Serbian Folk-Lore (2nd Edition) | Annotated Tale

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Biter Bit, The

ONCE upon a time there was an old man who, whenever he heard anyone complain how many sons he had to care for, always laughed and said, 'I wish that it would please God to give me a hundred sons!'

               This he said in jest; as time, however, went on he had, in reality, neither more nor less than a hundred sons.

               He had trouble enough to find different trades for his sons, but when they were once all started in life they worked diligently and gained plenty of money. Now, however, came a fresh difficulty. One day the eldest son came in to his father and said, 'My dear father, I think it is quite time that I should marry.'

               Hardly had he said these words before the second son came in, saying, 'Dear father, I think it is already time that you were looking out for a wife for me.'

               A moment later came in the third son, asking, 'Dear father, don't you think it is high time that you should find me a wife?' In like manner came the fourth and fifth, until the whole hundred had made a similar request. All of them wished to marry, and desired their father to find wives for them as soon as he could.

               The old man was not a little troubled at these requests; he said, however, to his sons, 'Very well, my sons, I have nothing to say against your marrying; there is, however, I foresee, one great difficulty in the way. There are one hundred of you asking for wives, and I hardly think we can find one hundred marriageable girls in all the fifteen villages which are in our neighbourhood.'

               To this the sons, however, answered, 'Don't be anxious about that, but mount your horse and take in your sack sufficient engagement-cakes. You must take, also, a stick in your hand so that you can cut a notch in it for every girl you see. It does not signify whether she be handsome or ugly, or lame or blind, just cut a notch in your stick for every one you meet with.'

               The old man said, 'Very wisely spoken, my sons! I will do exactly as you tell me.'

               Accordingly he mounted his horse, took a sack full of cakes on his shoulder and a long stick in his hand, and started off at once to beat up the neighbourhood for girls to marry his sons.

               The old man had travelled from village to village during a whole month, and whenever he had seen a girl he cut a notch in his stick. But he was getting pretty well tired, and he began to count how many notches he had already made. When he had counted them carefully over and over again, to be certain that he had counted all, he could only make out seventy-four, so that still twenty-six were wanting to complete the number required. He was, however, so weary with his month's ride, that he determined to return home. As he rode along, he saw a priest driving oxen yoked to a plough, and seemingly very deep in anxious thought about something. Now the old man wondered a little to see the priest ploughing his own corn-fields without even a boy to help him, he therefore shouted to ask him why he drove his oxen himself. The priest, however, did not even turn his head to see who called to him, so intent was he in urging on his oxen and in guiding his plough.

               The old man thought he had not spoken loud enough, so he shouted out again as loud as he could, 'Stop your oxen a little, and tell me why you are ploughing yourself without even a lad to help you, and this, too, on a holy-day?'

               Now the priest--who was in a perspiration with his hard work--answered testily, 'I conjure you by your old age, leave me in peace! I cannot tell you my ill-luck.'

               At this answer, however, the old man was only the more curious, and persisted all the more earnestly in asking questions to find out why the priest ploughed on a Saint's day. At last the priest, tired with his importunity, sighed deeply and said, 'Well, if you will know: I am the only man in my household, and God has blessed me with a hundred daughters!'

               The old man was overjoyed at hearing this, and exclaimed cheerfully, 'That's very good! It is just what I want, for I have a hundred sons, and so, as you have a hundred daughters, we can be friends!'

               The moment the priest heard this he became pleasant and talkative, and invited the old man to pass the night in his house. Then, leaving his plough in the field, he drove the oxen back to the village. Just before reaching his house, however, he said to the old man, 'Go yourself into the house whilst I tie up my oxen.'

               No sooner, however, had the old man entered the yard than the wife of the priest rushed at him with a big stick, crying out, 'We have not bread enough for our hundred daughters, and we want neither beggars nor visitors,' and with these words she drove him away.

               Shortly afterwards the priest came out of the barn, and, finding the old man sitting on the road before the gate, asked him why he had not gone into the house as he had told him to do. Whereupon the old man replied, 'I went in, but your wife drove me away!'

               Then the priest said, 'Only wait here a moment till I come back to fetch you.' He then went quickly into his house and scolded his wife right well, saying, 'What have you done? What a fine chance you have spoiled! The man who came in was going to be our friend, for he has a hundred sons who would gladly have married our hundred daughters!'

               When the wife heard this she changed her dress hastily, and arranged her hair and head-dress in a different fashion. Then she smiled very sweetly, and welcomed with the greatest possible politeness the old man, when her husband led him into the house. In fact, she pretended that she knew nothing at all of any one having been driven away from their door. And as the old man wanted much to find wives for his sons, he also pretended that he did not know that the smiling house-mistress and the woman who drove him away with a stick were one and the self-same person.

               So the old man passed the night in the house, and next morning asked the priest formally to give him his hundred daughters for wives for his hundred sons. Thereupon the priest answered that he was quite willing, and had already spoken to his daughters about the matter, and that they, too, were all quite willing. Then the old man took out his 'engagement-cakes,' and put them on the table beside him, and gave each of the girls a piece of money to mark them. Then each of the engaged girls sent a small present by him to that one of his sons to whom she was thus betrothed. These gifts the old man put in the bag wherein he had carried the 'engagement-cakes.' He then mounted his horse, and rode off merrily homewards.

               There were great rejoicings in his household when he told how successful he had been in his search, and that he really had found a hundred girls ready and willing to be married; and these hundred, too, a priest's daughters.

               The sons insisted that they should begin to make the wedding preparations without delay and commenced at once to invite the guests who were to form part of the wedding procession to go to the priest's house and bring home the brides.

               Here, however, another difficulty occurred. The old father must find two hundred brideleaders (two for each bride); one hundred kooms (first witnesses); one hundred starisvats (second witnesses); one hundred chaious (running footmen who go before the processions) and three hundred vojvodes (standard-bearers); and, besides these, a respectable number of other non-official guests. [1]

               To find all these persons the father had to hunt throughout the neighbourhood for three years; at last, however, they were all found, and a day was appointed when they were to meet at his house and go thence in procession to the house of the priest.

               On the appointed day all the invited guests gathered at the old man's house. With great noise and confusion, after a fair amount of feasting, the wedding procession was formed properly, and set out for the house of the priest where the hundred brides were already prepared for their departure for their new home.

               So great was the confusion, indeed, that the old man quite forgot to take with him one of the hundred sons, and never missed him in the greeting and talking and drinking he was obliged, as father of the bridegrooms, to go through. Now the young man had worked so long and so hard in preparing for the wedding-day that he never woke up till long after the procession had started and every one had had, like his father, too much to do and too many things to think of to miss him.

               The wedding procession arrived in good order at the priest's house, where a feast was already spread out for them. Having done honour to the various good things, and having gone through all the ceremonies usual on such occasions, the hundred brides were given over to their 'leaders,' and the procession started on its return to the old man's house. But, as they did not set off until pretty late in the afternoon, it was decided that the night should be spent somewhere on the road. When they came, therefore, to a certain river named 'Luckless,' as it was already dark, some of the men proposed that the party should pass the night by the side of the water without crossing over. However, some others of the chief of the party so warmly advised the crossing the river and encamping on the other bank, that this course was at length, after a very lively discussion, determined on; accordingly the procession began to move over the bridge.

               Just, however, as the wedding party were half-way across the bridge its two sides began to draw nearer each other, and pressed the people so close together that they had hardly room to breathe--much less could they move forwards or backwards.

               They were kept for some time in this position, some shouting and scolding, others quiet because frightened, until at length a black giant appeared, and shouted to them in a terribly loud voice, 'Who are you all? Where do you come from? Where are you going?'

               Some of the bolder among them answered, 'We are going to our old friend's house, taking home the hundred brides for his hundred sons; but unluckily we ventured on this bridge after nightfall, and it has pressed us so tightly together that we cannot move one way or the other.'

               'And where is your old friend?' inquired the black giant.

               Now all the wedding guests turned their eyes towards the old man. Thereupon he turned towards the giant, who instantly said to him, 'Listen, old man! Will you give me what you have forgotten at home, if I let your friends pass over the bridge?'

               The old man considered some time what it might be that he had forgotten at home, but, at last, not being able to recollect anything in particular that he had left, and hearing on all sides the groans and moans of his guests, he replied, 'Well, I will give it you, if you will only let the procession pass over.'

               Then the black giant said to the party, 'You all hear what he has promised, and are all my witnesses to the bargain. In three days I shall come to fetch what I have bargained for.'

               Having said this, the black giant widened the bridge and the whole procession passed on to the other bank in safety. The people, however, no longer wished to spend the night on the way, so they moved on as fast as they could, and early in the morning reached the old man's house.

               As everybody talked of the strange adventure they had met with, the eldest son, who had been left at home, soon began to understand how the matter stood, and went to his father saying, 'O my father! you have sold me to the black giant!'

               Then the old man was very sorry, and troubled; but his friends comforted him, saying, 'Don't be frightened! nothing will come of it.'

               The marriage ceremonies were celebrated with great rejoicings. Just, however, as the festivities were at their height, on the third day, the black giant appeared at the gate and shouted, 'Now, give me at once what you have promised.'

               The old man, trembling all over, went forward and asked him, 'What do you want?'

               'Nothing but what you have promised me!' returned the black giant.

               As he could not break his promise, the old man, very much distressed, was then obliged to deliver up his eldest son to the giant, who thereupon said, 'Now I shall take your son with me, but after three years have passed you can come to the Luckless River and take him away.'

               Having said this the black giant disappeared, taking with him the young man, whom he carried off to his workshop as an apprentice to the trade of witchcraft.

               From that time the poor old man had not a single moment of happiness. He was always sad and anxious, and counted every year, and month, and week, and even every day, until the dawn of the last day of the three years. Then he took a staff in his hand and hurried off to the bank of the river Luckless. As soon as he reached the river, he was met by the black giant, who asked him, 'Why are you come?' The old man answered that he had come to take home his son, according to his agreement.

               Thereupon the giant brought out a tray on which stood a sparrow, a turtle-dove, and a quail, and said to the old man, 'Now, if you can tell which of these is your son, you may take him away.'

               The poor old father looked intently at the three birds, one after the other, and over and over again, but at last he was forced to own that he could not tell which of them was his son. So he was obliged to go away by himself, and was far more miserable than before. He had hardly, however, got half-way home when he thought he would go back to the river and take one of the birds which he remembered had looked at him intently.

               When he reached the river Luckless he was again met by the black giant, who brought out the tray again, and placed on it this time a partridge, a tit-mouse, and a thrush, saying, 'Now, my old man, find out which is your son!'

               The anxious father again looked at one bird after the other, but he felt more uncertain than before, and so, crying bitterly, again went away.

               Just as the old man was going through a forest, which was between the river Luckless and his house, an old woman met him, and said, 'Stop a moment! Where are you hurrying to? And why are you in such trouble?' Now, the old man was so deeply musing over his great unhappiness that he did not at first attend to the old woman; but she followed him, calling after him, and repeating her questions with more earnestness. So he stopped at last, and told her what a terrible misfortune had fallen upon him. When the old woman had listened to the whole story, she said cheerfully, 'Don't be cast down! Don't be afraid! Go back again to the river, and, when the giant brings out the three birds, look into their eyes sharply. When you see that one of the birds has a tear in one of its eyes, seize that bird and hold it fast, for it has a human soul.'

               The old man thanked her heartily for her advice, and turned back, for the third time, towards the Luckless River. Again the black giant appeared, and looked very merry whilst he brought out his tray and put upon it a sparrow, a dove, and a woodpecker, saying, 'My old man! find out which is your son!' Then the father looked sharply into the eyes of the birds, and saw that from the right eye of the dove a tear dropped slowly down. In a moment he grasped the bird tightly, saying, 'This is my son!' The next moment he found himself holding fast his eldest son by the shoulder, and so, singing and shouting in his great joy, took him quickly home, and gave him over to his eldest daughter-in-law, the wife of his son.

               Now, for some time they all lived together very happily. One day, however, the young man said to his father, 'Whilst I was apprentice in the workshop of the black giant, I learned a great many tricks of witchcraft. Now I intend to change myself into a fine horse, and you shall take me to market and sell me for a good sum of money. But be sure not to give up the halter.'

               The father did as the son had said. Next market-day he went to the city with a fine horse which he offered for sale. Many buyers came round him, admiring the horse, and bidding large sums for it, so that at last the old man was able to sell it for two thousand ducats. When he received the money, he took good care not to let go the halter, and he returned home far richer than he ever dreamt of being.

               A few days later, the man who had bought the horse sent his servant with it to the river to bathe, and, whilst in the water, the horse got loose from the servant and galloped off into the neighbouring forest. There he changed himself back into his real shape, and returned to his father's house.

               After some time had passed, the young man said one day to his father, 'Now I will change myself into an ox, and you can take me to market to sell me; but take care not to give up the rope with which you lead me.'

               So next market-day the old man went to the city leading a very fine ox, and soon found a buyer, who offered him ten times the usual price paid for an ox. The buyer asked also for the rope to lead the animal home, but the old man said, 'What do you want with such an old thing? You had better buy a new one!' and he went off taking with him the rope.

               That evening, whilst the servants of the buyer were driving the ox to the field, he ran away into a wood near, and, having taken there his human shape, returned home to his father's house.

               On the eve of the next market-day, the young man said to his father, 'Now I will change myself into a cow with golden horns, and you can sell me as before, only take care not to give up the string.'

               Accordingly he changed himself next morning into a cow, and the old man took it to the market-place, and asked for it three hundred crowns.

               But the black giant had learnt that his former apprentice was making a great deal of money by practising the trade he had taught him, and, being jealous at this, he determined to put an end to the young man's gains.

               Therefore, on the third day he came to the market himself as a buyer, and the moment he saw the beautiful cow with golden horns he knew that it could be no other than his former apprentice. So he came up to the old man, and, having outbid all the other would-be purchasers, paid at once the price he had agreed on. Having done this, he caught the string in his hand, and tried to wrench it from the terrified old man, who called out, 'I have not sold you the string, but the cow!' and held the string as fast as he could with both hands.

               'Oh, no!' said the buyer, 'I have the law and custom on my side! Whoever buys a cow, buys also the string with which it is led!' Some of the amused and astonished lookers-on said that this was quite true, therefore the old man was obliged to give up the string.

               The black giant, well satisfied with his purchase, took the cow with him to his castle, and, after having put iron chains on her legs, fastened her in a cellar. Every morning the giant gave the cow some water and hay, but he never unchained her.

               One evening, however, the cow, with incessant struggles, managed to get free from the chains, and immediately opened the cellar-door with her horns and ran away.

               Next morning the black giant went as usual into the cellar, carrying the hay and water for the cow; but seeing she had got free and run away, he threw the hay down, and started off at once to pursue her.

               When he came within sight of her, he turned himself into a wolf and ran at her with great fury; but his clever apprentice changed himself instantly from a cow into a bear, whereupon the giant turned himself from a wolf into a lion; the bear then turned into a tiger, and the lion changed into a crocodile, whereupon the tiger turned into a sparrow. Upon this the giant changed from the form of a crocodile into a hawk, and the apprentice immediately changed into a hare; on seeing which, the hawk became a greyhound. Then the apprentice changed from a hare into a falcon, and the greyhound into an eagle; whereupon the apprentice changed into a fish. The giant then turned from an eagle into a mouse, and immediately the apprentice, as a cat, ran after him; then the giant turned himself into a heap of millet, and the apprentice transformed himself into a hen and chickens, which very greedily picked up all the millet except one single seed, in which the master was, who changed himself into a squirrel; instantly, however, the apprentice became a hawk, and, pouncing on the squirrel, killed it.

               In this way the apprentice beat his master, the black giant, and revenged himself for all the sufferings he had endured whilst learning the trade of witchcraft. Having killed the squirrel, the hawk took his proper shape again, and the young man returned joyfully to his father, whom he made immensely rich.



[1] See 'Popular Customs of Serbia,' by the same author.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Biter Bit, The
Tale Author/Editor: Mijatovich, Elodie L.
Book Title: Serbian Folk-Lore (2nd Edition)
Book Author/Editor: Mijatovich, Elodie L.
Publisher: Columbus Printing, Publishing and Advertising Company
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1899
Country of Origin: Serbia
Classification: unclassified

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