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There is a tension in the Urvashi myth which turns up in many other such stories: the wife is mostly willing to be with the man she loves, but is also drawn back to her own life, and her supernatural role. Versions of this tale crop up all over the world, from the Japanese and Inuit fox maidens to the seal wife of the Scots , to the various Native American ones including a deer wife.

In these stories, the man often steals her animal skin or feathered cloak, in the swan version and she has to get it back before she can return to her own kind.

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Often, too, she bears a child, who either returns with her or becomes a great hunter or shaman, due to his half-supernatural heritage. Fass Leavy is interested in these stories insofar as they illuminate the lives and worldviews of their tellers. As well as mythology, she delves into literature, the movies, and popular culture, to show just how common this story is. Swan maidens bathing — from the Eddic poem Volundarkvida.

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Painting by Jenny Nysrtrom, Wikimedia. She also explores varying attitudes towards the swan maiden, as well as variants on the type, in three later chapters of the book.

The first looks at the swan maiden and incubus. The second deals with the animal bride story, all the way from versions with a hunter who inadvertently kills his animal bride, through to swan maidens who thoughtfully leave directions as to where their husbands can find them. Why exactly supernatural women find human men and human life so appealing in the first place is one of the questions raised in this chapter.

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The Irish tale of Macha is a good example: her husband causes her death when he violates her request never to boast of her. The third variation is one in which the swan maiden has to choose between mortal and immortal spouses. The Greek Alcmene , Indian Damayanti , and Irish Etain all face versions of this problem, and resolve it in different ways. If the typical swan maiden tale tell us how a man found a woman, lost her and regained her, you would think that the animal groom and demon lover stories would reverse this.

And it is true that the animal groom heroine must search for her lover, which makes her an active character. But, and this is true from the Psyche myth onward, she is also a penitent wife who must undo whatever failure caused her husband to leave her.

In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender

The demon lover can be a more positive version of an incubus, a supernatural lover who charms exceed that of any mortal. And, in the ballad The Demon Lover , he turns out to be the devil himself, tempting a woman to her death. Like many of them, he does not succeed. Sometimes this story is crossed with the demon lover narrative, so that he has to win her back from an otherworldly king or lover. Another chapter, on animal brides, shows how when the human is a male, the story changes.


Like the Orpheus tales , these stories often reveal male weakness, as they are less powerful than their animal wives, and sometimes even afraid of them. Conversely, they are also often brutal in disenchanting them, which may flow from this fear. As with many academic books, the preface and first chapter are heavy going, but once Fass Leavy gets the theoretical stuff out of the way, she stays close to the stories, and the humans conflicts that inspired them.

Incidentally, Fass Leavy observes that the incubus story can be read as a debased version of the Cupid and Psyche myth. Beautifully written, this book reveals the myriad ways in which the folktales of a society reflect its cultural values, and particularly how folktales are allegories of gender relations. It will interest anyone involved in literary, gender, and cultural studies. Customer Reviews Average Review.

In Search of the Swan Maiden: Open Square: NYU Press

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USD Overview In her compendious study, [of the folktale of the runaway wife] Leavy argues that the contradictory claims of nature and culture are embodied in the legendary figure of the swan maiden, a woman torn between the human and bestial worlds. Product Details About the Author. Average Review. Write a Review.