Last week-end I was paddling in the Boundary Waters, across lakes, down lazy rivers, past beds of water lilies and generally reveling in gentle, fresh water. Then I arrived home to news of hurricanes, tropical storms and floods. The contrast between my experience and that of friends and family in New England couldn’t be more striking and I thought: Water: can’t live with it and can’t live without it! It made me think of the ways water impacts our lives and the folktales that have grown up around this experience.
There are so many folktales and myths about floods that I could not possibly begin to list them, but one website summarizes literally more than a hundred flood myths from the entire world. Another authoritative text on the subject is David Leeming’s, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology.” Check out the chapter titled “Flood.”
Because of the events this weekend, I initially thought of stories about too much water. One terrific story is “The Legend of the Monsoon Rains” by Sherry Garland. This is a Vietnamese tale found in Children of the Dragon and tells of how the Lord of the Seas returns yearly to try and win a princess he cannot have, and so sends torrential winds and rains in retaliation.
Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Niki Daly is a Nigeran folktale where Sun, an adventurous roamer, lives on earth with Moon, who is rather a homebody. When Sun invites Sea and all her children to visit them, Sea floods the house and forces Sun and Moon into the sky, where they have been to this very day.
Another story about too much water is Anne Rockwell’s The Boy Who Wouldn’t Obey. This is a Mayan tale about the god of the rainstorms named Chac who dives down to earth to steal a child and gets more than he bargained for. The boy causes endless trouble and when he steals the god’s rain-making tools, he unintentionally wreaks havoc with the weather, ala Tomie de Paola’s Big Anthony who couldn’t make the pasta pot stop cooking!
Another famous story about battling water is the Dutch legend, The Boy Who Held Back the Sea (Thomas Locker). This is a retelling of a traditional Dutch folktale about a little boy who spotted a dangerous hole in a dyke, put his finger in the hole, stayed all night and thus kept the town safe.
A number of folktales deal with the opposite phenomenon, drought. Not surprisingly, the arid regions of the world have a number of tales on this subject. I have always loved Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, which is a cumulative story with the rhythm and repetition of “The House That Jack Built” and tells the story of how Ki-pat brings rain to the parched Kapiti Plain.
“The Return of the Clouds,” by Susan Milord in Tales of the Shimmering Sky is a Pueblo tale from western New Mexico. It is a compelling story about a nasty monster named Cloud Eater that eats all the clouds and causes terrible droughts. A young boy finds a way to get rid of Cloud Eater and eventually returns the clouds to the sky.
Another interesting folktale is Rain Player by David Wisniewski. In this story a young Mayan ballplayer defies the priest’s prophecy of a drought and challenges the rain god to a game of pok-a-tok, which is a Mayan basketball/soccer game played on an outdoor court. In the end, the boy outperforms the rain god and the god rewards him by sending gentle showers after his victories on the court.
So, stories about too much or too little water—take your pick.