Dæmon in the Wood;
Up, Down, All Around, and Who Made the World

3. The Three Women

Another tale in the Grimm collection affords an example of this pattern. Die drei Federn (The Three Feathers), Grimm No. 63, is about a contest among three sons for succession to their father’s throne:165

A king’s two elder sons are intelligent, but the third and youngest is a taciturn simpleton. When old age disables the king, he commissions his three sons to seek fine carpets; whoever returns with the finest will inherit the kingdom. The two eldest travel together. Thinking their younger brother too stupid to compete with them, they find a shepherd’s wife and strip her ragged clothes from her, returning to offer these to their father as carpets. The dunce obtains a superior fabric from a toad. A second competition is set—to obtain a fine ring; the elder sons bring carriage nails pulled from a piece of junk, the youngest a good article from the toad. The third and final competition is to obtain the fairest woman. The elder sons obtain a pair of coarse peasant women; the simpleton returns with one of the toad’s daughters transformed into a peerless damsel. He inherits.

All of the women in this little histoire buffe belong to one or another of three types:

(1) The hapless shepherd’s wife is of no durable use to anyone. She confers ephemeral benefit on needy itinerants, but no lasting relationship with her is possible, and in the end she were best left completely alone, for the clothes robbed from her are the cause of her assailants’ failure in the first of the three contests.

(2) The two peasant women whom the elder brothers later recruit are more promising. In the event, they lack the delicate beauty of the toad’s daughter, but as their two sponsors in the contest are quick to say in their defense, they appear to be decidedly stronger. On that ground they are for a time serious aspirants to the peerage. They are, so to speak, temporarily or transiently interesting women, and belong therefore to the second type in the pattern of the Three Women.

(3) The third type is represented by the toad’s beautiful daughter, a woman of unique attainments and devotion who contributes priceless benefits to the estate of her male consort.

The Turkish tale about the blind emperor told by Sukru Dariji (already quoted above in discussion of the Vertical Journeys) also displays the paradigm of the Three Women:

The youngest of three sons searches for an elixir to restore his father’s eyesight. He asks a night’s lodging in the house of an old woman who lives alone with one beautiful daughter. He betroths the daughter on behalf of his eldest brother and continues the journey. On the next evening the same events happen again at another house; the girl is betrothed this time to the traveller’s next eldest brother. On the following day the young man is directed to a third woman whose help he needs to obtain the elixir for his father. After several more days of travel he finds this woman alone in an act of prayer.

Each of the first two nubile women whom the hero meets on this journey is paired with an old mother, and each lives in a house. In contrast, the third woman is quite alone and inhabits the open air. And whereas the first two damsels are like the two peasant women in the German story, good matches for some other men (the young hero’s elder brothers), the strange woman praying alone in the midst of a grassy plain is a superior being whom none but the most blessed of men can claim. It takes longer to reach her (several days’ journey instead of just one day) but she is correspondingly worth the greater effort. She is fabulously powerful:

The young traveller approaches the woman and calls a greeting to her while she is yet praying. She does not reply. He calls again, and is struck blind. When she finishes her prayer, she invites him to speak, but he is too amazed by the sudden loss of his sight to remember his business with her. She admonishes him against the impiety of interrupting prayer, for she is an utterly fabulous and unreal person, a female Moslem priest, and accordingly has the sobriquet of ‘Khoja (priest) girl.’ Next she passes her thumbs over the young man’s eyes, and his sight is restored. He says that he needs her help to obtain the elixir for his father’s eyes, but she assures him that she can restore vision to the father too without any recourse to materia medica.

Besides having power instantly to restore or take away eyesight, and in addition to being a learned prelate of religion, the Khoja girl is also an accurate prophetess. Above all, she is a completely autonomous woman in traditional Turkish society (which in reality did not tolerate such autonomy in women any more than it tolerated women in the office of khoja). She is the peerless woman destined to be the lucky hero’s lifelong consort. He travels homeward with her and with the two transiently interesting women whom he has selected for his brothers until the brothers waylay him and cast him into the netherworld, taking all three women for themselves. There in the zone whence only escape is desirable he meets yet another (third) pair of women, the one ancient and the other nubile:

The youth comes to a small house where an old crone lives by herself. He asks her for water to drink, and she serves him her fresh urine. She apologizes, saying that a dragon permits water to be drawn from the well in that land only when it is given a girl to eat. The emperor’s daughter is about to be sacrificed to it that very day. The youth kills the dragon and saves the girl. While they two are alone together, the girl marks the young man’s back with the print of her hands dipped in the dragon’s blood. When the girl returns to her father’s house, he determines to give her in marriage to her saviour, and all the young men in the kingdom are summoned to pass in review so that the girl can identify her husband-to-be. All young men answer the summons, but the man sought is unknown to the census of that kingdom. Ultimately he is found hiding in the old crone’s little house because he fears for his life should he disappoint the girl and her father—he is adamantly determined not to marry her.

Like the shepherd’s wife in the foregoing German tale about the simpleton and his helpful frog, this netherworldly emperor’s daughter and the old woman from whom the itinerant learns of her are of no ultimate use to anyone. In the end the nubile princess does not even contribute to her saviour’s own salvation, nor to the one thing which he accomplishes while he is in her zone that is of value to himself—his escape. She is threatened with assault, and the itinerant of the tale cooperates in relieving her of that danger, while the old woman who affords him the ephemeral benefit of drink in his moment of great thirst is equally with the princess a female with whom no lasting relationship is possible.

Lest anyone mistakenly suppose that the pattern of the Three Women is merely a subsidiary of Aarne-Thompson folktale types 550 or 551,166 I adduce the following Zande tale from the Yambio District in the Sudan, which was noted by Mr. Richard Mambia sometime during the years 1961-1963.167 No pattern is peculiar to any one genre of oral traditional narrative, least of all to any so-called “type” of “folktale.” Not every pattern is in every tale, but the same patterns are the organizing principles in oral fable of every type and genre. That is so not for any theoretical reason whatsoever, but only because the concrete evidence of actual oral fable shows it to be so wherever fable has been recorded. The Central African story that follows is nominally much too unlike the familiar types of European or Near Eastern folktales to be confused with them; nevertheless one of its central organizing features is the pattern of the Three Women.

Two women go fishing together at a time when meat is very scarce. One of them is pregnant. While the women are cutting up their catch, two warriors descend on them from a battle that has been raging nearby. The warriors kill the women, take the fish, and depart; but the pregnant woman’s twin children, a boy and a girl, spill out into the water from their dead mother’s womb and so survive. They grow to maturity living like fish in the stream.

When they have grown to adulthood, the twins move into the deserted houses of the people who were killed in the war at the time of their unnatural birth. Both the twins are extraordinarily beautiful people. A famous trickster named Ture hears of the girl and sends a war party to abduct her for him; his two present wives, Nanzagbe and Nangbafudo, he sends away to live in the houses of his brothers-in-law.

The twins destroy Ture’s first and second war parties, but the third expedition kills the girl’s brother and she agrees to go to Ture with the corpse. The men cannot however lift the cadaver of the dead brother until the girl permits it; it is enormously heavy, or light as a dry leaf, depending upon her will. When she reaches Ture’s homestead, he is unable to move from the stool where he is sitting until the girl wills it. The men prepare the cadaver of her brother for cooking, but it will not be cooked until she approves. Later it cannot be eaten until she wills. Then she commands that her brother’s bare bones be gathered for her, and wrapping them in leaves, she carries them alone to her place in the war-ruined settlement. Ture remains unable to move from his stool, and his two wives return to feed him so that he will not starve to death.

The girl meanwhile nurses her brother’s dead bones in a pot. On the fifth day they are completely transformed into a handsome young man whom the girl takes for her husband. On the seventh day the newly-wed couple go to visit Ture, and he is released from his stool as they approach. He flees into the bush, terrified now of the woman whom he had tried formerly to abduct. Finally the newlyweds depart, and Ture’s two wives ridicule him for his lust.

Like the German shepherd woman and the Turkish princess of the netherworld, the two women fishing at the beginning of the Zande story are of no ultimate use to anyone either personally or in the lineage that may descend from them. Two warriors assault these women just as the two elder brothers assaulted the shepherd’s wife in the German tale, and just as the water-hoarding dragon assaulted the Turkish princess. But neither the assault on them nor the defense of them is of any lasting value.

Ture’s two wives, however, are at least temporarily or transiently useful women. They come and go in the tale, rendering mundane womanly services, but contributing no extraordinarily valuable or memorably durable benefits to their male consort.

The wonder-working woman is characteristically distinct from all the others. Like the German toad’s daughter and the Turkish Khoja girl, she is a compound of virtues unheard of before her advent. Her male consort is a person of little promise indeed until she makes something of him, no matter whether he is a German simpleton, a Turkish youth lost in the underworld and given up for dead, or a Zande pile of dead bones left from a cannibal meal.

A tale of the Cinderella type from Japan will suffice to complete description of this pattern and demonstrate its pervasiveness both in regard to world geography and the variety of plot-types which it informs.

A mother hates and abuses her daughter’s elder step-sister. When all the girls of their village go together to gather chestnuts in the mountains, the abused elder girl, Komebukuro, is given a harvesting bag with a defective bottom, so that she cannot fill it in time to return home with the other girls. Left alone in the wilderness, she is met by a beautiful little white bird. It gives the girl a new bag, a marvelous wooden flute, and a fine silk dress to wear on special occasions.

The girl returns home with the bird’s gifts. Several days later a festival occurs in a neighboring village. The step-mother dresses her own daughter, Awabukuro, and goes with her to the festival, leaving Komebukuro to complete an excessive chore of spinning. But a group of her friends pity her and help her complete the job in time to go to the festival. Komebukuro puts on the bird’s silk dress and goes to the neighboring village playing her new flute. Arrived there, she sees Awabukuro and throws things at her. Awabukuro complains of this to her mother, but the mother insists it is not Komebukuro and will not intervene. All return home by separate ways.

A suitor subsequently presents himself wanting to marry Komebukuro, but the mother insists that he instead consider Awabukuro. She vainly outdoes herself preparing Awabukuro for the suitor’s approval, but he ultimately decides for Komebukuro. Both the mother and Awabukuro then fall into a ditch full of water and become shellfish and snail respectively.168

The bad stepmother contributes in the end nothing appreciable to anyone. Her line of descent is also useless. Komebukuro’s insult to her and her kin at the village festival gains nothing, nor is there any point in defending against it. Awabukuro’s case is different; she is for a time a serious candidate for the suitor’s attention, a transiently engaging woman. But Komebukuro is not to be excelled. The sum of her assets constitutes a unique endowment: beautiful white spirit bird as protectress, magic flute, nonpareil silk dress, crowd of friends to help her in her labour, thick smooth head of hair to compete with her step-sister’s inferior kinky hair, and finally, a new husband. Happy the man whose bride is so blessed.

The pattern of the Three Women may, like other patterns, be composed of varying numbers of nominal motifs in each of its generic parts. Thus, the Zande example presents the negligible woman as a pair of presumably coeval women engaged in fishing, while in Turkish she may appear as a pair of old dame and nubile princess dwelling apart from one another. But as always, the overlying variations in name and number are not to be confused with the fundamental pattern. The cohesion and constant generic meanings of the pattern’s constituent motifs are its identifying features:

  1. Woman of only ephemeral utility or none either in herself or in her lineage, subject to assault, with whom no lasting relationship is possible.

  2. Transiently appealing woman of transiently useful alliance.

  3. Woman who is proof against assault and a peerless contributor of enduring benefits to her ultimate male consort.

Odysseus in the Homeric Odyssey cohabits temporarily with each of two transiently engaging females, Kirke and Kalypso; then he benefits only ephemerally from a third female, Nausikaa, who initially fears assault by him, but with whom it is not ultimately suitable that he should ever be allied in any manner at all; finally he resumes permanent alliance with a fourth and singularly best female consort, Penelope. Kirke and Kalypso have long been recognized as virtual duplicates of each other, some thinking this duplication one achievement of many signifying Homer’s unique authorial genius; and such indeed we may readily concede it to be, if by ‘genius’ we understand principally the ancient poet’s volubly conforming to a narrative inheritance of worldwide scope that in no way originated with him.



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