John Bierhorst’s Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions 

516sbtdizzlWhen I started writing for Green Man Review, I thought of myth and folklore as primarily Irish and Greek, Latin and German. I suspect that’s fairly common in America, but that view misses several important and fascinating segments of the world. In Latin American Folktales, editor John Bierhorst has gathered together in print a wide variety of traditional oral Hispanic and Indian stories.

Storytelling has been used to teach and entertain, heal and explore, since the history of mankind began. Many of the tales in this book will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of European folklore, but have a distinctly Latin American twist to them. At times, reading this book, I had a clear picture of what it must have been like for the native Americans, confronted with strange people telling even stranger stories about impossible events. They only way to make sense of it was to mix what the missionaries and soldiers told them with their own traditions. Tale number sixty-eight, “Christ Saved by the Firefly,” from Guatemala, is a good example:

“When Jesus Christ was a prisoner, they thought he was smoking in jail. They thought they saw the end of his lighted cigar. But it was not he, it was the firefly, and Jesus Christ had already fled.”

I had to smile at the mental image of Jesus smoking a big ol’ stogie. That’s not one you’ll find in any traditional European tales! One story blends Jesus with the trickster Coyote, another retells Genesis with an intriguing twist:

“Ah, think of it, friends!/Once there was nothing to be seen, once there was only water./At last God spoke: ‘This water must be dried away. Let the world grow’. . . .”

Many stories are from the Colonial era and were collected, initially, by Columbus’ chaplain, Ramon Pane, who was ordered “to make a careful study of native custom.” Columbus wasn’t aiming to preserve priceless traditions; he was trying to find ways to settle native rebellions by better understanding the people he ruled. The chaplain’s study was followed, twenty years later, by a compendium of the discoveries and exploration of the New World, written by then royal chronicler Peter Martyr d’Anghiera. Efforts to collect and study the region’s stories continued erratically over the following years. Many stories were lost during a roughly three hundred year gap between the seventeenth century, when interest in the folklore of Latin America waned, and the twentieth century, when the lore was picked up again.

The emphasis in this book is towards the later years of study, reflected by stories such as “The Twelve Truths of the World,” in which a poor man with too many children asks the Devil to be the godparent of his latest child. The Devil requires, as a price, that the child not be raised as a Christian in any way, that all religious images must be removed from the house, and that on the day before the child’s twelfth birthday, the Devil would come to collect the boy. The Devil is tricked by the child’s guardian angel at the last minute, “and the parents, no longer poor, kept their child and all the Devil’s riches.” It’s a story that reminded me of some of the New England trick-the-Devil tales that I’ve always enjoyed.

There are over a hundred stories in this collection, not counting the chain riddles and the folk prayers. The table of contents runs six pages, and breaks the stories into clear sections. The Prologue covers the Colonial period, featuring stories about Montezuma and the omens of the white man’s arrival. After the stories of the Prologue, the stories of each section are arranged as they would be told at a wake, the most common time for tales to be told in Latin American culture. The Epilogue contains several twentieth-century myths, ranging from stories about tobacco (“Why Tobacco Grows Close to Houses”) to death (“The Origin of Permanent Death”).

The stories, although fascinating in their own right, are best understood in context by reading the lengthy explanations in the Preface and Introduction in the front of the book, and the thick section of Notes at the back. A glossary after the Notes lists slightly over two pages of information on the cultures covered in this book. I found the “Register of Tale Types and Selected Motifs” an unusual and interesting addition; it is an index of sorts that organizes the stories by category: “Animal Tales,” “Ordinary Folktales,” “Jokes and Anecdotes,” and so on. The bibliography runs ten pages, almost as extensive as the Notes. There are, finally, two pages of “Permissions Acknowledgments” at the very end, which lists stories and riddles that were reprinted, adapted, or translated.

The cover is a painting by Francisco Da Silva, “Intruder.” It shows two birds facing, possibly fighting, a creature that looks like a dragon. The images are colored in shades of bright orange, red, and blue, and the title is set on a squarish blob of black on the lower right quadrant of the cover. It’s a very Latin-themed design, very earthy and exotic at the same time. Cover design is by Archie Ferguson.

The accent text on the inside title pages does not match the cover accent font (one of my pet peeves), but remains internally consistent. I liked the little swirls and accent graphics used on in the page headers and the beginnings of each section, although I did find it a bit jarring sometimes when there was a fancy swirl on the same page as a hard blocky graphic. Book design is listed as being by Fern Cutler de Vicq.

Overall, this book is a very good addition to my steadily expanding folklore shelf, and begins to fill in a wide cultural gap in my reference books. I have a feeling I’ll refer to it often — both for my fiction and non-fiction writing.(Pantheon Books 2002 )

About Leona Wisoker

Leona R. Wisoker writes a variety of speculative fiction, from experimental to horror, from fantasy to science fiction. She also loves to teach, edit, read (mostly non fiction these days), and drinks mass quantities of coffee. In her less-than abundant spare time, she is a wild garden warrior, an adventurous cook, and a champion catnapper, especially if sunbeams are available. Now and again, when those things get boring, or when a startlingly good item comes along, she reviews books.