Widows

in (short-lived) mourning

folktales of Aarne-Thompson types
65, 1350, 1352*, and 1510
selected and edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2009


Contents

  1. Mrs. Fox's Wedding (Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm).

  2. Chuang-tzu and His Wife (China).

  3. Zadig's Nose (France, Voltaire).

  4. The Widow of Ephesus (Rome, Petronius).

  5. A Widow Digs Up Her Deceased Husband and Hangs Him on the Gallows (Germany, Conrat Purselt).

  6. Wooden Johannes (Germany, Hans Wilhelm Kirchhof).

  7. He That's Dead Can Do No Hurt (Ireland, J. M. Synge).

  8. The Devoted Widow (USA, Ambrose Bierce).


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Mrs. Fox's Wedding

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

First Tale

Once upon a time there was an old fox with nine tails. He did not believe that his wife was faithful to him and wanted to put her to the test. He stretched himself out beneath the bench, did not move a limb, and pretended to be stone dead.

Mrs. Fox locked herself in her room, and her maid, Miss Cat, sat on the hearth and cooked.

As soon as it became known that the old fox had died, suitors began to appear. The maid heard someone knocking at the front door. She opened it, and there stood a young fox, who said:

What are you doing, Miss Cat?
Are you asleep, or are you awake?

She answered:

I'm not asleep; I am awake.
Do you want to know what I am doing?
I am cooking warm beer with butter in it.
Would you like to be my guest?

"No thank you, Miss," said the fox. "What is Mrs. Fox doing?"

The maid answered:

She is sitting in her room
Mourning and grieving.
She has cried her eyes red,
Because old Mr. Fox is dead.

"Miss, tell her that a young fox is here who would like to court her."

"I'll do that, young man."

The cat went upstairs and knocked on the door.

"Mrs. Fox, are you there?"

"Yes, my dear, yes."

"A suitor is outside."

"What does he look like? Does he have nine bushy tails like the late Mr. Fox?"

"No," answered the cat. "He has but one."

"Then I'll not have him."

Miss Cat went downstairs and sent the suitor away.

Soon afterward there was another knock at the door. Another fox was there who wanted to court Mrs. Fox. He had two tails, but he did not fare any better than the first one. Then others came, each with one additional tail, but all were turned away until finally one came who had nine tails, just like old Mr. Fox. When the widow heard that, she spoke joyfully to the cat:

Open up the door
And throw old Mr. Fox out.

They were just about to celebrate the wedding when beneath the bench old Mr. Fox began to stir. He attacked the entire party with blows and drove them all out of the house, including Mrs. Fox.

 

Second Tale

Following the death of old Mr. Fox, the wolf presented himself as a suitor. The cat, who was serving as Mrs. Fox's maid, opened the door. The wolf greeted her, saying:

Good day, Mrs. Cat,
Why are you sitting alone?
What good things are you making there?

The cat answered:

Bread and milk.
Would you like to be my guest?

"No thank you, Mrs. Cat." answered the wolf. "Isn't Mrs. Fox at home?"

The cat said:

She's upstairs in her room
Mourning and grieving,
Bemoaning her plight,
Because old Mr. Fox is dead.

The wolf answered:

If she wants another man,
Just have her come downstairs.
The cat ran upstairs
To give her the news.
She ran to the great room,
And knocked on the door
With her five golden rings.
"Mrs. Fox, are you in there?
Do you want another man?"

Mrs. Fox asked, "Is the gentleman wearing red breeches, and does he have a pointed little face?"

"No," answered the cat.

"Then he's of no use to me."

After the wolf had been sent away there came a dog, a deer, a hare, a bear, a lion, and all the other animals of the forest, one after the other. But each one lacked one of the good qualities that old Mr. Fox had had, and the cat had to send each of the suitors away. Finally a young fox came.

Mrs. Fox asked, "Is the gentleman wearing red breeches, and does he have a pointed little face?"

"Yes," said the cat, "that he does."

"Then let him come upstairs," said Mrs. Fox, and she told the maid to make preparations for the wedding feast.

Cat, sweep out the kitchen,
And throw the old fox out the window.
He brought home many a big fat mouse,
But he ate them all alone,
And never gave me a one.

Then Mrs. Fox married young Mr. Fox, and everyone danced and celebrated, and if they have not stopped, then they are dancing still.




Chuang-tzu and His Wife

China

Chuang-tzu saw a young woman in mourning vigorously fanning a newly made grave. On his asking her the reason of this strange conduct, she replied, "I am doing this because my husband begged me to wait until the earth on his tomb was dry before I remarried!"

Chuang-tzu offered to help her, and as soon as he waved the fan once, the earth was dry. The young widow thanked him and departed.

On his return home, Chuang-tzu related this incident to his wife. She expressed astonishment at such conduct on the part of a wife.

"There's nothing to be surprised at," rejoined the husband. "That's how things go in this world."

Seeing that he was poking fun at her, she protested angrily.

Some time after this Chuang-tzu died. His wife, much grieved, buried him.

A few days later a young man named Chu Wang-sun arrived with the intention, as he said, of placing himself under the instruction of Chuang-tzu. When he heard that he was dead he went and performed prostrations before his tomb, and afterward took up his abode in an empty room saying that he wished to study.

After half a month had elapsed, the widow asked an old servant who had accompanied Wang-sun if the young man was married. On his replying in the negative, she requested the old servant to propose a match between them. Wang-sun made some objections, saying that people would criticize their conduct.

"Since my husband is dead, what can they say?" replied the widow. She then put off her mourning garments and prepared for the wedding.

Wang-sun took her to the grave of her husband, and said to her, "The gentleman has returned to life!"

She looked at Wang-sun and recognized the features of her husband. She was so overwhelmed with shame that she hanged herself. Chuang-tzu buried her in an empty tomb.




Zadig's Nose

Voltaire

Zadig's wife Azora went to console Cosrou, a young widow who only two days earlier had buried her husband. His tomb stood on the bank of a stream, and in her grief the widow had vowed to remain steadfastly beside the tomb until the stream no longer flowed by it. To Azora's dismay, when she arrived at the tomb she discovered that the once faithful widow was now busily digging a new channel to divert the stream away from her husband's tomb.

Quick to judge the widow's lapse from loyalty, Azora reported her experience to her husband Zadig. Azora's vehement and self-righteous reproaches led Zadig to distrust her own motivation, and, with the help of a young friend named Cador, he devised a scheme to test her integrity.

Feigning death, Zadig had his body laid to rest in the tomb of his ancestors. Azora wept, tore her hair, and vowed to die.

That evening Cador, whose youthful good lucks had not gone unnoticed by Azora, came to console her, and they mourned together. The next day they dined together as well. Then Cador informed the widow that Zadig had left most of his fortune to him, but that he would be happy to share it with her. She protested at first, but did not decline his offer.

Supper that evening lasted longer than had their dinner, and the two conversed together intimately, until Cador suddenly complained of a violent pain in his spleen. "It is an old malady," he claimed, "and there is but one remedy. I can be cured only by holding against my side the severed nose of a man who has been dead only one or two days."

Although the remedy seemed strange to her, she had heard of stranger cures for other maladies. This fact, combined with the obvious merits of the suffering man, brought Azora to the quick decision to sacrifice her deceased husband's nose for the well-being of his young friend. Taking a razor she went to her husband's tomb and approached the body.

Zadig rescued his nose only by holding it with one hand while fending off the razor with the other. "Madam," said he, "is not your attempt to cut off my nose as bad as Cosrou's intention of diverting a stream?"




The Widow of Ephesus

Petronius

There was a married woman in Ephesus of such famous virtue that she drew women even from the neighboring states to gaze upon her.

So when she had buried her husband, the common fashion of following the procession with loose hair, and beating the naked breast in front of the crowd, did not satisfy her. She followed the dead man even to his resting place, and began to watch and weep night and day over the body, which was laid in an underground vault in the Greek fashion. Neither her parents nor her relations could divert her from thus torturing herself, and courting death by starvation. The officials were at last rebuffed and left her. Everyone mourned for her as a woman of unique character, and she was now passing her fifth day without food. A devoted maid sat by the failing woman, shed tears in sympathy with her woes, and at the same time filled up the lamp, which was placed in the tomb, whenever it sank.

There was but one opinion throughout the city, every class of person admitting this was the one true and brilliant example of chastity and love.

At this moment the governor of the province gave orders that some robbers should be crucified near the small building where the lady was bewailing her recent loss. So on the next night, when the soldier who was watching the crosses, to prevent anyone taking down a body for burial, observed a light shining plainly among the tombs, and heard a mourner's groans, a very human weakness made him curious to know who it was and what he was doing. So he went down into the vault, and on seeing a very beautiful woman, at first halted in confusion, as if he had seen a portent or some ghost from the world beneath. But afterwards noticing the dead man lying there, and watching the woman's tears and the marks of her nails on her face, he came to the correct conclusion, that she found her regret for the lost one unendurable.

He therefore brought his supper into the tomb, and began to urge the mourner not to persist in useless grief, and break her heart with unprofitable sobs: for all men made the same end and found the same resting place, and so on with the other platitudes which restore wounded spirits to health. But she took no notice of his sympathy, struck and tore her breast more violently than ever, pulled out her hair, and laid it on the dead body.

Still the soldier did not retire, but tried to give the poor woman food with similar encouragements, until the maid, who was no doubt seduced by the smell of his wine, first gave in herself, and put out her hand at his kindly invitation, and then, refreshed with food and drink, began to assail her mistress's obstinacy, and say, "What will you gain by all this, if you faint away with hunger, if you bury yourself alive, if you breathe out your undoomed soul before fate calls for it? Believest thou that the ashes or the spirit of the buried dead can feel thy woe? [Virgil, Æneid, iv, 34.] Will you not begin life afresh? Will you not shake off this womanish failing, and enjoy the blessings of the light so long as you are allowed? Your poor dead husband's body here ought to persuade you to keep alive."

People are always ready to listen when they are urged to take a meal or to keep alive. So the lady, being thirsty after several days' abstinence, allowed her resolution to be broken down, and filled herself with food as greedily as the maid, who had been the first to yield.

Well, you know which temptation generally assails a man on a full stomach. The soldier used the same insinuating phrases which had persuaded the lady to consent to live, to conduct an assault upon her virtue. Her modest eye saw in him a young man, handsome and eloquent.

The maid begged her to be gracious, and then said, "Wilt thou fight love even when love pleases thee? Or dost thou never remember in whose lands thou art resting?" [Virgil, Æneid, iv, 38.]

I need hide the fact no longer. The lady ceased to hold out, and the conquering hero won her over entire. So they passed not only their wedding night together, but the next and a third, of course shutting the door of the vault, so that any friend or stranger who came to the tomb would imagine that this most virtuous lady had breathed the last over her husband's body. Well, the soldier was delighted with the woman's beauty, and his stolen pleasure. He bought up all the fine things his means permitted, and carried them to the tomb the moment darkness fell.

So the parents of one of the crucified, seeing that the watch was ill-kept, took their man down in the dark and administered the last rite to him. The soldier was eluded while he was off duty, and next day, seeing one of the crosses without its corpse, he was in terror of punishment, and explained to the lady what had happened. He declared that he would not wait for a court-martial, but would punish his own neglect with a thrust of his sword. So she had better get ready a place for a dying man, and let the gloomy vault enclose both her husband and her lover.

The lady's heart was tender as well as pure. "Heaven forbid," she replied, "that I should look at the same moment on the dead bodies of two men whom I love. No, I would rather make a dead man useful, than send a live man to death."

After this speech she ordered her husband's body to be taken out of the coffin and fixed up on the empty cross. The soldier availed himself of this far-seeing woman's device, and the people wondered the next day by what means the dead man had ascended the cross.




A Widow Digs Up Her Deceased Husband and Hangs Him on the Gallows

Conrat Purselt

Now and then there are widows who are not only happy that their husbands have died, but even those who fail to protect their dead husbands' bodies beneath the earth in order quickly to gain another husband.

The story is told of a soldier who -- under penalty of death -- had been ordered to keep watch over the corpse of a distinguished gentleman who had been hanged. The gallows stood near a graveyard where the body of a widow's husband lay buried. Following his burial this woman came to the grave several nights in a row, where she wept and pitifully bemoaned her husband's death. The soldier heard her cries and came to console her.

Upon his return, however, he discovered that the hanged man he was supposed to be guarding had been stolen. Bad luck! Quickly he ran back and said, "What can I do, pious woman? While I was consoling you, someone stole my thief from the gallows, and now I'll be hanged in his place."

"Be comforted, soldier! Will you marry me if I can solve your problem?"

"Of course. You have my promise!"

"Then hurry and help me. We will dig up my dead husband and hang him on the gallows in the place of the stolen corpse."

With the soldier's help the dead man was dug up, but then the soldier said, "He doesn't look like the stolen corpse. His teeth are too long."

"We can fix that," said the widow, whereupon she picked up a stone, knocked out her dead husband's teeth, and then helped hang him up.

Afterward she asked the soldier to marry her, as he had promised.

"No," said the soldier. "I don't like you, and I won't have you. You can go to the devil. After the way you treated your dead husband, how would you treat me, your living husband?"




Wooden Johannes

Hans Wilhelm Kirchhof

A woman so loved her husband that she vowed not to remarry following his death. Thus she had a wooden statue carved and painted that resembled her husband in form, shape, and size. She called it "Wooden Johannes," and it was to serve as her companion in place of her husband if she were to become a widow.

Her fears were confirmed, and her husband did indeed die. After she had mourned in earnest for almost half a year, her grief became somewhat easier to bear.

One evening she was invited out by her relatives, and she gave her maid orders not to forget to lay Wooden Johannes into her bed as soon as he was warm, and then to come and get her. It was her custom to put Wooden Johannes into her bed every evening before she went to bed. During the day he stood next to the stove.

The maid thought that the time was right to look after her own kin, considering that her mistress would be in a good mood following her evening out. Therefore she sent for her brother, who was a well-formed and good-looking young man. She told him her plan and led him to her mistress's bed. She then hid Wooden Johannes somewhere else and went to get her mistress. Arriving back home with her, she lit a candle in the mistress's bedroom, and then went to bed herself.

Now this Johannes warmed the mistress so well, that she did not remove him from her bed as soon as he had cooled down, as was her practice with the other one, but kept him by her side until morning.

The maid came, as she did every morning, and asked if she should go to the market and buy something. The mistress asked her to look for some good fish to eat.

"Gladly," answered the maid, "but if I do get some, I'm sure that there is not enough dry wood in the house to fry them properly."

"Oh," said the mistress, "then use Wooden Johannes. He is dry enough. Chop him up and cook with him as long as he lasts."

Thus the maid brought her brother to great wealth, for he warmed the mistress so well that she kept him and married him.




He That's Dead Can Do No Hurt

Ireland, J. M. Synge

One day I was traveling on foot from Galway to Dublin, and the darkness came on me and I ten miles from the town I was wanting to pass the night in. Then a hard rain began to fall and I was tired walking, so when I saw a sort of a house with no roof on it up against the road, I got in the way the walls would give me shelter.

As I was looking round I saw a light in some trees two perches off, and thinking any sort of a house would be better than where I was, I got over a wall and went up to the house to look in at the window.

I saw a dead laid man on a table, and candles lighted, and a woman watching him. I was frightened when I saw him, but it was raining hard, and I said to myself, if he was dead he couldn't hurt me. Then I knocked on the door and the woman came and opened it.

"Good evening, ma'am," says I.

"Good evening kindly, stranger," says she. "Come in out of the rain."

Then she took me in and told me her husband was after dying on her, and she was watching him that night.

"But it's thirsty you'll be, stranger," says she. "Come into the parlor."

Then she took me into the parlor -- and it was a fine clean house -- and she put a cup, with a saucer under it, on the table before me with fine sugar and bread.

When I'd had a cup of tea I went back into the kitchen where the dead man was lying, and she gave me a fine new pipe off the table with a drop of spirits.

"Stranger," says she, "would you be afeard to be alone with himself?"

"Not a bit in the world, ma'am," says I; "he that's dead can do no hurt."

Then she said she wanted to go over and tell the neighbors the way her husband was after dying on her, and she went out and locked the door behind her.

I smoked one pipe, and I leaned out and took another off the table. I was smoking it with my hand on the back of my chair -- the way you are yourself this minute, God bless you -- and I looking on the dead man, when he opened his eyes as wide as myself and looked at me.

"Don't be afeard, stranger," said the dead man; "I'm not dead at all in the world. Come here and help me up and I'll tell you all about it."

Well, I went up and took the sheet off of him, and I saw that he had a fine clean shirt on his body, and fine flannel drawers.

He sat up then, and says he, "I've got a bad wife, stranger, and I let on to be dead the way I'd catch her goings on."

Then he got two fine sticks he had to keep down his wife, and put them at each side of his body, and he laid himself out again as if he was dead.

In half and hour his wife came back and a young man along with her. Well, she gave him his tea, and she told him he was tired, and he would do right to go and lie down in the bedroom.

The young man went in and the woman sat down to watch by the dead man. A while after she got up and "Stranger," says she, "I'm going in to get the candle out of the room; I'm thinking the young man will be asleep by this time." She went into the bedroom, but the divil a bit of her came back.

Then the dead man got up, and took one stick, and he gave the other to myself. We went in and saw them lying together with her head on his arm.

The dead man hit him a blow with the stick so that the blood out of him leapt up and hit the gallery.

That is my story.




The Devoted Widow

Ambrose Bierce

A widow weeping on her husband's grave was approached by an engaging gentleman who, in a respectful manner, assured her that he had long entertained for her the most tender feelings.

"Wretch!" cried the widow. "Leave me this instant! Is this a time to talk to me of love?"

"I assure you, madam, that I had not intended to disclose my affection," the engaging gentleman humbly explained," but the power of your beauty has overcome my discretion."

"You should see me when I have not been crying," said the widow.




Return to:


Revised July 5, 2009.