It is a dreary Saturday here. But wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket and sipping a nice cup of tea, makes it a perfect day to read. Today I’ll share a traditional Lithuanian folk story with you. Just like any folk story, it is simple and seemingly straightforward, but the symbolism in it is truly powerful. And I only fully grasped it and began appreciating it when I moved to the United States.
Enjoy and tell me what you think!
Eglė, the Queen of Grass Snakes
Once upon a time there lived a man and his wife. They had twelve sons and three daughters, the youngest of which was named Eglė. One summer evening, all three sisters decided to go swimming in the sea that was nearby. After splashing and having fun for some time, they got out and were about to get dressed, but the youngest girl, Eglė, suddenly noticed that there was a grass snake inside the sleeve of her shirt! She didn’t know what to do! Her oldest sister grabbed a branch from a tree that was lying nearby and was about to shoo him out of the sleeve but the garden snake spoke in a man’s voice:
“Eglė, promise me you wil marry me, and I will leave your shirt without any further prompting.”
Eglė started crying: how can she marry a grass snake?! She said angrily:
“Just give me my shirt and go back where you came from!”
But the serpent was persistent and continued pleading:
“Promise me you’ll marry me, Eglė, and I will get out of your shirt sleeve by myself!”
After a while Eglė had nothing left to do but to promise herself to the grass snake.
Three days passed, and Eglė’s family saw droves of serpents writhing towards their yard. The grass snake matchmakers slithered inside to talk with the parents and the bride. At first, the parents were reluctant to give away their youngest and prettiest daughter. But what could they do with the persistent snakes? They told them to wait and ran over to their old neighbor to ask for advice. The old lady said: “It’s easy: just give them a white goose and they will be all set”. That was a great idea and the parents acted on it.
But as the snakes were making their way back with the goose, they heard a coockoo bird singing:
“They lied, they lied and gave you a goose instead of the bride!”
The grass snakes got angry, threw the goose away and returned to Eglė’s family to demand for their share of the promise. The old neighbor advised the parents again, and this time they gave the snakes a white sheep. But just like last time, as they were making their way through the forest, they heard a coockoo bird sing:
“They lied, they lied, and gave you a sheep instead of the bride!”
Again, the snakes returned to the farmstead, this time even angrier. And again, the parents went to the old neighbor for advice, which this time meant that they would give the snakes a white cow. And just like the last two times, the coockoo bird sang her song telling them the truth.
Finally, the parents succumbed and saw that they would have to give their daughter away. When the grass snakes escorted Eglė to the sea, she saw a handsome young man waiting for her there. He introduced himself as that same serpent, who had hid in the sleeve of her shirt. His name was Žilvinas. They went to the nearby island, and from there – down to under the sea, where there stood a beautiful palace. There, they celebrated their wedding with a wonderful party.
The grass snake’s palace was beautiful and comfortable, and Eglė was well taken care of and provided for. Soon her parents’ home started seeming like a distant memory to her.
Nine years passed. By now, Eglė had three sons: Ąžuolas (Oak), Uosis (Ash) and Beržas (Birch) and one daughter – Drebulė (Aspen), who was her youngest. One day, while playing, her oldest son asked: “Mommy, where do your parents live? Why don’t we go visit them some time?”
And then she remembered her parents, her brothers and sisters, her childhood home. She really wanted to know if they were healthy and happy. Or maybe they were no longer alive? She felt that she had missed so much them and wanted to visit them. But when she told her husband about it, Žilvinas did not want to hear of it.
Finally, he said. “Ok, you may go and visit them but first, spin this this bolt of silk thread”.
Eglė immediately started spinning. She did it during the day and during the night but soon she noticed that the bolt is not getting smaller and realized that it probably was cursed. So she went to an old lady and asked her what to do. The wise woman told her to throw it in the fire. Eglė did as she was told and when she threw the bolt into the fire. Lo and behold, she saw that there was a toad continually making the thread on the bolt. After that the work went much faster and when she was done spinning, she went to her husband again and asked for permission to visit her family again.
But the man said: “Here are iron loafers. When you wear them down, you may go see your family”.
So Eglė started wearing the loafers day and night. But again, she realized that she might as well be wearing them all her life – she would never be able to wear them down. The wise woman came to her rescue once again by telling her to bring the loafers to the blacksmith so he can heat them up and soften them up and make it easier to wear them down.
In three days time, Eglė was ready to ask her husband again. This time Žilvinas says: “Ok, but you have to bring something when you go there, don’t you? Why don’t you bake a cake or something”.
Unbeknownst to Eglė, though, he hid all the pots and pans and utensils, and when Eglė wanted to bake, she had a hard time figuring out how to bring water from the well to start making the dough. Again, the wise old woman helped her out. “Take a sieve, cover the inside of it with leaven dough, and you will be able to bring water in it and make the dough”.
Seeing his wife’s persistence, Žilvinas had to finally let her go. She packed herself and the kids and he saw her off. But before she left, he said:
“When you are ready to come back, come to the sea alone with the kids and say the following words:
“Žilvinas, my lovely Žilvinas, if you are alive, come to me in a wave with white crest,
and if you’re not – in a wave with read crest. If you see me coming as a white crested wave, you’ll know I’m okay, and if you see a red one, you’ll know I’m no longer alive. And children, you must not tell anyone how to call me!”
Having said that, he kissed them good bye and wished them a nice visit with the family.
When Eglė came home, her family was overjoyed. All relatives and neighbors came to see her and to talk to her. They all wanted to know about her life and her joys and sorrows. They fed her and pampered her and loved her. Eglė didn’t even feel how quickly nine days passed.
But in the meantime, her parents and siblings were trying to come up with a way for her to stay. And they decided that they need to get it out of her children, how she will call her husband when she wants him to come pick her up.
The first child they were going to ask was Eglė’s oldest son Ąžuolas. They took him to the woods, asked nicely, then threatened and then even hit him, but he was silent. The next day they did the same with Uosis, and the third day with Beržas, but had no luck. Finally, they took the girl, Drebulė, to the woods. At first, she said she didn’t know anything, but when she saw she might get hurt by her uncles, she immediately blurted out the password to them.
Eglė’s brothers took scythes and made their way to the sea. They called Žilvinas, and when he came, they killed him. Naturally, they did not tell Eglė anything.
When the nine days came to an end, Eglė started getting ready to leave. She had a great time, but she missed her husband and her home. As soon as she and the kids arrived at the sea, Eglė called:
“Žilvinas, my lovely Žilvinas, if you are alive, come to me in a wave with white crest, and if you’re not – in a wave with read crest!”
The sea hummed and moved and shook, and there came the wave with the red crest. And Eglė heard her husband’s voice saying: “Your twelve brothers killed me with their scythes. Our loveliest daughter Drebulė gave away the call I told you to use!”
A scream came out of Eglė’s chest, and tears started falling down her face… She turned to Drebule and said:
“May you turn to aspen tree,
shake day and night,
may the rain wash your mouth
and the wind brush your hair!”
and to her sons she said:
“My sons, may you become strong trees and I, Eglė, your mother, will become a fir tree”.
Immediately, all of them turned into trees. And even today, the oak tree, ash and birch are the strongest trees, and the aspen starts shaking even at the slightest wind, the same way she shook before her uncles when she betrayed her mother and father…
The image above is from the following source https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Palanga_-_Egle_the_Queen_of_Serpents.jpg