Wednesday, September 26, 2012

CASTLE 5x01 - The darkest tale

Soo, Castle is finally back with a new season, a fast-paced episode full of tension, very, very evil bad guys... and some storytelling!
Have you noticed how it is always the bad guys who do the best storytelling scenes? Or at least the marginally bad ones. On a side note, here is a favorite of mine from Breaking Bad.
Back on topic, I did not even have to reach to spot this time. Main Villain Season 5 provided a pretty straightforward family tragedy in the form of the age-old, gut-wrenchingly dark legend of the mother who killed her children.

These stories belong to the darkest corners of the human shadow, and they have been with us for quite a long time. They break taboos, take desperation to the farthest limit, and deal with unspeakable depths of emotion. They are also essentially feminine stories, showing both the strength and the vulnerability of women through the ages. They start heated discussions or long conversations, because they tap into something that goes beyond cultural norms.

The most famous version would probably be the Greek myth of Medea (also referenced in the Castle episode, as a woman 'about to be evicted'). If you have ever worked with that story as an actor or a storyteller, you know how emotionally exhausting it can be. This story is the main reason why I could never look at Jason as a real hero. Definitely not a good husband.

Another famous version of the same tale is known throughout the Americas as La Llorona, the Crying Woman, the mother who drowned her children and now walks the Earth as a ghost, searching for them. One of the most famous and the most terrifying ghost stories, this one has been known as far back as the Aztec empire. One of the signs of the approaching end of the Aztec rule was the cry of the 'ghostly woman'. It also showed up in the very first episode of Supernatural.

Here is a more extensive explanation on the background of La llorona. Even though the crying itself could make these legends similar to the Banshee (see below), the point is very different: banshee legends lack the image of the murderer mother.

Here is a collection of similar folk legends. Not a fun read, really. These stories mostly show the harsh realities of life that existed even before shining fairy tales.

I think that is quite enough of family tragedies. I promise to come up with something more cheerful next time!

Friday, September 21, 2012

X-FACTOR #244 - Banshees and Morrigans

Okay, so this was an easy one, but Banshee has always been one of my favorite X-men, and I do have a soft spot for Irish mythology.

First of all, even though Sean Cassidy is a sweetheart, the storyteller in me needs to note that the original Banshee is female ('bean' meaning 'woman' in Gaelic, you don't get any more female than that). Since Siryn took over the name, the whole thing got a lot more mythical.

I also want to make a side note on Lost Girl's excellent use of the same mythical creature.

And now, on to the folklore.

Here is what Yeats' folktale collection has to say about the banshee.

And here is some more Irish stories about banshee foretelling death in the family.

And even some more Irish traditions here.

Here is some stories on Appalachian banshees.

As for the Morrigan: I did not approve of her appearance in the comics first, but this issue really came up with an interesting twist on the old tale. That's as far as I go in spoilers. The Morrigan is also one of the mythical characters that survives and even thrives well in modern media. I am once again referring back to Lost Girl as one of the more recent examples.

Now, let's take a look at the classics:

Here is Morrigan in Gods and Fighting Men.

Here is an episode from the legend of Cuchulainn.

You can find a nice portion about the morrigan in this volume of the Enchanted World.

Here is a nice shee-eire page on the Morrigan.

And well, not exactly, tradition, but here is a favorite song of mine from Omnia.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

REVOLUTION - Bringing back the light

After watching the first episode of Revolution last night, and shortly before the power went out in the neighborhood (guerilla marketing on a city scale? Well played, NBC...) I started thinking about spotting opportunities in this brand new show. Once again I am thankful this is not a review blog, because I don't have to spend time... well, reviewing the show, so let's get straight down to spotting.
I have to admit, I will need some practice before spotting gets easier. I always start thinking about the characters and their relationships first; and after I turned that around in my head a number of times, the penny finally dropped, and I realized I do not have to look any further than the basic concept of the whole show:

The light went out, and we need it back.

And this, dear everyone, is a very, very old fear of humankind. Long before electricity (and Google) was ever invented, we were afraid of being left in the dark to fend for ourselves. And there was always a hero when we needed one that set out on a journey to bring us back the stolen light.
Let's see a short list of stories of this kind:

Raven steals the light (American Indian myth from the Pacific northwest, well known by most storytellers)
Coyote steals the fire (also American Indian, also well known)
The journey of Maleh (a folktale of the Zhuang people of China tells us about a young woman who sets out to find the stolen Sun and bring it back to the people)
Rescuing the Sun (Siberia)
Király Kis Miklós (Hungarian folktale - we have a lot of stories about stolen Sun, Moon and Stars, this is one of them. Video in Hungarian, but the pictures speak for themselves)
The Flaming Horse (Czech folktale about a dark kingdom where the only source of light is a magical horse, and it gets stolen)
Grandmother Spider brings the Light (Cherokee story, from the website of the amazing Marilyn Kinsella)
Coyote and Eagle steal the Sun and the Moon (Zuni legend)
And of course, let's not forget the Classics: remember Prometheus? (Not the movie, that one's gonna be another post)

Also, people have apparently once again resorted to archery as the coolest form of survival. Refer back to the previous post on that one.

We'll see how this journey progresses.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

TOTAL RECALL - You wish you had three hands

Well, at least, some people probably do. They have been for a very long time. Quite possibly since men and women were invented. Because... boobs?
Well, back for another spontaneous spotting round in the almost fascinating world of the Total Recall remake. Because I just couldn't leave the woman with the three breasts alone (if you want to know why, type "Total Recall" into Google image search, I dare you). She seems to be a central feature in most reviews.

Let's see if she has sisters.

For starters, there is a saint. And the wife of a saint. Because saints have wives, in the 6th century anyway. The name is Saint Gwen Teirbron, and yes she is Welsh. Her name anyway, and it literally means "three breasts". No I am not kidding you. And yes I am Catholic. Also, she could walk on water. Thank you, I'll be here all week.

There is also a Finnish/Baltic water demon known as the Näkki. The hotness of the three breasts in questionable in this case since the demon is originally male, only turns into the more atractive form when he wants to seduce and drown someone. Sounds quite effective. 

In Sri Lanka, they tell stories of a queen/goddess/demoness (depends on how you look at it I guess) called Kuveni, who had three breasts. However, when she met her intended husband, the middle breast fell off, so I am not sure it would add to the fun.

In the town of Frascati (Italy) there is a traditional sweet called La Pupazza Frascatana. It is the shape of a woman with three breasts. According to local legend it depicts a famous milk nurse that could pacify even the most noisy baby... until they figured out she had three breasts, and the third one gave wine. Now now gentleman, there is no need to elbow each other.

Also, heads up, in the folklore of many European cultures, a woman with three breasts (or nipples) is a witch. Just sayin'.

TOTAL RECALL - Hey, that's not my wife!

Before someone asks me, I saw the movie in the cheap theater. And this time, I don't even feel sorry for the spoilers, because they spoiled pretty much all surprises in the trailer anway. It was an entertaining three dollar afternoon.
Moving on to the spotting: I kind of made it a challenge for myself to spot traditional stories in a fast-paced action movie remake. It really seemed like I won't have much to work with. Then I started thinking about it some more, and realized the biggest spotting chance was right under my nose, in the form of the psycho fake wife.

At first, I was thinking along the lines of the Corpse Bride. Most of you know that story as a Tim Burton movie (an excellent one too), but to some of you it might not come as a surprise that the movie is based on a Jewish folktale, published (among others) by Carissa Pinkola Estés in Women who run with the wolves. This is her own take on the folktale though, so careful with the copyright.
In some other variants from Jewish folktale collections, the wife that the poor groom didn't expect to be married to turns out to be a demon rather than a corpse. Getting warmer aren't we?

From Corpse Bride it was only a step further to the False Bride. The False Bride is a folktale type (classified by Aarne and Thompson as 403A), also known in the politically incorrect olden days as "The White Bride and the Black One." In folktales that belong to this type, the hero first falls in love, then has to leave his bride behind, and while he is away, someone puts a spell on him to make him forget all about his love. He ends up marrying, or almost marrying, an evil fake bride instead, until the real girl shows up, helps him regain his memory, and gets rid of the fake wife.
Are we there yet?
Yes we are!

Let's see some examples.

The folktale type was named after a Grimm fairy tale, you can read it here.

A similar ending has been attached to the bear husband tale I have mentioned before, known as East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Many other variants have a very similar ending.

Interestingly enough, the 17th century Italian fairy tale collection known as the Pentamerone has several tales with this motif. One is the frame story itself; another one is known as Pintosmalto, and a third one is the Three Citrons. In other versions it is sometimes three apples or three oranges. Be warned, these stories are not politically correct.

Madame D'Aulnoy also used the motif in one of her fairy tales, known as the Peacock King.

I am in no way trying to claim that the creators (or re-creators) or Total Recall cracked open the Aarne-Thompson folktale index before they sat down to write the screenplay. I am just pointing out that plot twists that fit entertainingly well into modern action movies are in no way modern inventions; they have been quietly moseying around in the back of our minds for hundreds of years.
Who would not be afraid of marrying the wrong woman, after all?

Monday, September 10, 2012

DOCTOR WHO - When objects revolt

So, still catching up on Season 6 of Doctor Who goodness, and got to the two-episode story about the gangers and their revolt against their makers (that would be the humans, and yes, I did warn you about spoilers, complain to Ms. Song on the right!)
The theme of objects suddenly growing a personality of course is far from being new. For one, there is our beloved Skynet, but apart from that, this story goes waaaaay back in history.

It reminded me of a nice little piece of Moche mythology right here. It is called the Revolt of the Objects and it tells us a story about man-made tools rising up against their makers.
(See how there is a wikipage for Moche pottery? Fascinating!)

Here is some more serious musing about the same topic, for those of you lucky people with access to JSTOR.

And here is a modern folklore version from Latin American Folktales. This one is child-friendly, for those who were concerned.

I realize I am spotting out on a limb here, but somehow this whole thing with the revolution also reminded me of Völundr the Smith, and how he turned on those who kept him trapped and made him work for them. Totally not safe for children, don't even try.

That's it for now, I have more Doctor Who to watch.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

THE BIG BANG THEORY - Monkeys and Princesses

While re-watching Season 1 of Big Bang with my roommate, I came across Sheldon's favorite childhood storybook called the Monkey and the Princess. There was a neat little plug about storytelling in there, so I thought, let's look it up.
Well, bad news is, the story or the book doesn't actually exist (go figure, a show where the physics is always correct can't come up with a real folktale). The good news is, there is still stuff to spot!

For starters, here is an Indonesian folktale about a princess and a monkey. I came across it earlier when I was looking for folktales about hair. Long story.

Here is another one from Indonesia. Princesses and monkeys apparently go well together.

Also, Panchali is not actually a name, but a title, and it features in the Mahabharatha as the title of a real legendary princess. Now that's a story worth reading and telling!

And then here is a monkey and princess tale from the Philippines. Sounds like a version of Hans my Hedgehog.

Not really what Sheldon had in mind, but I like it so I'm going to include it anyway, there is the fight between the Monkey King and Princess Iron Fan in Journey to the West. Makes for great telling!

Also, let's not forget Hanuman and his role in rescuing the princess in the Ramayana!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Yard Sales and Fairy Markets

So, where is the common ground between Hellboy and Stadust?

There was a huge yard sale in the neighborhood today; all the houses on several streets filled their front yards with stuff, and you could buy anything from quilts to coins, from knives to hats, from whutsthat to thingamajig.
This reminded me of fairy markets and other legendary exchange places between humans and supernatural beings, so here is the spotting list of the day:

First, a glimpse of fairy markets in literature and media:

Classic poem titled "The Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti. They say it's vaguely sexual. I can't imagine why. Does it have something to dow ith girls licking fruit juice off each other's body?...

Neil Gaiman's Stardust is a classic.  There is also a brief fairy market in Books of Magic, the Harry Potter before Harry Potter (good read!)

And here is a trailer for Hellboy 2, also with a neat goblin market scene. This is one of the reasons why I wrote this post - we also found a Hellboy bust in one of the yards. Told ya.

And now for the traditions:

Buzurg Ibn Shahriyar in The Book of the Wonders of India (written in the 10th century) collects hundreds of sailor's legends; one of them if about a djinn market that is only visible at certain times and certain places, and for those who are not welcome, it can only be heard but cannot be seen. The djinn trade there with mortal travelers, in a scene fit for the Arabian Nights.

 There is a fairy market - or, rather, a Pixy Fair - mentioned in Folktales of England.

 There is an account of a fairy fair in this neat little book, available online.

 And here is another from from Jersey folklore, titled "The fées of the Cité de Limes". This one talks about a "great fair" in September. Maybe we are not too late yet to go?

 Here is a description from Ireland, in this one the "fairy fair" is on November Eve.

Here is one called "The fairy fair in Germoe". It is in a book called "Popular Romances from the West of England", and just like many of the others, reminds us not to mess with the fair folk. Or their fair fairs. They are hardly ever fair. I'm gonna shut up now. Moving on.

 Since I found a pretty, old brass teakettle at the yard sale, it reminded me of one of my favorite trickster tales that talks about finding unusual treasures at the market...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

DOCTOR WHO - Time in a box

"Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away. Did I ever tell you I stole it? Well, I borrowed it; I was always going to take it back. Oh, that box, Amy, you'll dream about that box. It'll never leave you. Big and little at the same time, brand-new and ancient, and the bluest blue, ever. And the times we had, eh? Would've had. Never had. In your dreams, they'll still be there. The Doctor and Amy Pond... and the days that never came." (The Doctor)

So, I have been catching up on Doctor Who, and finally got to the end of Season 5 (Pandorica opens/The Big Bang). Because of that, and to honor the spolier alert (to your right), here is a short litte sumthin' about time in a box.

First of all, here is the myth of Pandora, because I'm all for honoring the classics.

Second, the idea of time trapped in a box does show up every now and then throughout time and space.
(Go figure)
For example, there is the Japanese tale of Urashima Taro ("Your old age was trapped in the box...")
Another box that instead of time contains timeless sleep is mentioned in the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

In most tales about worlds other than ours, time usually flows differently on the two sides of the veil.
One of the most famous legends like that is probably Oisín's journey to Tír na nÓg.
Another one is a very similar tale from Vietnam. Some version of this one also feature age trapped in a box.
There is the tale of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, where the heroes go to sleep in one time and wake up in the future...
The tale called the Fairy Grotto in the Folkales of China collection (University of Chicago Press) also has the idea of time passing quicky "on the other side"
Another popular folktale type is the prince who does not want to die, and ends up living outside time (or, in some versions, dies trying). Here is the Hungarian version of it, with a pretty cartoon and English subtitles, because I am all considerate like that!

On a not directly related note, there is also quite a few folktales about someone's soul kept in a box; as long as the soul (or part of the soul) is in a box, the person is immortal. Rings a bell?

Second side note, is the tale of the Lone Centurion heart-wrenching or what? Beautiful in itself. It kind of reminded me of all the legends about sleeping heroes, or knights guarding their sleeping king. Europe is full of those tales. Love is a noce twist on it though.

Long live the Doctor! :)

Archery - it's all the rage these days

As a former archer I have always had a soft spot for tales, legends and myths that involve bow, arrows, and infinite badassery. With the sudden popularity of archery due to movies and books, I believe it is time to take a good spotting look at the contestants.

The Huntress
Exhibit A:
Katniss (The Hunger Games), Merida (Brave), Susan Pevensie (Chronicles of Narnia), Hanna (Hanna), Neytiri (Avatar)

Exhibit B:
Artemis/Diana  - Goddess of the Hunt
The Amazons - Even though not all Amazons used bow and arrow as a main weapon, they were rumored to have cut off one breast to make archery easier. As a femare archer, I don't really see a point in this, but thus goes the story.
Nymphai Hyperboreai - Nymphs, followers of Artemis, responsible for skills in archery
Camilla and Opis - Huntresses of Roman legends
Atalanta - the ultimate tomboy of Greek mythology
Skadi - goddess of archery, formerly a frost giant
Satet - archer goddess of Egypt

The Hunter
Exhibit A: 
Legolas (Lord of the Rings), Hawkeye (Avengers), Green Arrow (Justice League), Robin Hood (countless movies of Robin Hood), Prince Willian (Snow White and the Huntsman) etc. etc. etc.

Exhibit B:
Apollo - Greek god of the Sun, music, art, archery, and ridiculously photogenic (sculpture-genic?...) people
Kheiron - The Centaur, mentor to countless Greek heroes. Seen as an archer in the constellation Saggitarius.
Eros - better known as Cupid
Odysseus - there is that one famous bit about the bow that no one was strong enough to string...
Philoctetes - legendary Greek archer in the Trojan war
Paris - Dumb as he was, he did hit a guy in the ankle from the walls of Troy...
Ullr - Norse god of archery and hunting
Egil - Legendary archer of Norse mythology (way before William Tell)
William Tell - National folk hero of Switzerland. Apple, boy, arrows, you know the drill.
Yi, the Archer - Legendary person in Chinese mythology. Shot the Sun off the sky. Nine times.
Attila the Hun - Not usually famous for this archery skills, but according to Hungarian folk legend he was quite spectacularly good at it anyway
Robin Hood - I don't have to introduce this guy
Ekalavya - Legendary archer from the Indian epic Mahabharata. Self-trained, left-handed, has nine fingers. What's your excuse?
(By the way, read the Mahabharata for a whole lineup of ridiculously talented archers)
Kamadeva - the Hindu version of Cupid. With more flowers.
Erekhe Mergen - Legendary Mongolian archer, shot a few suns off the sky for good measure, no biggie

Now the only remaining question is:
Who would win?...

THE HUNGER GAMES - Like Theseus, but...

... like Theseus.

The Hunger Games is admittedly a modern variation on the Greek myth of Theseus. If you are not familiar with that one, or you need to refresh your memory, you can read the myth here (and half a million other places).

Before we go on I would like to insert a DISCLAIMER here:
The fact that I am comparing The Hunger Games to Theseus does not mean in any shape or form that I think it is merely a copy of the original myth. In fact, I like to bring it up as an example of old stories done in a creative and smart way in a modern setting. Even though significant changes have been made in the story, many of the core elements stayed the same, and this creative yet respectful handling of the mythic material resulted in a success that I do not even need to point out.
For the sake of spotting, here is a list that I compiled with the help of excited 6th grade students about the similarities.

1. Hero grows up without father, raised by a mother
2. Lost war against dominant power
3. Yearly tributes collected (equal number of boys and girls)
4. Hero volunteers as tribute
5. Tributes taken to grand city and presented to the leader
6. Strange colorful world of the new place
7. Tributes sent into an arena to fight and be killed
8. Love helps the hero to survival
9. Hero survives the arena
10. Love challenged when returning to the outside world
11. Ongoing trials of the hero after survival
12. Eventual defeat of the ruling power

If you want to read a book that is as entertaining as The Hunger Games and deals with the original story, I suggest Mary Renault's The King Must Die. She interprets the story in a historical way, but leaves some of the mystery in it. Enjoy!

Moving on with the spotting, we are far from done.

When in Rome
The Capitol and its people are in many ways modeled after the ancient Romans. Without going into the endless list of Roman myths and legends, here is one that might ring a bell:
Camilla, the fearless huntress and warrior, fighting against the Romans. Go figure.
For further reading, here is a starting point.
For advanced readers, here is the Metamorphoses by our beloved Ovid.

Once again, there shall be a separate post for archery soon. Stay. Tuned.

District 12 is set in an area that "used to be called Appalachia"; the movie was also shot in this neighborhood. Appalachia has an incredibly rich treasury of folktales, some of them no doubt have been told to li'l Katniss and li'l Peeta. Or not.
Anyway, here is a list of Appalachian folktale collections for your reading pleasure, to get you in the mountainy mood.
And here is a collection of tales about the strong women of Appalachia.

Miner's tales
Another lore that is probably popular in District 12. There are countless folktales, legends and rumors about mines and mining. Some of them are about creatures that line in the mines and help (or mess with) the miners; others are about rules on what you are and are not supposed to do while down in the dark.

Although there are not many folktales about mockingjays or tracker jackers, there are plenty about their real life origins. And just as in the Hunger Games the origin of these artificial species are explained, you can find traditional tales explaining the same about bluejays, mockingbirds, or wasps.
Here is one about the sound the bluejay makes
Here is one about bluejay and fire
Here is one about bluejay in love
This one is about mockingbird learning to sing
Here is one about the chattering of Mockingbird
This one is about yellowjackets

Sister and sister
Once again, there is a lot more to the story and the obvious symbols and motifs. One of the emotional highlights is the relationship between Katniss and Prim. Sister and sister tales can be found in many shapes and forms.
On some variations of the Brother and Sister folktale type, like the Hungarian story of Cerceruska, feature sister and sister instead, with the older one usually looking out for the younger.
For a treasury of tales about sisters and strong women, check out this book. It's a classic for storytellers.

The Girl on Fire
For some badass fiery girlyness, check out The Daughter of the Sun in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales collection!

BRAVE - Lessons in magic, bears, and archery

One would think one has an easy job spotting Celtic lore in a movie that is so full of Scottish stereotypes it bleeds blue body paint. However, instead of taking one original legend as the basis of the story, this one was was more like a mix of symbols and motifs from a series of tales.
That means, more stuff to spot!
Let's start with the obvious.

There are dozens, probably hundreds of folktales about the wisp, from any place in the world where they usually occur. Often they are said to be souls, neither here nor there, stuck between heaven and hell, life and death, or our world and the fae realm (if you watch the movie all the way through, you will see a variation on this). They are not, however, generally famous for leading people the right way; more often than not they lead them astray, which makes sense if you think about the places where they are usually seen. One wrong step and you are stuck in the muck.
Here is an online collection of folktales about the wisp. 
Wisps are frequent guests in books of fairy lore; I have read this one recently. Good read!
Will-o'-the-Wisp was featured as a character in S01E02 of Lost Girl. They did a quite decent job of it too.

Bear transformation
People turning into bears and bears turning into people feature quite often in legend and folklore. Here is a quick list of the big names:
Bearskin (Grimm 101) - Ever since I started reading Fables I have an urge to say "Colonel Bearskin" every time I tell this one.
Snow White and Rose Red (Grimm 161) - Again, with Fables...
Whitebear Whittington (Appalachia) - A variation on Beauty and the Beast
East of the Sun and West of the Moon (Norway) - Another variation on Beauty and the Beast
The She-bear (Pentamerone) - Here is one where the bear is female
The Bear Woman (Blackfoot) - The origin of the Big Dipper, and a questionable happy ending
Kallisto (Greek) - Talking about the Big Dipper...
The White Faced Bear (Aleut) - This one is a fair warning to treat nature with respect

Careful what you wish for
The proper use of words in magic has been and remains the moral of many stories. Wishes taken literally can cause a world of trouble, and if there is a loophole in the wording, rest assured the djinn/wizard/witch/golden fish will find it. They are sneaky that way.
Here is an example of a wish well phrased, retold by the amazing Kate Dudding. This story exists in many variations, and storytellers love it to bits.
And here is a whole list of wishes that were... not so well phrased.

The princess who didn't want to marry
Some of these stories make me think Merida got off very easy. Then again, some of these stories are very old.
King Thrushbeard (Grimm 52) 
Cannetella (Pentamerone)
Pintosmalto (Pentamerone)
Queen Brunhild of Iceland (Niebelungenlied) set a series of very masculine tasks only she could win. Or so she thought...
Here is a good one: the Russian Princess in Haft Paykar tells a tale about a red-haired princess who made it very difficult for her suitors to win her hand...

... on a second thought, let's not talk about archery right now. It has been so popular lately, I think I'll just write a whole separate post about it. Stay tuned.

Mothers and daughters
After thoroughly skimming the surface, let's take a quick look at what the story really is about. It's a mother and daughter tale, clearly, but one where the mother has a depth to her character, and instead of being the archetypal "queen", she actually behaves like a mother (and, later on, the proverbial mother bear). There are countless tales about motherhood and mother-daughter relationships. To give you an idea, here is Jackie Baldwin's SOS page on this theme.
To give you a taste of how it's done, here is Dovie Thomason's tale, the Bear Child, that I have been regularly listening to for the past 4 years. Get your hands on it, it's absolutely worth it!

And by the way...
... notice the neat little plug about the importance of storytelling in this movie? 
"Legends are lessons!" [insert cute Scottish accent here for full effect]
Thank you, Pixar!