Thursday, July 28, 2016

Folklore Thursday: Farts, folktales, and feminism

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

Today we talk about ancient tales about women farting.

This is not a joke, so much so that the folktale type I am talking about has its own number: ATU 1453**** (those are not four tiny farts, those are asterisks for a sub-type, thank you very much). It is commonly known as "The Flatulent Girl," but the type also has a fancy Latin name, Puella Pedens, which means the same, but sounds more scientific, because it's Latin.
This story exists in many traditions around the world, but in vastly different versions, and with vastly different morals. Some folklorists posit that it is of Eastern origin, because it exists in the Birbal tale cycle of India.
Whatever the case, it is worth talking about.

Here is the gist:

A man (or a party of men) arrives at a house to propose to a girl. While they are there, the girl lets out a fart, which absolutely scandalizes the guests, and they leave immediately. After this, the story can take two turns: One, "this is why women should never fart" - and Two, which is obviously why I am talking about this today.
In Option Two (several Hungarian versions), the mother is so embarrassed by her daughter's mistake that she bribes the men with a length of home-made linen to not tell anyone. When his daughter finds out that they are walking away with the linen that she made with hard work, she runs after them, takes it back, tells them off, and marches home. The "tells them off" part is especially entertaining, and it can take various forms, such as:

"You take your groom, I'll take my linen. And you can go find a house where nobody farts!"
"Guess what: I farted a lot more than this while I made an entire length of linen with my own hands!"
"I farted because my father's house has good food. Does yours?"

In one version, the men feel ashamed, admit that the girl is clever, and propose anyway. In another, the storyteller concludes "she had more brains than her mother." In the third, the "clever girl" never marries, but the story notes that she was unjustly judged for "one mistake."
All of these versions of the story have been collected from female storytellers, by the way.

While many versions of this tale type fall under your typical run-of-the-mill "women-policing" category, the ones mentioned above carry a very important feminist message: That there is a bias in people when they compare a woman's behavior (and bodily functions) to the worth of her work. "Real" women, according to society, don't fart, don't burp, don't sweat, don't grow hair, and bleed blue. Watching to make sure they adhere to these rules come before actually paying attention to what they are working on, what they are saying, or what their personality is like. It is so important that a girl's shoulders should be covered that she is sent home from an educational institution, placing "propriety" above knowledge (because clearly no one has seen a naked shoulder before). When women in the media are meticulously criticized for their looks and their etiquette instead of what they stand for, we have a problem.
Sure, accidentally having bodily functions in front of guests is not good etiquette - but neither does it make a woman unlovable, undesirable, or worthy of eternal damnation.

And it is definitely not worth losing a perfectly good length of linen.
(SCAdians, can I get an amen?)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Meanwhile in Spain, television history is STILL happening

I will keep saying this until my head explodes: WATCH. THIS. SHOW.

A lot of things happened since I last blogged about El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time), Spain's new hit TV show:
- The second season concluded, with 13 stellar episodes
- A book was published, containing 3 additional episodes from the second season (because transmedia storytelling is a thing)
- The rights for the show have been bought/optioned by several other countries, including China, Portugal, and France

They also broke out the wigs
By the second season, the show has found its footing and its audience - not that the first one wasn't amazing, but this time, every single episode delivered quality TV that you rarely ever see, especially when it comes to historical topics. The show navigates between entertainment, historical authenticity, emotional impact (without crossing over to melodrama), and presents an admirable sobriety when it comes to facing Spain's own history with all its ups AND downs. 

Here are some things that I absolutely loved this season (with minor spoilers):

26 episodes into a show, the main characters, who have been working for the Ministry and traveling in time for years, still have problems adjusting to the modern era, and their own sentiments and values still show at odd places. For example, Amelia, the team's history-savvy, early feminist leader fights for women's rights at every turn, BUT since she comes from the 19th century, sentences like "only women can be kleptomaniacs, it is in their nature" still fall out of her mouth occasionally. Alonso, our 16th century softie of a soldier, gets told halfway through Season 2 that maybe he should start bathing (even though he's just mastered the microwave). Pacino, the new guy on the team from the 1980s, is as amazed by modern technology as the medieval guy is (and the 19th century lady explains to him what a flash drive is). The show is FULL of small details like this, highlighting that these characters, time travelers as they may be, still have ingrained habits and values that can't just be flushed out from one day to the next.
A 19th century lady, Diego Velazquez, and a 16th century soldier
watch Terminator 2

Evil Americans trying to buy the
manuscript of Don Quixote
2. The Americans are evil - and have bad accents
Okay, so I don't think Americans are evil, but GOD IT IS REFRESHING to watch a show where a (badly done) American accent means that someone is an evil businessman who wants to make time travel into a source of wealth. The show takes several hilarious jabs at Americans and their knowledge of European history; and I am pretty sure that having a Spanish actors portray J. Edgar Hoover and Charlton Heston is one of these intentional jabs... Why hire a native speaker if one of our actors can do a passable accent, riiiiight?

3. The ministry works about as well as any ministry would
Disaster is usually only avoided because the people working there are bending the rules into pretzels - otherwise, the Ministry has some serious issues with its logistics. It is not perfectly equipped with high tech, or operating in complete secrecy. Things leak all the time, and they have to scramble to mitigate the situations; funding is cut all over the place, and they don't have enough agents to cover all their bases, which repeatedly leads to security breaches and administrative problems. The new boss they get knows nothing about history, but has 3 online degrees... All in all, they take at least as many jabs at their own administration as they do at the Americans.
They even get audited by the IRS. And spend an episode doing paperwork. (And still make it exciting)

There are entirely too many guns in this  "Ministry of Public Transport"

4. They definitely had more budget this season
Still not as much as HBO, obviously, but they ventured into larger concepts, compared to Season 1. We saw larger sets, more costumes, more extras, war camps, castles, and even part of New York City in the 1920s...

5. They go into WHAT IF stories and alternate history
New this season, we actually see the modern world change a couple of times due to historical events being altered. Some of them are minor, while the season finale delivers a whole alternate world - excellently done and heartbreaking at the same time. I don't want to spoil it, but I'll tell you that it was an amazingly well done episode, and it put our GOOD protagonists through internal struggles between their own privilege and the suffering of others. If you do alternate history, this is how you do it.

+1. Hungary was briefly featured!
Okay, so only Hungarians are gonna get excited about this, but the characters briefly visited Hungary at the end of the 19th century - and, unlike the American characters, the actress speaking Hungarian in this episode had no accent at all. And was singing an actual Hungarian song. It was perfect.

All in all, Season 2 presents El Ministerio del Tiempo at the height of its potential. It is entertaining, educational, exciting, and LOVABLE. And it shows no sign of slowing down. I can't wait to see what they come up with for Season 3.
(They still owe me some Romans. Apart from the ones they locked into the bathroom during inspection, that is.)

Eat both your hearts out, Doctor.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Folklore Thursday: Teaching consent through fairy tales

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

There have been a lot of discussion lately about consent and fairy tales - mostly focusing on Sleeping Beauty, and whether or not it is a good message to kiss a sleeping girl (or, as in the case of Sun, Moon, and Talia, to have sex with an unconscious woman) (spoiler alert, it's not). The more I read about it the more I started to wonder about finding fairy tales that do teach consent - or have symbolic elements that can be used to do so.
Well, I have been reading Hungarian folktales from Ung county (historically northeastern Hungary, currently split between Slovakia and the Ukraine), and I found a moment in one of them that explains the concept of consent perfectly.

The story is a classic fairy tale type, about the golden apples (pears) that mysteriously disappear every night, and the youngest prince that discovers that they are being stolen by fairies-turned-birds. He falls in love with the fairy queen, but she can't stay with him; the young prince (in this case named Árgyélus) sets out to find her.
Things get interesting (and relevant) when he finally gets to the fairy palace at the end of the world:

He was almost there when the middle sister [of the fairy queen Ilona] told her:
"Árgyélus is here!"
"Are you sure?" Ilona asked.
"Sure! As sure as we are here right now. Shall we let him in?" she asked.
"No, we shall not, until he tells us where they came from and who they are looking for."
When the prince knocked, the girl said:
"Come on in, the door is open!"
But the horse [the magic horse of the prince] told him:
"Wait, don't rush in!"
He waited, and then knocked again. Ilona said:
"The door is open."
But she didn't open the door, and the horse said:
"Let's wait until they open the door themselves."
The prince said:
"Open the door for me!"
Ilona then came out and said:
"You can come in, the door is open."

The magic horse (a táltos - the same word we use for shaman) acts as the prince's guide and conscience in these tales. He is the one that warns him not to rush, not to break through the door - to wait until the princess opens it herself. The first time he knocks, someone else (the sister) tries to give consent for her, stating the door is open; the second time Ilona states the door is open, but does not invite him in. He waits until she opens the door herself, and asks him, out loud, to enter.

This is the definition of "yes means yes," people.

I wanted to share this little tidbit because it is a motif that can be inserted into most stories; it is a small moment, but it has a very clear message, without shedding the symbolism of fairy tales. All folktales are build of smaller building blocks, recurring motifs; this is a less common one, but it can be very useful, without sounding forced or didactic.

Feel free to take it and run with it!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

MythOff Budapest - The Myth of Champions

What can you do when you find out that the date you set for the summer MythOff also happens to be the date of a semi-final for the European Football Championship?
You organize a football-themed MythOff.

The third ever MythOff Budapest managed to be innovative for a number of reasons. First off, we had a new venue, a nice bar-slash-event-space, which managed to host most of our 60+ (!!!) listeners. Once again, we outgrew the venue. Not that we are complaining. We also had a new storyteller joining us, a new theme, 80% new audience, and a new-found appreciation for our listeners who all pitched in to help us cover the venue fee. All in all, MythOff was fresh, exciting, and very successful.

Here is how the rounds went down:

Round 1: Game of Myths
In this round we told myths from the two countries that played in the semi-final that night. We only found out for sure the Sunday before; it was an added challenge for the storytellers to pick and rehearse their myths in time. 
Germanic mythology: Representing the German team, Szilvia Varga-Fogarasi told a piece from the Nibelungenlied, where Siegfried was dividing a pile of treasure between two Dwarves, and realized that it is hard to be the judge in the middle of a family feud.
Celtic/Christian mythology: Since the other team was France, it took me some time to figure out what to tell. I settled for the Breton legend of Saint Hervé, partly because it is definitely a part of Christian mythology, partly because it definitely has pre-Christian Celtic roots... and partly because I could not pass up the blind bard with the tame wolf.
Voting question: "If you had to choose between Siegfried's judgment and the blind bard, to select a referee for the Championship finals, which one would you go with?"
People voted for the blind referee.

Round 2: Consolation Myths
This round included myths from countries that were already out of the running for football champion - as a form of honorable mention to their participation, and to showcase how awesome their stories are.
Southern Slavic mythology: Our new storyteller, Júlia Lovranits, brought us an intriguing, old Slavic myth that she pieced together from various Slovenian, Croatian, and Serbian sources. It was a flood-and-creation myth, and had connections to current folk beliefs and traditions; she even brought a cow bell to chase away bad spirits (we also used the cow bell to herd people back to their places after the break).
Norse mythology: Sometimes, even in the MythOff lineup, we get some classics everybody loves. This time it was the story of Thor dressing up as a bride to get his hammer back from the Jötuns. Maja Bumberák told the original text straight from the Poetic Edda, and brought out beautifully the humor hiding in the words...
Voting question: "If a museum only had one space left for the Night of the Museums exhibit, which item should they display, Thor's wedding veil, or Kurent's human-creating sweat drops?"
People decided they definitely wanted Thor's wedding veil on display.

Round 3: Play and Competition
In order to incorporate a broader theme into the evening, we designed a round of myths that had something to do with contests, balls, or the enjoyment of play. Out last two storytellers picked their own stories based on these motifs, rather than by culture.
Mayan mythology: László Gregus told us the myth of the Hero-Twins who played a ball game against the Lords of the Dead. It had everything a good mythical sport even requires: Beheading, heart sacrifice, burning alive, rivers of blood, and, of course, a happy ending...
Greek mythology: And, to end on the Classics, the last storyteller of the evening, Enikő Nagy, told us the story of Atalanta and the golden apples. She is a very elegant and graceful teller, perfect fit for a love story, and she even managed to tie us back to the very first MythOff we had...
Voting question: "If the Hero-Twins had to play a game of modern-day football against Atalanta and her husband, which pair would win?"
The game was a close call; 33 to 29 the Hero-Twins came out victorious.

The Prizes: Following the football theme of the evening, I created special prizes: Three teams of "button football", each one featuring 11 pictures of gods and goddesses as the players of the team. There was a team of Egyptian deities, a team of Greeks, and a team of Norse mythology. Button football is kind of a classic game in Hungary, and the small plastic buttons are dirt cheap; we adhered to the spirit of MythOff by putting fun over expenses.

All in all, it was a great night of myths and fun. I'm curious to see what we'll come up with next...

Monday, June 27, 2016

10 years already?!

I have been a professional storyteller for ten years today. 

Ten years ago on this day, a lazy summer break afternoon, I registered to the Storytell mailing list, and sent them the following e-mail:

My first "official" gig
with the Renaissance group
Hello everyone! Sziasztok!
I've just subscribed:) I'm a 20-year-old Hungarian girl, and I'm sooo gald to have found this list at last... you know, professional storytelling doesn't exist in my country (well, as for me, not YET:) and I'd really love to find people like me... I've been telling stories for some 5 years, mostly to children in summer camps (and to my roommates in other camps and univerity colage:). I'm also a writer (first book published last week!!!:) and a member of a Renaissance group (as things are now, maybe I will be the storyteller of the group:). And I'm still a beginner. And I'm sad that I could find no one in entire Hungary to help me with storytelling... I don't even know if I could find jobs as one (I'm not helped with this by univerity either: I study Archeology... as for that, I still gonna starve to death...:))) (we call storytellers "mesemondó" in Hungraian, you like it?:). If ANYone has ANYthing useful to tell me about what I'm beginning now, thanks a lot... maybe I could pay it back with some Hungarian stories if you'd like that:) And I hope I will find some friends here too...:)
Oh, and I am not a native English speaker (maybe you've already fihured that out:), sorry for spelling and grammar...

(I left the typos and grammar mistakes in there just to show how much my English changed in 10 years... to be fair, my English was better even back then, but I was typing the email in a nervous frenzy.)

Boy, did they have "anything useful" to tell me.
This email was solely responsible for kicking off my life as a professional storyteller. Dozens of amazing, friendly, helpful, and loving people answered it within a day, and ever since then they have been giving me continuous support and encouragement on my journey. I will never be able to fully repay the Storytell community for responding to my wobbly email with so much enthusiasm.

And this is me at the book launch interview for my
newly published book on international storytelling last week

I have come a long way since 2006. Three books, three degrees (including one in Storytelling), three blogs, two continents, several festivals, even more conferences, hundreds of performances, the Holnemvolt Foundation, MythOffs, TED talks, a place on the FEST Executive Committee, an epic-telling grant, and hundreds, hundreds of storytelling friends to share the travels, the stories, and the joy. I briefly considered making a list of highlights from the past ten years... but really, I could not just pick one, or ten. Or even fifty. If you want to browse through them, scroll down, and keep scrolling...   

I still love telling
in costume
Fitting for the ten-year anniversary, this upcoming year promises to be eventful. Finishing my PhD (fingers crossed) I will have some big decisions to make, new roads to travel, and new things to learn. I have a new book in the works (a collection of Hungarian folktales in English), and I am loving my dissertation research on digital storytelling and role-playing games. But wherever I go next, or wherever I will be typing the 20 year anniversary post 10 years from now, I know that storytelling will still be in the center of my life.

Thank you, all of you. Thank you so, so much. You know who you are.

Here is to the next 10 years. I'll see you all on the road!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Long tales for a short night - Night of the Museums in Hungary's first Story Museum

Night of the Museums, happening every year around Midsummer Night, has become one of the big events for storytelling in Hungary. Year after year I have been performing in different venues for amazing audiences. This year, for the first time since it opened, I had the pleasure of telling stories in Hungary's first and only Story Museum and Workshop.

The Museum as tiny as it is marvelous; it is housed in a historical building just below the Buda castle. Walking in, one encounters a tiny inner courtyard with a World Tree (still a sapling), and a Fountain of Life; over the front desk, a giant, friendly-looking, colorful centipede marches across the ceiling upside down. In the front room there are reading nooks, storytelling nooks, coloring tables, and walls full of word magnets. Walking into the exhibition, one first arrives to a blue-and-twilight chamber decorated with the silhouettes of traditional Hungarian fairy tale characters - the Prince, the Princess, the Witch, the Magic Horse, etc. There is also a pile of pillows with fairy tale phrases on them; children can pair the pillows with the silhouettes. Moving into the next room, we arrive to my favorite part of the museum: The Dark Forest. The entire space is criss-crossed with tree branches, and kids can play hide-and-seek while also challenging all of their senses: They have to reach into tree trunks to identify objects by touch; smell bottles to find a particular scent; lean over a star-filled well to pick out an animal sound; and they can even climb up to an elevated platform to a gryphon's nest, and watch the giant egg change colors as they touch it. They can climb over the top of the trees to get to the next room, where they have to defeat a dragon with  a fast-paced touch screen game, dress up in fairy tale costumes, learn more about dragons, and finally sit on a royal throne. I was having tons of fun just sitting on a pillow in the forest, watching children play.

The storytelling happened in a different venue: The inner courtyard of the historical building next door. It was cool, even on this very hot June day, and the audience could sit on small box-like chairs or bean bags shaped like giant green and red apples. In the back corner there was a crafts table, but they were very polite and quiet through the storytelling, and I had a microphone that helped me be heard over the background murmur. I had a nice audience of maybe thirty people, kids and parents/grandparents alike.

I was invited to tell stories of magical journeys - my favorite kind. Right before my performance, there was a Q&A with a very popular Hungarian children's author who writes adventure stories about pirates, and islands, and dragons. Listening to the Q&A I gleamed a lot of useful information about what my audience was the most excited about; once I was on stage, I used what I learned to pick the best stories, and color them in similar ways.
First, I told The King's Daughter Who Lost Her Hair; one of my favorite stories, and also one that always goes over well with children. Since they talked a lot about magical plants in the Q&A, and it involves a voyage across the sea to a mysterious island inhabited by talking flowers, it fit right into the theme. Next, I told the tale of the Princess of Tomboso, mostly because the green-and-red apple pillows reminded me of it, and also because it does involve a sea voyage and a distant island. This is also one of my ever-favorite tales, one that I also included in my book under Teleportation. I love watching kids roll their eyes every time Jack makes a stupid mistake, and I really enjoy the sassy princess too. Last, but not least, I told Fionn Mac Cool in the Land of the Big Men (also included in my book), where I had kids and parents alike helping me remember all 8 of Fionn's magical helpers...

Despite the fact that all three tales were very long (as journey tales often are), and some of the kids were very young, they followed all three with rapt attention. It was a very nice audience, primed and ready for sea monsters, and giants, and flying witches, and all kinds of adventures. I especially felt lucky that I got to tell some of my favorite tales, and see that the kids liked them just as much as I do. Definitely a win-win.

If you are in Hungary mid-June, don't miss out on the Night of the Museums. It's full of fun things like this.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Folklore Thursday: The best worst curses of legend and lore

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

I have been mulling over the concept of creative curses in world folklore, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how many there are. Even if one goes beyond the standards, like "eternal sleep" or "turning into various animals," humanity has come up with a stunning array of ways of messing with someone's life - an array that ranges from mildly annoying to truly miserable.

I have long held that my personal favorite curse in legend and lore is that of Macha - the lady who is forced to race the king's horses while in labor, and in exchange curses all the men of Ulster to lie in labor pains for three whole days every time their kingdom is attacked. There is something truly satisfying in this one... But once I started claiming it as my favorite curse story, people started asking: "Wow, what are some of the others?..."

So, without further ado, here is my list of runner-ups:

Cast for all the wrong reasons, I always thought that Cassandra's curse is truly hellish: Constantly being right, and not being able to prove it to people around you, having to watch them run into their doom despite your warnings. Even as a kid I felt tremendously sorry for Cassandra, and marveled at the razor-sharp cruelty that Apollo displayed with this curse.
(Side note: Interesting to look at how Apollo attempts to "embrace" Cassandra, and when she rejects him, he curses her so that no one will ever believe what she says. There is a metaphor in there somewhere...)

Hilde, the Good Stepmother
In this Icelandic folktale, a mother's curse compels a princess to do three things: Burn down her father's palace, get pregnant out of wedlock, and kill a man. All three parts are fulfilled with minimal casualties, courtesy of the princess' kind and clever stepmother, Hilde. Part of the allure of the story is the curse itself (especially with the added weight of it coming from the mother), and part of it is the enjoyment of watching Hilde avoid disaster on all three counts, using technicalities.

Narts vs God
And while we are on technicalities: There is an Ossetian Nart saga where God curses the Nart heroes with food shortage. However much they work in a day on the fields, He declares, it will only ever amount to one bucket of wheat. The Narts' response is one for the ages: They start harvesting one handful of wheat a day - and it, per the word of God, still results in a full bucket. Boom.

Frogs and snakes
I always found folktales where people "speak" things fascinating - in many versions of the tale of the Kind and the Unkind Girl, the good girl gains the power to speak/laugh golden coins, while the lazy girl ends up with something nasty. Most often, whenever she opens her mouth, frogs and snakes fall out. While in picture books this is usually portrayed as reptiles and amphibians manifesting out of thin air just outside her lips, somehow as a kid I always imagined her actually spitting them up. Either way, yuck.

Sex swap
I know I have been hung up on this folktale type ("The princess that turned into a man"), but here it is again: In many versions, it is a curse that changes the princess from female to male, and her male companions into female. The fun part is, it is intended as a curse, but the princess is usually quite happy with the result, and doesn't mind at all. Also fun is that the curse doesn't only take on people - it also affects their horses and other animal companions.

Eternal Wandering
This one is actually quite common - a curse on a person, or a group of people, to wander aimlessly without being able to stop or settle down. The most famous examples include the Flying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew, and the Roma people (I found this one quite recently in a collection of Romani folktales). It is usually punishment for lack of hospitality given to someone, lack of compassion shown, or for a challenge against God - and as a side effect, it sometimes comes with eternal life, so that the person doesn't only wander across space, but also time... I always found the thought of such a curse epic in magnitude, and heavily charged with emotions.

There are, of course, many more curses in legend and lore. These are simply the ones I have given the most thought as a storyteller, ideas that made me think, shudder, or wonder.

What are some spells in lore that you would NOT want to be under?...