Call me "deer": Supernatural Spouses, Part 2

#folktales #taiwan

This is part two of a two-part supernatural deer spouse series covering another tale out of the Taiwanese indigenous tribe of the Amis, called "Deer Husband."

Once upon a time, there was a young, unmarried woman who lived with her family in a village. One day, out of the blue, she started going out to the field to work alone, refusing all help or even the company of her siblings. Needless to say, such behavior started raising the suspicions of her mother.

One day at midday, the mother decided to sneak up on her daughter where she was working in the fields under the guise of delivering a lunchbox. As she came upon the field, the mother heard two people, one of whom was her daughter, talking, laughing merrily. However, when she rushed into the clearing, she only to find her daughter alone.

The mother demanded to know who was just here, claiming that she heard her daughter speaking and laughing with someone else. The daughter maintained an appearance of total innocence and claimed that as her mother could see herself, she was entirely alone.

The mother looked around their field, certain that somebody had to be helping her daughter, as she couldn't have done all the field chores by herself. She began to accuse her daughter of hiding her lover, but the young woman remained adamant that there was no one, and her mother had no choice but relent. However, she shared her concerns with her husband, and so a few days later, as the millet and yams were ready for harvesting, the father went to the fields to investigate. He found the millet and yams ready for gathering, and also noted how well manicured the field was and how hard more than one person would have to work to do so. Everything appeared in order until he came across some rather large deer tracks by the neat rows.

This is the strangest thing of all, he thought. Here are all the millet and yams, and next to them, deer tracks. A deer could have eaten its fill of yams and millet but didn't take advantage of the bounty before it, and the father decided that he would need to take care of the deer in case it decided to come back and sate its hunger at a later time.

The father returned home for his bamboo rifle and then went back to the edge of the field to wait for the deer. Before long, an antlered buck, entered the field from the forest. As the creature drew closer, the father fatally shot the buck, hoisted the body and slung it over his shoulders and carried it home.

The daughter began to tremble when she saw what her father had brought back from the fields. Upon recognizing the animal, she began to scream, "Why did you kill him? Why did you kill my husband?"

Shocked beyond comprehension, the mother and father demanded that she explain herself, but blinded by grief, the daughter could explain nothing and pushed her parents away. She scrambled up one of the columns of the house and along the roof beam until she was directly over the dead buck's head. To her parent's horror, she leaped from the beam and fell dead onto the buck's antlers.

The broken-hearted father shook his head as he realized the young buck had been his son-in-law who helped tend his fields so well.

This is some pretty sad stuff. I mean, talk about star-crossed lovers on a supernatural level. It's interesting to note that the Deer Husband never changes his shape into human form, or reveals a spirit nature, and in fact dies at the hands of a human. All we know of his supernatural nature is that he is overheard speaking with the young woman he took as his wife. We will never know if he truly was an animal spirit or an enchanted animal.

Both “Deer Husband” and “Deer Maiden” show two youths who show this affinity for nature. I think in both the East and the West there is a very human desire to be a part of the natural world. It is in our past, and despite how far human civilization has come, we never really escape our biological connection with what is wild. Children, especially, seem drawn to animals, and as adults, we aren't immune to the wonder of nature, even if we know it is a more harsh and unforgiving reality than what we're used to.

The young man from “Deer Maiden,” Ya'ai proves his virtue by saving his wife from a deadly snake attack, and the young woman from “Deer Husband” finds the buck a loving companion and dependable family helper. However, these folktales, like many of its kind, end sadly. They are not relationships that can ultimately last, which Dr. Lobb indicates in his collection of stories, suggests that humans – like the young woman from “Deer Husband” – are no longer able to reclaim that past connection with nature that we often desire. Nor are humans – no matter how virtuous like the young man Ya'ai in “Deer Maiden” – with our sense of free will, able to maintain our end of the bargain with the spirit world. Violating a simple agreement with his wife causes their eternal separation, and shows that no matter how much we may wish it, humans and spirits are not meant to be together in the long run.

You can find another example of this sort of relationship in The Legend of the White Snake, which I cover in a different video. Be sure to check that one out, as it is one of the four great folktales of ancient China.


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