Tag Archives: folklore

Mid-Autumn Festival

Well today is the mid-Autumn Festival in China. It’s a national holiday so most people have the day off. The festival is on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. This year it happened to fall on September 19th.

In ancient China people used to worship the sun in the spring and moon in the fall. The festival is always held when the moon is the large in the sky.

Like everything in China, there’s a bit of folklore behind this festival. One story mentions how there once were ten suns that would always burn the farmers’ crops. Deciding enough was enough a hero named Hou Yi climbed Kunlun Mountain and shot nine of the suns out of the sky with his magic bow.

One day Hou Yi ran across the Empress Wangmu of Heaven. The empress gave him a special potion that would turn Hou Yi into a celestial being. He didn’t want to part with his lovely wife Chang E so he gave her the potion for safe keeping. This was all seen by local troublemaker and scoundrel Penguin Meng.

Chang E was alone at home one day when CRASH, Peng Meng smashed the door to splinters and began to cause a ruckus. ‘Hand over the potion or I’ll stick this knife in you!’ Afraid and unable to beat Peng Meng, Chang E quickly drank the potion. Her body floated out the window and into the sky.

Hou Yi returned in the evening and learned what happened from the servants. He looked up to the sky and saw how much fuller and brighter the moon was. There was also a shadow that looked like his wife. He chased the moon but was never able to catch it.

Realizing his wife was lost, Hou Yi set a small table of Chang E’s favorite meats and fruits and held a memorial ceremony for her. The local people were so touched by the ceremony they started to pray for Chang E and worship the moon asking for good fortune and peace.

Hill of Witches (Raganu Kalnas)

I adore Lithuania. It’s my favorite country I’ve ever visited. There’s something in the air that’s intoxicating. I felt like I was high the entire time I was there. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but somehow I felt like Lithuania was the OLD country. If fairies and gnomes and elves existed they would live in Lithuania. The only way I could describe it to myself was that it felt like what I imagined the North to be like in A Song of Ice and Fire. I made comparisons to Lord of the Rings earlier; I’m kind of a nerd.

One of the most interesting things in Lithuania and by extension the rest of the world is Raganu Kalnas, or Hill of Witches. It’s a sculpture garden out in Juodkrante on the Curonion Spit (more on that later). A winding patch takes you up a small forested hill where you’re free to explore dozens of carved wooden images involving characters from Lithuanian folk lore.

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A Khatchkar’s Story

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This is the sad story of two young lovers. There once was a young man in the village who was a tailor (represented by the scissors near his head) and caught the attention of the most beautiful girl in the area. When the two decided to wed there was great rejoicing because she was so lovely and he was a well brought up and responsible young man. Although the two families were poor they were able┬áto provide enough for a large wedding party (the food and wine jugs) and invited the whole town. The young couple were standing in front of the priest staring lovingly into each other’s eyes when a force of marauding bandits (man on horse) swept down from the hills and began to slaughter the populace. The couple were violently butchered along with many of the other people, but somehow half of the population was able to survive. The groom’s younger brother vowed revenge, and as he marched to the blacksmith to turn his plowshares to swords, his mother begged him to reconsider. She could not bear the idea of losing her only remaining child. After the rage subsided, the brother understood the wisdom of his mother and apprenticed himself to the town’s stone cutter. After three years of apprenticeship he carved out this scene to remember his brother and would-be sister in law and placed it over the place where the two were killed.

The Story of Mt Ararat

One of my good Armenian friends studies ethnography in university and is working on her doctorate degree. So whenever she has a paper to write I offer to proofread it for her, correcting English mistakes and typos due to her not being a native speaker. I’d do it no matter what she was studying but since it’s such an interesting subject, I’m often lucky enough to hear about stories and tales from Armenian history. In the most recent paper of hers I read she wrote about the national myths that are told to young children in schools and at home.

The story of Ararat.

Mt Ararat is revered in Armenian culture. It stands a symbol of their nation and a protector of the Armenian people. So it’s no surprise that there is a creation myth for it that isn’t ‘plate tectonics.’

Years and years and years ago there was a young man named Ararat. He lived a peaceful life with his village in the Armenian highlands. One day a group of bandit raiders came through and held the village for ransom. Ararat escaped the initial onslaught, mounted a defense, and led the attack to repulse the bandits. He was celebrated as a hero by his friends and family.

Over the years Ararat became more and more famous in the region. He was known as intelligent and fair, as well as an exceptional military commander. His defense against foreign invaders because the stuff of legend. Because of him the Armenian people could live in safety. But time keeps on ticking and eventually Ararat was an old and sick man. So at the age of a hundred he prayed to God.

‘God, I am old and tired. I need rest from this mortal coil. But I can not leave my people. Help me protect them until the end of time.’

God looked down to Ararat and replied. ‘You are only a man, and it is man’s gift and curse to be mortal. I can not make you live forever. What I can do is turn you into a mountain so you can look down upon your people and the Armenian nation can look upon you in wonder and hope.

So Ararat was turned into the mountain. The people were upset they lost their hero and they cried and cried and cried. They cried so much their tears ended up forming the Araks River which makes up the present day border between Armenia and Turkey.

Of course being a legend, there are probably many others describing the formation of Mt Ararat and the Araks River. My friend tells me this particular tale is not very popular, she never heard it until doing her dissertation research.

Russia’s Adoption of Christianity

One day I was drinking with my landlord in Armenia. He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. A geologist by trade, he was educated in Moscow during the Soviet times and owned one of the first computers in all of Armenia. It was a real pain in the ass he told me. If anything went wrong he’d have to learn how to fix it, this was decades before the Geek Squad. Today he’s an unemployed handyman. Some countries like Poland have done well after the collapse of the USSR. Some countries like Armenia haven’t done as well. But that’s not the point of this story. I just wanted to say how awesome my landlord was.

So we’re drinking together after replacing my shower and he starts telling me a story. He knows I like history, especially really weird stories. He asked me if I knew why Russia was a Christian nation. I told him the truth, I had absolutely no idea. Armenians are proud of their country being the first to adapt Christianity, but a story about Russia’s Christianity didn’t come along every day.

Just so be clear, when he related the story to me he was a little hazy on the details. It’s one of those stories where the names and exactness aren’t really called for. I looked it up later to see if it was actually true. There are chroniclers of the period claiming this is true, and others presenting the conversion much different ways. It’s still interesting.

Back in the tenth century Prince Vladimir was the ruler of Kievan Rus, the land that would eventually become Mother Russia. At this time paganism was still very popular throughout Kievan Rus, even Vladimir was a practice pagan. A legend goes that Vladimir used to practice human sacrifice before his battles and one time a young man was drawn to be killed. The young man’s father stood up to the prince and basically said that all the pagan gods were a crock and the only true god is the Christian god. This stuck with Vladimir and a couple years later he invited envoys representing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to present their case as to why he (and by extension his people) should follow a particular faith.

He heard all the arguments then retired to his chambers to contemplate his decision. After a few hours of meditation he emerged to the audience hall to read his verdict. Judaism was no good he said. The fact that the Jewish people lost Jerusalem was proof enough to Vladimir that God had abandoned them. That wouldn’t cut it for his people. So the choice came down to Christianity and Islam. Both made very persuasive arguments and each faith had some very powerful tenets. However he could only choose one. And he chose Christianity. Prince Vladimir claimed that alcohol was very important to his people and he would not deny them that simple pleasure. The Islam’s prohibition on alcohol was the only reason that Christianity eventually became the religion of the largest country on Earth.

If you believe the stories.

A Czar-y Story

I was supposed to be flying today but because of Hurricane Sandy my flight was canceled. To be productive and make the most out of this new time I have I wanted to write something. While trying to wrack my brain for something interesting I recalled one of my favorite stories I’ve ever been told while traveling. And to make it even better I can make a really bad pun in honor of Halloween (czar-y almost looks like scary!) and I am a fan of horrible puns.

One interesting thing about Armenia and other countries that have a strong Russian influence is the non-verbal way to ask for some alcohol. Often when with a couple of Armenian men one will eventually look towards you since you’re the foreigner and tap his neck right under the jaw with the back of his pointer and middle finger while looking a bit quizzically. This means ‘You want some vodka?’ After seeing this habit for months I finally asked an older Armenian gentleman I was drinking with why they did it and he told me this awesome story. I doubt it’s true but I love it.

Back in the Russian Czarist era, one of the Czars was visiting his people in Siberia. While him and the royal family were skating on a frozen lake the ice broke and his son fell into the icy water. As the frigid arms of hypothermia and drowning were about to embrace the boy, a local peasant dove into the water and fished him out. The Czar was so amazed by this man’s courage that he was speechless the entire way back to the man’s hut where everyone warmed near the fire.

‘You my loyal subject have proved to me that I am the leader of the greatest people in the world. A man of your bravery is a credit to your family and village.’ The Czar gripped the peasant’s hand, ‘You have saved one of the most precious things in my life. What can I ever do to repay you? Your word is my command. Would you like money? Land? Women? How can I make you happy?’

Now this peasant was a man like everyone else and tempted by this grand offer. But he was not hasty. A thoughtful man, he asked the Czar for a moment to think. Two minutes of quiet contemplation later the peasant had his response.

‘My liege. I dove into the water not for personal gain. A father should never outlive his son and I would have done the same for the highest of kings and the lowest of lepers. As to your offer I must respectfully decline. Every man could use more money, but if you were to provide me with a large treasure my children would grow up to be lazy, relatives would always be asking for help, and my neighbors would resent me. I already have a nice plot of land taken care of by my family, if it was much bigger it would be necessary for me to hire laborers which cause more problems then they solve. And my wife may not be the fair maiden she was when I met, her lithe form is long gone; but she has always been faithful to me and provided me four wonderful children. I would be a stupid man to ruin thirty years of marriage to the woman I love for the pleasures of the flesh. And what sort of young lady would like to be with an old man like myself? My stamina is not what it’s used to be.’

‘However,’ the man continued, ‘there is something I would like if it please you. I’m a simple man and after a hard day working in my fields I often enjoy visiting an inn with my friends for a beer or a bit of vodka. My business often takes me to other towns and I enjoy meeting new people over a few drinks. If you could make it so I do not have to pay for drinks any more I would be very happy.’

The czar was very impressed with the man’s lack of greed. ‘If everyone in my lands half as good as you my friend we would be the greatest nation in history. I will honor our agreement and will tell my mayors and governors to inform all public houses must provide you with free drinks for the rest of your life. A discrete sign will do. As you order your drink simply tap your neck with the back of your first two fingers. This will show the taverns that you are the man that has saved my son and has my blessing to drink without paying.’

So that’s the story. I really enjoy telling it at parties because everyone likes a little cultural folklore. Now go and spread it and impress your friends.