Human Animals Part 16

"Having obtained the box from Fotis, and having prayed that transformation would favour me with prosperous flights, I hastily divested myself of all my garments, and having ardently put my hand into the box and taken from it a sufficient quantity of the ointment, I rubbed with it the members of my body. And now, balancing my arms with alternate efforts, I longed to be changed into a bird. No plumes, however, germinated, but my hairs became evidently thickened into bristles, my tender skin was hardened into a hide, and the extremities of my hands, all my fingers having lost their number, coalesced into several hoofs and a long tail proceeded from the extremity of my spine. My face was now enormous, my mouth was long, and my limbs immoderate and pendant. Thus, also, my ears increased excessively, and were clothed with rough hairs. And while destitute of all hope, I consider the whole of my body, I see that I am not a bird, but an ass; and, complaining of the deed of Fotis, but being deprived both of the human gesture and voice, I silently expostulated with her (which was all I could do) with my underlip hanging down, and beheld her sternly and obliquely yet with humid eyes. But she, as soon as she beheld me thus changed, struck her forehead with her indignant hands, and exclaimed, 'Wretch that I am, I am undone. Trepidation, and at the same time festination, have beguiled me, and the similitude of the boxes has deceived me. It is well, however, that a remedy for this transformation may be easily obtained; for by only chewing roses you will put off the form of an ass and will immediately become again my Lucius. And I wish I had prepared for this evening, according to my custom, some garlands of roses, for then you would not have suffered the delay of even one night. But as soon as it is morning, a remedy shall hastily be procured for you.' After this manner she lamented.

But I thought I was a complete ass, and instead of Lucius a labouring beast, yet I retained human sense."[79]

Lucius deliberated whether he should kick and bite Fotis to death, but was only deterred by the knowledge that if he did so he would not be able to return to human shape, so he ran to the stable and spent the night with the horses there. But unfortunately he was driven off by a band of robbers, and under these circumstances, necessarily abstaining from roses which he could not get, he was forced to continue under the form of an ass, in which he had numerous adventures.

A most remarkable series of transformations occurs in the Welsh romance "The History of Taliesin," written about the thirteenth century. Caridwen, who is boiling a charmed mixture from which she hopes to secure "the three blessed drops of the grace of inspiration,"

for her ugly and deformed son, leaves her cauldron for a moment, in which space of time one of her servants unfortunately obtains the benefit of her wisdom. In her anger she threatens him and he, in fear, takes to his heels. She gives chase and he changes into a hare. Then she becomes a greyhound and gains on him. Throwing himself into the river he takes the form of a fish, and she, as an otter, pursues him, and he assumes the shape of a bird. She follows him as a hawk. Then he drops to earth upon a heap of winnowed wheat, disguising himself as a grain. Caridwen transforms herself into a high-crested black hen and scratches among the wheat till she sifts him out and swallows him.

These kaleidoscopic changes are positively bewildering and may be regarded as purely symbolic. They contrast with the simple and pathetic transformation which follows.

The Ebesoana race among the Arawaks of Guiana, take their name from "Ebesotu," the transformed heroine of the following legend:--

A love-sick maiden prayed her father, a sorcerer, to transform her into a dog, so that she might follow her lover, who had been utterly indifferent to her charms.

Her father treated the affair very practically indeed, in spite of the fact that he thought his daughter very foolish.

"Take this skin," he said sadly, "and draw o'er thy shoulders, A dog in the eyes of the loved one to be, Its wonderful magic deceives all beholders!

Be rid of thy madness--then come back to me!"

The young lover, who was a huntsman, used to start out every morning into the woods, followed by four dogs, but when he returned in the evening only three of them were at heel, for one always ran home when it came to the point of slaughtering the prey. When the hunter reached his cottage he found it swept and clean, the fire burning, and bread freshly baked, and he imagined a kind neighbour had done this for him.

"When they all denied it, he said, ''Tis some spirit, Who seeing me lonely, thus strives to be kind,'

Then he saw gazing at him that dog void of merit, Whose look was so strange it puzzled his mind."

Next day, when he noticed there were only three dogs instead of four, he tied the hounds to a tree and went in search of the missing animal.

Peeping through a crack in the door of his cottage he saw a lovely maiden, and the dogskin lying over a chair close by. Making a sudden dart into the room, he seized the skin and thrusting it into the fire, claimed the maiden as his bride.


[77] Homer, "The Story of the Odyssey." People's Edition, 1902, pp.


[78] "The Tale of Malec Muhammed and Geti Afraz the Queen of the Peris," translated from the Persian. From a MS. in the British Museum.

[79] "The Metamorphosis or Golden Ass of Apuleius," 1822, pp. 60-3.



A skin-dress that could be put on or taken off to change a person into an animal, or into a human being again, is the basic idea of transformation in folk-tales. When the skin is burnt the animal permanently resumes human shape, as appears from the last story in the preceding chapter. Many legends of frog-princes, serpent-husbands, swan-maidens, tiger-sons, and so forth, fall into this class. A quaint and typical story of the kind is told about a mouse-maiden.

A king and queen of a certain city had a daughter who was invited to become the bride of a prince who lived in another city. Messengers were sent to fetch her, and when they arrived at the palace they ordered the bride to come out of her room to eat the rice of the wedding-feast. But the queen said to the messengers, "She is now eating cooked rice in the house."

They then begged the princess to come out to dress in the robes sent by the bridegroom, but the queen said, "She is already putting on robes in her chamber." Then they said she was to come out and be taken to the bridegroom's city, and the queen, having put a female mouse in an incense box, asked two of the messengers to come forward and gave the box into their hands, saying, "Take this and until seven days have gone by do not lift the lid of the box."

With this the messengers had to be satisfied. They took the box to the prince's city, and when they lifted the lid after seven days the mouse jumped out of the box and hid herself among the cooking pots.

Now it was the duty of a servant girl in the prince's household to apportion and serve cooked rice and vegetable curry to the prince, and when he was satisfied, she covered up the cooking pots containing the rest of the food. Then the mouse came, and having taken and eaten some of the cooked rice and vegetables, covered up the cooking pots and went back to hide among the pots.

The following day the same thing occurred, and the prince said to the servant, "Does the mouse eat cooked rice? Look and tell me."

The girl went to see and when she came back she said, "She has eaten the cooked rice and covered the cooking pots, and has gone."

Next day the prince said, "I am going to cut the rice-crop. Remain at home and, when evening comes, put the utensils for cooking near the hearth." So the servant obeyed him and in the evening the mouse came and cooked. She placed the food ready and again ran and hid behind the pots.

This went on for several days, and when the whole rice-crop was garnered in, the prince went near to the place where the mouse was hidden and said, "Having pounded the rice and removed the husks, let us go to your village and present it to your parents as first-fruits."

But the mouse said, "I will not go. You go!" So the prince made the servant get the package of cooked rice ready, and he went to the village of the queen and gave the package to her.

And the queen said, "Where is my daughter?" The prince answered, "She refused to come."

Then the queen said, "Go back to your city, and having placed the cooking utensils near the hearth, hide yourself and stay in the house."

After the prince returned to the city, he did as she had told him. The mouse, having come out, took off her mouse-jacket, and, assuming the shape of a girl, put on other clothes. While she was preparing to cook, the prince took the mouse-jacket and burnt it.

Afterwards when the girl went to the place where the mouse-jacket had been and looked for it, it was not there. Then she looked in the hearth, and saw that there was one sleeve of the skin-dress among the embers. While she was there weeping and weeping, the prince came out of his hiding-place and said, "Your mother told me to burn the mouse-jacket. Now you are really mine!"

So the mouse became a princess again and married the prince.[80]

The same idea is contained in the story of the king who, putting on a jackal-skin, turns into a jackal, only resuming human form permanently when the skin is burnt.[81] In "Indian Fairy Tales" there is a prince who has a monkey-skin which he can put on and off at pleasure.[82] A king's daughter in another story also has a monkey-skin and when a prince burns it she takes fire and flies away all ablaze to her father's palace.[83] Four fairy doves in feather-dresses appear in "Romantic Tales from the Panjab with Indian Night's Entertainment."[84] When they take off their feathers to bathe, a prince conceals one dress and the fairy is unable to resume bird form. The story of the feather-vest of the dove-maiden in "The Arabian Nights"[85] is similar in style.

The swan-maidens or cloud-maidens, as they are sometimes called, have a shirt made of swan's feathers which acts much in the same manner as the wolf-skin to the wer-wolf. The swan-maiden retains human shape as long as she is kept away from her feather tunic. The commonest form of this legend is that of a man who passes by a lake and sees several beautiful maidens bathing, their feather-dresses lying on the bank. He approaches quietly and steals one of the dresses. In due course the bathers come to the shore, don their dresses and swim off in the shape of swans, all but one, who is left lamenting on the shore. Then the thief appears, tells her what he has done and bids the maiden marry him. They live happily together until one day when the husband, by accident, leaves the wardrobe door unlocked and the swan-maiden puts on her feather-shirt and flies off, never to return.[86]

In a similar story the maiden is wearing a gold chain round her neck which her huntsman lover seizes, thus gaining the power over her which makes it possible to woo and wed her. She gives birth in due course to seven sons, each one of whom wears a gold chain about his neck and can transform himself into a swan at will.

Lothaire, King of France, married a fairy wife, and his children were born wearing golden collars which gave them the magical power of assuming the form of swans.

In the legends which have a Knight of the Swan as hero, like the story of Lohengrin, the swan plays only a secondary part.

The primitive idea at the root of all these stories is that the human soul, in passing from one shape to another, has to wear the outer sign or garment of the creature it desires to represent. The symbolic difference between the wer-wolf and the swan-maiden is that the former represents the rough, howling, and destructive night-wind, the latter the fleecy, pure, and enthralling summer cloud.

The Valkyries, with their shirts of plumage, who hover over Scandinavian battle-fields to minister to the souls of dying heroes are of the same order of beings as the Hindu Asparas and the Houris of the Mussulman. The Lorelei sirens with their fish-tails, their golden combs and mirrors, who lure fishermen to their doom on the rocks, are not far removed from the same family. All are partly human and allied with more or less fanciful animal forms and characteristics. They are frequently the precursors of evil or at least of danger to mankind, but many of them possess a sweetness and charm which is unsurpassed and unsurpassable.

Far more terrible than sirens and swan-maidens were the Berserkers of Scandinavia in the ninth century who, possessed by a strange mania, arrayed themselves in the skins of wolves or bears and went forth to see whom they might devour.

The Mara is a more peaceable but nevertheless a more uncanny being, a kind of female demon who comes at night to torment sleepers by crouching on their bodies and checking respiration. Sometimes she is to be seen in animal form, sometimes as a beautiful woman. She has been known to torture people to death, and may perhaps have some distant affinity to the vampire, but is far less vindictive and self-seeking, though gifted with powers of darkness.

A pious knight, journeying one day, found a fair lady nude, and bound to a tree, her back streaming with blood from the stripes of lashes.

Rescuing her from her unfortunate position, he took her to his palace and made her his wife, her extraordinary loveliness winning her fame throughout the neighbourhood.

Her husband, the knight, accompanied her to mass every Sunday, and to his great surprise and regret she always refused to stay in the church while the creed was said. Just beforehand she would deliberately rise from her seat and walk out. Her husband questioned her about this strange habit, but could get no satisfactory explanation, nor would she consent to alter her behaviour. He used entreaties and even threats without avail, and at last he decided to keep her in the church by main force. Seizing upon her with both hands, he held her in her seat, and then he noticed her frame become convulsed and her eyes grow unnaturally large and dark. The service stopped and everyone in the building turned to see what was happening. "In the name of God, speak," cried the pious knight, "and tell me what or who thou art!"

and as he said these words his wife melted away and disappeared, while, with a great cry of anguish, a monster of evil shape rose from the spot where she had been sitting and, passing through the air, vanished through the roof of the church.

Another legend about the Mara is that if she be wrapped up in the bedclothes and held down tightly, a white dove flies out of the window and the bedclothes will be found to contain nothing. This belief is apparently isolated and unrelated to other phenomena and is probably only a tribute to the elusive character of this she-demon.

One of the Calmuc stories concerns three sisters, who, coming across an enchanted castle tenanted by a white bird, are each in turn offered marriage by the owner. The third sister marries the bird, who turns out to be a handsome cavalier, but having burned his aviary, she loses him, and cannot regain her husband until the aviary is restored.

Chapter end

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