Human Animals Part 24

A legend about another owl-woman is alluded to by Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act IV, Sc. V, in Ophelia's speech, "They say the owl was a baker's daughter." The common version of this story comes from Gloucestershire, and is told as follows: "Our Saviour went into a baker's shop where they were baking and asked for some bread to eat.

The mistress of the shop immediately put a piece of dough into the oven to bake for him, but was reprimanded by her daughter who, insisting that the piece of dough was too large, reduced it considerably in size. The dough, however, immediately afterwards began to swell, and presently became an enormous size. Whereupon the baker's daughter cried out, 'Wheugh! wheugh! wheugh!' which owl-like noise, it is said, probably induced our Saviour, for her wickedness, to transform her into that bird."

An old ode gives a more aristocratic descent to the owl than the family of a tradesman.

"Once I was a monarch's daughter, And sat on a lady's knee: But am now a mighty rover, Banished to the ivy tree.

"Crying hoo hoo, hoo hoo, hoo hoo, Hoo! hoo! hoo! my feet are cold!

Pity me, for here you see me, Persecuted, poor and old!"

In the north country the owl was also said to be of royal descent, perhaps of birth even as high as the child of a Pharaoh.

"I was once a king's daughter and sat upon my father's knee, But now I am a poor hoolet, and hide in a hollow tree."

Another common tradition represents the owl as an old weaver spinning with silver threads, and the barn owl is said to be a transformation of one of the servants of the ten kings of the infernal regions.[132]

A similar story about the Saviour and the dough is told of the woodpecker. When Christ and St. Peter were wandering about the earth, they came to a house where an old wife sat baking. Her name was Gertrude and she wore a red mutch on her head. The Saviour, being hungry, pleaded that she should give Him a bannock, and to this she agreed. She took a very small piece of dough and rolled it out, but as she was rolling it it grew bigger and finally covered the whole griddle.

Then she said it was too large and she could not give away that bannock, and she took up a still smaller piece of dough and began again. But this piece grew as large as the other, and she refused to let her visitors have it. The same thing occurred a third time, and then Gertrude said, "I can't give you anything. You will have to go without, for all these bannocks are too large."

Then Christ was angry and said, "Since you grudge me a morsel of food you shall turn into a bird and seek your livelihood between bark and hole, and only drink when it rains."

As He spoke these words, Gertrude turned into a large black woodpecker and flew up from the kneading trough and out through the chimney. Her body is black but she still wears the red mutch and she taps at the trees for her food.[133]

The Bohemians believe the cuckoo to be a transformed peasant woman who hid herself when she saw the Saviour approaching because she feared she would have to give Him a loaf. After He had gone by she looked out of the window and cried "Cuckoo!" and thereupon she was changed into a bird.

Another tradition says that the cuckoo is a transformed maiden, who is calling for her lost brother, or else that she proclaims to the world by her cry that her brother has been found again. A Serbian song says that a dead man was detained in misery on earth because his sister persisted in shedding tears over his grave. Becoming angry at her unreasonable sorrow, he cursed her and she was changed into a cuckoo and had enough to do grieving over her own condition without troubling further about his.

In an Albanian version of this legend a sister had two brothers, and accidentally killed one of them by getting up from her needlework and stabbing him in the heart with her scissors. She and her surviving brother grieved so deeply that they turned into birds, and all day long she cried "Ku-ku, ku-ku, Where are you?" to the brother she had slain.

The Westphalian peasants say that the nightingale is a shepherdess who treated a shepherd, who loved her, harshly, for she kept on promising to marry him but was never prepared to fulfil her vow. At last the shepherd could not endure her dilly-dallying any longer and he prayed that she might never sleep again until the day of judgment. Since then her voice is always heard at night-time, singing, "Is tit, is tit, to wit, to wit--Trizy, Trizy, to bucht, to bucht"--which is the cry of the shepherdess to her dog Trizy.[134]

"In former times," says Mr. Train, in his "Account of the Isle of Man,"[135] "a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that by her sweet voice she induced numbers to follow her footsteps till by degrees she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a long time, till it was apprehended that the island would be exhausted of its defenders: when a knight-errant sprang up who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this siren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she escaped at the moment of extreme hazard by taking the form of a wren. But, though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her by which she was condemned to animate the same form every succeeding New Year's day, until she should perish by a human hand." Every anniversary therefore man and boy hunt the island from dawn till twilight for the small brown bird whose feathers are looked upon as a charm against shipwreck.

In German folk-lore the magpie is a bird of the infernal regions, now changing herself into a witch, or sometimes turning herself into the steed or broomstick on which the witch rides to the Sabbath. In Sweden tradition says that sorcerers on Walpurgis night ride to Blocula and there turn into magpies. A lady at Carlstadt in that country was haunted by witch-birds in a very unpleasant manner. Having insulted a Finn woman who had begged food of her she told her to take a magpie that was hanging in a cage and eat it if she was hungry. The Finn cast an "evil eye" on the lady for this insult, but took the bird away with her. Some time after the Swedish lady noticed that whenever she went out a magpie came hopping in front of her. This happened for some days running, and then the magpie was joined by a companion bird, and presently by a number. The lady began to be frightened, but the more she tried to get rid of these strange companions the more numerous they became. They perched on her shoulders, tugged at her dress, and pecked at her ankles. In despair she shut herself up indoors, but they remained outside, and as soon as the door was open in they hopped. At last she went to bed and had the shutters closed, and the magpies kept on tapping outside till she died.

There is a beautiful Eskimo legend of a bird-bride:--

"Years agone, on the flat white strand, I won my sweet sea-girl, Wrapped in my coat of the snow-white fur, I watched the wild-birds settle and stir, The grey gulls gather and whirl.

"One of the greatest of all the flock, Perched on an ice-floe bare, Called and cried as her heart were broke, And straight they were changed that fleet bird-folk, To women young and fair."[136]

The Eskimo captures the fairest and carries her to his snow house, where she becomes his wife and bears him three children, and he promises that whatever bird or beast he shall slay for food he will never capture another grey gull. But as time goes on he forgets his vow and once when food is scarce and he can get no game, he shoots four sea-gulls with his bow and arrow. Then his wife tells him her hour has come, and, calling her children to fetch the feather plumes, she dons them and flies away with her little ones and the husband is left lamenting.

A more definite variant of the bird-maiden legend is found in "The Arabian Nights." Janshah enters a pavilion and mounting the throne falls asleep. But presently awaking he walks forth and sees flying in mid-sky, three birds, in dove-form but as large as eagles. They alight on the brink of the basin of the fountain. There they become maidens, plunge into the basin and play and swim in the water. Janshah, struck by their beauty, rises and follows them when they come to land, saying, "Who are ye, O illustrious princesses, and whence come ye?"

The youngest maiden replies, "We are from the invisible world of Almighty Allah, and we come hither to divert ourselves."

Still marvelling at her beauty, Janshah said to the youngest, "Have ruth on me and deign kindness to me and take pity on my case and all that hath befallen me in my life." But she will not hearken to his pleadings, and though he recites love poems to them all they only laugh and sing and make merry. They stay with him feasting till morning and then, resuming dove-shape, fly off and are seen no more.

Janshah, deprived of their company, well-nigh loses his reason and falls into a swoon.

Eventually he wins the princess by seizing her feather robe and refusing to return it in spite of the fact that the fair lady, Shamsah by name, beseeches him with all her wiles to do so. They decide to go back to the princesses' motherland to be married, and Janshah returns the feather suit, which she dons, telling him to mount her back and shut his eyes and ears, so that he "may not hear the roar of the revolving sphere,"

and, she adds, "keep fast hold of my feathers lest thou fall off."

They return to his home happily wedded and Janshah places the feather-vest of the princess in a white marble chest, which is sealed with melted lead and buried under the palace walls. But Shamsah when she enters the new palace smells the scent of her flying feather-gear, and when her husband is asleep she gets out the garment and flies away. Then Janshah has to search for the Castle of Jewels, where he meets his fair bride once more.[137]

A very similar story is told by Charles Swynnerton in "Romantic Tales from the Panjab, with Indian Nights' Entertainment,"[138] about Prince Bairam and his fairy bride. The Prince, sitting down in a beautiful garden, watches four milk-white doves who settle in the shape of four fairies by the edge of a tank of clear crystal water. There they bathe and when they come out to dress three of them resume their dove-shape, but the fourth fairy, whose name is Ghulab Bano, cannot find her clothes and bids farewell to her sisters, saying, "It is my kismet.

Some different destiny awaits me here and we shall never meet again."

Then she falls in love with the Prince, who has purposely hidden her dove-skin, and marries him. After a time she asks her husband for leave to visit her father and mother, promising to return. He gives her the fairy clothes and she disappears as a milk-white dove. But her parents are angry with her for marrying a mortal and imprison her in a subterranean city, so that she cannot keep her promise. The Prince goes in search of her and at last finds his bride, but as women cannot keep a secret, she tells her friends of his presence, and her father sends giants to kill him, and only after many further adventures are the Prince and the fairy-Princess once more happily united.

In a Basuto legend a girl is devoured by wer-animals in whose care, as men, she has been sent to her betrothed. Her heart is transformed into a dove and joins a flock of these birds. They visit the hut of the bridegroom's sister, who suspects that the beautiful bird may be the lost maiden. Then the bridegroom seizes hold of the dove, the wings come off and the girl herself steps forth as beautiful and innocent as ever.

Hans Andersen's "The Wild Swans" differs in an important particular from the other stories of this class, as it deals with Swan-princes.

Princess Elsie's eleven brothers are transformed into swans by their wicked stepmother, who says, "Fly away in the form of great speechless birds." But she could not make their transformation so disagreeable as she wished, and the princes were changed into eleven white swans.

Elsie releases them by plucking stinging-nettles which she has to weave into eleven shirts with long sleeves. She does not finish in time, and one sleeve being wanting in the youngest boy's shirt, he has one arm, and a wing instead of the other.[139]

The robin, oddly enough among birds, is also a transformed man. The legend is told amongst the Chippeway Indians that there was once a hunter so ambitious that his only son should signalise himself by endurance when he came to the time of life to undergo the fast for the purpose of choosing his guardian spirit, that after the lad had fasted for eight days, his father still pressed him to persevere. But the next day, when the father entered the hut, his son had paid the penalty of violated nature, and in the form of a robin had just flown down to the top of a lodge. There before he flew away to the woods, he entreated his father not to mourn the transformation. "I shall be happier," he said, "in my present state than I could have been as a man. I shall always be the friend of men and keep near their dwellings; I could not gratify your pride as a warrior, but I will cheer you with my songs."[140]

In Bavaria the hoopoe is said to play the part of attendant to the cuckoo. It is believed that the plantain was once a maiden, who, watching by the wayside for her lover, who was long in coming, was changed into a plant, and once in seven years she becomes a bird, either the cuckoo or the hoopoe,[141] or, as it is called in Devonshire, the "dinnick," the cuckoo's servant.

One of the best-known classical stories of bird-women is, of course, the tragedy of Progne and Philomela, daughters of Pandion, King of Athens. Progne marries Tereus, King of Thrace, but Tereus, blinded by Philomela's beauty, betrays his sister-in-law and cuts out her tongue lest she should tell of his villainy. Nevertheless she manages to send a message to her sister, who revenges herself and Philomela on her husband Tereus by killing his son Itys and dishing up his body as food at a meal which she sets before his father. Tereus, having eaten of the flesh of his beloved son, discovers the trick played upon him and pursues his wife and her sister with the intention of punishing them. As they flee Philomela is transformed into a nightingale, while Progne becomes a swallow, upon whose breast the red stains of her murdered son appear.

Tereus is changed into a crested bird, either a hoopoe or a lapwing.

"The Thracian king, lamenting sore, Turned to a lapwing, doeth them upbrayde."

A pretty story of a woman-kingfisher is also to be found among the classics. Ceyx, King of Trachyn, sets out for Claros, to succour his brother, against the advice of his wife, Halcyone. A storm overtakes the ship on which he is travelling and he is drowned. Halcyone hastens to the seashore to find him, as she feels she cannot live without his presence, and as she stands looking out to sea the body of the drowned Ceyx floats towards her. She leaps into the water to seize his corpse and at that moment is transformed into a kingfisher, and with her bill and wings caresses the dead face and limbs of her beloved husband.

Then the gods, in compassion, transform Ceyx also into a kingfisher, so that as birds their love may endure for ever.[142]


[132] _See_ Swainson, Ch., "Folklore of British Birds," 1886, pp. 123-7.

[133] Dasent, G. W., "Popular Tales from the Norse," 1903, pp. 213-4.

[134] Quoted from other sources by Swainson, Ch., "The Folk-lore of British Birds," 1886, pp. 20-1.

[135] 1845, Vol. II, pp. 124-7.

[136] Tomson, Graham R., "The Bird Bride," 1889, p. 1.

[137] "Arabian Nights," Lady Burton's edition, Vol. III, 1887, pp.


[138] 1908, pp. 464-9.

[139] Andersen, H. C, "Danish Fairy Legends," 1861, pp. 1-16.

[140] _See_ Jones' "Credulities Past and Present."

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