Note: If you want to believe that all folktales carry the ancient, universal wisdom of our Ancestors, do not Google "wife beating folktales." It is a depressing lineup.
So, for today, I included both (kinda) positive examples, and stories that we should think about, and maybe re-imagine.
The Woman and the King's Treasury
One of the more positive tales comes from a collection of stories from Syrian refugees. In it, a kind and little simple woman is abused by her husband, until one day he throws her out of the home. She wanders away, and accidentally witnesses two thieves dividing up treasure they stole from the King. She tells her husband, who takes the treasure, covers his tracks, and threatens her into silence. She decides to stand up for herself, and goes to report it all to the King - the thieves and the husband are arrested, the woman gets half the treasure, and she can live in wealth and peace for the rest of her life.
(Read this story in Timeless Tales)
In this Vietnamese legend, a childless couple quarrels a lot until the husband beats the wife in a fit of rage. She runs away, meets a kind man, and lives with him as his wife for a while. One day her former husband appears as a beggar, and she hides him in a haystack. Her new husband comes home and goes to work on the fields - starting by burning the haystack. Desperate, she throws herself into the flames too, and the new husband kills himself out of guilt. All three become Gods of the Hearth by the Jade Emperor's order.
(Read the story here)
The Siren Wife
In this Italian folktale, a sailor husband returns home after a long absence to find that his wife has become a rich man's lover. He takes her out to sea and throws her into the water to drown. Instead, she becomes a siren (it is implied that sirens are women who died from abuse of some sort), and spends her time luring men to their watery death with her siren-sisters. One day they lure her own husband into the sea, but she takes pity on him and saves his life. In return, he decides to save hers, and makes a deal with the fairies of the land to break the curse on her.
(Read the story in Italo Calvino's folktale collection)
The tale of Aso Yaa
I have mentioned Aso in earlier posts, but I am mentioning her again. In this tale, she is a poor woman lying at the side of the road covered in sores and ulcers, until Ananse comes along, sees the beauty in her eyes, and takes her in, miraculously peeling off her sores and making her beautiful. She lives with him as his wife, but when he goes on a long trading journey, he returns to find that she has been sleeping with other men. The tale at this point says that any man would have beat her for this, but Ananse was patient... They have a fight, and later in the evening Ananse shows up at a dance party where Aso is dancing, calls her out in front of everyone, and releases the sores from his magic calabash back onto her body.
This is a very complex story, and I am really tempted to play around with it. On the one hand, it talks of trust and betrayal, but on the other hand, it implies that a man who is kind to a woman in need can feel entitled to her body. There is a lot to think about.
(Read this story in West African folktales)
In this Italian folktale collected in America, the abuse of a woman by her husband is described in great realistic detail, and witnessed by their little son. The man finally strangles his wife in a fit of drunken rage, after which Dark Men appear in the house and tear him limb from limb. That night, the boy find a trap door in his room, and takes a trip into Hell, where is told his mother is in Heaven, and he witnesses his father being tortured by the Dark Men in various ways for his cruelty.
(Read the story in this book)
The wife who would not be beaten
This is folktale type ATU 888A, known all over India. A prince will only marry a woman who agrees to be beaten every morning and evening. A woman marries him, but at the first beating she refuses to submit, telling him he has to prove himself first. When he fails spectacularly at a trading expedition, and becomes a slave, his wife rescues her through cunning and courage. The next time he wants to beat her, she reminds him of how she saved her, and he never attempts a beating again.
(Read one version of the story in this book)
Physician in spite of himself
Folktale type ATU 1641B. A husband beats his wife, and she takes revenge on him by telling the King he is a doctor, but he likes to hide his life-saving talents, and only prescribes medicine when he is beaten first. The husband gets a sound and repeated beating.
(See tale XCVIII in this collection, in German. Not all versions of the tale type feature the abuse-and-revenge storyline - in a lot of them, the wife is simply foolish. The motif number for the "will work when beaten" trope is J1545.1)
In this delightful Egyptian folktale, a man is told by his friend that he has to beat his wife at least once to teach her who is the "master of the house." In order to create an excuse to beat her, the husband orders her to cook a bunch of fish, planning to beat her for not preparing the fish the way he wanted. She prepares the fish in carious different ways, and while she is doing so, her toddler poops on the floor next to the table. She covers the pile with a bowl just as her husband walks through the door. He keeps asking for different kinds of fish, and she keeps serving them right away. Finally he says "shit!" in confusion, and she triumphantly lifts the bowl: "We have that too!"
(You can find the folktale in this book, and also other versions here)
Shout out: Joy at the Joyous Living blog has been doing an amazing A to Z theme on child abuse and sexual assault awareness.
What do you think about these stories? Would you tell them? Would you change them? How? Do any other stories come to mind?