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A Fairytale from Lithuania
Eglė, Queen of Serpents
(Eglė žalčių karalienė)
(Recommended by Vytautas Ruzveltas and Kristine Jankaitiene)
Long long ago, in the country of Lithuania there lived a large family of twelve children. There were three daughters and nine sons. The youngest and most beautiful was a girl called Eglė.
One summer evening Eglė and her sisters went swimming in the cool waters of the lake beside their home. When they grew tired of swimming, they swam to the lakeshore to get dressed. The girls were laughing and messing as they came close to the rocks where they had left their clothes. Suddenly, their laughs were interrupted by a high pitched scream. ‘Eeeeekkk’, shrieked Eglė, ‘there’s a snake in my blouse!’ Sure enough, when her older sister poked the pile of clothes with an old stick, out came a slithery slimy snake.
To the girls’ horror, the snake began to speak. ‘Egle, my love. You must promise to marry me, or I will stay here snuggled up in your clothes forever’.
‘Eugh’, spat Eglė, ‘I can’t marry you, you’re nothing but a slithery slimy snake! Get out of my blouse and go back to where you came from’.
But the serpent refused to leave. Instead, he hissed and fussed until Eglė gave in to his curious request. As soon as she agreed to marry the serpent, he vanished.
Eglė had never spoken to a serpent before, so she had no idea how serious her promise to the slithery slimy snake would be.
Eglė forgot all about the talking snake and her hasty promise to marry him until three days later, she awoke to find her garden filled with snakes of all descriptions from all over the country. There were so many snakes you could not see the grass, just hundreds and thousands of slithery slimy snakes swarming all over the garden.
Her father was dismayed. He did not want to hand his youngest and most beautiful daughter over to a serpent. He tried to trick the serpent, but to no avail. First he sent a white goose, then a white sheep and finally a white cow. Each time the snakes returned, demanding that Eglė be handed to over the serpent.
With no other choice, Eglė’s father bid his beautiful daughter goodbye and sent her back to the serpent by the lake. To Eglė’s surprise, a very handsome man greeted her by the lake shore. ‘I am Žilvinas, the serpent prince’, he told her. Eglė fell head over heels in love with the serpent prince and agreed once more to go with him to his magnificent castle at the bottom of the lake so that they could be married.
Eglė lived a life of luxury under the lake with Žilvinas. As the years passed, they were blessed with four children, three sons Ąžuolas (Oak), Uosis (Ash) and Beržas (Birch) as well as one daughter, Drebulė (Aspen).
Eglė was so happy with Žilvinas and her own children that she never thought of her old home or family above the lake. But, one day when her sons asked her why they had never met their grandparents she began to feel homesick for her loving parents and 11 siblings. ‘Please Žilvinas, can I take the children home?’ she begged.
The Serpent King did not want to let his wife and children go. He knew how much Eglė’s family hated him and he feared that his wife would not return, but he was a fair man. ‘Eglė, my sweet serpent Queen, you may visit your family but only if you pass these three very difficult tests.’
Eglė was determined to see her family so she agreed.
To pass the first test, Eglė had to spin a never-ending yarn of silk. Eglė tried and tried to no avail. Eventually, she went to see a local sorceress for help. The sorceress advised her to throw the yarn into the fire. When she got home, this is exactly what Eglė did. Sure enough, a magical toad appeared in the flames. The toad spun a never-ending yarn of silk for Eglė and she passed the first test.
For her next test, the Serpent King told Eglė that she must wear down a pair of iron boots. For days and days Eglė trudged around in the heavy boots but she failed to make so much as a dent in their metal soles. Again, Eglė went to the sorceress for help. This time, she advised Eglė to take the shoes to the blacksmith. The blacksmith threw the shoes into the kiln which melted them down in no time at all.
For her final test, Eglė had to bake a cake. A simple enough test you would think, but the Serpent King had confiscated every bowl in the kingdom. This left Eglė with nothing but an old sieve. ‘How can I make a cake without so much as a bowl?’ thought Eglė in despair, as she made her way to the sorceress for the final time. The sorceress told Eglė to use some old dough to fill the holes in the sieve so that it could be used as a bowl. Sure enough, in no time at all the sweet smell of cake was wafting throughout the kingdom.
And so it was that Eglė and her four children were allowed to leave the lake for nine days.
Before they left the King told them, ‘When you are ready to come home, you must use these secret words to summon me to the surface of the lake:
If you are alive, the ripples will be white as milk
If you are dead, the ripples will be red as blood!”
But, he warned them not to tell anyone else how to summon him from the bottom of the lake.
Eglė’s family was so happy to see her that they feasted for days and days. They had missed her each and every day that she was away. It wasn’t long until her brothers began plotting how to keep her on dry land. To do this, they would have to kill the Serpent King. They tried to persuade Eglė’s sons to tell them the secret password, but they were brave and loyal to their father and refused to betray him. When this failed, they turned their attention to Drebulė. She was not as strong-willed as her brothers and as soon as her uncles threatened her, she spilled the beans.
Armed with sharp knives, Eglė’s nine brothers marched to the lake shore. They recited the words Drebulė had told them and sure enough the Serpent King appeared. As soon as they saw him they attacked him and chopped the Serpent King up into a thousand slithery slimy pieces. Once their dastardly deed was complete, Eglė’s brothers then returned to the celebrations without mentioning a word to their sister.
After nine fun-filled days had passed, Eglė began to think again of her home under the lake. Saying goodbye to her family, she gathered the children and headed for the lake shore. Reciting the words her beloved husband had told her, she was shocked to see the ripples turn red. Overcome with grief, she realised that her husband had been killed. Turning to her children, she knew at once that her trembling daughter Drebulė had betrayed them all.
Eglė loved the Serpent King with all her heart and was devastated with grief. She was so full of despair that she turned her children into trees. The boys were turned into oak, ash and birch trees as a symbol of their courage. Poor Drebulė was turned into a frail and quivering aspen. Finally, Eglė transformed herself into a fir tree.