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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Oral Literature  |  Folktales

 

   
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The Snake Child

Once upon a time there was a king who had no children. But he employed a vizier who had three daughters. The wives of the two men were the best of friends. One day, they went into the garden to spend the day there and while they were eating and drinking together, the queen said to the wife of the vizier: “You have three daughters. If I only had a son, we could be in-laws, because we are such close friends.” She replied: “How nice it would be if you had a son, but unfortunately, God did not give you a son.” The queen “Mountain Maiden” by Edison Gjergo, 1972 (National Gallery of Tirana).cried out: “I wish that God would give me a son, even he were only a snake.”

That evening, the queen slept with the king and her body was blessed, and when the time came, she bore a snake as she had wished. The snake grew rapidly and one day said to its mother: “Listen, mother, do you remember what you said to the vizier’s wife when you were in the garden together? I want to marry one of her daughters. Go and ask her to give me her eldest daughter.”

The mother got up and went to the vizier’s wife and said: “Give me your eldest daughter as a wife for my son.” She replied: “What? You want me to give my daughter in marriage to a snake? That will never happen. Go home and do not raise the matter again.” The queen went back to her son sadly and said: “She will not have you.”

Several years passed. The snake then asked his mother again: “Listen, mother, go and ask the vizier’s wife to give me her second daughter in marriage.” The mother went to see the vizier’s wife again. “My son has sent me and asks for your second daughter.” The wife got very angry and said: “Go away and never ask me again to give a daughter of mine to a snake.” The queen was disappointed and returned to her son, saying: “She will not have you.”

Another few years passed, and the snake asked his mother again: “Listen, mother, go and ask the vizier’s wife to give me her youngest daughter in marriage. If she does not agree, I will slither into her house one night and kill them all.” The queen set off again to see the vizier’s wife and conveyed her son’s request in tears. When the vizier’s wife heard what she had to say, she was terrified and did not know what to do. If she did not give her daughter away, she was afraid the daughter would be killed. So she called her daughter and asked her: “Listen, my child. Will you marry the queen’s snake?” The daughter replied: “I will think about it.”

The maiden then went off to see an old wise woman and told her what had happened, asking: “What should I do?” The old woman replied: “Say yes, girl, because it is not a snake, it is a man who has no equals on earth. But on the night of your marriage, you must wear forty blouses because the snake has forty skins. When you go to bed and the snake says: ‘Get undressed,’ you must say, ‘you get undressed, too!’ Your husband will take off one skin and you must take off one blouse at the same time. You must continue until he has taken off all forty skins, and only then will you see what a handsome man he is.”

When the maiden returned from the old woman, she said to her mother: “Dear mother, I will marry the snake.” The mother cried out: “Oh, oh, my poor daughter. Are you not afraid to sleep with a snake?” The maiden replied: “Do not worry, it is not your business.” When the mother realised that her daughter was serious about the matter, she sent a message to the queen and told her to prepare for the engagement and for the wedding festivities. On Sunday the queen set off, taking the rings and the snake coiled in a basket with her. The engagement and wedding festivities were held.

When the newly married couple went to bed, the snake said to its bride: “Take off your clothes,” and she replied: “you take off yours, too.” One by one, they took off the forty skins and the forty blouses, and when the snake was naked, it turned out to be a handsome young man. They then slept together and the body of the young woman was blessed.

The next morning, the young man crawled back into his forty skins and said to the young woman: “Never tell anyone that I am really a man until you give birth. Then we will let everyone know, but if you tell anyone beforehand, I will slither into a hole and vanish, and you will lose me forever.” The young woman replied: “Do not worry. I will not betray you.” But she had problems with her mother who constantly insisted on knowing how she could live with a snake and how she got pregnant. The young woman replied only that she was fine and for eight months she resisted all temptation to speak. One day, however, the mother was so insistent that she could keep her secret no longer, and blurted out: “Mother, perhaps you think it is a snake, but perhaps it is really a man unequalled on earth.” The moment she spoke, she regretted having done so, but it was too late. That same night, the snake sealed her womb and departed.

The young woman waited all night, all the following day, a week, and then a month, but her husband did not return. She was in great despair, she wept and moaned and cried, and did not know what to do. Finally, she decided to go out in search of her husband. Dressed in the garments of a nun, she wandered around at random. When she had wandered for some time, she came upon an old woman who asked her: “Where are you off to, my child?” The young woman told her what had happened: “My husband has left me and I am off in search of him.” The old woman replied: “Climb up to the top of that mountain. On it there is a pond of stagnant water in which worms and other bugs are floating. You must drink the water there and say: “What delicious water!” And while you are standing at the edge of the pond, you must exclaim three times: “Earth, open up and devour me as you devoured my husband!” The earth will then open up and you must go down into it. When you get to the bottom, you will find the sisters of the sun and they will tell you where your husband is.”

The young woman climbed up the mountain that the old woman had shown her and found the pond of stagnant water. She drank the water and said: “What delicious, crystal-clear water!” and then she exclaimed three times: “Earth, open up and devour me as you devoured my husband!” The earth then opened up and she climbed down into it and came across the younger sister of the sun who was standing at the oven and baking bread. To wipe the oven, she used her breasts, and she shovelled the coal with her bare hands. When the young woman saw her, she took pity on her and went off in search of a rag and a shovel for her. The sister of the sun was very happy with this and asked the girl: “How can I pay you back for the kindness you have shown me?” “I ask only that you tell me how I can find my husband, because he left me,” and she explained what had happened. The sister of the sun replied: “go up there a bit, where you will find my elder sister. She will tell you where your husband is.”

The young woman carried on and came to the other sister of the sun who, like the first one, was cleaning the oven with her breasts and licking it with her tongue. The young woman searched around and found another rag and another shovel, and brought them to her. The sister of the sun was very happy about this and said: “Tell me, my friend, what can I give you to pay you back for the kindness you have shown me?” The woman answered: “I ask only that you tell me where my husband is, because he left me and I cannot find him.”

The sister of the sun gave the woman a walnut, a hazelnut and an almond, and said: “Take these and carry on a bit further. You will reach the house where your husband is living, but he is married to another woman.” The young woman continued on her way until she reached her destination. She entered and said to the lady of the house: “Good woman, do you perchance have a small cottage in which I could live as a nun?” The lady gave her a small cottage near the place where a coppersmith lived.

The next morning the nun cracked the walnut given to her by the sister of the sun. Out of it emerged a golden hen with golden chicks that chirped and scuttled back and forth around her. When the young woman’s maid saw the birds, she ran home and said to her mistress: “Lady, the nun has a beautiful golden hen with golden chicks! They are so sweet. Let us buy them. What would a nun want with them?” When the lady of the house heard this, she was curious and said: “Go back and ask her how much she wants for them.”

The maid went back to the nun and said: “Listen, milady, how much do you want for the golden hen?” The young woman replied: “It is not for sale, but I will give it to you as a present if your mistress gives me her husband for one night.” The maid returned to her mistress and told her what the nun had said, adding: “We should give her the lord for one night. After all, she will not eat him. Before he goes, we will give him a sleeping potion.” The lady of the house did not like the idea at first, but the maid talked and talked until she gave in.

When the lord was ready for bed that night, they gave him a sleeping potion and when he was sound asleep, they carried him to the nun’s cottage and received the golden hen and the golden chicks in exchange.

All night long, while the lord was sleeping beside the nun, she called out: “Give me the silver key so that I can give birth to the golden child!” But all her calls were in vain. The lord did not wake up and at dawn, the lady sent her servants to the nun to retrieve him.

The nun then cracked the hazelnut, and out of it emerged a golden parrot. When the maid saw the bird, she ran back to her mistress, crying: “Lady, what a beautiful parrot the nun has! It is all in gold. Let us buy it. What use is a parrot to her?” The lady replied: “Go and ask her how much she wants for it.” The maid went back to the nun and asked her. The reply was the same. “I want the lord for one night.” That night, they gave the lord a sleeping potion again and took him to the nun, where they received the parrot in exchange. Once again, the nun cried out all night: “Give me the silver key so that I can give birth to the golden child!” All of her calls were once more in vain. The lord did not wake up and at dawn, the wife sent for him and took him back.

The coppersmith who lived near the nun had not been able to sleep because of the noise the nun had made on those two nights. The next morning, he went to the lord and said: “Master, forgive me for being so bold, but I must tell you something. The foreign nun has kept me awake for two nights. She is deafening me with her constant cries of ‘Give me the silver key so that I can give birth to the golden child!’ What can she possibly mean?” The lord replied: “Who knows what suffering the poor woman has gone through.” But he remembered the words of the coppersmith and began to suspect who the nun was.

The next morning, the nun cracked the almond that she had received from the sister of the sun, and out of it emerged a golden cradle. When the maid saw the cradle, she ran back to her mistress and said: “Lady, the foreign nun has a beautiful golden cradle. I cannot take my eyes off it. Let us buy it for the children. Why would a nun need a cradle?”

“Go and ask her what she wants for it.” The maid went to the nun and asked: “How much do you want for the cradle?” The reply was the same: “It is not for sale. All I want is to sleep with the lord tonight.” The maid returned home and said: “She will not take money. All she wants is to spend another night with the lord.”

When the lady heard this, she was furious and shouted: “Let the Devil take her! I will not let her have my husband anymore.” But the maid gave her no peace. “Let us give him to her once more for the golden cradle. She did not eat him the other two times when he spent the night with her.” After much persuasion, the lady agreed: “Alright, let her have him one more time.” The maid went to the nun and told her, and received the cradle in exchange.

But when the lord went to bed that evening and they gave him the sleeping potion, he suspected something was amiss and thought of what the coppersmith had told him. He turned over on his side and poured the potion into a sponge which he hid. He then pretended to sleep and they carried him off to the nun’s cottage. When the nun was alone with him, she began calling out once again: “Give me the silver key so that I can give birth to the golden child!” He let her call for a while and then said: “Rise and get dressed. We must be off.”

He took her to the stable, brought out two fine horses, put her on one of them and mounted the other himself. Then they rode off to the place where the earth opens up. Three times he called out: “Earth, open up. We want to go out.” The earth then opened and let them out. As soon as they got to the Upper World, her womb was unsealed and she bore a son, a beautiful child who was already nine years old.

They then rode back to her father’s palace and celebrated. A great wedding feast was held where they ate and drank, and lived happily ever after.

It is not all true, but it is not all false either.

 

[Source: Johann Georg von Hahn, Das Schlangenkind, in: Griechische und albanesische Märchen. Gesammelt, übersetzt und erläutert von J. G. v. Hahn, k. k. Consul für das östliche Griechenland [Greek and Albanian Folk Tales. Collected, Translated and Annotated by J. G. v. Hahn, Austro-Hungarian Consul for Eastern Greece]. Leipzig: Engelmann, 1864. pp. 116-124. Translated from the German by Robert Elsie.]

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