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


  1. The fire of roses in The Princess and Curdie left a powerful impression on me when I read that book at about 10. Or maybe earlier. It had such a magical mystical feeling I could almost taste it. Thank you for reminding me. I must read those books again.

  2. Wonderful! Reminds me a little of the story of Alcestis who took her husband's place in Hades and was rescued by Heracles.

    1. Jane, thankyou - that's a really good comparison and one I'd forgotten!

  3. There's a great version of this story in FOLKTALES OF IRELAND Collected by SEAN O'SULLIVAN