Once there was a young man who inherited a large fortune from his father, and being young, he spent it quickly and was soon reduced to poverty. At last, driven by hunger, he set out in the world to seek his fortune, and shortly came upon an army marching off to war. Since he had no food or money to buy it with he joined the army, which soon arrived in the neighboring country. The army came to a large city and beseiged it, throwing ladders up against the wall. The young man was one of the first to breach the walls and fought with such ferocity that others poured in behind him, and the city was taken very quickly, and with little loss of life. Soon after that the war ended and the young man was brought back to the conquering country a hero and presented to the king, who was so impressed at the man's bravery that he offered him as reward whatever he chose, up to half the kingdom.
"I choose your daughter's hand in marriage," the young man said. The king told him to make another choice, but the young man reminded the king that he had promised to give whatever was asked.
"You may have her hand if you are truly determined," the king said, "but she is a girl of strange whims. She has put this condition on her marriage. If her husband dies before she does, she wishes to be put living in the tomb with him, but if she dies first, then her husband is to be placed in the tomb with her, for if he truly loves her, he will not want to continue living. None of her previous suitors have been willing to accept these terms." The young man, however, was not dissuaded, and he and the princess were married in a grand wedding, and lived happily together for some time.
After some years of marriage, however, the princess became ill, and her condition quickly worsened. Guards were placed around the quarters where she and her husband lived to insure that he did not attempt to leave. And then she died and was carried off to the tomb, and the young man with her. He was given a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, and then the great iron doors of the tomb were closed, and he was left along with his wife, where he waited disconsolately for death. But after he had been waiting, seated near his wife's corpse for some time he saw a snake peer from a hole in the wall, and then slither into the room. The young man thought that it meant to eat of his wife's corpse, and he drew his sword and cut the snake into three pieces. Shortly another snake appeared at the opening, and seeing the first, quickly retreated back into the wall. It reappeared shortly, however, holding three leaves in its mouth. It drew the parts of the snake together, then put a leaf on each of the wounds. The first snake came back to life, and both slithered from sight.
The man picked up the three leaves and placed one on each of the princess' eyes and one on her mouth, and she presently returned to life. They beat on the door and made such a clamor that the guards heard them and let them out. After this, however, the princess was a changed woman, and instead of loving her husband she hated him. One day she and her husband went on a boat, and while he was sleeping she conspired with the captain, promising to marry him if he would help her kill her husband. The two of them took him up while he was still asleep and threw him overboard. Fortunately the man's servant overheard them, and when no one was looking lowered a boat and rowed back and searched until he found his master. The man was drowned, but the servant, who had the keeping of the snake leaves put one on each of the man's eyes and one on his mouth, and presently he came to life again. Then they rowed to shore and told the king what had happened.
The king hid the man and his servant behind the curtain, and presently the princess arrivied with the captain, weeping and bewailing the loss of her husband at sea. The king then drew the curtain back and confronted them with the true situation. And then because the the man had been willing to die with his wife, while she instead attempted to murder him, she and the wicked captain were placed in a boat full of holes, and it was set out to sea to float until it sank and they drowned.
The central details of this story are strikingly similar, almost identical to those of the story from ancient Crete discussed on the page "A Myth of Minoan Crete." That such specific detail could persist so long over so wide an area and such differences in language and culture suggests the mythic urgency of the story. The version from Grimm does not seem to recognize itself as myth, but the force of myth still works through it. It is a story of rebirth and actually highlights one aspect of rebirth that the other story does not mention, the fact that if one is reborn one is a "new" person, which means to a great degree a "different" person. When rebirth happens in the context of a religious ritual as in baptism, and perhaps at Eleusis, the results are expected to be predictably good, but a rebirth with no context is less predictable. There is, by the way, a mathmatical problem in the story--if the snake is cut into three pieces, there should only be two wounds rather than three. The story teller apparently was not good at math.
The next story, "The King of the Golden Mountain" is also from Grimm, and is also a story of snakes and rebirth, though it is not a close parallel in detail. I will, however, finish with a story that comes close to the Cretan story. This story too I will tell from memory.
The King of the Golden
Once there was a wealthy merchant who had ships at sea. But one day he heard that one of his ships had been lost in a storm, and then that another had been taken by pirates, and after a time he was reduced to poverty. All that was left to him was a small house in the countryside and a small plot of barren ground, and so he took up residence there with his wife and his small son. One day his was walking in his field bemoaning his misfortunes and wondering how he would feed himself and his family, when he came upon a small black imp.
"Why are you troubled?" asked the imp.
"It is nothing you can help me with," replied the man.
"You do not know that," said the imp.
And so then the man told his story, to which the imp responded, "I will restore your wealth to you, but only if you promise to give me whatever touches you first when you go home. The man agreed, thinking it would surely be his dog. But when the man approached his door, his young son ran out and wrapped his arms around the father's legs. The man was very distressed, but nothing came of it, nor did he recover his wealth, and so after a time he put the whole matter from his mind.
But then one day the merchant climbed into the attic, searching for something he could sell. He saw something gleaming on the floor at the far end of the low room, and when he went to see, he found that it was a pile of gold coins. Soon the merchant again had ships and was wealthier than before, and moved his family back to a great house in the city. Years passed, and the meeting with the imp was nearly forgotten. But then the merchant remembered the small cottage in the country with its few acres, and wondered if it could be put to any account. He went to look the property over, and when he was walking in the field he came upon the imp.
The imp reminded the merchant of his promise, and that payment was long overdue. The man offered any other payment the imp would accept, but the imp would not be moved from his claim, and so the man returned home in great distress of mind. That evening at supper the son noticed that his father was troubled, and asked him the cause. When the father had told his story, the son replied, "I will go with you, so that your part of the bargain will be fulfilled, but I have made no promise to the imp, and so I will not go with him. The next day the father and son went back to the field and found the imp waiting for them.
The imp demanded the son. The father said, "Here he is," and the son said, "I will not go with you." And so they wrangled for a long time with no outcome. At last, because the father had lost his claim, and the imp could not establish his, the placed the boy in a boat without oars and set it floating down the stream. It floated for a long time, coming to rest at last at the foot of a great castle. The young man got out and entered the castle, exploring it from top to bottom, but finding it empty, until finally he came to a deep cellar in which there was a huge serpent coiling and uncoiling itself. The boy turned to flee, but the serpent called after him, telling him that she was a princess who had been enchanted, and if he would stay three nights in the castle and not utter a word all night, she would be free of the enchantment and marry him and make him king of the goden mountain.
The first night twelve black imps appeared and scratched and bit and tormented the youth, but he did not speak a word, and just at midnight they all disappeared. The same happened on the second night. And then on the third, but then at midnight before they vanished, they cut off the youth's head. The princess, however, now free of her enchantment entered with a small vial containing the water of life and poured it over him and brought him back to life. He and the princess were married and lived very happily. But then one day the young man remembered his home and wished to see his family again. The princess was very reluctant for him to go, but finally agreed. She gave him a gold ring, and told him that he need only twist it on his finger to be wherever he wished, but that whatever he did, he was not to wish her there as well.
The youth wished himself home again, and suddenly found himself on a hillside just beyond the walls of his native city. He approached the gate, but the gatekeeper, neither recognizing him, or the strange cut of his garment refused him entry. And so the youth went out into the countryside and found a poor shepherd who willingly traded his ragged garments for fine ones. This time the youth had no difficulty being admitted. Soon he found his own house and knocked at the door, but when his mother answered she did not recognize him. When he insisted that he was her son, both mother and father admitted that they had once had a son, but said that he had been gone for many years, and was surely dead. Finally, he showed them a birthmark on his shoulder that they recognized, and they greeted him joyfully and took him into the house.
The parents were naturally eager to hear all that their son had done in his long absence, but when he told them that he was king of the golden mountain they looked at his poor clothes and laughed. Angry, the youth twisted the ring on his finger and wished his wife there to show them that he was telling the truth. He then remembered his promise, but his wife seemed to take it all in good humor, and so they spent a happy couple of weeks at his parents' house. But one day when the young man was out walking in the fields with the princess he lay down beside a stream and fell asleep. When he awoke, the princess was gone, and so was the ring. Therefore, he set out through the world in search of her.
One day, after he had travelled for a long time he passed three giants who were disputing over their inheritance, which consisted of a pair of seven league boots, a cloak of invisibility, and a sword that one need only draw and say "Heads off all around except mine," and it would cut off every head nearby. One of the giants noticed him and said, "There is one of the little people, and they are always clever. Let's call him over and let him divide it for us." The others agreed and so they asked the youth to divide their inheritance for them. "First," he said, we must see that it all works properly." He belted on the sword and stepped into the boots. Then he put on the cloak of invisibility and vanished from sight. One step and he was seven leagues away, and not many more brought him to the golden mountain.
When he arrived at the castle he heard the sound of music and revelry, and asked the porter at the door what it was about. The porter told him that the princess of the golden mountain was about to be married, and that no more guests were to be admitted to the castle. The youth went some distance away and put on his cloak of invisibility, then slipped into the castle, and finally came to the room in which a great feast was being held. He placed himself beside the princess, and whatever she put on her plate, he ate, and whatever she poured to drink, he drank, until finally troubled by the strange events she rose and went to her room. The youth threw off his cloak and told the guests that there was to be no wedding, for the princess was already married to him. The guests however went for their swords, and so he drew his and said "Heads off all around except mine." Then, when all the guests were dead, he went to his wife's room and reclaimed her, and they lived happily ever after.
In the story above, we have the serpent as being of rebirth, but instead of the leaves of immortality, we have the water. Water, itself, has many rebirth associations, as in Christian baptism, the fountain of youth, and far too much else to mention here, and there is a close parallel between the imagery of water and that of snakes, but that belongs in a discussion by itself. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest known work of literature, we have the snake, the herb, and the water all three together. The snake rises from the water, steals the herb of immortality and sheds his skin, this showing that he has the secret of renewal which the hero had been seeking. The voyage over water, especially without oars is a standard death image--see the story of Tristan, when he is put nearly dead into an oarless boat outside of Dublin harbor. The opening of this has parallels with "Beauty and the Beast," but being a story of a girl's coming of age, it takes a rather different turn. The fact that rebirth creates a new identity is shown in the fact that the youth is not at first admitted into hs own city and that his parents do not recognize him. If there is any significance to the gold or golden mountain, I do not see it, and suspect that it is merely typical folktale shorthand for rich. The castle is not even on a mountain, since the hero floats to it by water. There are also some details that to the rational mind might seem to be narrative absurdities, and if you demand the same standards of realism for a fairy tale that you would for a novel, then they are. Fairy tales, however, function like dreams at a level too far below the conscious mind for realism.
My final example is an episode from a saga rather than a complete fairy, or folk tale. It is from the werewolf episode in the Volsunga Saga. Rather than tell it from memory, I will use William Morris' translation. It is so close in its central detail to the story from Crete and to "The Three Snake Leaves," that there is an obvious connection. In this story, Sigmund and Sinfjotli, Sigmund's adolescent son by his sister, are living by robbery and murder on the roads while Sigmund is toughening up his son sufficiently for revenge on their enemy, King Siggeir.
Werewolves in the Volsunga Saga
Now on a time as they fare abroad in the woods for the getting of wealth, they find a certain house, and two men with great gold rings asleep therein: now these twain were spellbound skin-changers, and wolf-skins were hanging up over them in the house; and every tenth day might the come out of those skins; and they were kings' sons: so Sigmund and Sinfjotli do the wolf-skins on them, and then might they no-wise come out of them, though forsooth the same nature went with them as heretofore; they howled as wolves howl, but both new the meaning of that howling; they lay out in the wild-wood, and each went his way; and a word they made betwixt them, that they should risk the onset of seven men, but no more, and that he who was first to be set on should howl in wolfish wise: "Let us not depart from this," says Sigmund, "for thou art young and over-bold, and men will deem the quarry good, when they take thee."
Now each goes his way, and when they were parted, Sigmund meets certain men, and gives forth a wolf's howl; and when Sinfjotli heard it, he went straightway thereto, and slew them all, and once more they parted. But ere Sinfjotli has fared long through the woods, eleven men meet him, and he wrought in such wise that he slew them all, and was awearied therewith, and crawls under an oak, and there takes his rest. Then came Sigmund thither, and said--"Why didst thou not call on me?"
Sinfjotli said, "I was loth to call for thy help for the slaying of eleven men."
Then Sigmund rushed at him so hard that he staggered, and fell, and Sigmund bit him in the throat. Now that day they might not come out of their wolf-skins: but Sigmund lays the other on his back, and bears him home to the house, and cursed the wolf-gears and gave them to the trolls. Now on a day he saw where two weasels went, and how that one bit the other in the throat, and then ran straightway into the thicket and took up a leaf and laid it on the wound, and thereon his fellow sprang up quite and clean whole; so Sigmund went out and saw a raven flying with a blade of that same herb to him; so he took it and drew it over Sinfjotli's hurt, and he straightway sprang up as whole as though he had never been hurt.
Thereafter they went home to their earth-house, and abode there until the time came for them to put off the wolf-shapes; then they burnt them up with fire, and prayed that no more hurt might come to anyone from them; but in that uncouth guise the wrought many famous deeds in the kingdom and lordship of King Siggeir.
The odd feature of this story is that weasels have been substituted for snakes. The story is Icelandic, where there are no snakes, and the settlers are mostly from Norway or Ireland, themselves non-snaky places, but there are plenty of other snakes in literature from all three places. And why weasels? Weasels, of course, do have a reputation for viciousness, but they are also the snakiest of mammals--long, close to the ground, and tubular in shape. Their behavior with the leaves, though, is virtually identical to that of the snakes in the Minoan story and in "The Three Snake Leaves."
The werewolf, too, is an creature of transformation, though a negative one. I don't know any other story this early which sees the events from the werewolf's point of view, or sees the werewolf as tragic rather than merely dangerous. This view of the werewolf, of course, is developed much farther in 20th century wolfman films. I was sure that Sigmund and Sinfjotli could not change back until the changing of the moon, but that doesn't actually seem to be the case; apparently the moon association with transformation was working on my unconscious. There are many other stories that could develop the whole serpent and rebirth theme, but those will have to wait for a different page, which may or may not come into existence.
Myth and Archetype, the index for this group of pages.
A Myth of Minoan Crete--the companion page to this one.
Index: the general index for the whole Meadhall site.