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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif F555.3.1

Nude woman clothed in own hair (Godiva). *Fb ”hår“ I 771b; Type 710; *BP I 21; England: Baughman.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

F. Legends of Places and Persons

In a somewhat systematic way, we have reviewed a number of those popular beliefs which have found a place in the traditional stories of Europe and western Asia. Nearly always the important thing about such traditions has been the underlying belief, and the exact form of the story illustrating this belief has frequently been a matter of indifference. If we think of the avowedly fictional folktale—the wonder story like The Dragon Slayer or Faithful John—as one extreme of folk tradition and actual beliefs in various supernatural manifestations as the other, we shall notice that in the accounts just reviewed of origin legends, strange animals, and marvelous manifestations, we have been moving in an area much closer to actual belief than to fiction.

But sharp lines are hard to draw; and many traditions strongly attached to particular places or persons have tendencies to wander, so that it is frequently hard to determine the original location or person about whom the legend grew up. Such stories, because of their great mobility, are often very near to fiction, though usually some effort is made at localization and at other means of suggesting that we are listening to a true tale rather than to some flight of fancy. No generalization is safe about how much actual belief is accorded legends of this kind. All depends upon the attitude of teller and hearer.

But whenever there has been conscious transfer of one of these traditions from place to place or from person to person it would seem that, at least for the story-teller, we have the conscious creation of fiction. Every country has some migratory legends of this kind, so that a listing of all of them would be unduly tedious. In addition to these tales of limited area, however, there are a considerable number known pretty well throughout the western world. Some of them have remained on the purely oral [p. 264] level, and some have taken their place in literature, although unmistakably popular in origin.

This literary development of a very widely known mythological concept is clearly seen in the last chapter of the Arthur legend, where it is confidently asserted that the great king will one day return in the hour of his people's need (A580). This belief is usually held concerning some god or demigod whose second coming is awaited by the faithful. It is found in most parts of the world, and is not peculiar to any one of the great religions.

Of the localized legends about animals, two have had extensive migrations. To Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, have long been attached the story of how they were suckled by the she-wolf (B535). But the animal nurse is not always a wolf, and she is found ministering to children almost anywhere. The same type of popularity is accorded to the legend of Llewellyn and his Dog (B331.2) in which the master returns and finds that the child who has been trusted to the dog is covered with blood. He thereupon kills the dog, only to find that the blood has come from a snake which threatened the child's life and which the faithful dog has killed. [412] This tale keeps being reported from various parts of the world as an actual happening, and it may, of course, depend in last resort upon a real event.

Tales of magic have not usually resulted in well-formed traditions that persist in all details. We hear much about witches in general and about magic powers, and we have already noticed a few cases, like the moving of the rocks at Stonehenge, in which a magic act is attached to a well-known historical or legendary character. There are, to be sure, a series of literary legends concerning Virgil as a magician (D1711.2), and a similar series concerning Solomon (D1711.1), though none of these has ever been adopted by the oral story-teller. Much nearer to real folklore is the Pied Piper of Hamelin (D1427.1), the tale of the magician who, in revenge for the failure of the city to pay him when he has piped away its rats, uses his pipe to entice all the children into a cave and underground. This tale has traveled so that Hamelin is but one of several cities which have their Pied Pipers. More definitely attached to a particular place is the story of Bishop Hatto and the Mouse Tower (Q415.2), familiar to all who have made the trip by steamer up the Rhine. The Bishop is punished for his hardheartedness by being devoured by swarms of mice or, as it is sometimes told, of rats.

In another connection we have noticed the story of The Sleeping Army [413] which is only waiting to come back from the dead at the moment of supreme need. Hardly to be distinguished from this legend is that usually known as [p. 265] Kyffhäuser (D1960.2) from the mountain in which the aged Barbarossa sits through the ages surrounded by his men. Whether this is death or magic sleep, his beard has grown through the table (F545.1.3) from long sitting and he, too, will not stir except to rescue his folk when they need him most. This story of the sleeping king belongs, of course, definitely to medieval historical legend. But the related tale of The Seven Sleepers (D1960.1) is much older and is connected with the early days of the struggling Christian Church. The legend of these pious young men who awake in their cave after a sleep of many years is attached to the city of Ephesus. But there have been a series of analogous tales extending over the centuries to Rip Van Winkle and beyond.

However prominent a part of folk thought the idea of tabu is, it has not formed the central motif of many definite legends. To be sure, the Biblical tradition of Lot's wife looking back and being turned into the pillar of salt (C961.1) has appealed to the popular imagination and is generally known and frequently told. One prominent historical tradition, that of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom, does rest upon the enormity of violating an express prohibition (C312.1.2). This legend, it will be remembered, is attached to the city of Coventry in late Anglo-Saxon times. In order to free the townspeople of a grievous tax, Lady Godiva agrees to ride the full length of the city nude, and clothed only in her long hair (F555.3.1). The citizens are all commanded to shut their windows and stay indoors and all obey except one. Peeping Tom is stricken with blindness because of his disobedience (C943).

Several marvelous legends, told of ancient Greek gods or heroes, have lived on and are met even today in unexpected quarters. Such, for instance, is the group of legends around King Midas: the person with the ass's ears (F511.2.2); the magic reed which grows from the hole where the king has whispered his secret and which spreads the secret to the rest of the world (D1316.5); the king's barber who discovers the monstrous ears and who lets the world know (N465); and especially King Midas's power to turn all things into gold, and his distress when his wish is fulfilled (J2072.1).

The myth of Orpheus and his descent to the world of the dead to bring back his wife (F81.1) lived on into the Middle Ages, both in the literary romance and the popular ballad. There has been a transfer of the action from the world of the dead to the land of the fairies and, although the name of Orpheus has been retained, some of the details have dropped out, such as the marvelous harping and the prohibition against looking at the wife on the way out and the consequent failure of the mission. The general outlines of this story with its journey to the otherworld to bring back the dear departed is of such universal interest that we might well expect to find parallels where there is little likelihood of actual contact. It is, however, surprising to learn that the analogous, tale among the North American Indians nearly always contains the prohibition about conduct on the return journey and in many [p. 266] cases the disastrous violation of this tabu. [414] All evidence, however, would indicate that, in spite of the resemblances, the so-called American Indian "Orpheus myth" is an independent growth.

Readers of Herodotus find one of the chief interests in his accounts of marvels and of other incredible traditions. Whatever may be his value as sober history, he is an excellent source for the legends and traditions of the Mediterranean world in his day. Some of his stories have worked themselves into the regular folktale repertories of many parts of Europe, [415] sometimes constituting complete tales and sometimes only subsidiary motifs. It is in the latter use that his legend of The Ring of Polycrates (N211.1) survives in modern folklore. The ring which the ruler has thrown into the sea is found the next day in a fish which is being prepared for his table. This motif fits into stories about lost magic objects or about the marvelous accomplishment of impossible tasks. [416]

Biblical legend, especially explanatory tales, are an important element in the folklore of Europe and a large part of Asia. [417] Such traditions are by no means confined to accounts of origins. A number of the well-known Bible stories, such as Ruth, Susanna and the Elders (J1153.1), Daniel in the Lions' Den, Jonah in the belly of the Fish (F911.4), and the like, keep being told with no substantial change. But certain of the biblical worthies have attracted to themselves appropriate legends not authorized by Scripture. Some of these have been propagated primarily through literary collections, Jewish [418] and others, though they have received a certain amount of acceptance in actual folklore. Solomon's wisdom, for example, is illustrated not only by the authorized story of the quarrel of the two women over the child and his offer to cut the infant in two and divide him (J1171.1), but also by much elaboration of detail concerning the visit of the Queen of Sheba. Perhaps most interesting of these is the account of the riddles which she propounds and which he always answers correctly (H540.2.1). [419] Likewise, the contest of wits between king and servant, frequent in European tales, is often ascribed to Solomon and his man Marcolf (H561.3; Type 921). Indeed, almost any legend dealing with a wise king may enter into the Solomon cycle. Such, for instance, is the story of the hidden old man whose wisdom [p. 267] saves the kingdom. In the famine, all of the old men are ordered to be killed. But one man hides his old father and when all goes wrong in the hands of the young rulers, the old man comes to the rescue (J151.1). [420] To Solomon is also ascribed the tale of The Widow's Meal (J355.1). The king upbraids the wind for blowing away a poor widow's last cup of meal. But when he finds that the wind has saved a ship full of people by that very act, he acknowledges, in all humility, the superior wisdom of God.

The Bible contains several incidents parallel to motifs well known in other connections in European and Asiatic folklore. The exact relation between these traditions and the Scriptures is not always clear, for we do not know certainly which is dependent upon the other. In the story of Moses, for example, we learn that he was abandoned in a basket of rushes (L111.2.1); and the same general legend is attached to Cyrus, to Beowulf, and to many less known heroes. The adventures of Joseph, likewise, contain incidents paralleled not only in folktales [421] and in classical Greek literature, but also in miscellaneous popular legends. The prophecy of future greatness coming from a dream (M312.0.1), and the vain attempt to get rid of the youth who has had the dream (M370) are found in several folktales. The same general pattern also occurs in the story of Oedipus, though here the infant is exposed (M371) in order to avoid the carrying out of the predicted murder of his father and marriage to his mother. All of these motifs concerning the avoidance of fate have been rather freely used as traditional themes. Joseph's experience in Egypt with Potiphar's wife (K2111) is paralleled not only in the legend of Bellerophon, in the Iliad, but also in the old Egyptian story of The Two Brothers. [422] Similar tales of temptresses and false accusations are found in many traditions, some certainly not directly dependent upon the Joseph story.

Such are some of the legends of classical antiquity and of Biblical or Apocryphal literature which have lived on through the centuries. There are, of course a legion of anecdotes about historical characters which have been repeated in many literary collections but have in no sense become a part of popular legend. Such is true of the stories about Socrates and Xantippe, and about Diogenes. One tale about the painter Zeuxis (also told of Apelles) came to be ascribed to various artists of the Renaissance. Two artists compete in the painting of realistic pictures. The first paints a mare so realistic as to deceive a stallion, whereupon the second paints a curtain which deceives the first artist. Variations in details appear: sometimes a fly is painted on the nose of some figure in the painting and the other artist involuntarily tries to drive the fly away (H504.1).

A widely known legend connecting the ancient and modern worlds is [p. 268] that of the Wandering Jew (Q502.1), the blasphemer punished with inability to die and restlessly going from place to place from the days of Christ down to our own. This is but the best known of a number of medieval legends directed against the Jews. Another is the persistent tale of a Christian child killed to furnish blood for a Jewish rite (V361). This legend is best known in connection with Hugh of Lincoln, and is familiar to all readers of Chaucer's Prioress's Tale.

Popular stories concerning kings and their adventures were particularly common in the Middle Ages, and many of these have become truly traditional. Of the boyhood of a number of future kings the story is told of how the child first learns of his illegitimacy when he is taunted by his playmates (T646). Sometimes an earlier chapter in his adventures has told of how a royal lover has left with a peasant girl certain tokens to be given to their child if it should turn out to be a son (T645). In perhaps the most famous of such tales, Sohrab and Rustem (N731.2), we have an example of another widespread tradition. Unaware of each other's identity, the father and son engage in mortal combat and the son is killed, to the everlasting grief of the father.

Kings are so in the habit of assuming command that they sometimes lose all humility and need to be given a lesson. King Alfred in disguise is beaten by the peasant for letting the cakes burn (P15.1), and the same tale has been repeated with variations about other royal figures. Much beloved also have been the stories of Canute and of Robert of Sicily. The former is said to have placed his throne on the beach and to have vainly forbidden the tides to rise and surround it (L414). Robert of Sicily comes out of his bath to find that an angel in his form has taken his place and that he himself is regarded as an impostor. He is repulsed on all sides and thoroughly humiliated until he repents of his haughty conduct (L411). The latter tale seems to go back to an Oriental original but has become very definitely related to the figure of King Robert.

Some royal legends have attached themselves to the popes. One of these, known also in folktales (Type 671) and in Oriental and classical tradition, is associated with Gerbert, whose election to the papacy is said to have been decided by the lighting of a bird. In similar tales horses or elephants deter mine the choice of ruler, and sometimes the future pope's candle lights itself (H41.3). [423]

Of the hundreds of saints' legends current in the Middle Ages, [424] only a [p. 269] relatively few have become popular in Protestant countries. But even there one finds repeated stories of Saint Peter and the Lord wandering on earth. [425] A pious tale appearing in the Grimm collection (No. 205) and known over a good part of Europe tells of the holy man who dies as an unknown pilgrim in his own father's house (K1815.1.1), a legend certainly related to that of Saint Alexis. But much more familiar, even if not always known in all its details, is the story of Saint Christopher, who carries an unknown child on his shoulders across a stream. In spite of the fact that the child grows miraculously heavier on his shoulders, he bears him to the other bank. He finds that he has been carrying the Christ Child and for his faithfulness receives an eternal reward (Q25).

Ecclesiastical legend has furnished stories not only of saints and holy men, but also of their opposites, sometimes merely exemplars of wicked lives and sometimes persons actively in league with the devil. A monstrous tale of punishment meted out to those who sit in judgment is that of the woman who has three hundred sixty-five children (L435.2.1). In her self-righteousness she has unmercifully condemned a girl who has a bastard child. Whether or not the unusual number has been influenced by the length of the year and has some appropriate symbolic meaning, the tale was widely known in the Middle Ages.

In the story of The Devil's Contract (Type 756B) it will be remembered that even before his birth the parents have promised their son to the devil. [426] A form of this motif especially popular in medieval romances and Renaissance chapbooks is known as Robert the Devil (S223.0.1). Perhaps the most skillful use of this legend appears in the romance of Sir Gowther. Here a childless wife, having despaired of help from heaven, at last invokes the devil to give her a child, even if he is like the devil himself. Her wish is fulfilled. In a blasphemous parody of the Annunciation the devil appears to her and tells her that she shall have such a son. The child kills his nurses and commits unnamable crimes. Eventually he is converted and does severe penance before he is rescued from the dominion of the adversary.

Gowther, or Robert the Devil, was not himself to blame for his demonic association, since the fault lay entirely with his mother. But sometimes it is said that a man has deliberately, at an age of discretion, sold himself into the devil's power for a sufficient consideration (M211). So it was with Theophilus, and so, of course, with Faust. The details of this bargain and the dealings between man and the evil one have interested not only men like Goethe and Marlowe but many more humble bearers of tradition since the Middle Ages. [p. 270]

A favorite type of legend has always been that dealing with narrow escapes. Sometimes these concern the mere escape from captivity of persons and their pursuit, such as the legend, attributed to various heroes, of the spider who spins her web over the hole in which the fugitive is hiding and thus throws his pursuers off the track (B523.1). It is also about flight from personal danger that another ancient and widely known anecdote is told, the escape by reversing the shoes on the horse or the ox (K534). This anecdote appears in the Buddhistic legends of China, in Greek antiquity, in Icelandic saga, in Scottish ballads, and in folk legends from northern Europe to Central Africa.

A third story concerning escape from captivity lacks the happy ending. This is the tale of the noble lady who pleads for the release of her husband (or sometimes her brother) and eventually agrees in return for the promise of release to sacrifice her honor to his captor. But she is shamefully betrayed, for the lord refuses to carry out his bargain (K1353). This tale is recounted of various women with the setting of the action usually in Italy and in the Renaissance. It is still popular as an Italian folksong.

The most interesting legends concerning warfare usually have to do with famous sieges. The events connected with military attack and defense are in general so alike that anecdotes of this kind are easily taken up and are likely to travel from place to place, however definitely they may at first have been localized. One of these legends favors the attackers. It is said that in a certain siege of Cirencester the surrounding army attached flaming articles to the feet of birds so that when they flew into the city they set it on fire (K2351.1). The interest in the attackers is also seen in the legend, used so effectively by Shakespeare in Macbeth, of Burnam Wood which comes to Dunsinane (K1872.1). The army cuts boughs and carries them so that the whole wood seems to be on the march. As used in connection with the prophecy of disaster when the wood shall come to Dunsinane, the stratagem is doubly impressive.

Finally, any consideration of legends of besieged cities must include that tale of wifely devotion usually known as The Women of Weinsberg (J1545.4.1). The conqueror of the city gives each woman permission as she leaves the town to carry out her dearest possession. Much to the surprise of the general, they take out their sleeping husbands. [427]

As we have been viewing legends of various cities and persons, it has been obvious how strong is the tendency for such material to make new attachments which may even drive out all memory of the original person or place. It has been perfectly clear to the tradition of the last century and a half that it was Marie Antoinette who, when told that the people had no bread to eat, said, "Let them eat cake" (J2227). Yet this very legend was sufficiently alive to be recorded in a sixteenth century jestbook. Whatever may have been Marie Antoinette's failings, it is not likely that this cruel remark was hers. [p. 271]

Popular legend in Europe and Asia covers an enormous area not only with regard to the material handled, but also to the form in which it is transmitted and the audiences for which it is designed. It is by no means all of one piece. Some of it is essentially mythology, some less pretentious origin legend, some local history, some an embodiment of supernatural belief; and some assumes such definitive narrative form that it differs little from the complex folktale. Probably from no point of view could a logical justification for bringing all of this material together be made. But it has been at least convenient to pass in rapid survey the principal classes of narrative which have not formed themselves into regular folktales, either complex or simple. Whatever may be the heterogeneous origin of the varied literary forms in which they appear or the present-day acceptance of these legends, they do all have in common their connection with the world of fact, at least as conceived in the mind of the teller of the story. As fantastic as some of this material is, it is related as an object of belief and its effect, in contrast with that of the ordinary folktale, is the effect of history, rather than of fiction.

[412] It is hard to know whether this is a purely literary tradition or not. Certainly it has a long literary history, both in the European Middle Ages and in the older Oriental collections. But it has had a vigorous life in the oral folklore of India; cf. M. B. Emeneau, Journal of American Oriental Society, LXI (1941), 1-17 and LXII (1942), 339-341.

[413] See E502, p. 258, above; cf. also N570, p. 263, above.

[414] See A. H. Gayton, "The Orpheus Myth in North America," Journal of American Folk-Lore, XLVIII (1935), 263ff. See also p. 351, below.

[415] See, for example, Type 950. Cf. W. Aly, Volksmärchen, Sage und Novelle bet Herodot und seinen Zeitgenossen (Gottingen, 1921).

[416] See, for example, Types 554 and 560.

[417] See pp. 235ff., above.

[418] Good collections of such Jewish material may be found in: M. J. bin Gorion, Der Born Judas: Legenden, Märchen und Erzählungen (6 v., Leipzig, 1918ff.); M. Gaster, The Exempla of the Rabbis (London and Leipzig, 1924); and L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (tr. Paul Radin; 7 v., Philadelphia, 1910ff.).

[419] Some of these have worked themselves into the folktale of The Clever Peasant Girl, Type 875.

[420] See also Type 920, p. 159, above, and H561.5, p. 277, below.

[421] Particularly Type 930.

[422] See p. 275, below.

[423] For these legends of popes, see J. J. I. von Döllinger, Die Papst-Fabeln des Mittelalters (2nd ed., Stuttgart, 1890). Another interesting papal legend is that of Pope Joan, the woman in disguise who is supposed to have served as pope (K1961.2.1).

[424] The literature of saints' legends is very extensive. A good introduction to the general subject is found in G. H. Gerould, Saints' Legends. The most important compendium of such legends is the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus a Voragine, which has appeared in many editions. Definitive treatment is found in the enormous collection known as Acta Sanctorum which has been appearing for the last three centuries under the editorship of the Bollandist Society of Brussels.

[425] See p. 150, above.

[426] For the sale or promise of children to the devil or an ogre, see S220ff.

[427] For a similar ruse otherwise employed see Type 875.


554, 560, 671, 756B, 875, 920, 921, 930, 950


A580, B331.2, B523.1, B535, C312.1.2, C943, C961.1, D1316.5, D1427.1, D1711.1, D1711.2, D1960.1, E502, F81.1, F511.2.2, F545.1.3, F555.3.1, H561.5, F911.4, H41.3, H504.1, H540.2.1, H561.3, J151.1, J355.1, J1153.1, J1171.1, J1545.4.1, J2072.1, J2227, K534, K1353, K1961.2.1, K2111, K1815.1.1, K1872.1, K2351.1, L111.2.1, L411, L414, L435.2.1, M211, M370, M371, N211.1, N465, N570, N731.2, P15.1, Q25, Q415.2, Q502.1, S220ff., S223.0.1, T645, T646, V361