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Help Me Solve the Mystery of the Foundling-Bird, the Toe Bone, and the Tooth!

Update (2015): I am considering this case closed after the publication of Jack Zipes' English translation of the first edition of the Grimms' tales. The tale Fundevogel no longer stands out as unique from a rather large variety of tales with a similar poetic feel and series of transformations during a magical chase. Prechtel's story seems to be related even closer to the story "The Children of the Two Kings," which has so many elements in common with so many other European tales from different sources that I now feel certain that the magical chase sequence traveled from Europe to South America at some time between the Spanish conquest and Prechtel's migration. I am in awe of the lush, nature-spirited, emotional color of the Grimms' collection before it underwent its own "magical" transformation into the dry, stiff artifact engineered for marketing to male Victorian heads of household. I have developed a new affection for the native, tribal narratives of European folk and the shamanic spirituality that infuses ancient and medieval European oral tradition.

Folklorists, legend lovers, and hoarders of fairy tales, help me solve a mythological mystery! This is something I've been curious about for the past decade, but I feel an urgent need to find out all I can about the origins of the Grimms' tale Fundevogel. I have taken a pause in my writing of Briars and Black Hellebore so that I can do some research and rewriting of the first 1/3 of my book. And I've uncovered an exciting mystery.

 As I research, I've been brewing ideas for a sequel that will spin off from a minor character subplot. Of course, I'll need to do a little planting of seeds in the first book to set up the sequel, which I would like to begin with a retelling of the Grimm story Fundevogel (Foundling-Bird). But before I start on a retelling, I like to do as much research as I can about a tale's origins (murky as they may be) and evolution through time and across nations and cultures. I like to collect as many variants of the tale as I can, trace them back as far as I can, and feel out how broadly the tale has mixed with other folk tales around the world. (Many of the tales recorded by the Grimms have relatives in France, Russia, India, China, Africa, ancient Rome and Greece, etc.) If possible, I also like to analyze some of the reasons a tale has changed through time and space--language translation and mistranslation, cultural revision, natural variation due to the openness of oral tradition, censorship or governmental/religious propaganda, commercialization, etc.

I like to dig into the basic soul of a story, the kernel of sameness within the dynamic flow of living narrative, and also increase my awareness of the big picture surrounding the many roots and offshoots of the tale--the metamyth, the story of the story.

So the big mystery I am trying to solve with Fundevogel is to find out whether this tale's native roots are from tribal, pre-Christian "Old World" cultures or whether they have been plucked from the ancient oral traditions of the Maya peoples of Central America. 

About 10 years ago, I fell in love at first sight with the book Stealing Benefacio's Roses by Martin Prechtel. I am a sucker for what Prechtel calls "beautiful speech" and for a well-executed marriage of visual illustrations with poetic prose. Prechtel is a deeply creative artist who has made his life with people of Mayan ancestry and written and illustrated several books dealing with Mayan oral tradition and folk art.

On pages 59 - 70 of this book, Prechtel recounts part of a story presented to him as an ancient Mayan legend, The Toe Bone and the Tooth. A family (Singing Boy, his goddess wife Water-Skirted Woman, and their unborn twins) undergo a series of magical transformations into elements of the forest as they flee the pregnant goddess' parents, who want to destroy the half-god children before they are born. The transformations incorporate each member of the family into a whole system--for example, the husband becomes a tree, the wife a spring at its base, and the children two fish in the pool. The pursuing force is finally defeated by a body of water, and the goddess pleads with her husband repeatedly, "please do not forget me. Don't forget me." He replies, "Of course I will never forget you."

In Fundevogel, a sister and her little adopted brother (named Fundevogel because he was found in a tree) flee a murderous witch by undergoing very similar magical transformations. (For example, the brother becomes a rose-tree and his sister a rose upon it.) They ultimately defeat the witch by taking the form of a body of water (with a duck swimming on it) and drowning her. Throughout the story, the sister pleads with her brother, "Never leave me," and the brother replies, "Neither now, nor ever."

These sequences are too similar for me to believe that they developed independently (though I can't rule out that possibility entirely). Frustratingly, there are no written documents, to my knowledge, concerning either tale that were written before contact between Europeans and Mayans in the early 16th century. I know that immediately upon contact, the conquistadors and the people of Central America began exchanging stories, myths, and legends and influencing each other's oral traditions. I've found lots of evidence that the Spanish conquistadors promptly and forcefully changed American myths upon their arrival, but I haven't found any explorations online, at the library, or in my cross-cultural studies in college about how American oral traditions may have influenced European tales during the European Renaissance. Of course, they must have done so. But the colonizing cultures of Europe wrote the history books and tended to downplay or paper over the ways in which they borrowed, adapted, stole, or corrupted the social, artistic, and storytelling traditions of the people they colonized. So I doubt that a document exists that can answer my question with certainty, but I want to know...

Friends, do you know of any tales, from any part of the world, that can be verified as having existed there before the nineteenth century, that are similar to the tale Fundevogel? Does anyone have special knowledge of pre-Columbian Central American mythology who might have a clue? 

I have sent a message to Martin Prechtel asking his opinion, and if I receive an interesting response, I'll post an update! In the meantime, I've got Sara McLachlan's "Building a Mystery" looping in my head. Please help.


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