Time To Pay The Piper

Stories are wonderful things, they seem to know when they are needed and somehow find a way to present themselves to you. I was struggling with what to write this month, maybe something about my festival experiences… or the heat… or my festival experiences in the heat. Having done a sufficiency of procrastinative housework to warrant a lunch break, I sat down, put on the Netflix documentary series Myths and Monsters and there it was: the story I needed.

You all know it. A prosperous German trading town is beset with a plague of rats, nothing they do is enough to save them. The stores are being eaten, the fabrics nested in, the ropes chewed in to short lengths. Nothing softer than iron is safe from the sharp teeth of the omnipresent vermin and what doesn’t get gnawed up is covered in the unhealthy spoor of the rodents. The town council is at it’s wits’ end and initiates the age old fairy tale cure all of offering a reward of unimaginable wealth to whoever can save them.

A poor musician, so poor that their clothes are a multicoloured mismatch of patches and replaced parts, appears in the square tootling on a whistle. The music is delightful and everyone wants to listen. Once he has their attention the piper introduces himself as a Rodentia Extermination Operative. The grandees of the city immediately offer him a 1,000 guilder contract to end the plague.

The man in motley strikes up a strange and haunting tune that draws every last one of the rats from their nests as they pour from basements and eaves alike to follow the capering flautist, who leaves the town and heads for the banks of the river. In a scene which has delighted pantomime directors and animators alike, the myriad meal munchers plunge in to the flowing waters and squeak their last.

Job done, the Pied Piper returns to a deeply relieved Hamelin where they give him a big round of applause but, claiming the town has significant expenses to cover replacing the unrealised profits for the rich merchants and there is no magic money tree, they refuse to give him the agreed 1,000G. The melodious rat catcher is unsurprisingly a bit miffed, swears revenge, much to the wealthy traders amusement, and storms out.

The final episode comes a few months later, on a Sunday when the adults are all in church. A man clad in green prances through the streets playing a lively dance on his flute, entrancing all the children who follow him out of the town and away… never to be seen again.

Now, I could go on about the fascinating history of the tale, how the rat infestation element was added a few hundred years after the original mysterious, but probably true, disappearance of a surprisingly specific 130 Hamelin children in 1284. On this occasion though it is the relevance to current affairs that caught my attention. Following a decade of political austerity, a Brexit that promised greater prosperity and a pandemic which clearly demonstrated exactly who are key workers that deserve reward; NHS staff, postal employees and transport workers are all being denied recognition of their essential functions in the meaningful form of getting paid enough to have a house and eat.

Striking is significantly less disruptive than taking away everyone’s children, but it is the only form of leverage available to those who have no magic flute. It may be inconvenient but unless we want it to get worse, it’s time to pay the piper.


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Getting Festive

It’s festival season again! I’m rather delighted by the wide variety of niche, special interest, communities that set out each year to immerse themselves in their enthusiasms for a weekend whilst living in a field and drinking too much.

I’m currently preparing for two days of telling tales to an assortment of LARP (Live Action Role Play), cosplay and re-enactment fans in Gloucestershire at Fantasy Forest. I did a wedding for a sub set of this group a few weeks back and it has to be said that LARPers make a great audience, though I am expecting to be outclassed in the costume department as, for a lot of these people, getting dressed up as something spectacular, wizards, elves, werewolves, aliens, is the entire reason they are there.

Two weeks later I’m off to Valhalla, which is unsurprisingly a Viking Festival, though the location may raise an eyebrow since it’s just outside Basingstoke. There I have to compete with archery, axe throwing, blacksmiths, wolves, fire walking, ravens, boat burning, display fights featuring viking warrior bands from around the country, and the Mead Hall, complete with stage, 10 kilowatt PA and a full programme of viking related music from tinkly medieval harpists to gothic Scandinavian metal.

Now you may think that my preparation for these involves rehearsing my stories and maybe looking up a couple of new ones, which might happen if I have time but mainly it is comprised of activities like rubbing the inside of my viking boots with neats foot oil; sewing my viking tunic up where a seam has split; jump starting the car, moving it to the drive and recharging the battery which has mysteriously gone flat. I have Thursday down for loading the (hopefully fixed) car with the ridiculous array of things I need. Alongside all the obvious camping gear, tent, bedding, stove, enamel plates etc. I also need to fit in chalk boards to advertise my shows, emergency backdrops, costumes, merchandise… instruments: lyre, bodhran, djembe, thunder drum, chimes, dulcimer… then there’s all the odd stuff you have to take because it’s camping: toilet roll, solar powered torches, wet wipes, and not just camping but camping in England, so you need to have enough clothing for any and every possible weather condition: wellies, waterproofs, sun hats, umbrellas, insect repellant, factor 50 sun screen, t-shirts, jumpers.

If last year is anything to go by I could do with a fridge and a rubber dinghy too, one for when it gets too hot and the other for when the rain gets biblical, like it did at Wickham, where I was woken up at about 4am by the extraordinary pounding of the rain on my, thankfully brand new and very waterproof tent, and on going out to check on the guy ropes discovered that a sheet of water around an inch deep was flowing down the hill and under my tent.

I might get to practice my performance a bit before I go but not if I can’t find my sewing kit, I’ve looked in all the obvious places and no sign yet. It’ll turn up eventually but the sooner it does the higher my chances of getting to sit in the shade and bone up on a couple of new viking sagas.

Oh! Water carrier, chalks, tankard… and I must remember a towel this time.

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So Simple My Friend

In the folk tale hall of fame there is one single character who has probably become the star of more tales than any other. Not our friend jack, as it is clear from the number of mothers and wives he has had that these are different people who share the same name. No we must look further afield than our own shores. If we leave even Europe, cross the Bosphorus and head out through Turkey and the near east we will find the person we seek: Nasrudin. Unlike jack he goes by a variety of spellings, Nasreddin, Nasruddin, Nasredin and more. Often a Mullah, sometimes a Hodja or Hoca (teacher), he is known and claimed by Afghans, Iranians, Uzbeks, and Arabs, as well as the Turkic Xinjiang area of western China.

Is he some kind of hero? A middle Eastern Robin Hood? Well, not so much. His speciality is humorous and philosophical anecdotes. Often short pithy yarns that leave you thinking, but with a smile on your face. He is sometimes a trickster and sometimes a simpleton, something of a Divine Fool. Although a poor man, Nasrudin is a friend of kings, becoming the voice that speaks truth to power, even to the great 14th century Emperor Tamerlane who ruled from Russia to India, and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia.

The venerable Mullah has rather crept up on me. Over the years I have found stories that simply appealed to me in a variety of compilations, mostly of world stories but also in a couple of books of Turkish tales. Without really trying, I have accrued the makings of a full set on the old fella. There is often a simplicity or innocence in Nasrudin’s actions, alongside a good dollop of absurdity that hides the deeper wisdom, when there is some. My favourite so far is one in which he takes advantage of a king who would like his beloved horse to read to him. It’s a little long for the space I have left so here are a pair of short ones to give you a taste.

The Mullah had a new house built in the town. When the door was fitted he attached a strong lock to it. Next to the door was a window which Nasredin left open in all circumstances.
His neighbours grew curious.
“Wise one” they said, “why do you have this strong door that you keep locked to prevent burglary, but then leave your window open, even when you are out, making it easy for a thief to enter?”
“The door is locked” said Nasredin “to keep my friends out that they do not disturb me when I am praying. A thief though, will get in and take what they want even if the window is locked, so I leave it open that they do not break the glass.”

Nasrudin’s neighbour looked over his fence and saw the Mullah walking slowly, stopping, and turning around by his back door, all the while looking down thoughtfully.

“Are you alright neighbour?” he called out.

“I’ve lost my key.” Came the troubled reply.

The neighbour rushed round and joined in the search while the Mullah thanked him profusely.

After a few minutes of fruitlessly scanning the stony ground he asked

“Are you sure this is where you lost it?”

“Oh no,” said the Mullah, “I lost it in the cellar.”

“Then why are you looking out here?” shouted the exasperated neighbour

“It’s so simple my friend” Said Nasrudin calmly, meeting his eyes with a clear gaze,

“The light is better!”

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Mothers, Grandmothers, Bananas and Tradition

Folk culture is a fascinating thing. It can be a thing of deeply distinct nationalistic pride one moment and continent wide inclusivity the next. Here in England we can be rather disparaging about our national folk customs, people who will happily wrap themselves in a St. Georges Cross flag will make jokes about morris dancers and mummers. Over the Scottish border, in what is to the rest of the world the same country, laughing at a man doing a jig in a kilt is likely to get you stabbed with the dirk that is traditionally kept in the very accessible sock of the wearer.

Oppression by invaders and occupiers often brings about a renewed pride in ancient forms of traditional dress, dance, song and story as a means of identification. Witness the winning entry to the Eurovision Song Contest: The intro and chorus sound like part of a folk song sung with traditional harmonies and the band were dressed in a variety of traditional folk costumes from the regions of their country. The lyrics are about the singers mother, with strong hints that it is a metaphor for the mother land of Ukraine. As a musician I particularly enjoyed the use of the telenka, a local overtone flute, which has no finger holes and is played by a mixture of breath control and partial or fully covering the end of the pipe. I hope we do not witness a completion of the Russian invasion as all of the above elements of Kalush Orchestra’s delightful performance will almost certainly be instantly banned and violently persecuted, as the folk practices of conquered nations nearly always are.

Meanwhile, from a little further north and west, the same competition brought us a fully modern dance floor friendly take on a folk tale. A folk tale so classic that Norway clearly expected the entire continent to get the joke of deflecting a wolf from eating grandma with the worlds default comedy fruit, if it was a joke, since the maned wolf of South America does actually eat bananas. Either way the Little Red Riding Hood reference was clear for all to see, as was it’s thoroughly international reach.

Greece, Sweden and particularly the UK, fielded some very fine songs with very fine singers which will undoubtedly get to single figure places in their own countries charts if not several others. I doubt however, that we will still have any of them on regular rotation in three years time.

The national distinctiveness of ‘Stefania’ and international inclusivity of ‘Give That Wolf A Banana’, both borrowing extra depth and connection from folk tradition and teaming that up with some solid up to date beat production, will probably be filling dance floors across Europe and beyond even a decade or so from now.

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Come On In

There is much to be learned about our past by studying the stories we have told ourselves over the years, the omnipresence of agriculture or textile manufacture, the power dynamics of royalty and inheritance, but sometimes it is interesting to look at the things that are almost totally absent. Swimming for instance.

Nowadays we are quite used to the idea of swimming and water safety being taught to everyone at a fairly young age, toddlers who can barely walk splashing around with floatation devices in the gradually yellowing waters of the shallow pool. Just as well too, although the UK statistics for accidental drowning have been falling steadily and fairly dramatically since 1985, it is still the worldwide bronze medal winner for unintentional human fatality. The ubiquity of at least some aquatic ability is, however, a new thing.

In folktale it is extremely rare for anyone to swim for any reason. Entering water voluntarily is almost unheard of. Witches famously won’t even attempt to cross running water, possibly very wisely since giants, thieves and villains of all stripes are enticed or forced in to water in any number of denouements, breathing their last on the ocean floor or at the bottom of a well. Protagonists have less to fear from H2O, nevertheless rivers, moats and lakes are all crossed by the aid of boats, bridges, fords, swans, fish or wading. An occasional lucky Jack will survive a shipwreck but not by swimming; they grasp a barrel or spa and hang on until they are washed up on some far shore. This is historically pretty accurate: Hardly anyone learned to swim before the 1900s, not even sailors who considered it irrelevant at best and bad luck at worst.

Maritime superstition aside, the ability to swim is, to the medieval mind, an extraordinary skill. Only a limited number of legendary characters with bloodlines traceable to a deity actually choose to come on in, and the water is rarely lovely. The Anglo Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, devotes several pages to the re-telling at a feast, of a swimming match between the eponymous hero and a childhood friend. For some reason it is held at night and in the face of a storm. The thrashing waves separate the two competitors, sharks or sea monsters attack Beowulf and drag him to the bottom where he dispatches all nine of them with the sword he is carrying for exactly that purpose, the brief delay costs him the race but Beowulf considers his feat to be greater.

This episode pre-figures the climax of part one, where Grendel’s terrible mother, after trashing Hrothgar’s famous feasting hall and several of his best warriors, takes sanctuary in a heathland lake. All present are about to give up the chase: how can they possibly pursue her in the water? However Beowulf, wearing full armour of course, dives in and swims down for a day or so until he finds and destroys the monstrous family. No other warrior had the skills to carry out the rescue of Heorot from the demons that plagued it: no warrior save Beowulf!

Swimming is in effect presented as a super power, almost akin to flying, but if anything more unusual.

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Bird Brain

Bird brains, love birds, storks bringing babies and Henny Penny running round complaining that the sky is falling. Just at a guess I think these would be the kind of associations that would spring to mind if I said I was going to tell you an evening of tales about our feathered friends. As ever, a trawl through the stories we used to tell two hundred years ago and more produces a very different picture.

Far from being foolish or simple, folk tale birds from an assortment of genera often demonstrate some of the most shrewd and subtle problem solving in the folk corpus. Aesop’s crow is probably the most famous of these conundrum crunchers, as he drops pebble after pebble in to a pitcher of water to raise the fluid until it is in reach of his beak.

In the Turkish tale of The Crow and the Snake, the strategy is taken to a higher level. The Crow, whose nest is at the top of a tree, has a problem with a snake that lives in a pit near the bottom. Whenever she lays some eggs the snake climbs up and eats them. After a consultation with a Jackal she forsakes the anger driven option of direct confrontation: pecking the snake’s eyes out might have been satisfying but would, the jackal points out, be very dangerous. Instead, our clever corvid steals a precious ring from a lady having a bath, makes sure that a number of people chase her, stays in sight of the mob until she is by her tree and then drops the ring in to the snake pit. To retrieve the jewellery the obliging humans promptly deal with her scaly problem for her.

This tactical leverage of third parties is quite different in character to the chicanery and deception of the trickster archetype, where the target is often destroyed by their own gullibility as the con artist stands beside them laughing. Avian reprisals tend to be a more surgical strike, delivered from a distance without risk that the enemy will catch on at the last minute. It is also largely free from the chaos and collateral damage often generated by the tricksters, to the extent that assisting a fowl with their sting can even be beneficial to those manoeuvred in to it.

When a wicked elephant tramples the nestlings of a lowly quail, she swears she will get revenge. The Elephant arrogantly taunts her as a weak and powerless creature. The incensed Quail does a kindness for each of a crow, a fly and a frog. When they enquire what they can do in return she asks the crow if it would be so good as to peck out the elephant’s eyes, an action the Crow is only too happy perform since eyeballs are a delicacy. The Quail then asks the Fly if she would mind laying her eggs in the Elephants ruined eye sockets, which is a bit like telling me I could repay you a fiver by going to the London Inn and buying myself a pint of Avocet, it is a perfect place for her larvae to develop. The Frog is requested to croak at the top of a hill and then climb down to the bottom of the steepest cliff and croak again. The blind and maggot maddened Elephant, desperate for water, follows the sound of the frog to the top of the ridge and then over the cliff to it’s doom. Thus, by coming together these four small and vulnerable creatures brought down a strong and powerful tyrant.

So be kind to birds and they will reward that kindness; upset them and they will not only take you down, but you will never see it coming. If that’s being bird brained then count me in!

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The Stolen Evergreens

I was just going to tell you a story again this month but I’ve run in to a snag. First I began to think that I had already written up this tale for you at some previous time and spent ages hunting through my archives to check. A useful activity since it showed me just how badly organised the archive was and spawned a fairly extensive re-organisation of my hard drive and updating of the catalogue. I did not find the story while I was at it.

Despite the total absence of evidence and only two missing articles that might be it, I remained unconvinced that I haven’t already told you this tale, it’s the one where a bird has damaged it’s wing and can’t fly south for the winter so seeks shelter amongst the trees. You know the one, the Birch, the oak and The Willow are all a bit offish and haughty, refusing to give the poor creature sanctuary but the Spruce and Pine offer shelter while the Juniper provides berries. The denouement coming in a conversation between the North Wind and the Frost King: the cold northern air asks if it can take all the leaves in the forest and the benevolent Frost King says “Yes, but do not touch the leaves of the Spruce Pine and Juniper for they were kind to the little bird.” and instant karma is delivered to the wood.

Having decided that I am not going to tell you that story, I went in search of a variant on the same theme. This is where things became really surprising. My extensive library of world folktale and myth has not one mention of why evergreen trees keep their leaves. The internet turned up a verbatim version of the folk tale outlined above but with one key difference: It was attributed to an author! One Florence Holbrook of Chicago to be exact. Horror of horrors! Could it actually be (gasps) Literature?

A further hunt for an original folkloric source revealed an even more terrible truth. A very slight variation appeared, the bird being specified as a sparrow, the oak and maple playing the part of the arrogant arboreals rejecting the avian, only the Pine giving charitable succour to the otherwise doomed feathery refugee, and “The Creator” handing out the appropriate punishment and reward at the end. This tight, economical version is credited as Cherokee and contains the bones that Holbrook appropriated for her construction back in 1904. How can I say this with such assurance? Since it is out of copyright, the full text of Holbrook’s Book of Nature Myths in which “Why The Evergreen Trees Keep Their Leaves” appears is available online if you search far enough, and in the preface she clearly states “The subject-matter is of permanent value, culled from the folk-lore of the primitive races; the vocabulary… is increased gradually, and the new words and phrases will add to the child’s power of expression. The naive explanations of the phenomena of nature given by the primitive races appeal to the child’s wonder about the same phenomena, and he is pleased and interested.”

So we have a tale, originally unique to the Cherokee people, taken for the education of the invading Europeans and over time stripped of it’s provenance to the extent that it is possible to find it and assume, by the way it is presented as an otherwise unspecified folk tale, that it is native to this continent. At this point the cultural appropriation is complete. I am not sure now if I shall ever tell this very fine story again, not wishing to profit from the proceeds of theft, but if I do I shall take care to credit the Cherokee nation for it’s genesis without insulting them as primitive, an odd accusation considering they have, in this myth, addressed a question apparently unasked across the rest of the world.

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The First Christmas Tree

The noise from his great hall roused Count Otto from his slumber. He was on his bed rather than in it, lying where he fell, exhausted from the day’s exertions. He had gone out riding with friends but, as is pretty much standard with nobility in folktales, he had become separated from his retinue and wandered lost in the woods until he had a strange experience. Stopping to refresh himself at a spring where the waters burst from a rocky cliff and fell in to a clear pool, he felt soft, delicate hands touch his in the water and the ruby ring he was wearing slipped from his finger. It was Christmas Eve so he made plans to come back on Boxing day with servants to drain the pool and retrieve his jewellery.

The spring, known as The Fairy Well, was a long way from his castle and by the time he got home he was beyond eating. Pulled from blessed oblivion by the sound of a merry throng at… he cast around for some clue of what the time might be and, almost as if on cue, the bells for midnight rang in the tower far above. He was saved from rage at being denied sleep by the hope that his thoughtlessly loud guests might have food. On opening the doors however all thoughts of, well everything, left his mind. It was neither his friends nor his servants carousing. Filling his hall was a host of Faeries, or was it Elves? Possibly Nixies, he shook his head, whatever, they were dressed in fabulous clothes of many bright colours, dancing to the sweetest of music. In the middle of the hall stood a fir tree which held amongst it’s branches all kinds of bejewelled bracelets, silver necklaces, golden handled daggers and diamond encrusted trinkets, sparkling in the light of the candles that stood between them.

As he took all this in, the dance ended, the couples bowed to each other and parted allowing an even more entrancing beauty to walk towards the baffled count, as he stood blinking at the splendour before him. Dressed in satin and velvet of rose and cream, a circlet of silver and sapphires holding her lustrous hair back from a face of exquisite, and lightly amused, attractiveness.
“I am Ernestine, queen of the fair folk” said the vision of loveliness in a voice of silk and well aged whisky, “I have come to return your visit… and something else”. Smiling, she reached in to her cleavage and drew out something that glistened in the light, her eyes staying firmly on his, she held out the ring that had vanished in the water.

Otto and Ernestine danced through the night. He was a handsome fellow, rich and well mannered, a big hit with the ladies of the noble courts, yet he had resisted subtle and blatant advances alike, until now. When the last waltz ended and the fairies, whom he had barely noticed for hours, began to pack up and drift off in to the mists of dawn, he threw himself down on one knee and begged her to marry him. She looked through him with half closed eyes for a moment, laid a hand on his hair and said “On the condition that you never speak the word ‘Death’ in my company.”

Their happiness together began on Boxing Day and lasted many years. One Christmas Eve though, as the Count and his guests prepared to go for their traditional ride in the forest, Ernestine tarried in her chamber. Otto paced the courtyard, the horses nibbled the lawn and the servants handed out a third round of spiced sherry. When the Fairy Queen eventually came down Otto blurted out “At last!”, then trying to make a joke, “You would make a good messenger to send for Death!” She stared at him horrified, the scream on her lips cut short as she disappeared before the startled onlooker’s eyes.

Frantic searches of the castle, Fairy Well and forest brought no joy, neither did their more conscientious repeats over the following weeks. Heartbroken and mirthless, Otto lived on, his threadbare hope driving him to erect a tree filled with light and treasure by the window of his hall every Christmas. As time passed the locals began to copy their Lord. The custom spread through Straβbourg… and eventually the world.

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The Invisible Horse

I went to a marvellous event the other day. A “Pop Up Curiosity Shop” run by Exeter, Bristol, and Bath Universities. Various research projects were reporting on their progress despite being only part way through. I learned about the human spine, ecclesiastical graffiti, worms in space, and a whole bunch of other very interesting stuff. The thing with research is that when the starry eyed explorers set off to find whatever it is they have set their scientific sights on, there is always a distinct possibility that they will find something else entirely.

Stories of bold knights and their gallant chargers, talking or otherwise, abound. I’ve told a few. The archetype of the knight couldn’t exist without his equine support. Artists paint palfreys gently cropping the turf whilst their armour clad master rests beneath a tree and writers pour out prose praising the noble beasts as they make the ground shake, thundering towards each other in the lists or hurtling at an enemy on the battlefield.

Yes, the Warhorse, tall as a house*, armoured like his rider, forming the formidable ranks of the Heavy Cavalry, the decisive military tool of so many battles. Each hoof the size of a dinner plate. The undisputed lynchpin of pre-musket strategy. Get enough noble knights on their massive chargers and the war was yours.


The stated purpose of one of the groups at the event was to find the true nature of the middle ages’ most famous animal, but they seem to have discovered that it is, in fact, as much of a mythical beast as it’s single horned cousin.

No bones of super sized stallions exist. No outsize shoes litter the battlefields. Contemporary artwork places Norman cavalry on creatures nearer to ponies. The saddles are all fairly slim, and no surviving armour was made for anything bigger than a fairly average horse. The weaponry of the knights does not include the extended blades and handles that would have been necessary to do any damage from such a great height.

Possibly the most famous phrase in archaeology (after “It was probably ritual”) is “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In this case though, they not only found no evidence for the heavy horses of popular imagination, but significant evidence for much smaller, lighter, more manoeuvrable, mounts.

Authors of historical battle fiction who claim to have done their research are going to be upset. Likewise numerous historians and historical re-enactors. Personally I am quite pleased. It’s not everyday that you get given a new fantastical, story book creature that everybody already knows. The Warhorse is now entering the stables next to the Winged Horse, the Unicorn and the Kelpie, where they can all enjoy a nice chat together.
Thank you scientific research, I accept your gift with glee!

* A single story medieval house.

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Sink or Swim?

If you heard of a story that saved thousands of lives, could have saved thousands more, and might yet save tens of thousands if enough people heard it, would you want to know that story? It will be no surprise to you that I, having learned that such a legend exists am desperate to know the details.

There are some fascinatingly unusual and distinct tribes of people on the Andaman islands of Indonesia. The Onge, for instance, who limit outside influence to maintain their gathering and hunting lifestyle free from modern diseases, are a genetically distinct tribe who do not share the genes of Neolithic Iranian farmers or steppe pastoralists that much of the rest of the world have.

The nautically semi nomadic Moken spend a great deal of time collecting seafood, and thus have evolved advanced free diving capabilities, including improved underwater vision and an ability to slow their heartbeat so that they use less oxygen, doubling their time underwater.

Along with a handful of other officially “Particularly Vulnerable” nations, each of these groups has a very small population, dancing along the very edge of extinction. There were only 96 Onge alive in 2004 when a sub-aquatic earthquake sent a tsunami through the region on, what was to us, Boxing Day morning. Over 220,000 lives were lost. Anthropologists feared that entire races could have been relegated to history by the sudden inundation. On further investigation however, it turned out that every single one of the Onge, Moken and so forth survived, having headed inland and uphill as soon as they felt the tremors. How did they know what to do when so many other people from “modern” industrial cultures simply walked out on to the freshly exposed sea bed as the ocean gathered itself to strike? Of course, it was because amongst their folklore are tales in which a great shaking of the ground was followed by a massive and destructive wall of water surging in from the ocean.

This remarkable example of a life saving story demonstrates two things. Obviously the incredible value of story, but also the vast gulf of the understanding of that value between the Andaman culture and ours. Even the parents of people whose lives were saved by the tale had not been born the last time a tsunami swept their shores, yet generations later they were still telling the story, with sufficient vigour and frequency to recognise and follow the essential information contained therein as soon as it became reality.

Witness in contrast, the response of those who brought back the new story of how a story saved nations. Did they collect this life saving tale? Did they beg the Onge to speak the wonder that kept them from obliteration? Have they pleaded with the Moken to disseminate this priceless myth to the countries who lost so many loved ones? Can I find it online? No. All we have is a couple of news reports of how quaint it is that it happened. No one seems to have got as far as recording this proven, life preserving narrative for the benefit of the wider world.

I despair, I really do.

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