Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

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White Serpent, The


MY STORY is also of a husband and wife, but they were peasants, and lived outside the gates.

               'It is so cold to-night,' said the husband to the wife, as they went to bed, 'we shall freeze if we have another night like it. We must contrive to wake before it is light, and go and get some wood somewhere before we go to work, to make a fire to-morrow night.'

               So they woke very early, before it was light, and went out to get wood. [2] The husband stood up in the tree, and the wife down below in a ditch, or hole. As she stood there she saw a great white serpent glide past her. 'Look, look!' she cried to her husband; 'see that great white serpent; surely there is something unnatural about it!'

               'A white serpent!' answered her husband; 'what nonsense! Who ever heard of such a thing as a white serpent!'

               'There it goes, then,' said the wife; 'you can see it for yourself.'

               'I see nothing of the kind,' said the husband. 'There are no serpents about Rome this many a long year; and as for a white one, such a thing doesn't exist.'

               While he spoke the serpent went through a hole in the ground. As the husband was so positive, the wife said no more, but they gathered up the wood and went home.

               In the night, however, the wife had a dream. She saw an Augustinian friar, long since dead, standing before her, who said 'Angela! (that was indeed her name) if you would do me a favour listen to me. Did you see a white serpent this morning?'

               'Yes,' she answered; 'that I did, though my husband said there was no such thing as a white serpent in existence.'

               'Well, if you would do me a pleasure, go back to the place where you saw the white serpent go in--not where he came out, but where you saw him go into the earth. Dig about that place, and, when you have dug a pretty good hole, a dead man will start up; [3] but don't be afraid, he can't hurt you, and won't want to hurt you. Take no notice of him, and go on digging, and no harm will come to you; you have nothing to be afraid of. If you dig on you will come to a heap of money. Take some of the biggest pieces of gold and carry them to St. Peter's, and take some of the smaller pieces and carry them to S. Agostino, [4] and let masses be said for that dead man. But you must tell no one alive anything about it.'

               The woman was much too frightened to do what the friar had said, but she managed to keep the story to herself, though it made her look so anxious her husband could not help noticing something.

               The next night the friar came again, and said the same words, only he added: 'If you are so frightened, Angela, you may take with you for company a little boy, but he must not be over seven, nor under six; and what you do you must tell no one. But you have nothing to fear, for if you do as I have said no one can harm you.'

               For all his assurances, however, she could not make up her mind to go, nor this day could she even keep the story from her husband, for it weighed upon her mind. When he heard the story he said, 'I'll go with you.'

               'Ah! if you'll go, then I don't mind,' she said. 'But how will it be? The friar was so particular that I should tell no one, evil may happen if I take another with me.'

               'If there is nothing in the story, there's nothing to fear,' said the husband; 'and, if the story is true, there is a heap of money to reward one for a little fear; so let's go. Besides, if you think any harm will happen to you for taking me, I can stand on the top of the bank while you go down to the hole, and it can't be said properly that I'm there, while I shall yet be by to give you courage and help you if anything happens.'

               'That way, I don't mind it,' answered the wife; and they went out together to the place, the husband, as he had said, standing by on a bank, and the wife creeping down into a hole. They took also two donkeys with them to bring away the treasure.

               At the first stroke of the woman's spade there came such lugubrious cries that she was frightened into running away.

               'Don't be afraid,' said the husband; 'cries don't hurt!' So the woman began digging again, and then there came out cries again worse than before, and the noise of rattling of chains, dreadful to hear. So terrified was the woman that she swooned away.

               The husband then went down into the hole with what water he could find to bring her to herself, but the moment he got into the hole the spirits set upon him and beat him so that he had great livid marks all over.

               After that neither of them had the heart to go back to try it again.

               But the woman was in the habit of going to confession to one of the Augustinian fathers, and she told him all. The fathers sent and had the place dug up all about, and thought they had proved there was nothing there; but for all that, it generally happens that when a thing like that has to be done, it must be done by the person who is sent, and anybody else but that person trying it proves nothing at all.

               One thing is certain, that when those horrid assassins [5] hide a heap of money they put a dead man's body at the entrance of the hole where they hide it, and say to it, 'Thou be on guard till one of such a name, be it Teresa, be it Angela, be it Pietro, comes;' and no one else going can be of any use, for it may be a hundred years before the coincidence can happen of a person just of the right name lighting on the spot--perhaps never.

               'Yes, yes! that's a fact; that is not old wives' nonsense,' [6] was the chorus which greeted this enunciation. [7]


'I, too, know a fact of that kind which most certainly happened, for I know Maria Grazia to whom it happened well, before she went to live at Velletri,' said one of them.


[1] 'La serpe bianca;' 'serpe' is of both genders, but is most commonly used in the feminine as in the common saying 'allevarsi la serpe in seno,' to nurture a serpent in one's bosom.

[2] 'Per far legna.' 'Fare' is brought in on all occasions. Bazzarini gives 59 closely printed columns of instances of its various uses; here it means to cut wood for burning; 'legno' is wood; 'legna,' wood for burning.

[3] 'S'alzerà un morto.'

[4] S. Agostino is the favourite with the people of all the churches of Rome.

[5] 'Brutti assassini.' In a country where the cultus of 'il bello' has been so well understood, 'ugly' has naturally come to be used as a term of deepest reproach.

[6] 'Si, si, questo è positivo, non è donnicciolara, è positivo.'

[7] This kind of spell seems analogous to one of which a curious account is preserved by Menghi (Compendio dell'Arte Essorcista, lib. ii. cap. xl.), which I quote, because it has a local connexion with Rome, and there are not many such. An inhabitant of Dachono in Bohemia, he says, brought his son, a priest, to Rome in the Pontificate of Pius II. (1458-64) to be exorcised, as all relief failed in his own country; a woman whom he had reproved for her bad life had bewitched him, adding, 'that the spell (maldicio) was imposed on him by her under a certain tree, and if it was not removed in the same way, he could not otherwise be set free; and she would not reveal under what tree it was.' The spell acted upon him only at such times as he was about to exercise his sacred ministry, and then it impeded his actions, forced him to put his tongue out at the cross, &c. &c. 'The more earnest the devotion with which I strive to give myself to prayer,' he said, 'so much the more cruelly the devil rends me' (mi lacera). In St. Peter's, the narrator goes on to say, is a column brought from the Temple of Solomon, by means of which many possessed persons have been liberated, because our Lord had leant against it when teaching there, and it was thought that this might be sufficiently potent to represent the fatal tree. He was brought to it, however, in vain. Being tied to it, and asked to point out the spot where Christ had touched it, the spirit which possessed him replied by making him bite it on a certain spot with his teeth and say, 'Qui stette, qui stette,' (here He stood) in Italian, although he did not know a word of the language, and was obliged to inquire what the words he had uttered meant. But the spell, nevertheless, was not got rid of thus. It was then understood that the spirit must be of that kind of which Christ had said 'he goeth not out except by prayer and fasting;' and a pious and venerable bishop, taking compassion on the man, devoted himself to prayer and fasting for him all through Lent; and thus he was delivered and sent back to his own country rejoicing.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: White Serpent, The
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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