Page:The Grateful Dead.djvu/61

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45
The Poison Maiden.

stories of how a maiden, who had been fed with snakepoison, was sent to Alexander the Great from India by an enemy, and how the plot to kill the emperor through her embraces was foiled by the cunning of Aristotle,[1] Hertz shows[2] that the central idea of the tale is the belief that a man could be killed by sexual connection with a woman who had been nourished on poison. In most of the variants, to be sure, it is the bite of the woman that is venomous, while in others it is her glance or her breath; but these are natural modifications. Without following the study into details, the important fact to remember is that there has existed from early times a tale relating how a man was saved by a watchful friend on his bridal night from a maiden whose embraces were certain death.[3] With this in mind we can safely proceed to a consideration of the variants of The Grateful Dead which have similar features.

Twenty-four of the stories in my list fall into this category, viz.: Tobit, Armenian, Gypsy, Siberian, Russian

  1. The existing versions go back to the pseudo-Aristotelian De secretis secretorum or De regimine principum, which was taken from the Arabic in the twelfth century (Hertz, p. 92). It is probable, however, that the tale existed far earlier than this and came from India (Hertz, pp. 151-155).
  2. Pp. 115 ff.
  3. Two Asiatic parallels not cited by Hertz will serve to illustrate the theme further. One of these is "The Story of Swet-Basanta " from Lai Behari Day, Folk-tales of Bengal, 1883, pp. 100 f. The hero is found by an elephant and made king of a land, where the successive sovereigns are killed every night mysteriously. He watches and sees something like a thread coming from the queen's nostrils. This proves to be a great serpent, which he kills, thus remaining as king. The other is from J. H. Knowles, Folk-tales of Kashmir, 1888, pp. 32 ff., "A Lach of Rupees for a Bit of Advice." A prince pays a lach of rupees for a paper containing four rules of conduct. His father exiles him for this extravagance. In his wanderings the prince finds a potter alternately laughing and crying because his son must soon marry a princess, who has to be wedded anew each night. So the prince marries the woman instead and kills two serpents that come from her nostrils, thus retaining the kingdom. In these two stories there is no question of aid coming to the hero; he is saved by his own watchfulness.