Incest in Indo-European Folktales

an essay by

D. L. Ashliman

with electronic texts

copyright 1997

Return to:


  1. All-Kinds-of-Fur

  2. More stories about sexually abused children

  3. Straparola

  4. Basile

  5. A father's unassailable position

  6. Protecting the father's reputation

  7. Shifting the blame

  8. Making a jest of incest

  9. The Electra complex

  10. Suppressing the incest motif

  11. The girl without hands

  12. Therapy for unspeakable problems

  13. Magic help

  14. Running away and hiding

  15. Starting over

  16. More problems

  17. When help fails

  18. A Lithuanian brother wants to marry his sister

  19. Kora and his sister

  20. Conclusion


Once there was a king who had a beautiful golden-haired wife. She fell ill, and--realizing that she soon would die--made her husband promise that after her death he would marry no one who was not as beautiful as she. When the time came for the king to remarry, he could find only one such woman in his kingdom: his own daughter. And he announced his intention to marry her.
Hoping to dissuade him, she asked for a number of rare presents: a coat made from the fur from every kind of animal plus three extraordinary dresses--one resembling the sun, one the moon, and a third the stars. The king fulfilled these wishes and then pressed his marriage demands even more vigorously. The princess now saw only one solution: Packing the beautiful dresses into a nutshell, she blackened her hands and face with soot, covered herself with the coat of many furs, and fled into the forest.
The next day a king's hunting party discovered the runaway, wrapped in her fur coat and hiding in a hollow tree. Because she would tell them nothing about herself, they gave her the name "All-Kinds-of-Fur." The king ordered his men to bind her to a cart and to take her to his castle, where she lived beneath the steps and worked at the hardest tasks in the kitchen. Further, each night she was required to go to her master's bedroom and pull off his boots, whereupon he threw them at her head. The runaway princess's beauty did not remain hidden beneath the soot and fur of her disguise forever. On three occasions she slipped away from her kitchen chores, donned one of her marvelous gowns, and appeared at a royal ball. The king fell in love with her on sight, but no one could identify this mysterious, beautiful woman. All-Kinds-of-Fur impressed her master in other ways as well. Three times she prepared a delicious soup for him, placing a token in each bowl: a golden spinning wheel, a golden spool, and a ring. Finally sensing that there was more to All-Kinds-of-Fur than merely a scullery maid, the king tore off her fur coat. Her golden hair spilled out, and he realized that she had been the mysterious beautiful woman at the royal balls. He then married her, and they lived happily until they died. (Retold from "All-Kinds-of-Fur" --also known as "Allerleirauh." Grimm 1812, no. 65, type 510B.)

The last sentence of the Grimm brothers' "All-Kinds-of-Fur" tells us that this story, like most fairy tales, has a happy ending. But the assurance that "they lived happily until they died," tacked onto a long account of abuse and suffering, is not convincing. The final sentence notwithstanding, this tale is a tragedy, a story that symbolically--but lucidly--portrays the unhappy life of a sexually abused child.

More stories about sexually abused children

The Grimms' "All-Kinds-of-Fur" is not an anthropological curiosity, a surviving remnant of primitive customs practiced in some remote savage culture and unknown to all but professional folklorists. On the contrary, a young woman threatened by the sexual advances of a male relative (usually her father, but sometimes a brother, a brother-in-law, or an uncle) is the leading motif in numerous tales, both literary stories from the medieval period onward and authentic folk narratives from every corner of Europe and beyond. The broad distribution and the longevity of these stories provide evidence that they broach all too common problems of real life.



The oldest surviving account of an All-Kinds-of-Fur type heroine is found in The Facetious Nights (night 1, tale 4) of Giovanni Francesco Straparola, first published at Venice in 1550. Although Straparola's story contains the introductory episode that starts most folktales of type 510B into motion--a widower's incestuous advances toward his daughter, ostensibly prompted by his wife's dying wish--the Italian novelist's version lacks other elements common to most folkloristic renderings: specifically the motifs of the celestial dresses, the persecuted heroine's period of debasing labor, and her anonymous appearances at a festive occasion leading to her discovery by and marriage to a prince. Even more significantly, Straparola's version ends with a happening almost unheard of in European folktales: the execution of the guilty father.


Another early Italian writer who used folklore materials about threatened incest in his fiction was Giambattista Basile. His collection The Pentamerone (1634-36) contains two stories about heroines confronted by the sexual advances of their own relatives--in one instance a brother ("The Girl With the Maimed Hands" (day 3, tale 2, type 706B).and in another a father ("The She-Bear," day 2, tale 6, type 510B). Basile's tales are truer to their oral sources than are those of Straparola; his "The She-Bear" is thus more closely related to the type 510B of folklore than is Straparola's rendering of this material, but it too contains a dramatic turn that is foreign to the folk versions. The heroine of this story, threatened by her widowed father's advances, receives help from an old woman, who gives her a magic chip that, when placed in the girl's mouth, turns her into a ferocious bear. Thus, when the father-king calls his daughter to his bed, hoping finally "to settle the accounts of love," she takes the shape of a terrible bear and approaches him threateningly. Terrified, the king hides himself under the bedclothes until well into the next day, making it possible for the persecuted girl to escape into the woods.

A father's unassailable position

Letting the victim turn on her father, leaving him trembling with fear buried under his bedding, was a clever dramatic turn on Basile's part, but one atypical of European folktales. Reflecting the patriarchal values of the society that used them, these folktales seldom challenge a father's authority to do with the members of his household whatever he pleases. Fairy-tale stepmothers and mothers-in-law are summarily put to death for their wicked deeds, but European storytellers apparently saw little possibility of punishing cruel or abusive fathers, not even those who violate society's strictest taboos. This inconsistency is not entirely a function of gender. Uncles who sexually threaten their nieces can be executed without mercy. For example, in the Finnish tale "The Merchant's Daughter," a man found guilty of attempting to rape his niece is dragged to death behind a stallion, and the title villain of the Italian tale "The Wicked Uncle," who commits a similar offense, is burned to death.


It is, of course, the father's unassailable position within the family that gives stories of type 510B their terrifying credibility. The central figure of "All-Kinds-of-Fur" is a woman, but the first person mentioned in the Grimms' version (and in most other tellings as well) is her father, the king. Often his power and authority are given special emphasis, as for example in Charles Perrault's verse tale "Donkey-Skin": "Once upon a time there was a King who was the most powerful ruler in the whole world." Both the father's lead-off position and his regal rank illustrate the strong patriarchal values that permeate these tales. Patriarchal privilege is further illustrated by the ease with which storytellers absolve fathers of responsibility for their acts. Indeed, in what is probably the oldest father-daughter incest tale on record, the Old Testament story of Lot and his two daughters (Genesis 19:30-38), the blame is entirely removed from the father. The two women, we are told, gave their father wine and slept with him without his knowing what was happening, thus preserving his reputation into New Testament times as "a good man" (2 Peter 2:7-8).


Like other folktales of type 510B, the Grimms' "All-Kinds-of-Fur" is replete with symbolic descriptions of the emotional and physical problems that might plague a sexually abused child throughout her lifetime. The hopelessness of her situation is established early in the tales by her father's uncanny ability to overcome every hindrance placed between him and marriage to his daughter.

The threatened heroine asks for dresses that resemble the moon, the sun, and the stars, hoping that her father's inability to fulfill these wishes will dissuade him from his marriage demands. The fact that the father can easily acquire these dresses patterned after celestial bodies must lead her to believe that the heavens themselves have joined in a conspiracy against her, leaving her no alternative but to flee.

In keeping with this cosmic view, in some variants the heroine requests a self-propelled, or even an airborne carriage as a precondition to marriage. The father meets even these seemingly impossible demands with little difficulty, illustrating once again his awesome power. Ultimately, however, the threatened heroine turns these items to her own advantage, using the flying carriage as an escape vehicle and the beautiful dresses as an aid in attracting a husband whose power equals or even exceeds that of her father.


Protecting the father's reputation

Some storytellers protect a father's good reputation by letting him be unaware of the natural relationship between himself and the object of his desires, however illogical this situation may appear. Thus, the Chilean tale "The Little Stick Figure" begins:

There was once a woman who had a little girl by a certain gentleman. When this man returned some time later, he didn't recognize the girl as his daughter, and as she grew up, he fell in love with her. Her mother had let her know that the man was her father, so she respected him as her father. But as they had never said a word to him, he followed the lovely girl day and night, leaving her no peace (Pino-Saavedra, Folktales of Chile, no. 20, type 510B).

Similarly, a Kentucky version, "Little Cat Skin," tells how a romantic entanglement between a girl and her father--ostensibly without his knowledge of the filial relationship--leads to her forced departure from home. Like the Chilean folktale cited above, this migrant story adds a distinct New World accent to the original European motifs. The variant from the mountains of Kentucky begins:

My mammy used to tell me this here olden tale when I helped her work. Her granny told it to her whenever she was little. The tale starts with a man that had a woman and three girls. The woman died, and he put her wedding dress away real careful, saying he wouldn't never marry 'til he could find a woman as pretty as her. The oldest girls growed off to be hateful and got fine clothes and traipsed about the country. The youngest one they treated bad, and her wearing clothes got so plumb wore out she patched them up with cat hide. That was how she came to be named Little Cat Skin. One day, whenever her sisters had traipsed off, and her pap was working in the corn patches, Little Cat Skin dressed up in her mammy's wedding dress and went by where her pap was hoeing corn. He begged her to tell him who she were, and she said she would iffen he got her a dress the color of all the clouds that went by. He done it, and then she said she wouldn't never tell lessen he got her a dress the color of all the flowers that bloom. He done it, and she said, "It's me, Little Cat Skin." That made her pap ramping mad, and he ran her off from home. She tied up her pretty dresses in a budget and went to hire out to the queen. The queen put her to work amongst the niggers, but she flew to work and redded up the place and cooked so good the queen liked her right off. (Marie Campbell, Tales from the Cloud Walking Country, pp. 82-83, type 510B)

Another device used by European storytellers to preserve fathers' blamelessness is to let the offensive male be a father figure, but not her natural father. For example, in the version of "Donkey Skin" contained in the French collection of literary fairy tales The Fairies' Cabinet, the beautiful princess who attracts the widowed king's attention is specifically described as "his adopted daughter, who had lived in the palace since she was a baby" (as quoted by Lang, The Grey Fairy Book, p. 2).

Shifting the blame

A common motif in tales of threatened incest is the promise extracted from the king by his dying wife. This promise, combined in many tales with subsequent acts of the daughter, further helps to protect the father's reputation by shifting the responsibility for his incestuous advances elsewhere, most often to the deceased queen, since the king can fulfill the promise made at her behest only by marrying his own daughter.

In some variants, responsibility for the father's incestuous advances is symbolically shifted toward the victim herself. Several Italian versions, for example, describe how a dying queen urges her husband to remarry, but only a woman whom her ring fits. He, however, can find no such person and gives up his search for a new bride. Of her own volition, his daughter tries on the ring, and it fits perfectly. Only after discovering the fateful ring on her finger does the father approach his daughter.


The Gaelic tale "The King Who Wished To Marry His Daughter," using similar symbolic devices, lets the daughter, unwittingly or intentionally (listeners can decide for themselves), set events into motion that lead to her father's advances:

There was a king before now, and he married, and he had but one daughter. When his wife departed, he would marry none but one whom her clothes would fit. His daughter one day tried her mother's dress on, and she came and she let her father see how it fitted her. It was fitting her well. When her father saw her he would marry no woman but her (J. F. Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, vol. 1, pp. 226-231, type 510B).

The daughter's initiative in trying on the deceased mother's clothing, shoes, or ring and then presenting herself to the father could well be interpreted as a symbolic invitation for intimate engagement.

In other stories, a father's guilt is totally removed, for example the Greek legend of the birth of Adonis:

Because Smyrna (also known as Myrrha) failed to give proper honor to Aphrodite, the goddess of love cursed her with an uncontrollable lust for her father, King Cinyras. With the help of her nurse, Myrrha tricked her father into sleeping with her for twelve nights. He was outraged when he discovered what had happened, and she took flight to escape his wrath. He followed, sword in hand. As he was about to overtake her, the gods rescued her by turning her into a tree (known even today as the myrrh tree). Nine months later the tree split open and gave birth the baby Adonis. (Retold from Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, book III, sections 183-184.)

There are more similarities than differences between the Greek myth of Smyrna and the German tale of All-Kinds-of-Fur. In each case the forbidden love results from the influence of an outside party (the goddess Aphrodite in one case, and a dying wife in the other), effectively removing blame from the father, a great and powerful king. The girl in each instance is a victim of circumstances beyond her control, and ultimately her only recourse is to flee. In each story she finds refuge in a tree. However, the Greek story, taken at face value, leaves little doubt that the daughter herself desired and initiated the relationship. Ovid's classical retelling of this "horrible" story, as he himself labels it, leaves no doubt as to the daughter's responsibility and guilt. In fact, his version depicts her metamorphosis into a tree not as a desperate escape from a threatening father but rather as a self-willed act of penance for her wicked act (Metamorphoses, book 10, verses 298-559).

Making a jest of incest

In a widespread, but heavily tabooed group of bawdy tales and jests, similar intimacies are presented in a straightforward fashion. In the Russian story "The Comb," for example, a priest's daughter was seduced by a hired hand, when she accepted his offer to "comb" her. Sometime later the worker left, and the girl found herself wanting another "comb." When she discovered that her father had a similar implement, she unabashedly asked him for it. In the words of the narrator: "The priest lit into her: 'Why, you little tramp! Just look, Mother, I bet she's lost her cherry!' 'Very well, Father,' said the priest's wife, 'you'd better check her out thoroughly.'" The priest mounted his daughter and with the mother shouting instructions to the girl ("Get those legs higher!"), the sex act was consummated. "And so," the narrator concludes, "the girl found her 'comb.' And from that day the priest began 'combing' both of them. He provided a plaything for them both, and lived happily ever after."


The Electra complex

Ovid urges daughters and fathers alike to hold themselves aloof from his story of "Myrrha and Cinyras," continuing that if they insist on believing that such an unspeakable thing indeed ever happened, then the punishment that followed was equally real. In spite of this disclaimer, Ovid's detailed description leaves little room to question Myrrha's act and her motivation. She is, indeed a victim, but in these instances of her own psychological and sexual drives, not of some exploitative male.

Other stories are more complicated in this regard. For example, in some variants of the "All-Kinds-of-Fur" type, the depiction of the daughter's symbolic initiation into a forbidden relationship can be interpretted as a veiled expression of a young woman's hidden sexual attraction for her father. In fact, it has been argued that folktales dealing with father-daughter incest often reflect a psychological projection of unresolved Oedipal feelings. According to these arguments, the mother's death (a motif that introduces virtually all tales of type 510B) is a consequence of fantasy wish fulfillment. Electra complex envy of the mother's relationship to the father has an easy resolution in fairy tales: Let the mother die, and even let her extract a promise from the father that will justify a sexual union between him and his daughter. However, because the young woman cannot openly admit that she herself desires this union, she projects her forbidden urges into her father, thus experiencing the event as though he and not she were the principal instigator of the relationship.


The description of the fleeing daughter's "rescue" gives further credence to a psychological projection interpretation of type 510B tales. The man who discovers and ultimately marries the runaway princess closely resembles the girl's own father. He too is a king, exerting despotic, patriarchal authority over his household.

Even the exceptions to this rule support the argument that the father and the future husband are easily identified with one another. The Finnish variant, "The Merchant's Daughter," for example, breaks with tradition by casting the threatening father as a merchant rather than as a king. And significantly, the man who discovers and later marries the runaway daughter is also a merchant. Not only do the young women's future spouses resemble their fathers in rank and disposition, in addition the tales are often told in such a way as to make it easy to confuse the identities of the first master and the second master (if indeed the two are different).

I often encounter students who read "All-Kinds-of-Fur" with the understanding that the king who found the heroine hiding in the hollow tree and who ultimately married her, was none other than her own father. Countless listeners from the past must have understood the story in this same way, thus turning it into an account of consummated sexual attraction between father and daughter.

Suppressing the incest motif

Many stories have all the trappings of a type 510B tale, except that the threatening advances come from a person not identified as the heroine's father. For example, in the English story "Mossycoat" (Briggs and Tongue, Folktales of England, no. 4) it is a peddler who makes the unwelcome marriage proposals. The story does not explain why she simply cannot say "no" but must instead put him off through requests for marvelous dresses and finally must flee from him. These tales too are dealing with sexually molested children, but the storytellers suppress the fact that the threat is coming from within the girl's own household.

Often the nature of the conflict between daughter and father (or father figure) is presented in a manner that suppresses virtually all remnants of the incest taboo. For example, the plot of a British variant of "Catskin" gets underway when "a great gentleman" disowns his infant daughter because he wanted a male heir. The title heroine of "Tattercoats," must leave her grandfather's palace because he allows the servants to mistreat her. In yet another English tale, "Cap o' Rushes," a father forces his daughter into exile after she insults him with her well intended statement that she loves him as much as salt. In an ostensibly authentic (but obviously rewritten) folktale published by Ludwig Bechstein, the female protagonist vainly and selfishly forces her father to squander his wealth on cosmic dresses and to give his life for a magic wand. Having brought about her father's impoverishment and death, she must depart into the world wearing a dress of crow skins.


Although these tales have contrived, bowdlerized beginnings, they progress in much the fashion as do those that unashamedly present the conflict for what it is: a father's attempt to cohabit with his daughter. It is to the Grimms' credit that their version of "All-Kinds-of-Fur" makes no effort to suppress the nature of the conflict between the king and his daughter, in spite of the deeply rooted taboos. In fact, their tale was considered so blunt that one English translator quietly altered the beginning, removing the threat of incest as follows. Instead of announcing his intention to marry his daughter, he says to his councilors: "I will marry my daughter to one of you, and she shall be queen." This altered beginning destroys the logic of the remainder of the story, but incest is not a topic that everyone can deal with directly.


The girl without hands

Many fairy tales owe their longevity to an ability to address tabooed subjects in a symbolic manner. One folktale family in particular exhibits a long and widespread tradition for the symbolic reflection of the "secret" crime of incest: type 706, "The Girl without Hands." The Grimms' version of this gruesome story is typical of variants collected throughout Europe and beyond:

One day a poor miller went into the forest to gather wood. A stranger approached him, saying: "I will make you rich if you will promise me what is standing behind your mill." Thinking that he was risking only an apple tree, the miller agreed. Arriving home, he was met by his astonished wife, who informed him that their house was now filled with wealth. Upon hearing about the bargain with the stranger, the miller's wife answered: "That was the devil, and he did not mean the apple tree, but our daughter, who was sweeping the yard behind the mill." The miller's daughter was a beautiful and pious girl who lived without sin, and when the devil came for her, he could not touch her. Angered, he threatened the miller: "Chop off her hands, or else I will take you yourself." Seeing her father's plight, the girl held out her hands, saying: "Father, dear, do with me what you will. I am your child." And the miller cut off her hands. Then he said to her: "Because of you I am wealthy. Now I want to take the best care of you, for as long as you live." But she answered: "I cannot stay here," and she set forth on foot. Ultimately her suffering and virtue were rewarded. She married a prince, bore children, and after much travail miraculously regained her hands. (Retold from "The Girl without Hands" (Grimm, no. 31, type 706.)

The loss of one's hands is a very compelling symbolic statement. It is easy to see how a child, abused by the principal authority figure in her household--the individual who should be her most powerful protector--could see herself as being without hands, the human extensions that most directly allow us to manipulate and control the world outside ourselves. The father's mutilation of his daughter (or in some variants, a brother's mutilation of his sister) and her subsequent exile are not well motivated in most tellings of "The Girl without Hands," but precisely therein lies the story's proven power. Depending upon the individual needs of a given storyteller or listener, the tale can seem to reflect almost any abuse of family authority.

Sexual molestation, of course, is one such abuse, and many tellings of the story spell this out explicitly. The Grimms note one such variant in the notes to their tales: "The father wanted to take his own daughter as a wife, and when she refused, he cut off her hands (and breasts), had her put on a white shift, and drove her out into the world."


A folktale collected in West Virginia more than a century later ("The Girl with No Hands" (Musick, Green Hills of Magic, no. 33, type 706) has essentially the same beginning: A king wants to marry his daughter, is refused, and orders her execution. The executioners cannot complete their cruel task, but they do cut off the girl's hands, leaving her--they assume--to perish.

In a variation on this theme, the title heroine of Basile's "The Girl with the Maimed Hands," confronted by the sexual advances of her brother (the king!), has her own hands cut off and sent to her unwelcome suitor as a gruesome gift.

Although all type 706 tales are discomforting and violent, many variants suppress the incest motif, giving instead any of several other motivating factors leading to the girl's mutilation, such as in-law or stepmother problems, religious bigotry, a father's rescue from imminent disaster, arbitrary cruelty, or--the case of the Grimms' tale--the enrichment of an impoverished father. The Grimms' version typifies the genre, both in its ambiguous description of the conflict between father and daughter and in its failure to motivate the mutilated girl's departure from home. Ambiguity in folktales, especially those dealing with tabooed subjects, is a virtue, not a weakness.


Therapy for unspeakable problems

I do not doubt that projective inversion, as described above, has contributed to the longevity and the broad dissemination of the folktales dealing with father-daughter incest. These folktales undoubtedly owe part of their popularity to the fact that they answer a variety of human needs. Their rich ambiguity suggests multiple interpretations. They provide positive emotional responses to diverse problems. These stories could indeed bring psychological comfort to a young woman troubled by unresolved Oedipal desires, but I would not want such a reading to deflect attention from the principal source (in my opinion) of the tales' popularity and longevity: their depiction of problems ensuing from the sexual abuse of a child. However common such abuse may have been among our European forebears, their frequent use of incest motifs in folktales and their graphic descriptions of the victims' subsequent suffering indicate that the associated fears and anxieties were both widespread and deep.

Magic help

The girl is not always left alone in her confrontation with her father. Often a friendly older woman--a substitute mother--helps her to temporarily repel the father and aids her in her escape. In some instances the heroine's mother herself helps the young woman escape. For example, in "Helga and the Dwarf," a tale from Iceland (Schier, Märchen aus Island, no. 17), a woman, sensing that she will soon die, gives her daughter a magic awl, an implement that later makes possible her escape from her father's sexual advances. Similarly, the threatened heroine of Basile's "The She-Bear" receives a magic stick from an old woman, a magic stick that turns the girl into a bear when she places it in her mouth, thus reversing the power relationship between her and her father and enabling her to to escape. In many stories the role of magic is limited to the beautiful dresses (normally patterned after sun, moon, and stars) that the girl has acquired while attempting to thwart her father's incestuous plans. These dresses--symbols of a feminine beauty that until now has brought only pain to the heroine--are magically stored for a hopefully better future (in the Grimms' version they are put into a nutshell) while the heroine makes her escape dressed in a thoroughly unfeminine garb.

Running away and hiding

The heroine's escape is never to any particular person or place, but only away--away from home and in a real sense away from herself. Every stage of her flight is marked by intense feelings of shame. She typically alters her appearance by smearing her face with soot, and attempts to hide herself from the outside world by enveloping herself in a grotesque cloak. Her self-imposed unattractive appearance is a central symbol in most tales of type 510B, often providing the titles themselves, for example: "All-Kinds-of-Fur," "Ashgirl, Trashgirl," "The Bark Girl," "The Pelt Girl," "The Princess in the Suit of Leather," "Donkey-Skin," "The Little Stick Figure," "Mossycoat," "Stubblepelt," and "Wooden Maria."


Whereas the persecuted girls in most of these tales hide their femininity under grotesque robes, one such heroine alters her gender even more completely: In "Florinda," a tale from Chile (Pino-Saavedra, Folktales of Chile, no. 21), the heroine escapes from her lecherous father by disguising herself as a man, carrying the ploy so far that she actually marries another woman. Her father continues to pursue her. She is finally rescued when her magic crucifix miraculously and permanently turns her into a man. Florinda can thus proclaim at the story's happy conclusion, "I've become a man by the grace of God." But most abused girls do not have this option, not even in the fantasy world of fairy tales.


Starting over

The runaway princess nearly always relinquishes the comfort and status of her royal birth for the harsh life of a lowly servant, although a given story's plot may not demand this change of status. The princess in the Austrian tale "Broomthrow, Brushthrow, Combthrow" (Reiffenstein, Österreichische Märchen, no. 32, type 510B) escapes from her father's castle with her own servants and several wagons filled with precious things. But, upon leaving the area of her father's jurisdiction, she abandons her servants and valuables, and takes a position as a kitchen helper. The storyteller does not explain this unusual act, but the psychological motivation behind these tales obviously requires that the abused woman give up all the privileges of her father's position when she makes her escape.

The heroine's need to escape from her own past is further indicated by her steadfast refusal to reveal her identity to the king who discovers her, both in the early stages of her "rescue" and also later on during her mysterious appearances at the royal balls. In many versions she not only avoids giving her name, but refuses to speak at all. Psychotic behavior of this sort is perfectly believable for one who has just been sexually threatened by the man who should have been her closest and most powerful protector, her own father.

More problems

In most of these stories, the heroine's frightening home life is only a prelude for later abuse and exploitation. For example, the Austrian story, "The Refound Sons," (Reiffenstein, Österreichische Märchen, no. 41, type 706) describes how a young woman flees by water from her father's incestuous advances, but is then threatened by the ship's lecherous crew. Only the intervention of a God-sent storm saves her. Significantly, in most stories the abuse of the heroine does not subside after she is found and taken home by the man who later marries her. On the contrary, her new master typically exploits her in the cruelest fashion, often in ways that can be interpreted sexually.

The following quotation from a variant found in the Grimms' manuscript collection shows that the heroine's new master was interested in more than just her abilities in cleaning and cooking:

When she came to his room the king said, "You are a very beautiful child; come sit in my chair, so I can lay my head in your lap, and you can louse me a little." All-Kinds-of-Fur was ashamed, and for awhile she could say nothing at all. "I am nothing but a poor child whose father and mother are dead." But he insisted, until at last she sat down and loused him, and from that time on, she had to cook his soup for him and louse him every day. One day when he was lying in her lap, he saw the beautiful dress with stars through the sleeve of her rough coat. Then he ripped off her coat, and a beautiful princess stood before him (Grimm, Märchen aus dem Nachlaß, pp. 50-51).

Although less explicitly sexual than the above variant, the version of "All-Kinds-of-Fur" published by the Grimms in the first edition of their fairy tales also contains allusions to sexual and physical abuse. In this version, the servant girl must go to her master's bedroom every night and pull off his boots, only to have him throw them at her head. The Grimms omitted this episode from later editions. They did, however, retain allusions to the boot-throwing incidents, letting All-Kinds-of-Fur self-demeaningly say: "I am good for nothing but to have boots thrown at my head." Similar motifs of violence are central to variants found throughout Europe, and by extension in the New World.

The catalog of abusive acts perpetrated against the heroines by their future husbands includes--in addition to having boots thrown at one's head--being poked with a poker, puffed with a bellows, and struck with a stick; lashed with a whip, hit with a blanket, and kicked with a spur; and struck with a broom, a brush, and a comb, to mention but a few examples. Not even in the world of fantasy, does a sexually mistreated child escape further exploitation and abuse by running away from home. It is not difficult to understand why the heroines of these tales besmear their faces with soot and hide their bodies under grotesque fur coats.


Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of "All-Kinds-of-Fur" and other tales of this type is the apparent passivity with which the heroines accept the verbal abuse, the physical blows, and the sexual harassment dealt to them by their future husbands. Not only do they forgivingly subject themselves to this mistreatment, but they themselves initiate contacts with the very men who are abusing them. This pursuit is described only in symbols, but they are not difficult to interpret.

The first indication that All-Kinds-of-Fur wishes to draw her new master's attention to her physical beauty, comes when the deposed princess appears at a royal ball in her beautiful dresses. Still scarred by the encounters with her father, she is not yet willing to enter into a personal relationship with a man, and she leaves the dances early, keeping her identity a secret. But still, acting on her own initiative, she does display her feminine beauty before the king.

She further attracts the king's attention by preparing outstanding meals for him and leaving tokens in his soup dish, an act that leads to the king's discovery of her real beauty and makes possible their marriage. The items used by All-Kinds-of-Fur in revealing her identity and preparing the way for her marriage have obvious and significant symbolic meaning: beautiful dresses, delicious meals, miniature household implements, and a ring. She sees feminine beauty, domestic skills, and marital fidelity as her principal, if not her only bargaining chips in her quest for security and status. For her, as for virtually all fairy-tale heroines, these can be acquired only through marriage. She accepts this situation, even if it means marrying a man who--following the example set by her father--has abused her almost continuously from the day they first met.

When help fails

A Lithuanian brother wants to marry his sister

However, the help rendered by others is, in most tales, too little and too late to prevent major conflicts, and in some instances assistance is denied altogether. The following Lithuanian tale gives a particularly graphic presentation of the nightmare a girl might experience when threatened by a relative (here a brother) and refused protection by other family members:

An old woman and an old man had two daughters and two sons. One daughter was ugly, and the other was beautiful. The younger brother decided to marry the beautiful one. But she did not want to. She cried and did not want to. She washed her silk cloths and went to the water and rinsed them. She rinsed and cried. It was cold. Her hands and feet were freezing. She came home and knocked on the door, but it was locked. She knocked on her mother's window, and her mother answered: "I'll let you in if you will call me mother-in-law." She knocked on her father's window, and he answered: "I'll let you in if you will call me father-in-law." She knocked on her older brother's window, and he answered: "I'll let you in if you will call me brother-in-law." She knocked on her sister's window, and she answered: "I'll let you in if you will call me sister-in-law." She knocked on her younger brother's window, and he let her in. He hugged her and kissed her, and she said: "Let the earth open up and swallow me!" And the earth did open up, and she sank up to her knees and then up to her neck. Her brother grabbed her by the hair and pulled it out, but she escaped into an underground kingdom. After much suffering she came to a mansion, where she worked as a servant. The young lord liked her and married her, and she did not have to marry her brother. (Retold from "A Brother Wants to Marry His Sister, Range, Lithauische Volksmärchen, no. 28, type 313E*.)

Kora and his sister

The story of "Kora and His Sister" from India is similarly terrifying:

There were seven brothers and one sister, who was the youngest of the family. The six eldest brothers were married, but no wife had been found for the youngest, whose name was Kora. At last Kora planted a flowering plant and declared that he would marry any maiden who picked one of the flowers and put it in her hair.
One day Kora's sister took hold of one of the flowers and longed to pick it. Her mother scolded her, but the girl begged to see what the forbidden flower would look like in her hair. There could be no harm done if she pulled the whole plant up by its roots and put it in her hair and then replanted it. No one would know what had happened. In spite of her mother's warnings she insisted on doing this. Then having seen how the flower looked in her hair, she carefully replanted it. When Kora came home he knew at once that someone had worn the flower. His mother had to admit that it had been his sister.
The girl began to cry when she saw that she was found out. Her father said that it was fated that she and Kora should marry. The unfortunate girl saw that flight was her only escape, so she ran away. She traveled for many days, and one day she stopped by a pool to bathe. She collected the scurf that she rubbed off her skin and put it on the ground, and a palm tree sprang up from it and grew rapidly into a large tree. The girl climbed up it and then begged the tree to grow so tall that no one would be able to find her, and the tree grew until it reached an unusual height. Meanwhile her parents and brothers concluded that the girl must have drowned herself in some river.
Time passed, and one day a peddler girl stopped to rest beneath the tree. Kora's sister asked her to give her a fan in exchange for a bracelet. They made the exchange, and the peddler girl went on her way. One day she happened to go to the house where Kora lived. They recognized the bracelet and offered to give her a basket of rice if she would tell them who had given it to her. She told them everything. The father and mother went to the tree and begged their daughter to come down. They promised not to marry her to her brother, but she would not come down. Then all her other relatives came, but she would not listen to them either. So they went away and invoked a storm to come to their aid. Cold rain fell until the girl was soaked and shivering, and the wind blew and swayed the palm tree so that its top kept touching the ground. At last she could bear the cold and wet no more and, seizing an opportunity when the tree touched the ground, she slipped off. Her relatives had made all the villagers promise not to let her into their houses, so when she called out at house after house, no one answered her or opened to her. Then she went to her own home, and there also they refused to open to her.
Kora had lit a big fire in the cow house and sat by it, knowing that the girl would have to come to him. She could find no shelter elsewhere, and had to go to his fire. She sat and warmed herself, thinking, "I fled for fear of this man, and now I have come back to him. This is the end. I can no longer stay in this world." When she was warmed, she lay down by Kora's side, and then she cut her throat with his nail-cutter. Her death struggles aroused him, and when he saw that she had killed herself with his nail-cutter, he cut his throat in the same way. In the morning the two corpses were found lying side by side, and it was seen that their blood had flowed in opposite directions.
They took the bodies away and laid them on one pyre; and when the fire was lit, the smoke from the two bodies rose separately into the air. All who saw it said, "We wished to marry brother and sister, but see how their blood would not mingle, and how their smoke rises in two separate columns. It is plain that the marriage of brother and sister is wrong." From that time such marriages have been discontinued. ("Kora and His Sister," Bompas, Folklore of the Santal Parganas, no. 50.

This terrible story is rich in symbolism: A forbidden flower, bath-water sludge, a life-saving magic tree, a life-threatening storm, and--finally--blood and smoke that flow their separate ways. The forbidden flower motif removes guilt from Kora and his family. The victim (who significantly has no name), it can be argued, brings misfortune on herself by acting recklessly, and in direct contradiction to her mother's warnings. She should have foreseen the consequences of her deed. As was the case with Allerleirau, the point of no return is soon reached, and then the threatened female has no recourse but to flee. She does not run to any place of refuge, but rather away from a community that has failed to protect her. Allerleirau hides her shame beneath a shapeless fur robe. Kora's sister symbolically washes away her guilt. The filth that she scrapes from her body magically grows into the tree that hides her from her tormentors. She survives for a time, but ultimately a conspiracy between social norms and the powers of nature literally bring her down. This fateful conspiracy leaves her no choice but to seek shelter and protection from the very person whom she most fears. Unlike most of its European counterparts, this tale does not offer a magic solution. There is no fairy godmother, no magic dresses, no glass slipper. Her only escape is suicide, but her sacrifice is not in vain. The community that failed to protect her observes the miracle of the blood and the smoke that would not mingle, and they resolve that never again will a sister be forced to marry her brother.


The last sentence in the Grimm brothers' "All-Kinds-of-Fur" assures us that "they lived happily until they died," but the long history of exploitation and suffering that preceded their marriage belies this claim. This is not a story of happiness and fulfillment, but rather one of coping and surviving. Countless generations from many nations must have responded to this tale of abuse in much the same manner as Alessandro Falassi's respondents in twentieth-century Italy: They did not like the story very much, but still they told it (Folklore by the Fireside, p. 46).

"The story of Donkey-Skin is hard to believe," says Perrault at the conclusion of his version, "but as long as there are children, mothers and grandmothers in this world, its memory will be preserved."

Original French:

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Revised November 14, 1997.