Amazoonia – Legends of the Rainforest!

I’m treating myself to a couple of strong caipirinhas this weekend, as well as attempting to make a fish stew called calderaida. That’s a Brazilian version of the French bouillabaise, a staple of the Tupa people in the Amazon. All this frenetic activity in the kitchen is going to be part of a personal celebration, for this week sees the sixth reprint of my book Traditional Stories from the Amazon.

This wasn’t one of the easiest projects to get off the ground. Having tried out a couple of Brazilian stories during school visits, I had a vision of doing a collection of stories from the rain forest, tales about weird plants and animals children would not be so familiar with. Myths about gods and monsters that might lurk in the jungle!

A lot of the folklore in Central and South America was inherited from the Spanish, but I wanted to feature stories that had come from the forests and the people that live in them. Most publishers thought it didn’t have much commercial appeal away from the educational market, so I shelved the project and moved on to other things. A couple of years later I was approached my then editor at Wayland who was putting together a series of stories from around the world.  Would I do a collection of Chinese folktales, for a set fee?  I would, I said, if I could also do a collection of Amazonian stories, on a royalty basis.  It was a deal, and I set to work digging up stories from my archives.

Tales from the amazon region are not that easy to come by, and I wanted to make sure I had a varied selection, including a couple of myths, something with an ecological theme and a few scary yarns that would entertain as well as inform.  The book was published as Stories from the Amazon, illustrated by Rebecca Gryspeerdt. There was also a US version from Rain-Steck Vaughan. When Wayland got bought out by Hodder a couple of years later, it was relaunched with a new cover and a rejigged title, and it seems to have found an audience in both the educational and home market.
Urubutsin, the king of the vultures

Like Sister Maria in The Sound of Music, I believe in beginning at the very beginning, a very good place to start.  So the book opens with a creation story from the Kayamura people who live in the forests of Brazil. of sorts. It’s called The Legend of the Sun God, and explains how Kuat, the sun god and his brother Iae, the moon god battled the king of the vultures to bring light to the forest. It’s quite a primeval story, with Urubutsin, the king of the vultures, pecking out a dead man’s eyes and.  There is a happy ending, though!

The second tale is called The Tree of Life, and it’s a very entertaining flood story, a version of which I’d heard from a storyteller in London. My version is based on one told by the Tupa people, and it explains why different fruit grows in different countries around the world. It stars Macounaima, a trickster and hero of Brazilian mythology and folklore.  He discovers that his brother Agouti is sneaking out of the communal hut at night and into the forest.  What has he found there, and it is something all the people in the village could share? 
Don’t look at me like that!

In my books, I always try and feature some kind of food that children are unlikely to spot on the local supermarket shelves. Here, I settled on guarana, a fruit that grows amply in the rain forest but has steadfastly refused to thrive on cultivated land outside the region.

First discovered by the Maues people, it is made into a cooling pulped drink. Today you can find it in chemist shops and health food stores around the world, ether in the form of a pick-me-up gum or more commonly as an energy drink.

The people of the Amazon claim it cures headaches, upset stomachs and sleeplessness.   The story I chose is called Buried Eyes, a rather sad tale, that explains why the ripe fruit of the guarana look like human eyes.

Set sail on a lily pad!

The rain forest is full of exotic plants that would feel right at home in fantasy novels.  There’s the Cannonball Tree, with seeds so big they could be mistaken for cannonballs. They fall to the ground with a booming sound.  There’s also a fig tree whose branches reach out to strangle other trees so it can take their place in the sun.  And there’s also the Victoria Regis, the biggest water-lily in the world. Its leaves are so big, very young kids can use them as boats.

Like many other wondrous objets de nature in the rain forest, it inspired its own legend.  The Sad Song Of The Moon!  It tells how a girl fell in love with the man in the moon and was turned into the beautiful water lily.  It’s my favourite story in the book and one which I am learning to tell in storytelling sessions.  Perhaps you might hear me tell it one day….

Illustrations copyright, Becky Gryspeerdt, 1998.

 

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