The Science of Fairy Tales/Chapter 10
The märchen of Hasan of Bassorah—The Marquis of the Sun—The feather robe and other disguises—The taboo—The Star's Daughter—Melusina—The Lady of the Van Pool and other variants—The Nightmare.
The narratives with which we have hitherto been occupied belong to the class called Sagas. But our discussions of them have led us once and again to refer to the other class mentioned in the second Chapter—that of Nursery Tales or Märchen. For, as I have already pointed out, there is no bridgeless gulf between them. We have seen the very same incidents narrated in Wales or in Germany with breathless awe as a veritable occurrence which in India, or among the Arabs, are a mere play of fancy. Equally well the case may be reversed, and what is gravely told at the antipodes as a series of events in the life of a Maori ancestor, may be reported in France or England as a nursery tale. Nay, we need not go out of Europe itself to find the same plot serving for a saga in one land and a märchen, detached from all circumstances of time and place, in another.
An excellent example of this is furnished by the myth of the Swan-maiden, one of the most widely distributed, and at the same time one of the most beautiful, stories ever evolved from the mind of man. As its first type I shall take the tale of Hasan of Bassorah, where it has been treated with an epic grandeur hardly surpassed by any of its companions in the famous "Nights," and perhaps only by one of the less famous but equally splendid Mabinogion of old Wales.
Hasan is a worthless boy who falls under the influence of a Magian, who professes to be an alchemist, and who at length kidnaps him. Having used him with great cruelty the Magian takes him fifteen days' journey on dromedaries into the desert to a high mountain, at the foot whereof the old rascal sews him up in a skin, together with a knife and a small provision of three cakes and a leathern bottle of water, afterwards retiring to a distance. One of the vultures which infest the mountain then pounces on Hasan and carries him to the top. In accordance with the Magian's instructions, the hero, on arriving there, slits the skin, and jumping out, to the bird's affright, picks up and casts down to the Magian bundles of the wood which he finds around him. This wood is the means by which the alchemy is performed; and having gathered up the bundles the Magian leaves Hasan to his fate. The youth, after despairing of life, finds his way to a palace where dwell seven maidens, with whom he remains for awhile in Platonic friendship. When they are summoned away by their father for a two months' absence, they leave him their keys, straitly charging him not to open a certain door. He disregards their wishes, and finds within a magnificent pavilion enclosing a basin brimful of water, at which ten birds come to bathe and play. The birds for this purpose cast their feathers; and Hasan is favoured with the sight of "ten virgins, maids whose beauty shamed the brilliancy of the moon." He fell madly in love with the chief damsel, who turns out to be a daughter of a King of the Jann. On the return of the maidens of the palace he is advised by them to watch the next time the birds come, and to take possession of the feather-suit belonging to the damsel of his choice, for without this she cannot return home with her attendants. He succeeds in doing so, and thus compels her to remain with him and become his wife. With her he departs to his own country and settles in Bagdad, where his wife bears him two sons. During his temporary absence, however, she persuades her mother-in-law—who, unfortunately for the happiness of the household, lives with the young couple—to let her have the feather-suit which her husband has left under her charge. Clad with this she takes her two boys in her arms and sails away through the air to the islands of Wák, leaving a message for the hapless Hasan that if he loves her he may come and seek her there. Now the islands of Wák were seven islands, wherein was a mighty host, all virgin girls, and the inner isles were peopled by satans and marids and warlocks and various tribesmen of the Jinn, and whoso entered their land never returned thence; and Hasan's wife was one of the king's daughters. To reach her he would have to cross seven wadys and seven seas and seven mighty mountains. Undaunted, however, by the difficulties wherewith he is threatened, he determines to find her, swearing by Allah never to turn back till he regain his beloved, or till death overtake him. By the help of sundry potentates of more or less forbidding aspect and supernatural power, to whom he gets letters of introduction, and who live in gorgeous palaces amid deserts, and are served by demons only uglier and less mighty than, themselves, he succeeds in traversing the Land of Birds, the Land of Wild Beasts, the country of the Warlocks and the Enchanters, and the Land of the Jinn, and enters the islands of Wák—there to fall into the hands of that masterful virago, his wife's eldest sister. After a preliminary outburst against Hasan, this amiable creature pours, as is the wont of women, the full torrent of her wrath against her erring sister. From the tortures she inflicts, Hasan at length rescues his wife, with their two sons, by means of a cap of invisibility and a rod conferring authority over seven tribes of the Jinn, which he has stolen from two boys who are quarrelling over them. When his sister-in-law with an army of Jinn pursues the fugitives, the subjects of the rod overcome her. His wife begs for her sister's life and reconciles her husband to her, and then returns with her husband to his home in Bagdad, to quit him no more.
Such in meagre outline is this wonderful story. Its variants are legion, and I can only refer to a few of them which are of special interest. In dealing with these I shall confine my attention to the essential points of the plot, touching only such details as are germane to the questions thus evoked. We shall accordingly pass in review the maiden's disguise and capture, her flight and her recapture; and afterwards turning to other types of the tale, we shall look at the corresponding incidents to be met with therein, reserving for another chapter the consideration of the meaning of the myth, so far as it can be traced.
The bird whose shape is assumed by the Jinn in the foregoing tale is not specified; but in Europe, where beauty and grace and purity find so apt an emblem in the swan, several of the most important variants have naturally appropriated that majestic form to the heroine, and have thus given a name to the whole group of stories. In Sweden, for example, we are told of a young hunter who beheld three swans descend on the sea-shore and lay their plumage aside before they plunged into the water. When he looked at the robes so laid aside they appeared like linen, and the forms that were swimming in the waves were damsels of dazzling whiteness. Advised by his foster-mother, he secures the linen of the youngest and fairest. She, therefore, could not follow her companions when they drew on their plumage and flew away; and being thus in the hunter's power, she became his wife. The hero of a story current among the Germans of Transylvania opens, like Hasan, a forbidden door, and finds three swan-maids bathing in a blue pool. Their clothes are contained in satchels on its margin, and when he has taken the satchel of the youngest he must not look behind until he has reached home. This done, he finds the maiden there and persuades her to marry him. Mikáilo Ivanovich, the hero of a popular Russian ballad, wanders by the sea, and, gazing out upon a quiet bay, beholds a white swan floating there. He draws his bow to shoot her, but she prays him to desist; and rising over the blue sea upon her white wings, she turns into a beautiful maiden. Surprised with love, he offers to kiss her; but she reveals herself as a heathen princess and demands first to be baptized, and then she will wed him. In a Hessian story a forester sees a fair swan floating on a lonely lake. He is about to shoot it when it warns him to desist, or it will cost him his life. Immediately the swan was transformed into a maiden, who told him she was bewitched, but could be freed if he would say a Paternoster for her every Sunday for a twelvemonth, and meantime keep silence concerning his adventure. The test proved too hard, and he lost her.
The swan, however, by no means monopolizes the honour of concealing the heroine's form. In a Finnish tale from Œsterbotten, a dead father appears in dreams to his three sons, commanding them to watch singly by night the geese on the sea-strand. The two elder are so frightened by the darkness that they scamper home. But the youngest, despised and dirty, watches boldly, till at the first flush of dawn three geese fly thither, strip off their feathers, and plunge, as lovely maidens, into the water to bathe. Then the youth chooses the most beautiful of the three pairs of wings he finds on the shore, hides them, and awaits events; nor does he give them up again to the owner until she has betrothed herself to him. Elsewhere the damsels are described as ducks; but a more common shape is that of doves. A story is current in Bohemia of a boy whom a witch leads to a spring. Over the spring stands an old elm-tree haunted by three white doves, who are enchanted princesses. Catching one and plucking out her wings, he restores her to her natural condition; and she brings him to his parents, whom he had lost in the sack of the city where they dwelt. The Magyars speak of three pigeons coming every noontide to a great white lake, where they turn somersaults and are transformed into girls. They are really fairy-maidens; and a boy who can steal the dress of one of them and run away with it, resisting the temptation to look back when she calls in caressing tones, succeeds in winning her. In the "Bahar Danush" a merchant's son perceives four doves alight at sunset by a piece of water, and, resuming their natural form (for they are Peries), forthwith undress and plunge into the water. He steals their clothes, and thus compels the one whom he chooses to accept him as her husband. The extravagance characteristic of the "Arabian Nights," when, in the story of Janshah, it represents the ladies as doves, expands their figures to the size of eagles, with far less effect, however, than where they retain more moderate dimensions. No better illustration of this can be given than the story from South Smaland of the fair Castle east of the Sun and north of the Earth, versified so exquisitely in "The Earthly Paradise." There a peasant, finding that the fine grass of a meadow belonging to him was constantly trodden down during the summer nights, set his three sons, one after another, to watch for the trespassers. The two elder, as usual in these tales, are unsuccessful, but the youngest keeps wide awake until the sun is about to rise. A rustling in the air, as of birds, then heralds the flight of three doves, who cast their feathers and become fair maidens. These maidens begin to dance on the green grass, and so featly do they step that they scarce seem to touch the ground. To the watching youth, one among them looked more beautiful than all other women; and he pictured to himself the possession of her as more to be longed for than that of every other in the world. So he rose and stole their plumage, nor did he restore it until the king's daughter, the fairest of them all, had plighted her troth to him.
The story is by no means confined to Europe and Asia. The Arawâks, one of the aboriginal tribes of Guiana, relate that a beautiful royal vulture was once captured by a hunter. She was the daughter of Anuanima, sovereign of a race whose country is above the sky, and who lay aside there the appearance of birds for that of humanity. Smitten with love for the hunter, the captive divested herself of her feathers and exhibited her true form—that of a beautiful girl. "She becomes his wife, bears him above the clouds, and, after much trouble, persuades her father and family to receive him. All then goes well, until he expresses a wish to visit his aged mother, when they discard him, and set him on the top of a very high tree, the trunk of which is covered with formidable prickles. He appeals pathetically to all the living creatures around. Then spiders spin cords to help him, and fluttering birds ease his descent, so that at last he reaches the ground in safety. Then follow his efforts, extending over several years, to regain his wife, whom he tenderly loves. Her family seek to destroy him; but by his strength and sagacity he is victorious in every encounter. The birds at length espouse his cause, assemble their forces, and bear him as their commander above the sky. He is at last slain by a valiant young warrior, resembling himself in person and features. It is his own son, born after his expulsion from the upper regions, and brought up there in ignorance of his own father. The legend ends with the conflagration of the house of the royal vultures, who, hemmed in by crowds of hostile birds, are unable to use their wings, and forced to fight and die in their human forms." This tale, so primitive in form, can hardly have travelled round half the globe to the remote American Indians among whom it was discovered. And yet in many of its features it presents the most striking likeness to several of the versions current in the Old World.
Sometimes, however, as in the tale of Hasan, the species is left undescribed. Among the Eskimo the heroine is vaguely referred to as a sea-fowl. The Kurds have a strange tale of a bird they call the Bird Simer. His daughter has been ensnared by a giant when she and three other birds were out flying; but she is at length rescued by two heroes, one of whom she weds. When she becomes homesick she puts on her feather-dress and flies away.
A Pomeranian saga forms an interesting link between the Swan-maiden group and the legends of Enchanted Princesses discussed in the last chapter. A huntsman, going his rounds in the forest, drew near a pool which lies at the foot of the Hühnerberg. There he saw a girl bathing; and thinking that she was from the neighbouring village, he picked up her clothes, with the intention of playing her a trick. When she saw what he had done, she left the water and hastened after him, begging him to give back her clothes—or at any rate her shift. He, however, was not to be moved; and she then told him she was an enchanted princess, and without her shift she could not return. Now he was fully determined not to give up the precious article of apparel. She was, therefore, compelled to follow him to his hut, where his mother kept house for him. The huntsman there put the shift into a chest, of which he took the key, so that the maiden could not escape; and after some time she accepted the position, and agreed to become his wife. Years passed by, and several children had been born, when one day he went out, leaving the key of the chest behind. When the heroine saw this she begged her mother-in-law to open the chest and show her the shift; for, we are told, the enchanted princess could not herself open the trunk. She begged so hard that her mother-in-law at last complied; and no sooner had she got the shift into her hands than she vanished out of sight. When the husband returned and heard what had happened, he made up his mind to seek her. So he climbed the Hühnerberg and let himself down the opening he found there. He soon arrived at the underground castle. Before its closed gate lay a great black dog, around whose neck a paper hung which conveniently contained directions how to penetrate into the castle. Following these, he presently found himself in the presence of the princess, his wife, who was right glad to see him, and gave him a glass of wine to strengthen him for the task before him; for at midnight the Evil One would come to drive him out of the castle and prevent the lady's deliverance. At this point, unfortunately, the reciter's memory failed: hence we do not know the details of the rescue. But we may conjecture, from the precedents, that the huntsman had to endure torture. The issue was that he was successful, the castle ascended out of the earth, and husband and wife were reunited.
This story differs in many important respects from the type; and it contains the incident, very rare in a modern European saga belonging to this group, of the recovery of the bride. I shall have occasion to revert to the curious inability of the enchanted princess to open the chest containing the wonderful shift. Meanwhile, let me observe that in most of the tales the feather-dress, or talisman, by which the bride may escape, is committed to the care of a third person—usually a kinswoman of the husband, and in many cases his mother; and that the wife as a rule only recovers it when it is given to her, or at least when that which contains it has been opened by another: she seems incapable of finding it herself.
There is another type of the Swan-maiden myth, which appears to be the favourite of the Latin nations, though it is also to be met with among other peoples. Its outline may, perhaps, best be given from the nursery tale of the Marquis of the Sun, as told at Seville. The Marquis of the Sun was a great gamester. A man played with him and lost all he had, and then staked his soul—and lost it. The Marquis instructed him, if he desired to recover it, to come to him when he had worn out a pair of iron shoes. In the course of his wanderings he finds a struggle going on over a dead man, whose creditors would not allow him to be buried until his debts had been paid. Iron Shoes pays them, and one shoe goes to pieces. He afterwards meets a cavalier, who reveals himself as the dead man whose debts had been paid, and who is desirous of requiting that favour. He therefore directs Iron Shoes to the banks of a river where three white doves come, change into princesses, and bathe. Iron Shoes is to take the dress of the smallest, and thus get her to tell him whither he has to go. Obeying this direction, he learns from the princess that the Marquis is her father; and she shows him the way to his castle. Arrived there, he demands his soul. Before conceding it the Marquis sets him tasks: to level an inconvenient mountain, so that the sun may shine on the castle; to sow the site of the mountain with fruit trees, and gather the fruit of them in one day for dinner; to find a piece of plate which the Marquis's great-grandfather had dropped into the river; to catch and mount a horse which is no other than the Marquis himself; and to choose a bride from among the princesses, his daughters. The damsel who had shown Iron Shoes the way to the palace performs the first two of these tasks: and she teaches him how to perform the others. For the third, he has to cut her up and cast her into the river, whence she immediately rises whole again, triumphantly bringing the lost piece of plate. In butchering her he has, however, clumsily dropped a piece of her little finger on the ground. It is accordingly wanting when she rises from the river; and this is the token by which Iron Shoes recognizes her when he has to choose a bride; for, in choosing, he is only allowed to see the little fingers of these candidates for matrimony. He and his bride afterwards flee from the castle; but we need not follow their adventures now.
In stories of this type doves are the shape usually assumed by the heroine and her comrades; but swans and geese are often found, and in a Russian tale we are even introduced to spoonbills. Nor do the birds I have mentioned by any means exhaust the disguises of these supernatural ladies. The stories comprised under this and the foregoing type are nearly all märchen; but when we come to other types where sagas become more numerous, we find other animals favoured, well-nigh to the exclusion of birds. In the latter types there is no recovery of the wife when she has once abandoned her husband. An inhabitant of Unst, one of the Shetland Islands, beholds a number of the sea-folk dancing by moonlight on the shore of a small bay. Near them lie several seal-skins. He snatches up one, the property, as it turns out, of a fair maiden, who thereupon becomes his wife. Years after, one of their children finds her sealskin, and runs to display it to his mother, not knowing it was hers. She puts it on, becomes a seal, and plunges into the waters. In Croatia it is said that a soldier once, watching in a haunted mill, saw a she-wolf enter, divest herself of her skin, and come out of it a damsel. She hangs the skin on a peg and goes to sleep before the fire. While she sleeps the soldier takes the skin and nails it fast to the mill-wheel, so that she cannot recover it. He marries her, and she bears him two sons. The elder of these children hears that his mother is a wolf. He becomes inquisitive, and his father at length tells him where the skin is. When he tells his mother, she goes away and is heard of no more. A Sutherlandshire story speaks of a mermaid who fell in love with a fisherman. As he did not want to be carried away into the sea he, by fair means or foul, succeeded in getting hold of her pouch and belt, on which her power of swimming depended, and so retained her on land; and she became his bride. But we are not surprised to hear that her tail was always in the way: her silky hair grew tangled too, for her comb and glass were in the pouch; the dogs teased her, and rude people mocked her. Thus her life was made wretched. But one day in her husband's absence the labourers were pulling down a stack of corn. As she watched them, weeping for her lost freedom, she espied her precious pouch and belt, which had been built in and buried among the sheaves. She caught it and leaped into the sea.
In the last tale there is no change of form: the hero simply possesses himself of something without which the supernatural maiden has no power to leave him. Even in the true Hasan of Bassorah type, the magical change does not always occur. A variant translated by Jonathan Scott from a Syrian manuscript merely enwraps the descending damsels in robes of light green silk. When her robe is taken the chosen beauty is kept from following her companions in their return flight. Similar to this is the Pomeranian saga already cited. In the New Hebrides there is a legend of seven winged women whose home was in heaven, and who came down to earth to bathe. Before bathing, they put off their wings. According to the version told in Aurora island, Qatu one day, seeing them thus bathing, took the wings of one and buried them at the foot of the main post of his house. In this way he won their owner as his wife; and she so remained until she found her wings again. In modern Greece it is believed that Nereids can be caught by seizing their wings, their clothes, or even their handkerchiefs. The Bulgarians, who have similar tales, call the supernatural ladies Samodivas; and they are captured by means of their raiment. A number of parallels have been cited from various sources by M. Cosquin, a few of which may be mentioned. A Burmese drama, for instance, sets before us nine princesses of the city of the Silver Mountain, who wear enchanted girdles that enable them to fly as swiftly as a bird. The youngest of these princesses is caught while bathing, by means of a magical slip-knot. A divine ancestress of the Bantiks, a tribe inhabiting the Celebes Islands, came down from the sky with seven companions to bathe. A man who saw them took them for doves, but was surprised to find that they were women. He possessed himself of the clothes of one of them, and thus obliged her to marry him. In a story told by the Santals of India, the daughters of the sun make use of a spider's thread to reach the earth. A shepherd, whom they unblushingly invite to bathe with them, persuades them to try which of them all can remain longest under water; and while they are in the river he scrambles out, and, taking the upper garment of the one whom he loves, flees with it to his home. In another Indian tale, five apsaras, or celestial dancers, are conveyed in an enchanted car to a pool in the forest. Seven supernatural maidens, in a Samoyede märchen, are brought in their reindeer chariot to a lake, where the hero possesses himself of the best suit of garments he finds on the shore. The owner prays him to give them up; but he refuses, until he obtains a definite pledge of marriage, saying: "If I give thee the garments thou wilt fare up again to heaven."
In none of these stories (and they are but samples of many) does the feather dress occur; yet it has left reminiscences which are unmistakable. The variants hitherto cited have all betrayed these reminiscences as articles of clothing, or conveyance, or in the pardonable mistake of the Bantik forefather at the time of capture. I shall refer presently to cases whence the plumage has faded entirely out of the story—and that in spite of its picturesqueness—without leaving a trace. But let me first call attention to the fact that, even where it is preserved, we often do not find it exactly how and where we should have expected it. Witness the curious Algonkin tale of "How one of the Partridge's wives became a Sheldrake Duck." A hunter, we are told, returning home in his canoe, saw a beautiful girl sitting on a rock by the river, making a moccasin. He paddled up softly to capture her; but she jumped into the water and disappeared. Her mother, however, who lived at the bottom, compelled her to return to the hunter and be his wife. The legend then takes a turn in the direction of the Bluebeard myth; for the woman yields to curiosity, and thus deprives her husband of his luck. When he finds this out he seizes his bow to beat her. "When she saw him seize his bow to beat her she ran down to the river, and jumped in to escape death at his hands, though it should be by drowning. But as she fell into the water she became a sheldrake duck." The Passamaquoddies, who relate this story, have hardly yet passed out of the stage of thought in which no steadfast boundary is set between men and the lower animals. The amphibious maiden, who dwelt in the bottom of the river, could not be drowned by jumping into the stream; and it is evident that she only resumes her true aquatic form in escaping from her husband, who, it should be added, is himself called Partridge and seems to be regarded as, in fact, a fowl of that species. A still more remarkable instance is to be found among the Welsh of Carnarvonshire, who, it need hardly be said, are now on a very different level of civilization from that of the Passamaquoddies. They tell us that when the fairy bride of Corwrion quitted her unlucky husband, she at once flew through the air and plunged into the lake; and one account significantly describes her as flying away like a wood-hen. Can it have been many generations since she was spoken of as actually changing into a bird?
We may now pass to wholly different types of the tradition. In all the stories where the magical dress appears, whether as a feather-skin, the hide of a quadruped, or in the modified form of wings, a robe, an apron, a veil or other symbol, the catastrophe is brought about by the wife's recovery, usually more or less accidental, of the article in question. But it is obvious that where the incident of the dress is wanting, the loss of the supernatural bride must be brought about by other means. In some traditions, the woman's caprice, or the fulfilment of her fate, is deemed enough for this purpose; but in the most developed stories it is caused by the breach of a taboo. Taboo is a word adopted from the Polynesian languages, signifying, first, something set apart, thence holy and inviolable, and lastly something simply forbidden. It is generally used in English as a verb of which the nearest equivalent is another curious verb—to boycott. A person or thing tabooed is one avoided by express or tacit agreement on the part of any class or number of persons; and to taboo is to avoid in pursuance of such an agreement. In Folklore, however, the word is used in a different and wider sense. It includes every sort of prohibition, from the social or religious boycott (if I may use the word), to which it would be more properly applied, down to any injunction addressed by a supernatural being to the hero or heroine of a tale. Folklore students of the anthropological school are so apt to refer these last prohibitions for their origin to the more general prohibitions of the former kind, that perhaps this indiscriminate use of the word may be held to beg some of the questions at issue. It is certain, however, that the scholars who originally applied it to what I may call private prohibitions, had no such thought in their minds. They found it a convenient term, applicable by no great stretch of its ordinary meaning, and they appropriated it to the purposes of science. I shall therefore use it without scruple as a well recognized word, and without any question-begging intent.
Having premised so much, I will proceed to set forth shortly the balder type of the story, where there is no taboo, then the fuller type. Their relations to one another will be dealt with in the next chapter.
An Algonkin legend relates that a hunter beheld a basket descend from heaven, containing twelve young maidens of ravishing beauty. He attempted to approach, but on perceiving him they quickly re-entered the basket and were drawn up again out of his sight. Another day, however, he succeeded, by disguising himself as a mouse, in capturing the youngest of the damsels, whom he married and by whom he had a son. But nothing could console his wife for the society of her sisters, which she had lost. So one day she made a small basket; and having entered it with her child she sang the charm she and her sisters had formerly used, and ascended once more to the star from whence she had come. It is added that when two years had elapsed the star said to his daughter: "Thy son wants to see his father; go down, therefore, to the earth and fetch thy husband, and tell him to bring us specimens of all the animals he kills." This was done. The hunter ascended with his wife to the sky; and there a great feast was given, in which the animals he brought were served up. Those of the guests who took the paws or the tails were transformed into animals. The hunter himself took a white feather, and with his wife and child was metamorphosed into a falcon. I will only now remark on the latter part of the tale that it is told by the same race as the Sheldrake Duck's adventures; and if we deem it probable that the heroine of that narrative simply resumed her pristine form in becoming a duck, the same reasoning will hold good as to the falcons here. This type of the myth we may call the "Star's Daughter type."
The other type may be named after Melusina, the famous Countess of Lusignan. The earliest writer to mention the legend which afterwards became identified with her name, was Gervase of Tilbury, who relates that Raymond, the lord of a certain castle a few miles from Aix in Provence, riding alone on the banks of the river, unexpectedly met an unknown lady of rare beauty, also alone, riding on a splendidly caparisoned palfrey. On his saluting her she replied, addressing him by name. Astonished at this, but encouraged, he made improper overtures to her; to which she declined to assent, intimating, however, in the most unabashed way, that she would marry him if he liked. He agreed to this; but the lady imposed a further condition, namely, that he should never see her naked; for if once he did so, all the prosperity and all the happiness with which he was about to be blessed would depart, and he would be left to drag out the rest of his life in wretchedness. On these terms they were married; and every earthly felicity followed,—wealth, renown, bodily strength, the love of his fellow-men, and children—boys and girls—of the greatest beauty. But one day his lady was bathing in the bedroom, when he came in from hunting and fowling, laden with partridges and other game. While food was being prepared the thought struck him that he would go and see her in her bath. So many years had he enjoyed unalloyed prosperity that, if there ever were any force in her threat, he deemed it had long since passed away. Deaf to his wife's pleadings, he tore away the curtain from the bath and beheld her naked; but only for an instant, for she was forthwith changed into a serpent, and, putting her head under the water, she disappeared. Nor ever was she seen again; but sometimes in the darkness of night the nurses would hear her busy with a mother's care for her little children. Gervase adds that one of her daughters was married to a relative of his own belonging to a noble family of Provence, and her descendants were living at the time he wrote.
The story, as told of Melusina, was amplified, but in its substance differed little from the foregoing. Melusina does not forbid her husband to see her naked, but bargains for absolute privacy on Saturdays. When Raymond violates this covenant he finds her in her bath with her lower extremities changed into a serpent's tail. The lady appears to be unconscious of her husband's discovery; and nothing happens until, in a paroxysm of anger and grief, arising from the murder of one of his children by another, he cries out upon her as an odious serpent, the contaminator of his race. It will be remembered that in the Esthonian tale cited in Chapter VIII the youth is forbidden to call his mistress mermaid; and all goes well until he peeps into the locked chamber, where she passes her Thursdays, and finds her in mermaid form. Far away in Japan we learn that the hero Hohodemi wedded Toyotamahime, a daughter of the Sea-god, and built a house for her on the strand where she might give birth to her child. She strictly forbade him to come near until the happy event was over: he was to remain in his own dwelling, and on no account to attempt to see her until she sent for him. His curiosity, however, was too much for his happiness. He peeped, and saw his wife writhing to and fro on the floor in the shape of a dragon. He started back, shocked; and when, later on, Toyotamahime called him to her, she saw by his countenance that he had discovered the secret she had thought to hide from all mankind. In spite of his entreaties she plunged into the sea, never more to see her lord. Her boy, notwithstanding, was still the object of her care. She sent her sister to watch over him, and he grew up to become the father of the first Emperor of Japan. In a Maori tale the hero loses his wife through prematurely tearing down a screen he had erected for her convenience on a similar occasion. A Moravian tale speaks of a bride who shuts herself up every eighth day, and when her husband looks through the keyhole, he beholds her, thighs clad with hair and her feet those of goats. This is a märchen; and in the end, having paid the penalty of his rashness by undergoing adventures like those of Hasan, the hero regains his love. A Tirolese märchen tells us of a witch who, in the shape of a beautiful girl, took service with a rich man and made a conquest of his son. She wedded him on condition that he would never look upon her by candlelight. The youth, like a masculine Psyche, breaks the taboo; and a drop of the wax, falling on her cheek, awakens her. It was in vain that he blew out the taper and lay down. When he awoke in the morning she was gone; but a pair of shoes with iron soles stood by the bed, with a paper directing him to seek her till the soles were worn out, and then he should find her again. By the aid of a mantle of invisibility, and a chair which bore him where he wished, he arrived in the nick of time to prevent her marriage with another bridegroom. The proper reconciliation follows, and her true husband bears her home in triumph. Not so happy was the hero of a Corsican saga, who insisted on seeing his wife's naked shoulder and found it nothing but bones—the skeleton of their love which he had thus murdered.
At the foot of the steep grassy cliffs of the Van Mountains in Carmarthenshire lies a lonely pool, called Llyn y Fan Fach, which is the scene of a variant of Melusina, less celebrated, indeed, but equally romantic and far more beautiful. The legend may still be heard on the lips of the peasantry; and more than one version has found its way into print. The most complete was written down by Mr. William Rees, of Tonn (a well-known Welsh antiquary and publisher), from the oral recitation of two old men and a woman, natives of Myddfai, where the hero of the story is said to have dwelt. Stated shortly, the legend is to the following effect: The son of a widow who lived at Blaensawdde, a little village about three-quarters of a mile from the pool, was one day tending his mother's cattle upon its shore when, to his astonishment, he beheld the Lady of the Lake sitting upon its unruffled surface, which she used as a mirror while she combed out her graceful ringlets. She imperceptibly glided nearer to him, but eluded his grasp and refused the bait of barley bread and cheese that he held out to her, saying as she dived and disappeared:
"Cras dy fara;
Nid hawdd fy nala!"
("Hard-baked is thy bread;
It is not easy to catch me!")
An offer of unbaked dough, or toes, the next day was equally unsuccessful. She exclaimed:
"Llaith dy fara!
Ti ni fynna'."
("Unbaked is thy bread!
I will not have thee.")
But the slightly baked bread, which the youth subsequently took, by his mother's advice, was accepted: he seized the lady's hand and persuaded her to become his bride. Diving into the lake she then fetched her father—"a hoary-headed man of noble mien and extraordinary stature, but having otherwise all the force and strength of youth"—who rose from the depths with two ladies and was ready to consent to the match, provided the young man could distinguish which of the two ladies before him was the object of his affections. This was no small test of love, inasmuch as the maidens were exactly alike in form and features. One of them, however, thrust her foot a little forward; and the hero recognized a peculiarity of her shoetie, which he had somehow had leisure to notice at his previous interviews. The father admits the correctness of his choice, and bestows a dowry of sheep, cattle, goats, and horses, but stipulates in the most business-like way that these animals shall return with the bride, if at any time her husband prove unkind and strike her thrice without a cause.
So far Mr. Rees' version. A version published in the "Cambro-Briton" is somewhat different. Three beautiful damsels appear from the pool, and are repeatedly pursued by the young farmer, but in vain. They always reached the water before him and taunted him with the couplet:
"Cras dy fara,
Anhawdd ein dala!"
One day some moist bread from the lake came floating ashore. The youth seized and devoured it; and the following day he was successful in catching the ladies. The one to whom he offers marriage consents on the understanding that he will recognize her the next day from among the three sisters. He does so by the strapping of her sandal; and she is accompanied to her new home by seven cows, two oxen, and a bull from the lake. A third version presents the maiden as rowing on New Year's Eve up and down the lake in a golden boat with a golden oar. She disappears from the hero's gaze, without replying to his adjurations. Counselled by a soothsayer, who dwells on the mountain, he casts loaves and cheese night after night from Midsummer Eve to New Year's Eve into the water, until at length the magic skiff again appears, and the fairy, stepping ashore, weds her persistent wooer.
In all three versions the bridegroom is forbidden to strike "three causeless blows." Of course he disobeys. According to the "Cambro-Briton" version it happened that one day, preparing for a fair, he desired his wife to go to the field for his horse. Finding her dilatory in doing so, he tapped her arm thrice with his glove, saying, half in jest: "Go, go, go!" The blows were slight, but they were blows; and, the terms of the marriage contract being broken, the dame departed—she and her cattle with her—back into the lake. The other two accounts agree in spreading the blows over a much greater length of time. Mr. Rees' version relates that once the husband and wife were invited to a christening in the neighbourhood. The lady, however, seemed reluctant to go, making the feminine excuse that the distance was too far to walk. Her husband told her to fetch one of the horses from the field. "I will," said she, "if you will bring me my gloves, which I left in the house." He went, and, returning with the gloves, found that she had not gone for the horse, so he jocularly slapped her shoulder with one of the gloves, saying: "Go, go!" Whereupon she reminded him of the condition that he was not to strike her without a cause, and warned him to be more careful in future. Another time, when they were together at a wedding, she burst out sobbing amid the joy and mirth of all around her. Her husband touched her on the shoulder and inquired the cause of her weeping. She replied: "Now people are entering into trouble; and your troubles are likely to commence, as you have the second time stricken me without a cause." Finding how very wide an interpretation she put upon the "causeless blows," the unfortunate husband did his best to avoid anything which could give occasion for the third and last blow. But one day they were together at a funeral, where, in the midst of the grief, she appeared in the highest spirits and indulged in immoderate fits of laughter. Her husband was so shocked that he touched her, saying: "Hush, hush! don't laugh!" She retorted that she laughed "because people, when they die, go out of trouble"; and, rising up, she left the house, exclaiming: "The last blow has been struck; our marriage contract is broken, and at an end! Farewell!" Hurrying home, she called together all her fairy cattle, walked off with them to the lake, and vanished in its waters. Even a little black calf, slaughtered and suspended on the hook, descended alive and well again to obey his mistress' summons; and four grey oxen, which were ploughing, dragged the plough behind them as they went, leaving a well-marked furrow, that remains to this day "to witness if I lie." The remaining version, with some differences of detail, represents the same eccentric pessimism on the lady's part (presumably attributable to the greater spiritual insight of her supernatural character), as the cause of the husband's not unwarranted annoyance and of his breach of the agreement. She had borne him three fair sons; and although she had quitted her husband for ever, she continued to manifest herself occasionally to them, and gave them instruction in herbs and medicine, predicting that they and their issue would become during many generations the most renowned physicians in the country.
Such is the legend of the Van Pool. It has a number of variants, both in Wales and elsewhere, the examination of which I postpone for the present. Hitherto I have been guided in the mention of variants of this myth chiefly by the desire of showing how one type insensibly merges into another. The only type I have now left for examination may be called the "Nightmare type." It is allied not so much to the stories of Melusina and the Lady of the Van Pool as to stories like that of the Croatian wolf-maiden. According to German and Slavonic belief the nightmare is a human being—frequently one whose love has been slighted, and who in this shape is enabled to approach the beloved object. It slips through the keyhole, or any other hole in a building, and presses its victim sometimes to death. But it can be caught by quickly stopping the hole through which it has entered. A certain man did so one night; and in the morning he found a young and lovely maiden in the room. On asking her whence she came, she told him from Engelland (angel-land, England). He hid her clothes, married her, and had by her three children. The only thing peculiar about her was that she used constantly to sing while spinning:
"Now calls my mother (or, blows my father) in Engelland,
Drive out thy swine."
One day her husband came home and found that his wife had been telling the children that she had come as a nightmare from Engelland. When he reproached her for it, she went to the cupboard where her clothes were hidden, threw them over herself, and vanished. Yet she could not quite forsake her husband and little ones. On Saturdays she came unseen and laid out their clean clothes; and every night she appeared while others slept, and taking the baby out of the cradle quieted it at her breast. The allusion to the nightmare's clothes is uncommon; but it is an unmistakable link with the types we have been considering. In other tales she is caught in the shape of a straw; and she is generally released by taking the stopper out of the hole whereby she entered. The account she gives of herself is that she has come out of England, that the pastor had been guilty of some omission in the service when she was baptized, and hence she became a nightmare, but to be re-christened would cure her. She often hears her mother call her. In one story she vanished on being reproached with her origin, and in another on being asked how she became a nightmare.
An Esthonian tale speaks of a father who found his little boy one night in an unquiet slumber. He noticed over the bed a hole in the wall through which the wind was whistling, and thought it was this which was disturbing him. Wherefore he stopped it up; and no sooner had he done so than he saw on the bed by the boy's side a pretty little girl, who teased and played with him so that he could not sleep in peace. The child was thus forced to stay in the house. She grew up with the other children, and being quick and industrious was beloved by all. Specially was she dear to the boy in whose bed she was found; and when he grew up he married her. One Sunday in church she burst out laughing during the sermon. After the service was over the husband inquired what she was laughing at. She refused to tell him, save on condition of his telling her in return how she came into his father's house. When she had extracted this promise from him, she told him she saw stretched on the wall of the church a great horse-skin, on which the Evil One was writing the names of all those who slept or chattered in church, and paid no heed to God's word. The skin was at last full of names; and in order to find room for more the Devil had to pull it with his teeth, so as to stretch it further. In so doing he bumped his head against the wall, and made a wry face: whereat she, who saw it, laughed. When they got home her husband pulled out the piece of wood which his father had put into the hole; and the same instant his wife was gone. The husband was disconsolate, but he saw her no more. It was said, however, that she often appeared to his two children in secret, and brought them precious gifts. In Smaland a parallel legend is current, according to which the ancestress of a certain family was an elf-maid who came into the house with the sunbeams through a knot-hole in the wall, and, after being married to the son and bearing him four children, vanished the same way as she had come. In North Germany it is believed that when seven boys, or seven girls, are born in succession, one among them is a nightmare. A man who had unknowingly wedded such a nightmare found that she disappeared from his bed at nights; and on watching her he discovered that she slipped through the hole for the strap by which the latch was lifted, returning the same way. So he stopped up the opening, and thus always retained her. After a considerable time he wanted to use the latch, and thinking she had forgotten her bad habit and he might safely take the peg out, he did so; but the next night she was missing, and never came back, though every Sunday morning the man found clean linen laid out for him as usual.
A Pomeranian tradition relates the adventure of an officer who was much troubled by the nightmare. He caught her in the usual manner and wedded her, although he could not persuade her to say whence she came. After some years she induced her husband to open the holes he had stopped up; and the next morning she had disappeared. But he found written in chalk on the table the words: "If thou wilt seek me, the Commander of London is my father." He sought her in London and found her; and having taken the precaution to rechristen her he lived happily with her ever after. This is the only instance I have met with where the nightmare-wife is recovered. It would be interesting to know why England is assigned as the home of these perturbed spirits.
- Burton, "Nights," vol. viii. p. 7.
- Thorpe, vol. ii. p. 69, quoting Afzelius; Haltrich, p. 15; Hapgood, p. 214; Meier, "Volksmärchen," p. 39; Baring-Gould, p. 575. No authority is given by Mr. Baring-Gould, and I have been unable to trace the Hessian tale; but I rely on his correctness. He also cites an incoherent Swan-maiden tale from Castrén, of which he manages to make more sense than I can (Castrén, "Altaischen Völker," p. 172). In an Irish tale Oengus, the son of the Dagda, falls in love, through a dream, with Caer ib Ormaith, who is one year in the form of a swan and the next in human shape. After union with her he seems to have undergone the same alternation of form (Revue Celtique, vol. iii. p. 342, from a MS. in the British Museum).
- Schreck, p. 35; Vernaleken, pp. 274, 287; Jones and Kropf, p. 95; "Bahar-Danush," vol. ii. p. 213 (an abstract of this story will be found in Keightley, p. 20); Burton, "Nights," vol. v. p. 344; Steere, p. 349; Cavallius, p. 175, freely translated by Thorpe, "Yule-tide Stories," p. 158. Mr. Morris turns the doves into swans. Cf. a South-Slavonic tale from Varazdina, Krauss, vol. i. p. 409.
- Brett, "Legends and Myths," p. 29. This legend is told with further details by Im Thurn, p. 381.
- Rink, p. 145; Prym und Socin, p. 51.
- Knoop, p. 104.
- "F. L. Españ." vol. i. p. 187.
- Keightley, p. 169, from Hibbert, "Description of the Shetland Islands"; Wratislaw, p. 290; "F. L. Journal," vol. vi. p. 165. As a point of resemblance with the Lady of the Van Pool, quoted further
- Kirby, p. 319; "Arch. Rev." vol. ii. p. 90; Schmidt, p. 133; Bent, p. 13; Von Hahn, vol. i. p. 295 (cf. vol. ii. p. 82); Garnett, p. 352, translating Dozen's "Chansons Populaires Bulgares"; Cosquin, vol. ii. p. 18. Cf. Ralston, "Tibetan Tales," p. 53; Landes, p. 123; Comparetti, vol. i. p. 212, translated "F. L. Record," vol. ii. p. 12; Grimm, "Tales," vol. ii. p. 331; Poestion, p. 55; Vernaleken, p. 274; Pitré, vol. iv. p. 140; Sastri, p. 80.
- Leland, p. 300. Cf. ibid. p. 140, where the maidens are called weasels, and ultimately marry stars. "Y Cymmrodor," vol. iv. p. 201. In a tale rendered from the modern Greek by Von Hahn the name Swan-maiden is preserved in the title, though the plumage has
- "La Tradition," March 1889, p. 78, quoting the Abbé Domenech, "Voyage pittoresque dans les déserts du Nouveau Monde," p. 214. Mr. Farrer gives the same story from "Algic Researches" (Farrer, "Primitive Manners," p. 256).
- Gerv. Tilb. Dec. i. c. 15.
- Brauns, p. 138; White, vol. ii. p. 141; Vernaleken, p. 294; Schneller, p. 23; Ortoli, p. 284.
- "The Physicians of Myddvai—Meddygon Myddfai," translated by John Pughe, Esq., F.R.C.S., and edited by Rev. John Williams ab Ithel, M.A. (1861), p. xxi. "Cambro-Briton," vol. ii. p. 315; Sikes, p. 40. Mr. Sikes gives no authority for the third version. I have assumed its genuineness, though I confess Mr. Sikes' methods are not such as to inspire confidence.
- Jahn, p. 364, et seqq.; Knoop, pp. 26, 83, 103; Kuhn, pp. 47, 197, 374; Kuhn und Schwartz, pp. 14, 91, 298; Schleicher, p. 93; Thorpe, vol. ii. p. 169, quoting Thiele. Note the suggestion of Pope Gregory's pun in the name of the native land of the nightmare. Elsewhere a child becomes a nightmare who is born on a Sunday and baptized on a Sunday at the same hour, or one at whose baptism some wicked person has secretly muttered in response to one of the priest's questions some wrong words, or "It shall become a nightmare" (Lemke, p. 42). Similar superstitions attached to somnabulism; see Lecky, "History of Rationalism," vol. i. p. 81, note 2.
- Jannsen, vol. i. p. 53; Thorpe, vol. iii. p. 70, quoting Afzelius, vol. ii. p. 29, quoting Müllenhoff. It is a common Teutonic belief that knot-holes are attributable to elves (Grimm, "Teut. Myth." p. 461).
- "Am Urds-Brunnen," vol. vi. p. 58.
on, it may be noted that these seal-women (the legend of their capture is a common one in the Shetland Islands) had the power to conjure up from the deep a superior breed of horned cattle, many of whose offspring are still to be seen (Dr. Karl Blind in "Contemp. Rev." 1881, quoted by Mac Ritchie, p. 4).
disappeared from the text. Stress can hardly be laid upon this, as the title is no part of the tale. Von Hahn, vol. i. p. 131.