5 – The stories and the storytellers
From mid-July through August, I record versions of the Dancing Princesses from the six storytellers. Nagy Enikő, Mónica and Csenge are recorded in the SSI in Budapest. To record Irén, Szabo Enikő and Mariann, Ana and I go on three adventures into Hungary’s regions … adventures I’ll tell later. Below is Csenge’s insight into the folk tale and its variations and interest. Then I’d like to introduce you to all of the storytellers, and their versions of the story.
About the tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses
by Zalka Csenge Virág
The folktale type of the Dancing Princesses (ATU 306) is very popular in Hungarian tradition. It is the story of a group of princesses (three, seven, or twelve, depending on the text) who sneak out of their palace every night and go into a magical realm to dance their shoes to shreds. They are not found out until a brave (male) hero secretly follows them on their nighttime journey and brings proof of his adventures. In the end, he either marries one of the princesses or is otherwise rewarded, while the princesses are either married off or punished for their escapades.
Interestingly, this folktale type seems to be confined to Eastern and Central Europe and is little known outside of this region. As a tale about nighttime revelries and descent into the Underworld, the story is believed to have ancient Greek origins, and ties to the cult of Bacchus. While it is best known from the pretty and child-friendly Grimm version, the story exists in more than 40 variants in Hungary, and most of them are neither quaint nor childish. In many cases, the princesses descend into Hell to dance with devils, and shred their shoes by dancing on a floor made of blades. In even more straightforward texts, the elder princesses become pregnant on their journey, and keep returning to Hell every night to feed their babies. Usually it is only the youngest sister, the one with her “shoes untorn”, who gets away unscathed in the end; the punishment for attending the dances in Hell is death by burning, or a lifetime in prison for the fallen women.
What makes this tale type particularly interesting is how much it can shift in meaning depending on how – and by whom – it is told. It is fascinating to compare female storytellers’ treatment of the story with the versions of male tellers’. Especially in the Hungarian tradition, where cruel elements abound at the end, female tellers are more inclined to feel for the dancing sisters, and have them married off to their dancers, rather than burning them for witchcraft. This phenomenon probably requires no deep explanation, but it does make this tale type a story with a particular interest to women, tellers and audience alike.
Zalka Csenge Virág
Zalka Csenge is a professional storyteller and author. She was born in Győr, in the northwestern part of Hungary, and grew up in a rich family storytelling tradition. After getting a degree in Archaeology, she studied storytelling in the USA as a Fulbright scholar, earning a master’s degree in Storytelling, and a PhD in Culture Studies. She currently lives in Budapest and works for the Világszép Foundation for Children in State Care as a resident storyteller and researcher.
Csenge’s version of the tale was collected from Transcarpathian storyteller Pályuk Anna in the first decades of the 20th century. Csenge published thirty of Pályuk Anna’s folktales in English, in her book “Dancing on Blades.”
In Csenge’s telling of Pályuk Anna’s version, there are 7 princesses. The king had always wanted sons, so doesn’t care much for his daughters. The royal shoemaker complains to the kind that every night, the princesses’ shoes are torn, and he cannot keep up with the repairs. The king announces that whoever finds out what the princesses are doing every night will get a reward - and, a princess to marry. Many try but they all fall asleep. A shepherd volunteers, asking that he gets 3 tries, and that he be allowed to take his pig into the bedroom. He is locked in the bedroom at night. The princesses give him dinner – he feeds the food to the pig, the pig falls asleep, the shepherd pretends to sleep. The princesses open a trap door and descend through a copper forest, silver forest, and then golden forest. The shepherd follows and, in each forest, breaks off a branch which rings out, startling the youngest princess. They arrive at a diamond palace, and the princesses enter with the shepherd watching through the windows. There is a dance floor, made of razor blades. 12 princes emerge to dance with the princesses, but the youngest refuses to dance. They all return to the room, where the youngest princess finds the pig in her bed. She says nothing. The next night, the shepherd takes his puli dog into the bedroom with him. The dog eats the dinner and falls asleep, the youngest princess leaves a key for the shepherd as they descend through the trapdoor. He follows, the journey repeats. On return to the bedroom, the princess finds the dog in the bed, and reaches out to hold the shepherd’s hand. On the third night, the shepherd takes a raven to the bedroom, but doesn't feed it. He follows the princesses again to the palace. The youngest again refuses to dance, and the youngest prince attempts to drag her onto the floor, at which the raven attacks the prince who falls into a barrel and drowns. The next morning, the shepherd tells the king the story, and shows his evidence. The princesses explain that they and the princes are cursed, and they ask to marry the princes – except the youngest, who marries the shepherd. The king agrees, then locks the trapdoor so that there would no longer be a portal to the other world. The youngest princess and the shepherd rule the kingdom.
In the coda to this story, the princess asks her husband years later how he was able to stay awake and discover what they were doing. He answers by telling her 3 pieces of advice he was given by his mother, who had died when he was very young: ‘Never to eat from the table of the rich until I am rich myself’ – why he gave the food to the pig and dog, so he could stay awake; ‘Never to look back’ – how he never lost track of them through the forests; ‘To always share what I have with somebody who’s poorer than I am’ – so he will rule with his princess wisely over his kingdom. *
* All story summaries on this page are from Csenge’s translations.
“[I tell] the tale in the Kamocsai dialect (from Hungarian-speaking western Slovakia), which I brought to you from the banks of the River Vág, where three golden apples fell from the skies.” Nagy Enikő's version
“In everyday life I'm the kind-hearted witch - I've been working with herbs for over 5 years. Just like my profession, folktales found me too. In 2017 I realized my own direction, in the form of a storytelling series called KismadárMesék.”
In Nagy Enikő's version, there are 12 princesses tearing apart their shoes every night. The king announces that whoever can find out why, can have a princess, and half the kingdom. A shepherd discovers 3 dwarves fighting over 3 magic items – a hat that lets you see far, a cloak of invisibility, and seven league boots. The shepherd offers to judge a running race, but while the dwarves run, he takes all 3 items and runs home. The next day, the shepherd meets an old woman, who gives him the advice that he’ll need the 3 magic items, and also not to drink the wine the princesses give him. The shepherd gets 3 nights to try. The princesses open the trapdoor and descend into a copper, silver, then diamond forest. The palace is spinning on a duck leg. The youngest princess has no lover; the invisible shepherd dances with her. He also drinks wine and steals utensils from the party. He uses the boots to get back before the princesses, and on the way takes branches and cups from all three forests. The journey repeats twice, and on the fourth morning recounts all he’s seen to the king, who marches down to the palace and threatens the 11 princes to attack their kingdom if they don’t marry the princesses right away. The shepherd marries the youngest princess.
“What could I tell about myself...I'm a simple farmer's child. We remained just how we were. I finished school too, of course... There were some who changed completely when they got to the city to do the school there. My soul is much richer than a soul of one who grew up in those "cube" houses in the city. We could play well even with a chicken. We collected nutshells, we filled them with chicken shit and we took it to someone ‘Here's some walnut for you’...”
Irén is 60 years old, and lives in Üllés, in south Hungary, next to Szeged. Fonó folkdance company is very important in the social life of the village since more than fifty years. A lot of people get to know the folk culture of the Karpathian basin. Irén also got to know folk music and started to play. She plays still, as well as a performing as a contrabass player in a band called "Rézhúros banda", also from Üllés. She used to go a lot to folk music camps, mostly to Transylvania. She learned most of her stories in these camps as well.
Irén tells the Grimm Brothers version of the tale, with some personal twists. There are 13 princesses, who the kind locks in at night so that no one can hurt them. The king finds torn shoes every morning and announces that whoever can find out the reason can marry a princess. There is a soldier, who hears about the challenge and wants to try. He encounters a hermit who gives him advice, and a cloak of invisibility. The soldier asks the king for a room adjacent to the princesses’ bedroom. At night, the princesses offer the soldier some wine with sleeping powder in it, but he only pretends to drink it, then pretends to sleep. He puts on the cloak of invisibility, and watches as they open a trapdoor and descend. They pass through a copper forest, silver forest, then gold forest. In each, the soldier breaks off a branch, startling the youngest princess. They also arrive at a lake, where princes are waiting with boats. The soldier gets into the boat with the youngest princess (the prince complains that the rowing is harder than usual). The row to a beautiful palace, where they dance all night. As dawn breaks, they go home, and the soldier runs ahead to pretend to be asleep. The journey repeats twice. On the third night, the soldier notices that the chalices have the names of the princesses engraved on them, and steals one for proof. Telling the king the story and showing his proof, the soldier is offered the youngest princess but chooses the oldest, since she is closer to him in age. They marry.
Enikő from Sepsiszentgyörgy, Transylvania (which she calls the Garden of Fairies) is a Metamorphoses story therapist and the founder of the Holnemvolt Storytelling Festival of Székelyföld. She also started the Golden Key storytelling day camp series. She tells to an average of 2,000 children and 200 adults a year, and conducts storytelling activities in schools, camps, and other venues.
Enikő has been a full-time storyteller for 4 years. She recently published her first English-language folktale collection under the title Magical Christmas (Chapeltown, 2018.)
Her version of the tale comes from her grandfather.
In Szabó Enikő's version there are 12 princesses, tearing apart their shoes every night. The king offers whomever can find out why, a princess for a wife, and half the kingdom. But in this version, if he fails he loses his head. Many try, many are beheaded. A shepherd boy encounters 3 dwarves fighting over their inheritance – a hat that enables you to hear people’s thoughts, a cloak of invisibility, and boots to take you anywhere. He offers to judge the argument with a race, and whilst the dwarves race, he steals the magic items. He then overhears, through wearing the hat, about the 12 princesses and the challenge of the king. He goes to the kingdom and asks to try, requesting that he sleep in the room next to the princesses. The shepherd uses the hat to find out that the princesses have put sleeping powder in his wine. He pours the wine into his shirt and pretends to sleep. The princesses kick him and stick needles into his foot to make sure he’s asleep, but he manages to fool them. The princesses open a door under the eldest’s bed, and descend, passing through a copper forest (with copper birds, leaves, dogs barking), a silver forest, and a gold forest. In each forest the shepherd breaks off a branch, startling the youngest princess. But her older sisters laugh at her. They reach a gold castle standing on a rooster leg. There are 11 princes, a feast, golden plates. The 11 older princesses dance with the princes. The youngest dances alone and then with the invisible shepherd. The shepherd beats them back to the room, pretends to be asleep. The journey repeats twice. On the dawn of the third day, the king sends for the shepherd who takes the king to the room, wakes the princesses, moves the bed and shows the stairs. They descend through the forests and to the palace. The king tells the princes that they can either marry the girls or they will be attacked. The princes agree to marry the princesses, and the shepherd marries the youngest.
The end … “Three apples fell from heaven: one for the teller, one for the listener, one for the one who is on the way.” **
** An Armenian closing formula
Born in an almost fully Croatian-speaking village, Drávasztára, along the River Drava in southern Hungary, Marianna’s storytelling combines two cultures and two languages. She studied in Budapest and Zagreb, lived in various places, and is currently the director of the Hamvas Béla City Library in Százhalombatta.
She has been a storyteller for more than ten years and is an active advocate of traditional oral storytelling – she organizes storytelling conferences, started the Day of the Hungarian Folktale movement, and is president of the Meseszó Association for Hungarian Storytelling and Oral Folklore.
Her version of the tale comes from a Bukovinian collection, shaped to her own style.
In Marianna’s version, there are 12 princesses. The king announces that anyone who can find out why they are shredding their shoes every night, will get a princess and half the kingdom. Everyone tries, but they all fall asleep before they find out. A shepherd sees 3 dwarves fighting over magic items – a hat that makes you hear everything, a cloak of invisibility, and seven league boots) – and he tricks them by telling them to run a race, while he steals the items. He meets an old woman on the way home who tells him about the king’s announcement. He goes to the king to volunteer. The king warns him that if he fails three nights in a row, he’ll be beheaded. That night, the shepherd is in a room next to the princesses’ room. They offer him wine, but he pours it into his boot. He pretends to be asleep. The princesses open a secret door and descend; the shepherd follows. He steps on the youngest princess’ skirt, who cries out, but the others tell her not to worry. The descend through a silver forest, a gold forest and a diamond forest, to a palace in the middle of the diamond forest filled with music. 11 princes greet the princesses, and go to dance. The invisible shepherd dances with the youngest princess. They go home, and on the way the shepherd collects branches from the forests. He runs ahead to pretend to still be asleep. The journey repeats twice. Finally, the king summons the shepherd who tells him everything and shows him the castle. The king threatens the princes, unless they marry the princesses. The youngest princess marries the shepherd, they live happily ever after.
Mónika was born in the westernmost Palóc town, Kéménd (Kamenín, Slovakia), and tells her stories in the western Palóc dialect. She learned storytelling from her grandmother and other Palóc storytelling elders.
She enjoys the freedom of oral storytelling, the creation of a narrative in the moment together with the audience, and the flexibility of elaborating and embroidering the stories according to her mood. To her, storytelling means playfulness, self-healing, relaxation, respect for our elders, tradition, heritage, and joy. She wishes that all listeners may take the stories in their open hands, put them in their bags, pockets, or the folds of their skirts, and when they have a chance, pass them on.
Her version of the story comes from a Palóc collection; it was originally told by Szűcs József in 1902. She added phrases and motifs from storyteller Bartusz Józsefné sz. Szandai Teréz, a famous traditional teller from the Palóc village of Herencsény.
In Mónica’s version, there are 12 princesses tearing their shoes each night. The king offers anyone who can find out why, half the kingdom and one of the princesses. The king’s shepherd finds 3 devils fighting over an invisibility cloak. He tells them to run a race, and steals the cloak. He volunteers to the king to guard the princesses, asking to be allowed to sleep in the doorway. He waits until midnight, at which point an old hag flies in through the window with a pot of ointment which she smears on the backs of the girls. They grow butterfly wings and fly out the window. The shepherd also puts the ointment on his back, grows wings, and follows them. The pass through a silver forest, gold forest, and diamond forest. In each, they drink at a well, using silver/gold/diamond cups. The shepherd breaks a branch and takes the cups in each forest. They arrive at a castle and climb to the attic, where they dance with 12 devils on razorblades until they shred all 12 pairs of shoes. Then, they sit to eat at a table with golden plates and cutlery. The youngest princess drops her spoon and fork, and the invisible shepherd pockets them. They all fly home, the shepherd flying ahead to pretend to be asleep. The shepherd tells the king everything, and shows him the evidence. The king then locks his daughters up in a room – apart from the youngest, who falls in love with the shepherd. They get married, and eventually inherit the kingdom.