variants of this tale type: Conch planted other little Conches along the way, but Lobster also stopped lazily to eat along the way - so slow, steady and crafty eventually won the race.
There were versions of many well-known fairy tale types in the book, such as the Kind and Unkind Girls; Mother Killed Me, Father Ate Me; the Four Brothers (this time, it was the hunter that got the girl in the end); Bluebeard (with a room full of dead children, not wives); the Brave Little Tailor; the Beanstalk; the Brementwon Musicians; the Fish Lover; and the Extraordinary Helpers. The latter included intriguing new characters such as Laughwell, Crywell, Fartwell, Pisswell, and Spitwell, although the fragmented story text did not tell us much about them... Another Helpers tale, the Unfinished Story of Princess Greenleaf, was selected for my book about superpowers from this collection as well.
Among local beliefs I once again encountered the loogaroo (loup garou), this time as the name for the witches that can peel off their skin and fly around at night. We are getting closer to Louisiana...

Where to next?
To Cuba!


  1. What's the secretly eaten cream about?

    1. Two friends (Cat and Dog, or other combinations) get a jar of cream together. While they work, one of them keeps saying that he is invited to a baptism, and sneaks off work to eat some of the cream. When he comes back and the friend asks what the name of the child is, he says things like "Just Started" or "Half Done." Eventually, all the cream is gone, and they become enemies forever.