The Sea Maiden, by Joseph Jacobs
There was once a poor old fisherman, and one year he was not getting
much fish. On a day of days, while he was fishing, there rose a
sea-maiden at the side of his boat, and she asked him, "Are you getting
much fish?" The old man answered and said, "Not I." "What reward would
you give me for sending plenty of fish to you?" "Ach!" said the old
man, "I have not much to spare." "Will you give me the first son you
have?" said she. "I would give ye that, were I to have a son," said he.
"Then go home, and remember me when your son is twenty years of age,
and you yourself will get plenty of fish after this." Everything
happened as the sea-maiden said, and he himself got plenty of fish; but
when the end of the twenty years was nearing, the old man was growing
more and more sorrowful and heavy hearted, while he counted each day as
He had rest neither day nor night. The son asked his father one day,
"Is any one troubling you?" The old man said, "Some one is, but that's
nought to do with you nor any one else." The lad said, "I must know
what it is." His father told him at last how the matter was with him
and the sea-maiden. "Let not that put you in any trouble," said the
son; "I will not oppose you." "You shall not; you shall not go, my son,
though I never get fish any more." "If you will not let me go with you,
go to the smithy, and let the smith make me a great strong sword, and I
will go seek my fortune."
His father went to the smithy, and the smith made a doughty sword for
him. His father came home with the sword. The lad grasped it and gave
it a shake or two, and it flew into a hundred splinters. He asked his
father to go to the smithy and get him another sword in which there
should be twice as much weight; and so his father did, and so likewise
it happened to the next sword—it broke in two halves. Back went the
old man to the smithy; and the smith made a great sword, its like he
never made before. "There's thy sword for thee," said the smith, "and
the fist must be good that plays this blade." The old man gave the
sword to his son; he gave it a shake or two. "This will do," said he;
"it's high time now to travel on my way."
On the next morning he put a saddle on a black horse that his father
had, and he took the world for his pillow. When he went on a bit, he
fell in with the carcass of a sheep beside the road. And there were a
great black dog, a falcon, and an otter, and they were quarrelling over
the spoil. So they asked him to divide it for them. He came down off
the horse, and he divided the carcass amongst the three. Three shares
to the dog, two shares to the otter, and a share to the falcon. "For
this," said the dog, "if swiftness of foot or sharpness of tooth will
give thee aid, mind me, and I will be at thy side." Said the otter, "If
the swimming of foot on the ground of a pool will loose thee, mind me,
and I will be at thy side." Said the falcon, "If hardship comes on
thee, where swiftness of wing or crook of a claw will do good, mind me,
and I will be at thy side."
On this he went onward till he reached a king's house, and he took
service to be a herd, and his wages were to be according to the milk of
the cattle. He went away with the cattle, and the grazing was but bare.
In the evening when he took them home they had not much milk, the place
was so bare, and his meat and drink was but spare that night.
On the next day he went on further with them; and at last he came to a
place exceedingly grassy, in a green glen, of which he never saw the
But about the time when he should drive the cattle homewards, who
should he see coming but a great giant with his sword in his hand? "HI!
HO!! HOGARACH!!!" says the giant. "Those cattle are mine; they are on
my land, and a dead man art thou." "I say not that," says the herd;
"there is no knowing, but that may be easier to say than to do."
He drew the great clean-sweeping sword, and he neared the giant. The
herd drew back his sword, and the head was off the giant in a
twinkling. He leaped on the black horse, and he went to look for the
giant's house. In went the herd, and that's the place where there was
money in plenty, and dresses of each kind in the wardrobe with gold and
silver, and each thing finer than the other. At the mouth of night he
took himself to the king's house, but he took not a thing from the
giant's house. And when the cattle were milked this night there was
milk. He got good feeding this night, meat and drink without stint, and
the king was hugely pleased that he had caught such a herd. He went on
for a time in this way, but at last the glen grew bare of grass, and
the grazing was not so good.
So he thought he would go a little further forward in on the giant's
land; and he sees a great park of grass. He returned for the cattle,
and he put them into the park.
They were but a short time grazing in the park when a great wild giant
came full of rage and madness. "HI! HAW!! HOGARAICH!!!" said the giant.
"It is a drink of thy blood that will quench my thirst this night."
"There is no knowing," said the herd, "but that's easier to say than to
do." And at each other went the men. There was shaking of blades! At
length and at last it seemed as if the giant would get the victory over
the herd. Then he called on the dog, and with one spring the black dog
caught the giant by the neck, and swiftly the herd struck off his head.
He went home very tired this night, but it's a wonder if the king's
cattle had not milk. The whole family was delighted that they had got
such a herd.
Next day he betakes himself to the castle. When he reached the door, a
little flattering carlin met him standing in the door. "All hail and
good luck to thee, fisher's son; 'tis I myself am pleased to see thee;
great is the honour for this kingdom, for thy like to be come into
it—thy coming in is fame for this little bothy; go in first; honour to
the gentles; go on, and take breath."
"In before me, thou crone; I like not flattery out of doors; go in and
let's hear thy speech." In went the crone, and when her back was to him
he drew his sword and whips her head off; but the sword flew out of his
hand. And swift the crone gripped her head with both hands, and puts it
on her neck as it was before. The dog sprung on the crone, and she
struck the generous dog with the club of magic; and there he lay. But
the herd struggled for a hold of the club of magic, and with one blow
on the top of the head she was on earth in the twinkling of an eye. He
went forward, up a little, and there was spoil! Gold and silver, and
each thing more precious than another, in the crone's castle. He went
back to the king's house, and then there was rejoicing.
He followed herding in this way for a time; but one night after he came
home, instead of getting "All hail" and "Good luck" from the dairymaid,
all were at crying and woe.
He asked what cause of woe there was that night. The dairymaid said
"There is a great beast with three heads in the loch, and it must get
some one every year, and the lot had come this year on the king's
daughter, and at midday to-morrow she is to meet the Laidly Beast at
the upper end of the loch, but there is a great suitor yonder who is
going to rescue her."
"What suitor is that?" said the herd. "Oh, he is a great General of
arms," said the dairymaid, "and when he kills the beast, he will marry
the king's daughter, for the king has said that he who could save his
daughter should get her to marry."
But on the morrow, when the time grew near, the king's daughter and
this hero of arms went to give a meeting to the beast, and they reached
the black rock, at the upper end of the loch. They were but a short
time there when the beast stirred in the midst of the loch; but when
the General saw this terror of a beast with three heads, he took
fright, and he slunk away, and he hid himself. And the king's daughter
was under fear and under trembling, with no one at all to save her.
Suddenly she sees a doughty handsome youth, riding a black horse, and
coming where she was. He was marvellously arrayed and full armed, and
his black dog moved after him. "There is gloom on your face, girl,"
said the youth; "what do you here?"
"Oh! that's no matter," said the king's daughter. "It's not long I'll
be here, at all events."
"I say not that," said he.
"A champion fled as likely as you, and not long since," said she.
"He is a champion who stands the war," said the youth. And to meet the
beast he went with his sword and his dog. But there was a spluttering
and a splashing between himself and the beast! The dog kept doing all
he might, and the king's daughter was palsied by fear of the noise of
the beast! One of them would now be under, and now above. But at last
he cut one of the heads off it. It gave one roar, and the son of earth,
echo of the rocks, called to its screech, and it drove the loch in
spindrift from end to end, and in a twinkling it went out of sight.
"Good luck and victory follow you, lad!" said the king's daughter. "I
am safe for one night, but the beast will come again and again, until
the other two heads come off it." He caught the beast's head, and he
drew a knot through it, and he told her to bring it with her there
to-morrow. She gave him a gold ring, and went home with the head on her
shoulder, and the herd betook himself to the cows. But she had not gone
far when this great General saw her, and he said to her, "I will kill
you if you do not say that 'twas I took the head off the beast." "Oh!"
says she, "'tis I will say it; who else took the head off the beast but
you!" They reached the king's house, and the head was on the General's
shoulder. But here was rejoicing, that she should come home alive and
whole, and this great captain with the beast's head full of blood in
his hand. On the morrow they went away, and there was no question at
all but that this hero would save the king's daughter.
They reached the same place, and they were not long there when the
fearful Laidly Beast stirred in the midst of the loch, and the hero
slunk away as he did on yesterday, but it was not long after this when
the man of the black horse came, with another dress on. No matter; she
knew that it was the very same lad. "It is I am pleased to see you,"
said she. "I am in hopes you will handle your great sword to-day as you
did yesterday. Come up and take breath." But they were not long there
when they saw the beast steaming in the midst of the loch.
At once he went to meet the beast, but there was Cloopersteich and
Claperstich, spluttering, splashing, raving, and roaring on the beast!
They kept at it thus for a long time, and about the mouth of night he
cut another head off the beast. He put it on the knot and gave it to
her. She gave him one of her earrings, and he leaped on the black
horse, and he betook himself to the herding. The king's daughter went
home with the heads. The General met her, and took the heads from her,
and he said to her, that she must tell that it was he who took the head
off the beast this time also. "Who else took the head off the beast but
you?" said she. They reached the king's house with the heads. Then
there was joy and gladness.
About the same time on the morrow, the two went away. The officer hid
himself as he usually did. The king's daughter betook herself to the
bank of the loch. The hero of the black horse came, and if roaring and
raving were on the beast on the days that were passed, this day it was
horrible. But no matter, he took the third head off the beast, and drew
it through the knot, and gave it to her. She gave him her other
earring, and then she went home with the heads. When they reached the
king's house, all were full of smiles, and the General was to marry the
king's daughter the next day. The wedding was going on, and every one
about the castle longing till the priest should come. But when the
priest came, she would marry only the one who could take the heads off
the knot without cutting it. "Who should take the heads off the knot
but the man that put the heads on?" said the king.
The General tried them; but he could not loose them; and at last there
was no one about the house but had tried to take the heads off the
knot, but they could not. The king asked if there were any one else
about the house that would try to take the heads off the knot. They
said that the herd had not tried them yet. Word went for the herd; and
he was not long throwing them hither and thither. "But stop a bit, my
lad," said the king's daughter; "the man that took the heads off the
beast, he has my ring and my two earrings." The herd put his hand in
his pocket, and he threw them on the board. "Thou art my man," said the
king's daughter. The king was not so pleased when he saw that it was a
herd who was to marry his daughter, but he ordered that he should be
put in a better dress; but his daughter spoke, and she said that he had
a dress as fine as any that ever was in his castle; and thus it
happened. The herd put on the giant's golden dress, and they married
that same day.
They were now married, and everything went on well. But one day, and it
was the namesake of the day when his father had promised him to the
sea-maiden, they were sauntering by the side of the loch, and lo and
behold! she came and took him away to the loch without leave or asking.
The king's daughter was now mournful, tearful, blind-sorrowful for her
married man; she was always with her eye on the loch. An old soothsayer
met her, and she told how it had befallen her married mate. Then he
told her the thing to do to save her mate, and that she did.
She took her harp to the sea-shore, and sat and played; and the
sea-maiden came up to listen, for sea-maidens are fonder of music than
all other creatures. But when the wife saw the sea-maiden she stopped.
The sea-maiden said, "Play on!" but the princess said, "No, not till I
see my man again." So the sea-maiden put up his head out of the loch.
Then the princess played again, and stopped till the sea-maiden put him
up to the waist. Then the princess played and stopped again, and this
time the sea-maiden put him all out of the loch, and he called on the
falcon and became one and flew on shore. But the sea-maiden took the
princess, his wife.
Sorrowful was each one that was in the town on this night. Her man was
mournful, tearful, wandering down and up about the banks of the loch,
by day and night. The old soothsayer met him. The soothsayer told him
that there was no way of killing the sea-maiden but the one way, and
this is it—"In the island that is in the midst of the loch is the
white-footed hind of the slenderest legs and the swiftest step, and
though she be caught, there will spring a hoodie out of her, and though
the hoodie should be caught, there will spring a trout out of her, but
there is an egg in the mouth of the trout, and the soul of the
sea-maiden is in the egg, and if the egg breaks, she is dead."
Now, there was no way of getting to this island, for the sea-maiden
would sink each boat and raft that would go on the loch. He thought he
would try to leap the strait with the black horse, and even so he did.
The black horse leaped the strait. He saw the hind, and he let the
black dog after her, but when he was on one side of the island, the
hind would be on the other side. "Oh! would the black dog of the
carcass of flesh were here!" No sooner spoke he the word than the
grateful dog was at his side; and after the hind he went, and they were
not long in bringing her to earth. But he no sooner caught her than a
hoodie sprang out of her. "Would that the falcon grey, of sharpest eye
and swiftest wing, were here!" No sooner said he this than the falcon
was after the hoodie, and she was not long putting her to earth; and as
the hoodie fell on the bank of the loch, out of her jumps the trout.
"Oh! that thou wert by me now, oh otter!" No sooner said than the otter
was at his side, and out on the loch she leaped, and brings the trout
from the midst of the loch; but no sooner was the otter on shore with
the trout than the egg came from his mouth. He sprang and he put his
foot on it. 'Twas then the sea-maiden appeared, and she said, "Break
not the egg, and you shall get all you ask." "Deliver to me my wife!"
In the wink of an eye she was by his side. When he got hold of her hand
in both his hands, he let his foot down on the egg, and the sea-maiden
Source.—Campbell, Pop. Tales, No. 4. I have omitted the births of
the animal comrades and transposed the carlin to the middle of the
tale. Mr. Batten has considerately idealised the Sea-Maiden in his
frontispiece. When she restores the husband to the wife in one of the
variants, she brings him out of her mouth! "So the sea-maiden put up
his head (Who do you mean? Out of her mouth to be sure. She had
Parallels.—The early part of the story occurs in No. xv., "Shee an
Gannon," and the last part in No. xix., "Fair, Brown, and Trembling"
(both from Curtin), Campbell's No. 1. "The Young King" is much like it;
also MacInnes' No. iv., "Herding of Cruachan" and No. viii., "Lod the
Farmer's Son." The third of Mr. Britten's Irish folk-tales in the
Folk-Lore Journal is a Sea-Maiden story. The story is obviously a
favourite one among the Celts. Yet its main incidents occur with
frequency in Continental folk-tales. Prof. Köhler has collected a
number in his notes on Campbell's Tales in Orient und Occident, Bnd.
ii. 115-8. The trial of the sword occurs in the saga of Sigurd, yet it
is also frequent in Celtic saga and folk-tales (see Mr. Nutt's note,
MacInnes' Tales, 473, and add. Curtin, 320). The hideous carlin and
her three giant sons is also a common form in Celtic. The external soul
of the Sea-Maiden carried about in an egg, in a trout, in a hoodie, in
a hind, is a remarkable instance of a peculiarly savage conception
which has been studied by Major Temple, Wide-awake Stories, 404-5; by
Mr. E. Clodd, in the "Philosophy of Punchkin," in Folk-Lore Journal,
vol. ii., and by Mr. Frazer in his Golden Bough, vol. ii.
Remarks.—As both Prof. Rhys (Hibbert Lect., 464) and Mr. Nutt
(MacInnes' Tales, 477) have pointed out, practically the same story
(that of Perseus and Andromeda) is told of the Ultonian hero,
Cuchulain, in the Wooing of Emer, a tale which occurs in the Book of
Leinster, a MS. of the twelfth century, and was probably copied from
one of the eighth. Unfortunately it is not complete, and the Sea-Maiden
incident is only to be found in a British Museum MS. of about 1300. In
this Cuchulain finds that the daughter of Ruad is to be given as a
tribute to the Fomori, who, according to Prof. Rhys, Folk-Lore, ii.
293, have something of the night_mare_ about their etymology. Cuchulain
fights three of them successively, has his wounds bound up by a strip
of the maiden's garment, and then departs. Thereafter many boasted of
having slain the Fomori, but the maiden believed them not till at last
by a stratagem she recognises Cuchulain. I may add to this that in Mr.
Curtin's Myths, 330, the threefold trial of the sword is told of
Cuchulain. This would seem to trace our story back to the seventh or
eighth century and certainly to the thirteenth. If so, it is likely
enough that it spread from Ireland through Europe with the Irish
missions (for the wide extent of which see map in Mrs. Bryant's Celtic
Ireland). The very letters that have spread through all Europe except
Russia, are to be traced to the script of these Irish monks: why not
certain folk-tales? There is a further question whether the story was
originally told of Cuchulain as a hero-tale and then became
departicularised as a folk-tale, or was the process vice versa.
Certainly in the form in which it appears in the Tochmarc Emer it is
not complete, so that here, as elsewhere, we seem to have an instance
of a folk-tale applied to a well-known heroic name, and becoming a
hero-tale or saga.