The Serpent Princess

There were once a king and a queen, and the latter was a very good and generous woman. One day a poor man arrived at the palace gate to ask for alms. The maid came and asked him to come back later as the queen was in labour.

 “God forbid that the child to be born at this conjuncture,” the poor man replied, and he went away.

The maid went to tell the king what the poor man had said. The king immediately wanted to speak to him, but didn’t dare leave the queen’s room at that time. The poor man came back later and the king came to see him.

 “Why did you say that the princess was born at a bad conjuncture?”

 “Because she will die on her 20th birthday.”

The king said nothing of this to the queen. Five years later the queen died,

unaware of the fate reserved for her daughter.

When the princess was 15 she noticed that her father was always crying.

 “Why are you crying, father?”

 “Memories of your mother, my daughter!”

She reached the age of 18 and the king reminded her that she ought to think about getting engaged and that if she wanted to please him by her marriage she would choose his nephew, who was also a prince, as her husband. The princess replied:

 “I had still not thought about choosing a husband, but be assured that I will marry according to your wishes.”

The king began to cry.

 “I always see you crying, father, and I’m convinced you’re hiding something from me.”

 “I’m not hiding anything, my daughter.”

 “I don’t believe you. You’re not being honest with me.”

So the king told his daughter about the prediction made by the poor man.

 “In that case I have changed my mind and I’d like to get married, and I would like you to write to your nephew to let him know that I have chosen him as my husband.”

It was night-time and the princess went to bed. She fell asleep and had a big dream in which her mother succeeded in altering her fate to another which was very dangerous. What that alternative fate was will be revealed as this story unfolds.

The princess got out of bed and went to speak to her father, asking him if he had already written to his nephew.

 “I was just writing to him now,” her father replied.

 “In that case tell him that for the space of a year after my marriage he will only see me on Sundays at dinner, and that until the end of that year he must never enter my room. Tell him also that my wedding must take place on my 20th birthday.”

 “Very well, daughter, I will tell him all this.”

Days later the prince replied, saying that he accepted the conditions which had been proposed. In the meanwhile the princess began to prepare her trousseau. In secret the princess sent an invitation to the eldest daughter of a tailor to help her prepare her trousseau in her room. The eldest daughter of the tailor, accompanied by the princess’s maid, came to her room, without anyone in the palace noticing.

At midday the princess went to take lunch with her father and ordered her helper to be served lunch in her room. The latter sat down to table and saw nothing in front of her but a plate with a single almond and a cup of water. The tailor’s daughter was amazed at so poor a lunch. For dinner she was served a roast chestnut and another glass of water. During the evening the tailor’s daughter offered an unfriendly face to the princess.  After night fell she left with the princess’s maid to return to her father’s house. The maid had been told by the princess to eavesdrop on what the tailor’s daughter said when she got home. The latter, as soon as she got in, and the maid had left, began to vilify the princess, calling her a skinflint and other ugly names.

The maid came back and told all this to the princess.

 “Tomorrow go and ask the middle daughter to come,” the princess replied.

The next day the middle daughter came and her lunch was even less, as it consisted of a single raisin, and for dinner nothing but a hazel-nut. If the eldest daughter had created a fuss when she got home, it was as nothing to the complaints of the middle daughter who told everyone at length just what she wanted to do to that miserable so-and-so of a princess.

The next day the princess sent for the youngest daughter, and the lunch and dinner were even poorer still. She was served a pine-nut for lunch and an almond for dinner.

That night when the tailor’s youngest daughter got home she was full of praise for the lunch and dinner she had had that day. The maid came back and told this to the princess, and she replied that she should bring her again the next day.

That day and from then on the seamstress was fed extremely well because she always used to eat at the same table as the princess, in her room. The princess was very friendly to the girl and sent for her father whom she told that his daughter would in future stay with her in her room and that he should tell no-one that she was there, but rather spread the word that she had gone to a distant city. The tailor swore on oath that he would do so.

The girl was the same size and height as the princess and she ordered copies of all her clothes to be made so that when they were both dressed and veiled it was impossible to distinguish between them. When her wedding day arrived the princess told her room-mate:

 “Tomorrow I am to be married, on my 20th birthday. At midnight a serpent will come into my room to kill me. At that time I too will be turned into a serpent and I will go out through the window to fight the serpent which has entered. If I return again, it will only be after a year has passed. At that time you must open the window of my room at half past eleven, and wait for me with a towel and a bowl of water and dry me immediately with the towel. During that year you will remain in my room, and only leave it on Sundays, dressed in my wedding clothes, to go to have dinner with my father and my husband. Never remove your veil, so that they will be unable to recognize you and will suppose that you are the princess. Don’t forget this, because my happiness is entirely dependent upon you.”

The girl promised to carry out the princess’s orders.

The princess got married and when night came she went to her room, where she found her companion crying.

 “Don’t cry, it makes me very unhappy.”

After a time the princess began to feel very disturbed. At eleven o’clock she felt her flesh creep and begin to be covered with hairs. When midnight struck she was transformed into a horrible monster. Then she went over to the window as an enormous serpent came in from outside. The serpent from inside the room went out and attacked the serpent from outside; and for a long time you could hear the roars made by the beasts as they fought one another. Then a deep silence fell. The girl shut the window and went to pray at the oratory.

During the year that followed the girl only left the room when she went to dine with the king and the prince. She never removed her veil. On the night on which the year came to an end, when it struck eleven the girl went to kneel at the oratory and prayed devoutly, as she did every night. Scarcely had it struck the half-hour than she went to fetch the bowl and towel, and opened the window to the room. As soon as midnight struck a serpent entered the room and went to bathe in the bowl. Immediately the girl threw the towel over it and dried the beast. It turned into the princess. There was then a scene of tears and kisses.

The princess was very thin. The next day the princess asked her friend to go to dinner and tell the king and the prince that she needed them to allow her another week’s grace. At the end of that time the two friends appeared at dinner.

The king and the prince were equally astonished. The one could not tell which of them was his daughter, the other which of them was his wife. Then the daughter removed her veil, kissed her father and her husband, and said to her father:

 “My friend, who has been my salvation, will not remove her veil unless my father gives his word as a king that he will do me the favour I ask of him.”

 “Ask, daughter, and you have my royal word that I will do the favour you ask me.”

 “I ask my father to marry my friend. If I am here today, I owe it entirely to her.”

The prince did not understand what his wife was saying, but her father understood.

The girl removed her veil and the next day the king married her.

They all lived happily thereafter.

Blessed be God and praises send

For now my tale is at an end.


Oliveira 1900 I, 402-406, #177, A Princesa Bicho [The Serpent Princess]. Algarve, Loulé. [1900]; Oliveira 2002 I, 359-362.

Type nº Ca-Ch 516 D, The Serpent Maiden and Her Loyal Friend

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