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

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White Serpent-King, The


Wherefore the Well-and-wise-walking Khan once more took the way of the cool grove, and, having brought thence the Siddhî-kür as on the other times, bound in his bag with the cord woven of a hundred threads, as they went along the Siddhî-kür told him this tale, saying,--


LONG ages ago there lived in the east part of India a Khan whose possessions were so large that he had ten thousand cities, and for the administration of the affairs of the same he had not less than thirty ministers. He had also a gold frog that could dance, and a parrot that spoke wisely. A tamer was also appointed to have care of them, and every day this keeper brought them before the Khan to divert him. The frog danced every day a new dance, and the parrot now gave wise answers to the questions he proposed, now sang melodious songs with accomplished art.

               One day there came to the court of this King a minstrel from a strange land, in whose playing and singing the Khan took so great pleasure that he gave him many rich presents, and the man went about saying, "In all his dominions the King has no favourite in whom he takes so great delight as in me who am a stranger; neither is there any other who knows how to please him as I." When the keeper of the gold frog and the parrot heard him make this boast, he answered him saying, "Nay, much greater pleasure hath the Khan in his gold frog and his parrot, of whom I am keeper." And they strove together. In the end the minstrel said, "To-morrow we will both go up to the Khan together, and while your gold frog dances his most elaborate dance, and your parrot sings his most melodious songs, I also will play and sing my sagas to the Khan; and behold! to whichever the Khan gives ear while he regards not the other, he shall be accounted to have most pleased the Khan."

               The next day they did even as the minstrel had said, and when the minstrel began to sing the Khan paid no more heed at all to the frog or the parrot, but listened only to the strange minstrel's words.

               Then the tamer who had charge of the frog and the parrot, when he saw that the strange minstrel was preferred, lost heart and came no more before the Khan, but went and let fly the parrot, and threw the gold frog out of a window of the palace. As he threw the gold frog out of the window of the palace a crow was flying by, and seeing the frog thrown out, and that it knew not which way to turn, he caught it in his beak and flew away to a ledge of a rock. As he was about to devour her, the frog said,--

               "O crow! if thou art minded to devour me, first wash me in water, and then come and devour me."

               And the remark pleased the crow, and he said to the frog,--

               "Well spoken, O frog! What is thy name?"

               And the frog made answer,--

               "Bagatur-Ssedkiltu (1). That is my name."

               So the crow took her down to wash her in the streamlet which flowed ceaselessly out of a hole in the rock. But the frog had no sooner gained the water than she crept into the hole. The crow called after her,--

               "Bagatur-Ssedkiltu! Bagatur-Ssedkiltu, come thou here!"

               But the frog answered him,--

               "I should be foolish indeed if I came of my own account to give up my sweet life to your voracity. The Three Precious Treasures (2) may decide whether I have so little courage and pride as that!"

               So saying, she leapt into a cleft of the rock out of reach of the crow.

               Meantime her former tamer had come up, and began searching about, trying to recover her, having bethought him he might incur the King's anger in having let her go. And when he saw her not he began digging up the earth and hewing the rock all round the streamlet.

               When the frog saw him digging up the earth and breaking the rock all round the streamlet, she cried out to him,--

               "Dig not up the source of this spring. The King of the same hath given me charge over it, and I will not that thou lay it bare by digging round it." She said further, "Though now thou art in sorrow and distress, I will presently render thee a gift that shall be a gift of wonder. Listen and I will tell thee. I am the daughter of the Serpent-king, reigning over the white mother-o'-pearl shells (3). One day I went out to see the King's daughter bathe, and she, seeing me, sent and had me fished out of the stream with a mother-o'-pearl pail, and took me with her."

               Meantime, the King began to notice that the parrot and the frog came no more to entertain him, so he sent for the tamer, and inquired what had become of his charges.

               "The frog is gone her way in the stream," answered the man, "and the parrot must have been taken by a hawk."

               The Khan was wroth at this answer, and ordered that the man should be taken and put to death.

               Then came the first of the thirty ministers to the Khan, saying,--

               "If we put this man to death, no more dancers or singers will come any more to this court."

               And the Khan answered,--

               "It is well spoken; let him not be put to death." He sent him into banishment, however, with three men to see him over the border of his dominions, and a goat to carry his provisions. But he also had him shod with a pair of shoes made out of stone, forbidding him to return until the stone shoes should be worn through.

               As soon as his guards had left him, the tamer sat down by the side of the stream, and after soaking the stone shoes with water, rubbed them with a piece of rough stone till they were all in holes. Then he came back to his own country, with the goat that had carried his provisions, and made him dig roots out of the earth for him to eat. And he lived upon the roots.

               One day he saw an owl flying by, which held in its mouth a white serpent. The tamer knew him to be a serpent-prince, and to make the owl release him, took off his girdle and held it in his mouth, after the manner in which the owl held the serpent, and, standing over against the owl, he cried out, "The thing held in the mouth burns with fire!" at the same time dropping the girdle from his mouth suddenly, as if it scorched him.

               When the owl had heard his words, she also let the serpent fall out of her beak.

               Then the tamer took up the serpent, and put it on a piece of grass near, and covered it with his cap. He had hardly done so, when there came up out of the water a whole train of princes of the serpent-dæmons, riding on horses, on to the bank of the stream, where they dispersed themselves, searching about every where for the white serpent, which was a serpent-prince.

               After they had searched long and found nothing, there came up out of the water, riding on a white horse, a white serpent, having on a white mantle and a white crown (4).

               He, seeing the tamer, said to him,--

               "I am the Serpent-king, reigning over the white mother-o'-pearl shells. I have lost my son. O man! say if thine eyes have lighted on him."

               The tamer asked of him, "What was thy son like?"

               And the Serpent-king answered,--

               "Even a white serpent was my son."

               "If that is so," answered the tamer, thy son is with me. Even now a mighty Garuda-bird had him in his beak and prepared to devour him. But I, who am a tamer of all living creatures, knew how to entreat him so that he should give the white serpent up to me."

               Then he lifted his cap from off the grass and delivered the White Serpent-prince unto the Serpent-king, his father.

               The Serpent-king was full of delight at getting back his son, and called a great feast of all his friends and acquaintance among the serpent-princes to celebrate his joy. And the tamer he took into his palace, and he dwelt with him.

               After a time, however, the man desired to return to his own country, and spoke to the Serpent-king to let him go. Then said the White Serpent-king, who reigned over the white mother-o'-pearl shells--

               "Behold, as thou hast dealt well with me, I will not let thee go without bestowing somewhat on thee, and telling thee what good fortune shall befall thee. Behold these two times hast thou served me well; and long time have I sought thee to reward thee, for first thou didst release my daughter, the Princess Goldfrog, from servitude, putting her out of the window of the palace, and now thou hast restored my son, even mine only son, to me. Know, therefore, that of thee shall be born four sons, every one of whom shall be a king in Gambudvîpa. Nevertheless, seeing it will befall that, ere that time come, thou shalt pass through a season of trial, and be in need, I give unto thee this Mirjalaktschi (5) and this wand. Whensoever thou wantest for food, touch but this Mirjalaktschi with the wand, and immediately every kind of viand shall be spread out before thee."

               Then he brought him up to the edge of the water to let him depart, giving him a brightly painted Mirjalaktschi and a mother-o'-pearl wand; moreover, he gave him a red-coloured dog also.

               Then the White Serpent-king went his way down under the water again to his palace, and the tamer turned him towards his own country, the red-coloured dog following behind him.

               "Thus was the promise of Princess Goldfrog fulfilled," exclaimed the Khan.

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


(1) Bagatur-Ssedkiltu, "of heroic capacity." (Jülg.) See Note 2, Tale XVII.

(2) The Three Precious Treasures, see note 3, Tale XVI.

(3) Pearls. Arrianus (Ind. viii. 8) quotes from Megasthenes, a legend in which the discovery of pearls is ascribed to Crishna. The passage further implies that the Greek name μαργαρίτης was received from an Indian name, which may be the case through the Dekhan dialect, though there is nothing like it in Sanskrit, unless it be traced from markarâ, a hollow vessel. The Sanskrit word for pearls is muktá, "dropt" or "set free," "dropt by the rain-clouds." (See Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, i. 244 n. 1. See also note 4, Tale XIV.) How the Preserver of mother-o'-pearl shells comes to live up a river, I know not, unless in his royal character he was supposed to have an outlying country-villa. However Megasthenes (quoted by Lassen, ii. 680, n. 2) tells us not only that there were many crocodiles and alligators in the Indus, but also that many fishes and molluscs came up the stream out of the sea as far as the confluence of the Akesines, and small ones as far as the mountains. Onesikritos mentions the same concerning other rivers.

(4) The serpent-gods are spoken of sometimes as if they were supposed to wear a human form and as often as in their reptile form. In the present place in the text there is a strange confusion between the two ideas, the "son" whom the White Serpent king comes to seek evidently wore a reptile form, as when he was in the owl's mouth he resembled the Tamer's girdle, yet the king himself and his companion are said to be riding on horses; as it is also said they come out of the water it was probably a crocodile that the story-teller had in his mind's eye, and which might fancifully be conceived to be a serpent riding on horseback, as a centaur represents a man on horseback. The serpent-gods generally would seem to be more properly termed reptile-gods, as not only ophidians and saurians seem to belong to their empire, but batrachians also; in this very story the gold frog is reckoned the actual daughter of the White Serpent-king, probably even emydians also, though I do not recall an example. Water-snakes, however, are common in Asia, and there is also there a group of batrachians called cæliciæ, which are cylindrical in form, without feet and moving like serpents, and considered to form a link between that family and their own. I do not know if this in any way explains the symbolism whereby a creature that had any right to be reckoned a frog could be called the daughter of a serpent-king.

               When the stories of encounters of heroes with huge malevolent serpents, or crocodiles, passed into the mythology of Europe, these were generally replaced by "dragons," or monsters, such as "Grendel" in our Anglo-Saxon "Lay of Beowulf." There are some, however, in which a bonâ fide serpent figures. In parts of Tirol, a white serpent is spoken of as a "serpent-queen" and as more dangerous than the others; various are the legends in which the release of a spell-bound princess depends on the deliverer suffering himself to be three times encircled, and the third time, kissed by a serpent; the trial frequently fails at the third attempt. Sir Lancelot, if I remember right, accomplished it in the end.

               Every collection of mediæval legends contains stories of combats with dragons, the groundwork probably brought from the East, and the detail made to fit the hero of some local deliverance; the mythology of Tirol is particularly rich in this class, almost every valley has its own; at Wilten, near Innsbruck, the sting of a dragon is shown as of that killed by the Christian giant Haymon; the one I have given in "Zovanin senza paura," from the Italian Tirol (p. 348, "Household Stories from the Land of Hofer"), has this similarity with Tales II. and V., that it is actually the water supply of the infested district which is stopped by the dragon. There is this great difference, however, between the Eastern and later Western versions of serpent myths. The Indians having deified the serpent, their heroic tales have no further aim than that of propitiating him. On the other hand, it was not long before the religious influence under which the Christian myths were moulded had connected and by degrees identified the serpent-exterior, under the parable of which they set forth their local plague, with that under which the adversary of souls is named in the sacred story of the garden of Eden; and thus it became a necessity of the case that the Christian hero should destroy or at least vanquish it.

               Though the Indian serpent-gods seem to have been generally feared and hated, we have instances--and that even in this little volume--of their harmlessness also and even beneficence. An innocuous and benevolent phase of dragon-character seems to have been adopted also in the early heathen mythology of Europe. Nork (Mythologie der Volkssagen) tells us the dragon was held sacred to Wodin, and its image was placed over houses, town-gates, and towers, as a talisman against evil influences; and I have met with a popular superstition lingering yet in Tirol that to meet a crested adder (the European representative, I believe, of the Cobra di capello, which is, as we have seen, the species specially worshipped in India) brings good luck. I have said I do not remember an instance in Indian mythology in which any member of the emydian family comes under the empire of the serpent-god; I should expect there are such instances, however, as the counterpart exists in Tirol, where there are stories of mysterious fascination exercised by sacred shrines upon the little land-tortoises and which have in consequence been regarded by the peasantry as representing wandering souls waiting for the completion of their purgatorial penance. See also concerning the serpent-gods, note 1 to Tale II.

(5) Mirjalaktschi. Jülg says, "Fettmacher" (fat-maker) is the best equivalent he can give, but he is not convinced of its correctness, and then exposes what he understands by "Fettmacher" by two German expressions, one, meaning "pot-bellied," and the other not renderable in English to ears polite. It would seem more in accordance with the use of the name in the text to understand his own word Fettmacher, as "he giving abundance," "he making fat."

(6) Gambudvîpa. I have already (page viii.) had occasion to explain this native name of India; otherwise spelt Dschambudvîpa and Jambudvîpa and Jambudîpa. But as I only there spoke of the actual species of the gambu-tree, one of the indigenous productions of India, I ought further to mention that the name is rather derived from a fabulous specimen of it, supposed to grow on the sacred mountain of Meru. Spence Hardy ("Legends and Theories of the Buddhists," p. 95) quotes the following description of it from one of the late commentaries of the Sutras: "From the root to the highest part is a thousand miles; the space covered by its outspreading branches is three thousand miles in circumference. The trunk is one hundred and fifty miles round, and five hundred miles in height from the root to the place where the branches begin to extend; the four great branches of it are each five hundred miles long, and from between these flow four great rivers. Where the fruit of the tree falls, small plants of gold arise which are washed into one of the rivers." Earlier descriptions are less exaggerated; details remaining in this one suggest that it has not been invented without aid from some lingering remnant of an early tradition of the Tree of Life and the four rivers of Paradise, "the gold of" one of which "is good."

               The great continent of India being called an island is explained in a parable from the Jinâlankâra, given at p. 87 of the same work, likening the outer Sakwala ridge or boundary of the universe to the rim of a jar or vessel; the vessel filled with sauce representing the ocean and the continents, like masses of cooked rice floating in the same.

               At p. 82, he quotes from the first-mentioned commentary a description of the mountain of Méru itself, illustrative of the habitual exaggeration of the Indian sacred writers. "Between Maha Méru and the Sakwala ridge are seven circles of rocks with seven seas between them. They are circular because of the shape of Maha Méru. The first or innermost, Yugandhara, is 210,000 miles broad; its inner circumference is 7,560,000 miles, and its outer, 8,220,000 miles; from Maha Méru to Yugandhara is 840,000 miles. Near Maha Méru, the depth of the sea is 840,000 miles, &c.," the seven circles being all described with analogous dimensions. Also p. 42, "Buddha knows how many atoms there are in Maha Méru, although it is a million miles in height."

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: White Serpent-King, 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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