The Serpent Bridegroom
Heroic Ballads of Serbia
George Rapall Noyes & Leonard Bacon
I will tell you a marvel, brethren, how the King of Budim was wed,
And nine full years passed over, yet there was no child to his bed.
Forth issued King Milútin; he went to the forest-close;
But God and fortune granted him not to strike the stags and does.
And his thirst was great; to a chilly spring Milútin went his way,
And drank the chilly water. Then down ’neath a fir he lay.
Three vilas of the hill came then, thereby their thirst to slake,
And gossip by the water; and the eldest of them spake:
“Harken, belovèd daughters! Harken me now, and hear!
Since the King of Budim married, now is it full nine year;
And yet no child of his heart hath he to cherish and hold dear.”
Said the vila also: “Of any herb doth either of you know,
By the virtue whereof, hereafter, his wife with child shall go?”
But the younger twain said nothing. Only the eldest said:
“If the king knew all my knowledge, he would gather every maid
In Budim, and before them the dry gold would he set,
Until their hands should have woven thereof a splendid net.
Down on the quiet Danube, he would throw the fair net in.
In it, a great fish would he take; and golden is every fin.
He would take the right fin from it; then back the fish would he throw,
And give the fin to the queen to eat. Straightway with child would she go.”
But King Milútin saw them, and heard whate’er was said;
And he went to the town of Budim and gathered every maid
In Budim, and before them the good dry gold he set,
Until their hands had woven thereof a splendid net.
Down on the quiet Danube he threw the fair net in.
In it he took a mighty fish, and golden was every fin.
He took the right fin from it; and back the fish did he throw;
He gave the fin to his queen to eat. Straightway with child did she go.
A year she carried her burden; and then the time came on
Of the bringing forth of the kingly child, but she did not bear a son.
Nay, a fierce serpent was it! On the earth when it did fall,
Straightway the serpent crept away through a crevice in the wall.
And straight the queen departed; unto the king she spake:
“For the child of thy heart, it is hard, O king, to be merry for his sake.
No son but a serpent! What time on the earth the snake did fall,
Forthwith the serpent crept away through a crevice in the wall.”
Then said the king: “Now glory to God for his gift’s sake.”—
Then seven years passed over. From the wall the serpent spake:
“Wherefore, thou King of Budim, findest thou no bride for me?”
Sore was Milútin troubled, but at length aloud said he:
“My serpent, my evil offspring, who will give a maid to a snake?”
But thus to him the serpent raised up his voice and spake:
“My father, the King of Budim, do thou saddle Swallow, and wend
To the tsar. He will give thee a maid for me in the city of Prizrend.”
When the King of Budim heard it, he saddled Swallow, the steed;
There went unto a hero, a hero then indeed!
He came to the city of Prizrend. When he came ’neath the tsar’s tower,
The tsar looked down upon him, and saw him in that hour.
The tsar came down unto him, and in the open square
The heroes spread out wide their arms, and kissed each other there,
And each asked how fared the other. The tsar the king did lead
To the palace; to the new stable the servants took the steed.
For three white days with yellow wine their thirst the kings did slake,
Till they had ta’en their fill thereof, and then the brandy spake.
Sore was the King of Budim by his embassy distressed.
The Tsar of Prizrend saw it, and thus the king addressed:
“I conjure thee, King of Budim; what trouble troubles thee,
That thou art distressed in spirit before my lords and me?”
The king to the tsar spake likewise:
“O tsar of Prizrend, hear!
When I married, no son of my heart was born for the space of full nine year.
When that their term was over, and the nine year course was run,
To me was born a serpent instead of a little son;
And, at its birth, unto the earth did the fierce serpent fall,
And forthwith the serpent crept away through a crevice in the wall.
When seven years were over, therefrom did the serpent call:
‘Wherefore, thou King of Budim, dost thou find no bride for me?’
And unto the fierce serpent I answered finally:
‘My serpent, my evil offspring, who will give a maid to a snake?’
But thereupon the serpent lifted his voice and spake:
“ ‘My father, the King of Budim, do thou saddle Swallow and wend
To the tsar. He will give thee a maid for me in the city of Prizrend.’
“And tsar, a wretch am I in this. But I labored and came from afar.”
And unto the king in answer outspake at last the tsar:
“Hearest thou, King of Budim? To Budim for me thou shalt go.
There shalt thou ask the serpent in the wall, whether or no
He will lead the wooers from Budim to Prizrend through the land,
So that no sun shall warm them, nor dew upon them stand.
If in such wise the serpent will venture them to lead,
Then for a bride to the serpent I will give the maid indeed.”
When the King of Budim heard it, forth was steed Swallow led.
He threw himself on the back of the steed, and forth away he sped,
Over the level country, like a star in the lucid sky.
And the king thought within him, when Budim he came nigh:
“Alas! In the name of God the One, now whither shall I wend,
To give to the serpent in the wall the greetings the tsar doth send?”
Before the gates of Budim but a little space was he.
Spake the serpent: “My father, gave the tsar his maiden unto me?”
Said the king:
“My evil offspring, if thou darest, snake, to wend
With the crowd of gay-clad wooers from Budim to Prizrend,
So that no sun shall warm them, nor dew upon them stand,
The tsar will lightly surrender the maiden to thy hand.
But if the crowd of wooers thou wilt not venture to lead,
No maiden of his whatever will the tsar give thee indeed.”
But the serpent said:
“The wooers, now get them ready to hand.
We will go hence for the maiden; I will lead them through the land,
So that no sun shall warm them, nor dew upon them stand.”
They gathered a host of wooers, a thousand with all speed;
They came to the king’s courtyard. They brought forth Swallow the steed;
Alone in the courtyard stood the steed. Then the quick heralds cried:
“Make ready, gay-clad wooers! Make ready, groom of the bride!”
And when in the wall’s crevice the serpent heard the call,
Forthwith crawled down the serpent from the crevice in the wall;
By the knee he gripped the charger; on the saddle he coiled and lay.
Then out through Budim the city they hastened on their way.
From Budim to Prizrend a dark blue cloud drave o’er them through the land,
So that no sun could warm them, nor dew upon them stand.
When they came to Prizrend, they led their steeds through the tsar’s courtyard there;
But the serpent guided not Swallow that went alone through the square.
Gloriously the tsar welcomed them with gifts that were splendid indeed,
To every wooer a shirt of silk, to the groom a hawk and a steed,
And moreover the maiden of Prizrend. Then the quick heralds cried:
“Make ready, wooers, and groomsman, and bringer of the bride!
Make ready, maiden of Prizrend! It is time for us to ride.”
The wooers and the maiden, they mounted one and all.
When the serpent heard it, down he came from the crevice in the wall;
He gripped the charger by the knee; on the saddle he coiled and lay.
Then out through Prizrend the city they hastened on their way,
But evermore above them drave on the dark blue cloud.
The wooers spurred their horses, until they trampled proud;
And thereupon the serpent on Swallow that did ride,
He made the charger trample on the pavement in his pride.
He goaded him so fiercely, that the steed from end to end
Hath ruined all the pavement in the city of Prizrend.
Plague strike on it! In twelve full years the masons scarce will mend
The damage that upon that time unto the tsar was done.
And merrily and with good heart to Budim they were gone,
And anew the marriage festival they held a full week more,
And solemnized it duly until the rites were o’er.
Then each returned unto the house, and the serpent to the wall,
And the king remained a season within the council-hall.
Time came to bring together the bridegroom and the bride.
They brought her to the tower; to the highest room they hied;
They left her in the highest room. At the middle of the night
There was a sound of voices in the chamber in the height;
And the Lady Queen in the tower stole on from floor to floor,
Till she reached the highest story; then she opened the chamber door.
What saw she in the chamber? A mighty marvel therein!
On a cushion in the chamber, there lay a serpent-skin;
On the pillow a good hero in slumber deep was laid;
And the damsel out of Prizrend, he held the lovely maid.
A mother has joy of her children. She stole the serpent-skin;
She bore it to the living fire, and swiftly threw it in.
To the king, her lord and master, she ran forth hastily:
“O king, upon this hour it is well with thee and me!
I went to the high chamber, and opened the door. Therein
On a cushion in the chamber there lay a serpent-skin;
On the pillow a good hero in slumber deep was laid;
The damsel out of Prizrend, he held the lovely maid.
And forthwith from the chamber I stole the serpent-skin,
And took it to the living fire, and quickly threw it in.”
“What is this, wife? May the serpent now seize thee and devour!”
And they hastened forth together to the summit of the tower.
What saw they? A mighty marvel! On the pillow a hero dead;
The maid of Prizrend embraced him. She lifted her voice and said:
“Alas! In the name of the one God, I am widowed and alone!
My mother, for me—God slay thee!—little enow hast thou done,
And this woe hast thou brought upon thyself.” So the mother lost her son.
We give you the song, but God on high gives health unto the wise!
Our fathers lied unto us, and we repeat their lies.