(Excerpted from The Science of
Fairy Tales, 1891,
Chapter X: Swan Maidens
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 aifright, 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 feathersuit
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 Wak 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 determined 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 Wak--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 lesion, 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
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
Ivánovich, 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 Oesterbotten,
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
sofrightened 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." [d]
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. [e]
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 Huhnerberg. 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. [f]
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. [g]
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. [h]
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. Lu 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 Saniodivas; 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 pooi 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." [i]
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
wive 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? [j]
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. [k] 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 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 Hasari, the hero regains his love. A Tirolese mörc/zen
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 ja 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;
An offer of unbaked dough, or toes, the next day was
equally unsuccessful. She exclaimed:
"Llaith dy fara!
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.
"Cras dy fara,
One day some moist bread from the lake carfie 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.
"Now calls my mother (or, blows my father) in Engelland,
One day her husband came ilome 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. [o]
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. [p]
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. [q] 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.
Chapter XI: Swan Maidens contd.
The incident of the recovery of the bride not found in all the stones--New Zealand sagas--Andrianòro--Mother-right--The father represented under a forbidding aspect--Tasks imposed on the hero--The Buddhist theory of the Grateful Animals--The feather-robe a symbol of bride's superhuman character--Mode of capture--The Taboo--Dislike of fairies for iron--Utterance of name forbidden--Other prohibitions--Fulfilment of fate--The taboo a mark of progress in civilization--The divine ancestress--Totems and Banshees--Re-appearance of mother to her children--The lady of the Van Pool an archaic deity.
I HOPE I have made clear
in the last chapter the connection between the various types of the
Swan-maiden group of folk-tales. The one idea running through them all
is that of a man wedding a supernatural maiden and unable to retain
her. She must return to her own country and her own kin; and if he desire
to recover her he must pursue her thither and conquer his right to her
by undergoing superhuman penance or performing superhuman tasks,--neither
of which it is given to ordinary men to do. It follows that only when
the story is told of men who can be conceived as released from the limitations
we have been gradually learning during the progress of civilization
to regard as essential to humanity--only when the reins are laid upon
the neck of invention,--is it possible to relate the narrative of the
recovery of the bride. These conditions are twice fulfilled in the history
of a folk-tale. They are fulfilled, first, when men are in that early
stage of thought in which the limitations of nature are unknown, when
speculations of the kind touched upon in our second chapter, and illustrated
repeatedly in the course of this work, are received as undisputed opinions.
They are fulfilled again when the relics of these opinions, and the
memories of the mythical events believed in accordance with such opinions,
are still operative in the mind, though no longer with the vividness
of primitive times; when some. of them still hold together, but for
the most part they are decaying and falling to pieces, and are only
like the faded rags of a once splendid robe which a child may gather
round its puny form and make believe for the moment that it is a king.
To the genuine credulity of the South-Sea Islander, and to the conscious
make-believe of the Arab story-teller and the peasant who repeats the
modern märchen, all things are possible. But to the same peasant
when relating the traditional histories of his neighbours, and to the
grave medieval chronicler, only some things are possible, though many
more things than are possible to us. The slow and partial advance of
knowledge destroys some superstitions sooner, others later. Some branches
of the tree of marvel flourish with apparently unimpaired life long
after others have withered, and others again have only begun to fade.
Hence, where the adventures of Tawhaki, the mythical New Zealander,
are incredible, the legend of the origin of the Physicians of Myddfai
from the Lady of the Lake may still be gravely accepted. Gervase of
Tilbury would probably have treated the wild story of Hasan's adventures
in the islands of Wak as what it is; but he tells us he has seen and
conversed with women who had been captives to the Dracs beneath the
waters of the Rhone, while a relative of his own had married a genuine
descendant of the serpent-lady of that castle in the valley of Trets.
The heroine of a saga of the Gold Coast was really a
fish, but was in the form of a woman. Her husband had sworn tO her that
he would not allude in any wa.y to her home or her relatives; and, relying
on this promise, his wife had disclosed her true nature to him and taken
him down to her home. He was kindly received there, but was speared
by some fishermen, and only with difficulty rescued by his new relatives,
who enjoined him when he returned to earth with his wife to keep the
spearhead carefully concealed. It was, however, found and claimed by
its owner; and.to escape the charge of theft the husband reluctantly
narrated the whole adventure. No evil consequences immediately ensued
from this breach of his vow. But he had lately taken a second wife;
and she one day quarrelled with the first wife and taunted her with
being a fish. Upbraiding her husband for having revealed the secret,
the latter plunged into the sea and resumed her former shape. So in
the Pawnee story of The Ghost Wife, a wife who had died is persuaded
by her husband to come back from the Spirit Land to dwell again with
himself and her child. All goes well until he takes a second wife, who
turns out ill-tempered and jealous of the first wife. Quarrelling with
her one day, she reproaches the latter with being nothing but a ghost.
The next morning when the husband awoke, his first wife was no longer
by his side. She had returned to the Spirit Land; and the following
night both he and the child died in their sleep--called by the first
wife to herself. [w] These sagas bring us back to that of Melusina,
who disappears, it will be recollected, not when the count, her husband,
breaks the taboo, but when, by calling her a serpent, he betrays his
A name, indeed, is the cause of offence and disappearance
in many other of these stories. The chieftain of the Quins, who owned
the Castle of Inchiquin on the lake of that name, near the town of Ennis
in Ireland, found in one of the many caves of the neighbourhood a lady
who consented to become his bride, only stipulating that no one bearing
the name of O'Brien should be allowed to enter the castle gate. When
this prohibition was infringed she sprang through a window with her
child into the lake. The property has long since passed into the hands
of the O'Briens; and amid the ruins of the castle the fatal window is
still shown nearly as perfect as when the supernatural lady leaped through
it into the waters. It may be safely said that the primitive form of
the taboo has not come down to us in this tale, and that it owes its
present form to the fact that the O'Briens have acquired the estates
once owned by the Quins. Probably the utterance of some hateful name
was forbidden. But whatever name may have been able to disturb the equanimity
of the Lady of Inchiquin, we are now familiar enough with these superstitions
to understand why a holy name should be tabooed by the goat-footed fairy
wife of Don Diego Lopez in the Spanish tale narrated. by Sir Francis
Palgrave. "Holy Mary!" exclaimed the Don, as he witnessed
an unexpected quarrel among his dogs, "who ever saw the like?"
His wife, without more ado, seized her daughter and glided through the
air to her native mountains. Nor did she ever return, though she afterwards,
at her son's request, supplied an enchanted horse to release her husband
when in captivity to the Moors. In two Norman variants the lady forbids
the utterance in her presence of the name of Death. [x]
These high-born heroines had, forsooth, highly developed
sensibilities. The wife of a Teton (the Tetons are a tribe of American
natives) deserted him, abandoned. her infant to her' younger brother's
care, and plunged into a stream, where she became what we call a mermaid,--and
all because her husband had scolded her. In another American tale, where
the wife was a snake, she deserted him from jealousy. A Tirolese saga,
speaks of a man who had a wife of unknown extraction. She had bidden
him, whenever she baked bread, to pour water for her with his right
hand. He poured it once with the left, to see what would happen. He
soon saw, to his cost; for she flew out of the house. The Queen of Sheba,
according to a celebrated Arab writer, was the daughter of the King
of China and a Pen. Her birth came about on this wise. Her father, hunting,
met two snakes, a black one and a white, struggling together in deadly
combat. He killed the black one, and caused the white one to be carefully
carried to his palace and into his private apartment. On entering the
room the next day, he was surprised to find a lovely lady, who announced
herself as a Pen, and thanked him for delivering her the day before
from her enemy, the black snake. As a proof of her gratitude she offered
him her sister In marriage, subject, however, to the proviso that be
should never question her why she did this or that, else she would vanish,
never to be seen again. The king agreed, and had every reason to be
pleased with his beautiful bride. A son was born to them; but the lady
put it in the fire. The king wept and tore his beard, but said nothing.
Then a daughter of singular loveliness--afterwards Balkis, Queen of
Sheba--was born: a she-bear appeared at the door, and the mother flung
her babe into its jaws. The king tore out not only his beard, but the
hair of his head, in silence. A climax, however, came when, in the course
of a war, he and his army had to effect a seven days',march across a
certain desert. On the fifth day came the queen, a large knife in her
hand, and, slitting the provision-bags and the waterskins, strewed the
whole of the food upon the ground, and brought the king and his army
face to face with death. Her husband could no longer restrain himself
from questioning her. Then she told him that his vizier, bribed by the
enemy, had poisoned the food and water in order to destroy him and his
army, and that his son had a constitutional defect which would have
prevented him from living three days if she had not put him in the fire.
The she-bear, who. was no other than a trusty old nurse, brought back
his daughter at her call; but the queen herself disappeared, and he
saw her no more. The Nereid in the Cretan tale referred to in Chapter
IX obstinately refused to speak, although her lover had fairly conquered
her. But after she bore him a son, the old woman of whom he had previously
taken counsel advised him to heat the oven and threaten his mistress
that if she would not speak he would throw the boy into it. The Nereid
seized the babe, and, crying out:: "Let go my child, dog!"
tore it from his arms and vanished. It is related by Apollodorus that
Thetis, who was also a Nereid, wished to make her son immortal. To this
end she buried him in fire by night to burn out his human elements,
and anointed him with ambrosia by day. Peleus, her husband, was not
informed of the reason for this lively proceeding; and, seeing his child
in the fire, he called out. Thetis, thus thwarted, abandoned both husband
and child in disgust, and went back to her native element. In the great
Sanskrit epic of the Mahábhárata we are told that King
Sántanu, walking by a riverside one day, met and fell in love
with a beautiful girl, who told him that she was the river Ganges, and
could only maTry him on condition that he never questioned her conduct.
To this he, with a truly royal gallantry, agreed; and she bore him several
children, all of whom she threw into the river as soon as they were
born. At last she bore him a boy, BhIshma; and her husband begged her
to spare his life, whereupon she instantly changed into the river Ganges
and flowed away. Incompatibility of temper, as evidenced by three simple
disagreements, was a sufficient ground of divorce for the fairy of Llyn
Nelferch, in the parish of Ystradyfodwg, in Glamorganshire, from her
human husband. In a variant of the Maori sagas, to which I have more
than once referred, the lady quits her spouse in disgust because he
turns out not to be a cannibal, as she had hoped from his truculent
name, Kai-tangata, or man-eater. Truly a heartrending instance of misplaced
Many of these stories belong to the Star's Daughter.
type,--that is to say, are wanting in the taboo. But in every variant
of the Swan-maiden group, to whatsoever type it may belong, the catastrophe
is inevitable from the beginning. Whether or not it depends on the breach
of an explicit taboo, it is equally the work of doom. A legend of the
Loo-Choo Islands expresses this feeling in its baldest form. A farmer
sees a bright light in his well, and, on drawing near, beholds a woman
diving and washing in the water. Her clothes, strange in shape and of
a ruddy sunset colour, are hanging on a pine-tree near at hand. He takes
them, and thus compels her to marry him. She lives with him for ten
years, bearing him a son and a daughter. At the end of that time her
fate is fulfilled; she ascends a tree during her husband's absence,
and, having bidden her children farewell, glides off on a cloud and
disappears. Both in its approximation to the Hasan of Bassorah type
and in its attributing the separation of husband and wife to fate, this
tale agrees remarkably with the Lay of Weyland Smith, where we are told:
"From the south through Mirkwood, to fulfil their fates, the young
fairy maidens flew. The southern ladies alighted to rest on the sea-strand,
and fell to spinning their goodly linen. First Alirune, Cear's fair
daughter, took Egil to her bright bosom. The second, Swanwhite, took
Slagfin. But Lathgund, her sister, clasped the white neck of Weyland.
Seven winters they stayed there in peace, but the eighth they began
to pine, the ninth they must needs part. The young fairy maidens hastened
to Mirkwood to fulfil their fates." A Vidyadhari, too, who, in
the Kathásarit-sagara, is caught in the orthodox manner, dwells
with a certain ascetic until she brings forth a child. She then calmly
remarks to her holy paramour: "My curse has been brought to an
end by living with you. If you desire to see any more of me, cook this
child of mine with rice and eat it; you will then be reunited to me!"
Having said this, she vanished. The ascetic followed her directions,
and was thus enabled to fly after her. In one of the New Zealand variants
we are' told that the time came for Whai-tiri to return to her home.
The same thing is indicated to the wife in a Tirolese tale by means
of a voice, which her husband hears as he passes through the forest.
The voice cried: "Tell Mao that Mamao is dead." When he repeated
this to his wife she disappeared; and he never saw or heard of her after.
In view of these narratives there can be little doubt as to the meaning
of the Arab tradition of the she-demon, from whom one of the clans was
descended. Her union with their human father came suddenly to an end
when she beheld a flash of lightning. [z]
It will not have escaped the reader's attention, that
among the more backward races the taboo appears generally simpler in
form, or is absent altogether. Among most, if not all, of the peoples
who tell stories wherein this is the case, the marriage bonds are of
the loosest description; and there is, therefore, nothing very remarkable
in the supernatural bride's conduct. We might expect to find that as
advances are made in civilization, and marriage becomes more regarded,
the reason for separation would become more and more complex and cogent.
Am I going too far in suggesting that the resumption by the bride of
her bird or beast shape marks a stage in the development of the myth
beyond the Star's Daughter type; and the formal taboo, where the human
figure is not abandoned, a stage later still? In our view, indeed, the
taboo is not less irrational, as a means of putting an end to the marriage,
than the retrieved robe or skin. But we forget how recent in civilization
is the sanctity of the marriage-tie. Even among Christian nations divorce
was practised during the Middle Ages for very slight reasons, despite
the authority of popes and priests. In Eastern countries the husband
has always had little check on his liberty of putting away a wife for
any cause, or no cause at all; and, though unrecognized by the religious
books, which have enforced the husband's rights with so stern a sanction,
this liberty on his part may have been counterbalanced, oftener than
we think, by corresponding liberty on the wife's part. Beyond doubt
this has been so in India, where it is effected by means of marriage
settlements. In Bengal, for instance, a bridegroom is sometimes compelled
to execute a deed in which he stipulates never to scold his wife, the
penalty being a divorce; and deeds are not unknown empowering the wife
to get a divorce if her husband ever so much as disagree with her. [ab]
This is incompatibility of temper with a vengeance! Even the fairy of
Llyn Nelferch was willing to put up with two disagreements; and no taboo
in story has gone, or could go, further.
Moreover, some of the taboos are such as the etiquette
of various peoples would entirely approve, though breaches of them might
not be visited so severely as in the tales. I have already pointed out
that the Lady of the Van Pool would have had a legal remedy for blows
without cause. The romance lies in the wide interpretation she gave
to the blows, and their disproportionate punishment. These transfer
the hearer's sympathies from the wife to the husband. Precisely parallel
seems to be the injunction laid upon Hohodemi, by Toyotamahime, daughter
of the Sea-god. I know not, what may be the rule in Japan; but it is
probably not different from that which obtains in China. There, as we
learn from the Li KI, one of the Confucian classics, a wife in Toyotamahime's
condition would, even among the poor, be placed in a separate apartment;
and her husband, though it would be his duty to send twice a day to
ask after her, would not see her, nor apparently enter her room until
the child was presented to him to be named. Curiously enough the prohibition
in the Japanese tale is identical with that imposed by Pressina, herself
a waterfay, the mother of Melusina, according to the romance of Jean
d'Arras written at the end of the fourteenth century. Melusina and the
Esthonian mermaid laid down another ruleS: they demanded a recurring
period during which they would be free from marital intrusion.
Turning to the instances where ancestry is claimed,
we find that the chiefs of the Ati clan are descended from "the
peerless one" of Raratonga. The Arawâk Indians of Guiana
reckon descent in the female line. One of their families takes its name
from its foremother, the warlock's daughter who was provided with the
dogskin mentioned on a previous page. Another family deduces its name
and pedigree from an earth-spirit married to one of its ancestors; but
it does not appear whether any Swan-maiden myth attaches to her. The
fish puttin is sacred among the Dyaks. On no account will they eat it,
because they would be eating their relations, for they are descended
from the lady whose first and last form was a puttin. In other words,
the puttin is their totem. A family of the town of Chama on the Gold
Coast claims in like manner to be descended from the fish-woman of whose
story I have given an outline; and a legend to the same effect is current
at the neighbouring town of Appam; nor in either instance do the members
of the family dare to eat of the fish of the kind to which they believe
their ancestress belonged. The totem superstition is manifest in the
case of the Phoenician, or Babylonian, goddess Derceto, who was represented
as woman to the waist and thence downward fish. She was believed to
have been a woman, the mother of Semiramis, and to have thrown herself
in despair into a lake. Her worshippers abstained from eating fish;
though fish were offered to her in sacrifice, and golden fish suspended
in her temple. Melusina was the mother of the family of Lusignan. She
used to appear and shriek on one of the castle towers as often as the
head of the family, or a King of France, was to die, or when any disaster
was about to happen to the realm, or to the town of Luxemburg. She was
also the author of certain presages of plenty or famine. Similar legends
are told of the castles of Argouges and Ranes in Normandy. If the Irish
Banshee tales could be minutely examined, it is probable that they would
resolve themselves into stories of supernatural ancestresses. To the
Vila of the Illyrian story, and the fairy of Sir Francis Palgrave's
Spanish story, noble families attribute their origin. A family in the
Tirol is descended from the lady who insisted on her husband's pouring
water with his right hand; and the members of a noble Greek family have
the blood of a Nereid in their veins. [ae]
Though the heroine of the Van Pool might never return
to her husband, she was drawn back to earth by the care of her three
sons, who, by means of her instructions, became celebrated physicians.
On one occasion she accompanied them to a place still called Pant-y-Meddygon
(the hollow, or dinglé, of the physicians), and the-re pointed
out to them the various herbs which grew around, and revealed their
medicinal virtues. It is added that, in order that their knowledge should
not be lost, the physicians wisely committed the same to writing for
the benefit of mankind throughout all ages. A collection of medical
recipes purporting to be this very work still exists in a manuscript
preserved at Jesus College, Oxford, which is now in course of publication
by Professor Rhys and. Mr. J. Gwenogvryn Evans, and is known as the
Red Book of Hergest. An edition of the "Meddygon Myddfai,"
as this collection is called, was published by the Welsh MSS. Society
thirty years ago, with an English translation. It professes to have
been written under the direction of Rhiwallon the Physician and his
sons Kadwgan, Gruffydd, and Einion; and they are called "the ablest
and most eminent of the physicians of their time and of the time of
Rhys Gryg, their lord, and the lord of Dinevor, the nobleman who kept
their rights and privileges whole unto them, as was meet." This
nobleman was Prince of South Wales in the early part of the thirteenth
century; and his monumental effigy is in the cathedral of St. David's.
Mr. Gwenogvryn Evans, than whom there is no higher authority, is of
opinion that the manuscript was written at the end of the fourteenth
century--that is to say, about two hundred years after the date at which
the marriage between the youth of Blaensawdde and his fairy love is
alleged to have taken place; and it is believed by the editor of the
published volume to be a copy of a still more ancient manuscript now
in the British Museum. Yet it contains no reference to the legend of
the Van Pool. The volume in question includes a transcript of another
manuscript of the work, which is ascribed in the colophon to Howel the
Physician, who, writing in the first person, claims to be "regularly
descended in the male line from the said Einion, the son of Rhiwallon,
the physician of Myddfai, being resident in Cilgwryd, in Gower."
This recension of the work is much later in date than the former. A
portion Of it cannot be older than the end of the fifteenth century;
and the manuscript from which it was printed was probably the result
of accretions extending over a long period of time, down to the year
1743, when it was copied "from the book of John Jones, Physician
of Myddfai, the last lineal descendant of the family." The remedies
it contains, though many of them are antique enough, and superstitious
enough, are of various dates and sources; and, so far from being attributed
to a supernatural origin, they are distinctly said to "have been
proved to be the best and most suitable for the human body through the
research and diligent study of Rhiwallon" and his three sons. The
negative evidence of the "Meddygon Myddfai," therefore, tends
to show that the connection of the Van Pool story with the Physicians
is of comparatively recent date. [af]
And yet it is but natural (if we may use such an expression)
that a mythical creature like the Lady of the Lake should be the progenitor
of an extraordinary offspring. Elsewhere we have seen her sisters the
totems of clans, the goddesses of nations, the parents of great families
and renowned personages. Melusina gave birth to monsters of ugliness
and evil, [ag] and through them to a long line of nobles. So the heroine
of the Llanberis legend had two sons and two daughters, all of whom
were remarkable. The elder son became a great physician, and all his
descendants were celebrated for their proficiency in medicine. The second
son was a Welsh Tubal-cain. One of the daughters invented the small
ten-stringed harp, and the other the spinning wheel. "Thus,"
we are told, "were introduced the arts of medicine, manufactures,
music, and woollen work!" If, then, there were a family at Myddfai
celebrated for their leechcraft, and possessed of lands and influence,
as we know was the fact, their hereditary skill would seem to an ignorant
peasantry to demand a supernatural origin; and their wealth and material
power would not refuse the additional consideration which a connection
with the legend of the neighbouring pool would bring them.
Whatever he may have thought of these valuable directions,
they hardly seem to us sufficient to have brought the lady up from "the
bottomless pool of Corwrion" to utter. There is more sense in the
mother's song in a Kaflir tale. This woman was not of purely supernatural
origin. She was born in consequence of her (human) mother's eating pellets
given her by a bird. Married to a chief by whom she was greatly beloved,
it was noticed that she never went out of doors by day. In her husband's
absence her father-in-law forced her to go and fetch water from the
river for him in the daytime. Like the woman by the waters of the Rhone,
she was drawn down--into the river. That evening her child cried piteously;
and the nurse took it to the stream in the middle of the night, singing:
The mother thereupon came out of the water, and wailed
this song as she put the child to her breast:
The result of the information conveyed in these words
was her ultimate recovery by her husband with the assistance of her
mother, who was a skilful sorceress. [ah]
A Finnish tale belonging to the Cinderella group represents
the heroine as changed into a reindeer-cow by an ogress who takes her
place as wife and mother. But her babe will not be comforted; so a woman,
to whose care he is committed, carries him into the forest, and sings
the following incantation:
The reindeer cannot withstand this appeal. She casts
her skin, and comes in human form to suckle her child. This results,
after two repetitions in the husband's burning the reindeer hide and
clasping her in his arms. But, like Peleus, he has to hold her fast
in spite of various trans- -formations, until he has overcome the charm
and has her once more in her pristine shape! [ai]
I must not omit to add that the first Sunday in August
is kept in the neighbourhood of the Van Pool as the anniversary of the
fairy's return to the lake. It is believed that annually on that day
a commotion takes place in the lake; its waters boil to herald the approach
of the lady with her oxen. It was, and still is (though in decreasing
force), the custom for large numbers of people to make a pilgrimage
to witness the phenomenon; and it is said that the lady herself- appears
in mermaid form upon the surface, and combs her tresses. I have little
doubt that in this superstition we have the relic of a religious festival
in honour of an archaic divinity whose abode was in the lake. She has,
perhaps, only escaped being an enchanted princess by being a Welsh rather
than a German goddess. If the mermaid form be of genuine antiquity,--about
which I confess to a lurking suspicion,--it is another bond with the
Scottish stories, with Melusina and with Derceto. [ak]
We have now considered the principal points of the myth.
The feather-robe, or skin, we found absent from all its more archaic
examples. There, no change of form occurs, or when it does occur it
is accomplished by simple transformation. When present, the robe is
a mere symbol of the lady's superhuman nature, or else the result of
enchantment. These are more recent types, and are all, or nearly all,
märchen. In the later sagas, such as those of Melusina and the
Lady of the Van Pool, it is again absent; though relics of the change
of form frequently remain.
Capture of the Swan-maiden proper is effected by theft
of her robe: in other types either by main force, or more frequently
with her consent, more or less willingly given, or by her own initiative.
Lastly, we considered the Swan-maiden as divine ancestress.
We found her resident in heaven, we found her worshipped, we found her
as the totem of a clan. The totemistic stories are widely spread,--so
widely, indeed, as to afford a presumption that we have in them a clue
to the whole meaning of the myth. For not only have we the complete
totemistic form, as among the Dyaks and the tribes of the Gold Coast;
but we find the superstition fading through the goddess Derceto into
modern sagas of the supernatural mother of a family, who to her sometimes
owe extraordinary powers, and over whose fate she continually watches.
Here, then, our study of this beautiful myth must close. I am far from suggesting that the subject is exhausted. On the contrary, it is so large and so complex that I have rigidly abstained from anything more than a very imperfect examination of its principal features. On some of the points here partially discussed I shall have something more to add in our final chapter, when discussing certain theories on the fairy beliefs.
Notes to Chapter X
 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. 1. p, 409.
[d] Brett, "Legends and Myths," p. 29. This
legend is told with further details by Im Thurn, p. 381.
[e] Rink, p. 145; Prym und Socin, p. 51.
[f] Knoop, p. 104.
[g] "F. L. Espan." vol. i. p. 187.
[h] 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 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 off. spring are still to be seen (Dr. Karl Blind in "Contemp.
Rev." 1881, quoted by Mac Ritchie, p. 4).
[i] Kirby, p. 3l9; "Arch. Rev." vol. ii. p.
9o; Schmidt, p. 133; Bent, p. 13 Von Hahn, vol. 1. p. 295 (cf vol. ii.
p. 82); Garnett, p.352, translating Dozon's "Chansons Populaires
Bulgares"; Cosquin, vol. ii. p. z8. Cf. Ralston, "Tibetan
Tales," p. 53; Landes, p. 523; Comparetti, vol. i. p. 212, translated
"F. L. Record," vol. ii. p. 12; Grimm, " Tales,"
vol. ii. p. 335; Poestion, p. 55; Vernaleken, p. 274; Pitré,
vol. iv. p. 540; Sastri, p. 80.
[j] Leland, p. 300. Cf. ibid. p. 140, where the maidens
are called weasels, and ultimately marry stars. "Y Cymmeodor,"
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
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.
[k] "La Tradition," March 1889 p. 78, quoting
the Abbe Domenech, "Voyage pittoresque dans les déserts
du Nouveau Monde," p. 214. Mr. Farrer gives the same story from
"Algic Researches" (Farrer, "Primitive Manners,"
[l] Gerv. Tilb. Dec. i. c. 15.
[m] Brauns, p. 138; White, vol. ii. p. 141; Vernaleken,
p. 294 Schneller, p. 23; Ortoli, p. 284.
[n] "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
axe not such as to inspire confidence.
[o] Jahn, p. 364, el seqq.; Knoop, pp. 26, 83, 103;
Kuhn, pp. 47, 197, 374; Kuhn und Schwartz, pp. 14, 95, 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.
[p] Jannsen, vol. 1. p. 53; Thorpe, vol. iii. p. 70,
quoting Afzelius, voL ii. p. 29, quoting Mullenhoff. It is a common
Teutonic belief that knot-holes are attributable to elves (Grimm, "Teut.
Myth." p. 461).
[q] "Am Urds-Brunnen," vol. vi. p. 58.
Notes to Chapter XI
[a] Grey, p. 66; Taylor, p. 138; White, vol. i. pp.
95, 115, et seqq., vol. ii. p. 127, et seqq.
[b] "F. L. Journal," vol. i. p. 202; "Revue
des Trad. Pop." vol. iv. p. 305.
[c] Von Hahn, vol. ii. p. 78. In illustration of these
remarks on marital relations in a society where female kinship only
is recognized, let me quote the following paragraph concerning Maori
customs. The Maories, it must be borne in mind, have only recently emerged
from this stage; and many relics of it remain.
[d] Not entirely: see Burton, "Suppl. Nights,"
vol. vi. p. 363; "F. L. Journal," vol. i. p. 284; Sastri,
[e] In speaking of a type as more or less recent than
another, it must be recollected that I am not speaking of chronological
order, but of the order of development. For aught we know, the story
of the Marquis of the Sun may as a matter of date be actually older,
could we trace it, than the far more archaic story of Tawhaki. But the
society in which it took shape was more advanced than that disclosed
in the Maori legend.
[f] Webster, p. 120; Campbell, vol i. p. 25; "Mèlusine,"
vol. i. p. 446; "F. L. Espan" vol. i. p. 187; Schneller, p.
71; Imbriani, p. 411; Cosquin, vol. i. pp. 9, 25; Sébillot, "Contes,"
vol. i. p. 197; Grundtvig, vol. i. p. 46; Cavallius, p. 255; Maspons
y Labros, p. 102; "F. L. Journal," vol. i. p. 284, quoting
[g] Waldau, p. 248; Ralston, "R. F. Tales,"
p. 120, from Afanasief.
[h] Compare the assistance rendered by the birds to
Tini-rau, suprà, p. 286. The Eskimo hero is conveyed to his wife
on a salmon's tail (Rink, p. 545). Where is the Buddhist pedigree of
this incident, or the evidence of Buddhist influence which produced
[i] Sastri, p. So; Cosquin, vol. ii. pp. 59, 18; Ralston,
"Tibetan Tales," p. 72; "F. L. Journal," vol. ii.
p. 9; Vernaleken, p. 280.
[j] "F. L. Journal," vol. vii. p. 358; Pitré,
vol. iv. pp. 391, 450. A variant given by Prof. De Gubernatis is nearly
allied to the Cinderella group ("Novelline," p. 29); Brett,
[k] Basset, p. 161, quoting Bresnier, "Cours de
langue Arabe." In a Maya story given by Dr. Brinton, the husband
prevents his wife's trans. formation in a different way--namely, by
throwing salt (" F. L. Journal," vol. i. p. 255).
[l] "Journ. Ethnol. Soc." N. S., vol ii. p.26;
Giles, passim; Brauns, p. 388.
[m] "Y Cymmrodor," vol. v. p. 94
[n] Map, Dist. ii. c. II.
[o] Map, Dist. ii. c. 12.
[p] "Y Cymmrodor," vol. iv. p. 201. Nothing
turns on the actual names in these stories; they have been evidently
much corrupted,--probably past all recognition.
[q] Ibid. p. 189; vol. v. pp. 59, 66; vol. vi. p. 196.
[r] Pliny l. xvi. c. 95; Thorpe, vol. ii. pp. 275, 277;
Stephens, p. 248, citing the "Barzas Breiz."
[s] The above paragraphs had scarcely been written when
the London papers (June 1890) reprinted extracts from a letter in the
Vassitche Zeitung relating the adventures of Dr. Bayol, the Governor
of Kotenon, who was recently imprisoned by the bloodthirsty King of
Dahomey. The king was too suspicious to sign the letter written in his
name to the President of the French Republic. In all probability he
was unwilling to let the President have his sign manual, for of course
M. Carnot would have no hesitation in bewitching him by its means.
[t] Keightley, p. 121, quoting from Thiele; Thorpe,
vol. iii. p. 155.
[u] Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (Public Record
Comm. 1841) pp 44, 252. (The Dimetian code was the one in force at Myddfai;
but that of Gwynedd was similar in this respect.) Farrer, p. 256.
[v] Campbell, vol. iii. p. 403; Mac limes, p. 211; Wratislaw,
p. 314. Cf. a similar story told by a peasant to Dr. Krauss' mother
no longer ago than 1888, as having recently happened at Mrkopolje: be
"knew the parties!" (Kratiss, "Volksgl." p. 107).
[w] Ellis, p. 208; Grinnell, p. 129.
[x] "Choice Notes," p. 96; cf. Jahn, p. 364,
cited above, p. 279. (Kennedy relates the story of the Lady of Inchiquin
differently. According to him the husband was never to invite company
to the castle. This is probably more modern than the other version.
Kennedy, p. 282.) Keightley, p. 458, quoting the Quarterly Review, vol.
xxii. Sir Francis Palgrave, though an accurate writer, was guilty of
the unpardonable sin of invariably neglecting to give his authorities.
Ibid. p. 485, quoting Mdlle, Bosquet, "La Normandie Romanesque."
[y] "Journal Amer. F. L." vol ii. p. 137;
vol. i. p. 76; Schneller, p. 210; "Rosenöl," vol. i.
p. 562; Child, vol. 1. p. 337, quoting Schmidt and Apollodorus; "Panjab
N. & Q.," vol. ii. p. 207. (In this form the story is found
as a tradition, probably derived from the Mahábhárata.)
"Trans. Aberd. Eistedd." p. 225; White, vol. i. p. 126.
[z] Dennys, p. 140; "Corpus Poet. Bor." vol.
i. p. 168; "Kathásarit-ságara," vol. ii. p.
453, cf. p. 577; White, vol. i. p. 88; Schneller, p. 210; Robertson
Smith, p. 50.
[aa] Gill, p. 265.
[ab] "Indian N. & Q." vol. iv. p. 147.
[ac] "Sacred Books of the East," vol xxvii.
pp. 471, 475,476; "Indian N. & Q." vol. iv. p. 147.
[ad] Romilly, p. 134 Landes, p. 123.
[ae] Bent, p. 13. The Nereids in modern Greek folklore
are conceived in all points as Swan-maidens. They fly through the air
by means of magical raisnent (Schmidt, p. 133).
[af] See my article on the "Meddygon Myddfai,"
entitled "Old Welsh Folk Medicine," "Y Cymmrodor,"
vol. ix. p. 227.
[ag] A certain German family used to excuse its faults
by attributing them to a sea-fay who was reckoned among its ancestors;
Birlinger, "Aus Schwaben," vol. i. p. 7, quoting the "Zimmerische
[ah] Theal, p. 54. The Teton lady who became a mermaid
was summoned, by singing an incantation, to suckle her child; "Journal
Amer. F. L." vol. ii. p. 137.
[ai] Schreck, p. 71.
[aj] Poestion, p. 55; "Cymru Fu," p. 474.
[ak] "V Cymmrodor," vol. iv. p. 177, vol vi. p. 203. I have also made inquiries at Ystradgynlais, in the neighbourhood of the lake, the results of which confirm the statements of Professor Rhys' correspondents; but I have failed to elicit any further information.
Hartland, Edwin Sidney. The Science of Fairy Tales.
New York: Scribner & Welford, .