Cor Hendriks – The Macaws | Myth and Folktale (7): The rescue by the vultures

The rescue by birds, who take the body of our trapped hero for bait, can already be seen in the 35th story of Konon, an unknown Greek-Asian story-collector from the 1st c. BC, whose stories are only known from summaries by Photius in his Bibliotheca. Two shepherds from Ephesus noticed in the mountains in a deep and difficult accessible hole a bee-swarm. One of them lets himself down with a rope and finds down there besides the honey a pile of gold. He lets three baskets full haul up and calls then to his partner to haul him up. But he gets suspicious and puts a big stone in the basket. His partner drops indeed the rope, thinks he has killed his partner and explains, after he has buried the gold, through believable sayings his partner’s disappearance. The man he left behind is doubtful about his rescue, but in a dream Apollo commands him to scratch his body with a sharp stone and to lay himself down quietly. He does so and soon vultures dive down upon him, think that he is dead and carry him up with their claws hooked in his hair and clothes. Without damage he comes to the surface and reports what has happened. The Ephesians force the traitor to reveal where he has buried the gold and punish him. The shepherd gets half of the treasure and Artemis and Apollo the other half. The enriched shepherd builds on the height of the mountain an altar for Apollo, that as a memory of the event is called Γυπαιεύς (from γυψ ‘vulture’). [Panzer 1910, 230]

Honey is also the desired object in a 13th-century tale recorded by the Chinese writer Pei Ting and translated by Nai-Tung Ting in his investigation of Chinese versions of ATU 301.

‘On the sunny side of Lu Shan, facing the river [Yangtze], stood a steep cliff one thousand feet tall. Half way down the cliff, supported by old trees and vines, were four bee-hives each as large as a container for five piculs [of grain]. Many passers-by desired [the honey], but could not find a way to reach the hives. Two woodcutters however worked out a plan. One of them was let down on a long stake [CH: meaning some kind of rope]. At two or three hundred feet from the top, he reached [the hives] and obtained a great deal of honey, which was hauled up by the man on the top of the cliff. As the store was almost gone, the man on top, wishing to monopolize the whole load, cut the rope and left the other fellow in the lurch. After hollering for a long time, the latter understood his situation, drank whatever honey that was left, and ate the dregs too. Then he crawled about the cracks on the cliff and discovered a deep and dark cave wherein crouched an object like a python with a very foul smell. After a long time, it suddenly opened its eyes, which were as large as gongs and radiated light; but it still remained motionless. The man was very frightened but had no other recourse. Besides, it was warmer in the cave. So he moved in and out of the cave, waiting for death. One day, when it thundered, the python started to crawl out of the cave. Realizing that the reptile might be his only chance for salvation, the man climbed upon its body. It flew for a li or two and dropped him down to earth. Luckily he survived. Then he appealed to the local magistrates, who arrested and executed the evil companion. [The above tale] was told [me] by Chu Fu of Kuang-hsin Prefecture.’ [Ting 1970, 108]

Ting has a second version of a much later date, situated in 1606, when three citizens of Huang-kang raised together thirty ounces [of silver] to purchase honey in Szechuan. There, they were told that the market price was quite high, but in a remote, uninhabited area near Chungking, plenty of honey could be obtained from a cave without cost. So they went right to the spot, Chang descended on rope to gather honey while Hsieh and Wang stayed above to pull up the cargo. Coveting Chang’s share of the capital, they cut the rope and returned with the honey, declaring that Chang had gone elsewhere. Chang though, stayed alive by eating mushrooms, herbs and honey. [One day], a huge python emerge from a cave and, frozen with fear, he could only wait for death. The python however was hibernating; instead of injuring him, it was very friendly. When the first thunder soared to announce the advent of the spring, it lifted up its head to breathe fresh air, moved around and got ready to leave. He clung to its body, but could not stay on very well as its body was too slippery. The python thus supported him with its tail and, having delivered him from the cave, still showed him much affection. When Chang reached home, his amazed companions thought he was a ghost, and fled without ever returning. [Ting 1970, 109]

The steep cliff with the unreachable opening in the middle is also part of a modern Chinese folktale of the ATU 301-type, called ‘The 9-headed Bird’, starting with the abduction of the princess, while walking in the garden, by the 9-headed bird amidst a thunderstorm. The king has proclaimed that whoever brings his daughter back may marry her. A youth saw the bird carrying the king’s daughter to its hole. This hole is in the middle of a steep rock-wall and impossible to reach from below and above. While he is walking around, someone else comes, asking what he is doing. He tells about the 9-headed bird, and the man calls his friend, and they let down the youth in a basket to the hole. He enters the cave and sees the princess, washing the wound of the 9-headed bird (whose 10th head had been bitten off by the Dog of Heaven, and the wound is still bleeding). The princess gestures to him to hide himself. The 9-headed bird feels comforted by the treatment by the princess and falls asleep (one head after another). Then the youth comes out of hiding and chops with his sword all the heads off. He brings the princess to the basket, but she says: ‘It is better that you go first.’ But the youth doesn’t want that. Finally the princess goes into the basket, but first she gives the youth a half of her hairpin. But when the other man has pulled up the princess, he takes her with him and leaves the youth in the hole. The youth wanders around in the cave, where he sees the corpses of many maidens that were robbed by the 9-headed bird and had starved to death. On the wall hangs a fish, nailed tight with 4 nails. When he touches it, it changes into a beautiful youth, who thanks him for his rescue. They make a brotherhood-pact. The hero is hungry, goes before the hole [?] to seek food, but there are only stones. Then he suddenly sees a great dragon licking from a stone. The youth does it too and soon is relieved of the hungry feeling. He asks the dragon how he can get out of this hole. The dragon points with his head to his tail, and the youth seats himself on it, and in a jiffy he is down on earth and the dragon is gone. He goes on and finds a turtle-shield full of pearls [a gift from the fish/dragon?]. They are magic pearls [a donor to explain this would have been handy]: they quench a fire and create a passage through water. He takes some of these pearls with him, arrives at the beach, throws a pearl in the sea, and a passage is created leading to the Sea-Dragon, who invites the youth to come and live with him. He is the same dragon as in the cave and the youth with whom he had a pact of brotherhood is there too; it is his son. So the dragon considers himself as a father to the youth and gives him wine and food. One day the friend says that his father will reward him for saving him, but he must not take money or jewels, but the little gourd (bottle), with which he can conjure up whatever he wants [ATU 560-565]. Reluctantly the dragon gives it, whereupon the youth leaves the dragon-castle. Back on dry land he feels hungry, and immediately a table full of food is standing there. He eats, drinks, and continues his journey, gets tired, and there stands a donkey. After driving a while he wants a cart, finally a palanquin and that way he is carried into the city of the king, the father of the rescued princess. She has to marry her rescuer, but refuses the man who brought her back, because he doesn’t have the other half of her hairpin (and half her silk cloth). But the king gets tired of waiting and finally orders her to marry the next day. Sad she goes into town seeking for her rescuer and just then the palanquin arrives, and she sees the half of her cloth in the youth’s hand and takes him to her father. He has to show the half of the hairpin, and it fits to the other half. The king is convinced, the false bridegroom is punished, and the marriage of the hero celebrated. [Wilhelm 1958, 14-17 nº7 (oral source). The 9-headed bird (instead of dragon) is a well-known scare-figure for the children. The dragon is a god of the sea like the Indian Nagarajas.]

Snakes hibernating (foto snakeprotection)

Snakes hibernating (foto snakeprotection)

These stories have a lot of resemblance with a very short version of ATU 301, which is not recognized as such. The story is taken up by Klintberg in his Types of the Swedish Folk Legend as R123: Hibernating with snakes. A man who is out on a walk in the autumn falls down into a snake pit [and cannot get out!]. There is a stone that the snakes lick. The man follows their example and feels no hunger. He spends the whole winter together with the snakes. When spring comes, all snakes and the man crawl up from the pit on the back of an immense snake (the snake king). [Klintberg 2010, 329 (only one version from Swedish Finns).] In the Deutsche Sagen from the brothers Grimm there is a version of this story: a Faßbinder (cooper) from Luzern went looking for wood to make barrels. He got lost in a desolate region, the night came and he fell in a deep pit, that was fortunately slimy like the bottom of a well. On both sides on the bottom were entrances to big caves; but when he went to investigate them he encountered to his great fear two horrible dragons (= ‘snakes’). The man kept repeating his prayers, while the dragons encircled his body several times, but they did him no harm. The days went by and he had to stay from the 6th of November until the 10th of April in the company of the dragons. He fed himself just like them from a salty wet substance, that sweated from the rock-walls. When the dragons suspected that wintertime was over, they decided to fly out. One of them did this with a lot of noise and when the other one proceeded to do the same the unfortunate cooper grabbed the tail of the dragon, held tight to it and came out of the pit. There he let go, was free and went back to the city. As a memorial he had his whole adventure being printed on a priest’s cape, that still can be seen in the church of Saint Leodagar in Luzern. According to the church books this event took place in the year 1420. [Grimm, DS, 239f nº216 (= nº217), based on 3 sources, Scheuchzer, Itinera per alpinas regiones, III386f, 396; Valvassor, Ehre von Krain, III c. 32; Seyfried, In medulla, 629 nº5; cf. Gesta Romanorum, c. 114.]

The story is included by Thompson in his Types of the Folktale as ATU 672D: The Stone of the Snake. (a) A peasant falls into a pit and sees a snake, which licks a stone; he imitates and without food remains alive. (b) A comrade who finds that he is imprisoned, is charged with his murder. The peasant gets out from the pit with the help of the snake, and frees the accused. [Thompson 1961, 236 based on 10 Estonian, 2 Czech, 5 Slovenian, 1 Serbocroatian, 5 Polish versions and Chinese versions from Eberhard (FFC 128, 142).] In a Polish version four men went to a mountain for treasures. Digging a deep hole, they let one man down with a bucket, but pulled up only the bucketful of diamonds, not their fellow adventurer. Left to his own resources, the latter discovered a door leading to a chamber where a lion lay crouching. As the lion forgot its hunger by licking a diamond pillar, he did the same and managed to survive one whole year, when his comrades came back again for the hoard. One of them came down on a rope and the old-timer helped him to gather treasures. When the men above were ready to pull them up, the old-timer insisted on ascending first and thus got out of the cave. As the newcomer’s turn came, the lion turned into a devil, cut the line, and shouted that the newcomer could never betray anybody again. So it was the newcomer’s turn to be left below. [Ting 1970, 116. The switching of victim in the pit, famous from the game of goose (ganzenborden), is already present in the old French story of the Fox Renart, where the fox, trapped at the bottom of a well, convinces the wolf that down there is a veritable land of Cockaigne, so that he takes the other bucket.]

The resemblance of these stories with ATU 301 can be seen in a ATU 301-version from the French Provence, called ‘Johannes Bear-Son’. The eponymous hero has rescued a princess in the underworld and his companions have pulled her up, but let him fall down again. Sad he roams around in the subterranean vaults and comes again to the stone dog, strokes it over the head weeping. Then the animal starts to speak: ‘Go to the dead dragon-mother, skin her and crawl into the skin. You will then change into a dragon, so that you can fly out of the pit. When you want to take on your human appearance again, just breath on the handkerchief the princess gave you.’ So he does as the dog told, flies as dragon to the palace of the king, where everyone flees, also the false companions, after which he changes back into the hero. [Hörger 2002, 36-44, esp. 44.]

Hāib & the Queen of Serpents - A Tale of a Thousand and One Nights, David B. (foto NBM Graphic Novels)
Hâsib & the Queen of Serpents – A Tale of a Thousand and One Nights, David B. (foto NBM Graphic Novels)

The story of the honey find is part of the tale complex ‘The Queen of the Serpents’ in the Arabian Nights version of Burton. Hásib (Karím al-Dín), the posthumously born son of the Greek philosopher Daniel, who has spend his youth in idleness, learns when he is 15 how to chop wood and to provide for his wife. On one of his expeditions a storm overtakes him and his companions and he seeks shelter in a cave, where he discovers a marble flagstone with a copper ring, calls his buddies, who let him down with their ropes and hoist up the pots with honey that are standing there; then they leave without hoisting up Hasib and tell his mother that he has been eaten by a wolf. Hasib sees a scorpion coming out of a crack in the wall, kills it and loosens with his axe a slab and gets access to a corridor which brings him after an hour-long walk to a black steel door with silver lock and gold key, that opens to the open air (of another world like in ATU 301), where there was a lake at the foot of a emerald green hill, surrounded by 12,000 seats around a golden throne, where he seated himself to enjoy the view. But then he heard the sound of cymbals and saw a cortège approaching of what turned out to be beautiful women but with a snake body. Hasib quickly left the throne, but was afterwards called by the Queen of the Serpents, who wanted to hear his story. After that she had him fed and told him the adventures of Bulukiya and the ring of king Solomon, and the story of Janshah. After the story Hasib asks to return to his mother and his wife and the queen has one of her snake ladies escort him to the exit of the underworld, a house fallen in disrepair opposite the pit wherein the honey had been found. [Burton V, 298-303; Mardrus 2006, IV, 70-78, 122-124 (see EB 57.V: Littmann, III, 195-IV, 98); cf. Chauvin, BOA, V, 255-257 nº152: ‘Djamasp’.]

Hasib and the Queen of the Serpents, the new graphic novel by David B.

Hasib and the Queen of the Serpents, the new graphic novel by David B.

For additional information, see Gabriel Biţună, Shahmeran – Queen of the Serpents.

Among the countless figures from cultural and popular memory, the mythological hybrid creatures or Mischwesen (Frey-Anthes 2007) that combine serpent and feminine traits are very remarkable. They represent sinuous controversial beings that have been dwelling in the collective popular imagination for thousands of years, while maintaining their mysteries intact, no matter how many variations of legends are discovered in different cultures. According to Donà (2013:64), “the hybrid born from the association of serpentine and female shapes is very ancient. In ancient Europe, in particular, it is mentioned since prehistory and appears attested in several variants.” Goddesses or god-like creatures, in association with snakes, like the medusa, may come up in legends with bodies that have snake-like features, such as snake-like lower torso, snake-like tongue or snakes coming out of the body like limbs, etc. One of the most notable anthropomorphic figures of Anatolian mythology is Shahmeran (Șahmeran in Turkish and Kurdish), which has received many epithets across time: “the goddess of wisdom”, “the queen of the serpents” (from Persian šāh “king” + marān “serpent”), “the guardian of secrets”, “the healer”, etc. Her story can be traced back “from the Middle East to India with different myths. One variation from the Arabian Night Tales is the story of Jemlia – the Sultan of Underground” (Yildiran 2005). The story of Shahmeran begins with a traveler named Tasmasp or Camsap (these two names are the most commonly used in the Anatolian legends), who was gathering honey from the bottom of a well where he had been abandoned by his friends. Stuck underground, he is greeted by many snakes, ruled by Shahmeran, the queen of the serpents, who is a beautiful woman with the lower body of a snake. She welcomes him into her world and spends a few years with the traveler and tells him many wise stories about the origin and meaning of humanity. The two fall in love, but, after a while, the man wants to return to his family, in his country. Although, initially Shahmeran refuses to let him go, she finally agrees with his desire. She lets him leave under the condition that he should never mention anything about her to anyone. The man agrees and goes back home, where he finds his Sultan very sick. The Sultan said that his illness can only be cured by Shahmeran’s flesh. He ordered everyone to find her or to find somebody that knows her whereabouts. In order to find out who came in contact with her, his subjects would have to go to the public baths, because the water would turn their skin into snake scales. Tasmasp is forced to go into the hammam and his scales are revealed to everyone. He is then tortured into telling the Sultan where Shahmeran was hiding. The Sultan finds her and right before she is slain, she tells them that whoever will take a bite from her snake flesh will gain the secrets of the world and be cured and whoever will take a bite from her human flesh will die. The Sultan kills her and feeds from the snake flesh, while Tasmasp feeds from the human one because of his guilt and not wanting to live anymore after betraying her. Nonetheless, the Sultan and the others die, because the human flesh was poisoned, while Tasmasp gains all of Shahmeran’s knowledge and continues her legacy. Shahmeran’s story varies so much from one iteration to the other that several collections of narratives from the Turkish literature have been compiled by researchers to keep track of them and to understand how they evolved (Havlioğlu 2014, Ömer 2016). What makes Shahmeran’s depiction widespread as a symbol are the illustrations of her, as seen on the cover of this issue of Romano-Arabica. This kind of painting using an “under-glass technique,” which is basically painting one layer after another, with the top layer painted first. Although Islam prohibits such paintings, they can be found in many regions in Turkey (especially in Mardin), hung on the walls of houses and teahouses because of their opulent and bright colors coming from the glass.

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