Tag Archives: folktale

The Chinese Farmer

E.H. is a 20-year-old Chinese student in my fraternity. He was sharing a few old Chinese stories he used to hear a bunch. His grandma told him this story that she remembered from when her husband (his grandpa) had passed away. He tries to remember this knowledge his grandmother gave to him, since she is getting old and is in her final days. He also looks back on it when he is sad.

E.H.: So there was once a farmer and a son, and they had a beloved horse that helped the family earn a living. One day the horse ran away, and the neighbor said “your horse ran away what terrible luck”. The farmer replied “maybe so maybe not”. A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild horses back to the farm as well. The neighbor shouted out, “your horse returned, and brought several horses with him, what great luck!” The farmer replied, “maybe so, maybe not.” Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the horses, and the horse broke his leg. The neighbors cried, “your son broke his leg! What terrible luck.” The farmer replied, “maybe so, maybe not”. A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the boys for the army. They didn’t take the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg. The neighbors shouted “your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” to which the farmer replied, “maybe so, maybe not, we’ll see”.

As seen in this story, it is really impossible whether to tell whether anything that happens will be good or bad. You will never know what the consequences of misfortune or good fortune will be as only time will tell the whole story. Even if things look great at the start, you can never tell how bad they might get. Same with when things are bad, you never know what good can come out of it. It’s important to remember to just live your life, and not expect too much. Good things come and go, and you cannot get too hung up on the highs or the lows. E.H. explained to me the way he sees this story is if bad things happen, to just ride out the wave, stay humble, and stay balanced.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes

Main Piece:

Informant: So in terms of where I grew up there are like sand dunes and they’re called The Sleeping Bear Dunes. And so there was there’s like a story. I’m gonna butcher the story, but we would learn it growing up. So, like a long time ago a mother bear and her two cubs had to swim across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire. And so the bears swam for many hours, because the lake is massive, but soon the cubs got tired? And the mother bear reached the shore first and climbed to the top of a hill to like watch and wait for the babies. And it’s like so so sad, but the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. And so the Great Spirit created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the mother bear and how she had to watch her babies in the lake. And we would go like in third- It’s usually around third grade. We would go on field trips to the dunes and before you go, they would read that story to you. 

Relationship: 

My informant learned this as part of her education in Michigan. She was actually homeschooled after elementary school, but she said this was one of her most vivid memories from the Michigan school system. 

Context:

My informant is one of my roommates, a 20-year-old dance major at USC. She’s from Michigan and this performance took place in our kitchen as she was cooking. 

Analysis. 

This legend is told before children visit the actual site of the dunes, but it’s taught as a story rather than the truth of what happened and why the dunes and the island are there along Lake Michigan. I didn’t realize it until halfway through the performance, but this is a Native American legend and when I asked her if she knew which tribes had this legend, she said that she was never taught the tribes’ names, just that it was a Native American myth. It struck me how this story is told as a Native American legend, but with most of the context stripped from it, so it becomes part of Michigan’s history while still being othered. 

For more information on the legend of the Sleeping Bear Dune, see, https://project.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/bearlegend.html

or for more on the appropriation of this story see,

https://www.record-eagle.com/news/waking-the-sleeping-bear-from-story-appropriation/article_b3d853f0-93ef-11eb-a550-27a510341782.html

Jewish Folktale: The Fools of Chelm Try to Capture the Moon in a Barrel of Water

Text:

LG: “In the town of Chelm, the people there were fools and one night they saw the moon in a barrel of water. So, they thought they would capture it, so they covered the barrel. So then, in the morning when they went back, it was gone. So, they thought it had been stolen, so they called the police. And the police came, and they had nothing to show them, so they all moaned and cried.”

Context:

The informant is my mother. She is a 57-year-old woman of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who was born in California and currently lives in New York City. Her father was a German-born Jewish refugee who escaped Nazi persecution as a child and her mother is the daughter of poor Russian Jewish immigrants. She feels very attuned to her Jewish heritage and culture and views this tale as an example of “shtetl humor.” She doesn’t remember where she first heard this story, but recently discovered an iteration of it in the writings of Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Analysis:

This folktale is one of many which discuss the Jewish town of Chelm, where “inhabitants acquired a reputation for being good and well meaning, though foolish” (Patai and Oettinger). I think this tale conveys some of the defining qualities of Jewish humor, which is often acerbic and endearingly critical, however, it’s not merely making fun of stupidity. As Raphael Patai and Ayelet Oettinger write, the foolishness in these stories “can be seen as a sort of backward logic that satirizes the process of Jewish theological reasoning” (Patai and Oettinger). In this instance, the people of Chelm’s effort to capture the moon is an allegory about faith, where God, like the moon, is astonishing and powerful, but elusive and cannot be physically captured. I think this story is also a critique of the hubristic desire to see God and understand divinity.

Citations:

Patai, Raphael, and Ayelet Oettinger. “Chelm, the Wise of.” Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore and Traditions, edited by Haya Bar-Itzhak, and Raphael Patai, Routledge, 1st edition, 2013. Credo Reference, https://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sharpejft/chelm_the_wise_of/0?institutionId=887. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

Another iteration of this folktale is given in a block quote which follows the third paragraph of this essay:

Rogovin, Or. “Chelm as Shtetl: Y. Y. Trunk’s Khelemer Khakhomim.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, vol. 29, no. 2, spring 2009, pp. 242+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A223824114/LitRC?u=usocal_main&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=65b43ad2. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

The Man With the Coconuts

Context

The following story comes from my friend who enjoys telling me about various Philipino folktales that she heard from her parents when she was younger.

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Performance

The following is a transcription of the story told to me.

“So there’s this man with a bunch of coconuts and he’s loading them all up on his horse, and it’s really heavy. On the way back home, he gets really tired and he finds a boy on the side of the street. He calls the boy over and asks him how long more it will take to reach the town. The boy tells him that the town is fairly near! The boy also tells him that the man will arrive very soon but if he goes fast, it will take him all day. So he tells the man to just go slowly. The man is confused and thinks the boy is just being dumb and naive. So he rides his horse fast to the town. However, along the way the coconuts keeps falling off the horse and the man has to stop and continuously pick up the coconuts. Then he would try and ride even faster on his horse, to make up for lost time, but then the coconuts would keep dropping and he would have to stop and pick them up. And eventually the man made it back to town at the end the day.”

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Analysis

This Filipino folktale is one that is meant to share a message and a lesson. The lesson is to never rush something because you will not do the task properly and you will end up needing even more time than if you had just been patient and worked diligently. This folktale is one that is commonly told as a bedtime story to younger children. It is meant to impart the lesson of patience and hard work. Many other Filipino folklore also have a strong message behind the story. To read more Filipino folklore: https://www.jstor.org/stable/537202

Ratcliff, Lucetta K. “Filipino Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 62, no. 245, 1949, pp. 259–289. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/537202. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.

Anansi Tales

Main piece: So, it’s the Anansi Tales, it’s really popular in Jamaica, and my mom grew up in Jamaica so her mom used to tell her the stories. Basically, Anansi was this spider and he was pretty popular in most of the stories but one of them specifically was about Anansi and the snake. So, there was this tiger that was the king of the forest and had a bunch of stuff named after him. And Anansi was like, “I want something named after me.” So he went up to the tiger and was like, “hey you have everything you could ever want, can you just name something after me?” and the tiger was like, “okay, what do you want me to name after you?” and Anansi said that he wanted the stories to be called the Anansi stories because they were originally called the tiger stories. So, the tiger didn’t want to give up his name as the story names. So he was like, “ok fine I’ll entertain this idea for a second.” And he decided to make a deal with Anansi. So he was like, “Okay, here’s the deal bro, capture the snake, then I’ll change the name to the Anansi stories.” And Anansi was like, “Okay, BET.” So, he was thinking about how he could capture the snake. And his first plan he got a noose and some berries, and put the berries in the noose, I think. But, the snake managed to get the berries without getting caught. So Anansi was like, “Aw dang. What’s another way I can do this?” And so then he went a little bit further down the trail — like he did this on a trail that he knows the snake normally goes down — and then he went further in the trail and dug a pit and put some bananas in it. Oh, and then he put grease along the side so that the snake wouldn’t get out. So the snake saw the bananas, but he also saw the grease so he was like “no” and he tied his tail or something to like the tree that was next to it, and he went in and got the bananas just fine. So then, Anansi was like, “alright cool. What can I do now?” So, then he made this trap and put mangos in it and then this piglet walked by and was like “whoa” so he got trapped in the trap. So basically there was enough room in the trap for the snake to go and eat the piglet but not get out. But then when the snake arrived, the piglet started to go crazy and he like broke down the trap and ran away and the snake didn’t get caught. So then the next day Anansi was sitting outside the snakes house and the snake was like, “oh okay, so after you try to kill me on multiple accounts, you’re just going to sit outside my house? Smart idea” and then Anansi was like, “Yeah, you’re right but like I was doing it for a good cause, people are talking about you behind your back. And the snake was like, “What do you mean?” and he [Anansi] was like, “They’re saying that you’re not the longest creature here. They’re saying you’re not even like as long as bamboo.” And the Snake was like, “Hell nah I am. Get the longest piece of bamboo you can find and like measure me next to it” and Anansi was like, “Okay here’s the issue: what if like I’m measuring, and when I go by your head you make yourself seem longer, but when I goby your tail you move closer to make it seem longer.” Cause obviously Anansi can’t see the whole length of the snake like all the time, so the snake told him to tie his tail to the bamboo. So, Anansi does and then goes down to measure the head. But, what he really does at that point to that snake is he quickly ties the head to the bamboo and to the middle. And at this point, everyones kinda gathered around and watching and they’re like “oh, what the fuck—” Oh sorry— “Anansi caught the snake!” and then ya all the animals were like “Okay respect, we’re not gonna laugh at you anymore. They’re the Anansi Tales now.” And that’s how they became the Anansi tales, but there’s a ton of other stories and they’re super popular in Jamaica. 

Background: My informant is a Junior in college. She is American, but her Mom is an immigrant from Jamaica and her Dad is an immigrant from Nicaragua. Here she talks about a tale that her mom heard when she was a kid, and then passed it on down to her kids. The informant says that they’re not well known stories here, in Jamaica the characters and stories of the Anansi tales are like kids stories, that the culture holds very fondly. It is important to note that my informant acknowledged the fact that this wasn’t going to be the exact same as the way her mom tells it, but she remembers most of the ‘specifics.’

Context: This story was told during the day in a group setting. What was nice is that time didn’t seem to pass as we heard this story, as the informant shared it in a way that was aimed towards us. The language used was casual and engaging, and the group was listening to the story with the same engagement of watching a netflix show. I could also tell that the informant fed off this energy and began to have fun with the tale. 

My Thoughts: What I think is super important here is the idea that two versions of the same story could stem from the same house. Of course, the informant’s mother’s version is great as it was listened to many times by the informant. However, the informant has created her own version in sharing the story with me and a few others. The way she performed it for us was very informal and modern in terms of language, which made the story engaging and hilarious for the audience. I found myself rooting for Anansi at the end of the rather long narrative, and also curious as to what other adventures this spider has gone on, both in a traditional sense, but also in a non traditional sense. I mean, the stories this spider has inspired from passing from person to person. I am excited to try this one out on my younger siblings, and I am sure my version will not be the same, but still hold some of the Anansi magic. Of course, I have no intense personal ties to the Jamiacan roots of this story, however the informant’s genuine love for her childhood tale is inspiring to keep that tale alive.