Welcome back to another episode of Tales from the Enchanted Forest! In March, we released an episode from Northern Africa for World’s History Month! This incredible, globe-trotting heroine’s story is full of Ghouls, Sea-Lions, and Cowardly Princes! Presenting, Aicha the Demon Slayer!
I first learned about Aicha through Csenge Virág Zalka‘s book Tales of Superhuman Powers: 55 Traditional Stories from Around the World. She writes about Aicha with great dedication in the book and throughout her blog, so I followed her footsteps in tracing the story, its variants and oral tradition through:
- Michael Peyron’s, The Moroccan Middle Atlas
- Emmanuel Cosquin’s, Les contes indiens et l’occident : petites monographies folkloriques à propos de contes Maures, and eventually to
- Jan Knappert’s, Aicha’s Tasks on Earth
- Hasna Lebbady’s, Traditions in Andalusi-Moroccan Oral Narratives
- Zoubeida Mameria’s, Tales from the Land of Algeria (Contes du Terroir Algerien
Meet our Heroine
There was once an honest merchant with three daughters. His youngest and cleverest daughter was Aicha. She was beautiful, intelligent, magical, an excellent swordsman with her Arabian scimitar, and had worldly knowledge of poetry and literature. She also studied the art of reading the future in the sand.
Whenever her father travelled for work, he left Aicha in charge of his wealth- and rightfully so. As the stories go, she immobilized one thief with a spell and left another bleeding to death. However, along with Aicha, there was another favourite in the family- their spoiled cat who only ate the best sweets.
Anytime Aicha’s father left for his travels, he ordered a box of fresh sweets for the cat and warned his daughters not to touch them. Except as soon as he was gone, the two sisters ate everything and left nothing for the kitty. As cats do, the kitty enacted revenge and peed all over the embers in the fireplace- making it unusable for cooking.
Instead of magicking some fire, Aicha went to their neighbour to find some live coals. This neighbour was a mysterious man with an ill repute- some people even claimed he was a Ghoul, but Aicha did not care and went anyway.
She fearlessly entered his house and was greeted by a peculiar man sitting on a donkey’s skull and stirring a pan with a goat’s bone. He looked at her and smiled, exposing row after row of jackal’s teeth. Aicha knew that this was a magical Man-eater, Ogre or Ghoul. The two took stock of each other, but Aicha did not hesitate.
She greeted him cheerfully and asked for coals for their fire as if he was just a friend.
Artwork from “Anzar and Tiziri” a webtoon based on Amazigh mythology by Sarah “Samohsai“ Mohand-Saïd
The Ghoul obliged, but when she bent to grab it, he reached out and touched her foot lightly. She felt just a prick and nothing else.
Aicha knew to expect something sinister, so she thanked him and walked home, marking the trail of blood she was leaving. She stopped just outside her house, dug a deep 7-foot trench, and covered it in leaves. Then she waited.
Team Rocket Tactics
As soon as it was dark, the Ghoul appeared in a hurry, but he foolishly fell for the trick and fell into the hole. Aicha leapt out and threw a torch after him, burning the creature within.
As the fire died and with it the monster, a curse rang out, ‘One of my bones will take revenge on you!’
She paid him no mind and went about her life.
We saw the classic Pitfall trap in our episode on the Shahnameh. ‘Rustam kills Shaghad before dying’, Great Mongol (Demotte) Shāh-Nāmeh, Tabriz, c.1335 – Ilkhanid Soldiers. British Museum, 1948,1211.0.25.
The Lazy Prince
As news does, it travelled fast and soon reached the ears of the King, who wanted the beautiful hero as a wife for his son, Prince Aslan. He sent messengers to the Merchant, and despite her refusal, the Merchant begged his daughter to accept. Not just because she would live a good life as a princess but because royal connections were good for business.
Eventually, Aicha agreed, but only if the Prince wore the golden ring she sent and rode out to destroy the ogres and evil creatures lurking in the forests of the Kingdom. After he had done so, she would marry him.
The messengers took her ring back to Prince Aslan. Despite being terrified, it would be dishonourable to refuse a challenge, so he rode out into the forests. Thankfully, his first encounter was not with a hundred-legged spider or giant but with a short, veiled soldier. Even then, he resoundingly lost the fight, and as he waited for the death blow, the warrior disappeared with his ring.
The Prince had seen enough. He escaped to relative safety and waited for time to pass before he returned home and declared himself a hero.
The Truth is Revealed
When Aicha arrived at the palace for their engagement, she sweetly asked for her gold ring back. All eyes were on the Prince, who muttered something about losing it while fighting monsters- which was untrue- and Aicha knew it.
She boldly held out the ring and then proclaimed that the Prince was a liar and a coward who had lost in a fight to her. As such, she would be breaking the engagement and heading home.
In all the excitement over the Royal wedding, she had forgotten about the Ghoul’s curse. When she arrived home, she saw the pit and decided to see if any piece of the monster remained. However, as soon as she jumped in and found the bone, it exploded. A tiny fragment embedded itself in her shoulder. From that moment on, her heart filled with a longing for adventure and travel. She immediately threw on men’s clothing, mounted her horse and rode away to see the world.
Aicha’s World Travels
Her first adventure was to a Seaside Kingdom filled with deep unhappiness and misery. The residents told her they cowered in fear as enormous gray lions rose from the sea every night. Aicha offered her help and went to see the King about enacting her plan. As soon as she entered the throne room, the King knew she was a woman. The way she carried herself and her voice were dead giveaways, but he was desperate and did not have time for questions.
Image: Sea Lion from the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual
Everyone went to work at once, creating massive clay lions and placing them all over the walls under Aicha’s instructions. That night when the sea lions emerged, they were frightened by the imposing figures on the gates and retreated immediately.
The King thanked Aicha and asked her to marry him. He saw her for what she was and wanted to share his Kingdom and rule with her! As much as Aicha may have wanted to, she could not and said she would return when she had rid the world of its monsters.
So she rode on. She fought the giant with a wolf head named Horath and a tribe of Shaytans (evil spirits). There, she fought one on one against the King of the Shaytans and decapitated him. Both Kingdoms were so grateful they offered her their crowns, but she refused. She had not forgotten the seaside King and decided to return.
Shaytans, Djinn and Demons dancing by Muhammad Siyah Qalam (Folio 64)
As fate has it, on her way, a parasitic lizard landed on her shoulder and pierced her skin. Aicha spurred her horse into the thick bush and tried to wretch the creature off. It clung to her flesh, but Aicha rode hard until the lizard had been yanked free.
She brought her horse to a stop, and as she assessed the bleeding shoulder, she suddenly felt the restlessness in her bones disappear. She no longer felt the weight of her curse settled deep inside her. Feeling free and ready to find a home, Aicha rode back to the seaside to become their Queen.
Aisha’s neighbour was a ghoul, and he cursed our heroine with restlessness. But what is a ghoul? Like trolls, ghouls are loosely defined monsters, so they change from story to story. Traditionally, they are associated with graveyards and cannibalism, which means ghouls become easy canon fodder in video games and tabletop role-playing games. Their descriptions will vary and can be easily modified slightly to give players new challenges while reusing the basics of a ghoul.
Sometimes ghouls were not always born monsters but started as humans. These mutant types become a zombie-like horde. In rare instances, becoming a ghoul is like gaining superpowers, like in Tokyo Ghoul. The drawback being you are still a monster that must feast on human flesh.
Ghouls and their various hybrids from around the world include Rakshasa (India), Jikininki (Japan), Aswang (Philippines), Wendigo (First Nations), and Eurynomos (Greece).
Ghouls feature in movies (Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School), books (Trials of Apollo: The Tyrant’s Tomb) and anime (Tokyo Ghoul)
By the Pricking of My Thumb
By the pricking of my thumb, something wicked this way comes! Aicha’s story is chockfull of tropes and pieces from other folklore categories. The most obvious one is the pricking of the bone transferring a curse which is a staple of the Sleeping Beauty archetype (Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 410) but also of ‘The Maiden Seeks her Brothers’ (ATU type 451).
You may be familiar with these variants of stories as the Wild Swans or the Twelve Brothers from European folktales. However, throughout Northern Africa, these stories are slightly different. For example, in the Moroccan tale, Udea and Her Seven Brothers, and the Algerian story, ‘The Girl who Banished Seven Brothers.’
After the sister finds her brothers, her cat puts out the fire in their kitchen. She unknowingly visits a ghoul, and it follows her, but before it can eat her, her brothers return to slay it. As with the story of Aicha, the ghoul’s finger bone pricks her, but instead of making her restless, it makes her fall into a death-like state. If this sounds familiar, then great you are thinking of Snow White!
There are so many references in this one story that it is hard to map all of them, but Aicha is a testament to the evolution of storytelling.
The Wild Swan by Susan Jeffers. We have an indepth break down of the Wild Swans in modern retellings on Footnotes with Fox.
Cats love Sweets
As a cat owner, I was surprised to hear that Aisha’s family cat loved sweets. It made me wonder if this was good for the kitty. Or what if I had been withholding a delicious treat from my cat for all these years? So naturally, I needed to dig further.
In 2005, a study tried to determine this by giving cats two bowls of water. One contained fresh water, while the other was sugar water. Researchers found that cats drank from both bowls equally, showing no preference. Even though sugar isn’t healthy for cats and can make them sick, the cats continued to drink from both bowls.
To understand more, the researchers looked at genetics. They compared cat DNA to other animals which can detect sweetness, such as humans, dogs and rats. And they found that cats were missing two genes essential for sweet receptors. As a result, cats can never produce the necessary proteins to detect sweetness. Researchers also believe these genes were deleted from feline genetics over a million years ago.
This makes the cat from the story a lot more interesting since it can taste and enjoy sweets despite this being scientifically impossible. It makes me wonder if this cat was more of a familiar or another supernatural creature.
When we first started researching Aicha, we came across a monster from Moroccan Folklore with an interesting backstory. Now, ghostly women that lure and kill men appear in every culture and most of the time, they have a sad backstory. Aisha Kandisha is said to be a female djinn who looks like a beautiful woman, but she has camel legs. She lures men into secluded places like the water and then kills them.
There is a lot of mysticism surrounding the story of Aisha, and she is an incredibly nuanced figure. There are claims that the story has evolved from a historical figure, a Countess from el Jadida who became a freedom fighter after the Portuguese invasion led to her husband and family’s deaths.
Art: Chaima Ghannam
She would lure the soldiers away and then ambush them. The scale of the massacres meant that people wondered if she was immortal, and over time, her historical background fell away, and she became a mythological figure. Whether this is true or false is hard to say. However, her depiction in early Western works often removed the layers of her character and made her a seductive boogeyman.
Wander the Earth Trope
This trope happens when characters continuously wander from place to place, town to town, always finding adventure and excitement everywhere they go. As a kid, I thought this was a fascinating idea. This belief likely came from the hours and hours of Pokémon I watched. Watching Ash, Brock and Misty travel from town to town, meeting new friends and being heroes seemed so freeing and fun. But as an adult now, I prefer the ease of travelling in stories more than cross country. It turns out that travelling is a lot more expensive here than it is in the Pokémon world.
This trope is popular in a lot of anime and long-running series. It’s an easy way to have the protagonist wander and show up in a completely new environment with diverse characters to interact with. And once the town’s problems are solved, the wanderer moves on, not needing to deal with long-standing consequences for their actions.
Examples include Avatar the Last Airbender, Game of Thrones’, Inuyasha, Supernatural etc.