Saturday, June 9, 2012

TFBT: Peleus Married a Fairy

Peleus, who wrestled with her and won her
in spite of her metamorphoses. Here we have
a widely spread motif of fairy tales, which shows
that Thetis originally was no goddess but a nymph.
The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology,

The motif that Martin P. Nilsson is referring to is “ML5090; Married to a Fairy”
Folklorist use a numbering system to classify folktales based on the work of Reidar Thoralf Christiansen using Norwegian folktales in The Migratory Legends in 1958. The hypothesis behind the index is that tales migrate from place to place where they are dressed up in local color and retold; hence migratory legends.

In “The Fairy Bride Legend of Wales” (Folklore Society Council Lecture, 1991) Juliette Wood, describes the typical motif for ML 5090; “The tale…tells the story of a fairy woman who married a mortal. She returned to her supernatural realm when her husband violated conditions she herself had laid down, mostly likely when he forced her to agree to marriage. . A most august version of the motif might be one recorded by Sir Walter Scott in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

“The fairy Melusina, also, who married Guy de Lusignan, Count of Poitou, under condition that he should never attempt to intrude upon her privacy, was of this latter class. She bore the count many children, and erected for him a magnificent castle by her magical art. Their harmony was uninterrupted until the prying husband broke the conditions of their union; by concealing himself to behold his wife make use of her enchanted bath. Hardly had Melusina discovered the indiscreet intruder, than, transforming herself into a dragon, she departed with a loud yell of lamentation, and was never again visible to mortal eyes;”

Usually the misalliance involves the capture or kidnapping of the fairy wife as in the tale of Edric the Wild and his Fairy Wife. (Albion - A guide to legendary Britain, Jennifer Westwood, Granada Publishing, London 1985) This involved Edric and his squire snatching his bride forcefully from the midst of her dancing sisters.

This brings us to the rape of Thetis. The goddess Thetis was a leader amongst the fifty daughters of the ancient marine deity of the sea. She was the foster daughter of Queen Hera, the mother of the hero Achilles and surprisingly the rescuer of several Olympian gods. She was forcible wed by the mortal Peleus. His mentor the centaur Chiron advised the second-rate hero to “seize his future bride and hold her fast in spite of her shape-shifting. He watched his chance and carried her off, and though she turned, now into fire, now into water, and now into a beast, he did not let her go till he saw that she had resumed her former shape.” (Library of Apollodorus 3.13.5) In addition, like the fairy-wives elsewhere she too vanished when surprised by her mortal husband. “When Thetis had got a babe by Peleus, she wished to make it immortal, and unknown to Peleus she used to hide it in the fire by night in order to destroy the mortal element which the child inherited from its father, but by day she anointed him with ambrosia. But Peleus watched her, and, seeing the child writhing on the fire, he cried out; and Thetis, thus prevented from accomplishing her purpose, forsook her infant son and departed to the Nereids” Library of Apollodorus [3.13.6] For Peleus forcible marrying a shape-shifting water nymph seems to be a family tradition. His father Aeacus (with Psamathe) and grandfather Zeus (with Metis) did the same.

As to the status of the offspring of human/fairy marriage, there appears to be no clear-cut answer in literature and legend. However, it is interesting that Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, makes Oberon, King of the Fairies, the son of a mortal, Julius Caesar and a fairy, Morgana de Fay. Arguable Oberon was greater than his father, a prophecy made of the son of both Thetis and Metis, to love-struck King Zeus.

Thanks of for the Edric reference and NYPL Digital Library for the image.