Monday, January 23, 2017

Fantastic Folktales from Fiji (Following folktales around the world 9. - Fiji)

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!

Fiji is our last stop in Melanesia. It was a great way to say goodbye.
Myths and Legends of Fiji and Rotuma
A. W. Reed & Inez Hames
A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1967.

I have to admit that out of all the volumes I have read so far for this challenge, this one was probably my favorite. I am aware that I might be subconsciously biased, since the tales were "re-told" by someone not native to the islands, and therefore probably told in a way that rang familiar to Western readers - but still, as a collection of stories, this one was both enchanting and entertaining, with dozens of stories that I instantly fell in love with. It is not an academic folklore publication by any stretch, and it lacks background information - but it was, none the less, a fascinating read.


One of the strangest and most entertaining tales in the book was titled The man who was used as a ball. In it, a man was "accidentally" left behind on an island, where every night the local demons used him as a ball in their game. He tried to hide from them five or six times, sometimes in extremely creative ways, but he kept failing, until a god took pity on him. In the end, he even got to visit the spirit world, leaving his body behind on the beach (and, similar to the Mongolian tale of Tarva the Blind, the crabs ate one of his eyes by the time he returned).
Another great favorite of mine was Gods who fought for their women. It was a tale of love and adventure, in which two friends (one of them a wind-god) set out to elope with the daughter of a god from a neighboring island. She was only willing to go (despite being in love) if they also rescued the youngest wife of her father, who was beaten and miserable. The two women eloped with the two gods, but the father/husband followed them, and used all kinds of shape-changing tricks to try to get them back. It was an exciting story, with a very satisfying happy ending. Women, by the way, often got away from marriage in these stories, choosing independence over a wedding - one of them even broke a basket on the head of the man that tried to trick her into marriage...
One of the most endearing stories was The god that turned into a rat. In this, a deity visited a neighboring island in the form of a rat, but was so exhausted by the voyage that he could not change back - and no one believed that he was in fact a god. In another rather fun tale the god of an island tricked his neighbor into swapping his fruit trees for all the mosquitoes of their home - by saying that mosquitoes were magical, invisible creatures that sang beautiful songs.
Not all gods were this funny or lovely, however. There was an entire chapter full of legends about the Shark God. He was portrayed as fearsome and stern, but also a protector of the islands and their people. In one story, one of his unruly sons swam up a river, and people made sure he got back home. A similarly nature-friendly legend was The turtle nuts of the vonu tree. This one told about a custom where people greeted the turtles coming from the sea every year, and then stayed in their houses for two days to allow privacy for the animals on the beach. Of course someone had to break the taboo, and the god of turtles turned him into a tree as a punishment. Turtle privacy is important, people. Let them lay eggs in peace.


This volume also contained a very beautiful description of the journey of the soul into the afterlife. Interestingly, this time bachelors were at the highest risk of being punished, and even pure souls had to fight their way through numerous dangerous creatures.
One of the most obvious connections to "Western" tales was the motif of sky-high trees, vines, and stalks; some were used to visit the kingdom of the Sky King, while another was utilized as a vehicle by a hero to travel to the faraway island of Tonga. There were not one, but two "tortoise and the hare" type animal race tales, one featured a heron and crabs, and the other a heron and a butterfly (heron lost both, go figure).
There was a legend that reminded me of the myth of King Midas - in this, a chief challenged a snake god's powers, and the god cursed him, turning all food, drinks, and even his bed into living snakes. There was also a snake-husband tale (with love breaking the curse), and many other stories that featured snakes.
I was reminded of the Whale vs. Octopus story of Micronesia - here, the Shark God Daquwaka fought a giant octopus over who gets to be the protector of the reef (Octopus won again). Several stories mentioned giant clam shells that trapped the hands or feet of unsuspecting people or animals, and drowned them - I have seen similar stories in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. I was reminded of Japanese and East African folktales by the story where someone traveled into the Underwater Realm on the back of a giant turtle. 

Where to next?
Tuvalu. We will be making our entrance into Polynesia.

Monday, January 16, 2017

War and Peace and Puffer Fish (Following folktales around the world 8. - Vanuatu)

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

Once again, the story collection I found focuses on the oral tradition of a single island (Nguna) among the many that make up Vanuatu. Still, it was a very detailed sample. 

Nguna Voices
Text and culture from Central Vanuatu
Ellen E. Facey
University of Calgary Press, 1988.

This volume seems to have originally been the author's dissertation. It has all the trappings of an academic publication, with detailed chapters on linguistics, translation, culture, etc. While the introductory texts were a little dry, they contain all the information one could possibly wish for. And then some. What I loved about it was that the author transcribed the oral stories in a way that reflected the telling - text was broken up into lines based on the rhythm of the oral performance, worlds were stretched for length ("a long, loooong time ago"), or bold for emphasis, and sometimes we even got notes on the telling style ("[The storyteller makes a sweeping gesture]"). Short of doing an actual video recording, this was an amazing way of giving the reader a sense of the oral tradition in its original form.


I loved the legend of How the slit-drum was discovered. According to the story, in the beginning people did not know how to dance, and "theirs was an empty existence." One day a man went to his garden to cut sugarcane, and heard a bird pecking at the stalks. He began to dance to the rhythm of the pecking, and loved it so much he decided to copy the effect by cutting the canes and hitting them with sticks like the bird had done. People soon picked up the new fad, and slit-drums (see on the left) were created from trees.
The glossary at the end of the book told me that the bird called tapesu (the first drummer in the world) was probably a Purple Swamphen (see on the right). Pretty.

I especially liked that the many tales of inter-clan warfare were interspersed with stories about making peace. One of them told about two wise chiefs, Mariori and Masiloa, who ended the disputes by organizing a great big feast to all people. At the end of the feast, they divided everyone into new clans based on what they brought to the table: They had a fish clan, an octopus clan, a coconut clan, etc. (I imagine if disputes were settled like this today, I'd permanently be a member of the "I burned the pastries, but I brought soda?" clan).
In another tale, fish waged war on each other - or at least prepared to, but the whale showed up in the last moment and managed to pacify everyone. However, since the war was cancelled, they did not know what to do with all the weapons... until the Puffer Fish volunteered to take them all on. He has been kind of prickly and dangerous ever since.
The volume ended with two charming animal tales. In one, a turtle saved a dove who drifted out to sea - in exchange, the dove (with the help of a rat) rescued the turtle when people wanted to turn him into food. The other tale told about a hen whose eggs had been stolen by a snake, and how the ants helped her get the eggs back (after all the larger animals were ruled out, because she was afraid they would trample the eggs int he fight). The ants managed to bite the snake to death little by little...


There was a "magical wife" story - here, the beautiful woman was found on the seashore, and taken home by a fisherman (who hid her in the pig pen from his wives). Eventually she returned to her underwater home (like all magical wives do), but she left the power of divination to her husband.
Once again, I encountered the trick of covering one's eyes with something shiny, in order to avoid being devoured by a monster in your sleep - in this case, the heroes of the story put pieces of coconut on their eyelids. There was also a beautiful story about the journey of the soul to the next life. It was believed that the soul of the deceased would go to a tree that stretches out above the seashore, wait for the sixth wave to crest, and then jump down into the underwater realms of spirits.

Where to next?
Fiji. That will be out last stop in Melanesia.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Things that grow on trees in folktales

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.

In an Apache folktale Coyote tricks people into believing that they can get rich from a money tree. Obviously, money doesn't grow on trees, not even in folktales...

... but pretty much everything else does. And by everything else, I mean:

In the Hungarian folktale aptly titled The Bacon Tree, a king has a magic tree that... grows a side of bacon every day. Sadly, the bacon is stolen every night, and anyone who tries to guard it magically falls asleep. The rest of the story is pretty much the same as any other "rescuing maidens from the underworld" tale, but the bacon is definitely worth the mention.

In the Akamba folktale The king's daughter lost her hair, a princess loses her hair as punishment for her vanity. Luckily, there is a magic tree at the end of the world that grows all kinds of hair - someone just has to go and find it, and bring some of its seeds back so that the princess can grow her own.

Sure, birds live on trees... but every once in a while they also grow on trees. In an Egyptian folktale a man travels to an island with all kinds of wondrous trees; some bear fruit that look like human heads suspended by the hair (coconuts?), and some have fruit that are green birds suspended by their feet (fruit bats?). Some fruits cry or laugh.

In the Hawaiian legend of Ke-Ao-Mele-Mele, or Golden Cloud, there is a three called Makalei that bears fish. (While the Motif Index mark this as a "fish-bearing tree", from the actual texts it seems like the tree attracted fish, it didn't grown them... But I'm going to leave it on the list anyway, because it's a beautiful story.)
In a Chaco legend from South America there is a yuchan tree (Chorisia insignis) that is full of fish that people can shoot. Trickster shoots the biggest fish out of greed, and the tree breaks open, flooding the world.

Jewel trees are actually surprisingly common in folklore. In the famous tale of Aladdin, the protagonist finds a garden of jewel-bearing trees in the cave long before he finds the magic lamp. The Epic of Gilgamesh similarly mentions gardens of jewel trees in the Underworld.
In a tale from Sri Lanka called The Miser and the Mountain of Gold, a greedy man is brought by a Djinn into a forest of trees that have branches of gold, and fruits of rubies, diamonds, emeralds, and other precious stones.

In the Himalayan tale of Ami Dori, a virtuous girl is chased into suicide by her own family's cruel gossip. From her grave grows a tree of beads and necklaces, proving her innocence and providing the first merchant goods in the world.

In some versions of the Nepali folktale Dhon Cholecha, a girl is befriended by a two-headed ewe. The girl's evil stepmother slaughters the ewe, but from its buried bones grows a tree of cakes. The poor girl survives by eating the cakes from the tree.

By the way, the Thompson motif number for "Extraordinary tree" is F811. Knock yourselves out!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Female warriors, and the roots of life (Following folktales around the world 7. - Solomon 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, or you can follow the series on its Facebook page.

For those people that like to think of the "Pacific" as a cultural monolith, I'm going to say up front that all the tales in this book have been collected from the Baegu people, who live in the northeast part of the island of Malaita. The more than 1600 square mile island is home to more than a dozen different peoples, all with their own customs and languages. The Solomon Islands are a country that includes 6 major and more than 900 minor islands. Think about this next time you design a sci-fi world where every planet is one homogeneous culture...

Solomon island folktales from Malaita
Kay Bauman
Rutlege Books, 1998.

Kay Bauman moved to Malaita in the 1960s with her two small children and her anthropologist husband; they lived among the natives for a year. Kay learned the local language and began collecting traditional stories (even though she had no formal training in ethnography). Most tales were told to her in a shortened form, since local legends are often chanted for long hours into the night (and some were not told at all, if the elders decided she was not allowed to hear them). The book itself is a pretty well done volume - it has maps, a decent introduction, and includes bios for all the storytellers. I had some minor problems with it, such as the fact that she listed Thompson folktale motifs, but not their numbers... The most annoying feature of the book was that comments always came before the tales - apart from spoilers, they also did not make a lot of sense until one read the actual story, so I kept flipping back and forth.
All storytellers were male (apparently, women were not allowed to tell stories). One of them still remembered eating human meat from his younger days...


I have to say that women rarely fared well in these folktales. At best, they were seduced with the help of love potions, but abuse and suicide were also fairly common. The great exception was two legends about Warrior Women, a tribe of amazons who lived on a neighboring island, and turned out to be pretty badass in the stories. In one legend, they rescued two wives stolen by evil spirits; in the other, they went to war to avenge the death of one of their relatives. Their leader was called Riina, she was as smart as she was strong, and she has actually been featured on the Rejected Princesses blog.
There was also an interesting tale about the origin of bananas and sugarcane. In this, a wife refused to sleep with her husband, and was abused for it; she fled to the world of spirits, and spent time happily dancing with them. Eventually she returned with the gift of bananas and sugarcane; but when her husband abused her again, she sunk into the ground, and returned to live with the spirits. Another beautiful image was the burial of a girl who'd killed herself out of shame. The roots of a life-giving tree grew around her in her grave, and the life-water seeping from them brought her back to life; following fissures in the ground, she came to an underground river, and followed it back to the light.
Many stories involved mentions of a bride-price. Women were bought as wives, usually for shell money and porpoise teeth (e.g. "ten strings of red shell money and a thousand porpoise teeth"). The image on the left shows a Solomon Island chief with such a necklace. I didn't do the math, but I kinda felt sorry for the porpoise population...

It wasn't in the book, but here I have to note that one of my favorite mythical creatures, the Boongurunguru, is also from the Solomon Islands. You can read about it here (wonderful blog, check it out).

Obviously, I once again found a legend about the origin of coconuts, and once again it involved a man being buried. This time, coconuts, betel nuts, and sago palms all grew from the same body. Another story that reminded me of multiple European myths and legends was that of a giant pig that ran away from the people who raised it, wreaked havoc on the island, and was chased by a large group of warriors, naming places wherever they went.

Where to next?

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.