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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif N591

Treasure from striking animal or person and disenchanting him. Lithuanian: Balys Index No. 3627f.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

E. Treasure Trove

This Santa Claus legend is not so infantile as it appears. It is but a children's version of imaginings common to our humanity. In a life filled with struggle for food and shelter, with the fatigue of far travel, with the frustration that comes from thwarted ambition or disprized love, it is no wonder that in his dreams by night or his reveries by day such a creature as man should imagine conditions under which all these hardships would vanish. A magic tablecloth to supply him with food and drink, arms to defeat his enemies, carpets to carry him at will, talismans to induce love or to overcome sickness or death—the contemplation of all these has served as a drug to ease the pain of actual life. In some moods, however, these notions are sure to seem visionary and to compel a closer realization of life as it is actually lived, life in which one needs only an abundance of treasure or money to buy all that heart desires. Surely there are great hoards of treasure buried by the rich or the mighty in times of crisis and left forgotten. Why could not one, if he is clever enough, uncover such a hoard and live like a king?

Tales of the search for treasure (N500) have always been common, and they continue to flourish unabated. The interest in the gold guarded by Fafnir, or by the fire-drake in Beowulf, though the setting is of long ago and the accompanying incidents heroic, is essentially the same as that which has stirred so many, even in very recent times, to enter on futile searches in the footsteps of Coronado [411] or on beaches believed to hold the loot of Captain Kidd.

Those who have buried treasure have always seen to it that it should be hard to find, but there do exist ways of discovering it, though these methods are hard to learn about and usually even harder to carry out. Tradition seems to be clear that if one will merely go to the end of the rainbow the treasure is there (N516). Frequently a mysterious light appears to guide one (N532), though this light may well lead one astray and into great difficulties. A popular medieval legend tells of much more specific direction to treasure. A statue, or a stone, is discovered with an inscription, and sometimes a pointed finger, saying "Dig here" (N535). These are but a very few of the multitude of legends about how treasure long hidden may be discovered. Sometimes the problem of the treasure hunter is merely to find where a hoard has been recently buried and forgotten. In such case the treasure can be found only by the hand that hid it (N543.1). [p. 263]

The finding of treasure is not sufficient to assure its complete enjoyment. Very frequently there is an effective guardian over the hoard (N570), a dragon (B11.6.2) it may be, or some kind of demon, or a mysterious woman, or even a sleeping king in an underground chamber like Barbarossa. Under such circumstances the unearthing of treasure has its perils, and must be done with due ceremony (N554). Particularly are there strict rules of conduct which must be observed during the process (N553): there must be no talking, no looking around, no scolding of animals, and the greatest care against unlucky encounters and bad omens.

Even after the treasure has been successfully raised, it seldom brings the hoped-for joy. Like the Rheingold, it frequently carries with it a curse on all its possessors (N591). Or, most surprising of all, just when one thinks he is safely enriched, it turns to charcoal or shavings (N558).

[411] See J. Frank Dobie, Coronado's Children (Dallas, Texas, 1930).


B11.6.2, N500, N516, N532, N535, N543.1, N553, N554, N558, N570, N591