• Leslie Hudson

Whose hair is cleaner, your mother's or mine? asks the lice-ridden granny who lives in a cave

Stories from Armenia, Iraq, and Québec have a few things in common. Kindness and good listening skills a must when dealing with magical, cave-dwelling water-spirits with the power to change your fate.

The magic gift of golden hair. 8/30

Sometimes a magical gift is a double-edged sword. (Literally, I suppose.) Not all paths forward are easy to walk, even when carrying the blessings of those who wish us well. In folklore more often than not our heroine begins with a journey prompted by an adversary. Stepmothers are notorious, while ugly, dirty, old grannies in caves are often good people full of good magic who want what's best for you, even if you'll have to brave dragons in pits, attempted murder, and three years of walking in the desert to get it.

There are several stories I've come across with this recurring motif of a golden-haired person and a lice-ridden person, or someone who it's assumed is lice-ridden because he won't take off his hat (for example, "Lousehead" is German; "Scurvyhead" and "Sir Goldenhair" are Québecois). I also came across another example of both the lice-head/golden-hair pairing and the magic river that flows three different colours in an Iraqi variant of a Cinderella tale, "The Poor Girl and Her Cow" (Neil Philip, The Cinderella Story, 1989). The colours in this case are white, yellow and black.

When the "good" girl listens and follows the water-spirit's instructions she is rewarded for waking her up when the river runs white with fair skin, and when it's yellow with golden hair (though fair/blonde=good; dark/black=bad is problematic). When the "bad" girl does not listen and wakes the water-spirit at the wrong time (when the river runs black) she is punished with two horns growing out of her head when she washes in it.

As we'll see with Sun-Girl, shining, golden hair doesn't always attract the kind of attention you might be hoping for, and fate can take you on wild, unexpected journeys when all you really wanted was to get your comb back.

Sun-Girl's story

A poor girl with a brilliant smile, called Sun-Girl, has a new mom so jealous of her beauty and kindness that she sends her out to card a pound of wool every day and to tend the sheep with only a crust of bread to sustain her. She can't come home until she's carded the wool so when she accidentally drops her carding comb down the cliffside she knows she has to go after it.

Down on the ledge she finds an old woman with lice-filled, greasy hair who lives in a filthy cave, holding her comb. She wants it back but the woman wants to talk to her first. So she asks whose house is cleaner, and the girl says the woman's is. Then she asks whose hair is cleaner, her mother's or hers, and the girl tells the old woman hers is, and the old woman smiles as she lays her lice-ridden head in the girl's willing lap and Sun-Girl combs it out.

The old woman tells her that while she's asleep not to be alarmed when a black river starts to flow through the cave, then a red one, and a yellow one. She instructs Sun-Girl to only wake her up when the river runs yellow, which she does, and the woman jumps up, grabs her by the legs and dunks her headfirst into the water.

When Sun-Girl emerges, her hair matches her smile and her name. It shines like gold. The old woman sends her on her way with her blessing, but Sun-Girl knows she can't go home now. Her stepmother would be the end of her. So she wanders along the road until the shine of her hair catches the eyes of some soldiers out looking for girls to feed to the Dragon-Prince.

They catch her easily and throw her down into the pit where he lives, chipping her tooth when she falls. The Dragon-Prince comes roaring into view, but Sun-Girl greets him cordially and calls him by name, which stops him dead in his tracks with kindness. When he sees her sweet, chipped-tooth smile, his heart fills with warmth and he begins to cry, melting his cursed dragon form away and restoring him to his princely body.

The prince gives the girl a diamond to fix the chip in her tooth so she shines brighter, and by the time the soldiers haul them out of the pit they've decided to marry. Unfortunately, they invite her stepmom whose jealousy has exploded at her good fortune, though she puts on a caring facade. After the wedding mother and daughter do their washing in the river together, where the jealous woman pushes her stepdaughter into the swift flowing water, and goes back to the prince that Sun-Girl slipped in and was drowned.

She doesn't drown but is swept down river for days until she comes ashore in a vast desert. She finds little to eat, walking under the blistering sun until she comes upon a cave with a man sleeping inside. When the sun sets he wakes up and tells her he has been punished by the sun for trying to shoot it with an arrow, and can never go out in the daylight again.

They live together for some time with him hunting at night and her singing songs to the rocks, trees, even the sun, walking about the desert by day. Three years go by, and Sun-Girl has a baby boy. Thinking her son deserves a better life than this, one night her mother (who'd died when she eight years old) comes to her in a dream and tells her to walk west in iron shoes and she will find a cure for her situation.

So she does. She walks west with her baby on her back until her iron shoes are worn away and she finds a golden palace of great beauty. In the palace a great queen lies on a bed of pearls and asks her why she's come. Sun-Girl shows the queen her baby and tells her her troubles. The queen reveals that she is the mother of the sun, and when her son comes home he will bathe in a pool, become young once more, and come to nurse at the queen's breast. When this happens, she tells the girl to fill a bottle with the water, take it home and sprinkle it on her baby's father to break the curse.

Sun-Girl does all this, walking all the way home again and sprinkling the water on her companion. Immediately he runs out into the light and laughs and laughs until the desert is transformed into a lush valley. People from all around come to meet the man no longer cursed and the woman who walked to the palace of the sun, including the prince who was no longer a dragon. Reunited with her husband, Sun-Girl leaves her son with his father, and returns home.

Lesson learned: blondes don't always have more fun, but kindness counts and can change your life when you give it freely to queens and cave-dwellers alike.

"Sun-Girl and Dragon-Prince" is an Armenian tale retold by Katrin Tchana in The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), pp. 77-83.

Tchana's notes say: Based on "Sun-Maid and Dragon-Prince" from Apples of Immortality: Folktales of Armenia, by Leon Surmelian. Copyright (c) 1968 by the University of California Press. Adapted by permission of the University of California Press.

Sun-Girl (the lyrics)

I had two mothers, one who died, the other who hated me

Out to the fields with the sheep and a pound of wool to card

She sent me daily

Every day a misery until I dropped my comb down the cliffside

That was the day that the fates said, hey, it’s your moment

Sun-Girl, climb!

Here I am wandering I know not where

With hair that appears to be spun out of sunshine

Now I’m the Sun-Girl

There’s nowhere to hide

My for better or worse reward: this radiance

Down on the ledge I found a cave and an old woman standing there

She was holding my comb and when I asked for it back, she said

"First sweep my floor bare

Tell me, child, whose house is cleaner?"

"Yours," I assured her with kindness and smiled

I knew what to say and the fates said, hey, it’s your moment

Sun-Girl, rise!

Here I am wandering I know not where

With hair that appears to be spun out of sunshine

Now I’m the Sun-Girl

There’s nowhere to hide

My for better or worse reward: this radiance

She said, "Child, will you comb my hair?"

"Yes, I will," though it was a greasy snarl

She said, "Whose hair is cleaner, your mother’s or mine?"

"Why yours, of course"

She said, "Such a kind girl

"Now let me sleep with my head in your lap

Just let me sleep and a river will flow black and then red

Don’t worry your head

Just wake me up when it's yellow"

I did just what she told me

Then up she jumped and turned me upside-down

She held my head under the water that flowed through her house

Where she slept safe and sound

Strong as a giant she held me

Till I stood on my feet, my hair turned to gold

And it shone like the sun on the water

That flowed down the cliff and was gone

"Now go, child," she said, "my blessings with you"

Here I am wandering I know not where

With hair that appears to be spun out of sunshine

Now I’m the Sun-Girl

There’s nowhere to hide

My for better or worse reward: this radiance

"Sun-Girl" will appear on my next Wanderlings album, The Wanderlings Volume Three, which I'm in the middle of writing. This will be the spring volume, 13 songs of folklore-inspired songs written during or in keeping with the theme of spring.

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