In the harsh desert, water is a very precious commodity, and it is the way of many people to placate the spirits who live in that water: better to keep them happy, and still have water than to anger them and go thirsty! This held true among the Fulani people, who would leave little gifts for the Waterlord — a seven headed serpent who lived in a local river — rather than dare to risk angering him.
At one time, among the people of a particular village, there was a young man who had two wives. (This was not unusual at that time.) One of his wives was pregnant, and the other was angry because she was not pregnant. In order to vent her anger a bit, when the pregnant wife wasn’t looking, she filled her ewer with mud. It was only meant to annoy, not to cause any particular harm; the ewer was going to be carried to the river either way, so why not make it a bit heavier?
Well, the pregnant wife — being extremely pregnant — didn’t find it merely annoying to have to carry that heavy vessel all the way to the river, and she was weeping with the strain long before she arrived there. Once she did, she let out all her sadness in a song, begging the Waterlord for help.
To her surprise, the Waterlord himself rose out of the water, all seven of his heads looking down at her with a knowing wisdom. He might help her, but only for a price. She could see that, but she had nothing to offer him other than the child she was carrying. And so she did: she promised the Waterlord that her unborn baby would serve him in adulthood.
At this promise, the Waterlord nodded all seven of his heads, then lifted the mud-filled pitcher. Using his magic and power over water, the serpent cleaned out the ewer until it was utterly spotless, filled it with the freshest, most pure water, and then returned it to the pregnant woman.
Gratefully, she returned home, and that very night she gave birth to a little girl.
Because of her mother’s bargain, the girl was called Jinde Sirinde, “the one who will be claimed by the Waterlord.”
Jinde Sirinde knew nothing of the weighty reason for her name, and she grew up in total complacency, no different — or so she thought — from any other girl in the village.
Like the other girls, she had friends, she had enemies, and she even had a sweetheart.
She also had chores to perform, just like anyone else in the village, so she never thought anything of it when her mother was constantly sending her to the river with a pitcher of water.
It wasn’t until the day the Waterlord decided he was ready for her that Jinde Sirinde learned the true meaning behind her name.
One moment she was standing in the shallow water, trying to clean her ewer, and the next moment the Waterlord had dragged her down beneath the surface, into his palace. Once she was there, the serpent explained to her about her mother’s bargain, and told her that she was now his wife. Having been promised to him, she now belonged to him, and was never again to return to the surface to see her friends, family, or the light of day.
Jinde Sirinde wept at this terrible pronouncement, and would not stop weeping for days.
When she finally calmed down, she informed her new husband that she couldn’t stand the idea of staying down there in the murky water for all eternity. Couldn’t he bring himself to let her go — even for one day! — to see her family and friends again?
The Waterlord rumbled for a moment, then nodded his heads in acquiescence. He told her she could have one day to visit her family and finish any tasks that she had left hanging upon the surface. But if she refused to return, he would come after her and drag her back if need be!
Jinde Sirinde promised him that wouldn’t be necessary, then quickly hurried back out of the river before he could change his mind.
She ran all the way back to her home, but found the door locked against her. When she begged her parents to let her in, they told her that a woman belongs to her husband, and to go back to the Waterlord before she brought all the village into danger.
More upset than ever, Jinde Sirinde turned away from her family’s home, and ran to the home of her sweetheart. Even though she was now married to another, surely he would still be on her side — surely he would save her from the monster!
Her sweetheart’s family wanted her turned away, since she was married to the Waterlord. But her sweetheart himself…he couldn’t bear to turn away from the woman he loved. So when his father wasn’t looking, he crept out of the house with his father’s sword, and hurried towards the river’s banks, where the Waterlord was already rising in anger that his bride had not yet returned to him.
Though he was terrified, Jinde Sirinde’s sweetheart fought against the monstrous serpent, and in the end he managed to hack off all seven of the Waterlord’s heads.
The beast fell dead in the mud, and the newly widowed Jinde Sirinde was able to marry her sweetheart.
I probably shouldn’t have used this story, because I wasn’t able to confirm it as reputably as I’d have liked. (Apart from the book I found it in originally, all I could come up with was a single one paragraph summary that’s been copy-pasted all over the Internet.) But the allure of this story, from a comparative standpoint, was just too much to pass up!
There are two ways to approach this story, comparatively speaking. First, there’s the obvious comparison between the Waterlord and Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed serpent slain by Susanoo. In slaying the monster, Susanoo rescues the beautiful Kushinada-hime, who then becomes his wife. The basic trope of “hero rescues girl by slaying monster” is nothing that need pointing out, of course, and examples are rife throughout mythology and folklore (and fiction) the world over, but the fact that in both cases the monster in question has so many heads is unusual.
However, there are also considerable differences, since Susanoo is a god, and Kushinada-hime was in the process of being sacrificed/fed to Orochi, as had her seven elder sisters before her. Also, the tale of Susanoo killing Orochi is part of a very densely woven cultural and religious tapestry, while the Fulani tale of the Waterlord seems to be more in the “folklore” department. (Though without any proper sources, it’s hard for me to be sure.)
More than the comparison to Orochi, what really caught my attention about this story was how it’s different from what we would expect if this tale was being told in a Western European context.
One one level, it may sound like exactly what you’d expect, since the monster is slain and the girl gets to live happily ever after with the man she loves.
But look at it from a structural perspective for a moment. Here’s an outline of the story at its bare bones:
- Harried parent makes rash promise to monster.
- Child must carry out parent’s promise…
- …but the monster wants a wife, not a servant/slave.
- The unwilling bride begs to return home for a single day.
- This is permitted, but with consequences for breaking her word.
Sound familiar yet?
…with a little tweaking, we have here a horrible alternate ending to Beauty and the Beast.
It’s not just that, though. Not really. Overall, the lesson of European folktales (particularly those that have been zealously repeated since the latter half of the 19th century) is that a child must keep his/her word, and/or the word of his/her parents, and if they do so, then that virtue will be rewarded. (Obviously, there are exceptions, but…)
Even in the folktales where the protagonist goes awry, monsters are often not what they seem, particularly when they have behaved helpfully. What looks like a dragon might be a fairy in disguise, what looks like a beautiful woman might be a wicked witch, it all depends on how someone is behaving, not what they look like. So if this story were being told in a Western European context, we would expect that the Waterlord would be a fairy prince, or an enchanted and virtuous man, or whatever, and Jinde Sirinde’s betrayal of him would cost either her own life or the lives of her loved ones. But in the story as it stands, her faithless actions are rewarded. (Of course, that’s assuming that her actions can rightfully be called “faithless.” They seem that way in the story as I read it, and I have tried to both transmit that and stay at least a little non-committal on the subject in my own version. But this is coming from a culture I don’t know, and I don’t know its original source, or how old it is, or anything, so my interpretations are inherently flawed.)
Because my source is so minimal, I can’t be sure if this is a massive cultural difference writ large, or if the story was just really badly transmitted. But, to be honest, I’m pretty sure it’s the former, and I thought that it was a pretty interesting difference.
I hope at least a few other people have also found it interesting.