Tag Archives: Children’s tale

Anansi and the Sky God

CONTEXT/BACKGROUND:
The interlocutor (RS) is an African-American woman whose parents told her this story as a child.

DESCRIPTION: (told through video call)
(RS): “I know that there is an African folktale about this spider called Anansi basically to teach children not to make bad decisions. Does that work?”

(INT): “Yeah, that’s good.”

(RS): “‘Kay, good. So the Anansi is basically this spider, right? Right. There’s a lot of stories about him, because he was this trickster guy, like, like, like… Loki from Marvel, I guess? Yeah. So there used to be this sky god dude and one day Anansi was like, “Hey buddy, I want all the stories people to tell about you to be about me, yeah? What do I gotta do?”

And the sky god was like, “I don’t know, my guy. Prove you’re worthy and stuff,” and then he was like, “Do these THREE tasks and you can get my stories, but these are also mad difficult, ‘kay?'”

(INT): “What were the tasks?”

(RS): “Relax, woman, I’m getting there. So the tasks were like… ‘get me a whole swarm of bees,’ and ‘bring me a python,’ and ‘get me a leopard,’ just casual stuff that you’d buy at the grocery, yeah? Yeah.” (She laughs.)

“So Anansi managed to get the bees with like, a gourd and some honey, I don’t really know, and then like he tricked the snake into coming with him, and then he bamboozled that silly little leopard because Anansi is a bitch.”

(INT): (laughing) “Okay.”

(RS): “So after KIDNAPPING these poor creatures, he goes up to the sky god and is like, “Bitch, give me my stories.” And the sky god’s like, “Ugh, fine. Here you go.” And that’s what happened! All the sky god’s stories about his greatness and stuff went to that bitch-ass spider. Annoying little guy. He’s smart though. I guess.”

FINAL THOUGHTS/OBSERVATIONS:
RS’s interpretation of this tale was a lot of fun to listen to! I’m still unclear about whether or not there’s some kind of moral to this story. I’m not very familiar with a lot of African folklore, but the story of Anansi definitely reminds me of other stories about tricksters that I know of, such as the Norse god Loki (as RS mentioned) or even fox figures in short stories and tales.

The Baba Yaga

CONTEXT/BACKGROUND:
The interlocutor (MT) is a friend of the interviewer’s (INT). She took a class on Russian literature at her university and learned about the Baba Yaga through her professor’s telling of the legend as well as through conducting her own research.

DESCRIPTION: (told over text)
(MT): “So the Baba Yaga is kinda a mixed figure in slavic folklore bc in the stories I’ve personally encountered, she’s a witch with cannibalistic tendencies (and a preference for children) who lives with her two other sisters (also named Baba Yaga, think Macbeth and the three witches). She lives in the woods and she’s depicted as super ugly and repulsive and often with reptilian traits.”

(INT): “Sorry, what kind of reptile?”

(MT): “A crocodile!!! So in the late 17th century, early 18th century, she was also used in these things called a lubok, which was this wooden tablet to tell stories and the ones that had the Baba Yaga were used to relay political messages and depicted her as a crocodile.”

(INT): “Okay, thanks.”

(MT): “Yeah, totally! in general, she’s a villain (hello! she eats children) and a scary figure who’s a hag, super ugly and lives in the woods, away from the “civilized” people in the cities and villages. But, like, some stories (like, later works of Russian lit) complicate her morality by making Baba Yaga more of a guiding figure who has wisdom from her age. That’s it, I think.”

Final Thoughts/Observations:
While I’ve definitely heard of the Baba Yaga before, it was interesting to hear about this folk tale from someone who’s studied her in more depth and tracked her through different pieces of Russian literature! The Baba Yaga is interesting because she’s another example of the stories people across different cultures tell children to scare them into good behavior. I noticed how MT’s telling of the Baba Yaga falls into the category of “redeemable villains” that we discussed in class. Overall, she’s clearly a fascinating and memorable figure in Slavic folklore that’s well-known for a reason.

The Tale of Salmon Boy

Main Piece:

The way that I heard it— so I heard different versions of it over time, like all my teachers told me slightly different stories. Um one of the field trips we went on in elementary school was going to the salmon hatchery which is the place where you hatch salmon…as I’m sure you could tell by the name (laughing). So we heard the story there as well. But basically what I heard the story was that there was this young boy who was not very respectful to the salmon. He would like spear them and just for fun he would like… torture the fish basically and just treat them horribly and was not respectful of the all of the things that having salmon meant, for their family, for their society, for him and he just was not was not aware. If he was aware he didn’t care, he was just a really selfish dude. And the gods got angry at the way he was treating their gifts to their society basically, and to teach him a lesson they turned him into a salmon. And he was living with the salmon and living their way of life and, um, going through the process of, you know, laying eggs in the river and going to the ocean, and going back to the river and he befriended the salmon and gained a lot of respect for their way of life. 

And this is where things get a little fuzzy and in the details of the different versions I heard was— one version I heard was that once he gained respect for the salmon, he befriended this other salmon that had taken him in and was like, making sure he was protected because he had no idea what he was doing as a fish… like you would if you were a human and turned into a fish… But there was another boy in the tribe that Salmon Boy knew, and that boy killed the fish he had befriended and was treating the fish horribly. And Salmon Boy was horrified and lost somebody that was very important to him and it, um, changed him and changed the way that he viewed salmon and the world, and having learned his lesson, he was turned back into a human and he was changed forever, you know. He was far more respectful and very careful with the way he interacted with salmon, and he still ate them because it was food, but he did it in a much more respectful way as opposed to actively torturing. 

So that was one version, but I heard another one where instead of it being a friend of Salmon Boy’s that got hurt, it was he himself that got hurt, and so the friend he’d known from the tribe that still remained human speared him instead of the [fish] friend, and treated him horribly and then he, like, you know, turned back into a human. And the other dude was like “oh no!” This is not the proper terminology obviously but that was the gist of it, that then he was treated horribly and then he goes to the salmon and learned his lesson that way. 

Background: 

My informant, one of my friends, is a 20-year-old USC student from Washington state. Having grown up there her whole life, a significant part of her education from K-12 focused on the history of Washington state with emphasis on the Native groups that live there. She told me that Washington State History was a mandatory graduation required course for her and her peers, where they would learn “a lot about all the elements of their culture, words specific to the Pacific Northwest, so obviously salmon was one of them.” As stated in the main piece, this story was often told to her by various teachers. To my informant, the meaning of the story of Salmon boy was about “being respectful of the environment and being respectful even when you are using it. There are spirits and animals and you have to treat them gently, and not be cruel, and not think that you’re better than anything around you.” 

Context: 

This story came up after I asked my informant that in one of my previous classes, we studied the Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest, and I told her that I heard a story about Salmon Boy. I asked if she happened to know the story, when she said yes, I asked for the versions she’d heard.

Analysis: 

 The story of Salmon Boy is a well known tale (told as a  among the people of the Pacific Northwest, whether they’re Native American or not. What I liked is that my informant was able to tell me two different versions of the story that she heard, showcasing Alan Dundes’ idea of multiplicity and variation within folklore that allows it to grow as it’s told over and over to different groups of people. With a story that has two very different endings, it’s interesting to consider the way that it was used and during what circumstances. For example, it could’ve been told to misbehaving children as a cautionary tale with a tragic ending, but simultaneously, the other version could have emphasized the themes of forgiveness and growth.

What I also found interesting about this piece is that it’s considered Native American folklore, yet it’s continuously taught in schools across the Pacific Northwest. As a whole, the United States doesn’t hold folklore on the same pedestal as it does anthropology in part because of the country’s colonialist roots, meaning that a good percentage of folklore within origins in the United States is that of Native Americans’. Additionally, this exchange serves as an example of active and passive bearers: I had only heard of the story of Salmon Boy in an academic setting, but couldn’t remember it enough to tell it on my own. My informant on the other hand, became the active bearer by being able to recite two versions of the story, having grown up hearing them so often in her youth.

Tale of Golem (Kid’s Version)

Main Piece:

Collector (me): So like, what’s the version [of Golem] you first grew up with and are most familiar with?

Informant: So the first one I heard is not gonna be the most common, but the first one I heard, but it’s like trying to teach little Jewish kids “Don’t be a kvetcher,” which is like someone who complains a lot. And so it was this story of this girl like had this golem who was like her pet golem, but not really her pet golem, but that was the idea of it. And, like, he was a very bad golem— he would just complain all the time when he was alive, so he wasn’t your “saving the day golem,” but he was a kvetcher, and he would just complain and complain and complain and complain. And you know at first the girl wanted to be like the golem, so she would also complain all the time, and then her parents were like “No,” and so they killed the golem, and then the girl was all sad. And then you know, they were like, “This is what happens.” Not dying, but people won’t like you and will get rid of you if you complain all the time.”

Collector: So is it like a cautionary tale or moral lesson for kids?

Informant: Yeah, so that one’s like, you know, your typical children’s story. Like if you do this bad thing, this bad thing will happen, so don’t do this bad thing.

Background: 

My informant here is a 20-year-old student from USC, and was raised Jewish. To those unfamiliar, my informant explained a golem as a figure made of clay that comes to life when someone puts “a piece of paper with Hebrew writing on it, and you put it in its mouth,” and depending on the version, they can either be good or bad guys. My informant learned about this version of golem during storytime at the Jewish preschool they attended when they were little. While it’s not one of the more known versions of the tale, it’s the one the teachers at the school told to my informant and their peers. 

Context: 

This came up when I was telling my friend about a golem figure that one of my classmates brought for the “Show and Tell” activity we had in one of our folklore lectures the other day. I knew that my friend was familiar with golem because of a conversation we’d had about him in the past, and I asked if they could tell me more about him and what version they were familiar with. 

Thoughts: 

While I’m not as familiar with Jewish folk tales or golem, I thought it was interesting to see that this version my informant presented me with was depicted through his actions as a moral lesson for children to abide by. In this version of the tale, we can observe the main lesson: in order to be well liked and taken seriously by others around you, one shouldn’t blindly follow the example of someone else, especially if they know their behavior would be frowned upon in society. This tale interweaves the expectations and values of the culture in a manner that makes it easy for children to understand. The fate of the golem isn’t a literal reminder of what could happen to those who don’t heed the lesson, but by portraying it in such a drastic measure, it helps kids piece together the way that they should conduct themselves in their group. Of course, this is only one version of the golem—

(For a more well known version, see Abedon, May 15, 2020 “The Golem – Jewish Folk Tale”, USC Folklore Archives).

Children’s Folk Tales in Estonia

Background: The informant is a 48-year-old woman who was born in Estonia and immigrated to the United States, and currently lives in California. She still participates in Estonian traditions by attending the “Estonian House” which is an Estonian community located in Los Angeles.

Context: The folklore was collected during a scheduled zoom meeting in which I interviewed two native Estonians who currently live in Los Angeles and who are close friends.

Main Piece: “A huge part of my growing up was ‘Eesti ennemuistsed jutud’ and in the Soviet Union we had the series ‘Saia rahva lood’ or ‘tales of a hundred nations’, I read them, we enjoyed them very much. But what the Estonians had was ‘Eesti ennemuistsed jutud’, Estonian ancient tales, and one very big part of it was a farmer called ‘Kaval Ants’ fighting an evil called ‘Vanapagan’. It’s not called Satan, but it’s, you know the one who came from down. And this witty farmer, poor witty farmer always outsmarted the evil ‘Vanapagan’. ‘Vanapagan’ is ‘old pagan’ but it actually means ‘devil’. So ‘Kaval Ants’ and ‘Vanapagan’, those are the tales of my childhood, we read them and it’s a big thick book of Estonian fairy tales, where always this poor boy or poor girl was working, slaving for a master and at the end he or she got justice. Not always, Estonian fairy tales are not always very happy endings, but not as grim as you may think. And many tales had animals, like instead of people. Usually there were foxes and wolves, and the foxes outsmarted them.”

Interpretation: The first thing that caught my attention was the distinction the informant made between Estonian folk tales and the more “official” stories that the Soviet authorities used that were called ‘Saia rahva lood’. While the informant did not go into too much detail about the narrative and plot points of these tales, many of the common themes in Estonian folk tales are made very clear here. Furthermore, this serves as further evidence that Estonian tales are completely different from what was seen in the more Western nations. Many tales from the West center around royalty and fantasy, whereas Estonian tales are very grounded and have a peasanty humbleness to them. The characters are often farmers or animals and they have to use their wits, not sheer strength, to outsmart their opponents. Another thing that really caught my eye was how ‘old pagan’ is synonymous with the devil in the tale of Kaval Ants. This provides some interesting insight into the more religious realm of Estonian culture and how pagans were seen as devils and evil doers in the eyes of the Orthodox Christian Estonians. There is a lot of interesting history surrounding Estonian religion that ties to many of the themes seen in these tales.

For another version of this tale read:

Kreutzwald, Friedrich Reinhold. Eesti rahva ennemuistsed jutud. Avita, 1996 (first published 1866).