Folktales of the Aegean

1. The art of traditional storytelling in the Aegean

The pioneers of folklore and ethnographical research report that oral literature (and hence popular folktales) is not a spontaneous creation of the people, who reproduce the ancestral heritage as a single, wide and undifferentiated body. The folktale is revived through the intermediary of the storyteller and passes on in a social gathering, where the narrator begins to speak in the presence of his listeners. First there is the story inherited from the past, known and memorized, and then the discourse of the narrator, who imparts it at a given moment in time, within the context of a given cultural community. This synthesis of the old, the eternal and the transient, the ephemeral, constitutes the basis on which every narrator practices his art and communicates his message.

The insular area of the Aegean has been for millenniums the natural setting of extensive cultural exchanges, which have marked the human journeys in the Mediterranean region. The folktales are the result of these fruitful exchanges and interactions through time. The Aegean Islands, despite the fact that they belong to the same geopolitical area and to a certain extent shared a common historical fortune, are different insofar as the conditions of social development and cultural life are concerned. Isolated by the sea, which at the same time unites them through the familiar and often ancient sea routes, they communicated with each other but also with the adjacent mainland coasts, Asia Minor and the Balkans.

Nowadays, not all insular communities share a common development model and the same applies for the terms of their economic and social life. From the high tourism zones, especially as far as coastal settlements are concerned, to the isolated mountain villages, the Aegean islands are characterized by different levels of tourism development, whereas some of them tend towards tourist monoculture, discouraging all other economic, social or cultural activity.

In insular Aegean communities, oral discourse always sustains interpersonal relations and cultural communication between the old and the young generations. In this context, the narration of folktales constitutes a living process and, in certain areas, one can find fairly good storytellers who continue to have access or to seek their audience amongst their family and friends. For these narrators, who have been listening to tales since they were children, the participation in the narrative process is a life experience, and their words follow the tale’s plot line almost throughout the entire 20th century. During that time, the social context of the narration changes, as the economic and social transformations that experiences the agricultural community orient the people involved towards new realities; however, that does not entail the loss of the folktale knowledge.

2. Context and conditions of narration

The agricultural community is one of the places of origin and diffusion of folktales. The preferred context of narration within the community was the evening gathering of the family members before going to sleep or the unofficial social gathering that combined entertainment with the execution of certain tasks or a social meeting of a more official and festive character. The composition of the audience in these gatherings was usually mixed –as far as gender and age were concerned.

Folktales have been narrated all over the year: during the winter near the fireplace, around the brazier, the lamp or the stove, in the food preparing area or around the sofras (low table). When the weather was hot, the gathering took place in the yard, on the benches or outside the house, in the street. Apart from the house, folktales were also narrated in public places like the square, the coffee shop of the village or the market. Folktales were narrated at the field, at thresh, during work or at lunch break; they were also narrated during other agricultural works, like tillage, harvest and olive picking.

Until this day, one can listen to folktales in family and friends gatherings, in a house where neighbours come to visit. The participants know each other well and the folktale narration fuels their interpersonal relations. However, in these gatherings the folktale is part of other forms of discourse, since the conversation can include the news of the day, events of the local history, everyday gossip, narration of jokes, terrifying stories, dreams, proverbs and riddles.

The narration could be performed by such dominant figures of the small local society as the grandfather or the grandmother. People whose profession obliged them to travel periodically or seasonally, as midwifes or women who worked as practical doctors, could also perform it. These women, during the long hours of waiting until the childbirth, in the villagers’ homes or during therapy, often narrated folktales. Nonetheless, due to their profession, men also left the community for short or longer periods, therefore having the opportunity to learn new folktales. They were mariners, fishermen, mule drivers, craftsmen (builders) and artists (musicians). Those of the islanders who traded their products in the neighboring coasts of Asia Minor brought home, apart from the goods, folktales they narrated in the family or friends gatherings, thus enriching the local collective repertory.

The folktale was also popular amongst the people who, due to their work, lived rather isolated from the community, like the shepherds. Obliged to reside for a certain period in mountain areas, away from the community, they told their tales in the evening, after grazing, when the animals were fenced and they were ready to go to bed. The organization of the stock farming life favored the narration of folktales, as the members of a small –usually kindred- group shared hard working and living conditions in a secluded place.

The gradual departure of individual people or groups from their villages takes the folk tale away from the rural environment to new places. In Karpathos, where the often small properties were inherited by the elder son or daughter, the younger boys were obliged to migrate, whereas the younger girls were sent to other islands, to work as maids in the homes of rich families. Important women-narrators, who told their stories in the kitchen or in the stately home’s laundry room, come from the domestic staff.

Folktales are also popular amongst the people of the urban centres, like Ermoupoli and, later, Rhodes. In the city, the folktale may reside in the urban house, the neighborhood or a workplace, like the craft businesses or the local industries. Besides, the channels of communication between the village and the city have survived through the economic transformations of the insular societies in the 70s, 80s and 90s. A large part of the population continues to live in the village, while working in the city, in the tourist sector and not in professions related to agriculture. Some are owners or employees in small tourist businesses, shops and restaurants, while others work as maids in tourist hotels or taxi drivers etc.

Unlike other genres of folk oral discourse, the folktale is considered, by the narrators themselves, a fictional story, whose aim is to entertain and instruct. However, its magical character does not prevent the narrator and his listeners from experiencing its deeper truth. This way, folktale narration responded not only to the needs of social gathering, conversation and communication, but mirrored the world view of large social groups as well, therefore constituting a significant record of social realities. Furthermore, the folktale is used by the elder as an educational tool for the younger in various subjects, from the teaching of human values (kindness, charity, reciprocal help) to matters of sexual conduct.

3. The diversity of the Aegean folktale: an example

In the broader family of Greek folktale, the folktales of the Aegean are characterized by diversity and variety in both their content as well as their articulation, which, in certain areas, creates distinctive cohesive plots. However, at the same time one observes the remarkable persistence, with which some folktale themes recur across the narrative tradition of the islands. One of these themes is the magical or bewitched wife, particularly popular in the repertory of the Aegean storytellers, which deals with love, marriage and the search for a partner. As it happens in principle in the fairytales, we have two people, who belong to different worlds, a mortal man and a magical or bewitched woman. The adventures and difficulties of their union, describe the difficulties of human relations. Stith Thompson, in his work Motif Index of Folk Literature, lists these motifs under the term “Unequals in Love”. The narrators describe either the weakness of the magical heroine to integrate in the world of humans or the problems the hero faces in his social environment because of the magical woman’s presence or when he looks for her in another world.

The magical heroine is usually a beautiful girl covered in an animal skin or other cover. As the folklore researcher Georgios Megas has mentioned, an ecotypic introductory episode, ranking amongst the favorite in the Aegean storytellers list, is that of the fisherman who throws his nets and catches a turtle which proves to be a beautiful girl and daughter of kyra-Thalassa (Lady of the Sea). In other occasions, the arrow that the prince has thrown in order to find a bride leads him to a cat, monkey or bear’s lair. The case might also be that the daughter, because of her mother’s unfortunate wish, is born in the form of an animal: a kid goat, a baby lamb, a puppy, a crow, a monkey, a little pigeon, a cat. When she takes her fur off, she becomes a beautiful girl. When the hero burns her animal skin, she withdraws in a magical world, distant and heavenly (e.g. “the glass mountains”, “the plains of bones”), where she lives as a swan-girl. Her beloved, wearing forty pairs of iron shoes out, covers the distance that separates the world of humans from that of the magical woman. During his search he meets various folktale figures, he does a good turn to them and accepts their help. Women (or ogresses) are some of the most popular; they do the usual housework in an unusual way: the first cleans the oven (panizei) with her breasts, the second spins, passing the needle through her tongue which pours out venom –the hero shows the first woman how to clean the oven with the panistra (long wooden staffs with a wet piece of cloth attached to them) and spreads honey on the second woman’s thread.

However, the heroine’s magical nature is not merely decorative; it leads the course of action or offers the final solution. In certain cases, the heroine herself performs the impossible labors asked of the hero by the villain king, with the use of the magic objects she possesses. Assisted by her magic powers, she offers the best gifts to the king and manages to make a fool of her sisters-in-law. During the royal feast, the heroine throws food on her bosom, and it becomes flowers and pearls, then throws a bone on the king’s forehead and it becomes a rose.

Compared to her, the hero is typically human: sometimes, he is the male equivalent of Cinderella (Stachtopouta), namely the boy who sits among the ashes (Stachtompoutis, Achilopoutouris, Stachtopitaras).

Apart from the more complex adaptations of the magical wife’s tale, there are simpler versions, a fact that testifies the narrators’ width of choice. Cases in point of this procedure are the versions of Kalymnos, an island with solid narrative traditions. In this case, the burning of the magical wife’s animal skin does not result in her disappearing and the subsequent search, but to a ritualistic exchange of questions and answers, constituting a remote and abridged recollection of the disappearance and search episode: once the animal cover is thrown to the fire, the hero embraces the woman, who says to him: “you lost me!” And he answers: “I won you!” This dialogue is repeated three times. Finally, the spells are broken and the heroine assumes her human form forever.

In many variations of the magical woman folktale, one can see the way the narrative art of Aegean storytellers combines the symbolic poetic language with a pragmatic realism. Given that the folktales’ starting ground is real life, the real experiences of the narrator correspond to the folktale’s magical elements. Women narrators supply to the folktale world elements of their own everyday life. That way, a sequence of female domestic activities becomes part of the folktale plot, like baking the bread, spinning the wool, washing the clothes and cooking. In a series of folktales originating from the stock farmers communities in mountain Naxos, the hero is a prince who marries a fairy; the magic tale begins when she is lost and he starts looking for her. The connection of the magic folktale with life experience and everyday activities of both the narrators and their listeners, could possibly explain its popularity.

In conclusion, the narration constitutes a component of the history of Greek popular culture as well as of the living Greek reality, of the present time.

The study of the Aegean folktales in situ, in connection to the communities, which create and spread a tradition through time, can provide evidence of the transformational procedure and the historical development of this genre, bringing to light the different pieces that compose the national mosaic, as well as the multiple connections of our folktales with those of other people.