Curious Disasters: Failed Marriages in Folklore

It’s hardly a secret that folk tales exist to deliver a message. Most people can name a piece of folklore that warns about the dangers of talking to strangers, or cautions against pride. Our literary tradition is rife with stories about romance, tragic tales of failed marriages, and admonishments to be kind. Sometimes, though, I don’t think we all get the same message out of the tales.

Many commentators point to the story of Bluebeard as one warning of the dangers of feminine curiosity — a tale in the tradition of Pandora’s box, or the apple in the garden of Eden. Female curiosity is often pointed to as a sin, and many cultures have similar tales.

psyche uses a lamp to see Cupid's sleeping form

In the myth of Psyche and Cupid, Psyche breaks her marriage by sneaking a peek at her husband. He insisted on lovemaking in the dark, instead of disclosing his divinity.

Bluebeard is a folk tale about a wealthy French man who leaves his wife alone with his house and his riches. He gives her a key ring that will let her into all the rooms in the house, except that there is one she is not allowed to enter. Of course, she does, and that’s where she discovers the bloody corpses of Bluebeard’s former wives. She drops the key and runs, and when he comes home unexpectedly early, he finds the bloody key and tries to kill her too, but a relative intervenes and saves her by killing Bluebeard.

There are many variants of the tale, of course. In many versions, she isn’t rescued, and dies a horrible death. Ursula Vernon, a children’s author and Hugo-award winning artist, wrote my favorite version of the tale. It’s called Bluebeard’s Wife, and is set after Bluebeard’s death from presumably natural causes.

This morning as I was driving to work, I realized how similar the tale of Bluebeard is to ghost stories like the Yellow Ribbon (or green, or black… as with any folktale, there are many variations), which is about a woman who will not tell her husband why she wears a ribbon around her throat. Soon enough, he is overcome by curiosity and removes her ribbon — which makes her head fall off. It’s just one of the many failed marriages in folklore, though few endings are as drastic.

Yet I rarely see them juxtaposed against their counterparts where it is the men  whose curiosity leads to failed marriages. So often, the moral is considered gendered. There are stories of this nature, though, once you dig deep enough… which leads me to believe that we shouldn’t consider these morals to be about curious wives or bad husbands at all — but rather inconsiderate people. I don’t think the problem is curiosity at all, but rather failure to comply with a relatively simple request from someone you love, that leads to failed marriages.

Curiosity killed the cat — but satisfaction brought him back.

In European folklore, there is often a condition attached to any pairing of fay and mortal. Melusine, perhaps the most famous mermaid after Disney’s Ariel,  required that her husband not enter her chamber on Sundays. He violated that simple request, and insulted her in public with information he learned by walking in on her. She turned into a dragon and left him, never to return… following in the footsteps of her mother’s failed marriage. Pressyne left her husband when he failed to follow her wish that she be left alone while bathing the children in the birthing chamber

The Welsh have a story called Lady of the Lake, where a young man manages to woo an incredibly beautiful woman, the daughter of an immortal, who warns him that if he strikes three “causeless blows” against her, she will leave. They are very happy, until she asks him to fetch her riding gloves and he flicks her with them, playfully. She warns him that this is the first causeless blow. Later, he taps her on the shoulder to ask why she is crying at a christening, and after she explains that the baby will have a painful life due to its weakness, she explain that he’s struck the second blow. He swears up and down that he won’t do it again, but when she laughs at a funeral, he does the same thing, so she explains that it’s strike three and she’s out of there.

Now, some might say that what he did wasn’t worth leaving him over. That all he did was tap her, after all — it wasn’t like he was beating her. But he had three chances to figure out that she didn’t want to be touched in that way, and he never learned his lesson. It reminds me of that post by Matthew Frey, about how his wife left him because he left his dishes in the sink — but it’s much more than that… a situation so common it’s made its way into folklore, though failed marriages are much more common in the modern era, where divorce is legal.

This morning in the car, I was listening to Bruno Mars’ When I Was Your Man on the radio. It’s a song about a man looking back on a failed relationship, and there’s a line in there —

Mmm, too young, too dumb to realize
That I should’ve bought you flowers
And held your hand

— that reminded me how much I hate what I call “apology flowers.” At the beginning of a relationship, I am always very up-front about the fact that I love getting flowers… except when the person who’s giving them to me has done something to upset me and is trying to make up for it. They make me feel cheap, and invalidated — as though my happiness and forgiveness can be bought. Maybe it seems stupid, but if a man kept buying me flowers after I was upset… I’d leave, and no doubt friends would think I was crazy for breaking up with a man for (oh no!) buying me flowers. Except, failing to follow my clearly stated wishes would be a recipe for a failed marriage. If I can’t trust him to not buy flowers, then how can I trust him to give me what I need in the broader sense?

Yet fundamentally, these aren’t mistakes that men make, or women make — they’re mistakes that people make, both genders, to not respect the conditions established at the beginning of a relationship.

I think a lot of people have that one request of the people in their lives, the one that is a little weird and makes them disproportionately angry if that condition is violated. Does anyone have any they’d like to share?



Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

You may also like...

13 Responses

  1. As always, very thoughtful and entertaining.

  2. really great article! will definitely be back for more =)

  3. Aderyn Wood says:

    I like your insight with this. I’ve always thought of such instances of broken marriages in folk lore to be the fault of the persnickety lover who sets the conditions in the first place. Sometimes my partner tells me (jokingly) that I’m not allowed in his shed, which of course makes me want to go in his shed! You know, if someone tells you not to do something, it puts the thought into your head. But your comments on the Lady of the Lake in particular, had me thinking about it differently.

    • Eleanor says:

      I think the beauty of the folklore examples is that it IS so easy to be like, “well, of course you have a right to know that your spouse is a murderer” or “is a shapeshifter” or “is a rich god” — it’s so arbitrary and weird to say “keep out of the bathing chamber” until we sit down and think of what the analogue is.

      Is it so unreasonable to ask your spouse for a couple hours of privacy and quiet on the weekend, to write? Do you have a right to know everything about your spouse? What if she has scars, and doesn’t feel safe showing them off. Do you have a right to see them? What if she’s been raped, and it’s left emotional scars. Do you have a right to *that* explanation? And that’s where the lines start to blur, I think, and it’s easier to see the point of the lover — who society often blows off for being unreasonable… like the wife who leaves her husband after years of putting up with little microaggressions like refusing to rinse the dishes after repeated requests.

      So I’m really happy I could help shed a different light on those old stories for you!

  4. One of the classes I took my first year at a college was on fairy tales… We read a variety of versions of Bluebeard, Snow White, and other tales. The discussions ranged between the topics of gender, politics, and science, and I’m certain we discussed this phenomenon as well. It’s interesting how differently people can interpret stories. I agree with you, though–these stories are more about people and the mistakes they make, rather than a specific gender.

    • Eleanor says:

      It sounds like a fascinating class, Heather — I’m jealous! I sometimes wonder if our constructs of gender are as artificial and modern as our constructs of race. There’s this feeling sometimes in our culture of “this is how it is because this is how it’s been” — like when you see people arguing about the whitewashing of “historic” movies and games and the rejoinder is “but there were no POC in place at time” … which is usually untrue and always misses the point about how historic cultures viewed racial lines. Fundamentally, people are people and have always been people, and we spend far too long justifying or pigeonholing crappy behaviors. It’s a shame, because it deflects attention from what I think are the real problems.

  5. Icy Sedgwick says:

    I’ll be honest, I’m not a very tactile person and I often ask people not to touch me unless I invite contact (for example, I ask people I like if they want a hug when they’re clearly upset). Most people I know forget, but apologise the instant they touch me, which is fine, but some people think I’m being “weird” or I’ll somehow “get over it” if they keep at it. Sadly I’ve never yet turned into a dragon as a result.

    • Eleanor says:

      I’m a bit surprised that you have difficulty with people forgetting, actually, and sorry for it; but I work in an alternative school, where “don’t touch people!” is a pretty hard-and-fast rule… you never know when you’re going to run across an abused kid with triggers.

      The “you’ll get over it if I keep pushing your boundaries” thing is awful though >.< I hope those people aren't ones you have to deal with often.

  6. Laura says:

    I hear ya about the flowers…. I dated a man who gave me a beautiful bunch of yellow roses on the anniversary of our first date. I loved them; I raved about them. I told him how much I preferred them to red roses. That I found red roses cliché, overdone, overused.

    But when Valentine’s Day came around, I got red roses. I was underwhelmed. But I was told that you’re supposed to have red roses for Valentine’s Day.

    That was one of many instances of how he did not hear me. He wasn’t passive aggressive, just dim, unimaginative. He did not hear what didn’t fit his picture of how things should be. And he never understood why I was unhappy with him.

  1. Monday September 26th

    […] about some of them on this blog before: Bluebeard and Cupid and mermaids featured prominently in my article about folklore and marriage. That article focused on what folklore can tell us about modern marriage. This week, I’d like […]

Let me know what you think!