The Origin of Sex Differences: A B’laan myth

01 LucaCambiaso Circa1560

Once upon a time, there were no men and women, only people. This is how the difference came to be.

Before there were people, there was the Supreme Deity, Melu. Melu had two assistants, Fiu Weh (the good spirit) and Tasu Weh (the evil spirit). Fiu Weh and Tasu Weh served as sort of the yin and yang of creation.

When Melu decided to create people, he assigned the job to Tasu Weh. Tasu Weh created people out of clay, and he gave them sex organs. But rather than split the sex organs fifty-fifty among his creations, he gave everyone both. The penis he put on one knee, and the vagina on the other.

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The Living Head

Apologies for not having posted for a while. I hope to pick up the pace again, soon, but in the meantime here’s a short, sweet (and mysterious) food origin myth collected in Panay (one of the Visayan islands in the Philippines) in 1904.


Once upon a time lived a man and his wife who had no children. They desperately wanted a child, and so they prayed to their God, Diva:

“Please, Lord,” they prayed. “We want a son so badly. He doesn’t have to be perfect, we’ll gladly accept him however you see fit to give him to us. Even if he were nothing but a head, we would be so happy.”

Ask and you shall receive. Diva took pity on the couple, and he gave them a son — a son who was nothing but a head. His parents were as happy as they promised they would be, and took loving care of Head (that’s what they named him, apparently). Head grew up to be a good son to his parents.

One day the chief’s daughter passed the house where Head and his parents lived. Once Head laid eyes on her, he fell hopelessly in love, and thought of nothing but marrying her. He begged his mother to go to the chief and ask him for his daughter’s hand. Head’s mother refused.

“The chief would never let his daughter marry only a head.”

But Head gave his mother no peace. Finally, just to quiet him, Head’s mother went to the chief and told him of her son’s request. Of course, the chief refused. Head’s mother returned home with the news.

Heartbroken, Head went downstairs into the garden and began to sink into the ground.

“Head, come back up,” called his mother. “It’s time to eat.”

“Sink! sink! sink!” cried Head.

“Head, please, come back up,” called his mother again.

“Sink! sink! sink!” was all Head would say, and he continued to say it until he sank beneath the ground and disappeared. His mother rushed down to try to take him back up, but she couldn’t. Some days later a tree sprang up from where Head had disappeared; the tree eventually bore large round fruit almost as large as a boy’s head.

And that’s where oranges came from.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

My retelling is based on a version collected by Berton L. Maxfield and W. H. Millington and published in 1906 in The Journal of American Folklore. The article, Visayan Folk-Tales I, is available free from JSTOR, and contains several more stories.

I confess — I don’t really get this one. I suspect it’s an imperfectly remembered version of a more elaborate dema deity myth, but who knows. I found an interesting Ifugao story about coconuts having sprung from a buried head, but I want to do a little research on that one before I retell it… .

Wikipedia tells me that oranges probably originated in Southeast Asia, which I never knew; I tend to associate them with the Mediterranean.

I also can’t find anything about a Visayan deity named Diva, but diwatas are nature deities, like enkanto, who live in trees and give blessings to people who bring them offerings — and curses to people who disturb them or the trees that they live in. The term diwata probably comes from the term devata, which denotes a Hindu demi-god. Deva is the Sanskrit term for a deity.

Someday, I would like to seriously track down how the Hindu pantheon and mythology worked its way from India eastward into Indonesia and Malaysia and eventually to the Philippines. Someday….

The Wearing of the Green (or not)

March is here: St. Patrick’s Day is the 17th, when everyone (here in the States, at least) can pretend to be a little bit Irish… .

In honor of the occasion, here are some fun Ireland folklore facts to share with your friends over that pint of Guinness.

NewImageSt. Patrick and Shamrock. St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland
Image: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikipedia

St. Patrick is as Irish as the Potato.

That is to say: by adoption only. Potatoes are a New World vegetable, originating in South America and not introduced into Ireland until the late 1500s or early 1600s (some say by Sir Walter Raleigh). By the 1700s they had become a staple food in the country. Likewise, the man known today as St. Patrick was not born in Ireland, but in Britain. The Catholic Encyclopedia says he was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, Scotland, in 387. Biography.com says he was born in England to “a Roman family of high social standing” in 385. Either way, according to his own writings, he was kidnapped by slavers and taken to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning home. He eventually entered the priesthood and was sent back to Ireland as a missionary, where he preached and converted much of the country to Christianity. By the seventh century, he was thought of as the patron saint of Ireland.

There’s a theory that some of the legends associated with St. Patrick were originally associated with another cleric, Palladius, who was the first Christian bishop to Ireland, in 431 (a year before Patrick arrived). Palladius wasn’t Irish, either; he was Gaul (French).

Incidentally, there’s a famous folktale that links St. Patrick to the shamrock: supposedly, Patrick was preaching to the locals, and meeting with hostility and incredulity. To make his point, the saint plucked a clover from the earth and said to them

‘Is it not as feasible for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as for these three leaves thus to grow upon a single stalk?’ Then the Irish were immediately convinced of their error, and were solemnly baptized by St. Patrick.

As simple as that. The quote is from Edward Jones, “Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards” 1794, as quoted by Nathaniel Colgan in “The Shamrock in Literature,” 1896. The folktale can’t actually be dated any earlier than the early 18th century; it’s not in Patrick’s writings, nor in any early Lives of the Saints.

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Vampires in Rhode Island: The Shunned House

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article on the nineteenth century vampire scares of New England. These scares tended to happen in remote, rural, agricultural regions in or near southern Rhode Island, beginning in the late 1700s and going on as recently as 1892. Much as in Eastern European vampire scares, a recently deceased person would be blamed for the further illnesses of people in the region, and the body would be exhumed to check for evidence of vampirism.

Once a vampire was “discovered,” the New Englander’s way of dealing with it was a bit different from the usual holy water and staking that we are used to from the movies. Instead, the heart would be removed from the exhumed body and burned. Some communities believed that inhaling the smoke from the burning heart was a cure for the still-living victims of the vampire’s life-sucking. Others believed that feeding the ashes from the burning heart to the vampire’s victims would cure them. Often, the “vampire” would also be beheaded.

The real vampire? Tuberculosis. TB is a wasting, draining, disease, characterized by fever and a hacking cough; the victims visibly become paler and more emaciated as the disease progresses. It’s also very contagious. Early outbreaks of TB hit New England in the 1730s and became the leading cause of death in New England by the 1800s. Not surprisingly, vampire scares coincided with TB outbreaks.

The last, and one of the most famous, New England vampire cases was that of Mercy Lena Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island. Mercy’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1883, followed soon after by the Browns’ oldest daughter. Mercy’s brother Edwin got sick in 1890, and left for Colorado Springs, hoping that the change in climate would improve his health. Lena didn’t get sick until 1891, and died in January of 1892, at the age of nineteen. By that time, her brother had returned to Exeter, extremely ill.

The people of Exeter believed that one of the Brown women must be a vampire who was feeding on the rest of the family (and from them, probably, on to the rest of the community). They forced Lena’s father, George Brown, to have the womens’ bodies exhumed. The evidence seems to be that George didn’t believe in the vampire theory (the bacterium that caused TB had already been discovered, in 1882), but he gave in to his neighbors. The bodies were exhumed. The bodies of Lena’s mother and sister were in advanced states of decomposition — they had been dead for almost a decade — but Lena’s body, which had only been buried for two months, still showed evidence of fresh blood in the heart. She must be the vampire!

The neighbors took out Lena’s heart and liver and burned them. They fed the ashes to Lena’s brother Edwin. It didn’t work; he died two months later.

A reporter from the Providence Journal was present at the exhumation. His story caused an outrage in the more urban parts of New England. It was picked up by an anthropologist named George Stetson, who eventually published his research in the American Anthropologist, and the story spread all the way to Europe.

NewImageIllustration from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”
Image: Project Gutenberg

Some people believe that Mercy Lena was the inspiration for the character of Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was published in 1897, the year after Stetson’s article). She is definitely referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House,” which he wrote in 1924. It was published posthumously in 1937, in the magazine Weird Tales.

Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace…

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Visits from Spirits: The Ingkanto Syndrome

NewImage
Balete tree. Image: Wikipedia

The only definition for “ingkanto” that I could ever get out my parents was “they’re like fairies”. According to the description given by Francisco Demetrio, they live in boulders, caves, holes in the ground, or in trees like the balete (a relative of the banyan tree) or the acacia. They are mischievous and capricious. On the one hand, there are traditions of them lending beautiful golden tableware for the weddings and fiestas of people in need; on the other hand, they can curse you and send diseases on you if you disrespect them (even accidentally), or if you don’t give proper greetings when you pass their homes. In the anecdotes that Demetrio collected, they are often described as fair-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed.

They also have a reputation for stalking people. The name Herminia Meñez gives to this phenomenon is “Ingkanto Syndrome”, though I don’t know if the term originates with her or not.

Meñez identifies three distinct stages to the phenomenon. In the first stage, the victim is visited by invisible beings, who try to seduce him or her away with displays of wealth and power. This is manifested to others who may witness the victim havings spells of stiffness and unconsciousness, disappearing for intervals of time without explanation, hanging from trees, or displaying other unusual behavior.

In the second stage, if the victim resists the spirits, they begin to abuse him physically and verbally. This manifests to witnesses as the victim becoming violent, and often extraordinarily strong. Often, family members have to tie the victim down to prevent him from “running away with the spirits”.

In the third stage, the victim’s family has brought the victim to a curer (a mananambal, for instance). Assuming the cure has been successful, the victim goes from wild and uncontrollable to “quiet and well-behaved”.

Demetrio describes the typical instance of the phenomenon similarly: “the disappearance of the victim and the seizure of madness usually accompanied by a show of extraordinary strength”.

In the traditional belief systems, the ingkanto syndrome can be brought about by any number of things. The victim might have accidentally violated the property of an ingkanto, for instance by destroying an anthill or mound that was their home, by building on an ingkanto’s land, or chopping down an ingkanto’s tree.

But there is another, more interesting folk hypothesis: the symptoms of madness were brought about because the victim was resisting their spiritual calling — namely, the call to be a shaman or healer. When the victim stops resisting and accepts the call, then the madness cures itself, and the victim becomes a more centered, thoughtful individual, one who is ready to serve the community through their spiritual or healing arts.

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Popping It Back to the Top

It’s like in a movie — you aim for the “Save draft” button, and you hit the “Publish” button. 

“Noooooooooo…..”, you cry, but alas, it’s too late. 

Apologies to anyone who email subscribes to my blog for the last false alarm. But I’ve finished the post properly now: it’s retitled “Reinventing History”:

I have been trying to write a post about the Lousiana Manilamen, in particular, Lafcadio Hearn’s 1883 article on Saint Malo. It’s been going nowhere. But — while researching their history I came across a fascinating paper, the one quoted above. It tells the story of how the Grand Island population went from a long history of being markedly multiracial, to a conception of itself as entirely white. The narrative is drawn out from the memories of Grand Island natives with respect to the rumored existence of a indigent cemetery for African-Americans and Asians. One of the researchers has close ties to the island, having grown up there as a native.

Here’s the rest of the article.

Reinventing History

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Grand Isle, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
Photo: John Messina, Wikipedia

Strangers visiting Grand Isle in the late 1960s would not have met any African Americans in permanent residence. For many years the United Parcel Service (UPS) deliveryman was the only African American anyone was likely to see there on a regular basis. But he lived “up the bayou,” as the islanders say, somewhere between Golden Meadow and Houma. Most week- days he drove southeast to Grand Isle – the dead end of Louisiana Highway 1, the only continuous piece of land on the 35-mile stretch of bayou, marsh, and prairie from Golden Meadow to the Gulf of Mexico. On rare occasions the UPS man could be seen waiting beside his truck on one of the island’s tree-lined lanes for some old islander, who did not want a black man even entering the yard, to saunter out for a package. Some of those old-timers perhaps descended – and not too distantly – from free people of color or slaves.

— From “He Didn’t Have No Cross”: Tombs and Graves as Racial Boundary Tactics on a Louisiana Barrier Island”, Keith M. Yanner and Steven J. Ybarrola, The Oral History Review (Summer – Autumn, 2003)

I have been trying to write a post about the Lousiana Manilamen, in particular, Lafcadio Hearn’s 1883 article on Saint Malo. It’s been going nowhere. But — while researching their history I came across a fascinating paper, the one quoted above. It tells the story of how the Grand Isle population went from a long history of being markedly multiracial, to a conception of itself as entirely white. The narrative is drawn out from the memories of Grand Isle natives with respect to the rumored existence of a indigent cemetery for African-Americans and Asians. One of the researchers has close ties to the island, having grown up there as a native.

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Good News for Scholars and Researchers

Jstor logo JSTOR just announced that they are rolling out a new program, Register & Read. The program will provide free full-text access to part of the JSTOR journal archive to individual scholars and researchers who aren’t affiliated with one of their participating institutions.

Many of the folklore papers that I blog about are from JSTOR (I have a tag for posts that mention those papers). I use them extensively when doing statistics and computer science research for my professional work. I know that Acid Free Pulp sometimes refers to JSTOR papers, too.

This follows on JSTOR’s recent decision to open up journal content published prior to 1923 in the United States, and prior to 1870 elsewhere. This period includes quite a lot of field studies and folklore collecting activity. The studies are subject to the bias of their time, of course, but if you are interested in folk belief or fairy tales to weave into your own fiction, this is still a rich source of inspiration.

I’m lucky enough to have JSTOR access through the San Francisco Public Library, and it’s been invaluable now that I’m not affiliated with a university or large research lab. So if I sound like a complete groupie, that’s because I am. If you ever have the need to access the scholarly literature, I can’t recommend them enough.

Not Odd, but Wise

I came across an interesting story while reading a 1991 paper called “‘Be Bold but not Too Bold’: Female Courage in Some British and Scandinavian Legends”, by Jacqueline Simpson. The story is a variant of a Norwegian legend that Dr. Simpson calls “The Interrupted Fairy Wedding”.

Seter
Photo: Wikipedia

In this legend, a young woman is alone in the mountain pastures tending to cattle when she meets a hulder, or mountain fairy. The hulder tries to marry the young woman by force. The wedding is generally interrupted by a villager (her father, or her sweetheart) who arrives in time to shoot steel over the bride’s head. The wedding entourage vanishes.

The variant of this legend that I’m especially interested in was collected in 1948:

[The story was] told as having happened to a certain Anne Rykhus who is described with such particularity that it is obvious that she was a real person; from internal details, it seems she must have lived at least fifty years previously.

Every evening, Anne would stay late in the pasture, because an attractive young man visited her there. Eventually, she agrees to marry him. Anne’s dog, “knew quite well that it wasn’t a real man” who visited her, and he runs back to the farm. This alerts the farmer (Anne’s father?), who arrives in time to fire a gun over her head, and drive away the hulder.

Here’s the interesting part:

Everything vanished as if it had sunk into the ground. Only Anne was left, and she just sat and stared straight ahead of her. ‘How are things with you?’ asked the man. ‘I want to go home to the village’ said she, and began to weep.

He took her home, but from that day she was never like other folk. She used to say that when the farmer fired that shot up there at the dairy, the man she had been about to marry shouted at her, ‘You’ll see much, but understand little.’ And so it was. She could see all sorts of beings which were invisible to others. Sometime she would see the path so full of them that she would take a stick and drive them away. She could also see things which would come true later. She once declared she could see wagons on wheels going up the valley of their own accord, and fifty years later the railway came through Fron, just outside the house where she had lived. What’s more, she declared she could see things like huge birds high in the sky, and some years later aircraft passed over the village. After some years had gone by, Anne Rykhus was no longer considered to be odd, but wise.

This variant is significantly different from the others that Dr. Simpson gives in her paper. Doesn’t it remind you of the story my mother told me, about the ibanan maid? (And my uncle dropped by, to add a few more details about this maid in the comments.)

The Norwegian story has no invisible boyfriend, but it does feature “The Hidden People” — that is, invisible beings. And the story seems to be about a historical person: a woman, Anne Rykhus, who begins to manifest behaviors that could be schizophrenia.

The symptoms of schizophrenia generally appear between the ages of 16 and 30; but as my mother said about her grandmother’s maid, “they didn’t know about those things back then.” So perhaps the villagers blamed it on the hulder. They even had an existing legend — the interrupted wedding — to hang the explanation on. Did Anne really foresee the railway and aircraft? Well, hindsight is always super-psychic, and stories do have a way of getting embellished. But now this village has its own legend, a real, honest-to-goodness seer. And rather than being shunned, as must happen to so many like her, Anne Rykhus is honored.

Who knows if what I’ve speculated has any basis in reality. But it makes a good story, and sometimes, that’s what counts.