Monday, October 16, 2017

Gods and storytellers (Following folktales around the world 47. - Mexico)

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!

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while; I found it in an antique store in the USA, sitting under a pile of porcelain cups. Not the most authentic source (not a folklore publication), but I really wanted to read it. I plan on circling back anyway, to read some indigenous collections later.

Star Mountain
and other legends of Mexico
Camilla Campbell
Whittlesey House, 1946.

This volume is old, and it shows: The tales are definitely re-told, not collected from tellers word by word. With that said, most of them hold up the structure and feel of the original legend or folktale pretty well, despite occasional dated words and phrases (such as calling the Aztecs "red" or a Chinese girl "oriental"). It does include some conquest era legends, but doesn't pretend that the Spanish were heroes. There is a pronunciation guide in the end, but no sources or comments on the tales whatsoever, which I sorely missed. All in all, it was a pretty read with pretty pictures, but I'll definitely come back to Mexico for more later.

Highlights 


I absolutely adored the legend of Baby Jesus and Brown Sugar (El Niño de la Panelita). It was about a jolly monk who lived in Puebla and brought food every day to the monastery, but his fellow monks believed that he kept sugar cones for himself. One say they caught him in the chapel, handing the sugar to the statue of the baby Jesus, who was giggling happily... According to Campbell, the statue still has a panela in his hand.
Without much historical credit, but also lovely is the origin legend of the "china poblana" folk costume, said to have originated from a Chinese girl that ended up living in Mexico. She told stories to children, and they brought flowers to decorate her dress. As a storyteller, of course I enjoyed this tale a lot. Storytelling also saved the day in the legend of the Brave Mixtec warrior, who fought an archery duel against the Sun (or so said the Mixtecs to scare the Aztecs away).
The Mayan tale of the Moon God and the Turtle was similarly great. The Moon used to be always full, until a turtle started to show up in his bed while he was away, and it got bigger and bigger. Ever since then, the Moon tends to leave a bit of himself at home, to guard the bed from the intruder...
In the beautiful legend of the Street of the Deer, a girl was almost kidnapped by some men, but her pet deer fought them off.

China poblana fountain, Puebla

Connections

Of course we can't be done with Mexico without talking about La Llorona - in this book, her legend was waved into that of Malinche, but it noted that not everyone believed the lover of Cortez was the Crying Woman.
The story of the Cú bird was another variant of "showing off with someone else's feathers" - and the Cú did, and then vainly took off, and the birds (doves, owls, roardrunners) have been looking for him ever since.
The local trickster is Hermano Coyote.

Where to next?
U! S! A!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Guardians of Nature (Following folktales around the world 46. - Belize)

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!


If Di Pin Neva Ben
Folktales and legends of Belize
Timothy Hagerty & Mary Gomez Parham
Cubola Productions, 2000.

The stories in this book have been collected in the 1970s, mostly by the two editors, in Spanish and Creole, and then translated to English. The volume has two parts: legends and folktales, grouped into smaller sections by topic. They mention in the Introduction that they considered grouping them by culture, but too many motifs reach across cultural groups to make that distinction. In the ten folktales included in the second part they left the dialogues in Creole, to show the flavor of the original language; once again, I had to read aloud to understand what was being said... Every story came with a source, as well as the place of collection, and the age of the storyteller.

Highlights


There are many legends in the book about guardians of nature, beings responsible for keeping people from torturing animals, or killing more than what they need. One of them was Tata Balam, the "owner" of nature; Burucat, his helper (a donkey with a man's face) watched out for animals specifically. Warri Massa was responsible for wild pigs (and whipped a hunter for shooting all over the place). Nohochtat, the Lord of the Forest, chastised a hunter for wounding animals without killing them - but was also willing to show him a grow of valuable gum trees. Coconut groves also had their guardian, but the most important of all was Tata Duende, the guardian of the forest, who watched over all of nature (and sometimes kidnapped children).
Another, chilling and beautiful legend was that of the Day of the Dead (Los Finados), when people lay a table full of food for the returning souls of their deceased relatives (and a separate place for the forgotten souls). In this story, a sick little girl saw the ghost-women come to the feast, even though no one else could see them.
Out of all the folktales, one of the best was that of the Bird of Seven Colors, a Belizean variant of Cinderfella (yes, there is a male Cinderella tale type). In this story, a a farmer's peanut-field was being eaten up by a magic bird, until the youngest son managed to catch it - and then the bird talked him into letting it go, and they stuffed a parrot with peanuts instead, to trick the father. The bird helped the boy through various adventures - including a test where people riding a horse at full speed had to slip a ring onto a princess' finger (but she only held the finger straight for the one suitor she liked).
There was also an amusing pourquoi tale about Why mosquitoes buzz in people's ears (there are various story-answers for this question around the world). In this story, Mosquito lent money to his friend, Wax, but Wax never paid it back; it hid in people's ears instead, and Mosquito has been demanding his money ever since... Ew.

Connections

Belize also has beliefs of female demons haunting the riversides. Here they are known as Xtabay, and they don't only punish men, they also have a protective role: One of them scared a little boy away from shooting randomly at birds. There were also witches that could take off their skin and fly around at night (here called Heg).
The Sisimite monster that kidnapped people reminded me of the Sisimiquí story from Costa Rica; and so did the story of Rabbit and the Giant, which was a local variant of the same Costa Rican tale. There were also several Anansi stories among the folktales; I suspect that we have seen the last of Anansi until we cross over into Africa...

Bonus: If you'd like to know more about the Beliezan oral tradition, and how it can be used in education, I highly recommend storyteller Kristin Pedemonti's book on the subject!

Where to next?
With Mexico, we officially arrive to North America!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Red-haired girl goes traveling - Storytelling festival in Transylvania!

This fall I was invited to be a featured teller at a Hungarian language storytelling festival in Transylvania (which is a region within Romania with a large Hungarian and Hungarian-speaking Székely minority). I could not have been more excited about the invitation. The last time I visited Transylvania I was 9 years old, and the place stuck in my memory as a land of endless beauty and magic. In addition, the program they requested also holds special meaning to me: My new storytelling show, titled The Cheerful Prince and the Girl with Red-gold Hair, contains folktales from my upcoming collection, Dancing on Blades (available January 2018). These stories, collected from uniquely talented folk teller Pályuk Anna at the turn of the last century, have been with me since the beginning of my storytelling career, and I am just as much in love with them now as I was 10 years ago. I finished the last round of editing on the book the day before I left for the festival.

The festival, attached to the Day of the Hungarian Folktale (September 30), lasted a whole week. I visited three cities, and had eight performances. The first two days were spent at the Székely National Museum, where schools brought in groups of children to listen to stories. To the little ones I told world folktales (Utgard-Loki and the Pumpkin Girl won best of show), while for the 6th graders I brought dragon legends (including Dietrich and Sistram), and medieval stories such as Dame Ragnell.

I also had the chance to tell in an almost 500 year old fortress church in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe). The audience consisted of the local Calvinist community, parents and children together, and there was a special magic to telling tales with values (kindness, love, hard work) inside the medieval walls.

In Csíkszereda (Miercurea Ciuc) I told tales on the main square on a chilly yet sunny day, surrounded by children, curious adults, and various TV reporters (watch the video here). It was a dubious choice to make the kids stand in the cold wind, but they cheerfully followed me into the stories, and listened while they wiggled. The best moment of the whole day was when I told Pályuk Anna's tale about the Boy who walked on the clouds, and we all looked up at the fluffy clouds above us while I was telling. It was a bright, unforgettable experience.

In Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș) I told at the Spectrum Theater, to an audience of almost 100 people (and therefore a lovely full house). There were children in the audience, but a lot less than adults, so I could bring out the tale of the Cheerful Prince (Anna's lovely, mother-in-law-positive variant of Rumpelstiltskin), which speaks to adults through emotion and imagery. It was my first time telling it in Hungary (English-speaking audiences always love it), and it worked great.

Returning to Sepsiszentgyörgy for the actual Day of the Hungarian Folktale, we closed the festival with a two-hour storytelling event. In the first hour I told tales from Dancing on Blades (once again, we had a fairly full house of about 100 people), and then handed the stage over to two Csángó tradition-bearers, elder ladies who still carry the oral tradition of folktales, and speak in an archaic Hungarian dialect. Their presentation was lively and lovely (and occasionally hilarious, since they were telling Jesus and St. Peter legends), but I had to work hard to follow what they were saying. It was definitely a unique cultural experience. And fun.

St. Anne's Lake in a volcanic
crater
In the midst of all the telling, I also had time to play tourist a little bit. I visited the former home of Hungary's famous storyteller and story collector Benedek Elek (I would not be a storyteller without him!), the Lake of Saint Anne (according to legend, fairies used to live in it, until they were chased away by the sound of church bell - there's an amazing story about it), Bran Castle (which is a nice historic site, with absolutely nothing to do with Dracula), the Castle of Déva (subject of our most famous folk ballad in which a woman is killed so that the castle can be built), and other famous sites of history and culture. Many of the Hungarian and Székely folktales I read and love were collected in these towns and all over this landscape, which made every river, every mountain, and every castle special, and every forest filled with fairies. Transylvania is still a land full of history, beauty, and tradition. 
(After this, if one more person asks me if I have met Dracula over there, I'm going to beat them with a folktale collection.)

In addition to the travels, I was also grateful for the chance to bring Pályuk Anna's tales to audiences in Transylvania (she was Transcarpathian). The stories took a new life, worked their magic, and, hopefully, will travel on to new places in people's memory. 

I hope to return again soon. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Trickster Jesus and corn spirits (Following folktales around the world 45. - Guatemala)

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!


According to our ancestors
Folk texts from Guatemala and Honduras
Mary Shaw
Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of Oklahoma, 1971.

This volume contains stories from Mayan storytellers (and lorekeepers), mixed in with a few Carib and Jicaque texts. All were collected by linguists working with various groups in Guatemala (crossing over to Honduras and Belize). The book contains a total of 103 stories in the original language and English translation, as well as a long and detailed introduction, and copious footnotes and references. Stories (of which most are folktales, with the occasional myth, historical legend, and folk belief) are grouped by language, divided by illustrations. It is a detailed and informative collection, with a lot of good stories.

Highlights


I was struck by the legend of the Food of the Holy Earth. It told that when people first began to cultivate the land, the earth cried out and complained, and trees and plants that were cut down screamed in pain. They went to God to complain about the people torturing them, and God made them a deal: They would feed His children, but in exchange the earth can eat them when they are dead. The teller claimed that diseases and disasters happen because people put their dead in coffins and mausoleums, instead of giving them back to the earth as agreed.
I also found  the story of the Man and the Buzzard interesting; in it, a lazy farmer switched places (bodies) with a buzzard, because he thought it would be easier to be a bird. He was wrong.
The true highlights of the volume, however, were the local Biblical legends. In one, Jesus Christ's name got tagged onto a local trickster; the story told about how he repeatedly outwitted the Jews that persecuted him (once by throwing chili into their eyes and running away). In the origin story of the copal, two men visited Jesus' pregnant sister (!) and brought incense; the smoke colored the face of one of them black (a picture of the Three Wise Men?). Also Biblical was the legend of Adam (sic) and the Flood, in which not only rain fell from the sky, but also resin, and it trapped hiding people underground - a story explaining urn burials unearthed by people in the mountains. The origin of domesticated animals was explained with Jesus planting the bones of animals his brothers (!) had eaten, and reviving them after three days. Some escaped the farm, however, and those became the wild animals....

Connections

Obviously, there was a race between animals (Frog and Deer this time), and multiple Magic Flights (with objects thrown over the shoulder, and a princess born from a grapefruit). There were also common tale types such as Open, sesame!, and the Contest between magicians.
Quetzal, Guatemala's
national symbol
Last week in Salvador there was a myth about God hiding the corn from people, and the leafcutter ants finding it; that story was included in this volume too. The Guatemalan version also noted that since corn is the most important food source, and it has a soul, hiding it meant all other food ceased to exist as well. Similar to Honduras, Guatemala had its vengeful female demons too - a girl that made men disappear if they treated their wives badly, and a woman with horse legs and horse eyes who lured men into the river if they beat their wives. I was reminded of North American myths by The serpent and the angels of lightning, in which angels shot (with guns) at a snake that caused rivers to overflow (in the North, they are Thunderbirds). In the legend, a mortal hunter joined them too, to take part in defending the world.
Illustration from the book
I was reminded of Loki by the legend where the three goddesses of corn chained the giant Sipac under a mountain. He had been moving mountains around, and selling land to the whites, so they tricked him into captivity - whenever he tugs on his chains, he causes earthquakes. And talking about earth: After Thailand, I once again encountered a mythical person who could swim in the soil as if it was water. This time, it was Yew Achi, the evil, cannibal king of the Quiche.
Among the tricksters, Pedro Urdemalas made an appearance (here called Pedro Tecomate, Pedro Gourd), as well as Rabbit, who once again fell for the usual tar baby trick (but eventually pawned it off on Coyote). Rabbit was the protagonist of various trickster classics such as "Trickster seeks endowments", and "Trickster rides his enemy like a horse." The suffering party was usually Cougar, Tiger, or Lion.

Where to next?
Belize!