Saturday, September 20, 2014

Beauty and the Beast in Greece: Part I

Sometimes reading through a collection of versions of the same fairy tale may seem daunting, because many times versions are so similar it feels like reading the same story over and over again. Yet I find my Surlalune Fairy Tale Series books invaluable-not only for comparing and contrasting similar tales, but because there are so many unexpected and surprising versions of the tales. These samples from Greece are just a few examples of the different versions of "Beauty and the Beast" that will provide interest to even those who are familiar with most standard European versions. (Many of these are closer to "Cupid and Psyche" than BATB: there may not be a rose, and the husband may not be beastly at all, but supernatural-the classification is technically "Search for the Lost Husband" and not "Animal Bridegroom").

In "Donkeyskin," (which is not the Donkeyskin tale as we usually know it, an incestuous Cinderella variant,) two mothers are childless. The noble mother claims that if she had a daughter, she would not mind marrying her to a donkey; the poor mother wishes for a son, even if he were a donkey.  The two children were born, a girl and a donkey, and promised to each other. The girl was very upset and cried at the thought, but after the wedding he was revealed to be a handsome man.

The girl's parents had conspired to kill the donkey after the wedding, to keep their daughter from such a husband, but when they found she was happy, they let him live.

The enchanted donkey warned his wife not to let anyone know who he was. However, when his wife was attending a wedding, he came to her in human form and danced with her. Everyone thought it was a pity she was married to a donkey and not this man; but when her mother questioned her she revealed the truth. As a result he was carried off by three fairies, his sisters, and his bride had to find the fairies and her husband. However, a false bride claimed her husband, and shut the true bride in a donkey's stall. However, a friend heard the girl telling her story to herself, and told the husband, who found his wife and punished the false bride.

This version is interesting because of the involvement of the mothers-it is incredibly hard to find a version of BATB in which the mother is present at all; usually it is the father who controls his daughter's fate and mothers are absent. As in other fairy tales, such as Snow White or Rapunzel, the wishes the parent makes about their child end up determining the child's fate. In almost every version of BATB the bride is cautioned against either looking at her husband, revealing who he is, or not returning to him in time; yet the husband never really makes this easy for her to fulfill.

In "The Lord of the Underearth," the father of three daughters comes across the servant of the Lord of the Underearth. He demands that the father bring him his eldest daughter, and serves her a rotting human foot, which he wishes her to eat. She cannot. The second daughter cannot eat the rotting human hand, but when presented with a stinking human stomach, the third daughter asks for cloves and cinnamon to season it. When the stomach is found in her own, she pleases the servant, who brings her to the Lord of the Underearth, where she is given drugs in her coffee so she doesn't remember her husband coming to her at night.
(this image is of a prop, not an actual human hand)

Her sisters come to visit, and tell her not to drink the coffee, and to turn the key in his navel, which will enable her to see the world. She does so, but because of this she is forced to leave. She trades her clothes with a shepherd, and disguised as a man, becomes a servant for the King and Queen of another country. However, the Queen falls in love with the servant and tries to seduce him/her. When the bride/servant doesn't comply, the Queen accuses the servant of trying to rape her, and he/she is sentenced to be hung. Only then does the Lord of the Underearth come to rescue her. He asks the Queen the reason she is hanging the servant, and upon being told, asks, "And if this man is a woman, what shall we do to you?" to which the Queen replied that they should hang her instead. When the servant is revealed to be a woman, the Queen is hung, and the Lord of the Underearth took his bride away. The story ends with "I was not there, and neither were you, so you need not believe it!"

The episode of the daughters being given rotted human flesh to eat is so unusual and disturbing. Is there some historical precedent for a wife's value being found in eating disgusting food? The cross-dressing feature is rare, but presents a wife who is resourceful in disguising herself (although you wonder why she can't tell the King the truth herself).


  1. One of my favorite "Beauty and the Beast" variants I found in a book of folklore from the Scoharie Hills right here in New York State and is entitled "The Rosy Story". In this version, the Beast character and the character who insists the man bring his daughter there are two different characters. The former is a giant toad who's essentially a man who's been made a servant in his own house and the latter is a headless warlock who cursed him.

    1. That's definitely similar to "Lord of the Underearth"-the element of the servant bringing the bride to the Beast is not too common

    2. Is this story available in a collection or online?

    3. The servant doesn't bring the bride to the Beast. The servant IS the Beast. The Toad in the story is the Beast-analogue. He's the cursed "prince". Yet, he spends most of the story setting tables and stuff. He's even ordered to go with the Bride when she visits her home to make sure she comes back.

    4. Claudia-these are all found in Surlalune's "Beauty and the Beast Tales Around The World"-available to order here:

      Some of the tales might be available in full text online, but the more obscure ones probably aren't.

      Adam-Oh okay I was confused. I would have to read the story to understand it I think...but sounds very interesting!

  2. I've just got to get the "tales around the world" series. Thanks for the reminder!