Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Basil Maiden (Feminist Folktales 6.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Puerto Rico

The story

A poor man (or woman) has three daughters who go out into the garden to water the basil plants every day. They are noticed by the king who loves riddles, and he calls in over the fence, asking how many leaves are on the plants. The two elder sisters blush and flee, but the youngest respond without batting an eye, asking him how many stars are in the sky (or grains of sand on the beach, fish in the sea, etc.). The king takes a liking to her, and a prank war ensues. He disguises himself as a candy seller, and gives her candy in exchange for kisses. In revenge, when the king gets sick the girl disguises herself as Death and shows up at this door. The king begs for his life, and she says if he kisses the ass of her donkey / pig / dog, he'll get as many years as kisses. The king plants several kisses on the animal, which she reminds him of the next day. The king admits he's been outwitted, and marries the clever girl.
(In some variants there are other scenes after this, such as the "come to me walking but not walking, dressed but not dressed" story, or the part where they have a fight and the queen is sent away with "take whatever is dearest to your heart".)

What makes it a feminist folktale?

I love two things about this story: One, that it has a sassy, clever, confident heroine, and the other, that she is matched equally by the king. In similar tale types it is very common that a king, humiliated in a battle of wits, tries to get the girl killed or maimed. Sadly, this is also common in real life, where men respond to teasing or defeat (or a simple "no") with aggression and violence. Quoting Margaret Atwood here:

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.
Women are afraid men will kill them.

In this story, however, the opposite happens. This is playful flirting between two equal, and equally interested parties, and when the girl executes an awesome prank, the king gleefully admits that he can't defeat her, and falls in love with her for her humor and wits. A man who is capable of laughing at himself, and graciously accepting defeat by a woman, is an important role model to the next generations.
This story is also about sexuality, in a symbolic way. The girls are locked into their house under strict parental supervision (sometimes even underground). Basil planted in the window or garden is a traditional symbol of sexual maturity. The girls are beginning to look over the fence, but while the two elders are still too shy and not ready to engage, the youngest girl starts to flirt with the king with ease and confidence. This is continued in the kissing scene (see below), in which she gives kisses to the handsome, disguised king, and receives sweets in return. Her sisters are scandalized, but she enjoys the exchange and does not worry about it one bit. The Basil Maiden is comfortable with her own sexuality, takes enjoyment in it, and she is not prudish or ashamed by this. She has fun with the banter, the flirting, and the exchange of pranks. She is having fun, being herself, she knows what she wants, and the king is an equal, accepting partner in this. Humor can be a wonderful part of a healthy relationship.

Things worth considering

Some parents might be concerned about the "giving a stranger kisses for candy" part of this story, because of its similarity to real life safety issues. This is probably not a problem with adult audiences, but if you are not comfortable with it for whatever reason, the good news is, this tale type has many variants where the pranks are different. One of my favorites is Violetta from the Pentamerone (read here), where the prince makes her believe she has fleas, and asks her how many fleas she has.


This tale belongs to the type ATU 879 (Basil Maiden). Interestingly enough it is almost nonexistent in northern Europe, but it is wildly popular around the Mediterranean, and in Hispanic traditions. Read Turandot's Sisters for more information on its significance.

William Bernard McCarthy: Cinderella in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007.)
John Bierhorst: Latin American Folktales (Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2007.)
Rafael Ramírez de Arellano: Folklore portorriqueño (Avila, 1926.)
Giuseppe Pitré: Catarina the Wise (University of Chicago Press, 2017.)
Wayland Debs Hand: Hispanic folktales from New Mexico (University of California Press, 1977.)
Rodolfo Lenz: Cuentos de adivinanzas corrientes en Chile (Imprenta Universitaria, 1912.)


In Spanish death, la muerte, is feminine, which is why it makes sense for her to dress up as Death. In other versions, however, she dresses up as Saint Anthony.

1 comment:

  1. I love this one, and agree that the king is just as important a role model as the young woman. It's not enough to raise smart, confident girls; we also have to raise boys who value smart, confident girls (and are smart and confident, themselves).