There were these masons, nine or twelve, they say. And they took upon themselves to erect a building--strong and beautiful, like none there was before. And they worked day and night. And night and day they worked, but whatever they constructed during the day collapsed at night, and whatever they built during the night fell to the ground by morning.
And it was so for three weeks--even three years. The head mason then learned that they needed to make a sacrifice: to offer the first woman to come on the morrow, for an atonement to whomever or whatever caused the walls to keep coming down.
And the next morning the master's wife came, loving, with a good meal for her husband. And they seized her, and they built her into the walls. And the walls stood from then on. Some still stand to this day.
So goes the story of the masons--often told, often sung, often played in a theater, often printed in books. A story that is found in the folklore of many peoples from Europe to India. It was first reported by Serbian folklorist Vuk Karadžić in 1815. A hundred and eighty years later, Alan Dundes, folklore scholar from the USA estimated that adding up the numbers of Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, and Albanian versions of the ballad
results in a total of more than seven hundred variants
The Hungarian version of the story is called „Kőműves Kelemen balladája
„The ballad of Mason Clement”,
and it has been adapted as the theme of plays, novels, fine arts creations, a rock opera, and even a Tetris game. It first appeared in print in János Kriza's 1863 collection of Hungarian (Transylvanian) folksongs, Vadrózsák
(Wild Roses). Ninon Leader, American folklorist lists seventeen versions of it from Transylvania and Moldavia, and he provides a careful, full-length English translation of what he calls Version A in Hungarian Classical Ballads and their Folklore
. We will use Leader's rendition in the following introduction to the story.
Twelve masons, including Kelemen, the master mason, took upon themselves to build the fortress of Déva (its ruins are still found on a hilltop in Transylvania), for the price of half a bushel of silver and half a bushel of gold. They begin construction, but the walls they build by noon collapse by nighttime, and the walls they put up during the night collapse by dawn. The masons take counsel and seal a pact that in order to make the wall stand, they will burn the first wife who comes to visit her husband, and mix her tender ashes into the lime.
The next scene takes us to the courtyard of Kelemen, the master mason, where we hear the master’s wife calling her coachman: she wishes to visit her husband. Despite foul weather and the coachman's plea to turn around (he had dreamed that a deep well had opened in the master's courtyard, and his little son drowned in it), she insists on pressing on.
The master notices them coming and utters a prayer for disasters to strike the coach that they might turn around:
My God, my God, take her away somewhere!
May all my four bay horses break their legs,
May all the four wheels of my coach break into pieces,
May the burning arrow of God [thunderbolt] fall on the road,
May my horses snort and turn home! (Leader 20)
His prayer is in vain, however: his wife soon greets the twelve masons. Kelemen returns her greeting and tells her about the decision the masons made:
Now we are going to take you gently, throw you into the fire,
We are going to mix your tender ashes with the lime,
Only so can we make strong the tall castle of Déva,
Only so can we win the rich price for it. (Leader 20-21)
After she is informed of her fate, the wife only asks that the "twelve murderers" allow her to go home to say good-bye to her lady friends and to her little son. Her request is granted; she is burnt upon her return.
When Kelemen returns to his house, his son asks about his mother. At first, Kelemen claims that she will come home by night or by morning break, but the next day he tells his son that his mother is built into the stone walls of the citadel. The son journeys to the citadel and calls three times that his mother speak but one word to him:
"I cannot speak my son, for the stone wall presses me,
I am built in between high stones here."
Her heart broke, so did the ground under her,
Her little son fell and died. (Leader 21)
Why tell this tale? Why would twenty-first century people be interested in a story that seems to be talking about a woman being sacrificed so that a building may stand? Are there no feminists in Hungary who could raise their voices against such a story being told and retold? Is the story about the woman? Is it about the men? Is it about the building? Is it about the act of construction? Could it be about them all? Or could it have another message hidden among the words?
to find out what we think about it.
Bencze, Iren. “The Walled-up Wife”: In Search of Meaning in the Perpetuation of the Ballads Komuves Kelemen and Mesterul Manole
. Logan, UT, USA: Utah State University, 2004.
Dundes, Alan, ed. The Walled-Up Wife
. Madison, USA: U of Wisconsin P, 1996.
Leader, Ninon. Hungarian Classical Ballads and their Folklore
. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1967.
Images from the 'Komuves Kelemen' musical
performed by the Military Group (Honved Egyuttes
'Komuves Kelemen' musical on CD
Flaccus Publishing bookstore
'Komuves Kelemen' lyrics --
13 out of the 16 tracks
The cornerstone: a substitute for the old practice of immuring a living person in the walls?
More on this subject coming up in subsequent articles.
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'The Walled-up Wife' - 2
Why would twenty-first century people be interested in a story that seems to be talking about a woman being sacrificed so that a building may stand? Is the story about the woman? Is it about the men? Is it about the building? Is it about the act of construction? Could it be about them all? Or could it have another message hidden among the words?
Humans everywhere are fueled by the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, from a creation that has value for generations...