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UNDER this heading I propose to notice two stories only. The first of these is called the “Maidens who Bathed in the Moonlight” (Kreutzwald), and is peculiarly tame and inconsequential, but yet exhibits one or two features of special interest which forbid its being passed over altogether.
A young man who had already learned the language of birds and other mysteries, and was still desirous to peer into all sorts of secret knowledge, applied to a famous necromancer1 to initiate him into the secrets hidden under the veil of night. The Finnish sorcerer endeavoured to dissuade him from his purpose; but as he persisted, he told him that on the evening of St. Mark’s Day, which was not far off, the king of the serpents would hold his p. 234 court at a place which he indicated, as was the custom every seven years. There would be a dish of heavenly goat’s-milk before the king, and if the young man could dip a bit of bread in it, and put it in his mouth before taking to flight, he would gain the secret knowledge which he desired.
At the appointed time, the young man went at dusk to a wide moor, where he could see nothing but a number of hillocks. At midnight a bright light shone from one of the hillocks; it was the king’s signal, and all the other snakes, which had been lying like motionless hillocks, uncoiled themselves, and began to move in that direction.1 At last they gathered themselves into a great heap as large as a haycock. The youth at first feared to approach, but at last crept up on tiptoe, when he saw thousands of snakes clustered round a huge serpent with a gold crown on his head. The youth’s blood froze in his veins and his hair stood on end, but he sprang over the heap of hissing serpents, who opened their jaws as he passed, but p. 235 could not disengage themselves quickly enough to strike him. He secured his prize and fled, pursued by the hissing serpents, till he fell senseless; but at the first rays of the sun he woke up, having left the moor four or five miles behind him, and all danger was now over. He slept through the day, to recover himself from the fatigue and fright, and went into the woods in the following night, where he saw golden bathing benches arranged, with silver bath whisks1 and silver basins. Presently the loveliest naked maidens assembled from all quarters, and began to wash themselves in the bright moonlight, while the youth stood behind a bush looking on. They were the wood-nymphs, and the daughters of the Meadow-Queen.2 Towards morning they disappeared suddenly from his sight, and though he visited the woods again night after night, he never again saw either the bathing utensils or the maidens, and pined away in hopeless longing.
1 There has been some discussion as to the right meaning to be put upon the words, Mana tarp (Death-magician), but it appears to me that necromancer is simply a literal rendering.
1 This serpent-gathering so much reserobles those described in the first book of the Maha-Bharata, and in the story of Hasib (or Jamasp) in the Thousand and One Nights, that I have referred the present story to the class of tales of Oriental origin.
1 In Finland and Esthonia they use dried birch-twigs with the leaves attached to whisk themselves with when bathing.
2 See vol. i. p. 13.