There are moments of contentment in my life. Thalia slipping from my lap after I read to her—the battered copy of Grimm under one arm and Teddy dangling from the other—is one of those moments. She pads her way to the study door, dragging Teddy behind her, he picking up dust. She turns at the door, gives me a little wave, and disappears down the hall. With a happy sigh, I reach for my glass of port.
There, beside it, is my copy of Modern Greek Folk Tales.
How did that get there?
I know it was not there when I first set my glass down. A quarter of the way through the pages is a bookmark, signaling to me that is where I left off reading the book.
Was that two months ago? Two years ago? Has the book gotten impatient for me to finish it?
I pick it up and open it to the bookmark.
Human Flesh to Eat
An old man, weary from collecting wood, cries out “Oh and alas and woe is me,” which happens to be the name of a little, demonic, man, who serves the Lord of the World Beneath.
Having been evoked, and seeing that the old man did not know what to do, the demon quickly turns the tables and makes a demand of the old man that he bring to him his eldest daughter.
The little man takes the daughter to the world beneath and offers to her a wormy human foot to eat, explaining that if she can eat it, she will marry the Lord of the World Beneath. If not, she will be sent home.
She throws it away when the little man is not looking. When he calls out, “Oh my foot, my little foot, where are you?” the foot answers from the dung heap, and the eldest is sent home.
The identical thing happens to the second sister except that she if offered a wormy hand to eat.
The third and youngest daughter is offered stinking intestines, but she asks for spices to flavor it, suggesting to the little man she intends to eat it. Instead, when he is not looking, she belts it about her waist. When he calls out for the intestines, it answers, “To my lady’s belly.”
Moving on to the next stage of the story, every night the little man drugs her coffee and she never sees her husband. Her sisters get their father to evoke the demon again so that they can visit.
The story describes the sisters as wicked and possessing the knowledge that the little man drugged her coffee and that the Lord of the World Beneath has a key in his navel. When the youngest remains awake and turns the key in her sleeping husband’s navel, she can see the world.
Unfortunately, she cries out to an old woman when she sees that the river is about to snatch away the woolen yarn she is washing. This awakens her husband, who says, “You bitch, turn back the key. You are killing me.”
He sends her away, but not before instructing the little man to cut two hairs from her head, suspend them in a flask of water, and watch them day and night.
The girl goes off and exchanges clothes with a shepherd so that she can pass herself off as a boy. (I am not sure what that says about the shepherd.)
He/she is employed by a king and becomes a favorite. Unfortunately, the queen is attracted to the “lad” and tries to seduce him/her. He/she spurns the queen, who seeks revenge by declaring the “lad” tried to rape her. The king consigns him/her to be hanged.
The two hairs from her head sink to the bottom of the flask and the little man alerts his lord, who rides off to the hanging. He rips open her shirt, revealing her feminine breasts, stating, “If you like I will slit it lower yet.”
The king demurs. The Lord of the World Beneath reclaims his wife and the queen is hanged in her stead.
Good heavens! I think to myself.
Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Two
It is late. It is dark. Yet I am drawn to the Magic Forest. I know better than to go there at night, but night in the Magic Forest is my addiction. It is where unlikely thoughts surface and stare at me, unblinking. These are thoughts I would not consider in my study, but come to me as the moon shines down on this uneasy visitor.
With my usual trepidation, I pass through the French doors, across my lawn, and into the forest’s edge. I will sit by the pond, which is not deep into the woods. A ring of rocks surrounds the pond, affording any number of seats.
As I settle onto a rock, a voice lilts from across the pond. “Who are you? What are you doing at my pond?”
Perched on a stone, on the other side, is a woman, about my age.
“Allow me,” I say, “to ask a similar question. What are you doing in my Magic Forest?”
“Your Magic Forest?” she intones. “This is my magical forest and I am Ultima Flossbottom.” Pride edges her voice.
I consider our dilemma for a few moments. “May I suggest the Magic Forest belongs to neither of us, but rather we belong to it?”
Her demeanor softens. “You may well be right.” She stands and picks her way around the pond to sit on the stone beside me.
I ask her, “Why are you here tonight? I’ll guess you know as well as I, we are not safe here.”
She gives a quick smile of acknowledgement. “I came here to contemplate a story.”
I know the answer before I ask. “Human Flesh to Eat?”
She nods, eyebrows raised.
“I too,” I say. “Where do we start to unpack this tale?”
She sighs. “First, I will ignore the sexist, anti-feminist leanings of the tale, painful though that is to me. That attitude was a given at the time this tale was told. To object and stop there is to miss what the tale tries to say.”
“Still,” I consider, “we should note that although she is clearly a victim of male hegemony, she remains the protagonist of the tale.”
“Agreed,” says Ultima, “I want to leapfrog to the key in the navel. What the hell is that about?”
I stare into the water of the pond. “The key in his navel must define the Lord of the World Beneath. He holds the key to the world, to existence?”
“Yet,” returns Ultima, “when he awakes, he says an unkind word to his wife, demands she turn the key, and accuses her of trying to kill him. The key in his navel is more of a curse to him than an attribute.”
I grasp for straws. “In the Jewish and Christian tradition, Jerusalem is thought to be the navel of the universe, that is to say, the center.”
Ultima, grasping for her own straws, says, “In the Greek tradition there is the stone Omphalos at the temple of Delphi. Its name translated as ‘navel.’ Before coming here I googled ‘navel mythology,’ ‘belly button mythology,’ ‘key in the navel,’ and a few other variations. I came up with nearly nothing. Did you know, historically, there were many more injunctions against women showing their belly buttons than men showing theirs?”
“I am not surprised, but might that be because ours are hairy and not as attractive?”
She snorts and lets my little joke pass.
“I think,” she says, “we have sunk to defining what this image is not.”
I tap my finger on my knee. “I am ready to concede we are looking at an image that operates at the dream level, eluding words to express it.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part Three
“The key in the navel,” Ultima muses, “is not the only inexplicable item. The more I consider the tale, the more I see that it all goes by us unexplained.”
“I don’t think,” I counter, “an unexplained element in a fairy tale is unusual.”
“Yes, but, this tale makes a career out of being unexplained and inexplicable. Let’s start with the test of eating human flesh. What is that all about?”
“I presume it has something to do with the World Beneath really being the world of the dead.”
“We presume,” she says. “It is not explained. And why does the little man call out, ‘My foot, my little foot . . . .’ Is it his foot he wants the girl to eat, or simply a foot from his favorite body-parts collection?”
“”Let me rant on,” Ultima says. “Why is the younger sister willing to marry the unseen lord? The flesh trial is not a good harbinger of things to come. What if human flesh is the cuisine of the World Beneath? The World Beneath may not be the best neighborhood.
“Then there are the sisters, described in the story as wicked, although they do nothing wicked, but who know more than they ought to about the drugged coffee and the lord’s navel.
“Speaking of the navel, why does turning the key threaten his life? What is a key for, but to be turned?
“Then he sends her away, but not before having two hairs cut from her head, floated in water, and having the little man stand guard over them day and night, setting up for her return. Why send her away when he really wants her back again?”
I am thinking she ought to be running out of breath, but that is not the case. On she goes.
“Next, she exchanges clothes to disguise herself as a boy. Why doesn’t she go home like her sisters did?”
“She is, perhaps,” I observe, “denying her feminine side.”
“Yes, I agree, but why? What is her motivation?”
“I see your point. By the way, our story really does follow the Cupid and Psyche pattern, although it turns that pattern on its head until it is hardly recognizable. However, this section, when the king’s wife tries to seduce our protagonist, rings of the biblical Joseph’s story.”
Ultima nods. “Biblical stories would be in the storyteller’s tool kit, but listen; I am not done with my rant.”
We already have a laundry list of the unexplained. She is tenacious.
“When,” Ultima drives on, “she is falsely accused and faces her death, it takes her husband to come and rescue her by exposing her femininity. Why couldn’t she have done that herself? What was so important about her secret that she’d rather die than expose it? Unexplained and inexplicable.”
I think she’s done.
“What I hear you saying,” I suggest, “is that the unexplained and inexplicable is uniform throughout the story. That implies the storyteller intended those things. My turn to ask the question ‘why’. Was it perhaps an ancient form of the horror story?”
“Ahh!” Ultima says, but before she can answer, an unnatural sound rips the air. It is made up of an agonized lion’s roar and the slow, creaking surrender of a falling tree, all moved to a higher register. It vibrates through my body.
“Oh,” sighs Ultima, “my dragon calls. I must attend him.” She turns to me, placing her hand on mine. “I hope we meet again, but for now . . . . Well, you know how impatient they are.”
2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2019 Human Flesh to Eat – Part One”
The Greek tale felt like two or more stories that had been glued together by the person who told it to the book’s story catcher. Do you have any idea where Dawkins gathered these tales, or how he went about it? The only early reviews I found of the book suggest that Dawkins was both translating the stories from Greek and trying to structure Greek folktales into groupings of some kind. So, if he found two or three tales that all had elements of what became this story, perhaps he mooshed them together?
I considered describing this story in terms of Old Time music (pre-bluegrass, parlor music) which has a part A and a part B. Many fairy tales and folk tales are cobbled together from two sources. The name for that is the folk process. Two beats is hardwired in the human brain. I will send you Dawkins notes on this tale. Anyone interested in these notes email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.