Lithuanian Egle – Queen of the Grass Snakes

A Lithuanian Folktale – Egle means “Spruce” and at one time the Slavs and Balts had the Cult of the Evergreen…  – Once upon a time there lived an older couple who had twelve sons and three daughters, the youngest of whom was called Egle. One summer evening the sisters went for a swim and they swam and splashed about, and, having had their fill of it, climbed out on shore and reached for their clothes.

Eglė looked, and there, coiled up in the sleeve of her shirt, she saw a grass snake! What was she to do? Her older sister snatched up a stick in order to chase it out but the grass snake turned to Eglė and spoke in a human voice: “Egle, my dear, promise to marry me and I’ll crawl out by myself.”

%22Spruce Serpent Queen%22 inspired by the Lietuvos dailės muziejaus nuotr. : Albina Makūnaitė. „Martelė“. Iš ciklo „Žalčio pasaka“. 1962. Lietuvos dailės muziejus

 Screen shot 2015-10-25 at 10.25.02 PMNow, this only made the tears well up in Egle’s eyes, for how could she marry a snake, so she replied angrily: “Give me back my shirt without further ado and yourself crawl off to wherever it is you came from! But the grass snake remained where he was and said as before: “Promise to marry me and I’ll crawl out.” Not knowing what to do, Eglė said that she would, and the grass snake at once crawled out of her skirt and slithered away.

Three days later a great number of grass snakes came crawling into the old people’s front yard, frightened, the matchmakers proceeded directly into the hut, and, approaching Eglė and her mother and father, said they had come a ‘matchmaking. 

At first the two parents were shaken and taken aback and would not even hear of such a thing, but, learning that Egle had given her word and being confronted by such a vast number of snakes, they were much troubled. Whether they wanted to or not, the youngest and prettiest of their daughters would be marrying a grass snake and there was little they could do about it.

Screen shot 2015-10-25 at 10.26.14 PMOff went Eglė with the grass snakes, leaving her family behind. While they cried and mourned her departure but could not do anything about it. Eglė, led by her escorts, headed for the seashore and reached it by and by. There they were met by a handsome youth who told Egle that he was the very same grass snake that she had found in the sleeve of her shirt.

They made off at once for the nearest island from where they descended to the bottom of the sea where stood a rich and beautiful palace. It was there they were married and their wedding celebration, where they drank and feasted and danced, lasted for three whole weeks.

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The palace was filled with many lovely things and Eglė felt merry and happy there. She began to feel peaceful, her life became brighter and as the days went by she forgot her parents and her old home altogether. Nine years passed, and Eglė now had four children – three sons, Oak, Ash and Birch, and a daughter, the youngest of the four, whom she named Little Aspen. One day Egle’s oldest son, who had been running about and getting into mischief, began asking his mother where her parents were.  “Where do they live, mother?” asked he. “I would so like to pay them a visit!”

It was only then that Eglė remembered her mother and father and her whole family and set to wondering about how they were and whether they were still living. She was filled with great longing to see them and told her husband so. At first Grass Snake would not hear of it, but she begged him again and again and he finally agreed to let her go. “Only you must make me some yarn out of this tow first,” said he, and, giving her some silky tow, pointed at the spinning-wheel. Eglė set to work, she spun all day and night, but the bundle of tow grew no smaller. It came to her then that she was being tricked, that the tow was a magic tow and that she could spin no yarn out of it no matter how hard she tried.

So off she went to see an old woman, a sorceress, who lived close by. Said she to her in pleading tones:

Screen shot 2015-10-25 at 10.24.21 PM “Please, mother, please, my dear, show me how to spin this tow.” “You must light the stove and throw the tow in the fire,” the old woman told her. “You will never be able to finish spinning it otherwise.” Eglė came home, and, lighting the stove as if to bake some bread, threw the tow in the fire. It flared up and she saw a toad the size of a large battledore jumping about in the flames, a silky thread running out of its fiery mouth. Having finished spinning the thread in this fashion, Eglė again asked her husband to let her go to visit her parents for a few days. This time her husband dragged a pair of iron shoes from under the bench. “You can go as soon as you wear these out,” said he. 

Eglė put on the shoes and began walking and stamping about in them and trying to break them on some sharp stones. But the shoes were thick and strong, and, try hard as she would, she could not wear them out. In fact, there was no wearing them out at all, she now saw, they would last her a lifetime. So off Eglė went to ask the old sorceress for her counsel again. “Take the shoes to a blacksmith, let him put them in a forge and heat them to white heat,” said the old woman.

Eglė did it and once the shoes were burnt through, she wore them out in three days and again began pleading with her husband to let her go to see her parents. “Very well,” said he. “Only bake a pie first, for it is not meet to go visiting anyone without taking something good to eat for the children of your brothers and relatives.” But he had all the dishes in the palace put away that there might be none left for Eglė to mix the dough in.

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Eglė cudgeled her brains for a long time trying to think of how to bring water from a well without a pail and how to mix dough without a trough, but as there was nothing she could think of she went to see the old woman again. Said the old woman: “Do not try to draw water from a well but take a sieve, stop up the holes with leaven and use it to scoop up some water from a stream. Mix the dough in the same sieve.”

Eglė did as she was told. She mixed the dough, baked some pies and prepared to set off with her children. Her husband saw them off, he brought them out on to the shore and ad-monished her: “Do not spend more than nine days in your parents’ house and return on the tenth. Come out to the shoi e with only the children and no one else and call out to me thus:  Alive you are, my husband, White the foam will be and milky. If ’tis dead you are, beloved, Red the foam will be and bloody.

If the sea boils up and the foam is milk-white, you will know that I am alive; if it boils up and the foam is blood-red, then you will know that I am no more. As for you, children, mind that you tell no one what you have just heard.” There was no end to rejoicing when Eglė appeared in her parents’ house. Ali her kinsfolk and their neighbours, too, came to have a look at her and everyone wanted to know how life was with the grass snakes. Was it nice, was it fun? They marvelled at her account.

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They vied with each other in speaking kindly to her and in treating her to the best they had in the way of food and drink. Eglė did not notice how the nine days flew by. In the meantime her parents and her twelve brothers and sisters were racking their brains, trying to find a way to keep Eglė with them and not to let her return to her husband. At last they decided to worm out of her children how Eglė was to call him up from the bottom of the sea, for then they could go there, lure him up out of the depths and kili him.

Her brothers took Oak, Eglė’s oldest son, to the forest, stood round him in a circle and began ąuestioning him. But the boy pretended that he knew nothing, and threaten him and beat him with sticks as they would, they could get nothing out of him. They let him go then but admonished him not to say a word about it to his mother. The next day they took Ash to the forest and ąuestioned him, and on the day after that, Birch, but learnt nothing from either of them. At last they lured the youngest of Eglė’s children, Little Aspen, to the forest. At first she, too, said she knew nothing, but when they threatened to thrash her she blurted out the secret. Then Eglė’s twelve brothers took their sharp scythes, went to the shore of the sea and called out:

Alive you are, my husband, White the foam will be and milky. If ’tis dead you are, beloved, Red the foam will be and bloody.

Hearing them, Grass Snake swam up from the sea, and the tvvelve brothers fell upon him and slashed him to death with their scythes. After that they came back home but they said not a word about what had happened to Eglė. Nine days passed and it was time for Eglė to leave. She bade all her kin goodbye, and, going with her children to the shore of the sea, called out:

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If alive you are, my husband, White the
foam will be and milky. If ’tis dead you
are, beloved, Red the foam will be and

At this sea darkened and boiled up with a roar, and Eglė looked and saw that the the foam cresting the waves was blood – red. Suddenly what did she hear but her husband’s voice calling out to her: “It was your twelve brothers that slashed me to death with their scythes, and it was Little Aspen, our beloved little daughter, who betrayed me.” Eglė was filled with grief and horror, and with tears rolling from her eyes, she turned to Little Aspen, and špoke these words:

artist A . Makunayte - Lamentations of Egle, Linocut 1962

Be a tree, a fearful little tree
and timid, Ne’er know peace of
heart but tremble always. Let
the rain torment you without
mercy, Let the wind pull madly
at your tresses.

Then, addressing her brave and faithful sons, she said:

You will grow to be great
trees and handsome, With Eglė
your mother always near you.

And so it came to pass. Oak, Ash and Birch all grew up to be tall and mighty trees and so they remain and are the strongest of our trees to this day, but Aspen trembles at the touch of the slightest breeze even today, and all because she was once so frightened of her uncles that she betrayed her own father and mother.*

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Paulius Augius (Augustinavičius, 1909-1960) was a graphic artist. In 1935 he graduated fronr Kaunas Art School. There was a group of young artists in the school called “Forma” (“Shape”). P. Augius was one of its members. The group popularized Lithuanian graphic arts. In 1935-1938 he studied in Paris, in Ecole Nationale Supėrieure des Beaivc-Arts and Conservatoire National desArts et Mėtiers. The artist was decorated for his diplomą work – a cycle of woodcuts “Žemaičiai Wedding” which had been exhibited in Paris worldwide exhibition. In 1938 he won the Lithuanian statė prize. Together with his family he emigrated to Germany in 1944 and then to USA. P. Augius lived in Chicago, where he is buried in St. Casimirus cemetery. The artist had created many prints and some large cycles on ethnographic motifs, he also had illustrated books. Since 1935 P. Augius had been participating in international exhibitions and writing articles on art. In 1966 a big mono-graphic album of his works was published in Chicago.

In 1938 P. Augius started creating illustrations for a poem by Salomėja Nėris “Serpent’s Tale”. Illustrated with 14 woodcuts, in 1940 the poem appeared in Lithuania under traditional title of Lithuanian folk tale “Eglė Queen of Grass Snakes”. The artist developed his undertaking, and in 1947 in Germany (Memmingen) the group “Forma” published an album with 100 P. Augius’ illus­trations. It was the poem by S. Bačinskaitė (maiden name of S. Nėris) “Serpent’s Tale”. The present book is mainly repetition of the 1947 edition, only it presents the whole poem, while for his wood-cuts the artist had used only fragments.”

First Illustration Albina Makūnaitė – Daughter in Law from the “Tale of the Serpent. 1962. Lithuanian Art Museum

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tracy Algar says:

    I love your blog. Great story.

    Liked by 1 person

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