Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Index Previous Next
We will now proceed to stories relative to the nature-spirits, commencing with those of the water, who are both numerous and powerful among the Finns and Esthonians. Other stories concerning them will be found in different parts of the book.
ONCE upon a time there lived a poor labourer who had twelve daughters, among whom were two pairs of twins. They were all charming girls, healthy, ruddy, and well made. The parents were very poor, and the neighbours could not understand how p. 88 they managed to feed and clothe so many children. Every day the children were washed and their hair combed, and they always wore clean clothes, like Saxon children. Some thought that the labourer had a treasure-bringer, who brought him whatever he wanted;1 others said that he was a sorcerer, and others thought he was a wizard who knew how to discover hidden treasures in the whirlwind. But the real explanation was very different. The labourer’s wife had a secret benefactress who fed and washed and combed the children.
When the mother was a girl, she lived in service at a farmhouse, where she dreamed for three nights running that a noble lady came towards her, and desired her to go to the village spring on St. John’s eve. Perhaps she would have forgotten all about the dream; but on St. John’s Eve she heard a small voice like the buzzing of a gnat always singing in her ear, “Go to the spring, go to the spring, whence trickle the watery streams of your good fortune!” Although she could not listen to this secret summons without a shudder, yet she fortified her heart at length, and leaving the other maidens, p. 89 who were amusing themselves with the swing and round the fire, she went to the spring. The nearer she came, the more her heart failed her, and she would have turned back if the gnat-like voice had allowed her any rest; but it drove her unwillingly onwards. When she reached the spot, she saw a lady in white robes sitting on a stone by the spring. When the lady perceived the girl’s alarm, she advanced a few steps to meet her, and offered her her hand, saying, “Fear nothing, dear child; I will do you no harm. Give good heed to what I tell you, and remember it. In the autumn you will be sought in marriage. Your bridegroom will be as poor as yourself; but do not concern yourself about this, and accept his offered brandy.1 As you are both good people, I will bring you happiness, and help you to get on; but do not neglect thrift and labour, without which no happiness is lasting. Take this bag, and put it in your pocket; there is nothing in it but a few milk-can pebbles.2 When you have given birth to your first child, throw a pebble into the well, and I will come p. 90 to see you. When the child is baptized, I will be the sponsor. Let no one know of our nocturnal meeting. For the present I say farewell.” At these words the wonderful stranger vanished from the girl’s eyes as suddenly as if she had sunk into the ground. Very likely the girl might have thought that this adventure was a dream too, if the bag in her hand had not testified to its reality: it contained twelve stones.
The prediction was fulfilled, and the girl was married in the autumn to a poor labourer. Next year the young wife gave birth to her first child, and remembering what had happened to her on St. John’s Eve, she rose secretly from her bed, and threw a pebble into the well. It splashed into the water, and immediately the friendly white-robed lady stood before her, and said, “I thank you for not forgetting me. Take the child to be baptized on Sunday fortnight, and I will come to church too, and stand sponsor.”
When the child was brought into church on the appointed day, an unknown lady entered, who took it on her lap and had it baptized. When this was done, she tied a silver rouble in the child’s swaddling clothes, and gave it back to the mother. The same thing happened at the birth of each successive child, until there were twelve. On the birth of the last p. 91 child, the lady said to the mother, “Henceforward you will see me no more, though I shall invisibly watch over you and your children daily. The water of the well will benefit the children more than the best food. When the time comes for your daughters to marry, you must give each the rouble which I brought as their godmother’s gift. Until then, do not let them dress finely, but let them wear clean dresses and clean linen both on week-days and Sundays.”
The children grew and throve so well that it was a delight to see them. There was plenty of bread in the house, though sometimes little else, but both parents and children seemed to be chiefly strengthened by the water of the well. In due time the eldest daughter was married to the son of a prosperous innkeeper. Although she brought him nothing beyond her most needful clothing, yet a bridal chest was made, and her clothes and her godmother’s rouble put into it. But when the men lifted the chest into the cart, they found it so heavy that they thought it must be full of stones, for the poor labourer could not have given his daughter anything of value. But great was the young bride’s amazement when she opened the chest in her husband’s house and found it filled with pieces of linen, p. 92 and at the bottom a leathern purse containing a hundred silver roubles. The same thing happened after every fresh marriage, and the daughters were soon all betrothed when it became known that each received such a bridal portion.
One of the sons-in-law was a very avaricious man, and was not satisfied with his wife’s bridal portion. He thought that the parents themselves must be possessed of great riches, if they could bestow so much on each daughter. So he went one day to his father-in-law, and began to pester him about his supposed treasure. The labourer told him the exact truth. “I have nothing but my body and soul, and could not give my daughters anything but the chests. I have nothing to do with what each found in her chest. It is the gift of the godmother, who gave each of the children a rouble at her christening, and this has multiplied itself in the chests.” The avaricious son-in-law would not believe him, and threatened to denounce the old man as a wizard and wind-sorcerer, who had amassed a large treasure in this manner. But as the labourer had a clear conscience, he did not fear his son-in-law’s threats. The latter, however, actually made his complaint to the authorities, and the court sent for the other sons-in-law of p. 93 the labourer, and inquired whether each of their brides had received the same portion. The men declared that each had received a chest of linen and a hundred silver roubles. This caused great surprise, for the whole neighbourhood knew that the labourer was a poor man, and had no other treasure but his twelve pretty daughters. The people knew that the daughters had always worn clean white linen from their earliest years, but nobody had seen them wear any other ornaments, neither brooches nor coloured neckerchiefs. The judge now determined to investigate this wonderful affair more closely, and to find out whether the old man was really a sorcerer.
One day the judge left the town, attended by his police. They wished to surround the labourer’s house with guards, so that no one could get out and carry away the treasure. The avaricious son-in-law accompanied them as guide. When they reached the wood in which the labourer’s house stood, guards were posted on all sides, with strict orders not to allow any one to pass till the matter had been fully investigated. The rest left their horses behind, and followed the footpath to the cottage. The son-in-law warned them to advance slowly and silently, for fear the sorcerer might see them coming p. 94 and escape on the wings of the wind. They had already nearly reached the cottage, when they were suddenly dazzled by the wonderful splendour which shone through the trees. As they advanced, a large and splendid palace became visible. It was entirely built of glass, and illuminated by hundreds of tapers, although the sun shone, and the day was perfectly light. Two sentries stood at the door, wholly cased in brazen armour, and holding long drawn swords in their hands. The officials did not know what to make of it, and everything looked more like a dream than reality. Then the door opened, and a young man gaily attired in silken garments, came forth and said, “Our queen has commanded that the chief-justice shall appear before her.” Although the judge felt some alarm, he decided to follow the young man into the house.
Who can describe the splendour which he beheld! In a magnificent hall as large as a church sat a lady enthroned, robed in silk, satin, and gold. Some feet lower sat twelve beautiful princesses on smaller golden seats. They were dressed as magnificently as the queen, except that they wore no golden crowns. On both sides stood numerous attendants, all in bright silken attire and with golden necklaces. When the chief judge came forward bowing, the p. 95 queen demanded, “Why have you come out to-day with a host of police, as if you were about to arrest criminals?” The judge was about to answer, but terror stopped his utterance and he could not speak a word. “I know the base lying charges,” continued the queen, “for nothing is concealed from my eyes. Let the false accuser enter, but chain him hand and foot, and I will pronounce just sentence. Let the other judges and attendants enter too, that the matter may be done publicly, and that they may bear witness that no one suffers injustice here.” One of the servants hastened out to fulfil the order, and after some time the accuser was led in, chained hand and foot, and guarded by six soldiers in armour. The remaining judges and attendants followed. Then the queen addressed the assembly.
“Before I pronounce the well-deserved sentence on the offender, I must briefly explain the real state of the case, I am the most powerful Lady of the Waters, and all the springs of water which rise from the earth are subject to my authority.1 The eldest son of the King of the Winds was my lover, but as p. 96 his father would not allow him to take a wife, we were obliged to keep our marriage secret as long as his father lived.1 As I could not venture to bring up my children at home, I exchanged them with the children of the labourer’s wife, as often as she was confined. The labourer’s children were reared as foster-children by my aunt, and whenever one of the labourer’s daughters was about to marry, another change was effected.
“Each time, on the night before the wedding, I had my daughter carried away, and that of the labourer substituted. The old King of the Winds had been lying ill for a long time, and knew nothing of our proceedings. On the christening-day I gave each child a silver rouble to form the marriage portion in her bridal chest. All the sons-in-law were satisfied with their young wives and with what they brought them, except this avaricious scoundrel whom you see before you in chains, who dared to bring false accusations against his father-in-law, in hopes of enriching himself thereby. The old King of the p. 97 Winds died a fortnight ago, and my consort succeeded to the throne. It is no longer necessary for us to conceal our marriage and our children. Here sit my twelve daughters, and their foster-parents, the labourer and his wife, shall dwell with me as my pensioners till their death. But you, worthless scamp, whom I have put in chains, shall also receive your just reward. You shall sit chained in a mountain of gold, so that your greedy eyes shall ever behold the gold without your being able to touch a particle. For seven hundred years you shall endure this torment before death shall have power to bring you rest. This is my decree.”
When the queen had finished speaking, a noise was heard like a violent clap of thunder; the earth quaked, and the magistrates and their servants fell down stunned. When they recovered their senses, they found themselves in the wood to which their guide had led them, but on the spot where the palace of glass had stood in all its splendour, clear cold water now gushed forth from a small spring. Nothing more was ever heard of the labourer, his wife, or his avaricious son-in-law. The widow of the latter married another husband in the autumn, and lived happily with him for the rest of her life.
1 Compare the story of the “Treasure-Bringer,” in a later section of the volume.
1 Brandy is offered by a lover in Esthonia, and accepted by the girl if she favours him.
2 Small stones are used for cleaning milk-cans.
1 Jannsen remarks that her authority seems to have been limited to these, and also that she cannot have been the supreme Water-Goddess, whose husband is Ahti, the God of the Sea.
1 These long-lived, but mortal Elemental Powers seem to correspond to some classes of the Arabian Jinn, as for instance, the Diving Jinn in such tales as “Jullanur of the Sea” (Thousand and One Nights). They may also be compared with the Elemental Spirits of the Rosicrucians, who are long-lived, but likewise mortal.