Eglė the Queen of Serpents

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Eglė the Queen of Serpents, statue in Glebe Park, Canberra

Eglė the Queen of Serpents, alternatively Eglė the Queen of Grass Snakes (Lithuanian: Eglė žalčių karalienė), is a Lithuanian folk tale.

Eglė the Queen of Serpents is one of the best-known Lithuanian fairy tales with many references to the Baltic mythology. Over a hundred slightly diverging versions of the plot have been collected. Its mythological background has been an interest of Lithuanian and foreign researchers of Indo-European mythology; Gintaras Beresnevičius considered it being a Lithuanian theogonic myth. The tale features not only human–reptile shapeshifting, but irreversible human–tree shapeshifting as well. Numerology is also evident in the tale: twelve sons, three daughters, three days, three tricks, three weeks of feast, nine years under the oath of marriage, three tasks given to Eglė by her husband to fulfill, nine days of visit etc.).

Eglė is both a popular female name in Lithuania and also a noun meaning spruce (Latin: Picea). One of the main characters in this fairy tale is a grass snake (Lithuanian: žaltys), but because it seems to inhabit the sea-adjacent lagoon (Lithuanian: marios), the word may actually refer either to a mythical aquatic snake or a European eel (Anguilla anguilla).

Synopsis[edit]

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.

A young maiden named Eglė discovers a grass snake in the sleeve of her blouse after bathing with her two sisters. The exact location of their bathing remains undisclosed. Speaking in a human voice, the grass snake repeatedly agrees to go away only after Eglė pledges herself to him in exchange for him leaving her clothes. Shocked, upset, hesitant (how can she, a person, marry a grass snake?), but in a hurry to get rid of the persistent snake-like reptile, Eglė agrees to marry, while not fully understanding the potential consequences and the gravity of her situation. Then after three days, thousands of grass snakes march into the yard of her parents house. They come to claim Eglė as their master's bride and their future queen, but are tricked by her relatives each time. A goose, a sheep and then a cow are given instead of the bride to the legion of the grass snakes, but once they start a journey back home, the cuckoo, who's sitting in the birch tree, warns them about the deceit. Enraged grass snakes return for a final time and threatens everyone with dry year, deluge and famine. Finally, they take a non-fake bride, Eglė, to the bottom of the sea lagoon to their king.

Instead of seeing a serpent or a grass snake on the seashore, Eglė meets her bridegroom Žilvinas, who appears to be a handsome man - the Grass Snake Prince. They transfer to the nearby island, and from there - to the underground underneath the sea, where a nicely decorated palace is located - Eglė's new home for eternity. The feast is going on for three weeks, and thereafter a couple lives happily together. Eglė bears four children (three sons (Ąžuolas (Oak), Uosis (Ash) and Beržas (Birch)) and one youngest daughter Drebulė (Aspen)). Eglė almost forgets about her homeland, but one day, after being questioned by her oldest son Ąžuolas about her parents, she decides to visit her home. However, Žilvinas (perhaps intuitively being afraid to lose his wife or sensing his fate) denies her permission to leave the Grass Snake palace. In order to be allowed to visit home, Eglė is required to fulfill 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 an advice from the sorceress (a potential referral to the Lady of the Sea or Lady of the Cave) and succeeds in completing these three tasks, Žilvinas reluctantly lets Eglė and the children go. Prior to their departure, he instructs them how to call him from the depths of the sea and asks not to tell this secret to anyone else.

Egle Queen of Grass Snakes and her children
Wooden statues of Egle and her children in Druskininkai "Forest Echo" museum

After meeting the long lost family member, Eglė's relatives do not wish to let her back to the sea and decide to kill Žilvinas. First, his sons are threatened and beaten with the scourge by their uncles, in attempt to make them disclose how to summon their father; however, they remain silent and do not betray him. Finally, a frightened daughter tells them the grass snake summoning chant:

"Žilvinas, dear Žilvinėlis,
If (you're) alive – may the sea foam milk
If (you're) dead – may the sea foam blood…"

All twelve brothers of Eglė call Žilvinas the Grass Snake from the sea and kill him using the scythes. They do not say a word to their sister about the horrible crime they have just committed. After nine days, Eglė arrives at the seashore and calls her husband, but unfortunately only the foams of blood return from the sea. When Eglė hears her dead husband's voice and discovers how her beloved has died, as a punishment for betrayal she whispers an enchantment, which turns her fragile fearful daughter into a quaking aspen. Thereafter she turns her sons into strong trees - an oak, an ash and a birch. Finally, Eglė herself turns into a spruce. [1]

Analysis[edit]

According to Bernard Sergent, "human–animal marriage is an union that is too remote as incest is a too close one. Compared to a balanced marriage, between humans but from another clan or another village, that is to say–depending on the society–within the framework of a well measured endogamy or exogamy, incest transgresses the norm because it is an exaggerated endogamy, and animal marriage transgresses it because it is an exaggerated exogamy."[2]

Although its precise time and place of origin cannot be settled with certainty, the Lithuanian myth has been compared with similar stories found among Native American peoples (Wayampi, Yahgan and Coos), which could be the result of an inherited Ancient North Eurasian motif featuring a women marrying an aquatic animal, violating human laws on exogamy and connecting the terrestrial and aquatic worlds.[3]

Cultural references[edit]

Eglė and the Serpent Statue in Palanga

The tale was first published by M. Jasewicz in 1837.

Salomėja Nėris, a Lithuanian poet, wrote a poem called Eglė žalčių karalienė (1940), which is based on the motifs of the tale.

A bronze sculpture displaying Eglė and the Serpent by Robertas Antinis has been constructed in Palanga Botanical Garden, Lithuania in 1960.

A ballet Eglė žalčių karalienė by Eduardas Balsys and numerous plays have been staged in various Lithuanian theaters, for the first time in 1960, directed by Juozas Gustaitis.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Sergent, Bernard (1999). "Un mythe lithuano-amérindien". Dialogues d'histoire ancienne. 25 (2): 9–39. doi:10.3406/dha.1999.1536.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Gintaras Beresnevičius. "Eglė žalčių karalienė" ir lietuvių teogoninis mitas: religinė istorinė studija. Vilnius, 2003.
  • Salomėja Nėris. Eglė žalčių karalienė. Kaunas, 1940
  • http://europeisnotdead.com/disco/books-of-europe/european-fairy-tales/lithuania-egle-the-queen-of-serpents/
  • Eugenijus Žmuida „Eglė žalčių karalienė“: gyvybės ir mirties domenas http://www.llti.lt/failai/12_Zmuidos.pdf

External links[edit]