Saturday, December 28, 2019

StorySpotting: Princess in the crypt (The Witcher)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Where was the story spotted?

The Witcher, season 1, episode 3 (Betrayer Moon)

What happens?

Pic from here
A cursed princess is turned into a striga, a terrible monster that kills people. In order to break the curse on her, Geralt has to keep her out of her coffin until the rooster crows three times in the morning. At the end of a long and brutal fight all night, he locks himself in the princess' sarcophagus, and thus keeps her out until the light of dawn. When the finally emerges, he finds a transformed princess lying naked on the floor.

What's the story?

Let's skip over the striga folklore, because that is a whole different can of worms. The rest of this plot is pretty well known to storytellers around the world: it's a folktale type known as ATU 307, The Princess in the Coffin.

The basic story is pretty much always the same: a cursed princess crawls out of her coffin/crypt every night and kills people. Whoever wants to break the curse has to avoid being killed for three nights in a row. A young and brave soldier receives life-saving advice from an old man (in exchange for half of his bounty), and survives two nights. On the third night he locks himself in the princess' coffin, and waits until morning, thus breaking the curse, and setting her free. In some versions he marries her; in others, he gets paid in coin.
In some versions the old man who helps the young soldier is a grateful dead person himself. In some versions, as promised, they split the princess in half. (But then they put her back together).

This story is very popular in the Hungarian tradition, I have blogged about it before. You can read a Danish version (The princess in the chest) here, a French version (Jean of Bordeaux) here, a Spanish one (La hija enterrada) here, a Polish-American version (The bewitched princess) here, and a Roma version (The three girls) here. It also exists (and is listed in the ATU catalog) in most of the Baltic countries, the Netherlands, German-speaking countries, all around the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Russia.

Fun fact: This folktale type is often attached to the end of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. After they are found out, in many variants the princesses are executed for sneaking out at night to do witchcraft. Their corpses are buried, and then they start coming back for revenge, until someone breaks the curse.


This story has been a part of my repertoire for a long time (you can watch me tell it in English here). It makes excellent Halloween telling, and teenagers love it. I was thrilled to recognize it in the show.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, that sounds like a good, creepy story. I'm not surprised it was used in The Witcher.
    By the way, I haven't read or watched The Witcher yet, but since the books first came out, I was fascinated with the use of folklore. I really need the time to read it.