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Friday, July 21, 2023

Holbrook - The First Ants - Keeping the Public Domain

I had such fun with all of the audience participation and storytelling this past week for Summer Reading programs in the Thumb.  (Non-Michiganders, this mitten-shaped state has an area shaped like a thumb!)  Brown City, in addition to a room full of children, parents, and grandparents, had North Branch Township Library's own storyteller!  Regina Thomas and her friend asked if I had time before heading home to join with her over a cold drink, her treat!  We wound up at the historic former stagecoach stop formerly Harrington Inn, now Teardrop Junction.  It's a fascinating place with stories that deserve telling about it and its new owner, Sara McPherson.  Wound up hearing from Ms McPherson some stories and then having first some soup like she made during the current war over in the Ukraine and then a delicious meal.  Much more than just the planned ice tea...YUM!  

Over the table I talked further with Regina about her idea to add an additional sense, the sense of smell to some of the stories.  With a stewpot packed with 39 stories on the topic of Friendship, selected at random by my young audience members, it would be hard to know which stories would be able to use a scent.  At the same time it has me thinking when planning future programs how it might introduce, be part of the tale, or end one.  Obviously with 39 stories it would be too much to fit all of them.  The sense of smell along with music is one of the strongest triggers of memories.  

It got me looking for stories specifically about smells.  Today's story is indeed about that sense, BUT it's also about an insect bothering people in summer...especially on picnics.  This pourquois tale is about the first ants.  It's found in a book I highly recommend by Florence Holbrook, The Book of Nature Myths for Children.  Two of her stories from that anthology have been given here earlier.


"This jar is full of smoked flesh," said one voice.

"This has fish, this is full of honey, and that one is almost running over with oil," said another voice. "We shall have all that we need to eat for many days to come."

These are the words that a villager coming home from his work heard his mother and his sister say.

"They have often played tricks on me," he said to himself, "and now I will play one on them." So he went into the house and said, "Mother, I have found that I have a wonderful sense of smell, and by its help I can find whatever is hidden away."

"That is a marvelous story," cried the sister.

"If you can tell me what is in these jars," said his mother, "I shall think you are really a magician. What is it now?"

"This is flesh, this fish, this honey, and this jar is full of oil," said the man.

"I never heard of such a marvel in all my life," cried the mother; and in the morning she called her friends and said, "Only think what a wonderful sense of smell my son has! He told me what was in these jars when they were closed."

It was not long before the people all through the country heard of the wonderful man, and one day word came that the king wished to see him at once.

The man was afraid, for he did not know what would happen to him, and he was still more afraid when the king said, "A pearl is lost that I had in my hand last night. They say you can find things that are lost. Find my pearl, or your head will he lost."

The poor man went out into the forest. "Oh, how I wish I had not tried to play tricks," he wailed. "Then this sharp sorrow, this dire trouble, would not have come upon me."

"Please, please do not tell the king," said two voices in the shadow of the trees.

"Who are you?" asked the man.

"Oh, you must know us well," said a man coming out into the light. "My name is Sharp, and that man behind the tree is named Dire, but please do not tell the king. We will give you the pearl; here it is. You called our names, and we saw that you knew us. Oh, I wish I had not been a thief!"

The man gave the pearl to the king, and went home wishing that no one would ever talk to him again of his sense of smell.

In three days word came from the queen that he must come to her at once. She thought his power was only a trick, and to catch him she had put a cat into a bag and the bag into a box.

When the man came, she asked sharply, "What is in this box? Tell me the truth, or off will go your head."


"What shall I do?" thought the man, "Dire death is upon me." He did not remember that he was before the queen, and he repeated half aloud an old saying, "The bagged cat soon dies."

"What is that?" cried the queen.

"The bagged cat soon dies," repeated the man in great terror.

"You are a marvelous man," said the queen. "There is really a bag in the box and a cat in the bag, but no one besides myself knew it."

"He is not a man; he is a god," cried the people, "and he must be in the sky and live among the gods;" so they threw him up to the sky. His hand was full of earth, and when the earth fell back, it was no longer earth, but a handful of ants. Ants have a wonderful sense of smell, and it is because they fell from the hand of this man who was thrown up into the sky to live among the gods.


This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.

Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-

  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.

  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.
    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"

The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:        

         - David K. Brown -

         - Richard Martin -

         - Spirit of Trees -

         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for December 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.

       - World of Tales - 

           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.

You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!

    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.

You can see why I recommend these to you. 

Have fun discovering even more stories


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