The Snake Husband

The Snake Husband
The Snake Husband

This Korean folk tale, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, is similar to the European folk tale “The Frog Prince.” Used with the translator’s permission.

Once there was a woman who had a son late in life, and much to her surprise, he was born as a snake. She covered him with the bamboo hat she wore to work out in the fields, but rumors spread quickly.

There were three sisters in the same village, and when they heard that the old woman had had a baby, the oldest went for a visit and asked to see it. “Grandma, grandma,” she said, “they say you had a baby, but where did you hide it?”

“Go over to that corner and lift up the bamboo hat,” said the old woman.

So the girl went and lifted the hat and saw a snake under it flicking its tongue. “Grandma,” she said, “How can you say you had a baby? This is a snake!” And she ran away.

Now the second daughter came to see the old woman’s baby. “They say you had a baby, but where did you hide him?” she asked. The old woman told her to go over to the corner and lift up the bamboo hat. The girl saw the snake and was frightened away just like her sister.

Finally, the youngest daughter came and said, “Grandma, grandma, they say you had a baby, but where is it?”

“Go over to that corner and lift up the bamboo hat,” said the old woman.

So she went and lifted up the bamboo hat, and the youngest daughter said, “Oh, grandma, you’ve given birth to a fine gentleman snake.”

From that day on, the snake took a liking to the youngest sister, but when he was grown and of an age to be married, his parents asked the oldest sister, as was the custom, to marry him. She replied, “Even if it means I will never get married, I refuse to marry a snake!”

So they went and asked the second sister, and she also refused in disgust. Finally, when they asked the youngest, she said, “You’ll have to get my mother’s permission since I cannot agree to it myself.”

When they had permission from the girl’s mother, their son the snake came out and said, “Mother, mother, fetch me some water. Warm it up and add a cup of flour.” When she had heated the water, the snake took a bath, covered himself with the flour, and put on his clothes. Suddenly he was transformed into a handsome young man all dressed up to be a bridegroom.

And so he got married.

During the wedding ceremony he told his bride to put his cast-off snake skin inside the collar of her wedding dress and wear it there. She was never to let anyone touch it. She did as he asked, and he was a perfectly proper husband after they were married.

Now the other daughters were jealous of their sister, and when her husband had gone away to Seoul to take the kwago, the government examinations, they came for a visit. The youngest sister saw that they were carrying something suspicious. She hid behind the locked gate, but when she finally went out into the courtyard, they saw her and said, “Little sister, we brought you something tasty to eat.” They asked her to open the gate, but she would not. The oldest sister said she was carrying a pot of black bean soup and her hands were getting burned. “Hurry up and open the gate!” she demanded, and the youngest had no choice but to let them in.

Her sisters said they wanted to groom her head for lice. The youngest tried not to let them pick through her hair, but they were so insistent that, once again, she had no choice. And then, before she knew it, they had taken the snake skin from her collar and thrown it into the fire. In an instant it was consumed in the flame.

When it came time for the husband to return from Seoul, he did not come, for he sensed that his wife had lost his molted snake skin. And so the young wife set off on a long journey in search of her husband. Though her clothes were tattered and her face was smudged and dirty. She traveled near and far, making inquiries: where people were planting crops she stayed and helped with the planting, where they were doing laundry at the river bank, she stayed and helped pound their clothes against the rocks; and if they were making winter preserves she stayed to help with the pickling. And so, by and by, she slowly made her way to Seoul.

When the wife finally reached the capital, she went to a straw-roofed house to beg for alms and she was given some money and some millet. She tried to take the millet in a sack, but the grain poured out through a hole in the bottom. The young wife started picking up the spilt millet with chopsticks, one grain at a time. She was still picking up the millet grains when the sun went down.

“Please let me sleep here for the night,” she asked.

“There’s no place here for you to sleep,” said the owners of the house. But she pleaded and pleaded and they finally allowed her to sleep in the cow shed.

Though she did not know it, the young wife had come to the very house where her husband was staying. That night the moon was full, and the wife was unable to sleep. She sang this sad song.

O moon so bright, o moon so bright
Is my husband in your sight?
Though I, myself, have eyes to see,
I cannot see where he may be.

The husband was still up poring over his books, and he heard the plaintive song. He paused his studying. “I’ve heard that voice somewhere before,” he said, but thinking that his ears must be deceiving him, he went back to his reading. But then he heard the song again, and once again, with sadness in his heart, he endured the melody, but when he heard it for the third time, he sent his personal servant outside to find out who was singing.

The servant went out into the courtyard and saw the sad creature singing in the moonlight. He went back to the husband and explained who she was. “She’s just a beggar,” he said. “We gave her a handout during the day. She lingered here picking up millet with chopsticks, and when the sun went down she asked for a place to sleep, so we said she could sleep in the cow shed. She’s the one singing that pathetic song.”

The husband went outside to see for himself. He pretended not to notice her, and the wife sang the sad song once again.

“You!” said the husband, “Who are you? Show yourself.”

The wife was too embarrassed to show herself, looking like a common beggar. She sang the song again.

O moon so bright, o moon so bright
Is my husband in your sight?
Though I, myself, have eyes to see,
I cannot see where he may be.

She sang the song again and again.

“You! Old woman! Where are you from?” said the husband.

Finally, the wife told her long tale of woe, describing how her sisters had tricked her, how she had endured great hardships on her way to Seoul. “Since you did not return, I traveled far and wide looking for you, and I have finally found you here,” she said.

“Now I understand what has happened,” said the husband. They were together again at last. He dressed his wife in clean new clothes. They say he passed the civil examinations and the two of them lived happily.

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