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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif K2213.4

Betrayal of husband’s secret by his wife. *Oertel JAOS XXVIII 96; Irish myth: Cross; India: *Thompson-Balys.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

IV – The Folktale in Ancient Literature

1. Ancient Egyptian

From ancient Egypt we have several collections of tales which have been preserved on papyri. [429] These show rather clearly a traditional background in many respects resembling that found in the oral literature of present-day Europe and western Asia. Most of them are obviously the work of priests, and the tales probably fail in two ways to give us a true indication of the exact content or style of an oral narrative of that era. Generally the stories are not Well integrated and suggest that the writer had a very imperfect understanding of the action. The tales are given a definitely Egyptian setting and are closely related not only to the known history and geography of Egypt but to its religious conceptions and practices as well. On the other hand, they are so clearly related to folk tradition outside of Egypt that they are valuable indications of the antiquity of many of our oral motifs and even of complete tale types.

The earliest of these surviving Egyptian tales, dating from about 2000-1700 B.C., is that of the Shipwrecked Man. An Egyptian sailing in the Red Sea is shipwrecked, and he alone of all on the ship escapes drowning. He is cast up on a lonely island which is inhabited by a king of the spirits in the form of a serpent. The latter receives him kindly and succeeds after four months in having a passing ship rescue him, but meantime tells him of his own misfortunes and predicts that his days are numbered and that the island will sink into the sea. Mention is also made (without explanation) of an earthly maiden who had formerly lived on the island but had perished along with the family of the king of the spirits. The story is so confused that it seems hardly possible that the man who wrote it in its present form understood its motivation. The hero is said to have been in great fear before the giant serpent, who is so kind to him. The role of the maiden is left unexplained [p. 274] and undeveloped. Are we dealing with the tale of an ogre and the rescue of a girl, as in the folktale of today? Whatever may be the answer to these speculations, the tale seems to point unmistakably to the existence of folktales much like our own in Egypt by 2000 B.C. Aside from a fragmentary story of a shepherd and a kind of fairy woman who keeps enticing him, nothing except this tale remains from this important era of Egyptian literature.

For the period around 1700 B.C. there exists one manuscript containing folktales. Though there are only three stories, they give the student of the folktale important information. For one thing we are told that Cheops, the builder of the great pyramid caused folktales to be told to him; and we are thus able to get our first historic view of story-telling as a human activity five thousand years ago. Moreover, the stories in the collection seem to contain very old tradition, since one of them explains the supernatural origin of three kings of the fifth dynasty, about a thousand years before the tale was written. Two of the stories are little more than accounts of magicians and their deeds—the magic creation of a giant crocodile to punish adultery, and the magic recovery of a lost ornament from the river—, but the third is much like a modern wonder tale. A magician who eats and drinks enormously makes slain animals live but refuses to obey the king when he is commanded to try his powers on a human being. The king commands him to find "the castles of the god Thoth." These (whatever they may be), the magician says, can be found in a chest in the temple of the sun god at Heliopolis, but can be obtained only by the eldest son of a priestess of the god Rē of Sachebu who is pregnant with three children of that god. The story now goes over to the adventures of that woman. The children became the first three kings of the fifth dynasty.

The best-known Egyptian folktales come to us from the New Kingdom (about 1600 to 1000 B.C). One is a tale of military strategy containing two well-known motifs. The opposing leader is deceived by the Egyptian general, who pretends to be willing to betray his army and who thus gets the enemy general into his tent and so much off his guard that he is easily overcome. The next day he pretends to send hundreds of sacks into the city as presents, but the sacks contain soldiers who overcome the city (the Trojan Horse motif, K754.1). Another fragment dealing with historic characters tells how the cries of the hippopotamuses of Egypt keep people awake 600 miles away (B741.2). This motif appears later in other parts of the world with the expected changes of place.

Another story from this period of the New Kingdom is about The Enchanted Prince. At the prince's birth it is prophesied that he will meet his death from a serpent, a crocodile, or a dog (M341.2.4.1). To forestall this fate he is confined to his tower (M372). When he grows up, however, he sets out on adventures and finds a king who will give his daughter in marriage to the suitor who can reach the princess's chamber, seventy ells above [p. 275] the ground. [430] Though the youth has introduced himself as the son of an army officer, the king is eventually informed of his identity and the marriage takes place. In later parts of the story the princess saves his life from a snake and he himself escapes from a crocodile. The tale breaks off without coming to the expected conclusion—his death in some way through the toy dog which he has kept. This tale as a whole has no exact modern parallels, though it contains several widely known motifs.

Better known is The Two Brothers, discovered in 1852 in a papyrus dating from about 1250 B.C. and once belonging to King Seti II. The story is given in great detail and is much like a modern folktale. There are two brothers. The elder, Anup, is married; the younger, Batu, lives in his house. The wife tries in vain to seduce Batu and then accuses him before her husband. Anup believes her and takes his knife and waits behind the stable door so as to kill his brother when he returns in the evening. But Batu, being warned by his cow, who speaks to him in human voice, flees and as he flees he calls for help to the sun god Rē. The god creates behind him a stream full of crocodiles, so that Anup cannot reach him. At sunrise Batu reveals to his brother the falseness of his wife and departs. He goes into the valley of cedars and hides his heart in a cedar flower. The nine gods give him the most beautiful of maidens, but the seven Hathors prophesy an evil end for her. The river carries a lock of her hair to Pharaoh, who is so taken with its perfume that he will not rest until he has her as wife. The thankless woman reveals the secret of her first husband and has the cedar flower cut down in which his heart is hidden. Then Batu falls down dead. But his elder brother sees that his beer foams up and he knows that his brother is in distress. He sets forth, finds the body and, after a long search, discovers the heart and places it in water and gives it to Batu to drink. The dead brother comes to life and begins to plan revenge. He turns himself into a bull, has his brother take him to the king's court and talks to the faithless wife. She has the bull killed but from two drops of his blood grow two peach trees. When the woman has these cut down, a splinter flies into her mouth and from this she bears a child, who is none other than Batu. He grows up as son of Pharaoh and succeeds him to the throne. Then he has the woman slain and calls his brother to share the kingdom with him.

Though this tale has some resemblance to the present day European story of The Two Brothers, the plot is essentially different and they probably do not have direct connection. C. W. von Sydow sees in it a corruption of an original Indo-European myth and finds parallels in Eastern Europe and Asia. [431] But whether it is organically connected with any of the current tale types, it has many motifs that are a part of the common store of such tales: [p. 276] Potiphar's wife (K2111); advice from speaking cow (B211); obstacle flight (the river separating the fugitive from his pursuer) (D672); separable soul (E710); evil prophecy (M340); love through sight of hair of unknown woman (T114.1); betrayal of husband's secret by his wife (K2213.4); life token: foaming beer (E761.6.4); resuscitation by replacing heart (E30); repeated reincarnation (E670); person transforms self, is swallowed and reborn in new form (E607.2). It is of great interest to the student of oral fiction to know that at least these themes were already developed as early as the thirteenth century before Christ.

Some indications of the presence of the oral tale in the later pre-Christian centuries are found in illustrations on papyrus, many of which have not been published. [432] From these and from a few scattered texts we can conclude that the ancient Egyptians had a good number of animal tales, some of them, but not all, related to the Aesop fables.

Herodotus, writing in the middle of the fifth century B.C., has an interesting section on Egypt and recounts several stories he has heard there. One that is still told is The Treasure House of Rhampsinitus (Type 950)—the story of the architect who has left a stone loose in the treasury, of how the treasury is robbed and the thief escapes detection. Herodotus is skeptical of the truth of the story, but this fact has not kept it from surviving the vicissitudes of twenty-four centuries.

[429] See G. Maspéro, Les contes populaires de l'Egypte ancienne (Paris, 1882); W. M. F. Petrie, Egyptian Tales (2 vols., London, 1899).

[430] A motif very close to the central theme of The Princess on the Glass Mountain, Type 530.

[431] "Den fornegyptiska Sagan om de två Bröderna," Yearbook, of the New Society of Letters at Lund, 1930, pp. 53-89.

[432] Handwörterbuch des deutschen Märchens, I, 36; Bolte-Polívka, IV, 100.


530, 950


B211, B741.2, D672, E30, E607.2, E670, E710, E761.6.4, K754.1, K2111, K2213.4, M341.2.4.1, M340, M372, T114.1