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Folktales

The Fisherman's Widow

by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

Long ago, an old fisherman’s widow lived by the sea. She had no children to help her, and the villagers, embittered by perpetual poverty, spared her little if any food.

One day she fished on the beach, not far from a few young maidens. Noticing some commotion among them, the old woman saw that a wounded hippocampus was thrown by the waves onto the sand. The girls laughed at the unhappy animal, and one even threw a stone at him. Angry at such cruelty, the old woman went to comfort the hippocampus and dressed his wound. She gave him some water, and sat by his side, cradling his beautiful white head on her lap.

Hippocampus
Image drawn exclusively for the
Encyclopedia Mythica by Patricia J. Wynne

Eventually the hippocampus began to recover. He lifted his head and spoke:

"You saved my life. In return, I will grant you three wishes."

"Anything I want?" asked the widow.

"Anything you desire. I give you my word."

"Then I want you to make this village a prosperous place."

As soon as this was said, the poor village changed. The houses looked well-kept, and little vegetable gardens sprouted around them. The fishermen’s boats sparkled, perfectly repaired and painted. The girls on the beach wore beautifully embroidered dresses.

"My second wish, hippocampus, is to make the villagers kind and good. Nobody should ever be turned away from their doors."

As soon as this was said, the girls changed. Tears came to their eyes and they rushed forward to help the hippocampus. The old woman saw windows and doors thrown open, and people hugging each other in the street.

"Don’t you want anything for yourself?" asked the hippocampus.

"Yes, one thing," said the old woman. "I want death."

"Why? Look how you changed these girls with your kind wish. They seem concerned for both of us. Surely life will be good now in this village?"

"Not for me. My life is over, hippocampus. I have suffered too long and I am very old. Other people will benefit, I hope, but I have nothing left to do in this village," said the widow.

"I cannot give you death," said the hippocampus.

"You gave your word, hippocampus. Anything I want."

"Then you must follow me to my land. My Prince can give you death."

The girls tried to stop her, but the widow would not listen; she walked to the edge of the water with the hippocampus. The setting sun threw an orange streak of light on the sea, and it looked like a long golden road into the horizon. As the hippocampus and the old woman stepped on the streak of light, the sea opened, revealing broad stone stairs leading deep down. The girls retreated, terrified.

Never looking back, the old woman walked into the sea, and found she could breath as comfortably as she did on land. They descended the stairs for a long time, finally reaching the Land Beneath the Sea, which we call Atlantis.

The old woman had never seen such beauty. The light turned the bottom of the sea into an aquamarine paradise. A profusion of sea anemones fluttered and waved in the underwater gardens, colorful fishes swam everywhere, and many mermaids and mermen passed by, each riding a white hippocampus. Finally the widow and the hippocampus entered a magnificent palace made of pearls and shiny shells. Inside, on a huge golden throne, sat the handsome Prince of Atlantis, surrounded by his court. The hippocampus bowed, and related the story and the widow’s request. The Prince listened attentively, smiled, and said:

"This is a wonderful story, my hippocampus friend. But where is the kind old woman who saved you life and wanted nothing for herself in return?"

"Why, Your Highness, I am the old woman," said the widow, astonished.

Everyone laughed, and the Prince handed her a jeweled mirror; from it smiled the face of her youth, when she was the village beauty and life was full of the promise of joy.

"No one grows old in Atlantis," said the Prince kindly, "and no one dies unless they want to. Look around you and decide. Do you still want death, my dear? Or would you rather live?"

"I would rather live, Your Highness, since you have given me the opportunity of a new life," said the widow. "But what will become of me? I do not want to go back to my village. My life there is finished."

"For a hundred years I have been looking for a special woman to be my wife, as it is the custom of the Royal House of Atlantis to choose their spouses from the World above the Sea. If I search the world for another hundred years I will not find anyone as selfless, wise, and beautiful as you," said the Prince. "Will you be my wife and the Princess of Atlantis?"

And so it was. And in the old village they have erected a statue in her honor, which can still be seen today, if you just go far enough up the coast of this little Greek Island where it all happened, long ago.


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