Today I want to talk about a little corner of overlapping folktales. These stories follow a young woman who, out of lust or greed or maybe just foolhardiness, is enticed to open a gate and allow enemy forces into her home. Her home is destroyed and she meets an ironic death. Also, there's a connection to myths of mermaids and flooded cities.
A basic traitorous-daughter story, without the floods and mermaids, is the legend of Tarpeia, the daughter of the Roman commander at a time when Rome was under siege by the Sabines. Tarpeia secretly offered the Sabine leader a deal - she'd let his soldiers inside in exchange for what they bore on their left arms. She thought she was making a deal for their precious golden bracelets. However, when she opened the gate and waited eagerly for her reward, the Sabine soldiers instead threw their left-handed shields onto her and she was crushed to death.
Arthur A. Wachsler made a connection from this and similar tales to Aarne-Thompson type 313, "The Girl as Helper in the Hero's Flight." In both cases we have a female character who betrays her father for the sake of a male outsider whom she helps on a mission. However, this doesn't quite work. The fairytale - and even mythical parallels such as Medea and Ariadne - are focused on the adventures of the hero, and the girl is at least initially a heroic figure who winds up abandoned and forgotten for her troubles. (The fairytale version gets her man back.) Tarpeia-style tales are harsher parables in which the girl is both villainous and foolish, and promptly gets herself killed.
A specific strand of these more moralizing tales include a theme of water and transformation. I have found three examples so far: Scylla of Megara, Dahut, and Lí Ban.
Scylla of Megara: from Ovid's Metamorphoses
The guarded city: The city of Alcathous, ruled by King Nisus, is under attack by King Minos. However, Nisus has a lock of purple hair that makes him invincible.
Opening the gate: Nisus's daughter, Scylla, sees Minos from afar and falls madly in love with him. That night, she sneaks into her father's bedroom and cuts off the purple lock, destroying his gift of invulnerability. She then sneaks out of the city and goes to Minos's war camp, where she presents him with the hair (and maybe even her father's head). Disturbed, Minos immediately leaves in his ship.
Immersion and transformation: Scylla leaps into the sea after Minos and tries to climb onto the ship. Her father, who has transformed into an eagle, attacks her. As she falls from the ship, she is transformed into a sea bird or ciris.
It's important that Scylla's flight and transformation take place on the sea. Also, although there's no direct connection between the characters, note that the most famous Scylla of classical mythology was a sea monster.
Dahut of Ys: from Brittany
The guarded city: King Gradlon rules the city of Ys. The city is shielded from floods by a dike, and Gradlon alone holds the key to the sluice gate.
Opening the gate: Gradlon’s daughter, Dahut or Ahes, is a wicked, unchaste young woman. One night, while meeting with her lover (who in some versions is the actual Devil), she steals her father's key and opens the sluice gate.
Immersion and transformation: Gradlon wakes up to find the city flooding. He and Dahut flee on his horse, but the waves are about to overtake them. Gradlon throws Dahut off his horse, and as soon as she falls into the water, the flood stops. The city of Ys is lost but can sometimes still be seen beneath the waves, and Dahut becomes a Mari-Morgan (Breton for mermaid) and people often hear her singing.
(Jean-Michel Le Bot points out that "mari-morgan" is also a term for monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) in some areas of Brittany.)
The earliest accounts of Ys do not mention Dahut, whose first known appearance was in 17th-century monk Albert Le Grand's Vies des Saints de la Bretagne Armorique. This first mention is pretty brief, with Dahut dying. Subsequent versions fleshed out more details, and the modern version of the tale is highly literary. Matthieu Boyd has a good rundown of the evolution of the story, including recent retellings which make Dahut a heroic figure. Amy Varin makes a shaky argument that Dahut was originally a sovereign goddess who bestowed kingship on her chosen consort (most of her evidence is unrelated legends of mermaids or otherworldly maidens who married humans).
Lí Ban: from Ireland
The guarded city: A man named Eochaid comes to a place with a spring well. He builds a house there, and sets a woman to tend the well so it doesn't overflow.
Opening the gate: One day, the woman fails to cover the well.
Immersion and transformation: This causes a flood which creates the lake known as Lough Neagh, drowning Eochaid and all of his children except for two sons and Lí Ban. Lí Ban survives in her chamber underwater and is transformed into a salmon or, in some versions, a mermaid. Centuries later, she encounters monks and tells them her story. She receives the name Muirghein.
The parallels from Lí Ban to Dahut are fainter, but there are indications that these stories share some root. The cognate name Morgan/Muirghein is particularly striking. Amy Varin suggests that - based on the parallels in story structure - Lí Ban herself is the woman who fails to cover the well.
Compare another variant of Lough Neagh's origin, recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis in the Topography of Ireland.
“Now there was a common proverb . . . in the mouths of the tribe, that whenever the well-spring of that country was left uncovered (for out of reverence shown to it, from a barbarous superstition, the spring was kept covered and sealed), it would immediately overflow and inundate the whole province, drowning and destroying the whole population. It happened, however, on some occasion that a young woman, who had come to the spring to draw water, after filling her pitcher, but before she had closed the well, ran in great haste to her little boy, whom she had heard crying at a spot not far from the spring where she had left him. But the voice of the people is the voice of God; and on her way back she met such a flood of water from the spring that it swept off her and the boy, and the inundation was so violent that they both, and the whole tribe, with their cattle, were drowned in an hour in this partial and local deluge. The waters, having covered the whole surface of that fertile district, were converted into a permanent lake. A not improbable confirmation of this occurrence is found in the fact that the fishermen in that lake see distinctly under the water, in calm weather, ecclesiastical towers . . . and they frequently point them out to strangers travelling through these parts, who wonder what could have caused such a catastrophe.” (Spence, p. 188)
This type of flood myth is common and a few Celtic variants stand out as caused by a woman. In a Scottish story, the ancient witch known as the Cailleach had a well in Inverness which needed to be kept covered at night. She tasked her maid, Nessa, with caring for the well. But one evening, Nessa was late to cover it, and by the time she got there, water was flooding from the well. Nessa ran away, but the Cailleach - watching from a mountain - cursed her never to leave the water, and Nessa was transformed into the River Ness (connected to the Loch Ness). Every year on the anniversary, Nessa briefly appears in human form to sing sadly. (There is a similar tale of the River Boyne, where the flood is caused by an "attendant nymph" who foolishly walks withershins three times around the well.) (Hull, 249-250).
Sir John Rhys collected some stories of Glasfryn Lake, which he identifies as a Welsh "Undine or Liban story". A woman named Grassi, or Grace, committed the same misstep of leaving a well uncovered and causing a flood. Grassi either became a weeping ghost haunting the field by the newly made lake, or was transformed into a swan by fairies. Rhys also noted that the Glasfryn family had a mermaid on their coat of arms, and theorized that the well maiden was originally named Morgen or Morien, to fit with the Lí Ban model.
One of the oldest parallels is the Welsh story of the drowned city Cantre'r Gwaelod, dating to the 13th-century Black Book of Camarthen . . . maybe. The problem here is that the original poem has been translated in many contradictory ways. Some translations place the blame on Mererid, a well maiden who neglected her duties. Other translations state that the culprit was Seithennin, a male drunkard who failed to close the sluices. Or it was both Mererid and Seithennin. Or maybe neither of these are characters in the first place, and we’re looking at generic nouns which have been misread as names. We don't know! (Celtic Review, pp. 338-340)
Overall, in general there are two distinct stories.
You might even go back as far as the Assyrian myth of Derceto or Atargatis. In Diodorus Siculus’s rendition of the story, the goddess Derceto offended Aphrodite, who retaliated by making her fall for a certain young man. Derceto had sex with him and gave birth to a child, but was ashamed. To hide what she’d done, she murdered her lover and abandoned the baby. Finally, she flung herself into a lake, where she was transformed into a fish with a human head.
It doesn’t map onto the story exactly, but here we do have a woman who falls into lust (like Scylla and Dahut), commits a betrayal, and instead of drowning meets a watery transformation.
Dahut is a particularly interesting case. She may not have originally been part of the story of Ys. Was the well maiden motif added later to the story of King Gradlon and his flooded city? And could John Rhys be right that the original name of this figure was something like Morgan, "sea-born"?
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10/12/2022 09:00:06 pm
These sound like interesting premises. I enjoy a good ending twist.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.