STORYTELLING RESOURCES FOR STORYTELLERS!
Storytelling and Educational Resources & Information for
Teachers – Librarians – Storytellers – Homeschoolers
Environmentalists – Parents – Grandparents
SOS: SEARCHING OUT STORIES AND INFORMATION — SKELETON STORIES
Advice, Comments and References from Storytellers, Teachers and Librarians
(excerpts from Storytell posts plus original research)
Book titles are in blue and underlined. Click on them to get more information.
To retell any stories, get permission from the copyright holder if the material is not in the public domain.
Posts are added chronologically as they are received by Story Lovers World.
1) Query: Last week my 12-year-old niece told me a new story to tell at a venue this upcoming Friday. I had never heard it before, but looking through my "ghost stories" mailbox, I can see that people have referred to a "Dancing Skeleton" story. Do you have something to contribute to my nieces version, that goes like this:
Long time ago in Japan, two friends - neighbours.
One is goodworking with a shop, one is a gambler with no sence of economy.
One day they go to town to sell goods from the shop.
One their way back, with money in the "good guys" pockets, the "bad guy"
kills his friend, takes the money, buries the corpse there.
He gets his friends shop, but gambles away the money.
On his way to town to find work / money, he crosses the bridge
There he hears a rattle. Comes from a skeleton dancing.
skeleton says that he is his friend, and that he wants to help him get money. "Bad guy" shall only play the flute, and the skeleton will dance for money.
Bad guy does that, and earns money.
King hears of this, and wants to see the dancing skeleton.
But in front of the king the pile of bones remains a pile of bones emptied out from a sac - no dancing.
When king asks why, the skeleton gets up, tells the king that the flute player was his friend, who killed him to get his money.
King punishes bad guy, and gives an honorable great funeral to the skeleton, who never haunts or dances any more.
2) I've been finding things I want to learn and tell (at least for library programs) in a sort-of-new book called Ask the Bones: Scary Stories from Around the World, selected and retold by Arielle North Olson and
The title story is "A Tales From the Caucasus Region" and the Source notes add that the authors found it in A Mountain of Gems: Fairy Tales from the People's of the Soviet Land, translated by Irina Zheleznove, 1962, pp. 184-87. Here is a clumsy-quick summary:
A cruel man comes often to the market to hire young boys as servants. Yusef - starving, desperate - is hired to take care of the man's livestock. At first all is well, but then one day the man asks Yusef to kill a bull and skin it. Then the man forces Yusef to travel with him and the bull skin across a lonely plain to the base of needle-like mountain. The man forces Yusef to spread the bull skin on the ground and lie on it. The man
ties Yusef up in the skin, then hides behind a rock. A great bird takes up the skin in its talons and carries it (and Yusef) to the top of the mountain. The bird tears at the skin. Yusef, frightened, looks down at the man. He says, "Throw me the gems at your feet!" Yusef looks down and sees diamonds, rubies, emeralds. He throws them down. The man fills his sacks, then starts to ride away.
"Wait!" Yusef cries. "How do I get down?"
"Ask the bones." The man rides away.
Yusef looks around. There are bones as well as gems. They are the bones of all the other boys the man has hired and tricked. Yusef, angry, waits until the giant bird comes back. Then he grabs the bird's legs and hangs on until the bird flies low enough for Yusef to tumble down. Bruised and battered, he goes back to the cruel man's house, begs for work, and the man takes him in again, not recognizing him. This time when they make the trip with the bullskin to the mountain and the man tells Yusef to lie down on it, Yusef says, "Show me what you mean." The man doesn't want to, but as he protests, he trips, and Yusef ties him up in the skin. Then he watches while the giant bird swoops down. Yusef shouts up to the man to throw down the gems.
The man realizes what has happened, and in a rage, throws down the skin and many gems. He also tears up the bird's nest, and throws gems at the bird, chasing it away for good. When he sees Yusef start to leave, the man calls down, "Wait! How did you get down?"
"I flew," says Yusef.
"Flew?" The man realizes that he should not have chased away the bird.
"But how will I get down?"
Yusef keeps riding, but his words float up to the mountaintop. "Don't ask me. Ask the bones."
3) Scott Russell Sander wrote a wonderfully creepy story that took place in a medical library. It's been a while since I read it, and I don't know if it would tell well, and I don't think I have it here at home, but it might be worth a looking for at your library. The anatomy students would check out boxes of bones from the medical school library and practice putting them together correctly. One night the librarian gives the narrator a box of bones that are...different...from the others. He (the narrator) tries and tries to fit them together in a human fashion - night after night he tires - but they will only go together a certain way. An alien way. A way with cartilaginous (is that a word?) webbing in between the fingers. I think at the end of the story, the narrator notices that the librarian is wearing loose gloves or something. Something that makes you realize the narrator's bones are changing, too.
4) What about the witch feeling Hansel's fingerbone (really a chicken bone)?
5) What about the song, "Them bones, them bones, gonna rise again! Them bones, them bones, gonna rise again! Them bones, them bones gonna rise again, oh hear the word of the Lord!" ? Isn't this the same song that has "The foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone's connected to the shin bone..." and so on?
6) And the song, "Have you seen the ghost of John? Long white bones with the skin all gone....oooh oooh oooh! Wouldn't it be chilly with no skin on?" Something like that.
7) Pirate stories? (Jolly Roger flags with their skulls and crossed bones, and so on?)
I presume you have "Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones'? You know - The foot bone connected to the ankle bone, etc.
8) You probably already know the "Singing Bones" in The Magic Orange Tree: and Other Haitian Folktales. I really like that story, for some reason. Then there is the song Skin and Bones, too. Do you know that? I'll keep thinking... Granny Sue
Well, if we're "digging up bone stories", as Jane Gregory tossed out that bone for all of us, I've thought of a few on the way to work.
9) Laura Simms has a delightfully creepy Modoc, "The Bone Man."
10) I'm surprised we've yet to mention the obvious "Singing Skeleton" (in anthologies & picture book).
While not a favorite of mine, too sad, there are two picture book versions (& probably anthologized, too) of the Mongolian tale of "Suho & the White Horse." Each of the above also involves music & Hope's mention of "Dem Dry Bones" reminds me of "The Vision of the Bones" in the Bible in Ezekiel 37. Powerful stuff & very poetic, too.
11) "The Dancing Skeleton" by DeFeice, Cynthia, "Bone Man" - Native American by Laura Simms, "Bony Legs" by Joanna Cole, "Skeleton Woman," Graveyard Tales from NAPPS.
12) One called Girl Who Married a Ghost, and Other Tales from the North American Indian .... it's by Curtis, Edward S. and Bierhorst, John. I know Laura Simms has told it at the Jonesborough Stortelling Festival if that helps.
13) When people in Mexico and the Borderlands celebrate the Day of the Dead, one of the folk traditions involves calavera. They are skeletons which appear in the form of drawings, folk toys of papier mache wood, or metal, papeles picados (punched or cut tissue paper silhouettes that look like place mats but are hung from strings like clothes on a clothes line). The skeletons are always busy doing people things, and, if you're not just selecting the ones you like, you select the ones that remind you of your deceased loved ones. If your relative played the guitar, you get a calavera playing the guitar; if s/he was a dentist--or had toothaches--you get a little dentist office with one skeleton examining another skeleton. They are just so much fun! and they seem to say that your loved one is STILL whoever they were before, and you can still love them and remember them, that Death has only removed the covering and "solidified" the things you loved about them. Also, people write ironic little poems--rhymes, really--called calaveras about the skeletons of others, usually famous people (or at least famous among the listening audience) who are still alive. In the poems, the bones of the person are doing things that one might NEVER be able to say about a real person without serious repercussions! It's a deeply spiritual holiday with a fun side, too.
14)"Skeleton Woman" by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a wonderful story. [I think it's Inuit, and from the The Virago Book of Fairy Tales by Angela Carter (this is incorrect)]. Briefly, it tells of a woman who was thrown off a cliff, who, ages later was accidentally dredged up as a horrifying skeleton woman by a fisherman. He tried to escape, but the skeleton was, unbeknownst to him, tangled in his net or hooked on his boat, and she tumbled over and over as she followed. He rushed indoors with her following. But then he had compassion, and laid out her bones in order, then sang. He sang flesh onto her bones and blood into her veins and skin onto her flesh and she became a whole woman. It's a beautiful and tender turnaround. And then they fell into bed and tumbled over and over again - but in a different way. It's worth reading the full words.
Correction: We were notified that your site carries a literary story by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, that is from her published book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, 1992. The story is "Skeleton Woman." It is an original literary story, a long one, drawn from a five line song given to Dr. Estes as a child. It is copyrighted in Dr. Estes name in each of the 32 languages it is published in. Your site erroneously attributes the story "Skeleton Woman" to Angela Carter who was a colleague of Dr. Estes's, and Ms. Carter did not have this tale in either of her Virago books as you have proposed on your site. We would appreciate your correcting this on your site, and if you wish to continue to carry the synopsis of the tale as you have noted it on your webpage, then after it, please put:
For rights and permissions for quote or reprint, contact Rights and Permissions for the works of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes at: NGandelman@aol.com
15) There's an episode in Jason and the Argonauts where they face an army of sword-wielding skeletons that spring up when dragon's teeth are thrown onto the ground. And chopping the skeletons up just creates more of them. Scary!
16) The story of how the fiddle came to be invented - an old gypsy tale I think - is thoroughly gruesome and horrible and involves lots of bones. Don't know where you can find it but I believe there are various versions. Fee fi fo fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
17) The story about "Talking got me here" involves a talking skull. Wasn't it Richard Martin who posted it here before? I think it's on his website, but if he's not away I'm sure he'll say. Bones often feature in myths, especially from shamanic cultures where they tend to have magical powers.
18) I think the episode about Leminkainen in the The Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition by Elias Lönnrot (Oxford World's Classics), where he gets dismembered in the river of the dead in the Underworld, involves his bones. And combs were often made of bone - they feature in some wondertales, at least Russian ones.
19) There a great children's book by Sylvia Andrews titled Rattlebone Rock. It begins like this:
Folks in the town
Still talk of the night
When the moon on the graveyard
Shone so bright
That the spirits there
Made the tombstones knock
And the beat began
For the Rattlebone Rock:
Now that I think of it, it makes a good drumming story, too.
20) Any variation of the "Singing Bones" story (tale type 780) where a bone of the victim becomes a musical instrument that sings the tale of its murder and exposes the one who committed the crime. I especially like the Japanese version where the entire corpse sings and dances and tells his tale before the emperor.
21) One of the collections of stories told at the National Storytelling Festival has a piece told by Laura Simms called Owl Woman. It has some intense visuals about skeletons.
22) Frankie Armstrong recorded "The Swan Sings So Bonnie-O", a powerful variant of the "singing bones" motif mentioned by Jane. As I recall, the Aarne-Thompson index has a listing for "singing bones" and lists examples.
23) I've worked from a Chinese collection (called something like Tales Told in China that had a curious and engaging story called (I think) "Five Star Peak". A man consults a geomancer to advise on the most auspicious place to bury his ancestor's boes. The geomancer explains that the Five Star Peak is actually a giant stone turtle who is scheduled to open his mouth soon, and that would be the best place for the bones. They take a boat out at night, the mouth opens and the geomancer casts in the box of bones. The man later decides he has been cheated and tricked and gets the court to make the geomancer return the bones. The geomancer borrows the magistrates magic sword and slays the turtle. The box floats up and the bones are returned to the man. When the man opens the box, he sees gold flecks that have already started to encrust the bones, and he is very sorry he did not let them lie there.
Poughkeepsie, New York
24) DeFelice, Cynthia C. (books) The Dancing Skeleton (Aladdin Picture Books), (ss); adapted from "David Aaron II" by John Bennett, 1946.
Here's the Amazon description of the book, The Dancing Skeleton.
From Publishers Weekly
The Dancing Skeleton by Cynthia C. DeFelice, illus. by Robert Andrew Parker.
PW praised the "crackling good storytelling" in this tale of a widow who tries to silence her husband's ghost when a fiddler comes courting. Ages 5-8.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From School Library Journal
"Aaron Kelly was dead," the story begins, ". . . And, to tell you the truth, nobody much cared." For Aaron was ornery and mean, and everyone, especially his wife, was glad to see him go. But back from the graveyard Aaron returns, and soon his skeleton sits in the rocking chair "just a-creakin' and a-crackin' and a-grinnin'." There's not much his poor widow can do, at least not until the best fiddler in town comes to call. Readers and listeners alike are sure to respond to this folktale. DeFelice's experience as a storyteller shows up on every page. Bursting with vitality, her rhythmic prose captures the vocabulary, tone, the very cadences typical of the oral tradition. "Crickety-crack, down and back! Old Aaron went a-hoppin', his dry bones a-poppin'."
Robert Andrew Parker's watercolor illustrations are just right. Done in shades of soft yellow, orange, tan, gray, and black, they manage to heighten the absurdity of the story plus hint at its underlying sinister theme. The Dancing Skeleton is as close to perfection as these things come. --Ellen D. Warwick, Robbins Lib . , Arlington, MA
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Ingram Aaron Kelly is dead but not lamented. He's so ornery, in fact, that he won't stay in his coffin but comes home to haunt his widow. How she ultimately gets Aaron back into his grave makes for a funny rather than scary story that will delight children. Full color.
Card catalog description
An ornery dead man refuses to stay in his coffin and causes a disturbance when the best fiddler in town comes to call on his widow. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
25) You can read the stories at this website.
a.. Singing Bones. Folktales about murder victims, whose body parts literally sing out for justice.
1.. The Singing Bone (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm).
2.. The Singing Bones (French Louisiana).
3.. The Griffin (Italy).
4.. The Dead Girl's Bone (Switzerland).
5.. The Little Bone (Switzerland).
6.. Binnorie (England).
7.. The Silver Plate and the Transparent Apple (Russia).
8.. The Magic Fiddle (India).
9.. The Twin Brothers (Nigeria).
26) "Singing Bones." Folktales about murder victims, whose body parts literally sing out for justice. The text for the story about the dancing skeleton is "The Skeleton Songs from Japan." Seki, Folk Tales of Japan (Folktales of the World).
I remember using this story along with a half dozen other justice tales in my World Lit. class. My students (in groups) each took a folktale about justice and improvised it for the class. The group that did this one was outstanding and set the standard high the rest of the semester for any performance or presentation that was done. I found that almost any variant of the Singing Bone that I told or shared with high school students had a deep resonance with them.
Created 2004; last update 9/26/10
Story Lovers World ... 707-996-1996