Fairy Tales from South Africa [VOLUNTEER PROJECT] | Annotated Tale

This book was proofed and edited by volunteers in 2020. Please see the notes for each tale for credit to the individual proofers. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

Serpent's Bride, The: Part I.

IN THE great wooded plains which lie between the mountains and the sea there was once a most wonderful river. It was broad and deep, filling its banks from side to side; great fig-trees and white-flowering thorns marked its course; and both winter and summer you could tell it afar off by the masses of evergreen foliage which followed its many windings. The land through which it flowed was fertile, and vast herds of goat and sheep fed on the neighbouring hills, for the grass was sweet and good.

            A powerful tribe had settled in these regions and had built themselves a big city on the side of a hill which sloped up from the river-banks. There was abundance of wood and good water, and the city was well drained and faced the morning sun. Below the great kraal the mealie-fields extended almost to the river-side. The people had plenty of cattle, and their King was the richest and most powerful in the whole country. He was also a great hunter, for in the wide plains big game abounded, and his lion and tiger skins were wonderful to behold. Indeed, he had but one trouble. He and his people depended on the river for their daily supply of water, and every now and then it would suddenly cease to flow. The whole body of the river would dry up, sometimes in winter, but quite as often in the height of summer, when rain fell daily and the great white clouds rose from the horizon every noon. No one knew why this strange thing should happen; sometimes no water would appear for many days together, and all the women had to walk long hours through the forest to get fresh water from a distant stream.

            Only one Princess could always fill her calabash, no matter how dry the river-bed. She was the most beautiful of all the King's daughters, tall and graceful, with a skin like satin and eyes that danced like sun upon the water. But she never went with her sisters to the river, and no one knew the source of her supply; they supposed she had found some hidden pool which never quite dried up, and did not wish to share her secret.

            Now the river had flowed steadily for many months; spring had come and then summer; the cornfields were in full ear, and the great tasselled mealies stood higher than a man's head. Every day all the Princesses went down to the river to fetch water and bathe in the great Red Pool. Only Timba still went alone, but her sisters had long ceased to notice her love of solitude.

            Then one day a strange thing happened. The morning was cool and fresh after a heavy thunderstorm, the tall grass was drenched with rain, and all the maidens from the neighbouring kraals came down to the river singing and laughing. There were tall, well-grown women, and slender girls, and even little maids of five and six, each with a calabash on her head. They walked in single file, for the paths were narrow, and they shouted gaily to one another across the mealie-fields. Only Timba was silent and walked last of the line behind her sisters.

            At the river-side they all stopped, and cries of dismay broke from every mouth. The bed of the stream was all but empty, and rocks that were only visible at the end of winter stood high and dry. A tiny trickle of water still ran in the great Red Pool, but its banks of crimson earth were bare, and the waving reeds and bulrushes on the margin showed their mud-stained roots. In a few hours the little water still remaining would have disappeared in the heat of the summer sun. With heavy hearts the girls ascended the course of the stream to see if clear water still remained, but none could be found. Even the little watercourses lined with fern, which fed the great river, were dry.

            "It is no use," cried they. "We must take what water we can to-day, and to-morrow we must seek fresh streams."

            They returned home, their calabashes half full of muddy water, and told the bad news to the King. Only Timba's water was clear as crystal, and her jar was so full that she had placed branches of the white-flowering thorn round the brim to prevent its spilling over as she walked.

            The King was much disturbed to find that the river had failed once more. He set all his greatest magicians to work, and promised unheard of rewards to those who would bring water into the river-bed; but no incantations were of any avail. Rain-doctors came from far away and cast their magic spells; but though great storms arose and passed over the land, the river-bed remained empty, and even the deepest water-holes dried up. But Timba could still get water from the river, and every day she went down alone as often as she wished and returned with her brimming calabash crowned with green leaves, her eyes brighter than ever and full of mysterious joy. Then her sisters asked at last: "Where do you get your water from?"

            And Timba made answer: "I get it from the great King of the Waters. He commands the whole river and all the streams which run into it, even the tiniest creeks. He is angry now, and that is why the river is empty."

            Her sisters were still puzzled, for none of them had heard of any such King.

            In the meantime winter approached with its unclouded skies. The crops were gathered in; the nights grew cold, and the air all day was fresh and crisp. No rain would fall now for many months, and the King and all his wise men knew that the river must remain empty till the spring. They were in great trouble, for they did not know how they would keep their cattle alive during the winter, and they even feared for themselves.

            Judge then of their amazement when they found one morning that the river was full to overflowing as if in the height of the summer floods. No rain had fallen in the whole of the country; the people could only rejoice and wonder. That same day the beautiful Princess came running up from the river laughing and singing, and called her sisters together.

            "What is it? Tell us the news," said they, for they saw that something exciting had happened.

            "I am going to be married," said Timba joyfully.

            "But to whom? No suitor has been here for many months."

            "To the great King of the Waters," said she with pride.

            "Who is he?" cried her sisters, "and where does he live? It must be far from here, for no one else has ever spoken of him."

            But Timba would not tell them. To all their questions she only nodded her head mysteriously, and said, "I know."

            That evening as the sun went down she slipped out of the kraal and went to the riverbank. The mealies were long since gathered, and the little path was beaten down hard and firm as the floor of a hut, for no rain had fallen this long while. She passed the Red Pool, now full from end to end, and followed the course of the river for half an hour or more till she came to a great white thorn - tree surrounded by a tangle of creepers and flowering shrubs. There she stopped and pushed through the overhanging branches till she reached the water's edge. She stood there, knee-deep among green lily leaves, and looked out on a wide expanse of water. It was still and dark and very deep, and the current was barely visible on its smooth surface. The banks enclosing it were of black earth, and at the water's edge grew great clumps of arum lilies forming a thick belt of green. In summer the Black Pool was a place of wonderful beauty; now there were no lilies, and scarcely a blossom lingered on the bushes. A tiny crescent moon was sinking in the west, and the reflection of its silver horns quivered in mid-stream.

            As Timba waited and watched a tiny ripple broke towards the bank and the head of a great serpent arose. He was velvety black, save for two red circles round his glittering eyes, and his neck rose many feet out of the water. He swam straight to the Princess, who did not scream and run away but rose to greet him eagerly.

            The serpent coiled himself beside her on the bank, and his eyes shone with joy.

            "Do not let us wait any longer," said he. "Make all preparations for our marriage. As mid-winter approaches I will cause the river to rise twice in full flood. Then you will know I am waiting for you, so lose no time."

            They sat and talked till the little moon sank down and all the stars came out. Then the serpent rose up and swam away down stream, his head held high and his huge length extending far behind it.

            This was the King of the Waters, who ruled the whole length of the great river, and it was he who had courted the Princess night and morning as she came to fetch water. Timba watched him out of sight; then she went home.

            The next day she and all her companions began to get ready for the marriage. Some of them wove mats out of the golden-coloured grasses, fine and soft enough to roll up into a tiny space. There were small mats to grind corn on, so that no meal should fall on the ground and be wasted, and there were other little mats to cut up meat on. Then there were long mats for sleeping on; these were made of bulrushes, and were to be put away all day and brought out only at night. The girls also took lengths of thin cloth, bought from far-away traders along the coast in exchange for ivory and horn, and fringed them with strings of many-coloured beads. These were cloaks for the bride, and were as graceful and pretty garments as you could wish to see. Then there were girdles to be made of coloured beads; and many necklaces and all sorts of dainty ornaments fashioned with twisted wire. For Timba was a Princess, and she was going to marry a King.

            All this took much time. Timba was at work all day, for in winter the sun sets early, and for some weeks she never went to the river at all, nor did she see her strange lover once. But one morning towards the shortest day a young man came running in from rabbit-hunting in the hills shouting that the river was in full flood. Timba's heart leapt, for this was the first of the promised signs. She worked still harder and hurried her maidens, for now only a few days could remain before the appointed time.

            At last all was ready, and she went down to walk by the river. The flood had passed, and only a tiny sluggish stream trickled in the midst of a wide stony water-course. The Princess walked slowly and looked up the river to see if there were any signs of the second flood. Suddenly she heard a whistling call from a clump of bushes.

            "Ping! Ping! Ping!"

            It was the call of her bridegroom, but he was nowhere to be seen. She then looked up the river once more and noticed for the first time that the stream was widening. Every moment it became fuller; great boulders which a minute ago were high and dry were already half covered, and a dull roar could be heard far away. The high reaches were already in flood, and the King of the Waters was waiting for his bride.

            Timba ran home and sought out her bridesmaids.

            "Come quickly," said she, "and bring everything we have made, but do not let any one see us. The great King of the Waters is waiting for me at the river."

            The bridesmaids ran hither and thither collecting all the pretty things they had made, while the bride arrayed herself for the marriage. In the Shangani country no one wears the kilt of black ox-skins. So Timba put on a kilt of cotton cloth, striped in red and blue, which reached to her knees, and a beautiful girdle of beads. Then she knotted on her left shoulder a cloak of dark blue cloth heavily fringed in red and white. The cloth was very thin and hung in folds about her graceful form. Then she put the most beautiful bead necklaces about her neck, and covered her arms with bracelets cunningly woven of shining brass and copper wire. When all was done it would have been difficult to find a prettier or more pleasing sight.

            Then the girls met again and ran by hidden paths to the river without speaking a word to any one. There the bridesmaids stopped and called to one another in astonishment. For the river was in full flood and was now over half-a-mile wide. Great trunks of trees swept past in wild disorder, their branches tossing on the yellow waters; now and then a dead buck floated by, and at every moment huge boulders swept past amid a deafening roar. The girls hurried on to the Black Pool. There the great thorn-tree still stood out, but the water had already reached its lower branches. Overhead the sky was clear and cloudless, and the parched veld, dotted with grey mimosa and leafless shrub, extended for endless miles to the transparent horizon.

            "Never have I seen such a flood," said one; "surely the river is bewitched."

            "There has been no rain these three months," cried another; "where can the waters have come from?"

            "Go home quickly," commanded the Princess. "Leave everything here and say nothing about me at the kraal."

            The bridesmaids were no sooner out of sight than the Serpent King raised his great flat head out of the water. As the Princess watched him he grew taller and taller, till at length he stood upon his tail and towered above her. His head reached to the top of the high trees, and his body was like a black shining pillar. Then he fixed his bright eyes upon her and said, "Never be afraid of me, no matter what I do."

            "I will never be afraid of you," said the Princess.

            "Are you quite sure?" said the serpent

            "Quite sure," answered the Princess.

            Then the serpent descended again and coiled himself beside her.

            "And now," said he, "what of the lobola? [1] I must send that to your father, or our marriage is not complete."

            "There is plenty of room in the great cattle kraal," said Timba. "They will understand when they see the oxen that my marriage-gift is come."

            "Wait here," said the serpent; "I will return at moonrise."

            That night he sent the cattle, and at daybreak there was great commotion in the city. The Princess had disappeared and the air was full of strange bellowings, which came from the cattle-kraal in the centre of the town. One hundred splendid oxen were discovered there, finer than any one had ever seen before. No one had seen them enter, and no herdsman was with them; for many a long day the mystery remained unsolved.

            In the meantime the Princess waited. Darkness fell early, and for a long while only the stars could be seen in the clear sky. Then the long line of the eastern plains grew clearer and sharper, and slowly the wonderful winter moon arose.

            At that very moment the King of the Waters raised his head from the pool and darted towards his bride.

            "The lobola is paid," he cried. "Come, let us go."

            Then Timba rose and the serpent lifted her on his back. She put her arms round his neck and they started to swim down the river under the great white moon. They passed the silent kraals and the empty fields, and then they came to wide silvery plains stretching as far as eye could see. The river flowed without sound. And all the time the King of the Waters never spoke nor turned his head.

            As the dawn appeared they reached the borders of a forest. For many an hour they had seen no kraal nor any human being, and here the bush was so thick that no one could hope to get through it. The great serpent took his bride to the bank and set her down.

            "Now remember," said he, "never be afraid." Then he disappeared without another word. All that day Timba waited alone. As night approached she expected to see the King once more, but no sign of him appeared. She shuddered as she heard the cries of the wild beasts searching for their prey. First, just after sundown, came the laughing cry of the jackal; then later the mournful howling of wolves; and as the night went on she heard Hons roaring close at hand. Once she heard a tiger grunting a few paces away, and it was all she could do not to scream aloud. But nothing hurt her, and at dawn all the strange sounds ceased. The next day she spent alone, thinking with terror of the approaching night. You can imagine her relief when, at moonrise, her bridegroom appeared once more.

            He took the Princess again on his back and once more they swam down the river, the dark forest on either side. They journeyed thus in silence for many hours. At dawn they were still in the heart of the forest. The trees were the tallest Timba had ever seen; great festoons of creepers hung from their boughs, while below was a tangle of ferns and many strange plants. Then suddenly just as the sun rose they entered a marvellous place. For the river opened out into a wide, still pool, surrounded by walls of dazzling white. The banks were of shining white sand and the cliffs above of glittering mica, and in every nook and cranny grew the loveliest ferns. There were tree-ferns all along the water's edge, with wide shady fronds and trunks like those of an Eastern palm. There were smaller ferns in endless variety, and at the very edge of the pool grew the most beautiful maidenhair. A wide belt of green lily-leaves stretched out from the shore, framing the centre of the pool, which lay clear and placid as a mirror, reflecting the dazzling blue of the winter sky. Timba had never seen such a sight before. She longed to alight and rest among the ferns in the bright sunshine, but the King swam forward to the centre of the pool. There one could see far below to the white sanded bottom, for the water was like crystal.

            Here the serpent turned his head. "Follow me," he said.

            He glided under the water, and the Princess followed. When she opened her eyes she found they were far below in the depths of the water. The light was dim, and at first she could see nothing but the waving stems of the water-lilies. Then she found they were standing before a group of most beautiful huts. The King took her to the largest and bade her enter. Strange to say, it was quite dry and very comfortable. In it she found all the pretty things which she had brought with her sisters to the river-bank, and all was in perfect order. She was very hungry and wanted to ask for food, but she did not dare say anything. The great serpent turned away and left her, saying: "I will return in the evening. Shut the door, but leave a little hole in the side of the hut for me to creep through. Food will appear whenever you desire it."

            And Timba found a delicious meal prepared in beautiful little pots. She enjoyed it after her long night's journey, but it was very dull and lonely, and there was nothing to do. The day passed, and as night drew on it became very dark and cold. Timba lit a fire in the hut and shut the door, but remembered to leave a little opening as she had promised. Then she lay down to rest, tired and puzzled at her bride groom's strange conduct. She was just about to sleep when she heard a snake's scales rustling against the thatch without. For the first time she was afraid as she heard him come. A moment later his head appeared at the little hole. His eyes flamed in the light of the dying fire, as he entered and glided towards her. First he touched her feet, then her knees, and then passed right over her head, always in absolute silence. Then he turned round and slipped out once more by the way he had come.

            The Princess spent the next day alone, and at night lay down again. But this time she could not think of sleep, and for hours she lay awake, tending her fire and watching the dark hole in the wall. At midnight she heard the rustling against the reeds outside. She began to tremble, but lay quite still and did not speak. The serpent entered as before, laid his head on her feet and her knees, and again glided over her and left the hut without a word.

            When he had gone the Princess breathed once more, and composed herself to sleep; but as the next day advanced towards evening she became more and more troubled.

            "Must I spend the end of my days here?" thought she. "Must I always live in this cold dark place, away from the sun? I shall soon die and never see my sisters again, or run with them through the mealie-fields."

            Then she began to think of her former life, and remembered the many times she had met her lover among the tall lilies, and all the kindness he had shown her.

            "No," she said; "I must not despair. He will do me no harm; I must keep my promise and be brave."

            That night she lay in the hut by her wood fire and watched the hole in the wall. Hour after hour she listened for the familiar rustling, but no sound came. She could not sleep; her head ached and she was almost sick with fear.

            She threw her last bundle of sticks on the little fire. It was very cold; in the world above the dawn must be at hand. The flames leapt up for the last time, and at that very moment a faint sound could be heard outside the hut. The King of the Waters was there. He entered, his huge flat head erect and his eyes flaming. The Princess nearly screamed, but clenched her hands to keep herself quiet. The serpent touched her feet, then her knees, and last of all her head.

            Timba closed her eyes and lay exhausted. All at once a light breeze seemed to blow on her face, and she looked up again to see what it might be. To her amazement she found she was again in the world above. The door of the hut was open, and before her stretched the enchanted pool, radiant and dazzling in the early morning sun. She turned to look for the serpent, but he was gone. In his place stood a magnificent man in the prime of life. He was very powerful, and so tall that his head nearly touched the roof. Glossy leopard-skins hung from his broad shoulders, and round his waist were jackal-skins fringed with tails of the mountain-cat. On his arms and at his knees were bracelets of white ox-tails, and in his hand he held a great staff beautifully carved. At one end a man's head was represented, and below it were tails of black and white cat-skin. He was a very great Chief indeed; Timba had never seen any one so handsome before. Only his eyes seemed familiar; they were very bright and piercing.

            The Princess gazed in wonder. Then the Chief smiled.

            "Do not be astonished," said he. "I am the serpent, the great King of the Waters. Years ago I was deprived of human form by a wicked magician. He belonged to a king who hated my father, but was never able to harm him because he was too powerful. One day this wizard met me walking alone by this river. By his black arts he turned me into a serpent. My only kingdom should be in the waters, and I was never to become a man again till I should find a bride without fear. At last I met you; now I am a man once more. My father has long been dead and my name is forgotten, so we must seek men and cattle and make a new kingdom for ourselves. Take this staff; it will give you the power of a magician. You have only to hold it firmly in your hand and you will gain the victory over the most powerful enemy. We will rest here awhile and then go forth together and make great conquests."

            Thus Timba obtained the reward of her courage, and became renowned and much beloved. I will tell you in the next story how she and her husband won their kingdom, and how at last she saw her home once more.


A Shangani Story.


[1]: Lobola—the marriage-gift presented by the bridegroom to the bride's father. This gift, consisting of cattle, gives him his legal claim to his wife.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Serpent's Bride, The: Part I.
Tale Author/Editor: Bourhill, Mrs E. J., and Mrs J. B. Drake
Book Title: Fairy Tales from South Africa [VOLUNTEER PROJECT]
Book Author/Editor: Bourhill, Mrs E. J., and Mrs J. B. Drake
Publisher: Macmillan and Co.
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1908
Country of Origin: South Africa
Classification: ATU 433B: King Lindorm

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