Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

BOOK REVIEW: Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Just So StoriesJust So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Just So Stories” is a collection of 12 children’s stories. The theme that runs through the dozen stories is that they are mostly tall-tale answers for questions that children might have. All but two of them focus on animals and nature, and the two divergent stories deal with the origin of written language. Since it’s such a small collection and the titles tend to synopsize the stories, I’ll include the table of contents below, which may give one greater insight into the nature of the stories.

1.) How the Whale Got his Throat
2.) How the Camel Got his Hump
3.) How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin
4.) How the Leopard Got his Spots
5.) The Elephant’s Child
6.) The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo
7.) The Beginning of the Armadillos
8.) How the First Letter Was Made
9.) How the Alphabet Was Made
10.) The Crab that Played with the Sea
11.) The Cat that Walked by Himself
12.) The Butterfly that Stamped

The edition that I have (i.e. 2006 Scholastic Junior Classics Edition) has a number of black-and-white graphics (block print and line drawn style)—one or two per story. Given the genre, I imagine most editions have some kind of pictures, but your edition’s graphics may vary. A number of the stories include short poetry—usually at the end. The poetry is part of the original Kipling product and so are likely included in all unabridged editions.

I’d recommend this book for those looking for short stories that are relatable to young children.

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STORY: The Most Inaccessible Place of All

I ran across this little story quoted in an academic paper while I was doing research for a writing project. It was written by Dorothy Gilman in a book called A Nun in the Closet. At any rate, I found it clever and thought you might as well. [I’m assuming that Gilman made this story up, rather than borrowing an old folktale–but that–as with all assumptions–could be wrong. Please feel free to correct me if you know otherwise. If she did come up with it from scratch, she perfectly captured the folktale.]

 

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“Once upon a time, [Bhanjan Singh, a guru-like character in the book] said, when God had finished making the world, he wanted to leave behind Him for man a piece of His own divinity, a spark of His essence, a promise to man of what he could become, with effort. He looked for a place to hide this Godhead because, he explained, what man could find too easily would never be valued by him.



“Then you must hide the Godhead on the highest mountain peak on earth,” said one of His councilors.



God shook His head. “No, for man is an adventuresome creature and he will soon enough learn to climb the highest mountain peaks.”



“Hide it then, O Great One, in the depths of the earth!”



“I think not,” said God, “for man will one day discover that he can dig into the deepest parts of the earth.”



“In the middle of the ocean then, Master?”



God shook His head. “I’ve given man a brain, you see, and one day he’ll learn to build ships and cross the mightiest oceans.”



“Where then, Master?” cried His councilors.



God smiled. “I’ll hide it in the most inaccessible place of all, and the one place that man will never think to look for it. I’ll hide it deep inside of man himself.”

The Legend of Nai Khanomtom: Hero of Muay Thai

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Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand

In 1767 the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam fell to the Burmese. Burma occupied Siam only briefly because Burma’s king, King Hsinbyushin (a.k.a. King Mangra), was forced to withdraw his troops to combat a Chinese invasion to his homeland. The Thais were fabled to be valiant fighters and even had a numeric advantage, but they were easily put into disarray by Burmese forces. Even King Mangra was said to have declared that he couldn’t have taken Ayutthaya had the leadership of the opposition been more effective. [Keep in mind that even if he did say this, it might have been more a dig at his Thai counterpart than an expression of his true feelings.]

The Burmese captured a many prisoners during their Thai campaign and true warriors were particularly coveted as prisoners. One such fighter was Nai Khanomtom (fyi: it’s also written Nai Khanom Tom.) Nai Khonomtom was renowned for his skill in Muay Boran, an early Thai fighting style related to Muay Thai. This made him a logical choice to headline for the Thais in a tournament that would pit Muay Boran against Thiang–i.e. the indigenous martial arts of Burma (e.g. Lethwei and Bando.) The tournament would be part of King Mangra’s seven day festival in honor of Buddhist relics, the festivities of which would also include plays, comedians, and sword fights.

Nai Khanomtom was pitted against a Burmese champion, a man who was clearly the audience favorite. Timed rounds didn’t exist in those days. Fights stopped when one of the fighters was physically unable to continue, and not before. The Burmese fighter wore a kind of sarong that was the usual attire for the men of Burma, and Nai Khanomtom wore a loin cloth tied up in the traditional Thai style (see the statue pic above.) Each fighter wrapped only ropes on their forearms and hands, and each may have had some padding over the groin–though not as insurance against an accident, but because crotch kicks were fair game.

Nai Khanomtom began with a Wai Kru, which perplexed the Burmese. Wai Kru is a pre-fight ritual that has several purposes, the most important of which is to show respect for one’s teachers, deities, and the audience. The practice can take several minutes and some variants of it can be physically demanding.

When the fight started, Nai Khanomtom charged over the fight space taking the fight to his opponent and laying down a barrage of kicks, knees, elbows, and punches. By some accounts, his victory was declared invalid by a judge, who’d been distracted by other festival events (and who–no doubt–wasn’t pleased by the swift defeat of the Burmese champion.) The decision was made despite the fact that the Burmese fighter had been knocked unconscious.

The King was thrilled by the fight and offered Nai Khanomtom his freedom if he could fight nine more Burmese fighters. Nai Khanomtom didn’t get breaks between these fights, and as soon as an opponent went down the next was queued up to come after the Thai fighter. And so it was that Nai Khanomtom took on the Burmese fighters in an ironman fashion. The last of his opponents was a famous martial arts master teacher from Rakhine, a coastal region in Burma’s southwest. Nai Khanomtom went after the Rakhine master with flurry of kicks. It’s worth noting that in those days Burmese fighters were said to have relied much more heavily on hand strikes than kicks, and so the kicks may have given Nai Khanomtom a range advantage while presenting his opponent with attacks that the Burmese fighter was less practiced at defeating.

At the fight’s end, King Mangra honored his agreement, and Nai Khanomtom was granted his freedom and provided safe-conduct back to Siam. There are varying accounts that say that Nai Khonomtom returned home with either two Burmese wives or a number of his fellow prisoners as an additional payment for providing a spectacle that the Burmese king found gripping. In these accounts, Nai Khanomtom is usually said to have turned down a cash payment.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to King Mangra that goes, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom, even with his bare hands he can fell ten opponents.” [FYI-It should be noted that seeing the same words quoted by several sources isn’t proof of truth, because the quotes could have a common (and false) point of origin.  So take it all with a grain of salt.]

[Note: The details of this story vary. So you may hear–or have heard–a slightly different version of events. The exact details are likely lost to history and–when that happens–embellishment may creep in. That said, the variations that I’ve heard are neither great nor particularly significant. It’s also worth noting that these events are celebrated in Thailand every March 17th on what is called Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day.]

The Tongue-Cut Sparrow: A Japanese Folktale

800px-Tree_Sparrow_Japan_Flip[This is a well-known Japanese folk tale. There are many versions and translations of it, but the gist of the story remains the same from one to the next.]

Once upon a time, an old man was married to a shrew. The couple lived in the countryside on the edge of a mountain forest. They had no children, but the man befriended one of the sparrows that resided in the adjacent forest. The old man fed the sparrow, offering whatever he had to the small bird.

Over time, the man and the sparrow grew almost inseparable. However, one day the man had to go into town to buy provisions. It may have been that the man chose that particular day for his errand because his horrid wife was most ill-tempered on laundry days, and that was a laundry day.

While the husband was away, the sparrow came around. Seeing a pile of starch, the sparrow pecked at it. Infuriated, the old woman snatched up the bird in one hand and a scissors in the other, and she snipped part of the bird’s tongue out. Then as she tossed the sparrow free, she said, “Away with you. That’ll teach you to get into my starch.”

The bird flew deep into the mountains.

When the husband returned, he inquired as to whether his wife had seen the bird. The sparrow was usually around the homestead at that time of day.

The hag proudly told the husband of her actions and how she’d punished the insolent bird.

The old man lost no time in trudging out into the forest to try to make sure his friend was alright. He called out to the sparrow, but there was no response. He feared his wife had wounded the bird even more than she’d boasted. Eventually, exhaustion forced the old man to give up his search. He prayed that the little bird would be alright, but he couldn’t keep looking for it.

 

A couple of years later, the  man was foraging for mushrooms in the forest when he ran into the sparrow. The sparrow invited the man back to his home.

The sparrow offered the man food, refreshments, and even accommodations as they took several days to catch up on the events of each other’s lives. The sparrow now had a family and was doing well.

After a few days of catching up, the old man decided that he must get back, but he promised to come back around to visit occasionally. (The sparrow was reasonably reluctant to visit the man at his home with the vile woman around.) The sparrow family offered the old man a choice of parting gift, they presented two woven baskets. The baskets appeared identical, but one was light and the other was heavy. The old man didn’t feel deserving of a gift, but he took the lighter basket. He had to take one to avoid offending his host, but he didn’t wish to be greedy.

When the man got home, he was berated by the shrew for being away so long. She then interrogated him about the new basket. The man told his wife the entire story, including about how the sparrows offered him two baskets, and how he’d taken the lighter one.

His wife snatched the lid off of the basket and investigated its contents. She found that the reason the basket was so light was that it contained just a few precious jewels and several gold coins. By weight it wasn’t much, but its value was considerable.

The wife thought, Hm. I’ll go visit the sparrows. I’ll make a little apology for snipping at the bird’s tongue, and when they offer me my parting gift, I’ll be smart enough to take the heavy basket. Just imagine the riches it must contain.

The wife tricked her husband into giving her directions, saying she wanted to make a heartfelt apology. She then went to visit the sparrow family. She made a half-hearted apology for injuring the sparrow, claiming she’d only meant to scare him but the scissors had gotten away from her. The meeting was awkward and the sparrows were relieved to have the woman going on her way.

They offered the woman a choice of parting gifts as well. The woman lifted both baskets. Just as her husband had said, one basket was light and the other was heavy. She lugged the heavy basket up on her back, and without even saying her good-byes she sped toward her home as quickly as her legs would carry her. She had fantasies  about what she would do with her new-found wealth.

It wasn’t long before she needed a break because the basket was heavy and her legs weren’t used to such a burden. Standing on the forest trail, the couldn’t resist peaking at her riches.  The woman tugged the lid off and dove her head into the mouth of the basket to see what precious jewels, gold, and silver would greet her. However, what lurched out was an evil ogre, enveloped in a mist of demon spirits.

Clutching her chest, the old woman had a heart attack in the face of the horrific contents of her basket, dying where she had stood.

Tsukahara Bokuden Defeats a Braggart

[Note: There are many versions of this story, and these events have even been attributed to other warriors. The tale was likely passed around orally before it was written down myriad times in myriad different ways (most famously in the Kōyō Gunkan.) The details of the story aren’t important; it’s the overall moral of the story and that remains the same from one version to the next.]

Bokuden Boat

Tsukahara Bokuden listened to the braggart nauseating the ferry passengers with graphic details of his “exploits.” Bokuden would have happily ignored the young samurai, but the cocky youth seemed eager to take offense at the lack of interest in his tales of hacking people to bits and was looking for a fight. The other passengers on the boat were all commoners: an elderly man who was probably a craftsman or a small business merchant, and a mother with her young child.

“Do you doubt me? Do you have the audacity to call me a liar,” The young man said, having not received a suitably enthusiastic response to his stories. And he stood, one hand on his scabbard and the other brushing his sword’s hilt.

Tsukahara Bokuden said, “Easy, young man. No one is calling you a liar. These good people are just not used to such bloody stories.”

The young samurai turned to eye Bokuden, who had appeared to be napping in the back earlier. The braggart asked, “And who are you to challenge me?”

“I didn’t challenge you. I merely explained these people’s lack of enthusiasm for your yarns. But if you must know, I am Tsukahara Bokuden,” he replied, hoping his name might give the bragging samurai pause. Bokuden was well-known, having traversed Japan in musha shugyō (sometimes related to the European “knights errantry,”musha shugyō was a time in a samurai’s life–particularly in times of relative peace–when he traveled the land engaging in matches with individuals from other schools to increase his skill and notoriety–i.e. if he didn’t get killed, which was not uncommon, even when the fight was with wooden swords.)

“I’ve never heard of you. What’s your style?” the cocky samurai asked.

“Mine is the School of No-Sword,” replied Bokuden.

“I’ve never heard of that school, but it sounds weak,” the braggart said.

“I assure you, the technique is quite powerful,” Bokuden said.

“Are you suggesting that you could defeat me with this so-called ‘no sword’ technique?” the braggart said, his hand tightening on his scabbard.

“I said nothing of the sort. I would just like to enjoy the remainder of the ferry ride in peace,” said Bokuden.

“Are you scared to have a match to see who’s style is better?” the cocky youth asked.

“Not in the least, but I see no benefit in it either,” Bokuden replied.

“I’ve had enough of your lip, old man, prepare to defend yourself,” said the young samurai.

Bokuden sighed, “If you insist upon a match, let us at least do so where these good people’s lives will not be in peril. Surely you’ll agree that it would do no great honor to the samurai class if we were to injure or kill innocent bystanders.”

At this the braggart just harrumphed, “Who cares, but I’ll take you on wherever you wish.”

Tsukahara Bokuden said to the oarsman, “Sorry to trouble you, but would you mind diverting to drop us on that outcrop so that we can spare these people the swinging blades.”

The oarsman was readily agreeable. He didn’t want two samurai fighting on his ferryboat any more than Bokuden did.

He rowed them to a stony outcrop that jutted up out of the water. The uneven rocky ground wasn’t ideal for a match, but it would spare the other passengers and would provide a challenge.

When the boat’s bow ground up against the rock, the young samurai jumped out, twisting around in air, and landed on the rock. The braggart held his scabbard and hilt at the ready for a swift draw. The young man was eager to do battle, and it was clear that he was annoyed with Tsukahara Bokuden’s slow movement. The older swordsman took out both of his swords and asked one of the passengers to hold the swords. The oarsman and the passengers were surprised by this disarming behavior, but they’d heard him call his school the “school of no-sword.”

Tsukahara Bokuden then moved up to the boat’s bow as if preparing to move ashore.

“Might I borrow your oar, young man?” Bokuden said to the oarsman. The oarsman nodded and handed Bokuden the long oar with two hands, and with his head bowed. The general assumption was that the older samurai wanted to stabilize the boat against the rock so he could pass ashore smoothly.

Taking the oar, Bokuden drove one end into the outcrop, and grabbed the other pushing the boat away from the rock. The boat glided out from the rock in an accelerating fashion.

Lunging toward the water’s edge, the perplexed braggart called out, “What on earth are you doing, old man?”

To which Bokuden replied, “I’m defeating you with the school of no sword.”

By the time the young samurai could remove his swords and tug away his outer garment, Bokuden had rowed out to deep waters and returned the oar to the oarsman.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Rashōmon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Six stories make up this brief collection. All six are intriguing, well-written, and shine a light onto the dark side of mankind. The works of Akutagawa collected herein are all morality tales, but aren’t written in a moralistic tone. In fact, it’s not clear that the author wishes to convey lessons on virtue and vice as he’s intrigued with the instant at which an ordinary person turns bad. That instant, and the inflamed passions that often inspire it, is a prevailing theme throughout most of this small anthology. Akutagawa beats AMC by the better part of a century in showing us how bad breaks.

The first story is entitled In a Grove. This is a murder mystery in which we are given conflicting accounts of a man’s murder through the process of the investigation of the act. The final account that we are offered is that of the victim himself–as presented by a psychic medium. [Only two of these stories contain supernatural elements–this one and the last. Most of the collection involves realist premises. One must remember that Akutagawa was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and scientific rationality hadn’t yet gotten as strong a hold as it does today.] In this case, the use of a psychic is really just a plot device to give the reader insight into a truth which couldn’t otherwise be revealed. Having heard the perspectives of the murder and the dead man’s wife, one is left with questions owing to the self-serving nature of those statements. Of course, the final section reveals a twist–that I won’t spoil.

The second story is the title story, Rashōmon. The title is the name of a gate in Kyōto, the largest gate of Kyōto, in fact. However, Kyōto has fallen on hard times, and our protagonist is a newly masterless samurai who has sought the gate’s shelter from the rain. There, he contemplates whether he should take up a life of crime, which seems to be his only means of survival in the current economy given his skill set. The gate has become a repository for the corpses that are amassing as victims of the hard times accumulate. Within the gate, he finds an old hag who loots bodies for a living. His interaction with the old woman helps him to decide his own destiny.

The third story is called Yam Gruel. While “yam gruel” (or anything with the word gruel in it) might not sound appealing given today’s usage, a fact one must know is that during the time of the story it was a highly-prized and rare dish. The story follows a milquetoast administrator who leads a rather pathetic life in which he has but one ambition, to eat his fill of yam gruel. As a member of the samurai class, he’s invited to an Imperial banquet each year. However, because of his low status and the high-value of yam gruel, he never gets more than a taste. One year he openly bemoans the fact that he never gets his fill. A powerful samurai overhears this complaint, and it puts a seed of mischief in his mind. While this tale isn’t about breaking bad, it is about inflamed passions.

The fourth story sticks out as different from the others. While the bulk of the stories center on that moment at which a more-or-less good person goes bad, The Martyr tells us about a protagonist that never goes bad, despite having every right to. This might seem like a sea change in theme, but in reality it’s just another way of shining a light on the dark seed that resides in people. Only this time it does it by way of contrast. All of the other characters are deeply flawed, and we see that most vividly when contrasted against the one who always behaves virtuously. In this case, that virtuous character is Lorenzo, a novice monk who is accused of a severe breach of good conduct. Lorenzo becomes an outcast and a vagrant due to these allegations. Yet, despite all this, he acts heroically–even to assist those who’ve betrayed him.

In the fifth story we revisit the theme of breaking bad. In Kesa and Morito we are presented with two regret-filled accounts of the instant at which an adulterous couple decides to kill the husband of the woman involved in the affair. Each member of the cheating couple thinks that the other desperately wants the killing to go forward. In reality, both consider it a foolish decision driven by a brief moment of passion. This is another tale about letting one’s passions get out of control.

The final work is a retelling of the story of a monk named Hanazō who decides to prank his fellow monks because they chide him about his huge nose. Hanazō sets up a sign that says a dragon will appear from the local lake at a certain time and day to fly up into the heavens. The joke doesn’t turn out at all as the monk intended. I won’t go into the moral of the story to avoid giving too much away, but suffice it to say there is a moral.

I highly recommend this collection. As I’ve suggested, the collection isn’t just a disparate collection of tales, but has an integrating theme. Akutagawa was truly one of the masters of the short story. He wrote 150 stories before dying at the age of 35 in a suicidal drug overdose.

For those who like to see how literature is portrayed in, below one can watch the film version of Rashōmon.

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