Italian Popular Tales | Annotated Tale

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Cistern, The

We now pass to the class of stories in which one of several brothers succeeds in some undertaking where the others fail, and thereby draws down on himself the hatred of the others, who either abandon him in a cavern, or kill him and hide his body, which is afterwards discovered by a musical instrument made of one of the bones or of the reeds growing over the grave. The former treatment is illustrated by a Sicilian tale (Pitrè, No. 80) called:


THERE were once three king's sons. Two of them were going hunting one day, and did not want to take their youngest brother with them. Their mother asked them to let him go with them, but they would not. The youngest brother, however, followed them, and they had to take him with them. They came to a beautiful plain, where they found a fine cistern, and ate their lunch near it. After they had finished, the oldest said: "Let us throw our youngest brother into the cistern, for we cannot take him with us." Then he said to his brother: "Salvatore, would you like to descend into this cistern, for there is a treasure in it?" The youngest consented, and they lowered him down. When he reached the bottom, he found three handsome rooms and an old woman, who said to him: "What are you doing here?" "I am trying to find my way out; tell me how to do it." The old woman answered: "There are here three princesses in the power of the magician; take care." "Never mind, tell me what to do; I am not afraid." "Knock at that door." He did so and a princess appeared: "What has brought you here?" "I have come to liberate you; tell me what I have to do." "Take this apple and pass through that door; my sister is there, who can give you better directions than I can."

               She gave him the apple as a token. He knocked at that door, another princess appeared, who gave him a pomegranate for a remembrance and directed him to knock at a third door. It opened and the last princess appeared. "Ah! Salvatore" (for she knew who he was), "what have you come for?" "I have come to liberate you; tell me what to do." She gave him a crown, and said: "Take this; when you are in need, say: 'I command! I command!' and the crown will obey you. Now enter and eat; take this bottle; the magician, you see, is about rising; hide yourself behind this door, and when he awakens he will ask you: 'What are you here for?' You will answer: 'I have come to fight you; but you must agree to take smaller horse and sword than mine, because I am smaller than you.' You will see there a fountain which will invite you to drink; do not risk it, for all the statues you see there are human beings who have become statues drinking that water; when you are thirsty drink secretly from this bottle."

               With these directions the youth went and knocked at the door. Just then the magician arose and said: "What are you here for?" "I have come to fight with you." And he added what the princess had told him. The fountain invited him to drink, but he would not. They began to fight, and at the first blow the youth cut off the magician's head. He took the head and sword, and went to the princesses and said: "Get your things together, and let us go, for my brothers are still waiting at the mouth of the cistern."

               Let us now return to the brothers. After they had lowered their youngest brother into the cistern, they turned around and went back to the royal palace. The king asked: "Where is your brother?" "We lost him in a wood, and could not find him." "Quick!" said the king, "go and find my son, or I will have your heads cut off." So they departed, and on their way found a man with a rope and a bell, and took them with them. When they reached the cistern, they lowered the rope with the bell, saying among themselves: "If he is alive he will hear the bell and climb up; if he is dead, what shall we do with our father?" When they lowered the rope, Salvatore made the princesses ascend one by one. As the first appeared, who was the oldest, the oldest brother said: "Oh, what a pretty girl! This one shall be my wife." When the second appeared, the other brother said: "This is mine." The youngest princess did not wish to ascend, and said to Salvatore: "You go up, Salvatore, first; if you do not, your brothers will leave you here." He said he would not; she said he must; finally he prevailed, and she ascended. When she appeared the two brothers took her, and left Salvatore in the cistern, and returned to the palace. When they arrived there, they said to their father: "We have looked for Salvatore, but we could not find him; but we have found these three young girls, and now we wish to marry them." "I," said the oldest brother, "will take this one." "And I," said the second, "take this one. The other sister we will marry to some other youth."

               Now let us return to Salvatore, who, when he found himself alone and disconsolate, felt in his pockets and touched the apple. "O my apple, get me out of this place!" And at once he found himself out of the cistern. He went to the city where he lived, and met a silversmith, who took him as an apprentice, feeding and clothing him. While he was with the silversmith, the king commanded the latter to make a crown for his oldest son, who was to be married: "You must make me a royal crown for my son, and to-morrow evening you must bring it to me."

               He gave him ten ounces and dismissed him. When he reached home, the silversmith was greatly disturbed, for he had such a short time to make the crown in. Salvatore said: "Grandfather, why are you so disturbed?" The master replied: "Take these ten ounces, for now I am going to seek refuge in a church, for there is nothing else for me to do." (For in olden times the church had the privilege that whoever robbed or killed fled to the church, and they could not do anything with him.) The apprentice replied: "Now I will see if I can make this crown. My master would take refuge in a church for a trifle." So he began to make the crown. What did he do? He took out the apple and commanded it to make a very beautiful crown. He hammered away, but the apple made the crown. When it was finished he gave it to the wife of the silversmith, who took it to her husband. When the latter saw that he need not flee to the church, he went to the king, who, well pleased, invited him to the feast in the evening. When he told this at home, the apprentice said: "Take me to the feast." "How can I take you when you have no clothes fit to wear? I will buy you some, and when there is another feast I will take you." When it struck two, the silversmith departed, and Salvatore took the apple and said: "O my apple, give me clothes and carriages and footmen, for I am going to see my brother married." Immediately he was dressed like a prince, and went to the palace, where he hid in the kitchen, saw his brother married, and then took a big stick and gave the silversmith a sound beating. When the latter reached home, he cried: "I am dying! I am dying!" "What is the matter?" asked the apprentice, and when he learned what had happened, he said: "If you had taken me with you to the feast this would not have happened."

               A few days after, the king summoned the silversmith again to make another crown within twenty-four hours. Everything happened as before: the apprentice made a crown handsomer than the first, with the aid of the pomegranate. The smith took it to the king, but after the feast came home with his shoulders black and blue from the beating he received.

               After a time they wanted to marry the third sister, but she said: "Who wishes me must wait a year, a month, and a day." And she had no peace wondering why Salvatore did not appear for all he had the apple, the pomegranate, and the crown. After a year, a month, and a day, the wedding was arranged, and the smith had orders to make another crown more beautiful than the first two. (This was so that no one could say that because the young girl was a foreigner they treated her worse than the others.) Again the smith was in despair, and the apprentice had to make, by the aid of his magic crown, a better and larger crown than the others. The king was astonished when he saw the beautiful crown, and again invited the silversmith to the feast. The smith returned home sorrowful, for fear that he should again receive a beating, but he would not take his apprentice with him.

               After Salvatore had seen him depart, he took his magic crown and ordered splendid clothes and carriages. When he reached the palace, he did not go to the kitchen, but before the bride and groom could say "yes," "Stop!" said Salvatore. He took the apple and said: "Who gave me this?" "I did," replied the wife of the oldest brother. "And this?" showing the pomegranate. "I, my brother-in-law," said the wife of the second brother. Then he took out the crown. "Who gave me that?" "I, my husband," said the young girl whom they were marrying. And at once she married Salvatore, "for," said she, "he freed me from the magician."

               The bridegroom was fooled and had to go away, and the astonished silversmith fell on his knees, begging for pity and mercy. [1]

*  *  *  *  *

               In some of the versions of the above story, the hero, after he is abandoned by his brothers in the cistern or cave, is borne into the upper world by an eagle. The rapacious bird on the journey demands from the young man flesh from time to time. At last the stock of flesh with which he had provided himself is exhausted and he is obliged to cut off and give the eagle a piece of his own flesh. In one version (Pitrè, ii. p. 208) he gives the eagle his leg; and when the journey is concluded the bird casts it up, and the hero attaches it again to his body, and becomes as sound as ever. [2]


[1] Versions of this wide-spread story are in Pitrè, Otto Fiabe, No. 1; Gonz., Nos. 58, 59, 61, 62, 63 (partly), and 64; Köhler, Italien Volksm. (Sora) No. 1, "Die drei Brüder und die drei befreiten Königstochter" (Jahrb. VIII. p. 241); Widter-Wolf, No. 4 (Jahrb. VII. p. 20); Schneller, No. 39; Nov. fior. p. 70, and De Gub., Zoöl. Myth. II. 187 (Tuscan). Part of our story is also found in Schneller, pp. 188-192, and Pitrè, Nos. 83, 84 (var.). To these references, which are given by Pitrè, may be added the following: Comparetti, Nos. 19 (Monferrato) partly, 35 (Monferrato), and 40 (Pisa); De Gub., Sto. Stefano, No. 19; Fiabe Mant. Nos. 18, 32 (the latter part), 49 (partly); Tuscan Fairy Tales, No. 3; Finamore, Trad. pop. abruzzesi, No. 29; and Nov. tosc. No. 3.

               The trait "underground world" is also found in Busk, p. 141. These stories illustrate sufficiently Hahn's Form. 40, "Descent into the Nether World."

[2] To the stories in Note 13 containing "liberation of hero by eagle" may be added Comparetti, No. 24 (Monferrato). See in general: De Gub., Zoöl. Myth. II. 186; Benfey, Pant. I. pp. 216, 388

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Cistern, The
Tale Author/Editor: Crane, Thomas
Book Title: Italian Popular Tales
Book Author/Editor: Crane, Thomas Frederick
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin and Company
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1885
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: ATU 301: The Three Stolen Princesses

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