Tuesday 26 May 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #14: MR FOX


This is one of my top ten favourite fairy tales. It is old perhaps the oldest known version of the ‘Bluebeard’ story, though as I wrote in my book of essays on fairy tales, ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’, I think it’s a great deal better than ‘Bluebeard’. When courageous Lady Mary discovers the reason why her fiancĂ©, the suave Mr Fox, seems unwilling to let her visit his castle, this very self-possessed and steely heroine turns the tables on him. 

Shakespeare knew and quoted from the story, and Edmund Spencer also quotes from and references it in Book 3 of ‘The Faerie Queen’. Then it disappeared from view, until Joseph Jacobs, looking for stories for his ‘English Fairy Tales’ (1898) rediscovered it in an addendum to Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare. A Mr Blakeway contributed a note to explain the line in Act I, Sc 1, of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, where Benedick says to Claudio: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.’ (To find out more, you can read my post on the history of the story by clicking on this sentence.) In his note, Mr Blakeway recounts the story in an abbreviated form, explaining that his great-aunt had told it to him in his childhood. He concludes: 

Such is the old tale to which Shakspeare evidently alludes, and which has often ‘froze my young blood’ when I was a child. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives’ tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer’s meaning.

This accidental survival of such a very strong fairy tale makes me wonder, with something of a sigh, how many other English fairy tales we may have lost?

'Mr Fox' is literally a ‘twice-told tale’. During the first telling, Lady Mary is a witness to frightening events. Then she seizes control of the narrative and wields it: and the person who owns the story owns the power. The many children to whom I‘ve told this tale have easily intuited this, and they have all loved its sinister power, rising suspense and easy-to-remember mantras. 

Lady Mary was young, and Lady Mary was fair. She had two brothers, and more lovers than she could count. But of them all, the bravest and most gallant was a Mr Fox, whom she met when she was down at her father’s country house. No one knew who Mr Fox was; but he was certainly brave, and surely rich, and of all her lovers, Lady Mary cared for him alone. At last it was agreed upon between them that they should be married. Lady Mary asked Mr Fox where they should live, and he described to her his castle, and where it was; but, strange to say, did not ask her or her brothers, to come and see it.

                So one day, near the wedding day, when her brothers were out and Mr Fox was away for a day or two on business (as he said), Lady Mary set out for Mr Fox’s castle. And after many searchings she came at last to it, and a fine strong house it was, with high walls and a deep moat. And when she came up to the gateway she saw written on it:

Be bold, be bold.

And as the gate was open, she went through it, and found no one there. So she went up to the doorway, and over it she found written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

Still she went on, till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in a gallery, over which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why, bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood! So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place, and she closed the door, went through the gallery, and was just going down the stairs and out of the hall, when who should she see through the window but Mr Fox, dragging a beautiful young lady along from the gateway to the door. Lady Mary rushed downstairs, and hid herself behind a chest, just in time, as Mr Fox came in with the poor young lady who seemed to have fainted. Just as he got near Lady Mary, Mr Fox saw a diamond ring glittering on the finger of the young lady he was dragging, and he tried to pull it off. But it was tightly fixed and would not come off, so Mr Fox cursed and swore and drew his sword, raised it, and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The sword cut off the hand, which jumped into the air, and fell of all places in the world into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr Fox looked about a bit, but he did not think of looking behind the chest, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber. 

                As soon as she heard him pass through the gallery, Lady Mary crept  out of the door, down through the gateway, and ran home as fast as she could. 

                Now it happened that the very next day the marriage contract of Lady Mary and Mr Fox was to be signed, and there was a splendid breakfast before that. And when Mr Fox was seated at the tables opposite Lady Mary, he looked at her. “How pale you are this morning, my dear.” “Yes,” said she, “I had a bad night’s rest last night. I had horrible dreams.” “Dreams go by contraries,” said Mr Fox, “but tell us your dream and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.”

                “I dreamed,” said Lady Mary, “that I went yesterday to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls, and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:

                                                Be bold, be bold.

                “It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr Fox.

                “And when I came to the doorway over it was written: 

                                                Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

                 “It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr Fox.

                “And then I went upstairs, and came to a gallery, at the end of which was a door, on which was written: 

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

                “It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr Fox.

                “And then – and then I opened the door, and the room was filled with bodies and skeletons of poor dead women, all stained with their blood.”

                “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr Fox. 

                “Then I dreamed that I rushed down the gallery, and just as I was going down the stairs I saw you, Mr Fox, coming up to the hall door, dragging after you a poor young lady, rich and beautiful.”

                “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr Fox. 

                “I rushed downstairs, just in time to hide myself behind a chest, when you, Mr Fox, came in dragging the young lady by the arm. And, as you passed me, Mr Fox, I thought I saw you try and pull off her diamond ring, and when you could not, Mr Fox, it seemed to me in my dream that you pulled out your sword and hacked the poor lady’s hand off to get the ring.”

                “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr Fox, and he was going to say something else as he rose from his seat, when Lady Mary jumped up, crying, “But it is so, and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show,” and she pulled out the lady’s hand from her dress and pointed it straight at Mr Fox.

And with that, her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces!

More on fairy tales and folklore in my book "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available  here and here.

    Illustration by HJ Ford          

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #13: THE NETTLE SPINNER


Another dark fairy tale: this is a Flemish story, 'La Fileuse d’Orties', from ‘Contes du roi Cambrinus’ (1872) collected by Charles Deulin. The English translation was made by Leonora Blanche Alleyne (Mrs Andrew Lang) for ‘The Red Fairy Book’, and it's a strange, sinister story which takes the old theme of the girl who weaves nettle shirts, and stands it on its head. You'll remember tales such as Hans Andersen's 'The Wild Swans' and the Grimms’ ‘The Twelve Brothers’ in which the heroine spins and weaves nettle shirts to disenchant the brothers she loves. (A similar healing magic is performed by 'Gilla of the Enchantments': #6 in this series.) But when the heroine of this story tells a wicked count that she prefers marrying her sweetheart to succumbing to his wiles, the count effectively responds, ‘Over my dead body!’ and orders her to perform what he assumes will be the impossible tasks of weaving a nettle wedding-gown for herself, and for himself, a nettle shroud. Of course it isn't impossible, and as she steadily spins the nettles and weaves the shroud, he begins to sicken… 

Renelde is one of those strong, long-persisting heroines who keep their eyes firmly fixed on what they've decided is right. You'll note that while the women in this story are active agents, the men are ultimately ineffectual. Neither the count nor Renelde's fiance Guilbert can persuade her to act differently from her principles. Her behaviour is so consistent and so quietly inexorable that one almost begins to feel sympathy for the wicked count.

Almost. Not quite. 


Once upon a time there lived at Quesnoy in Flanders a great lord whose name was Burchard, but whom the country people called Burchard the Wolf. Now Burchard had such a wicked, cruel heart that it was whispered he used to harness his peasants to the plough and force them by blows from a whip to till his land with naked feet. 

His wife, on the other hand, was always tender and pitiful to the poor and miserable. Every time she heard of another of his misdeeds, she would secretly go to repair the evil, so that she was blessed throughout the whole countryside. This countess was loved as much as the count was hated.


One day when he was out hunting the count passed through a forest and at the door of a lonely cottage he saw a beautiful girl spinning hemp.
                “What is your name?” he asked.
                “Renelde, my lord.”
                “Aren’t you tired of living in such a lonely place?”
                “I’m used to it my lord, and I never get tired of it.”
                “If you come to the castle, I’ll make you a lady’s maid to the countess.”
                “I can’t do that, my lord. I have to take care of my grandmother, who is very helpless.”

                “Come to the castle, I tell you. Be there this evening,” and he went on his way.  But Renelde knew very well not to trust him, and she was betrothed to a young woodcutter called Guilbert, and besides, she did have her grandmother to look after. 

                Three days later the count rode by again. “Why didn’t you come?” he asked the pretty spinner. 

                “I told you, my lord, I have to look after my grandmother.”

                “Come tomorrow and I will make you lady-in-waiting to the countess,” and he went on his way. But his offer had no more effect than the last, and Renelde did not go to the castle.
                “If you will just come,” said the count, the next time he rode by, “I will put the countess aside and marry you.” But two years before when Renelde’s mother was dying of a long illness, the countess had helped them and been very kind to them, so even if the count had really meant to marry Renelde, she would still have refused. 


A few weeks passed, and Renelde hoped she had got rid of him, but one day the count stopped at the door, his duck-gun under one arm and his game-bag on his shoulder. This time Renelde was spinning not hemp, but flax. 

                “What’s that you’re spinning?” he asked roughly.
                “My wedding shift, my lord.”
                “You’re going to be married, are you?”
                “Yes my lord, by your leave.” For at that time no peasant could marry without his master’s permission. 

                “I will give you leave on one condition. Do you see those tall nettles that grow on the graves in the churchyard? Go and gather them, and spin them into two fine shifts. One shall be your bridal gown, and the other shall be my shroud, for you shall be married the day I am laid in my grave.” And with a mocking laugh, the count turned away.

                Renelde trembled. No one in all Locquignol had heard of such a thing as spinning nettles. And besides, the count seemed made of iron and was very proud of his strength, often boasting that he should live to be a hundred. 

                Every evening when his work was done, Guilbert came to visit his bride-to-be; this evening he came as usual, and Renelde told him what Burchard had said.

                “Shall I watch for the Wolf and split his skull with a blow of my axe?”

                “No!” Renelde answered, “there must be no blood upon our bridal. And – we must not hurt the count. Remember how good the countess was to my mother.”

                An old, old woman now spoke up, she was the mother of Renelde’s grandmother, and was more than ninety years old. All day long she sat in her chair nodding her head and never saying a word. “My children,” she said now, “in all the years I have lived, I have never heard of a shift spun from nettles. But what God demands of us, we will have the strength to do. Why shouldn’t Renelde try it?” 


Renelde did, and to her great surprise found the nettles, crushed and prepared, gave a good thread, supple and light and firm. Quite soon she had finished the first shift, which was for her wedding. She wove it and cut it out at once, hoping the count would not force her to begin the other. Just as she finished sewing it, Burchard the Wolf passed by. 

                “Well,” said he, “how are the shifts getting on?”

                “Here is my wedding gown, my lord, “ Renelde answered, holding up the shift, which was the whitest and finest ever seen. The count went pale, but he replied roughly, “Very good. Now begin the other.”

                The spinner set to work. As the count returned to the castle a cold shiver passed over him; he felt, as the saying goes, that someone had walked over his grave. He tried to eat his supper but could not; he went to bed shaking with fever. He did not sleep, and in the morning he could not rise.

                Such a sudden illness, which was becoming worse, made him very uneasy. He was sure Renelde’s spinning wheel was doing it. Was it necessay that his body, as well as his shroud, should be ready for burial?  So Burchard sent a message to Renelde to stop spinning and put away her wheel. She obeyed, but that evening Guilbert asked her, “Has the count agreed to our marriage?”

                “No,” said Renelde.
                “Continue your work, sweetheart. It’s the only way of gaining his consent. He told you so himself."


Next morning, the girl sat down to spin. Two hours later, two soldiers arrived and when they saw her spinning they seized her, tied her arms and legs and carried her to the river, which was swollen with rain. They flung her in like a dog and left her to drown. But Renelde rose to the surface, her bonds fell away and she struggled to land. 

As soon as she got home she sat down and began to spin.

Again the soldiers came to the cottage and seized her. They carried her to the river, tied a stone around her neck and threw her into the water. But the moment their backs were turned the stone untied itself. Renelde waded to the ford, returned to the hut and sat down to spin. 

Now the count resolved to go to Locquignol himself, but he was so weak he had to be carried in a littler. And still the spinner spun. As soon as he saw her he fired a shot at her, but the bullet rebounded without hurting her – and still she spun on. 

Burchard fell into such a rage it almost killed him. He smashed the spinning wheel into a thousand pieces and fell to the ground in a faint. He was carried back to the castle unconscious, but the next day the spinning wheel was mended and the spinner sat down to spin. The count ordered her hands to be tied, but the cords fell away. He ordered every nettle to be uprooted for miles around, but no sooner had they been torn from the soil than they grew again thicker than before, and they even grew up through the cottage floor and sprang to the distaff ready for spinning.

And every day Burchard the Wolf grew worse and watched his end approaching. 


Moved by pity for her husband, the countess at last found out the cause of his illness, and begged him to consent to Renelde’s marriage. But the count in his pride refused more than ever to do so.

                So without his knowledge the lady went herself to pray for mercy from the spinner, and in the name of the girl’s dead mother she begged her to spin no more. Renelde gave her promise, but in the evening Guilbert arrived at the cottage, and seeing no progress in the cloth from the day before, he asked the reason. Renelde confessed that the countess had pleaded for her husband’s life.

                “Has he agreed to our marriage?”
                “Let him die, then. The countess will understand that it is not your fault. The count alone is guilty of his own death.”
                “Let us wait a little. Perhaps his heart may soften.”

                They waited for one month, for two, for six, a year. The spinner spun no more. The count had ceased to persecute her, but still he refused his consent to the marriage. Guilbert became impatient. “Let us have done with it!” he cried. 

                “Wait a little still,” pleaded Renelde, but the young man grew weary. He came more rarely to Locquignol, and then he did not come at all. News came that he had left the country. Renelde felt her heart would break, but she held firm and another year went by.


                Then the count became more ill. The countess thought Renelde, tired of waiting, ahd begun her spinning again, but when she came to the cottage to find out, the wheel stood silent in the corner. 

                But the count grew worse and worse. The doctors had given him up, the passing bell was rung and he lay expecting Death to come for him. But Death was not so near as the doctors thought, and still he lingered, getting neither better nor worse. He could neither live nor die; he suffered horribly and called aloud on Death to put an  end to his pains. 

                In this extremity he remembered what he had said to the little spinner long ago. If Death was so slow in coming it was because he was not ready to follow him, having nor shroud for his burial.  

                He sent for Renelde, placed her by his bedside and ordered her at once to go on spinning his shroud, and as soon as she began the count felt his pain begin to lessen.  At last his heart melted and he was sorry for all the evil he had done in his pride, and he begged Renelde to forgive him. So she forgave him, and went on spinning night and day. 

                When the thread was all spun she wove it with her shuttle, and then she cut the shroud and began to sew it. And as she sewed the count felt the life sinking within him, and when the needle made the last stitch he gave his last breath.

At that same hour Guilbert returned to the country. He had never stopped loving Renelde, and eight days later they were married. He had lost two years of happiness, but comforted himself by thinking that his wife was a clever spinner – and what was far better, a brave and good woman.

More on fairy tales and folklore in  "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available  here and here.

Picture credits:
Illustrations to The Nettle Spinner by HJ Ford
for The Red Fairy Book


Tuesday 12 May 2020

Strong Fairytale Heroines #12: THE WOMAN WHO WENT TO HELL

This story of a young woman who goes down into the underworld to save her lover was narrated in Gaelic some time around 1885 by Patrick Minahan, of Malinmore, Glencolumkill, Co. Donegal, to William Larminie who translated and published it in ‘West Irish Folk-Tales’, (Camden Library, 1893). Larminie - one of those excellent 19th century collectors who named and respected their oral sources - says of Minahan: “I obtained more stories from him than from any other one man. He said he was eighty years old; but he was in full possession of all his faculties. He also had a holding on which he still worked industriously. … His style, with its short, abrupt sentences, is always remarkable, and at its best I think excellent.”

Of the tale itself, Larminie has only this to say, but it’s to the point: “This touching tale has a curious far-away resemblance to certain classical legends. A good deal must [have been] lost, and in consequence the long struggle of the young man with the devil has much that requires explanation. It is unique among Celtic stories.”

I can’t be sure what classical stories Larminie had in mind – Persephone’s sojourn in Hades, perhaps, for it’s not really the young man’s struggle so much as that of the young woman who becomes his wife! Myself, I'd like to note that the restorative fire in which the dead man asks the young woman to burn him to ashes reminds me of the fire of roses in George Macdonald's  'The Princess and Curdie' and that her return home, worn and almost unrecognisable, reminds me of the return of Homer's Odysseus. 

The story begins when the devil tricks a woman into promising him her 'burden', which she assumes means the cabbages she is carrying. In fact it is her unborn son. The boy is born, grows up and dies suddenly aged 18. When a young woman enters the chapel where his body lies coffined, the dead young man arises and persuades her to help him. By burning his corpse she restores him to a kind of spirit life, and he sires a son on her. But the devil claims him - unless someone else will go to Hell in his place. His lover volunteers. 

The young woman's descent into Hell and her subsequent ascent reminds me of a story older even than Homer's - that of Inanna of Sumer, Queen of Heaven and Earth, the goddess of love and of the morning and evening star, whose descent to the realm of Ereshkigal Queen of the Dead is chronicled on clay tablets dating back to 2000 BCE.

In summary, it goes like this: Inanna abandons her temples and palaces in heaven and earth and goes down to the underworld. Her journey seems to be a rite of passage rather than an attempt to rescue a friend or lover such as those of Gilgamesh and Orpheus. In order to pass through the underworld’s seven gates she must relinquish at each one a part of her 'mes' (roughly her power), signified by regalia of crown, beads, robe, ring, breastplate, measuring rod and line. At last, naked and powerless she enters the throne room of Ereshkigal where the goddess strikes her dead and hangs her body – now nothing but ‘a piece of rotting meat’ – from a stake. But, following Inanna’s previous orders, her faithful servant Ninshibur persuades Enki, god of wisdom, to save her. He creates two sexless creatures from the dirt under his fingernails, furnishes them with the food and water of life, and sends them to the underworld to ask for Inanna’s corpse. Sprinkling the corpse with the food and water, the creatures restore it to life, but the judges of the underworld decree another must take her place. As Inanna ascends, the 'galla' or small demons of the underworld cling to her side and rise with her. They ‘know not food, they know not water, they know not sprinkled flour,’ but their purpose is to seize and bring back the one who will die for her. Her loving servant Ninshibur and her own sons offer themselves, but Inanna refuses to give them up. She chooses instead her husband Dumuzi, who has not even risen from his throne to welcome her home! Dumuzi is taken to the underworld. After his death, Inanna weeps for him, and later in the tale she allows his faithful sister to take his place for six months of every year.[1] 

This myth has cast a long shadow. Sumerian Inanna and Dumuzi became the Akkadian Ishtar and Tammuz, and the Egyptian goddess Isis perhaps shares some of Inanna’s attributes. It predates the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, first noted in Hesiod's Theogony, by one and a half millennia. Now, obviously there can't be any direct connection, but I feel there’s still a faint trace of it in this Irish story – in the young woman’s voluntary descent, and in the touching moment when the lost souls cling to her, clotted in her hair.   

There was a woman coming out of her garden with an apron-full of cabbage. A man met her. He asked her what she would take for her burden. She said it was not worth a great deal, she would give it to him for nothing. He said he would not take it, but would buy it. She said she would only take sixpence. He gave her the sixpence, and she threw the cabbage towards him. He said that was not what he had bought, but the burden she was carrying. Who was there but the devil? She was troubled then.

            She went home and she was weeping. It was a short time till her young son was born, and he was growing till he was eighteen years old. Then he was out one day and fell, and never rose up till he died. When they were going to bury him, they took him to the chapel and left him there till morning. 

            There was a man among the neighbours who had three daughters. He took out a box of snuff to give the men a pinch, and the last man to whom the box went round left it on the altar. They all went home, and when the man was going to bed he looked for his box. The box was not to be got; it was left behind in the chapel. He said he could not sleep that night without a pinch of snuff. He asked one of his daughters to go to the chapel and bring him the box that was on the altar. She said there was loneliness on her. He cried to the second girl, would she go? She said she would not go, that she was lonely. He cried to the third, would she go? And she said she would go, that there would be no loneliness on her in the presence of the dead.

            She went to the chapel, she found the box, she put it in her pocket. When she was coming away she saw a ring at the end of the coffin. She caught hold of it till it came to her. The end came from the coffin. The man that was dead came out. He begged her not to be afraid.

            “Do you see that fire over yonder? If you are able, carry me to that fire.”
            “I am not able,” said she.
            “Be dragging me along with you as well as you can.”

            She put him on her back. She dragged him till they came to the fire. “Draw out the fire,” said he, “and put me lying in the middle of it; fix up the fire over me. Anything of me that is not burnt, put the fire on it again.” 

            He was burning till he was all burnt. When the day was coming she was troubled on account of what she had seen in the night, and when the day grew clear there came a young man, who began making fun with her. 

            “I have not much mind for fun on account of what I have seen during the night.”
            “Well, it was I who was there,” said the young man. “I would go to heaven if I could get an angel made by you left in my father’s room.” 

            Three quarters of a year from that night she dressed herself up as if she was a poor woman. She went to his father’s house, and asked for lodging till morning. The woman of the house [the young man's mother] said that they were not giving lodging to any poor person at all.

 She said she would not ask for more than a seat by the fire. The man of the house told her to stay till morning. They both went to lie down. She sat by the fire. In the course of the night she went into the room and there she had a young son. Her husband came in at the window in the shape of a white dove. He dressed the child, the child began to cry, and the woman of the house heard the crying. She rose to get out of her bed. Her husband told her to lie quiet and have patience. She got up in spite of him. The door of the room was shut. She looked in through the keyhole and saw him standing on the floor; she perceived it was her son who was there. She cried to him, was it he that was there? He said it was. 

“One glance of your eye has sent me for seven years to hell.”
“I will go myself in your place,” said his mother. 

She went then to hell. When she came to the gate, there came out steam so hot that she was burned and scalded, and had to return. “Well,” said the father, “I will go in your place.” He had to return too. The young man began to weep. He said he must go himself, but the mother of the child said she would go.

“Here is a ring for you,” said he. “When thirst comes on you, or hunger, put the ring in your mouth; you will feel neither thirst nor hunger. This is the work that will be on you – to keep down the souls: they are stewing and burning in the boiler. Do not eat a bit of food there. There is a barrel in the corner, and all the food that you are given, throw into the barrel.”

She went to hell then. She was keeping down the souls in the boiler. They were rising in leaps out of it. All the food she got she threw on the barrel till the seven years were over. She was making ready to be going then. The devil came to her; he said she could not go yet awhile till she had paid for the food she had eaten. She said she had not eaten one morsel of his: “All that I got, it is in the barrel.” The devil went to the barrel, and all that he had given her was there for him.

“How much will you take to stay seven years more?”
“Oh, I am long enough with you,” said she; “if you give me all that I can carry, I can stay with you.” 

He said he would give it. She stopped. She was keeping down the souls during seven more years, she was shortening the time as well as she could till the seven years were ended. Then she was going. When the souls saw her going they rose up with one cry, lest one of them should be left. They went clinging to her; they were hanging to her hair, all that were in the boiler. She moved on with her burden. 

She had not gone far when a lady in a carriage met her.
“Oh! great is your burden,” said the lady, “will you give it to me?”
“Who are you?” said she.
“I am the Virgin Mary.”
“I will not give it to you.”

She moved on with herself. She had not gone far when a gentleman met her. “Great is your burden, my poor woman’; will you give it to me?”
“Who are you?” said she
“I am God,” said he.
“I will not give my burden to you.”

She went on with herself another while. Another gentleman met her. “Great is the burden you have,” said the gentleman; “will you give it to me?”
“Who are you?” said she.
“I am the King of Sunday,” said he.
“I will give my burden to you,” said she. “No rest had I ever in hell except on Sunday.”
“Well, it is a good woman you are; the first lady you met, it was the devil was there; the second person you met, it was the devil was there, trying if they could get your burden from you back. Now,” said God, “the man for whom you have done all this is going to be married tomorrow. He thought you were lost since you were in that place so long. You will know nothing till you are at home.”

She knew nothing till she was at home. The house was full of drinking and music.  She went to the fire. Her own son came up to her.

She was making him wonder, she was so worn and wasted.  She told the child to go to his father and get a glass of whisky for her to drink. The child went crying to look for his father. He asked his father to give him a glass of whisky. His father gave it. He came down where she was by the fire. He gave her the glass. She drank it, there was so much thirst on her. The rinf that her husband gave her she put in the glass.

“Put your hand over the mouth of the glass; give it to no one at all till you hand it to your father.”

The lad went to his father. He gave him the glass, The father looked into it, and saw the ring. He recognised the ring.

“Who has given you this?” said he.
“A poor woman by the fire,” said the lad. 

The father raised the child on his shoulder that he might point out to him the woman who had given him the ring. The child came to the poor woman. 
“That is the woman,” said he, “who gave me the ring.”

The man recognised her then. He said that hardly did he know her when she came so worn and wasted. He said to all the people that he would never marry any woman but this one; that she had done everything for him; that his mother sold him to the devil, and the woman had earned him back; that she had spent fourteen years in hell, and now she had returned

This is a true story. They are all lies but this one. 


[1] My summary  of Inanna’s descent into the underworld is based on the translations in ‘Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer’ by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Rider, 1984. It is wonderful and I recommend it.

More on William Larminie's "West Irish Folk-Tales" in my book of essays on folklore and fairytales, "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles"

Picture credits: The Woman Who Went To Hell - (artist unknown) frontispiece to "The Woman Who Went To Hell: and other ballad and lyrics" by Dora Sigerson (Mrs Clement Shorter), De la More Press, 1902