Eglė the Queen of Serpents
Eglė the Queen of Serpents is considered one of the most archaic and best-known Lithuanian fairy tales and the richest in references of Baltic mythology. Over a hundred slightly diverging versions of the plot have been collected. Its multi-layered mythological background has been an interest of Lithuanian and foreign researchers of Indo-European mythology; Gintaras Beresnevičius considered it being a Lithuanian theogonic myth. Interestingly, the tale features not only human–reptile shapeshifting, but an irreversible human–tree shapeshifting as well.
Eglė is both a popular female name in Lithuania and also a noun meaning spruce (Picea). The serpents (žaltys) of the tale are grass snakes in Lithuanian, but because they inhabit the sea, the word may mean a mythical water snake.
The story can be subdivided into a number of sections each having parallels with motifs of other folk tales, yet a combination of them is unique.
At the beginning a young girl Eglė after bathing with her two sisters discovers a serpent in her clothes. Speaking in a human voice, the serpent agrees to go away only after Eglė pledges herself to him in exchange for his leaving the clothes, not realising the possible consequences. Three days passed, thousands of serpents come for the bride, but are tricked by her relatives three times in a row. A goose, a sheep and a cow are given instead but the cuckoo warns about the deceit every time. Enraged serpents return the final time and take Eglė with them to the bottom of the sea to their master.
Instead of seeing a serpent, Eglė meets her bridegroom Žilvinas, a handsome human, the Serpent Prince. They live together happily and bear four children, until Eglė decides to visit home and her husband denies it. In order to be allowed to visit home, Eglė is required to fulfil three impossible tasks: to spin a never-ending tuft of silk, wear down a pair of iron shoes and to bake a pie with no utensils. After she gets advice from the sorceress and succeeds, Eglė and the children are reluctantly let go by Žilvinas.
After meeting the long lost family members, Eglė's relatives do not wish to let them back to the sea and decide to kill Žilvinas. His sons are forced by Eglė's brothers to tell the secret calling of their father. The boys are threatened and beaten by their uncles, however they remain silent and do not betray their father. Finally, a frightened daughter discloses it:
- "Žilvinas, dear Žilvinas,
- If alive – may the sea foam milk
- If dead – may the sea foam blood…"
The twelve brothers call Žilvinas the Serpent from the sea and kill him using scythes.
Worried Eglė calls her husband, but unfortunately only foams of blood return from the sea. When Eglė discovers that her beloved is dead, as a punishment for betrayal she turns her children and herself into trees. The sons were turned into strong trees, an oak, ash and birch, whereas the daughter was turned into a common aspen. Finally, Eglė transformed herself into a spruce.
The tale was first published by M. Jasewicz in 1837.
A ballet Eglė žalčių karalienė by Eduardas Balsys and numerous plays have been staged in various Lithuanian theaters, for the first time in 1946, directed by Juozas Gustaitis.
- Gintaras Beresnevičius. "Eglė žalčių karalienė" ir lietuvių teogoninis mitas: religinė istorinė studija. Vilnius, 2003.
- Salomėja Nėris. Eglė žalčių karalienė. Kaunas, 1940