King Midas, Roman and the Turkish Barber

Remember that a crown is nothing but a hat with a hole in it!

My parting words after telling the Greek myth of King Midas and the golden touch. It’s been a long time since I told that story and even longer since I told the lesser known tale of his continuing foolishness, King Midas has donkey’s ears. However, visiting the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (Efes), in combination with an invitation to cross the threshold and enter the hallowed male domain of a Turkish barber to photograph his work, I am reminded of the importance of the second story.

In ancient times King Midas of Phrygia, now a region in western Turkey, narrowly escaped an ignominious death after realising that his wish to turn everything he touched to gold meant that he would die of thirst and starvation. The God Dionysius expunged the wish and commanded Midas to wash himself in the river Pactolus in Lydia, also in western Turkey. Subsequently the river which rises from Mount Tmolus and eventually flows into the Aegean sea was said to run with gold as a result of Midas’s divestment.

Like all myths and legends there are discussions around whether characters, events and places have their origins in reality or fiction. There are usually varying degrees of both. The river Pactolus did contain electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver and the story of King Midas and the golden touch conveniently explains the reason for its presence in the river bed. King Midas himself may have been based on  Mit-ta-a, the king of Muški,  possibly identified later as Phrygia, in 700 BCE. Although debates rage about the intersection of myth and ‘fact’ in ancient mythology, there are cultural values, human traits and social mores that give credence to the deeper truths residing in these stories. An example I wish to explore is the relationship between a barber and his customers.

The aforementioned story King Midas has donkey ears, sees him afflicted with the protuberances as a punishment for offending the God Apollo. Humiliated, he hides his ears under a turban so that no-one knows about them. Only his barber is privy to his misfortune. On pain of death, Midas has extracted a promise of secrecy, but the responsibility of carrying such a terrible confidence weighs like a millstone around the barber’s neck. One night, in desperation he sneaks down to the river bank where he digs a hole and shouts into it, “King Midas has donkey’s ears.”He then fills it in and returns home, having unburdened himself yet believing he has maintained the secret. In time reeds grew over the hole, and as the wind wafts through them, it picks up the barber’s words and whispers them. In a short time eager ears in tandem with flapping tongues carry them far and wide. Soon the whole world knows that King Midas has donkeys ears.

One of the enduring beliefs in this story is that a barber shop is a place where secrets are divulged and gossip exchanged. For some time Roman had wanted to visit a barber and on our host’s recommendation we went to see Gökhan. I stood outside the shop, reluctant to enter, but was welcomed inside to take photographs. While I knew there would be little exchange of spoken intimacies between the two men because of language barriers, I was able to see how a Turkish barbershop was an environment conducive to male intimacy. It was sensual, dangerous, comical and congenial. Gökhan employed flames, foam, fingers, cologne and a cut throat razor to achieve his desired outcomes. Roman received the experience with a mixture of trepidation, fascination and exhilaration.

After an intense fifteen minutes we left Efes Berber Salonu. Me with a sense of curiosity satisfied and Roman with his ears burning! He’d never had them waxed before. But his skin was smooth and scented, his muscles kneaded and his eyes opened as to why Turkish men still embrace the traditional weekly visit to the barber.

Gökhan wielding a lightning fast blade.

Brothers Görkhan and Erhan applying wax and razor respectively.

What the wax doesn’t destroy the flames will.

Finishing off with a vigorous massage.

A close shave!


Tiddalik goes Deeper

One of the first stories I learnt when I embarked upon my storytelling journey was Tiddalik, an Australian Aboriginal Dreaming story. My first hearing was by Ann E Stewart, and I was captivated. I have been telling this story to children ever since. The version I learnt was from Sharon Walker’s book, A Treasure Trunk of Tales: told stories for young children. In it she uses a balloon, so the presentation is both visual and dramatic.
Twice my balloon telling has caused concern in my audiences: the first, when a child with special needs was distressed by the use of a balloon and I had to curtail the size of the ‘growing frog,’ and the second was when I was told later that the school had a policy of ‘no latex’ because a student had severe allergies. Wisely the said student did not volunteer to impress the ‘balloon frog’ in the interactive part of the story. I have since written a version for telling to preschoolers in outside play, that uses buckets of water to illustrate the growing frog. It is in my book Tell Me: Storytelling as a Global Language.
When I tell the tale, I present it as an example of Aboriginal storytelling, to educate listeners about the environment and the relationship of all living creatures to the land. I reference the burrowing frogs, water-holding frogs in the desert, positing their decendancy from the giant frog Tiddalik, the role of water as Australia’s second most important natural resource * and the values of community and sharing.
Recently I was asked by a friend and colleague to tell Tiddalik at “Coming in – Conversations from the Couch of Hope, Healing and Recovery,” an evening to launch Mad Pride Mid North Coast. I wondered why she wanted this story in particular so I took off the tale’s teaching hat to explore its other persona, the metaphor.
A brief summary of the tale follows: Tiddalik the frog is thirsty and drinks all the water in the land so there is none left for the other animals. They seek out the wisdom of owl to help them. Owl says that they must make Tiddalik laugh to release the water. They try without success. Platypus arrives on the scene and Tiddalik laughs at her, thereby releasing all the water. It flows back into the land and everyone is happy.
Although the actions of Tiddalik are potentially catastrophic, as in my tellings the children answer the question ‘what happens when you have no water to drink?,’ I have never picked up a sense of outrage at his actions. There is a general understanding that he can’t help himself. He is motivated by an insatiable desire to quench his thirst until he becomes so full he cannot do anything but sit ‘like a great big giant blob.’
As I write this I wonder whether the non-judgemental stance of the children is an expression of their compassion for the frog’s lack of control, or that they trust the story and my telling of it to bring the tale to a satisfactory conclusion, where balance will be restored and Tiddalik redeemed. I have always found children have a strong sense of justice and fairness, and in the dozens of times I have told this tale never once has a child questioned why Tiddalik is not punished for his actions.
Anyone who has ever been an addict, alcoholic or gambler will understand compulsion, desire and insatiability. The horror comes afterwards; the emptiness, paralysis, and disgust concomitant with a binge. Guilt, self loathing, obsession with your ‘weakness’ to the point of being oblivious to everyone around you, their needs, their words, their concern. Contemplating whether the world would be better off without you?
While various anonymous groups, rehabilitation centres and medical interventions exist in the ‘real’ world, to assist us manage our addictions and hopefully live to tell the tale of our redemption, the world of mythology and folktales relies on the listener trusting that the tale will eventually provide a satisfactory conclusion. Although the animals in the Tiddalik story are sincere in their quest, using their unique characteristics to make Tiddalik laugh, they cannot reach him in his post-binge state. However, all is not lost because we know there will be one who saves the day; the hero or anti-hero in this case, arrives in the form of platypus. She does not employ any particular skill to make Tiddalik laugh, except to be her own unique self. Inadvertently she is responsible for his cathartic response. The flood gates are opened and his laughter not only restores harmony and life to the land, but is also self healing; in releasing the water Tiddalik is able to return to his own size.
The aphorism, ‘laughter is the best medicine’ may well apply here. We know that laughter can be a signifier of happiness, contentment and joy, but it is also a means of releasing tension. Holding on to tension in your body can make you sick, so attending a laughter therapy group may offer a healing path for people suffering from anxiety, stress and depression.
I look forward to telling Tiddalik to my adult audience and sharing my new understanding of the story. I’ve always loved the tale and viewed it from an environmental teaching perspective, so I thank narrative therapist Sandy Hart for inspiring me to ‘go deeper.’

*Children are our most important resource!

Picture: Cyclorana platycephala
Water-holding Frog


‘Love Letters To Trees’ at the Yew Chung International School in Qingdao, China.

Roman, Moriah and I have just had the privilege of presenting ‘Love Letters to Trees’ at the Yew Chung International School in Qingdao, China, to celebrate Earth Day and Environment Week. What a joyous experience of children’s creativity and compassion. Here is the talk I gave at the concluding concerts with accompanying pictures of the sculptures from Qingdao and Huangdao campuses.


Long before any of us were born, trees were venerated throughout the world in stories and rituals. In Ancient Greece the story was told of the mythical King Ceecrops who wanted to name the capital city after whichever God or Goddess gave the best gift to it’s people. Poseidon, the God of the oceans, struck his trident into a hill overlooking the Aegean sea. Out gushed a torrent of salty water. Wave after wave rolled out and galloping on the foaming crest the first horse appeared. This powerful steed symbolised war and the people, in fear, shrunk away from it. Then Athene, the Goddess of wisdom, brought forth an olive tree and planted it on the rocky cliff now known as the Acropolis. The Olive tree was a useful gift, giving fruit for food and oil that could be used for perfume, light, heat and medicine. The people declared Athene the winner and King Ceecrops made her the Patron of the city, naming it Athens after her. It was said that all of Greece’s olive trees descended from the tree in the story and they were considered sacred in Greece.
In the Christian religion the olive was a symbol of peace. This derives from the Old Testament and the story of the Great Flood, where Noah released a dove in order to find land and it returned with an olive branch in its beak, signifying an end to the anger of God against humankind.
In Nepal, 2,500 years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama went in search of the answer to why there was suffering in the world. For six years he walked and walked until he finally came to rest under a Bodhi tree and here he begun to meditate. After a long time truth came to him and he was filled with a great peacefulness. He experienced a release from all the things that were troubling him. He had become enlightened and became known as The Buddha, the enlightened one.
In the 1970’s in Kenya trees were continuing to change the lives of whole civilizatons. Wangaari Matthai had just received her science doctorate and was active in supporting her husband’s election to parliament. She listened to his prospective constituents voice their concerns, particularly the women. There were no jobs, the women had to walk long distances for firewood and water, people were poor and children were suffering from malnutrition.
Wangaari Matthai recognized that these were all symptoms of deforestation and environmental degradation and that they could all be addressed with tree planting projects.Trees could prevent soil erosion, protect water sources, provide fuel and building materials, and fruit trees could give food and fodder. Planting the trees would also provide jobs and an income.
Over the next thirty-four years she was instrumental in mobilising thousands of people in Africa and around the world in a campaign to plant millions of trees. The United Nations named 2011 The International Year of Forests, and in that year Wangaari Matthai died, but not before she had received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in forming the Green Belt Movement.
Wangaari Matthai made the connection between good government and environmental degradation. She said that the state of any country’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place and without good governance there can be no peace.
In the 1970’s in China deforestation was happening on a massive scale as trees were cut down to build cities and plant crops. What Wangaari Matthai described as the desertification of Africa was also happening in China. In the 1980’s the Chinese government set about remedying the devastation of the previous decade and in 1981 began a tree planting programme. Over the next thirty years China planted 61.4 billion trees; that’s 2 trees per person per year.
However many of the trees are not seedlings that will take decades to grow. Huge plantations have been grown and mature trees are greening China’s cities. March is tree planting month in China and farmers are employed in cities and rural areas alike to plant trees. President Hu Jintao sees the tree planting campaign throughout China as a means of coping with climate change, improving ecological environment and achieving greener growth.
When we look at the trees, they are all held up with wooden structures to support them. As the trees give support to us, we must support them. It is this symbiotic relationship that is reflected in the construction of the tree sculptures
The children listened to folktales about trees from various countries and were then asked to express their thoughts and emotions in words and/or pictures on a leaf. The leaves were then hung on the tree. The leaves were ‘love letters’ expressing gratitude, understanding and appreciation of trees. Like a tree, each leaf was unique and yet all the leaves collectively formed the tree sculpture.
Overwhelmingly the leaves express love. Exploring the children’s tree sculptures is both a moving testament to their compassion and also offers hope for a sustainably green future for our planet.


Bat and Sun – A story about Identity

I think the issue of ‘identity’ is the key to understanding the exploitation of those that are not ‘us’. This delineation of ‘difference’ between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been used to justify the murder and exploitation of both humans and animals. I like the adage told to me by my storytelling friend Gill Di Stefano, ‘when you know someone’s story you are less likely to kill them’. Empathy lies at the heart of storytelling, it is the simplest expression of our humanity. 
One of my favourite stories to tell anyone and everyone is an Aboriginal Creation Story called Why the Platypus is Special, and it can be found in my book, Tell me: Storytelling as a Global Language. I tell it whenever I can because it celebrates both Unity and Uniqueness. There is also a more widely known story about how the platypus was created. A story that I haven’t told to children and would only do so in a particular healing context. (Briefly, a duck is kidnapped by a rat, raped and imprisoned by him and when she finally escapes back to her duck family, gives birth to creatures that are different to all the other ducklings. The ducks shun her and her children and they are forced to find another place in the river to live. Hence the platypus is born). 
However the following tale, Bat and Sun, is one that I am happy to tell in any context. It too explores the consequences of rejection and has provenance in many countries throughout  the world. Because I live near a bat colony, I have come to understand and appreciate both their beauty and important role in maintaining our ecosystems; nectar and fruit-feeding bats are vital to forest regeneration as pollinators and dispersers of rainforest seeds. 
My telling draws more on the African versions by Gersie and Makuchi. (see story sources). However it is also a story about Death and Attachment.


Bat and Sun


For many days and nights now Bat tended his dying mother. Although he gave her all the comfort and nourishment her old body needed, he could not heal her. Bat was desperate. He went to the birds and asked, ‘Is there a healer among you who could make my mother well?’ After a discussion they turned to Bat and replied, ‘The Sun is the greatest healer of all. You must go to him if you want your mother to be well again.’
The sun lived so far away and Bat was reluctant to go on such a long journey and leave his mother. He went to the animals and asked them if there was a healer among them who could restore his mother’s health. After a long discussion they returned to Bat and said that he should visit the Sun, for he was the greatest healer and if anyone had medicine then it would be him.
Sadly Bat returned to his mother’s side and told her what the birds and the animals had told him. Bat’s mother smiled at him and whispered, ‘I am old and my time has come, so stay with me. The Sun is a long way off.’
But Bat was determined.
‘I will save you Mother,’ he said and flew off to the East to greet the rising sun. All day he flew on and on. The Sun had risen and set many days before Bat arrived at his palace. Exhausted, he bowed down before the Sun and pleaded for medicine to heal his mother. The Sun beamed on him and said that with his all seeing eye, he had watched Bat’s mother die. Bat was angry. 
‘Why didn’t you save her? Everyone says that you are the greatest healer.’
The Sun continued his radiant smile. 
‘I can heal many things, but there is no cure for old age. Return to your home and bury your mother Bat.’
Bat flew off in a rage and was home in a few days, crying over the body of his mother. He knew that is was time to lay her in the Earth and so called on the birds to come and help him bury her. The birds came and gathered around Bat, but when they went to take up her body they hesitated and turned to each other.
‘We cannot bury her,’ they announced, ‘she is not one of us.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Bat. “When she was alive she inhabited the skies like you. See her beautiful wings.’ 
‘But look at her teeth!’ they said in horror. ‘She is a beast and they are our sworn enemies. We will not touch her.’
And with that they flew off.
Bat then went to the animals and asked them to come and help bury his mother.
The beasts all gathered around and commented on the softness of her fur, the largeness of her ears and the delicacy of her teeth. However when they went to take up her body they hesitated and turned to each other.
‘We cannot bury her,’ they announced, ‘she is not one of us.’
What do you mean?’ asked Bat. ‘You just remarked on her beauty.’
‘But look at her wings!’ they said in horror. ‘She is a bird and they are our sworn enemies. We will not touch her.’
And with that the animals walked away, leaving bat to bury his mother by himself.
For many days Bat mourned the death of his mother, the Sun’s inability to save her and the cruelty of the birds and the animals in refusing to help bury her. He sat by himself on the branch of a tree and because he was so tired from the long flight to the Sun and grieving, he fell asleep and moved from being perched upright to roosting upside down. His strong claws clung on to the branch and when he awoke it was night time. He was pleased to not look upon the face of the Sun and he decided that from now on he would sleep during the hours of daylight. This also meant he no longer saw most of the birds and the animals. To this day this is how Bat lives. 



Bat Facts:
They are the only mammals that can fly, and it is this unique ability that has dictated every feature of their bodies: their small size, light- weight construction, winged fingers and reduced pelvis. They hang upside-down to make launching into flight easier, and turn upright to defecate and urinate. They give birth while clinging to the roost with their thumbs and feet, and use their wings and tail to catch the newborn. Bats are agile.
There are more than 1,100 species of bats worldwide, in two main groups: megabats (flying foxes or fruit bats) which eat fruit, blossom and nectar and roost in trees in large groups called camps; and microbats, which are mostly insect-eaters. Insect-eating bats play an important role in the natural control of insect populations.

Story Sources:

The story of Bat and Sun from The sacred door and other stories: Cameroon folktales of the Beba

 By Makuchi, Isidore Okpewho Ohio University Press, United States 2008

Earthtales: Storytelling in times of change by Alida Gersie, Greenprint imprin Merlin Press London 1992

Why Bat Hangs Upside Down A Laotian Folktale


Myth and Science: A Goanna Story

To celebrate 2011 The International Year of Forests I produced Bushraps a booklet with 20 raps about the unique flora and fauna in Australian forests. I am interested in teaching science  through storytelling and music, so I have tried to be true to the science of the material while making the raps fun to perform. 

In storytelling there is a genre of stories called pourquoi, which are etiological narratives. Many Aboriginal Dreaming stories are pourquoi tales. However, sometimes scientific discovery casts a different light on the mythology of the tales. This happened to me in my research on Lace Monitors, commonly referred to as a ‘goanna’ because Europeans  who, first seeing them in Australia, thought they were like the South American iguanas. ‘Goanna’ is derived from ‘iguana’. The Aboriginal people, depending on their language group, have many different names for these reptiles, and different stories about them. One well known creation myth is about how the black snake became poisonous. It informed my understanding of the difference between goannas and snakes. 

How the Black Snake Became Poisonous

In the time of the Dreaming, Mungoongarli the goanna was much bigger than he is today. He carried a poisonous sac and attacked people travelling on their own, killing them and eating them. Everyone was so frightened they all moved about in a group. But sometimes this wasn’t possible, and that was when Mungoongarli would strike. The animals were also scared. If Mungoongarli ate all the people, then they would be the next to be killed.

Kangaroo called a meeting to ask if someone could think up a plan to kill Mungoongarli. Ouyouboolooey, the small black snake volunteered to do battle with Mungoongarli. All the animals laughed at him because he was so thin and small. But Ouyouboolooey was determined to prove them wrong and went to meet Mungoongarli.

He stayed by Mungoongarli’s camp and pretended to be asleep when the goanna got up the next morning and captured and killed a solitary traveller. Ouyouboolooey watched as Mungoongarli dropped his poison sac on the ground next to his waddy, the big stick he had beaten the man with. Mungoongarli devoured his victim and while he did, quick as a lightning flash, Ouyouboolooey grabbed the poison sac and swallowed it, then slithered off back to the other animals.

There was a resounding cheer when he opened his mouth to show the captured poison sac. But when kangaroo suggested he spit it out into the river, Ouyouboolooey refused, saying that no one would ever laugh at him again, because now he had the poison and one bite from him would kill them. As for Mungoongarli, he shrunk down to the size he is today and only the smallest of animals fear him.

Source: Retold from Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales by A.W. Reed, Sydney 1965


I have always maintained a healthy respect for, and distance from, Australian reptiles. Venomous snakes? Make that a good distance! But I love to see a land mullet sleeping in the shade, a carpet snake basking in the sun or a blue tongue catching flies. However, I’m not a goanna lover. Is it because they are scavenging, thieving predators, or that they look and move like crocodiles? Besides these ‘character flaws,’ I now know that they are also venomous!

All these years I believed that snakes are poisonous (well in Australia most are) and lizards aren’t. But in late 2005, researchers at the University of Melbourne discovered that being bitten on the finger by a Perentie (Varanus giganteus), Spotted Tree Monitor (Varanus timorensis) or a Lace Monitor, (Varanus varius), all produced similar results in humans: rapid swelling within minutes, localised disruption of blood clotting, shooting pain up to the elbow, with some symptoms lasting for several hours. Previously it was believed these symptoms were caused by an infection from bacteria present in the reptile’s mouth. However, these effects are symptomatic of envenomation rather than bacterial infection, and the discovery of toxin-producing oral glands in monitor lizards supports this. 

Here is a scientific article about the discovery.

Here is an interview with Deputy Director of the Australian Venom Research Unit, Doctor Bryan Fry.

So to return to the nature of scientific and mythological interpretations of events. 40-60 thousand years ago, the time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people began living in Australia, there was not the scientific facilities to research the presence of venomous glands in reptiles. Only a bite from a reptile could show you its degree of toxicity, and the venom in a goanna is nowhere near as toxic as most of Australia’s venomous snakes. There is also evidence that the giant lizard, (Varanus Priscus) up to 7 metres long and weighing up to 1,940 kilogrammes, was also present, when humans first came to Australia. So although this is a mythological story, it is possible to scientifically interpret it.

 Aboriginal dreaming stories have scientific validity, especially in view of the Australian megafauna that inhabited the country at the time Aborigines first did. Now extinct, many bear resemblance to creatures in Aboriginal myths. Stories are one way of interpreting events and behaviour, and science is another, particularly when it comes to transformations and origins. If you think that Aboriginal creation myths are entirely fictitious then look at Evolution. A century ago many people did not believe in evolution; they could not fathom birds descending from dinosaurs and humans from monkeys? And now it is an accepted scientific fact…accepted by most thinking people at any rate.


“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”
Charles Darwin
Photo: by Roman W Schatz





Here is a performance of The Goanna Rap from Bushraps by Morgan Schatz Blackrose 2011

For more videos from Bushraps, visit my website.