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

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White Bird and His Wife, The


When the Well-and-wise-walking Khan found that he had again missed the end and object of his labour, he proceeded again by the same manner and means to the cool grove, and having bound the Siddhî-kür in his bag, bore him on his shoulder to present to his Master and Teacher Nâgârg'una.

               But by the way the Siddhî-kür asked him to tell a tale; and when he would not answer, craved the token of his assent that he should tell one, which when the Khan had given, he told this tale, saying,--


LONG ages ago, there lived in a land called Fair-flower-garden, a man, who had three daughters, who minded his herds of goats (1), the three alternately.

               One day, when it was the turn of the eldest sister to go with them, she fell asleep during the mid-day heat, and when she awoke, she found that one of the goats was missing. While she wandered about seeking it, she came to a place where was a great red door. When she had opened this, she found behind it, a little farther on, a great gold door. And when she had opened this, she found farther on another door all of shining mother-o'-pearl. She opened this, and beyond it again there was an emerald door, which gave entrance to a splendid palace full of gold and precious stones, dazzling to behold. Yet in all the whole palace there was no living thing save one white bird perched upon a costly table in a cage.

               The bird espying the maiden, said to her, "Maiden, how camest thou hither?" And she replied, "One of my father's goats has escaped from the flock, and as I dare not go home without it, I have been seeking it every where; thus came I hither." Then the White Bird said, "If thou wilt consent to be my wife (2), I will not only tell thee where the goat is, but restore it to thee. If, however, thou refuse to render me this service, the goat is lost to thy father's flock for ever." But the maiden answered, "How can I be thy wife, seeing thou art a bird? Therefore is my father's goat lost to his flock for ever." And she went away weeping for sorrow.

               The next day, when the second daughter took her turn with the herds, another goat escaped from the flock; and when she went to seek it, she also came to the strange palace and the white bird; but neither could she enter into his idea of her becoming his wife; and she therefore came home, sorrowing over the loss to the herd under her care.

               The day following, the youngest daughter went forth with the goats, and a goat also strayed from her. But she, when she had come to the palace, and the white bird asked her to become his wife, with the promise of restoring her goat in case of her consent, answered him, "As a rule, creatures of the male gender keep their promises; therefore, O bird! I accept thy conditions." Thus she agreed to become his wife.

               One day there was to be a great gathering, lasting thirteen days, in a temple in the neighbourhood. And when all the people were assembled together, it was found that it was just this woman, the wife of the white bird, who was more comely than all the other women. And among the men there was a mighty rider, mounted on a dappled grey horse, who was so far superior to all the rest, that when he had trotted thrice round the assembly and ridden away again, they could not cease talking of his grace and comeliness, and his mastery of his steed.

               When the wife came back home again to the palace in the rock, the white bird said to her, "Among all the men and women at the festival, who was regarded to have given the proofs of superiority?" And she answered, "Among the men, it was one riding on a dappled grey horse; and among the women, it was I." Thus it happened every day of the festival, neither was there any, of men or women, that could compete with these two.

               On the twelfth day, when the woman that was married to the white bird went again to the festival, she had for her next neighbour an ancient woman, who asked her how it had befallen the other days of the feast; and she told her, saying, "Among all the women none has overmatched me; but among the men, there is none to compare with the mighty rider on the dappled grey horse. If I could but have such a man for my husband, there would be nothing left to wish for all the days of my life!" Then said the ancient woman, "And why shouldst thou not have such a man for thy husband?" But she began to weep, and said, "Because I have already promised to be the wife of a white bird." "That is just right!" answered the ancient woman. "Behold, to-morrow is the thirteenth day of the assembly; but come not thou to the feast, only make as though thou wert going: hide thyself behind the emerald door. When thou seemest to be gone, the white bird will leave his perch, and assuming his man's form, will go into the stable, and saddle his dappled grey steed, and ride to the festival as usual. Then come thou out of thy hiding-place, and burn his perch, and cage, and feathers; so will he have henceforth to wear his natural form." Thus the ancient woman instructed the wife of the white bird.

               The next day the woman did all that she had been told, even according to the words of the ancient woman. But as she longed exceedingly to see her husband return, she placed herself behind a pillar where she could see him coming a long way. At last, as the sun began to sink quite red towards the horizon, she saw him coming on his dapple-grey horse. "How is this?" he exclaimed, as he espied her. "You got back sooner than I, then?" And she answered, "Yes, I got home the first." Then inquired he further, "Where is my perch and cage?" And she made answer, "Those have I burned in the fire, in order that thou mightest henceforth appear only in thy natural form." Then he exclaimed, "Knowest thou what thou hast done? In that cage had I left not my feathers only, but also my soul (3)!" And when she heard that, she wept sore, and besought him, saying, "Is there no means of restoration? Behold there is nothing that I could not endure to recover thy soul." And the man answered, "There is one only remedy. The gods and dæmons will come to-night to fetch me, because my soul is gone from me; but I can keep them in perpetual contest for seven days and seven nights. Thou, meantime, take this stick, and with it hew and hew on at the mother-o'-pearl door without stopping or resting day or night. By the close of the seventh night thou shalt have hewn through the door, and I shall be free from the gods and dæmons; but, bear in mind, that if thou cease from hewing for one single instant, or if weariness overtake thee for one moment, then the gods and dæmons will carry me away with them--away from thee." Thus he spoke. Then the woman went and fetched little motes of the feather-grass, and fixed her eyelids open with them, that she might not be overtaken by slumber; and with the stick that her husband had given her she set to work, when night fell, to hew and hew on at the mother-o'-pearl door. Thus she hewed on and on, nor wearied, seven days and seven nights: only the seventh night, the motes of grass having fallen out of one of her eyes so that she could not keep the lid from closing once, in that instant the gods and dæmons prevailed against her husband, and carried him off.

               Inconsolable, she set forth to wander after him, crying, "Ah! my beloved husband. My husband of the bird form!" Notwithstanding that she had not slept or left off toiling for seven days and seven nights, she set out, without stopping to take rest, searching for him every where in earth and heaven (4).

               At last, as she continued walking and crying out, she heard his voice answering her from the top of a mountain. And when she had toiled up to the top of the mountain, crying aloud after him, she heard him answer her from the bottom of a stream. When she came down again to the banks of the stream, still calling loudly upon him, there she found him by a sacred Obö, raised to the gods by the wayside (5). He sat there with a great bundle of old boots upon his back, as many as he could carry.

               When they had met, he said to her, "This meeting with thee once more rejoices my heart. The gods and dæmons have made me their water-carrier; and in toiling up and down from the river to their mountain (6) so many times, I have worn out all these pairs of boots."

               But she answered, "Tell me, O beloved, what can I do to deliver thee from this bondage?"

               And he answered, "There is only this remedy, O faithful one. Even that thou return now home, and build another cage like to the one that was burned, and that having built it, thou woo my soul back into it. Which when thou hast done, I myself must come back thither, nor can gods or dæmons withhold me."

               So she went back home, and built a cage like to the one that was burned, and wooed the soul of her husband back into it; and thus was her husband delivered from the power of the gods and dæmons, and came back to her to live with her always.

               "In truth that was a glorious woman for a wife!" exclaimed the Khan.

               "Forgetting his health, the Well-and-wise-walking Khan hath opened his lips," replied 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 seventh chapter, of how it befell the White Bird and his Wife.


(1) Compare note 10, Tale IV.

(2) Legends of transformed maidens being delivered from the power of enchantment and married by heroes and knights are common enough, but we less frequently meet with stories presenting a reversed plot. I have met with one, however, nearly identical with that given in the text, attached to a ruined castle of Wâlsch-Tirol.

(3) The Buddhist idea of the soul is very difficult to define. In other legends given later in the present volume (e. g. the episode of the burying of Vikramâditja's body and the action of the fourth youth in "Who invented Women?") we find it, just as in the present one, spoken of as a quite superfluous and fantastic adjunct without which a man was to all intents and purposes the same as when he had it. Spence Hardy affirms as the result of conversations with Buddhists during half a life passed among them in Ceylon, as well as from the study of their writings, that "according to Buddhism there is no soul."

(4) Compare note 7 to "Vikramâditja's Birth."

(5) Obö. "A heap of stones on which every traveller is expected of his piety to throw one or more as he goes by." (Jülg.) Abbé Huc describes them thus: "They consist simply of an enormous pile of stones heaped up without any order, surmounted with dried branches of trees, while from them hang other branches and strips of cloth on which are inscribed verses in the Tibet and Mongol languages. At its base is a large granite urn in which the devotees burn incense. They offer besides pieces of money which the next Chinese traveller, after sundry ceremonious genuflexions before the Obö, carefully collects and pockets. These Obös are very numerous."

(6) The sacred mountain of Meerû. See note 4, Tale III.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: White Bird and His Wife, The
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

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