A Long-Lived Folk Lament

What Is It About This Curious Ballad That Has Ensured Its Endurance a Millennium?

by Gretchen Kell

"The Walled-Up Wife" isn't a ballad most Americans learned around the campfire.

But the folk song, at least 1,000 years old, is one of the most famous in the world, according to a new book by folklorist Alan Dundes.

Dundes, whose book also is called "The Walled-Up Wife" (The University of Wisconsin Press), said the song has inspired more than 700 versions -- mainly throughout eastern Europe and India -- as well as countless essays by scholars. In the Balkan states, there even has been a lawsuit over whose version is the original.

According to Dundes, an anthropology professor, the song is "a deadly metaphor for married life from India to the Balkans."

The song is a deadly metaphor for married life from India to the Balkans.

The song, still sung today, tells the story of the sacrifice of a woman by men whose work by day on a construction project is undone at night by supernatural powers.

To break the negative magic spell and ensure the success of their project, the workers decide to kill a woman, usually one who is married and a mother, by walling her up in the structure.

Dundes believes the ballad originated in India and then made its way to Eastern Europe.

Today, it has many different titles, texts and settings, including a well, a monastery, a city and a bridge.

In the former Yugoslavia, for example, the song is called "The Building of Skadar" and takes place at a fortress; it is called "The Bridge of Arta" in Greece.

In a text from Transylvania, construction on a monastery is undone at night by spirits.

In a strange dream, the chief mason hears a voice from heaven telling him to immure the first woman to visit the work site.

The mason's wife, bearing flowers, food and wine, is the first to arrive. The mason begs God to make her turn back, but she does not.

The mason grieves, but still puts his wife into the foundation, telling her "we want to play a joke, to pretend to wall you up."

The wife cries out, "The wall squeezes me and breaks my body." But the chief mason keeps silent and continues building.

At the end of the song, he falls off the roof and dies. A fountain springs up where he lands, and the water contains bitter tears.

Dundes' book offers 18 essays on various versions of the ballad, and many of the writers give radically different interpretations -- ranging from literary to ritual to feminist.

"The intent is to demonstrate some sense of the century-long debate about the origin of the ballad," said Dundes, "as well as some of the diverse theoretical and methodological approaches used in analyzing it."

Dundes himself believes the ballad's message is that "marriage is a trap" for many people in these countries.

"The woman must sacrifice everything -- her mobility and even her life," he said.

By entering marriage, he writes in his chapter, the woman is "figuratively immured."

Kept behind walls to protect her virtue, she is treated as a second-class citizen.

"A woman's role, the ballad implies, is to stay protected from the outside world and to concentrate upon nurturing her infants," he said. "The ideal wife nurtures males, either by bringing food to her husband working on a construction site or by feeding her newborn son."

Dundes also offers a male perspective on the ballad, saying that by building a structure that contains a woman inside, men try to imitate women's ability to produce children.

"In a sense," he said, "the ballad represents wishful thinking on the part of males, so that they can create remarkable edifices just as women can procreate."

Two other essayists, the Rev. Dr. Krstivoj Kotur and Zora Devrnja Zimmerman, see Christian overtones in the text.

Kotur said the ballad is analogous to "the redemption of the sinful human race by the Son of God."

In the Serbian version of the song, "The Building of Skadar," the Mrnyavchevich brothers sacrifice a woman to redeem their sins.

Much like Jesus, said Dundes, a woman becomes "an innocent person sacrificed for the good of society."

Zimmerman also proposes an alternate meaning -- the immurement symbolizes the historical subjugation of the Serbians by the Turks.

In another chapter, scholar Paul G. Brewster writes that the ballad is based on an actual historical custom in which women were ritually killed as a form of foundation sacrifice.

Skeletons have been found, he said, at spots where immurement was reputed to have taken place.

"A maiden is said to have been buried alive in a wall of the castle of Nieder Manderscheid," he said in the book.

"When in 1844 the wall was broken open at the point indicated by the legend, a skeleton was found imbedded in it."

"Similarly," he said, "at the demolishing of the Bridge Gate at Bremen, the skeleton of a child was found.

"There have been numerous instances of the immuring of a human being in English churches."

Dundes said he sometimes finds it hard to account for the enduring popularity of "The Walled-Up Wife" since it is such a sad song. In his travels, both in the United States and abroad, he constantly encounters people who know the ballad well.

"It's a fascinating story, the ballad," he said.

"But in addition to that, it's an illustration of the continuing importance of folk songs. This is still a live folk song in much of the world."


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