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Was it Really East of the Sun and West of the Moon?

The Norwegian folktale, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” in which a white bear comes to take a poor girl away, is loved by people the world over. It is also part of a huge cycle of folklore and myth that has spanned Eurasia in the last 2500 years.

Of the few Norwegian folktales known in the English-speaking world, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” the tale of a white bear that promises a poor family wealth in exchange for their youngest daughter, is one of the best loved. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe assembled the tale from various records they had made during their collection tours, and it was first published in Asbjørnsen and Moe’s second volume of Norwegian Folktales (1844).

In all, around 80 different variants have been recorded in Norway, including “White Bear King Valemon,” which is just as much a favourite. Here the girl is a princess instead of a pauper, and the white bear entices her with a wreath that no goldsmith is able to replicate.1 This version also has the princess fall pregnant three times, her lover removing the baby on each occasion before he disappears. Of course, they are all reunited in the end, after the girl releases her sweetheart from the troll-hag who has bewitched him.

Kittelsen’s iconic illustration for “White Bear King Valemon” (1911). Source

Kittelsen’s iconic illustration for “White Bear King Valemon” (1911). Source

Although the motif of the white bear that comes to take away the girl is a particular Norwegian variant, and is quite probably the motif that has so captured the imagination of folk all over the world, the tale is just one of a huge group of folk narratives that folklorists classify as ATU-425a: the search for the lost husband. Ørnulf Hodne summarises the skeleton plot as follows:

‘For certain reasons a girl is promised to a monster (white bear, wolf), a transformed prince who is a man at night. After a while she visits her home, but is warned against listening to her mother’s advice. She breaks the prohibitions (kisses him, shines a light on him) and loses him. She undergoes a sorrowful wandering to recover him, and, receiving the magic objects she needs, is helped to reach the ogre’s castle, where he is living with a witch. She succeeds in disenchanting him and regains him. The false bride is unveiled and dies.2

These tales comprise a huge, fascinating circle of narrative that contributes to an understanding of the relationship of folklore to literature.

H. J. Ford’s illustration for the Grimm tale, “The Iron Stove” (1906). Source

H. J. Ford’s illustration for the Grimm tale, “The Iron Stove” (1906). Source

Tales of the same type have been collected from all around Europe. In the Romanian tale, “The Enchanted Pig,” collected by Petre Ispirescu, three princesses discover a prophecy concerning whom each will marry; the youngest will marry a pig from the north. “The Sprig of Rosemary,” a Spanish tale collected by Dr. D. Francisco de S. Maspons y Labros, has the daughter marrying a man who accuses her of stealing his firewood, only for her to discover that he put on a snakeskin “when he was at work.” The princesses in the Irish tale, “The Brown Bear of Norway,” collected by Patrick Kennedy, and the Scottish tale, “The Red Bull of Norroway,” published by Robert Chambers, name their own husbands in jest; in Chambers’s “The Black Bull of Norroway” a bull comes to take the daughter away. The Grimms published a few of tales of the same type; the plainest of these is “The Iron Stove,” in which the princess fears she has to marry an iron stove, not perceiving the prince who has been enchanted inside. Jan-Øyvind Swahn has reportedly treated as many as 1,137 different variants in his comprehensive work on this tale type,3 and has reportedly found an early allusion to “The tail of the thre futtiit dog of norrovay,” a folktale of this kind in The Complaynt of Scotland (1549).4

However, all of these multitudinous tales are relatively recent, compared with literary sources. “Pintosmauto” from Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, (1634) is an early literary treatment in which the girl Betta, who is dissatisfied with every suitor who attempts to win her, makes herself a husband out of Palermo sugar, almonds, and precious stones. She names him Pintosmauto, after bringing him to life by praying to the goddess of love, in imitation of the Pygmalion myth. Karen Bamford finds earlier evidence of the tale in Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well (1623). It appears the Bard was familiar with the type, and Bamford speculates that he probably cribbed the motif of the lost husband from Bocaccio’s Decameron (1353).5 But as far as we know, the oldest of this kind of tale is the enormously productive story of “Cupid and Psyche,” embedded in Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (approx. 180 BCE), the only complete novel that has survived from the Roman Republic.

Cupid and Psyche, or in this case, Psyche et L’Amour, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1889). Source

Cupid and Psyche, or in this case, Psyche et L’Amour, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1889). Source

Reading “Cupid and Psyche” today is an interesting experience. Having grown up with some or even all of the tales mentioned above, this ancient text—the mother, as it were, of every last one—reads like a pastiche of its offspring. The major difference between “Cupid and Psyche” and the folktales is the divine intervention; “Cupid and Psyche” represents the failure of the goddess Venus’s machinations concerning mankind. Otherwise, the motifs that we find in the folktales are present, one after the other: the beast whom Psyche expects to marry, her abduction, the hidden husband, her pregnancy, the persuasion to discover the identity of the beast, the light that reveals his beauty, the drop of hot oil/ tallow, the separation, and the girl’s ultimately successful quest to regain her love, aided by supernatural helpers along the way. It is all there.

Although Ruth Bottigheimer makes a connection to the earlier “The Girl Who Married a Snake” a tale from The Panchatantra (approx. 300 BCE), she concludes that “‘Cupid and Psyche’ in its present form appears to be Apuleius’ own invention.”6 M. J. Edwards has found an antecedent to Apuleius’ story in the Sumerian tradition of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld, who marries Nergal, who in turn is named in the Old Testament, which pushes the tradition a further 2–300 years into the past.7 Edwards warns against leaping “too rapidly from parallels to sources,” but it is reasonably safe to assume that stories that resemble the Cupid and Psyche myth were in oral circulation when Apuleius wrote his novel, all those years ago.8

The implication for the folklore is very interesting, when we consider the relationship between Apuleius and the myriad of folktales his work has spawned; all of the folktales named above, as well as many others, appear to have their origins in a single work of literary fiction by a named author. There has been a lot of movement back and forth between oral and written sources, before it was recorded in early 19th century, but it appears that “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” may well contain traditions that date back to the cradles of civilisation.


  1. “White Bear King Valemon” was first recalled in Jørgen Moe’s note on “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” in the 1852 edition of Norske Folke-eventyr. It was published in its own right in Asbjørnsen’s 1871 edition. 
  2. Hodne, 97. 
  3. Cited in Bettridge and Utley, 159n. This rather exact number includes all ATU-425 tales, such as “Beauty and the Beast” (ATU-425c), which are probably from the same source, but slightly different from the ATU-425a tales under discussion here. 
  4. Cited in Bamford, 69n. 
  5. Bamford, 57. 
  6. Bottigheimer, 5. 
  7. See 2 Kings 17:30. 
  8. Edwards, 93. 

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References and Further Reading

  • Satu Apo. “The Relationship between Oral and Literary Tradition as a Challenge in Fairy-Tale Research: The Case of Finnish Folktales” in Marvels & Tales, Vol. 21, No. 1, Fairy Tales, Printed Texts, and Oral Tellings (2007): 19-33.
  • Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. Norske Folke-eventyr. Christiania, 1852.
  • Karen Bamford. “Foreign Affairs: The Search for the Lost Husband in Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’” in Early Theatre, Vol. 8, No. 2 (December 2005): 57–72.
  • William Edwin Bettridge and Francis Lee Utley. “New Light on the Origin of the Griselda Story” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 1971): 153–208.
  • Ruth B. Bottigheimer. “Cupid and Psyche vs. Beauty and the Beast: The Milesian and the Modern” in Merveilles & contes, Vol. 3, No. 1, Special Issue on “Beauty and the Beast” (May 1989): 4–14.
  • M. J. Edwards. “The Tale of Cupid and Psyche” in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 94 (1992): 77-94.
  • Ørnulf Hodne. The Types of the Norwegian Folktale. Universitetsforlag, 1984.
  • Jan-Øyvind Swahn. The Tale of Cupid and Psyche (Aarne-Thompson 425 & 428). Lund, 1955
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Simon Hughes is a British philologist who lives, works, and (mostly) plays in Arctic Norway, where he has resided since 1992. He maintains a weblog, Norwegian Folktales, and may be found posting as @SimonRoyHughes on Twitter.