Collisions, Deflections, and Conjunctions

The Representations of Turks and Moors in Italian Folktales

by Aşkın Çelikkol (Author)
©2021 Monographs 94 Pages


Witches, fairies, unicorns, giants, dwarves, gnomes, and talking animals. Folk tales feature many magical creatures and larger or smaller than life entities and are great for pastime activities. What if such enchanted beings are replaced by familiar figures of kings, queens, lords, peasants, pirates, and slaves? What if folk tales are given center stage to understand the international politics and sociocultural matters of a milieu? By analyses of Italian folktales and the notion of Other as represented by Turks and Moors, the book is premised to address the clashing, bifurcating, and intersecting paths of the ruling classes and the subaltern groups and is set to throw a light on the convoluted hegemonic relations between different strata in the Italian society in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • I. A Survey of Folklore Theories
  • Straddling History and Literature
  • The Other’s Mirror
  • II. Turks in Italian Folktales
  • The Legend of Balaban the Janissary
  • The Winding Paths of Hegemony and Identity
  • Domesticating the Enemy
  • III. Moors in Italian Folktales
  • The Mausoleum of Doge Giovanni Pesaro
  • The Penumbra of Death
  • The Enemy Within
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited

←15 | 17→ I.

A Survey of Folklore Theories

In a Jewish story quoted in extenso by Giorgio Agamben, Baal Schem – the founder of Hasidism – would pay a visit to a particular location in the woods, get a fire going, meditate and pray for the righteous path to take for the difficult task at his hands. After a generation of the late Schem, Maggid of Meseritz, would go to the same spot, pray in meditation but would see no need for a fire. Yet in another generation following Meseritz, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, weighed down with the same task, would follow the trajectory of his forerunners and find the sylvan space but would dispense with the fire, the meditation, and the prayers, thinking it sufficient nonetheless. When Rabbi Israel of Rishin, the last Talmudist, is summoned to perform the task, he ensconces himself in his golden chair and simply responds that it is now impossible to light the fire, to say the prayers and to know the place, “but” he adds, “we can tell the story.” For Agamben, the gradual loss of the fire, the prayers and the place brings about the “liberation of the tale from its mythical sources” and paves the way for “the establishment of literature.” Such liberation and distanciation from the sources of mystery, however, also give way to an amnesia about the memory of the fire; the fabular element of tradition. On the other hand, the element in which mystery is “dispersed and lost” is history, in other words, rather in the words of Giorgio Agamben, “history [storia] is that in which the mystery has put out or hidden its fires.” Agamben posits that the only way to approach the lost enigmatic kernel is by traversing the mist of history, which leaves the researcher with a paradox to mount: “where there is the tale, the fire is out; where there is the mystery, there cannot be the story” (Agamben 1–2).

The conundrum of underplaying the historical import of the tales while attempting to keep track of the glimpses of the recondite fire, or in Jack Zipes’s words “casting a magic spell” over this “vital quality of the tales,” has proved to be the bone of contention for numerous researches conducted in folkloristics (Zipes 26). The methodological turn to “ethnography of communication,” to participatory and performative dimension of folklore, has tackled the dilemma by arguing for multiplicity of social identities and their interactions over particularism of a hegemonic social position and its monoculturalism. Alan Dundes’s “units of worldview” hypothesis that foregrounds the study of small groups as the proper line of inquiry, William Hugh Jansen’s “esoteric-exoteric factor”; formations of in-group self-images vis-à-vis the reflexive apperceptions of an outer group, Richard Bauman’s “communicative interaction” model conceptualizing the ←17 | 18→ protean and differential characteristics of a folk group, Dan Ben-Amos’s treatment of folklore not as a projection (as a “mirror” of a literary genre or of a cultural era) but as a process, enabling “a sphere of interaction in its own right,” have addressed the heterogeneous, fluid, and porous identities that characterize the multicultural societies in the contemporary world.

Dan Ben-Amos in particular addressed the seemingly exclusive categories of folklore and history and further posited that they constituted the fulcrum around which the discussions on the definition of folklore turned. If a folklorist would dedicate her/himself to the salvage of tradition from the wreck of oblivion, s/he then had to face the dilemma of becoming an “antiquarian from which he tried so hard to escape.” Ben-Amos maintains that to avoid such fate, the definition of folklore itself should be re-calibrated and expanded to admit “broader and more dynamic research in the field” (Ben-Amos 12–14). Nevertheless, the definitions, as Ben-Amos further notes, have been tinged with a certain interest and yet with a sense of denial as disciplines have paid attention to the “exotic” subject of folklore without acknowledging it to be a part of their expertise. Anthropologists held folklore to be the subject matter of literature, while the scholars of literature defined it as a cultural topic and therefore inscribed it in the profession of anthropology. If any study of folklore would be undertaken by those disciplines, it would play a minor and supportive role and would at best be treated as a “mirror” of a literary genre or of a cultural era.

Auspicious as Ben-Amos’s suggestions are, some uncertainties yet exist as to the implications and implementations of the communicative process in cultural, literary and political contexts. One of the primary, or perhaps the main, questions would be on the nature of such interaction: if a reciprocal influence or a set of influences should be the governing dynamics in folklore studies, to what extent conflicts of interests (literary, cultural and political) should be accounted for in a critical study of folklore? Another crucial and relevant question can be posed for the agency of folklore in sociopolitical matters especially when cultural politics become the site in which myriad identities, discourses and viewpoints come into play for a hegemonic position. Should folklore then, as Americo Paredes claimed, be situated at the heart of the cultural studies as a response to a volatile political milieu?1 If the answer is affirmative, should we also follow in ←18 | 19→ the footsteps of Richard Bauman who upheld the “communicative interaction” model as the most effective way in conceptualizing the protean and differential characteristics of a folk group; in comprehending its lore as “an instrument of conflict” as well as “a mechanism contributing to social solidarity”? (Bauman 38).

For Bauman, a Turkish street vendor’s cry selling fabrics for ladies “Run, ladies, run! Run to fabrics without tearing one another to pieces! Printed calicoes! Let’s give the reds, the purples! Flowers of the seven mountains! Come, ladies and gentlemen! What your eyes see and what your hearts like are all here” (Uysal 204) is a fine example of folkloric performance in which identity differences centered on occupational diversities between the seller and buyer come to the fore. Still, the vocational markers are somehow eliminated since the vendor’s cry includes a conflict of interests, and also a performance for “solidarity,” simultaneously playing “different, complementary….as well as parallel roles” (Bauman 34). William Hugh Jansen’s “esoteric-exoteric factor” addresses a similar case of “isolation” and “communication,” where “the esoteric applies to what one group thinks of itself and what it supposes others think of it,” whereas “the exoteric is what one group thinks of another and what it thinks that other group thinks it thinks” (Jansen 205–206). Jansen’s formulation, also based on a communicative model, nevertheless presumes a stricter and a less permeable boundary between an inner and an outer group. An esoteric group, an African-American group for instance, may very well know the exoteric, white American views regarding its community, and the African-Americans are free to either accept, or reject, or tolerate those outer group perceptions. Jansen makes an interesting observation at this point that some of “American Negro tales collected from Negroes may be based upon obviously white, i. e. exoteric, concepts of Negro characteristics,” and in a similar vein, “the most pernicious anti-semitism appears in Yiddish jokes told by Yiddish comics” (Jansen 206–207). It can be inferred then, from Jansen’s words at least, that the inner-group incorporates even the most segregationist jokes about itself but has almost no qualms about accepting and conveying them.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Hegemony History Literature Folktales Subaltern
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 94 pp.

Biographical notes

Aşkın Çelikkol (Author)

Aşkın Çelikkol teaches and researches in the areas of American literature, comparative literature, and cultural studies in the Department of Western Languages and Literatures, Istanbul University. His research interests include African American literature, American political history, Early Modern English, and Italian Renaissance.


Title: Collisions, Deflections, and Conjunctions
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96 pages