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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif B280

Animal weddings. RTP V 16, VIII 552, JAFL XXXV 392ff. – Japanese: Anesaki 334f.; India: Thompson-Balys.


Z28.1. Louse and flea wish to marry.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

B. Marvelous Beings and Objects

1. Marvelous Animals

Perhaps the best known of all marvelous animals is the dragon (B11 and subdivisions), and there seems little doubt that for the Occident, at least, the dragon legends are organically related. But whether the fire-breathing, many-headed monster authenticated in the legend of Saint George is actually the same creature as the gigantic luck-bringing dragon of China is by no means clear. At least in Western tradition, the dragon seems to be conceived of as a kind of crocodile or alligator with something of the shape of a scorpion, or perhaps of a lizard. He seems quite generally to be a fire-breather and though sometimes he has only one head, he more usually has either three, seven, or [p. 244] nine. These heads have the power of growing back unless they are all cut off at once. As in Beowulf, popular fancy has very often pictured the dragon as the guardian of treasure and the devastator of a country. This seems to be a popular belief, and it is therefore no great stretch of the imagination for the teller of folktales to picture the dragon as the creature who comes to the king's court and demands human sacrifices. Such stories as The Dragon Slayer (Types 300 and 303) undoubtedly rest upon a secure basis of popular belief.

The dragon is only one of a considerable number of frightful monsters which roam the land. And the sea has also its marvelous beings, sometimes terrifying and sometimes kindly and well disposed. Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea with whom Odysseus came to grips, and Scylla and Charybdis illustrate the way in which old ideas of this kind have survived in the highly developed Greek mythology. The Sirens were dangerous, to be sure, but they were fair to look upon, and this is true also of the mermaids (B81), who inhabit not only the seas known to Greek sailors, but many more modern waters. These ladies, half woman, half fish, perhaps command as widespread a real belief as any other creatures of human fancy. There are not actually many specific tales about the adventures of mermaids, merely accounts of hundreds of people who say they have seen them. As a popular concept they have furnished subjects for art, and one of them sits, through sunshine and storm (in bronze), on a rock in the harbor of Copenhagen.

There are also mermen (B82), but so far as I know, they are never mates of the mermaid. Each of them seeks to lure a human being as spouse into the cold sea-caves. Matthew Arnold's The Forsaken Merman tells with inimitable charm one of the best known of all merman legends (C713): how the human wife of the merman is drawn back to earth by the sound of the church bells and how, when she has once come under their spell, he has lost her forever, and how he and their children must go back alone to their home under the waves


              Where great whales go sailing by,

              Sail and sail with unshut eye

              Around the world forever and aye.


These two inhabitants of the sea are illustrative of a very large body of tradition about water-spirits (F420 and subdivisions). Sometimes these creatures are associated with the ocean or the seas, but an even larger number inhabit lakes and streams. Greek mythology, of course, knew many such beings. But the traditions of all parts of Europe are rich with their presence.

Sometimes they are not to be distinguished from fairies, and many of the beliefs about fairies are ascribed to them. Though sometimes these water-spirits have partly an animal form, they are often purely human in appearance. [p. 245]

To animals themselves, even when there is no touch of human physical attributes, popular fancy has ascribed many marvelous qualities. Talking beasts (B210) are a commonplace in folktales and seem to be very generally believed in. But even more widespread is the faith that certain animals have superhuman powers of perception or wisdom (B120-B169). Birds, serpents, or fishes give good advice or reveal hidden secrets. Animals may also see ghosts or spirits invisible to human eyes. Some of them may utter prophecies, and nearly all can furnish omens of good or bad luck. Very widespread is the idea that the actions of an animal may properly determine some great decision—what road to take, or where a building or a city should be founded. One group of legends, familiar to all who know the Siegfried story, tells how wisdom is acquired from some animal. Most often this takes place when the magic serpent or fish is eaten, but sometimes the animal merely teaches the human being the secrets of wisdom. [381]

Although popular beliefs have thus ascribed superhuman wisdom to some animals, there is every tendency for folk tradition to minimize the differences between man and beast. [382] Sometimes heroes may assume either quality at will, but very frequently we have tales about animals who have nothing human except certain habits and ways of thinking.

We learn nothing from popular tradition about the remarkable social arrangements in the actual lives of such creatures as ants or bees. The animal society is conceived purely in terms of the human. There are kings over each species of wild and domestic beasts (B220 and B240). Large assemblies are imagined in which the birds, and sometimes other animals, form parliaments for legislation or for the election of rulers (B230; Types 220 and 221). Chaucer's Parlement of Foules is only the culmination of a long line of these traditions. Saints' legends are particularly fond of stories illustrating the pious acts of religiously inclined beasts. Most picturesque of all such beliefs is that about the oxen who kneel in their stalls on Christmas Eve or who speak to each other at that time in praise of the newborn Saviour (B251.1.2). Many a skeptic has felt like the unbelieving Thomas Hardy when he went to the ox's stall on Christmas night "hoping it might be so."

Several of the folktales which we have already examined tell of regular war fare (B260) between groups of animals, the wild and domestic beasts, or the birds and quadrupeds (Types 104 and 222). Animals likewise enter into legal relationships (B270). The commonest legends of this kind concern trial and execution for crimes (B272.2 and B275.1). Of course, such proceedings were much more than mere traditions among our ancestors, and we still hold the sheep-killing dog responsible for his murders.

Most extensive of all the traditions concerning the manlike activities of animals have to do with weddings between members of different species [p. 246] (B280). Stories of this kind are certainly very old: they appear in early versions of the Aesop fables. [383] They were especially cultivated in the literature of the Middle Ages, often in the form of risqué songs or poems. One of the best known of American folksongs, "Frog Went a-Courting," is an elaboration of this motif.

Zoologists find many items of especial interest in the beliefs and legends that have grown up about extraordinary animal characteristics (B720-B749). These are usually mere beliefs, rather than localized stories, but over a huge portion of the world the existence of many of these phenomena are devoutly believed in. Such is the magic stone or jewel which is found in the head of a serpent, and sometimes of a dog. Sometimes such a jewel is luminous and shines with a light of its own. It is generally believed that such shining happens with a cat's eye. As for the breathing of fire, this is not confined to dragons, but is a power shared by lions, birds, or even horses.

As for extraordinary habits in animals (B750), popular fancy has never been able to reach the extremes of the medieval clerics who wrote The Physiologus and other bestiaries. But there is a widespread belief that snakes swallow their young to protect them, that the swan sings as she dies, that a snake will not die before sunset, that a turtle will hold with its jaws until it hears thunder, that a snake may take its tail in its mouth and roll like a wheel, that snakes milk cows at night, that a cat sucks the breath of a sleeping child, and that a salamander subsists on fire.

Aside from general beliefs, there are, of course, some specific legends about animals. One of these, for example, is about a cat whose master has been told that upon his return home he should say, "Robert is dead" (B342). [384] Robert is one of the cat's companions, and as soon as he hears this, the cat leaves for good.

[381] See p. 260, below.

[382] For the animal hero with human characteristics, see p. 217, above.

[383] For this motif, see Type 224, p. 224, above.

[384] The same tale is told in which some kind of house spirit takes the place of the cat (F405.7).


104, 220, 221, 222, 224, 300, 303


B11, B81, B82, B120-B169, B210, B220, B230, B240, B251.1.2, B260, B270, B272.2, B275.1, B280, B342, B720-B749, B750, C713, F405.7, F420