#FairytaleTuesday: The Singing Bone

[CW: murder, revenge]

Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index type 780: The Singing Bone.

**Editor’s note – The classification for this one is wild because it includes the following variants:
780A. The Cannabalistic Brothers: Six brothers live with their sister. One day, while cooking, she cuts her finger and blood falls into the food. The older brothers find the food delicious and decide to kill and eat their sister.

780B. The Speaking Hair: A stepmother buries a girl alive. Her hair grows as wheat or bush and sings her misfortunes. Thus she is discovered and dug up alive. The stepmother is buried in the same hole.

780C. The Tell-tale Calf’s Head: In the murderer’s hands it turns into the murdered man’s head 

Bones GIFs | Tenor

Okay! So this is a relatively short story that has just an unbelievable number of variations and adaptations. I’ll be using the Grimm story in this entry but we will discuss some of the variations because they are important to the conversation. Having said that, there are surprisingly few images of this variation so I included the entire story instead.

The story from the Grimm’s 1812 first edition was told to them by Dortchen Wild, Wilhelm’s future wife. The story is very short, but also very powerful.

A wild boar was causing great damage throughout the entire country. Nobody dared to go into the forest, where the beast was running around. Whoever had been so bold as to enter the forest and to try to kill the boar had been ripped apart by its tusks. So the king proclaimed that whoever killed the wild boar would receive his only daughter for a wife.

So, immediately we have a princess being offered as prize for bagging a wild boar. Since this is always an irresistible prize, three brothers set out to kill the boar. The oldest brother was super smart, the middle brother was regular smart, and the youngest brother was really dumb. We have three brothers–one of whom is really dumb– and one princess-prize. I think we can all see where this is going.

The older brothers went out together but the youngest went out alone:

As this young man entered the forest, a little man appeared before him. He was holding a heavy lance in his hand and said: “Take this lance and attack the wild boar without fear. You’ll easily be able to kill it.”

The little man wasn’t wrong. The youngest brother was indeed able to kill the boar in one fell swoop and he headed home with the boar on his shoulders. On the way home he passed a house where his brothers were hanging out and drinking. This wasn’t their house but was just some random house in which they were getting drunk? I’m not really sure. Anyway, he joins them and then they all head home.

In the evening they headed toward their home together, and the two older brothers made a plan to take their brother’s life. They let him go ahead of them, and as they approached the city and were on a bridge, they attacked him and beat him to death. Then they buried him deep under the bridge. Afterward the eldest took the boar, carried it to the king, and received the princess for his wife.

Shaun Tan, 2018

Many years later, a shepherd is passing by the bridge and sees a shining white bone poking out of the sandy bank. He picks up the bone, thinking that he could use it as a new mouthpiece for his horn. However, upon trying to play the horn with its new mouthpiece, the horn begins to sing by itself:

Dear shepherd, blowing on my bone,
Hear my song, for I want you to know
My brothers killed me years ago!
They buried me by the brook that flows
and carried off the dead wild boar,
and won the king’s lone daughter.

I’m assuming it rhymes in the original German? Anyway, the bone of the youngest brother (stifle your giggles, you children) sings out the truth of the crime that was committed against him. When the shepherd hears this he immediately takes it to the king. How a shepherd managed to get an immediate audience with a king is a question for another time. As is to be expected, the king is righteously angry and rectifies the injustice:

When the king heard the song, he had the ground beneath the bridge dug up, and the skeleton of the dead brother was revealed. The two evil brothers confessed their crime and were thrown into the water. However, the bone of the murdered brother was laid to rest in a beautiful grave in the churchyard.

Grim, right? and it’s also a surprisingly popular theme. I first became aware of this story type when I read Deborah Grabien’s Cruel Sister in 2006. This version is “The Twa Sisters” and it centers on two (twa) sisters competing for the same man. One sister drowns the other and eventually a stringed instrument is made from the hair and bones of the drowned sister. The story was originally a murder ballad dating to the 17th century, and I’ve included it as this week’s song.

Daria Kato, Date Unknown

Graham Anderson, a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Kent has compared the Grimm version of the story to the ancient Greek story of Meleager and the Calydonian Boar. This story also features a boar hunt, the death of one of the hunters by a relative, and an object that sings the truth of the murdered man.

If you think about it, a hunt of any kind seems like it would have been a good way to get rid of inconvenient male relatives. Packs of men roving through the woods–armed and with little visibility–leaves a lot to chance. And it’s not like they would have been wearing orange safety vests.

And as for the Twa Sisters? Well, they wouldn’t have been hunting boar, but for 17th century women I suppose the most likely equivalent would have been hunting for a man. Marriage was meant to represent financial security, stability, and children so it was ingrained in women early on to do whatever they had to to secure that man and lock it down. I’m not going to say that murder was always the answer but, I mean, you know it happened at least a few times.

So it’s not really surprising that this might eventually become a common theme, whatever the variation. And the crying out of the dead through the pieces of them that remain is an old idea. Bones, ashes, hair… it all holds some part of us after we’re gone and the betrayed dead don’t rest easy.

Work Cited:
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

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