Posts Tagged myth

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf



There are some brilliant stories of how things became – take Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Ted Hughes’ How the Whale Became.

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, a collaboration between author David Almond and illustrator Dave McKean, is in this tradition. The gods have made the world that Sue, Harry and Little Ben live in. But they’re lazy; they’re up there in the clouds and they’re sleepy. The children can see that there are holes in creation, and sometimes they can see what might go in those holes.

mouse Mouse-Bird-Snake-WolfAll goes relatively well until Harry and Wolf start having wolfish thoughts:


wolf 2

I love the metaphorical muscle of this book. We live in such a world. A lot is created, but there are spaces left for us to create. Much of what we create is benign, but we have the power to create what is fearsome, destructive.


We’ve been reading it with the Year 4 classes, and getting the kids to respond to it imaginatively, and the quality of their responses has been good to see. The book is deep enough, resonant enough with what we face outside fiction, for there to be plenty to discuss. The myth is both deep and lighthearted, and the kids entered into it from the first page, filling in the gaps that it’s creators have left.

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flip the flap

all mixed upI’ve just come across Carin Berger’s All Mixed Up.  It’s one of those mix-and-match flip books where you can mix and match body parts from different people to create lots of new people. You can actually virtually turn the pages here.

I’ve been reading Odysseus to my class over the last few months, and as part of the work we did, we created some mythical beasts. At first I had the idea that it would be a mix and match book. Then I wanted them all to have collaborated in creating one combined beast. Anyway, I liked what they created and wrote so much I didn’t have any flipping or flapping. Here’s the book.

One of the flip books that I’ve got and like a lot is Tony Meeuwissen’s Remarkable Animals – 1000 Amazing Amalgamations.

remarkable animals

Each creature has a head, a body and a tail, and you can mix them up and read the descriptions.

tony meeuwissen trunkfish tony meeuwissen wossut cataboopus


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Mezolith 1 is a great graphic novel by master storyteller Ben Haggarty, with artwork by Adam Brockbank.

Set 10,000 years ago it weaves folktales into a taut, believable prehistoric world. There are some photos here:

Tales, like The Bird Maiden, seem to fit perfectly into this world:

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Wabi Sabi

Another Ed Young book – and I am bowled over by it straight away.

It illustrates, and explains, something in Japanese culture that I kind of understood, but didn’t know had a name: wabi sabi. It was there in the Japanese illustrations of La Fontaine’s fables that I mentioned before. It’s there in haikus, in their quiet minimal holding of a moment in time, in nature. It’s there in the zen garden and the rough, chunky and irregular bowls of the tea ceremony.

Thumbnail for version as of 14:37, 24 January 2005

And this book illustrates wabi sabi through a story. A story about a cat called Wabi Sabi who wants to understand his name.

So, what is wabi sabi? Here is the author of the book, Mark Reibstein, and the illustrator, Ed Young, talking about the book:

Ed Young used collage for his illustrations. As he says in an interview here on How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator:

“It’s easier to change around, nothing is permanently pasted down,” Young said. “It’s flexible and alive. With other mediums you often get tight too quickly, then you get attached to it and it’s hard to change. Collage was something I used for sketching in the past. Now I use it to finish my work.”

“It’s really play. You don’t get down to make something firm until the [pieces] start to talk to you.  Then you listen.”

wabi sabi 1

wabi sabi 2

The cat’s tail twitching,

she watches her master, still

waiting in silence.

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Car journeys are good for hearing stories.  This time it was The Adventures of Odysseus, in the marvellous telling of Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden. Travelling from Toulouse to Castres we listened to the first disk, and on the return one the second.

Page from the book, illustrated by Christina Balit

In the prologue Hugh Lupton explains how Paris, ruler of Troy got everyone involved in such an awful war:
or try this link.

Here’s Daniel Morden telling some of the story later on:

(These sound players either work very slowly or just don’t work for me, so for this second bit of story click here and click on the image of the CD to get to the audio more directly.)

Sam loved it. The only bit he didn’t like was that Argos, Odysseus’ faithful dog, dies when he sees his master return.

What we talked about afterwards was, what would you do? You have one golden apple, and three goddesses, Hera, goddess of Power, Athena, goddess of War and Wisdom, Aphrodite, goddess of Love. Who will you upset? Who will you please?

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kalila and dimna

My picture of the boy and the tiger has a long history (see wikipedia). Perhaps it was first told in Sanskrit in India.

Then a man called Borzuy went to India. Not looking for stories at first, but following information about a mountain herb that could restore life to the dead. He found his herb, eventually, but trialling it discovered that it’s revivifying powers had been greatly exagerated.

His Indian companions directed him to a sage, who told him that he should have taken his information more metaphorically. The real thing is in fact a book, Kalila and Dimna.

(more on this in the Panchatantra article in Wikipedia)

And I, Simon Gregg, have part of this excellent book, rendered into English by Ramsay Wood.

And here he is talking about it:

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keeping wisdom safe

It’s the time of year when I tell Anansi stories.

A favourite (among many favourites) is Anansi and the pot of wisdom.

Here’s how wikipedia has it:

Anansi and the dispersal of wisdom

Another story tells of how Anansi once tried to hoard all of the world’s wisdom in a pot. Anansi was already very clever, but he decided to gather together all the wisdom he could find and keep it in a safe place.

With all the wisdom sealed in a pot, he was still concerned that it was not safe enough, so he secretly took the pot to a tall thorny tree in the forest. His young son, Ntikuma, saw him go and followed him at some distance to see what he was doing.

The pot was too big for Anansi to hold while he climbed the tree, so he tied it in front of him. Like this the pot was in the way and Anansi kept slipping down, getting more and more frustrated and angry with each attempt.

Ntikuma laughed when he saw what Anansi was doing. “Why don’t you tie the pot behind you, then you will be able to grip the tree?” he suggested .

Anansi was so annoyed by his failed attempts and the realisation that his child was right that he let the pot slip. It smashed and all the wisdom fell out. Just at this moment a storm arrived and the rain washed the wisdom into the stream. It was taken out to sea, and spread all around the world, so that there is now a little of it in everyone.

Though Anansi chased his son home through the rain, he was reconciled to the loss, for, he says: “What is the use of all that wisdom if a young child still needs to put you right?”

Here’s an illustration of the story, from Peggy Appiah’s admirable collection The Pineapple Child and Other Tales from Ashanti. The illustration’s by Mora Dickson.

I dressed up a bit for some of the tellings. My good friend Matthew kindly lent me some of his Ghanaian clothes and things again. I wrestled  with The Cloth and managed to get it into roughly the right shape.

Not only does Ghana have all that wisdom in the Anansi stories, there is even wisdom in all the patterns and symbols that adorn all sorts of artifacts, the adinkra symbols.

Look at the stool. It has the Gye Nyame symbol, (meaning “except for god”).

And the staff or stick. That has the sankofa symbol, a bird reaching behind it for an egg.

Sankofa means, apparently, ‘to go back and get it.” I read here that the “symbol often is associated with the proverb, ‘Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,’ which translates to, ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.'”

Here, I’ve gathered up (from lots of the symbols:

gye nyame sankofa sankofa adinkrahene funtunfunefu denkyemfunefu denkyem dwennimmen akoma ntoaso nyame nti nyame biribi wo soro
bin nka bi akokonan fihankra eban akoben nkonsonnkonson owo foro adobe akoma hwemudua hye wonhye
nkyimu sesa woruban epa dame dame ese ne tekrema nyame nnwu na mawu nyansapo odo nnyew fie kwan mate masie fofo
wawa aba aya nyame dua mframadan nea ope se obedi hene woforo dua pa a wo nsa da mu a boa me na kete pa me ware wo
tamfo bebre duafe mmusuyidee osram ne nsoromma kintinkantan bese saka asase ye duru mpataro nsaa
tamfo bebre duafe mmusuyidee osram ne nsoromma kintinkantan bese saka asase ye duru mpataro nsaa

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the Secret of Kells

I was disappointed; Sam didn’t enjoy The Sectret of Kells

To me The Secret of Kells seemed like a beautiful film. Visually it’s amazing.

And the story too – this idea of – the vikings are coming – preserving something precious, sophisicated, beautiful, creative.

Wikipedia provides a breif summary of it:

The story is set in the 9th century. Twelve-year-old Brendan is educated by his uncle, Abbot Cellach, who holds a firm grip on his nephew and expects him to follow in his footsteps. One day, Brendan meets Brother Aidan, a master illustrator who shows him the beauty of art and stimulates his creativity and fantasy. Finally, Brendan decides to break free in search of his dream: completing the valuable Book of Kells. On his journey through the forest, he has to face his biggest fears.

And here’s a sample:

Image from the Book of Kells, colour by Sam

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One City, Two Brothers

I heard Chris Smith talking, telling stories earlier this year. Afterwards I bought a book by him: Once City, Two Brothers. It is a story about giving, and also about the ancient city of Jerusalem. It’s a Jewish fable, but also an Arab folktale told by Palestinian arabs living around the city.


Two brothers once came before King Solomon. They argued bitterly over who should inherit the family land.

Solomon listened to them and then told them to be silent and listen to the story of Jerusalem long ago before there was a temple, a city or even a village:

There were two brothers who lived on either side of a hill. Their houses were linked by two paths, one over the hill and one around it. Together they farmed the rich fertile land watered by a stream. They shared the work, planting the wheat in the autumn, harvesting it in the spring. And they shared the crop. Most years they managed to last through the winter comfortably on what the land gave.

One brother married, and soon children were born.

The other, for whatever reason, stayed single.

Now, one year the land gave them a particularly bountiful crop. They harvested forty sacks of grain. This they split between them each taking twenty to their own store room.

But the older brother thought to himself, “It’s not right that I should have the same number of sacks as my brother. He has no family, no children to look after him when he gets old; he needs this grain more than me.” And late that night, loading three sacks of grain onto his donkey, he took the high path to his brother’s house and sneaked the three sacks into his brother’s store.

What he didn’t know is that his brother had been thinking too. “It”s not right that I should have the same amount of grain as my brother. He has a family and more mouths to feed. I’ll take some secretly over to him.” And, under cover of darkness, he took the low path and deposited three sacks of grain in his brother’s grain store.

You can imagine how puzzled both of them were when they looked in their own grain stores and found there were still twenty sacks. Were they losing their wits? Had it just been a dream?

Both brothers did the same the following night, without either of them seeing the other. And the next day? They were even more puzzled: there were still twenty sacks in the store room.

On the third night both brothers did the same thing. But this time they both took the high path, and under the stary sky they met each other. Without a word, both of them understood the reason for his brother’s journey. Their hearts filled with happiness as they realised the love they each had been shown.

With these words, Solomon finished his tale. The two men before him stood in silence for a long while. Everyone waited to see what would happen.

Then the older man looked up and said, “Brother, what was once our father’s is now ours. Not yours, not mine, but ours.”

The brothers embraced and left the court side by side. From then on their families lived happily together. And the story their children loved to hear the most was the one about about the two brothers told by wise King Solomon.


Chris Smith worked for UNICEF on the West Bank and in Gaza. These days he’s a storyteller in England. He’s one of the people who set up The Story Museum in Oxford. At the moment this is an organisation that works with people, especially I think children in schools, to share stories, especially traditional stories. It’s also gathering money to get a physical site.


I hadn’t heard of Aurélia Fronty and her work before I had this book, but now that I look I see that she’s illustrated a lot of wonderful looking books,  just the sorts of titles I like, in French. The colours are amazing, atmospheric, rich and she adapts her lines, her designs wo well to the many places around the world where the tales come from.

She’s done some Greek myths:

and some King Arthur stories:

a japanese tale:

and all sorts of others, that I’d never heard of.


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the curing fox

It’s down below zero, late in the evening, the logs in the fireplace are glowing orange now. Snow is forecaste for tomorrow. Time for a tale. And so that it’s known that foxes aren’t always cunning and deceitful


Once upon a time there was a little girl, and one bitterly cold day she fell ill. She had a terrible cough and a rattling pain in her chest. Each breath she took was an effort. Her chest felt tight and sore. Her mother and father covered her with animal skins and blankets and kept her warm by the fire.

But she was getting worse and worse. She was breathing in short gulps, the colour drained out of her face and the light out of her eyes. Her mother called for old Duck Egg. She was a healer and she was old, old, nobody knew how old. Duck Egg came and went across to the girl. She bent down and gently lifted back the covers. Then she put her ear to the pale skin of the little girl’s chest, and listened. She listened for a long time. Then she sat up and spoke:

“I hear a she-fox walking, limping across the snow. I hear her footfalls on the crusty snow. Schaa, schaa. The fox is tired and weak. She has a long journey to make.”

The girl’s father said to Duck Egg, “Listen, I am a hunter. I will go and catch this fox and bring her back for you.”

And the old woman nodded and said, “Yes, bring the she-fox back here to the village.”

So the girl’s father strapped on his snow shoes and set off across the snow. Soon he found the tracks of a fox, its footprints and the swish of its tale over the snow. He followed the tracks all day, until, just before nightfall, he saw her, thin and tired, ahead of him.

Back in the village, Duck Egg listened to the girl’s chest again: “I hear the she-fox. The hunter is close; I can hear the sound of his snow shoes.”

The hunter kept on until it was too dark to go further, and then he stopped and made a fire. He warmed himself by the fire and close by the fox watched, its eyes shining in the darkness.

Back in the village the old woman listened again: “I hear a fire crackling, The hunter is sitting by his fire. The girl will be very hot tonight; she will have a fever.”

The hunter stayed up all night, staring into the fire; he was cold and tired, but he did not sleep. In the morning, at first light, he got up and began to chase the she-fox again. At last, he caught up with it and grabbed it. It was scared:

“Why have you chased me yestereday and today? I am tired and sick. Kill me now.”

“No, little fox, I will not kill you. There is a little girl who needs you.”

And the hunter took the fox back to his village in his arms, limp and thin, her heart beating fast.

Back in the village Duck Egg was listening carefully to the girl’s chest: “Her heart is beating very fast. The hunter is holding the fox and she is very frightened. He is on his way home.

It took a day and a night for the hunter to get home, and when he got home he went straight in to where his daughter was lying by the fire. Duck Egg was there. She smiled: “Give me the poor she-fox and bring some meat for it.”

She put the she-fox on the furs near the fire and the girl’s mother brought meat for it. The she-fox ate it up quickly, and then went to sleep. The girl slept too.

Old Duck Egg waited.

Then the girl and the fox woke up and opened their eyes at the same time.

picture by Niamh Sharkey

“Bring the fox more meat,” said Duck Egg. The mother brought she-fox more meat, and she ate it all up.

“Now open the door flap and let her go.”

So the father opened the door flap and let the she-fox go. The little girl watched as the she-fox ran out the village and disappeared into the whiteness. Its strength was back.

The girl was better too.

Old Duck Egg was quiet for a while, then she looked at the father and mother: “Answer me this: did the fox make the girl better, or did the girl make the fox better?”


I’ve retold this, checking my source now and then, Tales of Wisdom and Wonder, retold by Hugh Lupton (who seems to get regular mention here) and illustrated by Niamh Sharkey. Hugh Lupton tells it much better, but it’s getting late, and cold…

This is the first book that Niamh Sharkey illustrated. It’s interesting to see her talking about it here:

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