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Tales Told By Balebos And Gusan

Middle East


Israel and Armenia

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The Legend Of Ara And Semiramis








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This volume, Tales Told By Balebos And Gusan, is the third in a set of collections covering indigenous tales from what we know now as The Middle East. Tales Told By Balebos And Gusan traces the arc of storytelling across countries that we are familiar with such as Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. In particular, this volume also reaches into the ancient Armenian tradition of storytelling, which is an absolute delight.
The title of this collection is based on the Yiddish and Armenian words for storyteller. A Yiddish storyteller is often referred to as a balebos, which roughly translates to "master of the house" or "head of the household" in Yiddish. This term is used to denote someone who is skilled at telling stories, particularly within the context of Jewish culture and tradition. In Yiddish-speaking communities, storytelling has long been a cherished tradition, with balebosim passing down tales of folklore, history, and morality from one generation to the next. These storytellers play a vital role in preserving and transmitting the rich oral heritage of Yiddish-speaking communities.
In Armenian culture, a storyteller is often referred to as a gusan (գուսան) or gusano (գուսանո), which translates to "bard" or "minstrel." The gusan tradition is deeply rooted in Armenian history and folklore, with storytellers playing a significant role in preserving and transmitting Armenian oral traditions, epic poems, historical narratives, and folk tales. These storytellers are revered for their ability to captivate audiences with their tales, often accompanied by musical instruments such as the duduk or the kamancha. They serve as custodians of Armenian cultural heritage, passing down stories from generation to generation and embodying the spirit of Armenian identity and resilience.
Jewish folk and fairy tales are unique in several ways, reflecting the cultural and religious heritage of the Jewish people. Jewish folktales often incorporate themes and motifs from Jewish religious texts, such as the Torah and the Talmud, as well as from Jewish customs, traditions, and folklore. These stories often reflect Jewish values, ethics, and beliefs, offering moral lessons and insights into Jewish identity and culture.
It is also the case that Jewish folktales have been influenced by the diverse cultural and geographical contexts in which Jewish communities have lived throughout history. As a result, these tales may feature elements borrowed from the folklore of other cultures, including Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean traditions.
Like many folk traditions, Jewish folktales have been passed down orally from generation to generation, evolving and adapting over time as they are retold by storytellers. This oral tradition has contributed to the richness and diversity of Jewish folk narrative, with variations of stories appearing in different regions and communities.
As with most traditions, Jewish folk and fairy tales often include supernatural elements, such as magic, demons, angels, and miracles. These fantastical elements are used to explore themes of faith, destiny, and the divine, and to entertain and inspire listeners.
While Jewish folk and fairy tales are rooted in Jewish culture and tradition, they also address universal themes and experiences that resonate with people of all backgrounds. These themes may include love, friendship, justice, redemption, and the struggle between good and evil.
Overall, Jewish folk and fairy tales offer a rich tapestry of storytelling that reflects the complexities and diversity of Jewish life and thought. They serve not only as entertainment but also as a means of transmitting values, preserving cultural heritage, and fostering a sense of belonging within the Jewish community.
When we consider the Armenian tradition, we find that Armenian folk and fairy tales are also rich with unique cultural and historical elements that distinguish them from tales of other cultures.
Armenian folktales often reflect the history, customs, and traditions of the Armenian people, including their experiences as an ancient civilization, their struggles for independence, and their rich cultural heritage.
In terms of influences, Armenian folk and fairy tales are clearly influenced by both pagan mythology and Christian beliefs. Many stories incorporate elements from Armenian mythology, such as gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures, as well as Christian themes and symbols, such as saints, angels, and miracles.
Like many folk traditions, Armenian folktales often convey moral lessons and values, such as honesty, courage, kindness, and loyalty. These tales serve as a means of teaching ethical principles and guiding behaviour within Armenian society.
Like their Jewish counterparts, Armenian folk and fairy tales have been passed down orally from generation to generation, with storytellers preserving and retelling these tales through spoken word. This oral tradition has contributed to the diversity and richness of Armenian folklore, with variations of stories appearing in different regions and communities.
Armenian folk and fairy tales often contain symbolic elements and allegorical themes, which are used to convey deeper truths and insights about life, human nature, and the world. These symbols may include animals, plants, natural phenomena, and supernatural beings, each carrying layers of meaning and significance.
Armenian folk and fairy tales have been influenced by the experiences and traditions of Armenian communities living outside of Armenia, particularly in regions such as the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. As a result, Armenian folklore exhibits a diversity of themes, motifs, and storytelling styles.
For me, Armenian folk and fairy tales offer a glimpse into the unique cultural identity and worldview of the Armenian people, celebrating their history, values, and resilience through the art of storytelling.


The Maiden Of The Sea

There was an old woman and her son who lived on the seacoast. She used to cast a loaf of bread into the sea every morning. One day she said to her son, "My son, I am getting old, and I feel that I shall soon die. Listen to my advice, and every morning cast a loaf of bread to the sea."
The old woman died, and the lad continued casting a loaf of bread into the sea every morning. One evening as he came back home from his work he was surprised to see the house swept and cleaned. Another day he put some meat in the cupboard, and in the evening, the meat was cooked and the table ready for him. This was repeated several times. One day he hid himself under the stairs. Soon a splash of water was heard in the sea, and, a big fish jumped to the house doorway. At once the skin of the fish fell down, and out of it came a maiden as beautiful as the shining moon. She swept the house clean, and finishing the kitchen work was just going out of the door, when the lad took hold of her.
"Mamma, mamma! Help me!" exclaimed the maiden. Immediately a voice came from the sea, “Don’t be afraid, daughter, that is my son-in-law." By the will of God and the permission of the mother, the maiden became the bride of the lad. At once the priest was called, who performed the marriage ceremony, and for seven days they celebrated the wedding festival.
One day, as the bride was working with a needle before the window, the Prince, who was taking a walk in his seashore orchard, saw her and was enchanted by her beauty. Finding out that she was a married woman, he decided to destroy her husband and get her in marriage. He immediately summoned the lad, and said, "I want you to make me a tent so large that all my army may be accommodated in it, and yet half of it remain empty. I will give you three days' time to prepare it. If you don't make it ready by that time your head shall be cut off and all your property confiscated."
The lad came home with a sad face. What should he say to the Prince at the end of the third day? Surely his head should be cut off. His bride, seeing him, said, "How now, husband! What is the matter? Why are you sad today?"
"Nothing," answered the lad, sighing.
"No, your face is changed," said the bride. "I pray you what is the matter?"
The lad told her what the Prince had ordered him to do.
"Never mind, husband," said she, and putting her head out of the window toward the sea, she cried, "Mamma, mamma! Send us up our small tent, please. We want to go camping."
The small tent was thrown up from the sea. The lad took it to the Prince. It took his servants seven days to pitch it. Not only the Prince's army, but all his people were accommodated in it, and yet half of it was empty.
"This is right well," said the Prince, "but you see there is no furniture to put on the ground. I want you to bring me a rug to suit the tent exactly. If you don't bring it in three days your head shall be cut off."
The lad told his wife, and she asked her mother to send up the small rug, which was taken to the Prince. The Prince next day asked the lad to fetch him a cluster of grapes so large that all his army might eat and not be able to finish it. On the following day that also was brought. Then the Prince wanted him to bring him a three-day old baby who could walk and talk like grown-up people. This time the lad was dismayed, because it was a sheer impossibility, and he thought he would surely lose his head this time.
"Never mind that, husband," said his wife, in the evening, and turning toward the sea, she cried, "Mamma! Send the baby up here for a while, we want to see him."
The baby was given up, and the lad took him to the Prince, still doubting in his mind whether the baby could do what the Prince required. On the way the lad's foot slipped and the baby was shaken.
"Have you not your eyes about you, brother-in-law," the baby said, "or have you a mind to fall down and crush me under you?"
The lad was pleased at the baby's reproach because it assured him that his head would not be cut off. On being presented to the Prince the baby at once walked toward him, jumped up to his lap and giving the Prince a box on his ear, said, "Are you not ashamed, Prince, to give so much trouble to my brother-in-law? You want to kill him and be married to my sister, do you? For shame, Prince, for shame!"
Thereupon the Prince gave up his evil intention, apologized to the lad and asked forgiveness. So the lad and his bride of the sea were left unmolested and they are still living on the border of the sea.

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