How many mental milestones do we pass in a lifetime? I am sure most of them go by unnoticed, like those tenth-of-a-mile markers on American turnpikes. Yet some milestones are remarkable. I am passing one of them now.
Melissa is sitting in my comfy chair with Thalia and Teddy on her lap, reading Grimm. Thalia has abandoned me before—oh the vagaries of youth—but I don’t mind in the least. I am a child at heart and love to be read to as well.
Thalia has tasked Melissa with reading The Singing Bone, not a comfortable story, really.
A wild boar has taken upon itself to devastate a kingdom, killing peasants and livestock. The king offers up in marriage his only daughter to whoever can rid his realm of this menace.
Two sons of a poor man come forward, the elder approaching the challenge out of pride, and the younger out of concern for others. They plan to enter the forest of the wild boar at either end, trapping the boar between them.
The younger comes upon a dwarf who gives him a spear, which the youth plunges into the heart of the beast.
Carrying the beast on his back, he passes through the forest to find his brother loitering at a tavern. On their way to the castle, the jealous elder brother murders his younger brother, burying him under a bridge, taking the boar carcass as proof of his valor, and to claim the bride.
Years later a shepherd finds a bleached, white bone under that bridge that he carves into a flute that only plays the sad tune of the younger brother’s fate. Amazed, the shepherd presents this miraculous instrument to the king, who immediately understands its meaning.
The rest of the bones of the youth are dug up and properly buried, while the elder brother is tied in a sack and drowned.
“I wish she had chosen Cinderella,” Melissa says after Thalia has given both of us a kiss and dragged Teddy out the study door. “What a bleak story.”
“I sense a bit of Cain and Abel in this tale.” I pour two small glasses of wine.
Melissa puts her chin in her hand. “I am going to say ‘no’ to that. I know the female version of this tale.”
I hand her a glass and let her continue.
“Binnorie, a Scottish tale.” Melissa takes a sip, thinking. “Ah, English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.” She looks at me slyly. “You’ve met him.”
“That I have.” And I remember the story she is talking about.
“But,” she continues, “I think it comes from a ballad.”
I stand and go to my bookshelves to peruse Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and come up with The Twa Sisters, in which Child dedicates over twenty pages to notes and variations on the ballad.
“The common traits,” I muse after a quick scan of Child’s notes, “is the sibling murders, improper burials, and the bones becoming musical instruments to reveal the crime.”
“The notable difference is the wild boar in The Singing Bone,” Melissa ponders and pulls out her smart phone from her purse. “Wild boars in fairy tales,” she intones to the device. I sense a delightful evening of research and conversation coming on.
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part Two
Huddling together, peering into the glow of Melissa’s cell phone, we don’t come up with many other fairy tales with wild boars in them besides The Singing Bone. The tale Old Sultan has a boar, but it is of a comical order. There is a boar in The Mitten, but it is just one of a series of animals of increasing size that squeeze into the mitten.
Melissa taps the microphone icon and tries again.
“Wild boars and mythology.”
No shortage of good links with that inquiry.
The first image we see is of the Norse god Frey with his solar boar, Gullinborsti, pulling his chariot. His sister Freya also rides a boar. We see that pigs make a number of appearances in The Odyssey. These are fairly honorable positions for swine, but we soon run across Robert Graves’s assessment that in myth, pigs are the beasts of death.
In the Welsh Mabinogion, pigs come from the kingdom of Annwyn, the underworld. There are a number of male deities who are killed by boars, Attis and Adonis being two of them. Pigs are involved with the myth of Persephone in that they obliterate the tracks of Persephone and fall into Hades with her.
“This looks interesting.” Melissa points to the hyperlink phrase “Calydonian boar.”
In this myth, King Oeneus makes offerings to the gods for a plentiful harvest, forgetting about the goddess Diana. In revenge, she loosens a boar upon King Oeneus’s land that destroys crops and flocks, and sends the people scurrying inside the city walls.
Oeneus’s son, Meleager, gathers about him his brother, uncle, and numerous Greek heroes to hunt the boar. Meleager is virtually immortal given that one of the Fates decreed that he live only until a certain log burning in the fire is consumed, a log which his mother, Althaea, removes from the flames and hides away.
The hunt does not go well. All the heroes miss their mark, except for the Amazon Atalanta, who is able to wound the beast. Then Meleager’s second spear pierces the boar’s heart.
He gives the skin and head of the boar to Atalanta, with whom he has fallen in love, angering his brother and uncle, who take the prize away from her. Enraged, Meleager slays his brother and uncle, among others.
Althaea, grief stricken, avenges their deaths by throwing the log—ordained, if you will, by the Fates—into the fire.
“That rather sounds like our story.” I am, again, surprised by the parallels between myth and fairy tales.
Melissa ticks off the similarities. “A wild boar ravaging the countryside, a love interest—the princess and Atalanta, and both brothers die—with the Greeks having more collateral damage. No singing bone, though.”
We search a little further and come up with the Celtic Diarmait and the Boar of Benn Gulbain. Diarmait and the boar are actually foster brothers, the boar being under an enchantment, and the two are fated to kill each other.
The story culminates when Diarmait and Finn McCool, who have come to a tentative peace after Diarmait stole Finn’s bride, find themselves hunting down a boar that has killed fifty of Finn’s men. The boar is, of course, the foster brother.
“Same elements,” Melissa muses. “Two brothers killing each other with a boar involved, and some sort of love interest in there somewhere.”
“But no singing bone. Where does that come from?” I take her smart phone from her hand.
I’m going to try this.
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part Three
Hohle Fels Flute
Our search for a source of the bone flute element proves not to be as productive as that for the wild boar.
“There, that guy will help.” Melissa reaches over and taps “D. L. Ashliman.” Of course. I have used his site often. He offers up the text of numerous variants.
There is a French Louisiana version, called The Singing Bones (plural), which pulls from The Singing Bone and The Juniper Tree, with the culprit wife feeding her husband some of their numerous children. He eventually hears their bones calling to him.
An Italian version, The Griffin—in which a king sends out his two sons to compete in attaining a griffin’s feather to cure the king’s illness—is similar to a source from Lower Hesse listed in Grimms’ notes.
Both Ashliman’s list and the Grimms’ notes cite the Swiss version The Dead Girl’s Bone.
In this tale the rivalry is between a brother and sister in search of a certain flower, the brother doing the murdering.
Also cited by both Ashliman and the Grimms is Binnorie. While there is no bone flute in this tale, there is a harp made of bones; this is, after all, a tale of Celtic origin.
“Most of these,” notes Melissa, pouring us each another glass, “have shepherds in them. I am remembering something about the god Pan.”
“The god Pan,” I say to her phone. This still feels strange to me.
The Wikipedia listing pops up first.
Back to Greek mythology again. We learn that Pan falls in love with the Nymph Syrinx, daughter of Ladon the river god. Fleeing the amorous Pan, Syrinx calls to Zeus to save her and she turns into reeds. Enraged, Pan shatters the reeds, but is then struck with remorse and kisses the broken pieces. As he does so, he discovers that his breath can create music from them, and so he ties a number of them together to make his flute, which he keeps with him always.
On a sidebar I see Pan is, among other things, the patron of shepherds.
“Those are reed flutes,” Melissa observes. “What about the bone flute?”
I give her back her phone and pick up my wine glass.
“Bone fl…” she starts.
“Bohn, here you go,” the not-so-smart phone chimes back.
Melissa sighs and tries again, speaking a little more quickly.
It turns out there is a rather scholarly controversy over as to which among several contenders is the oldest bone flute.
The first is the Divje Babe flute, discovered in Slovenia in 1995. It is a cave bear femur, perhaps 45,000 years old. It appears that the holes were man-made, though some scientists argue that an animal gnawed on the bone creating the holes.
Another, an undisputed musical instrument, is the Hohle Fels Flute discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany’s Swabian Alb in 2008, made from a vulture’s wing bone, dating from approximately 35,000 years ago. However, several years before, two flutes made of mute swan bone and one made of woolly mammoth ivory were found in the nearby Geisenklösterle cave. The claim is they are 42,000 to 43,000 years old.
“I’ll take it there were lots of bone flutes lying around,” says Melissa. “The wild boar may come out of mythology, but the flute, like the spinning wheel in these tales, probably comes out of the material culture of the time.”
I agree with Melissa.
One thought on “Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2016 The Singing Bone – Part One”
I do look forward to your monthly reflections and delusions. Twa sisters is one of my favourite songs/tales and the singing bone motif is a fascinating one, Juliet Marillier uses it in her book Wolfskin. I hadn’t read this tale before, so thank you for that! No words of wisdom from me, I agree though that it is full of fairy tale ingredients.