Folk-Lore/Volume 29/Parthenogenesis

Folk-Lore. Volume 29
Number 1 (March) Collectanea:
Parthenogenesis.—in Serbian Popular Tradition


In Serbian Popular Tradition.

Parthenogenesis is the scientific term for the phenomenon of virgin birth. The first to draw attention to the occurrence of this phenomenon in bees was Gerson, but since then it has been definitely estabhshed not only in the case of bees but also in that of other insects, by K. Th. v. Siebold, who recognizes it as a scientific axiom. In Serbian tradition we likewise find traces of this belief in the possibility of virgin birth.

The Serbian National Ballad Smrt Grozdane Kceri Dušanove (The Death of Grozdana, Dušan’s Daughter), from Sarajevo[1] in Bosnia, relates how the Serbian Tsar Stjepan Dušan (1331-1355) went a-hunting in the mountains, where he remained for a whole week without succeeding in killing anything. On his way home from his fruitless expedition, he came to a pool from which he desired to drink. While he was drinking, his horse impatiently pawed the ground among the beech-leaves, and in so doing laid bare a skull. When the Vizier Theodore caught sight of the skull, he pushed it with his foot; but the skull spoke and said: “Do not push me with your foot. Vizier Theodore! Thou, Theodore, hast not been Tsar, but this skull has, and as it has been, so shall it be again.” When Tsar Stjepan heard this, he commanded that the skull should be removed and brought away. On his return to Prizren—his residence—he cast it into the fire, but by doing this he could not harm it. Then he placed it in a mortar, ground it to powder and deposited it in a golden casket, which he kept in his own private chamber, which the servants never entered.

A year later, just on Easter Sunday, Tsar Stjepan went to church and forgot the keys of his private chamber. His daughter, Grozdana, walking through the palace, came to his private chamber, and when she caught sight of the golden casket she half opened it, and, thinking it contained snuff, sniffed the contents. But after the lapse of half a year, Grozdana’s heart “grew big within her.” Her mother, noticing it, said to the Tsar:

“O Tsar Stjepan, sun that never setteth!
Someone has become our daughter’s lover.
Our Grozdana’s heart grows big within her.”

Tsar Stjepan refused to believe her, as nobody could approach his palace nor kiss the face of Grozdana. But the Tsaritsa did not cease to persuade him, till at last he called his daughter before him, and no sooner had he set eyes upon her than he asked who was it that was visiting the palace and kissing her face? Grozdana in tears replied:

“There is none that cometh to the palace
Saving only thou and my dear mother,
Nor has any man ever kissed my face.”

Then her father asked her whether she had fallen in love with any man, to which she replied, calling God to witness, that this was not so; and then she told him all that she had done with the powder, and if he did not believe her, let him hang her on the “dry wild olive tree.” But when this was done, the “dry wild olive tree sprouted” and put forth green leaves. When Tsar Stjepan beheld this, he repented of what he had done and buried her honourably.

In a Serbian national tale we find a similar example. The Serbs say, the tale runs, that Constantinople (Carigrad) was not built by man, but that “it was built by itself.” They say that once upon a time a certain Tsar went out hunting and, as he was riding along, his horse stepped upon the skull of a man. And the skull said: “Why do you step upon me? Dead as I am, I shall weary you.” When the Tsar heard this, he dismounted, took up the skull and carried it home. There he burned it in the fire, and when it had cooled he ground the charred bones to powder. The powder he wrapped in paper and put it in a chest. Some time afterwards, during the Tsar’s absence, his daughter, who was a maiden of marriageable age, took his keys, opened the chest and began to examine its contents. When she came to the paper package, she realised that it contained a powder, but she did not know what kind of powder it was. So she placed her finger on her tongue, moistened it, and picked up some of the powder with it to taste it, and find out what kind of powder it might be. Then she folded up the paper just as it had been before and left it in the chest. But from that moment she became pregnant. When, presently, enquiries were made to discover how she came to be in this state, it was found that this thing was due to the skull. In due course, the Tsar’s daughter gave birth to a son. When the Tsar took the infant in his arms, the child, small as he was, immediately “seized the Tsar by the beard.” Then the Tsar commanded that two dishes should be brought, one filled with red-hot coals and the other with ducats, so that he might see whether the child had acted thus from childish folly or of set purpose. “If the child is merely foolish,” said he, “he will stretch out his hands for the red-hot coals; but if not he will try to seize the ducats.” When both the red-hot coals and the ducats were brought before the child, he immediately reached for the ducats, taking no notice of the red-hot coals. Then the Tsar understood that the prophecy of the skull would come true. When the child grew up to be a youth, the Tsar sent him away from home into the world and said to him: “Do not stop at any place until you find the spot where two evils are conflicting with one another.” As the youth went through the world, he came to the spot where now stands Constantinople, and there he saw a hawthorn around which a snake had wound its coils. And the snake bit the thorn and the thorn was pricking the snake. Then the lad thought to himself: “These are the two evils,” and he went round about that spot to examine it. And as, in thus going round, he came again near to the hawthorn, he stopped and said: “Here I must stop.” No sooner had he said this, than, looking back, he saw that right away from the thorn and all the way wherever he had passed, a wall had grown up behind him. But from the spot where he stood to that thorn they say there is no wall in Constantinople unto this day. Had he not looked back and had he not said: “Here I must stop,” the wall behind him would have grown up as far as the thorn. Later on he became Tsar there, and wrested the Empire from his grandfather.[2]

Fr. S. Kraus relates two Serbian popular tales from the neighbourhood of the Majevica Mountain in Bosnia, which likewise contain references to virgin birth.[3]

The first of these tales is called: Kako se rodio Car Konstantin (How Tsar Constantine was Born), and it is of the same type as the above-mentioned tale. It runs as follows:

Once upon a time, as the King of the Jews was returning from the hunt, he came upon the skull of a man and he pushed it with his foot. “Don’t kick me,” said the skull, “for I will judge you.” Then the King took up the skull and carried it home, where he baked it over the fire and put it in a mortar and ground it to powder, and that powder he tied up in a piece of cloth and placed it in a chest. Now the King had a daughter who chanced to find the powder in the chest, and, not knowing what it was, she sniffed it and then replaced it in the chest. But thereby she was presently with child. To her father’s questions as to how she came to be with child, she replied it was owing to the powder. Then the King caused a boat to be built for her, and in it he placed food and drink, together with his daughter, and launched the boat upon the sea so that the sea might carry her away, for he was afraid of the words of the skull. In the boat, the King’s daughter gave birth to a child; and the boat drifted far away to the coast of an unknown country, where it was washed ashore. There the King’s daughter landed and brought up her child, and then they began to wander along the coast. The mother wished to build a house so that they might settle down, but the son declared that he would not build a house anywhere until they had come to the place of evil upon evil. As they journeyed thus, they came to Stamboul (Constantinople) and there they saw a snake which was biting a thorn-bush, and the thorn-bush was pricking the snake so that it was all covered with blood. “See, mother, this is the place of evil upon evil,” said the son, “and here will we build our house.” Then there came to them the Plague—in the shape of a woman—who said to the youth: “Take me to be your true love and I will build you a town as it were Nature’s own work.” And he promised he would do as she wished so that she might build the town for him. Then the Plague bade him mount his horse and ride before her towards the place where his town should stand. He obeyed, and wherever he passed, the walls arose and grew up behind him. When he came back to the place where he had started, he looked back; but now the walls of his town would not join up. Then his mother said to him: “Do not take her to wife, my son. Why should you entertain this fancy which is surely of the devil?” He obeyed his mother and did not marry the Plague, but walled her up with stones, and that is why the plague mostly rages in Stamboul (Constantinople) to this day. Afterwards, the youth proclaimed himself Tsar, and as he was begotten by a bone he was called Kostantin, or Constantine (Serbian Kost=bone). Then he wrested the kingdom from the King of the Jews, and thus the words came true which had been spoken when he was still a bone.

The second tale is entitled: Sveti Andrija (St. Andrew), and runs as follows:

Once upon a time, in the days when God still walked upon earth, there lived a man called Andrija (Andrew) who had killed ninety and nine men. Then he repented and went to find the Lord to seek forgiveness. And on his way he met a Saint. The Saint asked him whither he was going. Andrija replied that he was seeking the Lord to beg forgiveness of his sins. Then the Saint said: “Tell me in what you have sinned and I will tell you what to do to gain forgiveness. I know all about it as well as the Lord himself.” So Andrija told him that he had killed ninety and nine men. Then the Saint bade him go home and for a whole year carry wood to the top of a hill and build it into a pile. When the year was past, he was to stand in the middle of the pile and set fire to it from without, and what remained of his body after the burning would be purified from sin, and his sin would be carried hence with the part of his body that was consumed. This Andrija did, and all the wood was consumed, and himself with it as well. Then it chanced that the Lord passed by with St. Sava, and the Lord said: “Let us go and see what has remained.” But they found nothing but only the heart, as it had been taken clean out of a man. Then the Lord said to St. Sava: “Take the heart and we will roast it to-night for our supper.” So St. Sava took it; and when they came home, St. Sava put the heart on the fire to roast it. Now there was a girl in the house, and as the heart was roasting she fancied the smell of it, and kept on asking St. Sava: “Is it done yet?” And suddenly she deceived St. Sava, for she swiftly took up the heart and ate it. Then the Lord asked: “Is it done yet?” St. Sava did not dare to say that the girl had eaten it, but said: “It was burnt.” And the Lord replied: “It does not matter; I am not hungry.” So they went away. But when the girl became pregnant, the Lord, knowing when her child should be born, came that same evening to the house to sleep there. When the child was born, the Lord said: “Go, Sava, and christen it.” Sava asked: “What name shall I give it?” And the Lord replied: “You know. For his first name call him Andrija (Andrew).” So they went away, and the girl brought up the child and when he died he was made a saint; and ever since then Sveti Andrija (St. Andrew) has been worshipped.

The second book of folk-tales collected by R. Strohal[4] contains a tale from Karlovac, entitled: “Of Milutin, the Count’s Son,” from which the following passage is quoted verbatim:

Once upon a time there lived a rich and powerful Count who had a beautiful wife, and they lived very happily together. They had only one grief, which was that they had no children. Thus they continued for many years until the Count received the command to go to war. He did not return for many years. Once, as his wife was going for a walk, she longed greatly for a child. And at that moment a snowfiake fell from the sky upon her breast, and by that flake she immediately conceived and in due course gave birth to her son Milutin.[5]

Besides these tales, Kraus quotes several Serbian popular beliefs of a similar nature. If a woman sleeps naked in the moonlight in a garden, forest or field, she will become pregnant. Children conceived in this manner possess the gift of second sight. Sometimes it is said that their father is a vampire.

According to one tradition, a young girl can become pregnant by passing at noontide through a field of corn in the ear with the sun upon it.[6]

This belief in parthenogenesis has given rise to various abuses, and of this we find frequent traces in Serbian popular traditions.

  1. Srpske narodne pesme iz Bosne i Hercegovine (Serbian National Songs from Bosnia and Hercegovina), collected by B. Petranović, Belgrade, 1867, pp. 146-151.
  2. Vuk S. Karadǧić, Srpski Rječnik (Serbian Dictionary), under Carigrad (Constantinople).
  3. Jahrbücher für volkloristischen Erhebungen und Forschungen zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der geschlechtichen Moral, herausgegeben von Dr. Friedrich S. Kraus, I. Band, Leipzig, 1904, pp. 47-48 und 49-50.
  4. Hrvatskih narodnih pripovjedaka kujiga II. (Second Book of Croatian Folk Tales), collected by R. Strohal, Karlovac, 1911, pp. 17-19.
  5. Parallels to this tale are quoted by Gjuro Polivka (“Paralele narodnim pripovietkama u Strohalovu Zborniku II.”) in the Zbornik za narodni život i običaje Južnih Slavena (Collection of the National Life and Customs of the Southern Slavs), book viii. vol. 2, p. 165.
  6. F. S. Kraus, Anthropophyteia, i. p. 51.