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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif D759.1

Disenchantment by taking key from serpent’s mouth at midnight. The disenchanter is to take the key (three keys) from the mouth of the woman in serpent form with his own mouth. – Hartland Science 240; Tobler Epiphanie der Seele 74.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

D. Marvelous Powers and Occurrences

1. Transformation and Disenchantment

Not only in connection with ideas of the soul is popular tradition inconsistent and impossible to subject to neat labels. Tales, of reincarnation and transformation, for example, are very hard to separate with any feeling of assurance. A person or animal or object changes its form and appears in a new guise, and we call that transformation; but if the living being dies between the two stages, we have reincarnation. Yet in spite of this clear theoretical distinction, we have a great interchange of motifs between these two categories.

The mythologies of all peoples are filled with metamorphoses, most of which do not imply death and return. The great role such events played in Greek myth is witnessed by Ovid's famous collection of tales gathered around this central concept. Transformation is also a commonplace assumption in folktales everywhere. Many of such motifs are frankly fictions, but a large number represent persistent beliefs and living tradition. [p. 259]

One of the most picturesque of these beliefs concerns the Werewolf (D113.1.1), the man who periodically turns into a frightful wolf. In his human form the werewolf is frequently gentle and kindly, and the change of form may be involuntary. As a wolf, he often combines human mind and memory with wolflike cruelty and voracity. It is not always easy to recognize whether a man is a werewolf, [406] and thus almost anyone may be suspected. A number of stories are told as to how such recognition comes about, such as the Estonian and Finnish tale of the knife carried away by a wolf and later found in possession of a man (H132).

The first part of the werewolf story, the transformation, has many parallels. Of these, one of the most interesting is that of the Swan Knight (D536.1) in which the transformation occurs because a chain is taken off his neck. This is the Lohengrin legend, known also in the medieval romance of Chevelere Assigne. The recognition of the werewolf is paralleled by a widely known tale of the woman who turns into a cat and assumes witch's powers. Her husband, the miller, cuts off one of the cat's paws when she is trying to bewitch the mill at night. The next morning the woman's hand is missing and the mystery is cleared (D702.1.1).

Stories of transformation almost always imply eventual disenchantment, if not a periodic shift from one state to another. Disenchantment usually involves some kind of breaking of a magic spell. In folktales we have already noticed the efficacy of cutting off heads or even of taking off bridles, and dozens of similar means (D700-D799). But in addition to these commonplace methods—almost stock incidents in fictional folktales—there are several interesting and well defined disenchantment legends. Three of them have the central idea of disenchantment when the afflicted person succeeds in winning the love, or at least the embraces, of a normal human being. Not only in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale and related medieval romances, but in oral tradition also, is found the motif of the Loathly Lady (D732). She can be released from the spell that puts on her a disgusting face and figure when she is actually taken to wife and embraced by a handsome man. Similar in its principal features is the tale of the White Lady or The Three Redeeming Kisses (D735.2). Here the woman can be disenchanted from her animal form if the man will kiss her three times, each time when she is in the form of a different terrifying animal. The sexes are reversed in the legend of the Hairy Anchorite (D733.1). This beast-like hermit is seduced by a beautiful woman and thereupon becomes thoroughly human and handsome.

The breaking of the enchanting spell sometimes depends upon a complicated succession of events (D791). A few examples will stand for a large variety of such traditions. The disenchanter is to take a key with his own mouth from the mouth of the enchanted woman, who is in serpent form (D759.1). Or disenchantment may happen when some superhuman task is [p. 260] finished. Such is true of the enchanted person who appears every seven years in human form and puts one stitch in a garment. She will be delivered when the garment is finished (D791.1.2). Perhaps best known of these detailed disenchantment stories is The Deliverer in the Cradle (D791.1.3). Here it is understood that the enchanted person can only be delivered by a child rocked in a cradle from an oak sapling after the tree has grown great.

[406] Compare the same idea in connection with the recognition of witches, p. 251, above.


D113.1.1, D536.1, D700-D799, D702.1.1, D732, D733.1, D759.1, D791, D735.2, D791.1.2, D791.1.3, H132