There’s no way I would have come close to retelling or writing culturally authentic Greek folk- and fairy tales without the guidance of Soula Mitakidou, my Greek colleague, who led me through the inner sanctum of Greek culture. As we searched through hundreds of tales, looking for ones that attracted us and held promise for readers in the English-speaking world, we often sat at the same desk or computer in Thessaloniki, Greece, with Soula interpreting the tales we were translating into English, providing cultural contexts for them, showing how they expressed past and present cultural values and beliefs, and demonstrating how traditions still to this day serve as bonds uniting the Greek people.
You need a few examples of the cultural characteristics I took hold of once Soula and I were deep into the process of working through a batch of tales, don’t you? Take “Mirsina,” a tale in our anthology of twenty stories, Folktales from Greece: A Treasury of Delights (Linworth/Libraries Unlimited). “Mirsina” is a good example of a supernatural tale that is both universal in its themes and specific to its culture. In this story, the personification of the sun demonstrates a distinctive feature of Greek folktales, namely, the use of celestial elements to assist a character encountering life’s predicaments. What I learned from Soula is that the close relationship between mortals and celestial bodies in Greek tales can be explained by the fascinating folk belief that every individual is assigned a star that accompanied him or her throughout life. A person’s life begins and ends at this star, which means that every individual is guaranteed a preordained origin and a destination. You meet up with celestial characters that come to the aid of the young protagonist in our most recent picture book, The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece (schwartz & wade/Random House).
Ah, here’s another distinct characteristic of Greek tales I learned along the way. It’s this: The harmonious blend of the ancient and the contemporary, the secular and the religious. For instance, the reference to the number forty in several stories in our anthology, namely, “Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa,” “The Crab,” and “Brother and Sister,” can be tied to the Biblical story of Noah or Christ’s test in the desert for forty days and nights. In contemporary Greece, it is customary for folks to fast for forty days before Christmas and Easter, and families take their newborns to church to be blessed forty days after they are born.
A similar element that is a remnant of ancient tradition is the reference to a loved one as “my soul,” which, in the anthology, appears in “The Axe and Yannis,” and “The Goat Girl.” This, I discovered, is a very common expression in everyday conversations in contemporary Greece and can be traced to the ancient story of Cupid and Psyche, the literary form of which first appeared in The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius in the second century, C. E. Today, Cupid, representing love, and Psyche, representing the soul —as they did in ancient times— still symbolize everlasting love —yes, indeed, as can be seen by the numerous images of the couple that appear, for instance, in Valentine’s Day paraphernalia.
Okay, so there you have a few cultural elements that keep the cultural integrity of Greek tales intact. And now you see that anytime you or I, the foreigner, come across tales you love in a culture not your own, then the telling/writing of these tales begins with the challenge of vigorously navigating your way into the beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, that is, the ancient and contemporary contexts, that make that culture tick.
What more is there to say about the process of translating raw folk narratives into acceptable stories that make sense? Stay tuned …
Today’s writing prompt: Weave a tale that begins, “Once upon a bygone time, there lived a king and his three sons, and all three wanted …”