Sunday, March 19, 2017

Period is power (Following folktales around the world 17. - Paraguay)

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!

It was no easy to find a collection from Paraguay. After getting two books that only talked about stories, I finally narrowed the search down to the oral tradition of one specific tribe. 

Folk literature of the Makka Indians
Johannes Wilbert and Karin Simoneau
UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1991.

This book is one of a 24-volume series on the oral traditions of South American indigenous peoples. It collects the tales of the Makka (Maká, Macca, etc.), all collected in the 1970s when most of the informants did not speak Spanish yet. The book includes 108 folktales, myths, and legends, many of them in several versions, showcasing how the same narrative can be told differently by different storytellers (I really enjoyed this). It is a very high quality folklore publication: It has appendices, folktale motif numbers, footnotes, information about the tellers, a generous introduction, and everything a researcher could possibly need. The tales have been transcribed and translated word for word, so the text gives a glimpse of what they sounded like in live telling; they are also uncensored, which means there is a whole lot of sex and violence in them. They were quite fascinating.


One of my favorite tales was that of a boy whom his father-in-law wanted to kill by sending him to the river infested by a giant serpent. The first couple of times friendly animals (otter, nutria) saved him, but he eventually got devoured, and spent two days fighting his way back out of the belly of the beast. When he emerged, he did not have hair or eyebrows anymore... I also liked the tale of The girl who married a tree, where a lignum vitae tree turned into a loving husband who brought a rich harvest to the people.
Rolled up armadillo
There was a whole chapter of Jaguar tales. Jaguar is not only an animal spirit, but also a shaman - and yet more often than not he was on the receiving end of some painful events. In one story, he killed Armadillo's children, for which Armadillo mother decided to take revenge. She pretended to be sick, and when they called the shaman and he leaned over her, she rolled herself up and clung to his snout through fire and water until the Jaguar dropped dead. While this ending was very satisfying, in most tales the ovenbird eventually brought the Jaguar back to life.
I loved it that the tales were full of colorful imagery. There were multiple stories explaining where the birds got their colors, and there was even a hero whose skin was made of yellow butterflies. There were also several mythical peoples, such as the fukus lei, a tribe of stick people who could easily be mistaken for firewood (Groot?...), and a group of blind men who lived on honey. The strangest creature was probably Pointed-Leg, a man who carved his tibia into a point and used it to stab unsuspecting travelers.
Say what?
Also strange, and definitely graphic, was the legend that claimed that at the beginning of time men could not have sex with women, because they had piranhas living in their vaginas. The wise shaman Hawk made the women dance until the piranhas fell out, the large ones first and then the smaller ones, until only one tiny piranha remained in each woman, gnawing at them - which is why we have periods (I can attest to the accuracy of this description). Menstruation, by the way, featured quite often into the stories; the above mentioned tribe of blind men was cured by a woman on her period, and there was also a popular legend about a woman who turned into a cannibal ogre because her husband forced her to cook food while she was on her period.


I did not expect to find a far cousin of Celtic kelpies and each uisge-s in Paraguay - and yet there was one, a water horse that dragged people into rivers and drowned them.
Once again, there was an abundance of trickster tales. The Makka's trickster is Fox, and also a person called Tip'a; the latter was not very likable, being a rapist and a murderer, and usually died at the end of the stories. Jaguar came to a similar end in a legend that reminded me of Daedalus and Icarus; he learned to fly from Vulture, but the sun melted the wax he stuck his feathers on, and Jaguar plummeted to his death.
I also encountered a legend about a star-wife; they seem to be common in American indigenous folklore, I am sure I will meet them again later on. There was also a legend about a sky-high tree that people used to climb to fish in the sky, until it was burned down. It reminded me of myths from Oceania, and so did the story of the woman who had an eel for a lover.
And finally, barely a country goes by without at least one folktale of two animals having a race, Tortoise and the Hare style. This time, it was Rhea and Tick (which would be a great title for an indie band), and the latter won.

Where to next? 

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