Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Zerzura

Phew! I almost dropped the challenge on the last day! I have been busy.
But, fortunately enough, part of what kept me busy starts with a Z. So, it all works out in the end.

Zerzura is a legendary lost oasis somewhere in the Sahara. It is one of the most famous lost cities in world literature, particularly because it is featured in one of the most amazing tales of the Arabian Nights.

But, let's tart from the top.

A year ago I was working as a screenwriter for an online game called Nadirim. My job was to take stories from the Arabian Nights and other related oral traditions, and turn them into parts of the game. Well, one of the stories that I have always found fascinating was the City of Brass - basically, it is the story of an expedition sent out by the Caliph of Damascus to hunt for djinn sealed into bottles by King Solomon. It is Indiana Jones meets Arabian Nights meets... well. Djinn. The expedition is lead by a soldier, a diplomat, and a sheik who is kind of an archaeologist, and they do end up finding the City of Brass, following an ancient book called the Book of Hidden Pearls. This text, by the way, actually exists, and have been used by countless treasure hunters in the past centuries for it contains descriptions of lost cities and hidden treasures all over North Africa. It mentions the oasis of Zerzura, or, the Oasis of Birds, that have been associated with the city in the Arabian Nights.

The story, however, does not stop here. The Hunt for Zerzura was a series of expeditions at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries - German, British, French, everyone wanted to find it first. Among them, a Hungarian gentleman called Almásy László - generally known from the movie as "the English patient". He brought an airplabe into a car race, and enede up finding wadi Abd-el-Malik, one of the three wadis that form the rain oasis in the heart of the Gilf Kebir in southern Lybia - a rain oasis that appears and disappears according to rainfall, is on a bird migration route, and is also known as Zerzura.

I took the three stories - the book, the Arabian Nights, and Almásy's journal - and turned them into a full-hour storytelling show, titled The Book of Hidden Pearls. I have been telling the three parts separately, but did not have an opportunity to do the whole show on stage... until this weekend, when I had the honor of being invited to the Connecticut Storytelling Festival as a performer!

I was excited and nervous at the same time. I have worked a lot with this story, and it is one of my favorites ever; but it has a lot of details that need to be done just right, and one has to keep the timing, and... just, generally, a first full performance always feels like a jump in the deep end. The performance space was pretty, and comfortably small; we had a full house of about 30 or 40 people. I shared a 90 minute session with Bob Reiser, an amazing storyteller who started the show with his tale of the civil rights movement, and was a very tough act to follow!

Finally, it was my turn to tell the tale of Zerzura. At this point the smiling faces and the atmosphere of the festival had dissolved my nervousness, and I was able to just sit down, look my listeners in the eye, and tell my story with the "you are all gonna love this because this story is awesome!" attitude. That is one of the many reasons why I only tell stories I absolutely love: they give you a sense of "I must share this with you!" and the enthusiasm takes care of the rest. The telling went really well, I certainly enjoyed every moment of it, and in the end, people stood up and applauded. And what made this experience even better, I kept getting questions from people all day later on about Zerzura, and the City of Brass, and Almásy, and all in all, how much of it was actually true? I enjoyed these conversations immensely, and was happy that I could share a glimpse into a different culture, a different time, and a different dream.

I really need to turn this into a book right now.

In the meantime, happy A to Z to everyone!!! It has been a lot of fun blogging with you, see you all next year!
Next stop: More posts about the CT festival. Yay!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y is for Young Storytellers

Just a short note on how awesome it is to work with young storytellers.

I have been mentoring students at the university school for a semester now, and telling to several classes between 2nd and 11th grade - actually only in the second semester of this schoolyear, I have accumulated 15 hours of mentoring, and 32 hours of school storytelling. Phew! Fortunately, I did take breaks in-between.

Teaching young storytellers is new to me, but I am quickly learning that it is one of the most fun things a grown-up storyteller can spend her time with. I do one-on-one mentoring sessions since 5th and 6th graders ar busy ladies, and their schedules don't match up. These sessions are mainly spent with them telling me tales and me staring in amazamenet at how great they are without ever being "coached". One of the young ladies is quickly becoming very good at telling personal stories, and every time she comes to class she has a new story that she would like to share, already crafter into a neat little performance, with gestures, voices and all. The other young lady is the exact opposite: she enjoys telling mythology, and fills in all the gaps from her own imaginations. Her stories are full of vivid descriptions, colors, personalities and feelings, smells, tastes, and small details that make everything make a lot more sense than in the original tale (Theseus forgetting Ariadne? Clearly he was just not that into her. Marriage is a lifetime commitment, after all) (King Minos was melodramatic, and had servants for ridiculous things) (and the Minotaur smelled like rust).

Every child is born with the natural ability of telling stories. And then there are some who just simply cannot NOT tell. All the time. To everyone. While climbing on chairs and running around the table. The table is supposed to be Athens, by the way.


Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for Xi Wangmu and her Peaches

Mainly the peaches.

Xi Wangmu is the Mother of the West, the goddess who resides on Mount Kunlun in western China, ruling over her magical garden where the Peaches of Immortality ripen every three thousand years. She serves the peaches to her guests and holds magical feasts in celebration of the special occasion. Three thousand years of waiting, that has to be one special party...

... unless the Monkey King crashes it, of course.
Why? Because he was not invited, that's why. And Xi Wangmu in her eternal life and wisdom should have known that not inviting the Trickster with the capital T and the magical bo staff is not going to do anyone any good. Because the only thing worse than Sun Wukong crashing your party is... a drunk Sun Wokung crashing your party. No, seriously, trust me on this one.

The result? Monkey is immortal. Also, one epic story from beginning to end, usually known as Journey to the West (Xi Jou Ji... oh look, another X! I coulda started with this one). You can read the original, read the BetterMyths version, or go watch Saiyuki.

Hmm. Now I want to eat some peaches.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

W is for the Winged Wolf

(You have all been witing for this all month haven't you.)

All right, so here it is: yes we have a Winged Wolf. Most Hungarians don't even know this, it is not one of our most popular folktales, in fact, it took me a long time to dig it up after someone mentioned it in a book but never referenced it (remember kids, citations citations frakkin citations). Finally I found it in a folktale collection from the western part of Hungary, so there. We have at least one recorded sighting of a winged wolf!

What you should know about the winged wolf: it can fly (du-uh!), its hide is bulletproof except for a spot under its left wing, and it can breathe fire.
Yes, you read that right.

In the folktale, the wolf first shows up as a threat. There is a triple fork in the road where someone out of sheer humanity set up some signs: To the left, if you go this way you will live but your horse will die. To the right, if you go this way you will die, but your horse will live (whoever would choose that?). In the middle, if you go this way, the winged wolf will kill you.

Guess which road people are choosing. That's right. Makes for a better story.

The catch? The winged wolf is actually quite a smart creature, human speech and all. Once defeated, it becomes the hero's new mount and carries him for the rest of the adventure; it even gives some Dr. House-like grumpy misogynistic advice every once in a while.
Because, who would not want to ride a fire-breathing winged wolf into battle?

That is how we roll in Hungary.

(Go ahead, Google "winged wolf", see what happens.)

V is for a very short post on Veils, and a great song!

Three of them, specifically.

The Veil of Maya in Hinduism is the symbol of illusion, dreaming, and duality. It cloacks true reality from us, replacing it with illusions, distracting colors and shapes. The goddess Maya is also the protector of the universe who possesses a part of every other god's and goddess' power. I don't know about you, I like illusions.

The féth fíada is the magic mist or veil that cloaks the fae world and its inhabitants from mortal eyes. In one of my favorite Irish stories Eithne lost her veil as she was bathing in a stream, and after that she could never find her way home to her own world; it was invisible to her eyes, and she to theirs. She became a nun and took on Christianity before she died.

And then there is a third one, called The Wedding Veil of the Proud Princess, written by Lucy Maud Montgomery in her book The Story Girl, which is largely responsible for me becoming a professional storyteller (go figure). It is a tale about the princess who is too proud to marry any mortal man; she waits for a knight that defeats everyone. Well, she ends up marrying a mysterious victor in black armor... read the rest for yourselves!
This story always reminds me of this song which is based on a similar tale:

Der Letzte Tanz (Schandmaul)

One of my favorite songs. That's all!


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Ullr, Norse god of Probable Awesomeness

Another short one (I know everyone is tired of me saying that because I am clearly a graphomaniac).

This one is about one of my favorite Norse gods, Ullr. It looks like I have a strange fascination with gods we know almost nothing about (because then you can make up your own stuff about them). We know a bunch of tidbits and pieces about him that you can go read for yourself on Wikipedia. The ones that matter to me are:

1. He is the god of archery. (We could stop right here, sold.) He also happens to be the god of skiing, hunting, fighting, and winter. You don't get any more Viking than that.
2. He is handsome.
3. He is Sif's (and, according to some theories, Egill's) son, and Thor's stepson.
4. He ruled over the gods for a while when Odin was in exile.

And now I shall leave you all to make up the rest for yourselves. Have sweet dreams about handsome Norse archer gods.

Monday, April 23, 2012

T is for the Trickster Teakettle

I have a friend who refers to himself as "purebreed teakettle" on every possible online forum and media. Once upon a time I promised him a story about a magic teakettle; he is the biggest trickster I know, and when you put "Trickster" and "Teakettle" in one sentence - you get Bumbuku! At least in Japan.

The story starts with an old priest who is very fond of drinking tea; one day he finds an old, rusty teakettle in a secondhand shop, and he feels like the kettle is more than just rust. He takes it home, polishes it up, and then decides he is going to boil some water in to make tea for himself and his two young pupils. But as soon as the kettle startes getting hot... it suddenly sprouts a tail! And four tiny feet! And the head of a Tanuki dog! (very often trasnlated as "badger", but much more than that).
"OUCH!" yells the kettle and jumps off the fireplace "It burns! It burns!" and starts skittering around the room.
As surprised as the old priest is, he yells at his pupils: "Catch the kettle! Don't let it get away!"
The pupils chase the kettle down with a broomstick, but by the time they catch it, the head, the tail and the four tiny feet are gone. It looks like an ordinaty kettle, and not a kettle crossbred with a badger and a turtle...
The old priests decides the kettle must have been bewitched (duh!) and he does not want such a troublesome utensil around, so he sells it for a low price to the first junkman who comes around.
The junkman takes the kettle home; that night he is awakened by a voice calling to him, and when he opens his eyes, there is the kettle, with the head and the tail and the four tiny feet. They make a deal: if the junkman treats the tanuki right and never puts him on the fire, Bumbuku ('good luck') will help him make his fortune.
And this is how their show, Bumbuku The Magic Teakettle, is born: people pay good money and come from far away to see the tanuki do his magic tricks. The junkman grew rich; and as time went by, he felt like he had enough money to stop making the kettle perform. He offered Bumbuku to take him to the temple where he can live in peace and quiet. Bumbuku was afraid that the old priest was going to put him over the fire again, but the junkman went with him and explained everything to the priest.
The end of the story? They say Bumbuku still lives in the temple; they feed him rice cakes, and they never, ever put him over the fire!

I don't know about you, but I would love a pet tanuki that turns into a kettle. How cute is that! Tanuki in Japanese tales are usually tricksters; but in this story, Bumbuku uses his tricks for something good for a change. Kids love this story!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for Ship, of the Land-and-Water kind

Once again shhort post, I am not even blaming it on the thesis this time, because it is about my thesis.

One of the stories featured in my thesis in Folktale Type AaTh 513 - The Extraordinary Companions. This is the folktale where the hero (who usually is either poor, dumb, rich and spoiled, lazy, or simply a jerk) sets out on a quest and ends up running into people with strange magical abilities who then help him out until he kills the giant, saves the princess, gets the treasure, etc.

In the past few weeks I have collected 23 versions of this folktale from many countries around the world: Italy, Sweden, Thailand, Korea, Iceland, USA, France, India, Mongolia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ireland, Germany, Norway, Ukraine and Russia - and I have no doubt that there is more of it hidden in story collections and folklore articles.

What really fascinating though, apart from the universal nature of this story, is the variety of superpowers that are featured in it. In my 23 versions I found 28 (!) different abilites, from overkill ones like "he can run as fast as lightning" and "he knows everything" down to weirdness like "he can pee a waterfall". I made a list of these,  and also made a list of quests that need to be accomplished, from "rescue princess from evil sorcerer" to "defeat crickets that are as big as elephants".

Fun!

What seems really interesting to me is that literature claims this story type is directly related to the myth of the Argonauts - a ship full of people with magical abilities with a useless leader going to get rich and ending up rescuing a princess. Pretty accurate if you ask me (yes, I don't like Jason, but then again I don't really like Medea either). Seems legit to me, especially because the story almost always features a magical flying ship.

It is also a great story to teach teamwork, and talk about finding ways to use your special talents effectively. I'll muse about it later.

Not I have to go watch Legend of Korra...
... I mean, continue working on my thesis.

Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Rapunzel and Rudaba

I wonder if there is at least one professional storyteller out there who likes Disney's Tangled.
I mean, apart from me.
I think it's awesome.


I have had problems with Disney movies in the past, but usually not because of the good old "that-is-not-how-the-original-story-goes" argument. Stories change, adapt, and modernize, that is very natural in oral tradition, nothing wrong with creatively playing around. If it is done well, I'm all for it.
And Tangled, in my humble storyteller opinion, was done really well.
The surprising part?
It is not even as far from the original as other Disney movies.

For one, the original Grimm story (as well as its many variations) raises a whole series of questions that will come up when you tell it to children. What happened to her original parents? What did she do in the tower all day? How did the witch get her into the tower in the first place? Why did the prince leave her there after they first met? (in fact, in the Grimm version, he leaves her there and just keeps visiting until she, um, realizes her dresses are too small around the waist). Disney found clever and humorous ways of explaining all that, and I know that folktales do not need to be explained, but try telling that to fourth grade, because they will want to know.

As for the characters, Rapunzel was cute, and the guy... well. I'd take a rogue over a paladin any time. Bring it.

Talking about that, by the way: one of my favorite tales to tell is the Persian legend of Zal and Rudaba, wich is generally seen as the earliest known version of the Rapunzel tale (also known as AaTh 310 for those folklorically inclined). The whole story is utterly fascinating (trying not to go off on a fangirlish tangent here), but my favorite part is the classical image: when the lady, Rudaba, lets down her long (black!) braid from her balcony, the hero just kisses the braid and says: "I wouldn't hurt you, I brought a rope." Hell yeah.

All in all, I never liked Rapunzel as a child - I was just not interested. I would probably have never read so many different versions of it if I had not seen the Disney movie and experienced how it echoed across the storytelling world last year. I still don't tell the Grimm tale, ony the Persian legend - but I learned that some good humor and creativity can make a good story that is modern and at the same time true to the original.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Queen Sarolt

Technically, she was not even a queen. We are talking about the 10th century AD - Hungary had a few decades to go before it would officially be accepted as a Christian kingdom. Sarolt was the daughter of the man who ruled over Transylvania; the mother of our first king, István I; and the wife of Chief "I Am Rich Enough To Follow Two Gods" Géza, who knew Christianity was useful, but decided his son would be the one to deal with actually ruling as a Christian king. Sarolt had five children, three daughters and two sons, but we don't know much about all of them, it was more than 1000 years ago, give us a break.

(Sarolt's name means "white weasel", by the way. Some sources also mention her sister, Karold, which means "black weasel". If I ever have two daughters...)

Sarolt was no role model for a Christian queen that's for sure. Even though she was a legendary beauty, Catholic sources note that she "drank beyond measure," "rode a horse like a soldier" (duh, we are talking half a century after the half-nomadic Hungarian tribes arrived from the east) and that once in her anger she struck a man dead with her bare fist.
You don't argue with a queen like that.

As Géza grew older, apparently Sarolt took over more and more of his role in ruling over their kingdom-in-the-making. When Géza died, a fight broke out between his son István who should have inherited the throne according to the Western Christian customs of succession (oldest son as heir) - and Koppány, the oldest male relative who had a claim to the throne according to the old ways. Koppány demanded Sarolt for a wife, but got a war instead, and ended up in four neat pieces nailed to the gates of four major Hungarian cities.
"So, guys, we take on this love religion, and whoever doesn't agree we kill them, right?"

(We have a rock opera about this whole thing. No, really.)

We don't know what happened to Sarolt after her son became István The First. She probably was a mother figure to reckon with...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

P is for Puli dogs

So, I took a look at my blog statistics and it looks like the search term that brings in the most people is puli dog (go figure, I don't even remember when I wrote about them). So, because they are one of my favorite topics within the broad realm of "Hungarian curiosities", here is a post about puli dogs.

(Picture on the left features a puli mid-jump. The lolling pink tongue signifies the front end.)

Puli is a Hungarian breed; they are basically mid-sized hyperactive bundles of barks and hair that look like the result of an affair between a mop and a rastafarian. They are highly intelligent, bred for herding sheep and barking at things in a very loud high pitched voice.

Puli have recently gained world-wide fame because Mark Zuckerberg (yeah, the Facebook guy) owns one. His name is Beast, and he is a white puli with his very own Facebook page and 7000+ followers. He looks very fluffy on his pictures; as rastafarians no doubt already know, the awesome dreadlocks actually need a lot of work.

I had pulies before it was cool. My grandparents used to breed them so when I was growing up there was always one white mother dog and litters of tiny dogs around. My grandparents still own one, her name is Morzsa and she is a rare brown colored puli (puli dogs usually come in black or white).

There is a Hungarian folk legend that says that when Jesus walked the earth, the only person who gave him water to drink was a shepherd. His sheep were scattered all over the place but he still took the time to go to the well and bring some water, even though he did not know who the weary traveler really was. In return for his kindness, Jesus picked up a bone, tossed it into the air, and turned it into a puli dog that started barking as soon as it landed, and ran to herd the sheep.

If you have ever been on a family hiking trip with a sheepdog involved, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Mouse Deer licks back

Brief A to Z intermission, and a follow-up on the REAL HUNGER GAMES.

I went back to 4th grade today, and was happy to discover that the Hunger Games was nothing but a light ripple on the surface of the eternal entity that is Mouse Deer. Katniss forgotten, they demanded Kantchil tales like they were the last morsel of food on planet Earth.

Happy to have an answer for their demand, I first told them the story of Mouse Deer and the Tar Baby. Now they have heard this one before with Anansi (any trickster at any point in time can be tricked by these three simple steps), but they didn't remember or didn't care, because they thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. I like to do Mouse Deer tales because they give me a chance to be completely silly and speak "modern" at the same time.

Once this one was over they demanded more Mouse Deer. I started on the Moss-covered rock, but I only got as far as Anansi's name and I had a riot on my hands - "We want Kantchil NOT ANANSI!". I only survived without being lynched because I told him Mouse Deer will show up later. Geez.
I have only told the MCR once, years ago - but theit absolute enthusiasm was rubbing off on me, and resulted in a telling that was tons of fun! Complete with silly voices, gestures, weird sounds, and of course, the dramatic entrance of Kantchil, at which point one of the boys punched the air: "SPY VERSUS SPY!". We discussed the awesomeness of a trickster vs trickster showdown, and from that point on the cheered loudly through the entire second half of the story until Mouse Deer triumphed. I did not dare tell the tale any other way for fear of my own personal safety.

All is well in the world now. The Hunger Games are over. Kantchil won.
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O is for It's Over

And done! The second Holnemvolt Festival happened this weekend, and from what I can tell from photos, articles, Skype conversations and the occasional peek through a webcam, it was awesome!

There shall be videos up soon(ish). In the meantime, for those of you who don't speak English, there are beautiful pictures!
You can see some of them on our Facebook page.

Some others can be seen here.

I am way too tired right now to write; I was up at 6am all weekend, checking in on the festival in-between storytelling sessions. It was exciting, and amazing, and exhausting, and I find myself already planning for the next one...

I'll be back tomorrow with a real post!

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for New Orleans and its amazing storytellers!

And by New Orleans, I also mean Louisiana in general, it just does not have the good manners of starting with an N. Oh well. Once again, I am bending the A to Z rules to be able to blog about something I would have blogged about anyway!

As for storytelling in Louisiana: I probably don't have to tell anyone how amazing their stories are! There is my dear friend Angela Davis, who visited the Holnemvolt Festival in 2011 and people still talk about her performances. Then there is storytelling master Gay Ducey, whom I have met when I was an intern at the International Storytelling Center, and listened to her tales for 5 days straight, and loved every minute of it.

And, more recently, there is our very own Danielle Bellone!

Danielle had her Finest Hour performance this Saturday. For those of you who did not graduate from the ETSU Storytelling Master's program: Finest Hour is the performance you do at the end of your practicum schoolwork, before you graduate. You organize a storytelling event, invite teachers, classmates, friends and family, and dazzle them with your very best.

And she did!

I have told with Danielle before, quite often, and I have to tell you up front, she is an absolutely amazing storyteller. She is great with kids (and always has something up her sleeve that sticks with them, as a gift to the teachers... it is usually in the form of a song, simple, repeptitive, and gloriously annoying on the long run). She is also great with adults; she uses language beautifully, smiles like the sun, and chooses her stories very, very carefully, so they fit her like a glove.
She took the concept of the Finest Hour very seriously.

It was a great set of stories! She told a personal story about her childhood, and made us laugh; she told a Haitian folktale and made us sing; she told a Greek myth and she made us cry; she told a tall tale and made us groan; she told a great piece of her poetry and made us sigh. She ended with the story of the Light Princess, and she made us laugh, cry, groan and sigh, and fall in love with the story from beginning to end.
Many storytellers underestimate the importance of story choice; Danielle doesn't. You can tell that she loves the tales she tells, and that is what gives them that extra polish, and makes them shine.

Also, we had jambalaya after the peformance, and that was great too. Not that she needed to bribe us with food to sing her praises.

Keep an eye on Danielle Bellone, she is a storytelling master :)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Maci (of the TV kind)

Here is a cultural nugget for you.

Maci is Hungarian for bear (or bear cub). TV Maci is a symbol.
As of this week, he is an endangered species.

You know those things you grow up watching on TV and you have seen them so many times they became an organic part of your childhood memories? For Hungarian children since 1964, it was the TV Maci who would appear every evening on the screen, brush his teeth, spit (the spitting is an important part!), put on his pajamas, and settle down to watch the evening cartoon. After the cartoon, he would go to bed.
(Actually, "TV Maci spit" became synonymous with "it's time to go to bed" - at least for my generation)
Here is is:
Opening segment
Closing segment

Well, this year some genius at the TV channel decided it was time to modernize the TV Maci.
Hell to the no.

The new version premiered this week, you can watch it here.

Suddenly, there is two of them?! Where has the sister been hiding all these years?
Apart from people already calling them them Lannister Bears, there are other serious problems with this new segment. One, all the children who have been interviewed about it on TV were a 100% sure that this video takes place during the day (they pointed out that you can see sunlight pouring in), and has no place before or after an evening cartoon. Also, no spitting?! Forget it.

The most interesting part, however, is the computer. Apparently, the creators wanted to modernize the IKEA style bear den with a desktop computer that Jaime Bear types on for a few seconds before he goes to watch the flatscreen TV.

Internet people, we all know there is only ONE logical explanation to that scene.

The new TV Maci is a pirate.

That's all kids :)

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Lilies (and fairies)

Again, short post. It's that time of the semester.

I grew up in the northwestern part of Hungary, a world of rivers, lakes, streams, marshes and islands. Even though many people find other parts of the country more attractive, I believe that it is one of the prettiest places you can visit in Hungary. Also, we have a lot of unique stories, and many of them are about water, and water creatures.

Most of all, fairies.


Hungarian fairies (tündér), at least in my neck of the willow woods, are water creatures. They live in the lakes and rivers, or on the islands where the woods are thick and flowers are like an endless carpet. They look like humans, except a lot more beautiful; sometimes they even marry mortal men. They laugh, they dance, they sing, and they have their own queen, Tündér Ilona, who rules over them from her palace that has a crystal dome.
There is a story that tells us that water liles (or, as we call them, fairy roses) used to be a fairy girl called Rózsa. Her queen turned her into a flower so she could stay and watch over mortals after all the fairies were gone...
Another story, which doesn't cease to amuse me, tells us that when fairies pee in the water, their pee turns into gold. People used to wash gold from these rivers and streams. I guess no one would tell a fairy not to pee in the pool...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for Kalamona

This is really going to be short.

Kalamona Binds the Winds is a Hungarian folktale; one that I will probably translate into English in its full glory on the oh-so-desirable Other Side of the Great Thesis Project. For now, here are some spoilers:

Kalamona is a monster; he (it?) is never really described in the stories, it is just said that it can change shape, has a mouth big enough for an oxcart to turn around in it, and likes kidnapping princesses. Oh, and he also has the power and bind the winds, thus ruining kingdoms forever. And then comes the hero with the quest to unbind the winds and defeat Kalamona. Apprently, Kalamona also likes the cold, because he lives in a castle made of ice.

I just told the story of Kalamona for the first time in English this week, to 5ht grade. They paid a lot of attention - and I mean, a LOT. This story follows a basic Hungarian folktale storyline, but it also has a few nice unique elements. The kids especially seemed to enjoy the piglet that claims to be a magic horse, and then turns into the sassiest, preppiest táltos horse I have ever seen (and told). The Old King of the Mountains is all kinds of creepy (eating a live cow with his long yellow fingernails, gah). I had to tweak the story a bit to have earth spirits in it instead of devils, because I was not sure if the librarians would call the wrath of the principal down upon my head if I said "hell" and "devil" too many times (also, in this story the devils actually help the hero, which would raise a lot of awkward questions from the educators. Probably not the kids though, kids are fine with that stuff).

Kalamona Binds the Winds took about 25 minutes to tell (and I was already editing it down to fit in the time frame). I will keep working on it; it has all the good elements of an epic tale, if I have more time, it might even turn into one.

I might even put the devils back into it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

J is for Java (more specifically, Mouse Deer)

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The thing with stories and themes is that it is too easy to bend them to my will. Good thing Mouse Deer lives in a place that starts with J.

Because Kanchil is coming.

My 4th grade class has been jumping on my head for more Mouse Deer stories ever since I told them one before the winter break. Mouse Deer is always a sure hit, from K through the crypts, and once a group of kids learns about this sexy beast, he will be their favorite forever and ever.
I can't blame them.
I finally ran out of excuses of not telling any more Kantchil tales, and coughed up a few last nigh between a thesis chapter and a linguistics paper...

... just to arrive to the library this afternoon and be overrun by a classful of 4th graders chanting "HUNGER GAMES! HUNGER GAMES!" at the top of their tiny lungs.

They absolutely refused to listen to anything else BUT the "Hunger Games story" - which, in their terms, meant the myth of Theseus that apparently managed to ooze down through the grade barriers from my 5th grade telling last week. I knew from the librarians that 4th grade is only allowed to read the books with special permission - which they must have managed to coax out of their parents, because they were carrying various editions of them - but nobody said anything about Greek mythology, so, for the sake of my own personal safety, I told them the Theseus story.

I have never seen 4th grade so quiet since I started telling at the school. They were absolutely fascinated by Theseus, and it was all new and shiny to them, which almost made me forget about Mouse Deer - I love telling things to kids that are all new and shiny, and be there in their moment of discovery when they first hear one of the "big stories". They did not only understand the myth, they also thoroughly enjoyed it, gasping at the surprising parts and cheering for Theseus, making comments whenever they guessed at what was going to happen next. It was great fun, as usual.

Still. Nobody puts Kantchil in the corner.

THIS. MEANS. WAR.

Monday, April 9, 2012

I is for I'm going to talk about Hungarian Easter now

Really, I couldn't find anything that starts with I, but this is something that doesn't cease to amuse my American friends, so I'm going to write about this anyway.





It's called Locsolás, and they usually translate it to Easter Sprinkling, even though the proper term would be Easter Dousing. Really.

In Hungarian tradition, on Easter Monday, guys go around knocking on doors, asking girls if they are allowed to water them like flowers, so they can stay fresh throughout the year (yeah, it's a fertility thing). They have clever or not so clever little rhymes and poems, asking for permission. When permission is granted, they take a bucket of water (if you are lucky) or a bottle of perfume (if you are not so lucky) and proceed to thoroughly drench you to an extent that no actual flower would survive.

Basically, it's the wet t-shirt contest of our ancestors. You can't argue with it if it's tradition!

Sounds fun, right?
Listen up, guys, it gets better.

To thank the men for keeping them fresh, girls are supposed to pay for this! Traditionally, they pay with painted eggs (and alcoholic beverages); nowadays, they pay with painted eggs, chocolate, candy, and cash (and more alcoholic beverages).
So, by the end of the day, if you are a guy, you are rich and drunk; if you are a girl, you are drenched and feel very popular. Halloween meets Valentine's Day meets Spring Break.
Sweet, huh?

(In some areas of Hungary girls could return the favor on Easter Tuesday. Sometimes, if the girl refuses to get sprinkled, guys pull a trick on her. Or at least that's what my grandpa's stories are about)

Sprinkling is still alive and well, but nowadays, at least in urban settings, perfume is more popular. By the end of the day, everyone stinks from different scents, and this is the one day of the year when all the girls' hairwashing schedules sync up. I usually push my little sister out the door first so she gets the bigger part of whatever's supposed to keep us fresh.

Still. I think it's a fun tradition to have :)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

H is for Holnemvolt

A little less than one week from now, Hungary will have it's second international storytelling festival!!!
That is one of the many reasons I have been so busy lately.

We organized the first Holnemvolt Festival last March; our goal was to introduce international storytelling to the Hungarian audiences. We had almost no funding, but we had a lot of volunteers; awesome people who helped us arrange everything in time! We had amazing storytellers from all over the world, and a lot of fun!

And this year, we are doing it again!
Unfortunately, I don't get to go home for the festival this year. But I will be following everything that happens next weekend!
In the meantime, here are some links:

My blog about last year's festival: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Our Facebook page (with pictures and the introductions of our performers in Hungarian and English)

Our YouTube channel (with videos in various languages)

By the way, Holnemvolt is Hungarian for 'Once upon a time'.
(Well, technically, our stories start with 'Egyszer volt, hol nem volt' - which means 'There was, and there wasn't')

Only one week to go!

Friday, April 6, 2012

G is for Garabonciás

Because we have the original dragon riders, that's why!

Garabonciás are wizards in Hungarian folklore who learn their magic in a school (rings a bell yet?). 13 of them study together, and when their schoolyears are over, they all have to sit on the Wheel of Fortune, and the first one who falls down dies - the other twelve receive magic. Some say it is because they learn their magic from the Devil, and a life is the price they have to pay.
Garabonciás carry their magic in their books (they say this comes from the Middle Ages when any stranger who happened to walk into the village and was carrying books with strange signs in them - traveling students returning from abroad - was supposed to have great knowledge). They constantly travel from village to village; they can bring good or bad luck according to how people treat them. They usually drink milk. Just sayin'.
Garabonciás have powerful magic. They can fly, appear and disappear, bring luck, hunt witches, break curses, see buried treasure, make trees grow to the sky; but what they are most famous for is summoning storms and riding dragons. They can tame dragons that live in the lakes and rivers, saddle them, and fly on their back across the sky, hidden in stormclouds. There are hundreds of tales and legends about them; people used to believe in their existence until quite recently.

Nothing says badass like a tame dragon and a book full of magic.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

F is for the Fianna. Obviously.

This is going to be super dorky, but whatever, I am writing these around midnight.

I first read Fianna stories when I was about 12 years old, and one of my many roots as a storyteller is miles deep in them still. I know I know, shame on me for being a 100% Hungarian storyteller and not coming up with something right off the back of a horse on the steppes, but then again, things you don't grow up with are always much more fascinating when you are a kid. I remember being absolutely enchanted by Gods and Fighting Men (usually skipped straight to the Fianna parts), to the extent that the first imaginary crush I ever had was Oisín (and the rest of the class could have Leonardo DiCaprio all to themselves). I also wanted to be a bard, on the side, and this was about 10 years before I found out I can actually be a professional storyteller. I filled notebooks with my retellings of the Fianna legends, even though I had no clue why I was writing them.

Gods and Fighting Men was not translated to Hungarian back then, and I could only read it painfully slow in English. But I did anyway. A few years later in high school I was digging around in the back of the library where all the foreign-language books were piled up without any semblance of order, and I found Rosemary Sutcliff's book, the High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool, and I was in love once again. I actually told a Fianna story for an English competition, but I didn't win anything (they told me the story was too serious for my age. Right after my music teacher told me my voice was too deep for singing Eric Clapton songs).

When I actually decided that I wanted to tell stories to people Fianna legends were among the first I have ever told - to kids in the sailing camps, to classmates, to anyone who would stay put long enough to listen. I still tell them, and they make me feel all warm and fuzzy every time. I have spent the last 14 years with these guys, I want to see anyone top that. Quoting Dolores Hydock: "They don't make men like that anymore..."

Also, yay to White Wolf for making the Fianna a werewolf tribe for Werewolf: the Apocalypse. They are tons of fun to play!

E is for the Elements

All right, so this post will be brief (not PowerPoint brief, but kinda sorta crap-I-need-to-get-my-thesis-done brief). I have just watched Legend of Korra recently (WHEEE, by the way), and I thought talking about tales of the elements would be a fun thing to do. I don't particularly sign up to any ezoteric stuff, but as any good storyteller, I do believe in stories. So, here is a storyteller's perspective on the elements:

Fire
Once a few years ago I have designed a full hour storytelling show around the theme of Fire, for Physics Day in a local school. It was a lot of fun; I gathered dozens of folktales, legends and myths, and even made a video that was probably more fun to make than to watch, but it helped me realize how common fire-based superpowers are, both in tradition and in popular culture.
As for the stories: there is an endless treasury of fire tales. Coyote or Prometheus stealing fire; Princess Iron Fan dancing fire; the Phoenix being reborn from fire; Pietro Baillardo the Medieval fire-mage; fire spirits, fire gnomes, will-o-the-wisps, and of course, fire-breathing dragons. There is the epic fight between fire and water in Inca mythology; the folktale of Fire Boy and Snow Girl; fire fire fire everywhere. Great stories, all of them!
One thing I learned after I did the show repeatedly for a full day and then I zonked out for about 15 hours: fire stories come with a very strong burst of energy. It was a great storytelling high to be on for a few hours; I put all my energy into telling the tales, and doing them justice; and when it was over, and I just dropped from blazing to ohmygodIneedtosleeprightnowzzzzz. I still do most of those stories; but not in such a high concentration.
Unless someone happens to pay me for that program again.

Water
If I had to choose an element for myself, it would undoubtedly be water. Not just because of the whole symbolic thing, but also because it is an endless realm of many of my favorite tales. Sailors' tales, mermaids, sirens, water spirits; the Underwater Kingdoms of the Arabian Nights, endless sea voyages to the edge of the world, goddesses of the ocean with their long green-blue hair; storms, suprestitions, sunken treasures.
Stories with water in them are usually long-ish, and charged with deep emotions. They are also very beautiful, and sometimes dark at the same time. I have never done a full hour water-themed performance before, but I do a lot of river and lake stories from Hungarian folklore. My favorite is the legend of Lake Balaton, which takes about 30 minutes to tell if I do it right. It has a Medusa-like lake fairy in it, snakes and all.

Earth
Two words: underground kingdoms. I have always had a fascination with two earth-bound things: caves and gemstones. As an archaeologist, I love legends about hidden cities; as someone who would choose the magpie as her spirit animal, I love everything shiny. Once I constructed a full storytelling performance based on gemstones; I would have tiny pebbles of them in a puch, and each one had its own folktale, legend, or myth. If I had a small enough audience, people could pick pebbles from the pouch, and I would tell them that story. I also has tales for birth-stones, in case the audience was ezoterically inclined.
Earth stories feel ancient and mysterious. They feel like something other than life; other than trees, animals, humans. They are old, eternal, and unnaturally beautiful. The underground realm in many stories usually signifies hell, or some form of an underworld; but it can also mean elves, goblins, and most of all, dwarves chipping away on stone, working in their hidden caves, creating weapons and jewels fit for the gods...
(The cave in the picture, by the way, is the Skocjanske Jama, in Slovenia. Most amazing place on Earth I have ever been to, and I mean it.)

Air
I don't think I have ever done an air-themed storytelling performance before, but I can tell you what I did do: I keep thinking about flying, and things that fly. I tell tales from ancient times about winged horses, winged wolves, flying ships, flying carpets, chariots riding across the sky - and think about the times when people made up these stories, when flying like the birds seemed impossible. I have a Hungarian folktale called The Boy Who Wanted to Walk on the Clouds - and every time I travel on a plane, I think about what people a few hundred years ago would say if I told them about it. Flying is part of our most ancient desires, and some of our most fascinating stories. We take it for granted these days; but that does not mean the magic of it is completely gone...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for Deities

I worked really hard to find something mythology-related with D so I can post this...
So, blogging about another blog is lame, but I don't really have time to write right now (thesis, argh), so I decided to post it anyway, because it totally made my day, possibly my week.

Myths Retold

Storyteller's diagnosis: Advanced Trickster.

The language would probably give the Jonesborough storytelling scene a collective heart attack (and yet I'd pay to be there to see it happen); but do not be fooled, and while you are covering up your children's eyes and ears, stop and take a minute to admire the layers. The guy knows his mythology and folklore. And his English language. Making fun of things only works really well if you know the thing you are making fun of really well.
I have been working on the Lokasenna for a class assignment (rather, the assignment was my excuse to spend precious time working with that story and not feel bad about not typing my thesis), and as I was reading his version and laughing so hard the nerd table in the diner thought I have lost it, I could actually follow the original song line by line between his lines. The awkward moment when you realize you are too much of a good girl to give the Lokasenna justice. I'll let the pros do the yelling. Creatively.

"... and Loki’s like PUSSY


and thor’s like HAMMER

and Loki’s like PANSY


and Thor’s like HAMMER


and Loki’s like YOU GOT PRANKED BY A GIANT


and Thor’s like HAMMER HAMMER HAMMER


and Loki’s like you’re not even listening to me are you


and Thor’s like hammer?..."



I want that on a T-shirt.

Nothing has changed since the Middle Ages, it takes a lot of smarts to be a good fool.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Crete (or, Theseus meets Hunger Games)

I am putting my money where my mouth is: after brainstorming about the Hunger Games-based storytelling performance, today I got a chance to put theory into practice. Twice.

First, the ETSU Tale Tellers were invited to an elementary school near Johnson City to tell Greek myths (and other fun things) for grades 6-8. We decided this is the age group that is probably reading the books day and night, and watching the movie as well - in other words, the perfect audience to test Theseus. I went last in the 45-minute show. Middle school is storytellers' least favorite age group; they are cooler than the high schoolers and more immature than the little ones; the most reaction one gets from them is an eye roll and the occasional yawn (even if then, when they are leaving the gym, you can hear them saying "that was AWESOME!", making sure the teacher does not hear).

Theseus needed a little bit of careful trimming around the edges: I only had 15 minutes left, so I had to cut right to the chase (for reference, I kind of liked working with this version). I told them how Theseus grew up not knowing who his father was, and then about the sword under the stone; I told them how he arrived to Athens (skipping the whole mess with the bandits - that is a whole spearate story) just in time to see the Cretan messenger arrive. This is where things really got Hunger Games-y; the messenger reminded everyone of the war that cost them so many lives, and that started because of Athens' fault; then he talked about the peace that was paid for with tributes. At this point my telling was a mix of original myth and Mary Renault's The King Must Die; names were pulled, and Theseus stepped forward to volunteer for tribute. This is the key sentence that first sends ripples through the crowd of kids. It was all rock and roll from there.
I spent precious minutes on describing Crete (that was the archaeologist in me) - all its colors, its strange dresses and hairstyles, and the crowd gathering to see the tributes. For the setting, I merged the palace of Knossos with the Labyrinth, with the open courtyard and the balconies in the middle. Archaeologists and historians argue that the myth of Theseus is based on the Cretan ceremony of bull-leaping, which probably had spectators, so I merged that idea with the Labyrinth, and had Theseus fight the Minotaur in the open courtyard, after wandering around in the maze of the palace's lower levels.

I was surprised at this, but the tale seemed absolutely new to most of the students. As for the fight, I went with the version where the Minotaur cannot be killed by weapons, so Theseus ends up strangling him. I cut the story short once he got away and sailed for Naxos; there was no more time to explain the rest, and I thought it better to end the tale with a victory, rather then... well, the rest.
I really enjoyed this telling! And the kids paid attention, which in this case equals fangirls screaming.

Since I was still on a post-storytelling high, I took the tale with me to 5th grade for my usual afternoon storytelling session in the University School library. In their case, I knew for a fact that they all loved the books. The second time around, the story felt... just as awesome as the first. There were much more reactions from 5th grade (perfect age for storytelling) - their jaws literally dropped when they started recognizing motifs from the books. They were excited, murmuring among themselves about the story (I usually let them comment on it, I know they are paying attention and making sense of what they are hearing). The moment of awesomeness came when Theseus killed the Minotaur - a loud gasp, and then silence, and then some of the kids started raising their hands in the Hunger Games sign of respect... and I felt like a rock star.

This story is a keeper, Hunger Games or no Hunger Games. Greek mythology still has it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Bees (and honey!)

This post is dedicated to my friend Sara who loves bees!
I gathered some bee stories, and because English is my second language, there won't even be any bad puns in it! Enjoy!

Taoscán Mac Liath and the Magic Bees (from Edmund Lenihan's book, Strange Irish tales for children)
Any story that has the Fianna in it can only be good! This one is about a druid who brings magic bees into Ireland from Iceland, and upsets the peace in King Cormac's court. Buzzing and honey ensues! And all is well in the end.



The bee and Jupiter (Aesop's fable)
Cute little story about how bees learned to sting. I have heard a longer version of it from a Catalan storyteller, where the bee keeps coming back for things - stripes, wings, colors, honey-bags... and then, the sting. Kids love this story, and it goes well with Greek or Roman storytelling sessions.

Pindar and the Bees (from Pausanias)
"When Pindar was a young man he was once on his way to Thespiae in the hot season.  At about noon he was seized with fatigue and the drowsiness that follows it, so just as he was, he lay down a little way above the road.  As he slept bees alighted on him and plastered his lips with their wax. This circumstance first induced Pindar to compose verses."
And his words flowed like honey. Bees were sacred to the Muses.

Bees on the train (Hungarian tale)
Some people argue that this cannot possibly be a folktale, since it is set in the Communist times of Hungary, but it still makes a fun little cartoon. It is about a man who can talk to the bees, and when he leaves them behind against his will, the bees get upset and take revenge...

Dongó János (Hungarian folktale)
One of my favorite folktales about a young boy who can talk to the bees, and make them sit on his hat as he travels around. Collected from Transcarpathian storyteller Pályuk Anna about a hundred years ago. (I am working on translating the whole tale in the near future)

Butes the beekeeper
Wait, what? There was a beekeeper on the Argo? You bet! One of the Argonauts, Butes, was famous for his knowledge of bees. He did not see the whole mission through, though; he could not resist the song of the Sirens and he jumped into the sea. But Aphrodite saved him, carried him to Sicily, and had a son from him, the culture hero Eryx.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for Almonds

I found out about the A to Z challenge a mere few hours before it started! Since it is such a fun project, with so many participants, and it feeds my grafomania that is not satisfied with currently working on a Master's thesis, of course I had to sign up for this!!!

My personal challenge within a challenge is to post story- and storytelling-related posts every day. Starting with A...
A could stand for so many things! But because trees are in bloom, and spring is all over the place, and because I have been telling this story a lot lately...

... well, for me, A is for ALMONDS!

Some of you might now this story as The Queen who longed for Snow. I have been telling it as a folktale, with a prince and a princess, for a long time before I decided to read more about where the tale came from. And what I found out was much, much more interesting!

First of all, we have a young Moorish sultan, Ibn Almundin, who rules over Al-Gharb, later known as Portugal - more than eight hundred years ago. Tales do not say much about him, except that he is always victorious in battle. One day, when prisoners are brought in front of him, one of them catches his eye: a young woman called Gilda with light hair and blue eyes, a girl from a snow-covered country in the North, far far away. The young sultan falls in love, frees her, and asks for her hand in marriage; she agrees. They live happily for a while; people adore their new queen; but as time goes on, Gilda seems to be fading away, longing for something that no one can name. The young sultan is frantic to find out what he can do to bring the smile back onto her face; finally, he asks a poet who has been captured in the same battle she was, to explain to him what makes the queen so sad. The poet explains that Queen Gilda longs for snow and winter; in the kingdom of Al-Gharb summer rules all year round, and it never snows. Ibn Almundin thinks about this for a while; then he orders his people to bring him almond trees on ships from far away, and plants them around the castle as far as the eye can see. The next spring, one day, the queen walks to her window, and she sees a white blanket covering the hills and the valleys; she smiles for the first time in months, and runs out of the castle, to discover that the white blanket is not snow but petals of the almond blossom. From that day on, Queen Gilda is happy again; and every year, when the almond trees are in bloom, the whole kingdom celebrates.

Such a beautiful story! Also, so full of symbols and images. The young Moorish sultan (when I tell this story, I describe him with almond-shaped eyes, long before I tell my audience that the trees are almond trees), the fair Norse girl, the trees in bloom... Ibn-Almundin's name that sounds like almonds, and the sweet taste of marzipane and turrón. I was amazed when I came to the USA that so few people know what marzipane is...
Also, almond trees are native to the Middle East and Asia; the Arabic conquest of the Iberian peninsula brought them to Spain and Portugal, just like many other things. Fascinating story, with a colorful historical background!