Sagas from the Far East; or, Kalmouk and Mongolian Traditionary Tales | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

How the Serpent-Gods Were Propitiated


When the Well-and-wise-walking Khan found that he had again missed the end and object of his journey, without hesitation or loss of time he once more betook himself to the cool grove, and summoned the Siddhî-kür to come with him, threatening to hew down the mango-tree.

               But as he bore him along, bound in his bag of many colours, in which was place to stow away an hundred, the Siddhî-kür spoke thus, saying, "Tell thou now a tale to beguile the weariness of the way." But the Well-and-wise-walking Khan answered him nothing. Then said the Siddhî-kür again, "If thou wilt not tell a tale, at least give the token that I may know thou willest I should tell one."

               So the Khan nodded his head backwards and the Siddhî-kür told this tale, saying,--


LONG ages ago there reigned over a flourishing province, a Khan named Kun-snang (1). He had a son named "Sunshine" by his first wife who afterwards died. He also had a second son named "Moonshine," by his second wife. Now the second wife thought within herself, "If Sunshine is allowed to live, there is no chance of Moonshine ever coming to the throne. Some means must be found of putting Sunshine out of the way."

               With this object in view she threw herself down upon her couch and tossed to and fro as though in an agony of pain. All the night through also instead of sleeping, she tossed about and writhed with pain. Then the Khan spake to her, saying, "My beautiful one! what is it that pains thee, and with what manner of ailment art thou stricken?" And she made answer,--

               "Even when I was at home I suffered oftwhiles after the same manner, but now is it much more violent; all remedies have I exhausted previous times, there remains only one when the pain is of this degree, and that means is not available."

               "Say not that it is not available," answered the Khan, "for all means are available to me. Speak but what it is that is required, and whatever it be shall be done, even to the renouncing of my kingdom. For there is nothing that I would not give in exchange for thy life."

               But for a long time she made as though she would not tell him, then finally yielding to his repeated inquiries, she said, "If there were given me the heart of a Prince, stewed in sesame-oil (2), I should recover: it matters not whether the heart of Sunshine or of Moonshine, but that Moonshine being my own son, his heart would not pass through my throat. This means, O Khan, is manifestly not available, for how should it be done to take the life of Prince Sunshine? Therefore say no more, and let me die."

               But the Khan answered, "Of a truth it would grieve me to take the life of Prince Sunshine. Nevertheless, if there be no other means of saving thy life, the thing must be done. I have not to consider 'Shall the life of the Prince be spared or not?' but, 'Which shall be spared, the life of the Prince, or the life of the Khanin?' And in this strait who could doubt, but that it is the life of the Khanin that must be spared by me? Therefore, be of good cheer, beautiful one, for that the heart of Prince Sunshine shall be given thee cooked in sesame-oil."

               This, he said, intending in his own mind to have the heart of a kid of the goats prepared for her in sesame-oil, saying, "Behold, here is the heart of Prince Sunshine," but to send away the Prince into a far country that she might not know he was not dead. Only when she was restored to health again, then he purposed to fetch back his son. But Moonshine being in his mother's apartments overheard this promise which the Khan had given, and he ran and told his brother all that the Khan, his father, had said, saying, "When the Khan rises he will give the order to put thee to death; how shall this thing be averted?" and he wept sore, for he loved his brother Sunshine even as his own life.

               Then Sunshine answered, saying, "Seeing this is so, remain thou with our parents, loving and honouring them, and being loved by them. For me, it is clear the time is come that I must get me away to a far country. Farewell, my brother!"

               But Moonshine answered, "Nay, brother, for if thou goest, I also go with thee. How should I live alone here, without thee, my brother?" Therefore they rose quickly before the Khan could get up, and going privately to a priest in a temple hard by, that no one else might hear of their design and betray it to the Khan, they begged of him a good provision of baling-cakes (3), to support life by the way; and he gave them a good provision, even a bag-full, and they set out on their journey while it was yet night. It was the fifteenth of the month, while the moon shed abroad her light, and they journeyed towards the East, not knowing whither they went. But after they had journeyed many days over mountain and plain, and come to a land where was no water, but a muddy river the water whereof could not be drunk, and where was no habitation of man, Moonshine fell down fainting by the way. Sunshine therefore ran to the top of a high hill to see if he could discern any stream of water, but found none. When he came back Moonshine was dead! Then he fell down on the ground, and wept a long space upon his body, and at nightfall he buried it with solicitude under a heap of stones, crying, "Ah! my brother, how shall I live without thee, my brother?" And he prayed that at Moonshine's next re-birth (4) they might again live together.

               Journeying farther on, he came to a pass between two steep rocks, and in one of them was a red door. Going up to the door, he found an ancient Hermit living in a cave within, who addressed him, saying, "Whence art thou, O youth, who seemest oppressed with recent grief?" And Sunshine told him all that had befallen him. Without again speaking the Hermit put into the folds of his girdle a bottle containing a life-restoring cordial, and going to the spot where Moonshine lay buried, restored him to life. Then said he to the two princes, "Live now with me, and be as my two sons." So they lived with him, and were unto him as his two sons.

               The desert where this Hermit lived belonged to the kingdom of a Khan dazzling in his glory and resistless in might. Now it was about the season when the Khan and his subjects went every year to direct the flowing of water over the country for fructifying the grain-seeds; but it was the custom every year at this season first, in order to make the Serpent-gods (5) who lived at the water-head propitious, to sacrifice to them a youth of a certain age; and on this occasion it fell to the lot of a youth born in the Tiger-year (6). When the Khan had caused search to be made through all the people no youth was found among them all born in the Tiger-year. At last certain herdsmen came before him, saying, "While we were out tending our cattle, behold we saw in a cave nigh to a pass between two steep rocks a Hermit who has with him two sons, and one of them born in the Tiger-year."

               When the Khan had listened to their word he immediately sent three envoys to fetch the Hermit's son for the sacrifice (7).

               When the three envoys of the Khan had come and stood knocking before the red door of the Hermit's cave, the Hermit cried out to them, asking what they wanted of him. Then answered the chief of them, "Because thou hast a son living with thee born in the Tiger-year, and the Khan hath need of him for the sacrifice; therefore are we come, even that we may bring him to the Khan."

               When the Hermit had heard their embassage, he answered them, "How should a Hermit have a son with him out here in the desert?" But he took Sunshine, who was the youth born in the Tiger-year, and motioned him into a farther hole of the cave where was a great vessel of pottery; into this vessel he made him creep, then fastening the mouth of the vessel with earth, he made it to appear like to a jar of rice-brandy (8). Meantime, however, the Khan's envoys had broken down the door, and began searching through every recess of the cave. Finding nothing, they were filled with fury, and in their anger beat the Hermit on whose account they had come a bootless errand. But when Sunshine heard the men ill-treating the Hermit who had been to him as a father, he could not refrain himself, and called out from within the brandy-jar, "Unhand my father!" Then the envoys immediately left off beating his father, but they turned and seized him and carried him off to the Khan, while the Hermit was left weeping with great grief at the loss of his adopted son, even as one like to die.

               As the envoys dragged Sunshine along before the palace, the Khan's daughter was looking out of window, and when she heard that the handsome youth was destined for the Serpent-sacrifice, she was filled with compassion. She went therefore to the men who had the charge to throw him into the water, saying, "See how comely he is! He is worthy to be saved, throw him not into the water. Or else if you will throw him in, throw me in also with him." Then the men went and showed the Khan her words; whereupon the king was wroth, and said, "She is not worthy to be called the Khan's daughter; let them therefore be both sewn up into one bullock's skin, and so cast into the water." The men therefore did according to the Khan's bidding, and sewing them both up in one bullock-hide together, cast them into the water to the Serpent-gods.

               Then began Sunshine to say, "That they should throw me to the Serpent-gods, because I was the only youth to be found who was born in the Tiger-year, was not so bad; but that this beautiful maiden, who hath deigned to lift her eyes on me, and to love me, should be so sacrificed also, this is unbearable!"

               And the Khan's daughter in like manner cried, "That I who am only a woman should be thrown to the Serpent-gods, is not so bad; but that this noble and beautiful youth should be so sacrificed also, this is unbearable!"

               When the Serpent-gods heard these laments, and saw how the prince and the maiden vied with each other in generosity, they sent and fetched them both out of the water, and gave them freedom. Also as soon as they were set free, they let the water gently flow over the whole country, just as the people desired for their rice irrigation.

               Meantime, Sunshine said to the Khan's daughter, "Princess, let us each now return home. Go thou to thy father's palace, while I go back to the Hermitage, and visit my adopted father, who is like to die of grief for the loss of me. After I have fulfilled this filial duty, I will return to thee, and we will live for ever after for each other alone."

               The princess then praised his filial love, and bid him go console his father, only begging him to come to her right soon, for she should have no joy till he came back.

               Sunshine went therefore to the Hermit, whom he found so worn with grief, that he was but just in time to save him from dying; so having first washed him with milk and water, he consoled him with many words of kindness.

               The princess, too, went home to the palace, where all were so astonished at her deliverance that at first she could hardly obtain admission. When they had made sure it was herself in very truth, the people all came round her, and congratulated her with joy, for never had any one before been delivered from the sacrifice to the Serpent-gods.

               Then said the Khan, "That the Khan's daughter should be spared by the Serpent-gods was to be expected. They have the youth born in the Tiger-year for their sacrifice."

               But the princess answered, "Neither has he fallen sacrifice. Him also they let free; and indeed was it in great part out of regard for his abnegation and distress over my suffering that we were both let free."

               Then answered the Khan, "In that case is our debt great unto this youth. Let him be sought after, and besought that he come to visit us in our palace."

               So they went again to the cave in the rocky pass, and fetched Sunshine; and when he came near, the Khan went out to meet him, and caused costly seats to be brought, and made him sit down thereon beside him.

               Then he said to him, "That thou hast delivered this country from the fear of drought, is matter for which we owe thee our highest gratitude; but that thou and this my daughter also have escaped from death is a marvellous wonder. Tell me now, art thou in very truth the son of the Hermit?"

               "No," replied Sunshine, "I am the son of a mighty Khan; but my step-mother, seeking to make a difference between me and this my brother standing beside me, who was her own born son, and to put me to death, we fled away both together; and thus fleeing we came to the Hermit, and were taken in by his hospitality."

               When the Khan had heard his words, he promised him his daughter in marriage, and her sister, to be wife to Moonshine. Moreover, he endowed them with immeasurable riches, and gave them an escort of four detachments of fighting-men to accompany them home. When they had arrived near the capital of the kingdom, they sent an embassage before them to the Khan, saying,--

               "We, thy two sons, Sunshine and Moonshine, are returned to thee."

               The Khan and the Khanin, who had for many years past quite lost their reason out of grief for the loss of their children, and held no more converse with men, were at once restored to sense and animation at this news, and sent out a large troop of horsemen to meet them, and conduct them to their palace. Thus the two princes returned in honour to their home.

               When they came in, the Khan was full of joy and glory, sitting on his throne; but the Khanin, full of remorse and shame at the thought of the crime she had meditated, fell down dead before their face.

               "That wretched woman got the end that she deserved!" exclaimed the Khan.

               "Forgetting his health, the Well-and-wise-walking Khan hath opened his lips," said the Siddhî-kür. And with the cry, "To escape out of this world is good!" he sped him through the air, swift out of sight.

               Thus far of the Adventures of the Well-and-wise-walking Khan the fifth chapter, showing how the Serpent-gods were appeased.


(1) Kun-Snang = "All-enlightening." (Jülg.) The Mongolian tale-repeater here gives the Khan a Tibetian name (Tibetian being the learned and liturgical language of Mongolia), making one of the instances of which the tales are full, of their transformation in process of transmission.

(2) Sesame-oil is mentioned by Pliny in many places as in use in India for medicinal purposes: as, xiii. 2, 7: xv. 9, 4: xvii. 10, 1, &c.

(3) Baling-cakes.--See note 6, and note 9 to Tale IV.

(4) The Brahmanical system of re-births was followed to a great extent by Buddhists, notwithstanding that it had been one chief aim and object of Shâkjamuni's teaching to provide mankind with a remedy against their necessity. (See Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, ii. 60, and other places. Burnouf, Introd. à l'Hist. du Buddh. Ind. i. 153.) By its teaching, every living being had to be born again a countless number of times, leading them to higher or lower regions according to their dealings under each earlier form. The gods themselves were not exempt from the operation of this law.

(5) Serpent-god. See note 1 to Tale II., and note 4 to Tale XXII.

(6) Tiger-year. The Mongols reckon time by a cycle of sixty years, designated by a subdivision under the names of five necessary articles, and twelve beasts with the further adjuncts of male and female. The present cycle began in 1864 and will consequently go on till 1923.

               The following may serve as a specimen:--

1864, male Wood-mouse-year, Mato khouloukhana po.

1865, female Wood-bullock-year, Moto oukhere mo.

1866, male Fire-tiger-year, Gal bara po.

1867, female Fire-hare-year, Gal tole mo.

1868, male Earth-dragon-year, Sheree lou po.

1869, female Earth-serpent-year, Sheree Mokhee mo.

1870, male Iron-horse-year, Temur mori po.

1871, female Iron-sheep-year, Temur knoui mo.

1872, male Water-ape-year, Oussou betchi po.

1873, female Water-fowl-year, Oussou takia mo.

1874, male Wood-dog-year, Moto nokhee po.

1875, female Wood-pig-year, Moto khakhee mo.

1876, male Fire-mouse-year, Gal khouloukhana po.

1877, female Fire-bullock-year, Gal oukhere mo.

1878, male Earth-tiger-year, Sheree bara po.

1879, female Earth-hare-year, Sheree tolee mo.

1880, male Iron-dragon-year, Temur lou po.


1881, female Iron-serpent-year, Temur mokhee mo.

                And so on to the end. The date always being quoted in connexion with the year of each sovereign reigning at the time, to make the distinction more definite.

(7) Nothing can be much more revolting to our minds than the idea of human sacrifices. Nevertheless, one of the grandest episodes of the great epic poem called the Ramajana, is that in which King Ashokja goes all the world over in search of a youth possessing all the marks which prove him worthy to be sacrificed: "wandering through tracts of country and villages, through town and wilderness alike, holy hermitages also of high fame." When at last he has found one in the person of Sunasepha, son of Ritschika, a great prince of seers, Visvamitra, the great model penitent, calls on his own son to take his place, crying up the honour of the thing in the most ardent language. "When a father desires to have sons," he says to him, "it is in order that they may adorn the world with their virtue and be worthy of eternal fame. The opportunity for earning that fame has now come to thee." And when his son refuses the exchange, he pronounces on him the following curse, "Henceforth shalt thou be for many years a wanderer and outcast, and despised like to a dealer in dog's flesh."

               Concerning the serpent-cultus in general, see note 1, Tale II., and note 4, Tale XXII.

(8) Rice is the most ancient and most widespread object of Indian agriculture; it is only not cultivated in those districts where either the heat or the means of natural or artificial irrigation do not suffice for its production; and in easternmost islands of the Archipelago, where the sago-palm replaces it. (Ritter iv. 1, 800.) The name, coming from vrih, to grow, to spread (whence also vrihat, great), suggests, that it was regarded as the principal kind of corn. All the Greek writers on India mention that an intoxicating drink was made from rice, and the custom still prevails.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: How the Serpent-Gods Were Propitiated
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Sagas from the Far East; or, Kalmouk and Mongolian Traditionary Tales
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Mongolia & Russia
Classification: unclassified

Back to Top