Category Archives: International Folktale Characters

International Folktale Character: Mamy Wata



Woohoo!  It’s almost summer!  Let’s go SWIMMING! Did you bring your bathing suit?  Oh yeah…um…I totally left it at home…plus you know, I ate less than half an hour ago…I don’t want to get a cramp…

You’re looking decidedly shifty. What’s the real reason you don’t want to go swimming?  Ok, to be honest, it’s because I’ve been doing some reading up on popular African deity Mamy Wata.

Who?  Mamy Wata, which means “Mother Water”.  She’s a water entity worshipped by many people in West, Central and Southern Africa and in the African diaspora around the world.  She’s known for her powers of divination and clairvoyance, and her seductive but protective nature. She also goes by Mamadjo, Maman de l’Eau, La Sirene, Yemanya, Yemoja…I could go on…

What does she look like?  She’s a serpent priestess or mermaid with long, curly black hair who often carries a mirror, comb, or watch.  She can also appear fully human and stroll through the streets and markets.

Why should all this stop you from swimming?  Well, she could abduct me.  She’s very into abducting both her followers and random people while they’re swimming or boating.

Why would she do that?  She would bring me to her realm in the spirit world underwater.  When I returned I’d be completely dried off and I’d have new spiritual understanding.  I might even grow wealthier, more attractive, and more easy-going.

You know what, that doesn’t sound so bad.  Yeah, I guess not!  But she might also haunt my dreams and demand my everlasting faithfulness to her.  Like water itself, she is both good (she can protect you and cure you from your illnesses) and bad (she can be dangerous and cause illness too).  She generally wants her followers to be healthy and well-off but is also associated with fatally strong undertows.

Sounds like I should make sure I keep her happy if I happen to meet up with her.  What kind of gift would she like?  Having emerged and gained popularity during a time of great trade and wealth for Africa, Mamy Wata loves her trinkets and baubles.  She is a real capitalist deity and adores anything shiny, expensive, and modern.  She’ll also happily accept perfume, alcohol, delicious food, Coca Cola, and anything with a designer label.  Her largely matriarchal priesthood and her initiates worship her by dancing feverishly until they fall into a trance, so she might appreciate it if you try your hand at that too. 

I haven’t seen you dancing yourself into another state of being lately.  How did you hear about her?  Her legends were brought to America by slaves.  In fact, her worship was recorded (and outlawed) by Dutch slavers in the 18th century.  But she must surely have seemed to retain her power as the slaves fought back swamp waters on New World plantations. 

Anything else I need to know before I strap on my goggles and flippers?  Just make sure you’re keeping your eyes peeled for her at all times; in southern Africa people believe she can fly around in a tornado, so keeping dry won’t necessarily save you!


Don’t say: Are you a manatee or a mermaid?

Do say: Where can I read more? 

Language Lizard carries Mamy Wata and the Monster in many popular languages.


International Folktale Character: Nasreddin Hodja

I’ve got a little vacation time coming up and I’d like to use it in July.  Any suggestions?   Sure!  If you’re looking for a vacation spot with a difference, look no further than Akşehir, Turkey, where they hold the International Nasreddin Hodja Fest every July.

Sounds great!  Um…What is it?  In honor of this famous Sufi teacher, judge, philosopher, wit, and imam from the 13th century, his hometown throws a big party once a year, with music, comedy, and theatre performances.  There’s even a Nasreddin impersonator tossing yoghurt into a lake (don’t ask).

Well, I guess you won’t find that sort of thing on Cape Cod.  So tell me more about this Nasreddin character.  It might be easier to introduce him with a story:

One day Mullah Nasreddin headed to mosque on his donkey.  But the people in the village noticed something strange: he was riding it backwards, facing the donkey’s tail!

“Teacher!” the people cried, “You are riding your donkey backwards!  What on earth is going on? Have you lost your senses?”

Nasreddin replied, “It is not I who am riding my donkey backwards. It is my donkey who is facing the wrong way.”

I like this guy!  But has anyone heard of him outside of Turkey?  Only the entire Muslim world.  Nasreddin Hodja, whose name is spelled countless different ways depending on where you are, is both famous in and claimed as a citizen of countries from Azerbaijan to Mongolia, from Bulgaria to Iran, from Serbia to China.  People all over the world tell and re-tell his funny, enlightening stories.

And they’re happy to have their town squares decorated with statues of this dude riding his donkey…backwards?  Ah, but that’s the beauty of Nasreddin.  He’s the wise fool.  He starts out in many of his stories appearing silly, odd, or gullible – but his faith, wisdom and humor always impress people and he has the last laugh in the end.  Take, for example, the story of the fresh little boy and the Hodja’s turban:

One day when Nasreddin was having his regular daily coffee at his usual seat in his usual outdoor café, a schoolboy came along and knocked off his turban. Unperturbed, Nasreddin picked up the turban and put it back on his head. The next day, the same schoolboy came along and knocked off his turban again. Again, Nasreddin just picked it up, put it back on and resumed whatever conversation he was having. When the little brat repeated the prank for the third time, his friends protested and told him to punish the boy.


“Tsk, tsk. That’s not how this principle is working,” said Nasreddin offhandedly.


The next day, an invading army occupied the city and Nasreddin did not turn up for coffee as usual. In his seat was a captain from the invading army. When the schoolboy passed by as usual, he knocked off the soldier’s hat without a second thought and the captain sliced off his head with a swift single stroke of his sword.


Wait…if he’s a real guy, how can he be a folktale character?  Well, he was real once – but his legend has taken on a life of its own.  His wit, wisdom, and anecdotes have been translated and passed down through so many people and over many years (the first manuscript to mention him dates from 1571) that Nasreddin has become more of a character than a historical figure.


It’s so cool how he manages to span and unify so many cultures and so much time!  They should give him his own year…  Way, way ahead of you.  1996-97 was the UNESCO International Year of Nasreddin Hodja.


Don’t say…Hey, why is that guy throwing yoghurt in the lake?

Do say…Don’t worry, you make riding a donkey backwards look fun.

International Folktale Character: The Monkey King


 picture credit: Roland @   Name: Monkey Uh…is that it? Well, he also goes by Monkey King, Handsome Monkey King, and Sun Wukong, or “Disciple who is aware of emptiness”. And what sort of character is he? Um, the name’s a bit of a giveaway. I get that he’s a monkey, but what makes him, you know, MonkeyIt’s a bit of a long story!  He’s a trickster, a braggart and a hero from China, who got into all sorts of trouble with the celestial pantheon.  And he’s been around since before the Han Dynasty (206 BC). So he’s old. Should I be impressed?  Yes.  He also boasts of being able to transform himself into 72 different images, immortality, and the ability to use the clouds to travel 34,000 miles in a single somersault.  As he says, “Why shouldn’t I take the power of the Jade Emperor?” Sounds like a modest guy… Yeah, Sun Wukong thought pretty highly of himself.  But who wouldn’t with skills like those?  Plus, he conquered all the best generals in Heaven, managed to sneak into a celestial banquet and steal everything from the peaches of immortality to some vintage wine, and escape from imprisonment in a fiery cauldron after 49 days with enhanced sight and strength.  Cheeky monkey. Was he just hell-bent on wreaking havoc in Heaven?  Not so!  He was acting out after being snubbed: after wiping his own name from the Book of Life and Death and being tattled on by the Kings of Hell, he was offered a rank in heaven.  Sounds great, right?  But everyone knows that “Horse-Manager” and “Official Gardener” aren’t Heaven’s most illustrious titles.  He was starting to feel like they’d promoted him just to keep him out of trouble. What a handful! Tell me about it.  And Buddha would agree – he was called in to help out in Heaven and eventually tricked Monkey into submission by daring him to jump out of his palm. Sounds like a cinch…but it wasn’t!  Let it suffice to say that the Buddha’s fingers look an awful lot like the 5 pillars of wisdom at the end of the universe.  The dare ended up with Monkey imprisoned in a mountain for 500 years, and the Buddha wiping simian pee off his hand. I blame the parents. Then you’ll have to go looking for a rock on the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers!  Or perhaps you’re referring to the origins of the Monkey legend, which many believe is the Hindu Ramayana. So did he ever escape from this prison?  He was released in order to help a monk travel to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras.  He did such an awesome job (with a little help from an ego-squeezing headband controlled by the monk) that he was given Buddhahood.  And hundreds of years later, Mao Ze Dong declared himself a fan and suggested all of China could take inspiration from the ingenuity of the Handsome Monkey King. Yeesh.  Talk about giving the guy a big head.  So does he just appear in the one story?  Yeeees…but sort of like Spiderman or Batman, there have been many different versions and re-tellings, including the famous translation of Journey to the West; a popular 1970s tv show; and an opera written by that guy from Blur. Don’t Say: Quit monkeying around. Do Say: Buddhism is more fun than a barrel of monkeys!


Featured Folk Tale Character: Anansi

photo credit: Calsidyrose @

Q: So who are we talking about this time?

A:  Anansi.

Q:  Bless you!

A:  No,  Anansi!  Kweku Anansi the Spider, God of Stories and Mischief.

Q: A spider?  That sounds horrifying. And a spider God sounds even worse.

A: He’s not really so much a God of spiders, and his activities aren’t so very spidery.  He is a spider, but in most Anansi tales he behaves very much like a man.  In fact he is a trickster character, usually using his cunning to outwit and manipulate others, (you know, leopards, monkeys, other gods, that sort of thing), although sometimes he’s too clever for his own good.  He’s a very powerful and old god, with fingers (or rather, legs) in many different mythological and supernatural pies; he determines the borders between the land and the oceans, he brings the rains to quench forest fires, and in some versions he is credited with creating the sun, the moon, the stars and even the first man, into whom his father, Nyame the Sky God, first breathed life.  However, he is of interest to us primarily because he is also the possessor of the knowledge of all stories, a knowledge which he obtained through trickery from Nyame (it involved a python, a leopard, some hornets, a dwarf and some glue; look it up if you don’t believe me).

Q: So is he a bad guy in these stories?

A:  Not really, no.  Anansi stories (and there are so many of them that they form their own genre called Anansasem) are told to entertain and to teach moral lessons. Sometimes Anansi  uses his cunning for his own greedy ends, in which case the moral often comes at his own expense, but often he uses his brains to overcome a stronger, threatening opponent, so Anansi has become a symbol of brains over brawn and a hero of the oppressed.   Not only that, but his web is supposed to have inspired humans to weave fabric, build houses and link themselves together to form a strong, balanced society.

Q:  So where’s this busy gentleman from? 

A:  It is believed he originates from the Ashanti culture in Ghana, but he’s travelled far and wide since then, becoming popular throughout much of West Africa, before the advent of the slave trade meant that he too crossed the Atlantic and wound up in all the same places as the people who told his stories: Jamaica, Haiti (in fact most of the Caribbean), South America, Belize, and the southern states of the USA, particularly Georgia and South Carolina in the Gullah culture.  Along the way he changes his name a number of times.  He’s Hanansi, Compe Anansi, Ayiyi and, by the time he fetches up on the shores of the United States and in the Br’er Rabbit stories, Aunt Nancy.

Q:  Is it this history that gives him the “hero of the oppressed” reputation you just mentioned?

A:  Precisely.  Anansi survived by being passed along through the oral tradition of storytelling, and it should be of no surprise given the circumstances of their telling that the stories that have survived are often the ones in which Anansi  becomes the champion of the powerless, using only his cleverness to defeat those much stronger than him.

 Don’t say:  Gross!  A Spider!!  SQUISH IT!!!

 Do say: A story.  Pass the rich tradition of Anansi on to the next generation by reading one of the many wonderful Anansi stories aloud to a younger listener.  Try Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott, or Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric A. Kimmel.