Monday, January 22, 2018

The strange beauty of Estonian folktales (Following folktales around the world 55. - Estonia)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Az aranyfonó lányok
Észt népmesék
Bereczki Gábor
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1968.

Once again, a volume from the Hungarian "Tales of Nations" series - and probably one of my instant favorites. It contains thirty-five tales, many of which I completely fell in love with at first read. They have been selected from various Estonian folktale collections by the editor, making sure that they represented narratives and motifs that are typically Estonian, rather than just versions of generally well-known tale types. He had a lot to pick from: According to the detailed Afterword, Estonian folklore archives hold almost one hundred thousand folktales (at least they did in the 1960s). I also learned that most of the famous storytellers were male, while most famous singers of the epic stories were female. I would definitely love to read more from those archives.
To read Estonian folktales in English, try this collection.


The title story (The three gold-spinners) has been a favorite story of mine for a long time (I even included it in my book). It is a long and complex tale full of intrigue, magic, love, Finnish wizards, talking birds, witches, and everything else you need for a good adventure. Similarly adventurous is the Theft of Thunder, in which a poor man helps the Devil steal the Thunder from a thunder-god, and then feels guilty and helps the god recover it.
Mushroom King (Estonian postcard)
I liked the tale of the Mushroom King especially for its imagery and its outcome. A prince rescues the tiny, captured King of the Mushrooms, and in exchange the little kind helps him along his exile, helps him fight dragons, and introduces him to his three daughters. In the end, instead of marrying a rescued princess, the princes marries one of the mushroom girls.
There were several tales involving water, and the beings that inhabit it. In the Underwater People, a man whose father fell through the ice on a lake visited the underwater world, and found out what happened to the people that went there. In The Gift of the Water Mother, the mysterious helper lady told about the strange upside-down world she had come from. In The Mischievous sons of Father Frost, three increasingly cold guests visited a poor man, who put up with them patiently, and in exchange he won the ability to influence the weather.
The animal and nature tales of the collection were also enchanting. A Magic Bird distracted an evil hunter from shooting at the birds of the forest; a Hedgehog wanted to cook a beetle, but was outsmarted by it; and a Sparrow brewed beer from one grain of barley in a pond, and none of the other animals had the heart to tell him it was not delicious.


I was reminded of many other superpower stories by the tale of Swift-foot, Dexterous Hands, and Sharp-eye (some titles are my own translation, but that's the general idea). All three of the brothers had his own separate adventure in this long story, and then they came together to win a princess. They agreed beforehand that they will draw lots on who will marry her at the end, eliminating the dilemma part of this popular dilemma tale like sensible people (it helped that they all looked exactly alike).
Estonian folk dress
The tale of the Talking Flax combined two tale types in a very interesting way. A girl was pursued by a supernatural suitor she knew was dangerous; she hid in the barn from him, and the flax bundles stored there talked about what awaited everyone in the barn: Tearing, breaking, cutting, etc. (basically, the process of making clothes). The suitor got terrified and left. The first part of the tale is that of the Demon Lover, while the latter usually happens with bread instead of cloth.
Waiting for Death was a story I have already encountered as a Hodja tale, while The Bear and the Three Sisters was another variant of the favorite story of mine where the clever girl rescues herself and her sisters from a monster husband (see Denmark).

Where to next?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The secret identity of the Princess with the Pea (Folklore Thursday)

Well, the Princess, specifically. If you want to know the secret identity of the pea, you'll be disappointed. It's a pea.

This is me, showing my work.

Full disclosure: I have never really liked Andersen's literary fairy tales, and doing some research on this one didn't really change my opinion of him. I wasn't even going to go into it, but I found some bread crumbs researching another folktale, and followed it all the way to some literature that talked about the possible folktale-origins of The Princess and the Pea. Sure, I knew that over-sensitivity is an existing motif (I have a tale of three over-sensitive men in my folktale collection), but I was intrigued when I found out that the "original" version was actually numbered ATU 545A - the female-hero variant of Puss in Boots.

See, Andersen claimed that he heard the story as a child. Researchers have already pointed out that there is no Danish version of such a folktale - but it is very popular in the Swedish tradition, which, when it comes to how stories travel... is close enough. I kept running into the same claim: There is a Swedish folktale, titled The Princess that Lay on Seven Peas, which includes a girl, a cat, and some pea-related shenanigans. Sadly, I could not locate the actual story anywhere, because nobody cited it.

So I eventually figured out that the claim came from Georg Christensen, who published an article on the origins of Andersen stories in Danske Studier in 1906. Since my Danish is nonexistent, I painstakingly fed the article into Google Translate, until I managed to find the citations he DID put in there. Which led me to a Swedish folktale collection, where I finally located the story. It is actually titled The Palace that Stood on Golden Pillars.
Close enough, huh.

So, now I had a text, in Swedish. Obviously, I would have to find someone to actually translate it, but as far as getting an idea of the tale went, I once again turned to Google Translate. Apart from some delightful results such as "The cat noticed, and put the mathematics on his mother-in-law", I could figure out what the story really was about.


ATU 545A is also known as The Cat Palace - and, as I have mentioned before, it is basically a genderbent version of Puss in Boots. A poor girl loses her parents, and inherits a cat (her brother gets the cow, obviously). She sets out, and the cat helps her pass as a lost and robbed princess, so that she gets invited to stay with a royal family. However, the mother-in-law is suspicious of her behavior (she's a peasant girl, after all), and decides to put her to the test. She puts things in her bed to see if she really is a refined lady, but the cat sees her, warns the girl, and helps her fake her way through the pea thing (and the bean thing, and the straw thing, and various other food items the queen puts under the sheets).
Eventually, the queen changes tactics: She sends a gorgeous silken dress for the girl to wear, and invites her for a walk. The girl keeps dragging the dress in the mud - but when questioned, she claims that she doesn't feel sorry for it, because she has much better dresses back at home, in Kattenborg. The queen has no more arguments left.

The rest of the story is pretty much the same as Puss in Boots: Time comes to visit the princess' imaginary castle, and the cat runs ahead to arrange it all, kill a giant, get a palace, etc.

Conclusion No. 1: If Andersen really heard this tale as a child, he managed to grasp the least exciting part of it. 
Go figure.
We have a girl, and a helpful, smart (occasionally sassy) animal helper. Most often a cat, BUT the tale also exists in variants where the helper is a dog, which makes it especially dear to my dog-person heart. Also, the girl is not actually as sensitive as Andersen suggests - she is simply faking it, in order to pass as "proper" royalty, and go through the mother-in-law's ridiculous tests (gotta give it to the woman, though, her suspicions were right). She blunders sometimes - says things she shouldn't say, or drags her expensive dress in the mud. And yet, the prince falls in love with her.
This is not a tale about a princess who can't sleep on a pea. This is a tale about a girl who is faking it until she makes it.


Oh yeah, about the title.

Conclusion No. 2: The Princess in this story is actually the Marquise de Carabas. 


Monday, January 15, 2018

Women from the sea (Following folktales around the world 54. - Finland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Férfiszülte leány
Finn népmesék
Pirkko-Liisa Rausmaa
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1969.

For the first time in the history of Following Folktales, I read a book from the "Népek Meséi" ("Tales of Nations") series. This is an 80-volume series of folktale collections published in Hungarian between the 1950s and the 1980s; it is famous among Hungarian storytellers, and has volumes of tales from various small indigenous ethnicities.
Much like the other books in the series, the Finnish collection is well edited, well selected, and contains a lot of valuable information. Selected by a Finnish folklorist to represent the various story types in the oral tradition, the book has fairy tales, animal tales, humorous tales, etc. Each story comes with end notes that contain tale type numbers, the name of the storyteller, the name of the collector, and other interesting information. The Afterword talks about the history of Finnish folktale collection, the work of Finnish scholars on the tale type index, and the building of the Finnish folktale archives that contain tens of thousands of stories. The book itself definitely does a good job picking out the most interesting ones...
(You can also find various folktale collections edited by Pirkko-Liisa Rausmaa in English)


Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Aino
One of the most beautiful and most intriguing tales of the book is The Beautiful Daughter of the Blue Sea. it is full of mythical elements, and the hero is helped by a shape-shifting white griffin (that he feeds four people to, by the way, but let's not talk about that). I also enjoyed The Prince and the Sea Spirit, in which the prince had several animal helpers that took turns competing with the son of the Sea Spirit in what they were best at. It was like a superhero team-up, but with animals.
I found the tale of The wife that looked like the sister very interesting. In it, a man wanted to marry a woman who looked just like his sister; the courageous girl set out, saved a princess just like herself from the underworld, and brought her back home (and then the brother had to figure out which one was which).
The book also contained some more recent folktales, such as that of the American journey, which was basically an updated version of an older trickster tale. In it, a Finnish man made Americans believe that he made the journey to the New World swimming...


The tale of Snotty Risto was a delightful variant for the story usually known from the Grimm collection as Bearskin. In this one, the poor man could collect great treasure by not wiping his nose or going to the bathroom for three years. Two girls fled from him, but the youngest one, desperately trying to get money to save her family, agreed to kiss him - and then threw up right after. Very realistic for a folktale. On the other hand, there was a version of the tale where a father wants to marry his own daughter that took quite an unexpected turn. When he failed to catch her, the father tore off his own testicles, and threw him around his daughter's neck. She went mute as a result, and it took her a long time to get rid of the testicles around her neck. Talk about being silenced by the patriarchy...
The emperor's daughter in the church was a variant of The Princess in the Shroud - except the exorcism of the monster princess here included beating her up repeatedly. The Triangular house on the seashore was a version of the Devil's three golden hairs, with the addition of a "woman of the sea" that devoured the evil king at the end. I especially loved the Finnish variant of the Extraordinary Helpers, in which each helper added a piece to the flying ship, and thus they built it together.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela:
The forging of the Sampo
There was a variant of Puss in Boots where the hero was a poor girl instead of a poor boy, and also a variant of the Clever Maiden with a clever boy instead of a clever girl (he did not have to be half dressed and half naked, though, go figure). And of course because we are in the Baltic, there was a version of Why the sea is salt (here called The Mill of Hell). The Magic Scythe was a story I already encountered in Iceland, while The great fighter looks for someone stronger than him reminded me of an Ossetian Nart saga.

Where to next?

Monday, January 8, 2018

The magic pisspot, and some squirrels (Following folktales around the world 53. - Sweden)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

The Magic Pisspot
Swedish folk tales
Per Gustavsson, Richard Martin
Land of Legends, 2017.

I got a copy of this book from Richard Martin, who translated it from Per Gustavsson's Swedish collection. The book was published by the Museum of Legends. It contains twenty-three Swedish folktales, selected by Gustavsson from various older sources, and retold in a clear oral storytelling style, which carries over well into the English translation. Each story comes with notes, sources, and tale type numbers, which I was especially grateful for. Most tales belong to tale types that are very common all around Europe, with some local Swedish coloring in them. The authors did not shy away from the darker or more vulgar themes of the original stories either. The book has black-and-white and color illustrations which make it pretty as well as enjoyable.


The book was already worth reading just for its title story. The Magic Pisspot is a very rare tale type that I have only encountered once before (in Turkey), featuring a mischievous and independent pisspot that makes its owners rich through a series of tricks. It is a really fun story.
I also liked the two tales about the Ugly Frog and the Pretty Squirrel; the former a beautiful princess who wanted to get away from obnoxious suitors by turning into an ugly frog, and the latter an ugly prince who wanted to become the most beautiful creature in the world - and found himself turning into a squirrel. To be fair, squirrels are rather handsome.


There is a gorgeous variant of the Snow White tale included in this book, titled The little gold bird. We do not only get the evil (biological!) mother's backstory, but we also have seven princes cursed into chimera monsters, who return at the end of the long and elaborate story to save the princess they took in as their sister. I also liked the Swedish Hansel and Gretel, known here as The hut with the sausage roof (no gingerbread), and the tale of the Pleiades, which was a nice variant of Six Against the World. I especially liked in the latter that the five brothers rescuing the princess specifically learned their trades with professional princess-rescuing in mind.
The Giant and the Squirrel was a story that sounded familiar to me from the Appalachian folktale known as Soy Sallyratus (and also a very popular Hungarian folktale). Also common in European traditions is the story of how Husband and wife swapped work for a day, and the classic story of the Stone Soup, here known as Nail Soup.
As for tricksters, Fox showed up in the collections, being responsible in not one, but two tales for Why Bear has a short tail.

Where to next?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MythOff Replay - Our favorite myths on stage!

For the first time in Hungarian MythOff history, we ventured outside of Budapest, and visited another town, Veszprém, to bring myths and fun to a whole new audience! The idea came from a new member of our little myth-telling team, Cecília Stenszky, and everyone enthusiastically agreed - not only because traveling is fun, but also because a whole new audience means we get to dust off and tell again myths that we really enjoyed the first time. This is how MythOff Replay was born, giving us a night of telling our mythical favorites together.

The venue for the event was an Irish pub called Scorpion. They offered us their attic room, which was a perfect size for an audience of thirty, with comfortable armchairs, mood lighting, and no background noise. We had a full house of great people who drank beer and wine, ate delicious things, and whole-heartedly cheered us on. The evening's emcee was Szilvia Varga-Fogarasi, who made sure everything ran smoothly, and also created the golden lollipops that we received as prizes.

And now, the program:

Round one: Mythical hunters

The evening opened with Enikő Nagy's telling of the Mongolian legend of Gesar, and how he went all the way to the end of the world to find a magical bird that could cure the daughter of the Sun. Her elegant and poetic telling was followed by Erika Hajós, who brought us the Greek classic of Callisto and Arcas (Ursa Maior and Ursa Minor), and eloquently described the awful person Zeus is in that story.
Voting question: "If the famous Veszprém Zoo could bring either the magic bird, or the two bears, into its collection, which one would you rather see?"
Winner: Gesar's bird

Round two: Very strong myths

This round opened with our new storyteller, Cecília Stenszky, who brought us the myth of Thor and Utgard-Loki. It is an amusing story, and her humorous telling was appreciated by the audience. Next, I told the story of how the Irish Fianna fought the Witch of the Eastern Sea for the Cup of Victory (and, according to the photo on the right, went a little ethereal while doing it). It was even more fun to tell the second time around.
Voting question: "Which group of heroes would you like to add to the Hungarian Olympic team?"
Winner: The Fianna

Round three: Burning hot myths

First, László Gregus told us the Chinese myth of Yi the Heavenly Archer and the Ten Suns, in which the hero shoots nine suns down from the sky to save the world from burning. After him, Szilvia Varga-Fogarasi told the story of how Maui stole fire from his grandmother, and how he taught the people how to kindle it themselves. She told the tale with energy and humor fitting for a trickster tale.
Voting question: "Which hero would you ask to bring some fire for your fireplace for Christmas?"
Winner: Yi the Archer

Round four: Myths of endless creativity

This last round was opened by Júlia Lovranits, who brought us a Slovenian myth pieced together from various sources, about the god Kurent, the great flood, and the invention of wine. She even brought a cow bell to ring at the end of the story! The evening's program then concluded with Maja Bumberák's magical telling of Veinemoinen and Antero Vipunen, in which the Kalevala's old magician went searching for magical words. Her singing of the end of the story was a perfect conclusion for the night.
Voting question: "Where would you rather take your family - the Kalevala Adventure Park, or the Kurent Wine Tasting Tour?"
Winner: The Kalevala

We are really grateful for yet another amazing MythOff event, a very cool audience, and the chance to tell our favorite stories. We all hope we'll travel a lot more in the future!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Trolls, polar bears, and other Norwegian classics (Following folktales around the world 52. - Norway)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

With today's post, the series goes on a CHRISTMAS BREAK. It will continue in January!

Norvég népmesék
Vaskó Ildikó (szerk.)
Móra Kiadó, 2004.

This book is a lovely Hungarian edition of 23 tales translated from the well-known 19th century Norwegian folktale collection by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. You can find their tales in English in various formats online, including this wonderful blog. My particular edition was meant for children and families, therefore it is gorgeous (illustrated by artist Szegedi Katalin) and readable, but lacks notes and sources. Still, it was a very good selection.


One of my favorite stories from the collection is Boots and the Beasts; I included it in my own book about superpowers, since the hero can transform himself into a lion, and ant, and a falcon. He uses this ability to save princesses from trolls, which is pretty neat. I also love, and frequently tell around Christmas, the story of the Cat on the Dovrefjell, in which a polar bear scares off a bunch of trolls that try to wreck a house on Christmas Eve.
I really enjoyed Espen Ashlad and the Redfoks, in which a boy could find out all kinds of secrets by looking through the ring of a magic key. Among others, he discovered that trolls were afraid of thyme (and used this knowledge to rescue a princess, obviously).
Easy for those who are loved by women is an interesting story about a boy that wishes that all women would love him at first sight - and succeeds in life because women are helping him along. I heard Janice Del Negro tell her own amazing version of it, and I will never look at this story the same way again.


The book opens with a classic trickster story, that of Peik the Mischievous who outsmarts a king several times, using such classics as selling him a "pot that cooks without fire" (it doesn't), and also getting the king's daughters pregnant. In the end, he is caught and locked into a box, but he manages to switch places with an unsuspecting merchant.
The tale of the Three Aunts is essentially the same as Grimm's Three Spinners, although I liked these ladies better. Hakon Grizzlebeard is the Norwegian counterpart of King Thrushbeard, Grass Girl is the tiny fairy bride stepping in for the tale type of the Frog Princess, and King Valemon the White Bear is the well-known Norwegian variant of Beauty and the Beast (and probably the European source for the American White Bear Whittington). In this last one I especially loved the part where the woman seeking her husband was helped by three little girls, and only found out later that they were her own daughters, hidden by her husband with other families to protect them from the curse. Katie Woodencloak is the Norwegian variant of Catskins; I liked it that she was helped by a great black bull, who gave his life to save her, although I felt a little sorry that it did not turn into a prince at the end.
This book is also the first European collection in the series featuring one of my favorite tales, The Husband who had to Mind the House, in which a woman and a man swap chores for a day, to prove that women don't just "sit around at home" all day.

Where to next?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dragons, trolls, heroic women (Following folktales around the world 51. - Denmark)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

While many people think Andersen when they hear the term "Danish folktale," Andersen stories are at best literary re-imaginations of traditional stories. It is important to know that there are many, many actual folktales collected from Denmark, and they are pretty great too.

The Danish Fairy Book
Clara Stroebe, Frederick H. Martens
Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922.

The volume contains twenty-nine classic folktales collected from various parts of Denmark. The tales have been translated and re-told in English, so some of the names are also English ("Jack") instead of Danish - but all in all, they seem to have retained their original flavor. Each story comes with Notes that include the place of collection, the source of the text, the tale type, and some interesting observations on certain ancient or common elements of the tale. The book is by no means a scientific publication, but it does give credit where credit is due.


By far the best tale in the book bears the misleading title The Pig, which completely conceals that the story is a version of Bluebeard. Chasing a magical pig, three sisters end up captured by an evil man, one after the other. The youngest sister does not only manage to trick the man, but she even rescues her two sisters before she ends up rescuing herself.
The story of the Lindworm (here titled King Dragon) is a fairly well-known tale among storytellers. A queen gives birth to a dragon which wreaks havoc in the royal court until a brave servant girl manages to convince it to take off all his layers of dragon skin, and turn into a prince. This Danish version also have a sequel, in which the Dragon King wrongly exiles his wife, and then goes to find her - and when he does, he makes sure to ask again if she wants to go home with him at all (yay, consent!). By the way, I really recommend hearing this story in the enchanting performance of Louisiana storyteller Danielle Bellone, if you get the chance.
I also found the tale of The Princess on the Island interesting, and more than a little dark. In it, a Danish princess was hidden away in an island fortress by her father, to keep her from marrying an English prince coming to invade the country. All the princess' servants starved to death, and she lived on eating mice until she managed to break free (!). She did marry the prince in the end.
It was noted as a typically Danish element in the stories that villains often ended their career by "bursting into pebbles out of sheer anger." I found this poetic justice very appealing.


Since these are European stories, most of the types were familiar to me from many other sources - but that does not mean I did not appreciate the Danish take on each of them. The book contains several of my favorite folktale types: The clever girl that outsmarts a bunch of trolls three times (Ederland, the Poultry Maid); the Golden-haired Gardener, who in this case is helped by a magic horse and a non-magical lion, and has golden locks that reach his heels (Jack with the Golden Hair); and the Dancing Princesses, or in this case, single princess, who dances with a troll each night, until she is followed and rescued by the hero, who also kills the troll and turns the forests of silver, gold, and diamond back to people.
Even beyond my favorites, there were some very fun takes on familiar stories in the book. I liked Trillevip, the Danish variant of Rumeplstiltskin, who, once his name was guessed, actually helped the girl trick her own husband so that she would not have to spin anymore. I enjoyed the ending of Peter Redhat, the Danish Prince Thrushbeard, who managed to win the haughty princess, but her parents never forgave him for humiliating her. The Magic Hat was reminiscent of Irish fairy stories (it made its wearer able to see invisible trolls), while The mill at the bottom of the sea is a very common Baltic and Scandinavian story type, explaining why seawater is salty.

Where to next?