Monday, February 13, 2017

Visiting the warrior goddess (Following folktales around the world 12. - Samoa)

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!

Samoa was not an easy choice. The first two books I found were intriguing, but written by linguists and ethnomusicologists who collected tales on the side. I learned a lot from them, but they only had a few stories, and a whole lot of scientific text to dig through. The third one proved to be a lot more reader-friendly, so I chose that for today's post. 

Tala o le Vavau
The myths, legends, and customs of Old Samoa
C. Steubel & Bro. Herman
Polynesian Press, 1987.

This edition of the book claims that the stories had been completely re-written by Samoan scholars, which is definitely a plus (especially considering that aitu spirit tales are still grouped under "Demons"). The book is bilingual, presenting the stories in Samoan in the first half, and in English in the second. It contains 34 stories, and a sizable chunk of "customs" at the end (things such as weddings, social ranks, crime and punishment, etc.). It was a short read, but an interesting one.


Picture from here
The legend of Nafanua, one of Samoa's most popular stories, is presented in two versions in the book. Nafanua is a war goddess, daughter of the lord of the Underworld, who is sent up to the islands to liberate a group of people living in slavery. It is a pretty epic story, going back to Nafanua's great-grandfather, and involving her killing not only her enemies, but also some of her allies in her frenzy... Nafanua, by the way, is one of the few Pacific women featured on Rejected Princesses, you can find her entry here.
One of my favorite stories in the book was the legend of Tiitii-a-Talaga. In this, Tiitii followed his father to see where he worked in secret, and found that his gardens were inside the mountain where the god of earthquakes lived. The boy fought the god, defeated him in wrestling, and then stole fire from him to give it to the people. Later, he also killed a giant octopus. Another intriguing story was that of King Mailetoa, a cannibal king who ate two strong young men a day, until his own son offered himself as sacrifice, changing the father's mind. The story reminded me of the Persian legend of Zahhak a little.
There were also smaller things I liked in the stories. For example, I really liked the goddess who picked a husband based on how well her name harmonized with his - she was called Mataiteite, and she chose a man named Matatalalo. Another fun moment was the one where a giant octopus spirit moved into a cave by a stream; when a pregnant woman went into labor while bathing, the spirit and all its companions fled, horrified by the sight of childbirth...


There was a part in the legend of Nafanua that reminded me of the myth of Eros and Psyche. A girl was visited at night by her husband, but he always left before dawn; one day she decided not to wake him, and in the morning light she saw that he had a cock's comb. The husband fled, and so did the girl.
It should be self-evident at this point that Samoa, like all the other islands, also has a legend about the origin of coconuts. In this one, a giant eel stalks a girl with his love, until he is finally captured and beheaded - and from the head grows the first coconut palm (no Maui involved this time). I also found a version of the popular story of the origin of the kava plant, in which people recognize the effects of kava by watching a rat chew on its roots and get drunk. And, of course, this collection, like most others from Oceania, contained a legend about where people's spirits travel after death.

Where to next?
Next week we arrive to New Zealand!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Epic Day 2017 - Orlando Furioso

(This was my fifth Epic Day in Cotati. You can read about the previous four here.)

I was incredibly excited when I saw the results of our Epic Day vote: It was a close call, but the majority decision fell on Ludovico Ariosto's 16th century Italian Renaissance epic, Orlando Furioso (titled in various translations as The Fury of Orlando, or the more impressive Raging Roland). I have told a small part of this epic before, and I always wanted to get more into it. Epic Day gave me the perfect incentive to dive in, and explore the world of Orlando in its full 46-canto, 600-page prose-translation glory.

(And then read parts of it in the Hungarian and the English verse translation as well, just for good measure.)

Telling Orlando Furioso is like trying to do an oral performance of the first three books of Game of Thrones (ASOIAF) from memory. There are dozens of storylines and characters, and each canto (chapter) jumps between them, leaving our heroes between life and death in the most inopportune moments (Ariosto was an early master of the cliffhanger). On top of that, the story is full of side quests and inserted tales that have nothing to do with the main plot, but heroes keep getting sidetracked anyway, so it is often hard to tell what is going to be relevant later, and what is merely embellishment (not that embellishment is not great - one of those side quests involves a knight who has an early prototype of a gun, and he wreaks havoc on the battlefield until Orlando takes him down). Since we only had 17 storytellers and one day to do the whole thing, some parts needed to be edited out. We still ended up with 31 cantos told in almost exactly 5 hours (not counting the breaks).

So, why take on telling something incredibly complex and difficult like Orlando Furioso?
Because it's awesome, that's why.

The story takes place in the time of Charlemagne, but was written at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Ariosto has a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards romances of chivalry, and he does his best to mix adventures and drama with a healthy dose of humor, and a whole lot of magic. In addition, he had a very enlightened take on the role of women in the story. There is a whole lineup of strong, smart, independent women, and every once in a while the narrator himself goes on mini-rants about how women should be allowed to have the same sexual freedom as men, and how a female knight should not be judged based on her beauty, etc. It is a pretty darn feminist story, in many ways. And in other ways, it is ridiculously entertaining.
Orlando Furioso has everything you want from a good medieval epic. It has knights and ladies, epic siege and battle scenes, love and loss, sorcerers and wizards, sea monsters, magic castles, the occasional Greek god or goddess, and the main attraction: This is the story that gave birth to the hippogriff (you are welcome, J. K. Rowling). It also has an amazing lineup of interesting and likable characters.

The story in a nutshell: Charlemagne and his Christian knights are at war with Agramant, King of Africa, and his Saracen army. Charlemagne is somewhat disadvantaged because his best knights have gone off on various quests; a bunch of them (as well as some of the Saracen champions) have fallen in love with Angelica, Princess of Cathay, and they spend their time chasing her up and down the continent. Angelica, not having a fancy for any of them, gets away in various smart ways, until she finds a guy she actually likes. When Orlando (one of the lovestruck puppies) finds out she has been married, he loses his wits and goes berserk, rampaging all over Europe and Africa. Astolfo, Prince of England, and owner of the above mentioned hippogriff, is dispatched to the Moon to recover Orlando's wits (because all things lost can be found on the Moon). Meanwhile we also have Bradamante, the legendary and mighty female knight, and her beloved Ruggiero, a champion of the Saracen army. They are destined for each other, but keep missing each other due to various circumstances, even though half the cast is working on getting them together (including the sorceress Melissa, the Original Fangirl). Eventually things work out for more or less everyone, but not before a whole lot of elaborate (and sometimes convoluted) adventures happen.
I had two favorite people in this story: Astofo, who really just wants to ride a flying horse and see the world, and Marfisa. Marfisa is Ruggiero's long-lost twin sister, who grew up to be a female knight on the Saracen side. She is, by all intents and purposes, a Muslim female warrior of color, and she does a whole lot of epic things in this story. She is also somewhat queered - at one point she volunteers to "pleasure ten women" as part of a challenge, and another time Ariosto notes that she had "no interest in romance or marriage." She becomes a friend and fierce protector of Bradamante, her eventual sister-in-law, and the two ladies do some truly mighty things together.

As for telling the story: It was definitely an adventure. Because of the editing process, and some people only reading their parts of the story, we occasionally had gaps in the plot that needed to be filled in on the fly. It became a communal game, a truly collaborative form of storytelling: When someone forgot something, someone else picked up the tale and filled in the blanks; when someone got lost, we discussed what we missed over the salad bar during the breaks. I originally picked canto 34 (Astolfo's trip to the Moon), but then also took on the last 4 cantos, volunteering to wrap up the various storylines in the end. After some people stepped back, and some things got edited out, I ended up with the last 7 cantos. In the end, it took about 45 minutes for me to wrap everything up with a neat little bow. It was a great experience, and I really enjoyed doing the whole "Remember this guy? Whatever happened to him?..." bit.

This, sadly, might have been my last Epic Day for a while (at least in California). The silver lining on that sad fact is that it was amazing. I am happy that I got to immerse myself in Ariosto's magical world in the company of some truly great storytellers. I hope I'll get to do it again sometime.

Monday, February 6, 2017

East of the Sun, West of the Clam (Following folktales around the world 11. - Tonga)

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!

Tonga is made up of 169 islands, but only 36 of them are inhabited. 

Po Fananga
Folk tales of Tonga
Tupou Posesi Fauna
Friendly Islands Bookshop, 1982.

I was really happy to find a folktale collection written and translated by a Tongan author, and published by a Tongan publisher. The volume was practically falling apart in my hands, but it was very much worth the read. It contains eleven traditional folktales, and one story made up by the author herself - so much like a folktale that I would have never picked it out of a lineup. Even more interesting was the author herself. Tuopu sounds like a remarkable lady. She was raised in the Tongan tradition, and learned the tales from her grandmother; on top of being a grandmother of sixteen herself, she was also an accomplished lecturer in Tongan folklore, and a helper to all visitors interested in it. She came from an old Tongan family, one of her ancestors being a famous blind (!!!) navigator named Kahomovailahi, who could navigate the ocean by dipping his hand in the water and feeling the currents (your move, Moana).


Pretty pretty giant clam
One of the most beautiful (and most intriguing) tales in the collection was titled Daughter of a Clam. It told of a woman who accidentally gave birth to a giant clam. The clam-daughter was raised in a pool where the son of the king used to bathe, and she fell in love with him. When he was not looking, she sucked on his bathing sponge - and got pregnant (I kid you not). In time, the clam delivered a beautiful (human) daughter with whom the prince later fell in love. Incest was narrowly avoided by the grandparents stepping in. My favorite part was the one where the daughter smashed the clam against some rocks, and her beautiful (human) mother stepped out of it - she was cursed until someone who really loved her broke the shell with tears in her eyes. She was saved by her daughter, not the prince.
I also loved Tupou's own tale, The daughter of the Rainbow. It followed folktale motifs and plots, and flowed beautifully. I loved the part where two boys descended into the under-water Otherworld, where their grandmother helped them fish the soul of their murdered father up, and bring him back to life.


Tongan royal wedding, 1976. 
I really enjoyed the tale titled Son of the Sun, which reminded me of several other stories. It began with a girl who was in love with the Sun, and she bathed in the rays of the rising sun until she got pregnant (see also: Daughter of the Sun, by Italo Calvino). The boy she gave birth to grew up, and went to visit his father before his wedding (Phaethon). The Sun gave him two presents, one of fortune and one of misfortune, telling him not to open them too soon. Of course he did, he opened Misfortune, and the winds roaring out of it blew him out to sea (Odysseus) (also Pandora). Eventually everything turned out well in the end - they even managed to use Misfortune to clean up after the wedding feast.
Another familiar motif I knew from the Maui legends - it featured a girl who had relations with a giant eel. Eventually, the eel was killed, and from its buried head grew the first coconut palm.
There was a version of the ever-depressing "mother killed me, father ate me" folktale type - a jealous brother killed his spoiled sister and buried her in various places. The wind carried her voice to her parents and told the sad story; the girl was eventually brought back to life.

Where to next?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Tiny stop in Tuvalu (Following folktales around the world 10. - Tuvalu)

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!

Today, we arrive to Polynesia - and also to the first stop on the journey where I could not find a whole published folktale collection. I read two articles instead. 

Four folk tales from the Ellice Islands
R. G. Roberts
The Journal of the Polynesian Society 66/4 (1957), pp. 365-373.

TE ATU TUVALU: A short history of the Ellice Islands
R. G. Roberts
The Journal of the Polynesian Society 67/4 (1958), pp. 394-423.

Both articles were written back when Tuvalu was still called the Ellice Islands, and under a British protectorate. Atu Tuvalu, according to one of them literally means "cluster of eight", because even though the group is made up of nine islands, one of them was uninhabited at the time. The first article contains four folktales; the second begins with a historical introduction, and then uses indigenous oral history and legends to describe the discovery and population of the islands, the voyages their inhabitants took, the family trees of their chiefs, and their pre-colonial history in general. The texts are full of names and places, and inhabitants of nearby islands, such as Samoa and Tonga, also make a frequent appearance.


This could also go under Connections, but I really liked the tale that told about a boy and his special relationship to the Moon. As a baby, he would only sleep if he was put out in the moonlight; as he grew older, he decided that he wanted to live with the Moon. His father and his men boarded a ship with the boy and sailed to the edge of the ocean where the Moon rises, passing all kinds of magical islands. As the Moon rose, the father tossed the boy up - you can still see him in the shapes on the full moon's surface.
Another enchanting story was that of Sinafakalua and Sinafofolangi története - two girls who were best friends, despite one being the daughter of the Sun and the Sky, and the other the daughter of a man-eating giant. They played together until one day the giant father caught them at it, and ate the girl from the sky. Seeing his daughter's despair, however, he regretted his deed, threw up the other girl, and brought her back to life.


Not related to the tales, but look
how cool Tuvalu's coinage is
Once again I found a folktale where a shape-shifting spirit took the place of a wife, while the true wife gave birth to her children on a distant island, in exile. It was especially amusing that the spirit swallowed rocks to appear to be pregnant... Once again there was a sky-high tree, except here people were fleeing up on it and not down, peeing down as they went to make the tree slippery and impossible for the witch (who was chasing them) to climb.

Where to next?

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!