Silent Like the Trees: Eglė and the Serpent King

Imagine this: you’re bathing outside with your two sisters, your clothes on dry land, when you hear a voice coming from your blouse.

“Hi there!” says the voice cheerfully.

“What…who are you?”

A grass snake emerges from the blouse.

“It’s comfy in here.”

You’re aghast.

“Please get out of my blouse, Mr. Snake.”

“That’s prince snake, soon to be king snake to you, missy.”

“Fine, Mr. Prince Snake. Please go.”

“Wait a minute, lady. We both want something. You want me out of your clothes, and I want a wife. Marry me?”

“You’re insane! People don’t marry snakes!”

“Well I guess those people have to go around with snakes in their shirts.”

*

This went on for some time.

Finally, you relent:

“Fine, Prince Snake. I’ll marry you. Now leave!!!”

“I’ll pick you up tomorrow, babe!”

You simply sigh to yourself as he slithers away.

Your name is Eglė, and you have just set into effect a chain of events that will transform you into the Queen of Serpents…

And eventually, into a tree.

egle_canberra
Eglė the Queen of Serpents, statue in Glebe Park, Canberra, Australia

*

This folktale originates from Lithuania, and boasts over a hundred collected variants.

Not only does it feature talking animals, but it also includes shape-shifting reptiles, magical tests, and an origin tale for the trees of the forest.

It also provides a warning about trusting children with secrets, as we’ll soon see.

*

Three days later, thousands of grass snakes descended on Eglė’s parent’s home, demanding their future Queen.

Three times, her family passed off an animal for the bride – a goose, then a sheep, and finally a cow were each presented as a heavily begowned Eglė.

Each time, the hordes of snakes departed triumphant.

Apparently, snakes aren’t very good at picking out people from other animals.

And each time they set off, they passed a cuckoo sitting on a birch tree who nearly fell over laughing at their stupidity.

Were the snakes dumb? Well, kind of.

Were they magical? Definitely.

So they came back the third time with a threat: any more tricks, and the next year would see a drought that would wipe out the land, leading to widespread famine.

Reluctantly, Eglė accepted her fate, and departed with her future subjects.

egle_palanga
Eglė and the Serpent by Robertas Antinis in Palanga Botanical Garden, Lithuania (1960)

*

Eglė descended to bottom of the lagoon that was her new home.

To her surprise, the Snake Prince, now King, had taken a human form.

A form that was most…pleasing.

They moved to a palace on an island, had four children (three sons and a daughter), and like all fairy tale romances, they lived happily ever after.

The End.

*

Ąžuolas, their oldest child, turned to his mother one day.

“What were your parents like, back on the land?”

Eglė hadn’t thought about her family in a long time, and her son’s question stirred a feeling of homesickness in her heart.

She asked her husband if she could visit them…

*

You know how you can just tell when trouble is about to spill over?

Žilvinas, the Snake King, must have known that nothing good could come of his wife going home.

And so he did what any smart Snake King would do: he gave her three impossible tasks to fulfill first:

Eglė had to spin a never-ending tuft of silk.

Eglė had to wear down a pair of iron shoes.

Eglė had to bake a pie with no utensils.

Now, you or I might quit at the very first task, but Eglė had friends who could work the Arts.

Enchantment. Sorcery. Magic.

Eglė was a quick study…

In time enough, she had spun the silk, worn down the shoes, and baked the pie.

Reluctantly, Žilvinas, the Snake King, let his wife go home.

However, he had instructions for her:

When she returned, she was to summon him by reciting a spell:

“Žilvinas, dear Žilvinėlis,
If (you’re) alive – may the sea foam milk
If (you’re) dead – may the sea foam blood…”

He told her this in the presence of their children, who came to see her off as she ventured back into the human realm.

He told his children to never share the spell with anyone,

which they all agreed to,

like children do…

*

As Eglė spent time reuniting with her parents, her twelve brothers enacted an unbidden rescue plan.

They went to the lagoon, and tried to summon the Snake King.

They found their nephews, Ąžuolas, Uosis, and Beržas, and beat them to bloody pulps, but they wouldn’t call for their father.

However, the threat of violence was too much for their sister, Drebulė.

She spoke the summoning spell:

“Žilvinas, dear Žilvinėlis,
If (you’re) alive – may the sea foam milk
If (you’re) dead – may the sea foam blood…”

The Snake King rose from the waters.

On seeing Žilvinas, the twelve brothers hacked him to pieces using scythes.

In silence, they returned home, not speaking of their ghastly crime to their sister.

*

After nine days, Eglė returned to her husband and children.

She stood at the water’s edge, and spoke the spell…

…If (you’re) dead – may the sea foam blood…

The waters turned red.

And then, a voice:

From beyond the grave, Žilvinas told her what had happened.

*

Eglė’s rage turned at once to her daughter.

For her frailty, she transformed Drebulė into a quivering tree – an Aspen.

For their strength, her sons were transformed into strong trees: Ąžuolas became an Oak, Uosis became an Ash, and Beržas became a Birch.

Then, in final act of magic, Eglė transformed herself into a Spruce.

*

There are shared elements with Vasilisa and Baba Yaga, while the ending is quite Ovidian (e.g. Daphne’s transformation into a laurel).

Are there any other take-aways?

Religious scholars have noted that this myth could represent a cultural memory of pre-Christian beliefs; from the veneration of trees, to the sacred serpent.

Serpents and trees.

Not so bad in Lithuania.

Eden, on the other hand, is a different story…

But the Biblical vilification of nature spirits asides, perhaps the real take-away is this:

Fear is what broke Drebulė;

If only the child would have remained silent,

And waited for her mother

If only the child would have remained silent,

Silent like the trees…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Wooden statues of Eglė and her children in the Druskininkai “Forest Echo” museum, Lithuania

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