Thursday, April 19, 2018

Q is for Questionable Godparents (WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales)

Welcome to this year's A to Z Challenge titled WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales! You can find all other participating blogs on the A to Z Challenge main blog.

There are several folktales an folktale types that include godparents that are... out of this world. Think Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, or Godfather Death from the Grimm collection. Sometimes they give superhuman abilities or powers to their godchildren, and sometimes they are less than beneficial. Hungarian folktales are no exception.

János Carnation-hair (Szegfűhajú János)
In this story, a magical woman from under the sea helps a poor widow deliver a baby boy, and then volunteers to be his godmother. Taking the baby to her underwater palace, she promptly chops János up, and leaves him in a bathtub for three days, before putting him back together and reviving him again. This repeats a couple of times, and each time János revives he becomes older and stronger. He eventually acquires the ability to read people's thoughts.
I included this tale in my book about superpowers in folktales.

(Last weekend I conducted a two-day retreat where storytellers got together to delve deep into this tale. There was a lot of discussion about motherhood, and whether the godmother was helping the boy, or not. Fascinating stuff.)

The Virgin Mary
In this tale, the Virgin Mary volunteers to be godmother to a poor man's daughter. She takes the girl home when she is twelve, and gives her keys to twelve rooms, but forbids her from looking into the thirteenth. Of course she does anyway, sees God himself, and her face turns golden. She refuses to tell Mary what happened - so the Virgin curses her mute, puts her in a box and abandons her in the woods. The girl is found by a prince, they get married, have children... but the children keep disappearing. Eventually the prince orders the girl to be burned at the stake for killing her own babies. Just when the pyre is lit, the Virgin Mary appears, and questions her again. This time the girl confesses that she'd seen God, and she is pardoned.

There is also a tale about a girl whose godfather was Death himself... but more about her tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

P is for the Pelican King (WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales)

Welcome to this year's A to Z Challenge titled WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales! You can find all other participating blogs on the A to Z Challenge main blog.

In the folktale titled The Pelican King, a princess insists that she will only marry a person who brings her the feathers... of the Pelican King. Our hero (who is incidentally called Peter) sets out to complete the impossible task. On his way he encounters various kings who have their own problems, and ask Peter to convey their questions to the all-knowing Pelican King, and beg for solutions.

When Peter finally arrives to the house of the Pelican King, he only finds the wife at home. The old woman promises to help, and hides Peter. When the King comes home, she lays him down to preen his feathers, and "accidentally" plucks three of them. The feathers shine with a brilliant diamond light. The old woman also manages to sneakily ask the questions Peter hand, and sends the hero on his way with the feathers and the answers.

I have two comments to add to this:

1. In folktales, having someone lie on your lap and "preening them" ("looking into their head", "checking them for lice", etc.) is symbolic for having sex. Yup. Re-think all those medieval illustrations.

2. The pelican in the middle ages was a symbolic bird, because people believed that it fed its young with its own blood. The church usually treated this as a symbol for Jesus, and people often referred to it as a symbol for motherhood. So, in this case, the Pelican King is some kind of a wise and radiant higher being, who knows all the answers to everything.

Basically, God is a pelican.

(I'm sure some of my SCA friends will be happy with this)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

O is for the One-eyed Old Woman and the Death Horse (WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales)

Welcome to this year's A to Z Challenge titled WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales! You can find all other participating blogs on the A to Z Challenge main blog.

Remember the prince with the castle built on a single straw? The same guy who visited the Kingdom  of Mice?
Well, that story still has some elements worth mentioning.

The tale kicks off with a prince exiled from his kingdom - for losing his sisters. He asks his father, the king, to allow them to take a walk, and the moment the princesses set foot outside, the Sun, the Moon, and the Wind pick them up and spirit them away. The king takes his anger out on his son, and the prince has to make his own way in the world.
On his journey, the prince arrives to the mouth of a cave. He walks in, and keeps walking inside the cave for twelve days, until he finds a stone house, and in the stone house twelve candles. In the light of the candles he sees an old woman, who has only one eye and a lush beard.


She first tries to eat the prince, but he begs her not to. She then also convinces her twelve sons (who are bandits) not to hurt the guest. The next day, after some breakfast, she gives the prince directions: Since they recently ate the king's gardener (ahem), the prince should go and apply for the job. In order to get out of the underground kingdom faster, the one-eyed bearded lady gives the prince a Death Horse and a Wind Lamp. He rides the horse to the exit, and then sends it back home with the lamp around its neck.

We never find out what a Death Horse is, or what the Wind Lamp is for. Your guess is as good as mine. I do like the cyclops lady a lot, though.

Monday, April 16, 2018

N is for Noses (WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales)

Welcome to this year's A to Z Challenge titled WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales! You can find all other participating blogs on the A to Z Challenge main blog.

There is a thing about witches and their noses in Hungarian folktales.

Child masquerading as an iron-nosed
witch, from a cartoon
The most common way we refer to a hag or a witch is "Vasorrú Bába", which translates into "Iron-Nosed Witch." This is as common as saying "prince charming", or any other stock fairy tale character. The whole iron nose thing comes from old shamanistic traditions (wooden spirit-dolls had a metal plate on the face so they could be smeared with offerings without rotting), and also exists in Russian tales. There are other theories about where the idea might come from; in some parts of Hungary, since "bába" also means midwife, it is used to refer to midwives who performed (illegal) abortions. In fairy tales, however, the figure transformed into an evil, supernatural witch-creature with an actual, pointy iron nose. And then in modern folklore it turned into a joke (as in, "I'll headbutt you like the iron-nosed witch headbutts a magnetic table").
I wrote about this figure in detail in my new book, in relation to our strange Rapunzel variant titled The Daughter of the Iron-Nosed Witch.

The other nosy witch I wanted to mention comes from Gaal György's collection, from a story titled The Pelican King (more about him later; see yesterday's post about the collection). In this story, the hero has to cross over the sea to reach his destination. On the beach he encounters an old woman with an eight feet long iron nose. She ferries people over on her nose, swimming, but apparently is tired of doing so, and wants to know how much longer she has to do it. The hero brings her the answer on his way back: She has already drowned ninety-nine people, she will have to drown one more. And because the hero is clever, he only tells her this after she ferried him back.
Not your usual marine transportation.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

M is for Mouseworld (WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales)

Welcome to this year's A to Z Challenge titled WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales! You can find all other participating blogs on the A to Z Challenge main blog.

I have a soft spot for folktales with mouse helpers, and especially tales where animals get their own kingdoms. But by far the most creative, most colorful version of this is from a story I found recently (while looking for something else entirely).

Gaal György's folktale collection was the very first that had been published in Hungarian (sometime in the 1840s); he recorded long and elaborate fairy tales from the Hungarian hussars stationed in Vienna. Among them in a tale called The Straw King.

This is concept art for Moana, but close enough (from here)

The story itself is very similar to the Aladdin type: With the help of a spirit that lives in a magic object, a prince achieves happiness with a wife and a magic castle... until the object is stolen, along with the castle and the wife, and he has to set out to find them. On his journey he encounters his brothers-in-law: The Sun, the Moon, and the Wind. The latter gives him a flying horse to carry him across the ocean, and a golden want that opens everything it touches.

On the 75th island of the ocean (specifically), the prince finds a rock so high he can't see the top, wrapped in strings of diamonds. He touches the surface with the wand, and a passage opens. It leads to the 30th World, the Country of Mice (take that, Nine Realms). The royal castle in the middle of the kingdom is entirely built of bacon and pig feet, and the doorknob is a piece of sausage. The prince wants to go inside, but accidentally breaks the sausage off. The mice guards run panicked to the Mouse King, who eventually emerges. In exchange for five years' worth of grain, he helps he hero retrieve the magic object.

I just really like the idea that somewhere on an island, inside a diamond-studded rock, there is a Mouse World where palaces are made of bacon and sausages. Sounds like a happy place. :D

Friday, April 13, 2018

L is for the Lead Monk (WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales)

Welcome to this year's A to Z Challenge titled WTF Hungary - Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales! You can find all other participating blogs on the A to Z Challenge main blog.

The Lead Monk* (lead, as in the metal) is another one of those weird folktale characters that keep popping up in different stories. It is referred to as the Lead Monk, Lead-head Monk, or (my personal favorite) Snotty Lead Monk. (The snot is never explained).

*In Hungarian, we use the same word for "friend" and "monk." In this case, in context, "friend" would not make much sense, so I went with the other translation.

Trees encased in ice
The Lead Monk Who Covered the Forest in Lead, and the Old Hag
In this tale, collected from Ámi Lajos, the Lead Monk has the ability to cover everything in lead just by blowing/breathing on them. He covers forests and makes tree branches break off; covers corn fields and the corn cobs all fall down. Eventually he runs into a powerful old hag who (after flashing him her lady parts) tricks him into telling her where he keeps his power. She then proceeds to destroy the monk and scatter him on the field as fertilizer (storyteller even comments that this is how artificial fertilizers were invented). The rest of the story tells about the sons of the Lead Monk who set out to revive their father.
(I sense a winter/frost analogy here somehow)

The King and the Forster-Son
In this story, collected by Ipolyi Arnold, a prince and his friend set out to rescue a princess. On the way home the Lead Monk shows up, claiming that she was his fiance, and revealing things that will threaten the heroes - but also warns the foster brother than if he tells anyone, he will turn to stone (not lead, duh). One of the threats is Flame-headed Men jumping the couple on their wedding night... Of course the foster brother saves the princes and the princess, and then turns to stone, and then is rescued, as usual.

The Lead Monk
In this folktale, a hero named Kiss Miklós sets out to bring back the Sun and the Moon that had been stolen. On the way he is chased by the Mother of Dragons, whose terrible jaws stretch from heaven to earth (not as sexy as in Game of Thrones, huh). The hero flees into the house of the Lead Monk, who happens to have several gallons of boiling lead, which they pour down the dragon's throat, killing her. Right after, the Monk also demands to fight the hero. He has  superhuman strength, and turns out to also have the Sun and the Moon... which he is only willing to give back if the hero brings him the Green Princess. Once delivered, the princess finds out the secret of where the Monk keeps his strength (in a wasp inside an egg inside a rabbit), and helps the hero defeat him.

So, common elements of the Lead Monk:
1. Superhuman Strength
2. Strength/life placed outside the body
3. Ability to freeze/petrify things and people
4. A strong connection to lead.

I feel like this is a D&D villain in the making.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

High School Mythical

We were asked by a friend if we could take MythOff to a high school, as a gift to a mythologically inclined seventh grade class. We said yes.

MythOff is a series of live storytelling events that was invented bring mythology, told live, back to modern audiences. It is generally an adult event; we do it in pubs, and coffee houses, and other similar venues. We have never had one in a school setting before - but when we were asked, some of us could not say no.

I love telling to teenagers. They make an amazing audience. In addition, when I was their age, I was a complete mythology dork: I made lists of gods, and read Graves and Kerényi, and collected magazine articles in a binder. And that was pre-Percy Jackson. I tried to imagine how I would have reacted if real storytellers came to my school to do real mythology.

So, we went.

Round One: Tricksters and creation

All three of us picked a mythology. For round one, all three of us brought stories that involved creation, or birth, or origins... and also, completely by accident, tricksters. Varga-Fogarasi Szilvia brought the birth of Maui; Nagy Enikő the story of Sif's golden hair and Loki's bet for the forging of Mjölnir; and I brought Momus, and his critique of Greek creation. I especially had fun with the Greeks when I asked the kids how many gods live on Mount Olympus (they knew). Then I asked if someone could list them... and a girl, very proudly and confidently, listed all twelve, with some enthusiastic support from her classmates. Be still, my heart.

The voting question: We never really had a MythOff with an odd number of tellers before - but we came up with a genius solution.
First, I asked the class if they knew how the Trojan War started. A guy said that someone kidnapped someone's wife; a girl added that the wife had been given to Paris by Aphrodite. Someone else added that it was in exchange for the golden apple; and yet another person pointed out that the apple had been thrown by Eris into a wedding. After the class assembled the entire story, I produced a golden apple (I painted it gold the night before, along with half the kitchen), and the voting question: If you had to pick a roommate when you go to college, which one of the three tricksters would you want as your roommate?
Szilvi brought three cups and a box of glass pebbles. Each cup represented a mythology. Each student got one pebble, which they places in the cup of their choice, under the supervision of the two guys in the front row, who enthusiastically commented on the proceedings, and monitored the fairness of the vote. Loki won by considerable majority (with Momus second and Maui last). If they wake up one day in college with their hair cut off, I take no responsibility.

Round Two: The wrath of the gods

This round involved myths where someone pissed off a deity in some way. Szilvi brought Maui back, and told about how he stole fire from the volcano goddess Mahuika (you're welcome). Enikő brought Thor, and told the story of how he was dressed up as a bride to take Mjölnir back from the giants (and then killed them all). On my part, I told the myth of King Erysichthon, and how Demeter punished him with deadly hunger when he chopped her sacred grove down.
The voting question: If you had to give the golden apple (I made two) to a god, knowing that the other two will be angry at you, which god would you want to piss of the least?
This time, the vote was overwhelming: Demeter won it by a landslide. To be fair, we were just before lunch break, so the kids were probably really feeling the hunger...

Once again it has been proven that mythology works like a charm in high school. And that high schoolers make an awesome audience. They were attentive, appreciative, creative, they made comments and asked questions, and took the vote very, very seriously (I loved hearing them discuss their decisions in line).

Bring more storytelling to high schools!