“Can you tell me the way then, so I can find you!”
“Yes, you may try,” said he; “but there is no way thither. It lies east of the sun and west of the moon, and never would you find your way there.”
“I will, because I will seek you.”
East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a Norwegian fairytale written around 1890. Like most other tales, it comes from oral folk traditions, and there are many earlier variants such as Beauty and the Beast, and the Black Bull of Norroway. All these have their birth place in the Greek myth of the eternal love between Cupid and Psyche; and what all these tales explore is the narrative of the search for the lost husband, as well as the marriage with an animal bridegroom, all of which you can read about in my essay Wild Marriage.
Photography by Katerina Plotnikova
The first time I came across the animal bridegroom was when I was a very young girl reading the Brother’s Grimm tale of Snow-White and Red-Rose. There was such a sense of warm comfort that I felt from the tale, as I imagined how the bear would sit beside the fire telling them stories; and how Snow-White cared for him so much only to then find out that he was a man, a prince, who loved her all along, and that he’s the one she’d marry someday. There was such mysticism, imagining them in their little house tucked away in the forest and the beautiful rose garden on their front porch.
Animal bridegroom narratives can be traced back to 4,000 years. Two worlds meet, they touch, they kiss, and find that love is not only something felt in the hearts, it is known by the hands also. And yet sometimes the lovers can’t be together in the long term because somehow they can’t reconcile their different worlds. Other times, love does win after all; and despite being from different worlds the lovers reunite. This reunion and ability to reach deep intimacy though, can only be once the lovers take off their masks, their false skins, and fall in the trust and radical self-honesty through some transformation. And while the transformations in tales are portrayed as external, the truth is that it always begins in the inner emotional and spiritual wildlands.
Today we’ll move through the lands of Norway to Scotland, and then all to way to ancient Greece, as we discover the mystical secrets of what love often is.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Illustrated by Kay Nielsen
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Perhaps it all begins with a dream, born of the depth of our heart’s desire, and then sent like a song, a soul’s longing, for the one whose heart will hear it too.
At least this is how I always think meaningful stories start.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon begins with a white polar bear approaching the house of a poor peasant and asking him for his daughter’s hand in marriage; in exchange for her hand, the bear will give him many riches.
From the first moment she saw him, the girl knew the bear had come for her. How many times had she dreamt of him, of riding on his back, sleeping wrapped safe in his paws, walking beside him? How many times, on their terrifying journey, had she imagined the bear walking beside her, guarding her family while they slept? Now he was here, as if spelled from her dreams.
And so they set off; the beautiful girl climbed on the bear’s back and they left into the wilderness.
“Don’t be afraid,” the bear would tell her, “I’ll take care of you and protect you, from all strong winds and storms and freezing weathers, just hold on tightly to my back and take comfort in the warmth of my coat.”
Eventually they reached the bear’s castle, which was a beautiful glorious castle, and the girl lived there with all comforts and tender caring for her needs. Each night, unknowingly to the girl, the bear would turn into a man and come into the bedchambers of his wife to sleep beside her; though he always told her that it is forbidden to turn on the lamp for she was not meant to ever see him.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Illustrated by P J Lynch
As nights and days went on, and the words of other people reached her, the girl became more and more worried why she wasn’t allowed to turn on the lamps. If they truly loved each other, why are there such secrets? Who was she really sharing her bed with? What if it was a troll who is dangerous and would harm her?
So she hid a candle, and in the middle of the night held the lamp to her husband, only to uncover that he was a most attractive and handsome young man. Spilling three drops of tallow on his shirt, the man woke up in fear,
“If only you’d been patient my love … My witch step-mother put a curse on me and if had you restrained your curiosity until one year had passed, the curse would have been lifted. But now I must go to the impossible place at east of the sun, west of the moon, and marry the bride that’s been chosen for me who is her daughter – a troll.”
Illustration by Kay Nielsen
“I am sorry my love please forgive me. But I will seek you, I will always seek you even to this impossible place until I find you ….”
When the prince vanished, the girl wept and wept, but with the courage that the passion of our heart gave her, she began her journey into the wilderness towards the unknown lands to east of the sun, west of the moon.
Many years passed, and many pages of the story pass as well if you read the book, and through them all the girl endures many hardships; but with a kindness of rhythm she learns patience, and in each seemingly meaningless step, we find that greater significance lies as it turns out that it gives her just what she needs to take the next step.
At last, after any years, she finds the castle of the prince, where he is getting ready to marry the witch’s daughter, the troll.
Overjoyed to her and finally be reunited with the woman of his heart, they embrace and think of a plan to outwit the troll and get married.
In the morning and calmly he told the troll that he wished to be married in his stained shirt from the candle wax.
“I bid you to wash it for me, my dear bride to be, for I will only wish and desire to marry the woman who will clean the stains.”
The troll agreed because she thought it’d be a simple task and she wanted to please the desires of him – but when she began to wash the shirt, the stains became dirtier and dirtier. She pleaded with the prince that it is impossible for the shirt to be washed and he shouted, “What do you mean impossible? Do you not love me? Even the beggar at the gates can wash it!” The troll, irritated and somewhat humiliated because her ego was hurt, said, “Well okay then, let’s see if the beggar can wash them!”
The beggar of course was the girl who had been the prince’s one true love all along. She was naturally able to easily wash the stains away, as it was always his destiny to marry only her.
Black Bull of Norroway
Somewhat fifty years before East of the Sun, West of the Moon, in 1845 was written the Scottish tale Black Bull of Norroway. The story however begins with three daughters and each of them went to an old seer woman to find their fortunes.
The old woman sent each one of them to stand outside and wait for her fortune to arrive, “Whatever arrives is your destiny and you should accept it.” For the first two girls men in rich carriages arrived; but for the third girl an angry black bull stormed forth. The girl was absolutely terrified but had to get on his back for it was her destiny, or so she was told.
Illustration by P J Lynch
Similar to the Norwegian tale, they travelled together far and wide, and as the bull was caring, respectful and protective over the girl, she began to bond to him deeply. As they reached a dark forest, the bull told her,
“You must wait here while I go fight the one who caused me harm, and whatever you do, do not move, even an inch, or I will not be able to find you after.”
The forest was enchanted and if she spoke, the roads would all twist and turn, and they’d be lost from one another. What the girl didn’t know was the bull was actually the knight of Norroway, the knight of courage and riches, much greater than all other men, but a spell was put on him by the devil. To fight the spell, he now had to go into the forest, while the girl had to stay patient.
He told her that if the sky turned blue, then she’d know that he had won, and if the sky turned red, then she’d know that he had lost. But she shouldn’t move nor speak until he comes back.
The girl waited and waited, her heart beat with worry because she had begun to love the bull and care for him deeply. Suddenly, the sky turned blue and overjoyed she moved instinctively – and so the paths twisted and turned, and the knight was never able to returns to her. “If only she had been more patient, why didn’t you listen to me, my love,” the knight sighed.
For a long time the girl wandered around the forest until one day she found a blacksmith. She started working for him and learned patience and allowance.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Illustrated by P J Lynch
Eventually she found her way to the home of a witch who offered her shelter if she cleaned some bloody shirts that she and her daughters had been unable to clean; whoever cleaned the shirt was destined to marry the knight of Norroway.
As soon as the girl touched the shirt, even without soap, the shirts were all clean! The girl then decided to bribe the witch and pleaded with her to let her stay in front of the knight’s door at night. For three nights she stayed in front of his door speaking in her beautiful voice but the knight couldn’t hear her because the witch had given him some sleeping-drinks.
Until the last night, just before his marriage to the witch’s daughter, when he accidently spilled the drink before bedtime; as the girl spoke again in front of his door, he woke up, embraced her and they married. The lovers were finally reunited after many years.
What I love about this tale is the emphasis on patience and trust because this is what love is based on.
Cupid and Psyche
Both these tales, and many others, are based upon the myth of Cupid and Psyche or Eros and Psyche, a tale that appears in The Golden Ass which is a novel by Lucius Apuleius from the second century AD. Psyche was a beautiful mortal girl that goddess Venus grew jealous of. So she ordered her son Cupid to harm the girl but he fell in love with her instead.
After many suitors somehow stopped asking for Psyche’s hand in marriage, her parents consulted an oracle to find out of she’d ever marry.
“Yes, she is destined to marry and her husband is found on the top of a cliff, though he is a fierce winged serpent.”
Her parents protested but Psyche climbed to the mountain top to meet her fate with a brave face. There, a gentle warm breeze Zahir carried her to a beautiful palace where she was tended and cared for like a most beloved queen.
Illustration by John D Batten
Each night an unseen lover in human shape would join her in bed. She didn’t know it but this was Cupid who disguised himself as the winged serpent, so that his mother wouldn’t find out that he disobeyed her orders.
Eventually Psyche grew homesick and invited her sisters in the palace. They were jealous of all the wealth and abundance of Psyche and no matter how much she told them that the winged serpent treated her in the kindest way possible, they convinced her that he was probably a ugly monster, so she must see his face.
That night, shaken and doubtful by her sisters’ words, she lit an oil lamp to see her beloved’s face while he was sleeping – and she found a beautiful man in her bed. When an oil drop fell on him, he woke up in horror, crying out, “Is this how you repay my love? Is your sisters’ advice more important than trusting me and my love? Now you’ll never see me again.”
At this moment the Gods intervened, and the palace, along with Cupid, all disappeared. This set off Psyche on a set of long adventures until she finally found Venus and humbled herself in front of her. Venus gave her a set of almost impossible tasks to complete, but with the help of Cupid who had already forgiven her because he never stopped loving her, Psyche succeeded in completing the tasks. Jupiter intervened soothing Venus, turned Psyche into an immortal and blessed her marriage with Cupid. A baby girl was then born who they named Pleasure.
Cupid and Psyche by Friedrich Paul Thumann
This is a tale about true love, soul love, deep love.
It is perhaps one of my favourite stories of all time not just because it is one of romance and blinding passion, Eros is the God of desire and love after all, but also because of its depth and meaning.
It is a story of fate, faith, trust, soul connection, and purification and redemption despite loss and separation. Eros, meaning desire, and Psyche, meaning soul or breath of life, remind us to breathe life into the desires of our soul.
Their story is one where body meets soul for the purified true love to become capable of transcending time and space. It is a reminder of the importance of trust and self-love first in order to raise our vibration to be resonance with such higher consciousness, so that the divine is experienced through our physical body. It also reminds us that it takes two to make a relationship work.
Truth and trust are vital for building the foundations of love; and both must be honest about their selves from the start. And always, like in the other tales of both real life and fantasy, we need to walk a patience of rhythm – for patience is the mark of truest love.
In all these tales, in the search of the lost husband, three common themes are shared: the marriage to a mysterious non-human figure, the breaking of something forbidden with the subsequent loss of the lover, and a pilgrimage or a set of adventures to regain the lover back, so that a more lasting union is formed based on trust and truth.
For both of the characters, they could not have sustained the marriage otherwise; we can’t live in lies and false skins. These tales should not be seen as the man having the right not to say something or to keep some important secret to himself, because after all, that’s not trustworthy neither. Real life isn’t full of spells and curses, and partners should be honest from the start. This is precisely what these tales show – that each had some accountability and contributed to the situation.
Deep love and true intimacy are only possible when we unveil ourselves and show who we truly are. Through love, and because of love, we shed skins, layers of identities, and what shines beneath is the beauty of our soul. That’s how hearts connect. That’s how we love. Surely, sometimes, there are also secrets that lovers may know of but will never speak of, and that’s a humility that deserves to be treasured and respected.
We will always retain some of our previous magic and wildness even when we’ve let go of skins, but we’ll be able to create a new body, the body of our union and togetherness, the sacred space in which our love will thrive and which would need to be nurtured and protected by both of us.
Photography by Katerina Plotnikova
To the ancients, the bear symbolized ressurection, and the connection of women to the cycles of the land. In winter, she would go into hibernation and its heartbeat would descrease to almost nothing. Often times the male would impregnate the female right before hibernation, and yet perhaps miraculously, the egg and sperm would not unite immediately. They float and dance separately until the approaching of spring. And then, at the end of her winter’s sleep, they would unite so that her cubs are born in the wamth of spring and she could feed them as she awakens – to provide them with the nurturing, caring and attention that they need to grow healthily.
This is a profound metaphor for our lives and for the importance of knowing how to tune our bodies to the cycles of land, both lands of our inner and outer realm. In relationships too, there are times for quietness, and there are times for intentional initiation. What could be seen as a dry empty phase, would only be followed by spring and the newness of the blossoming – from seeds planted before yet knowing that all needs time to grow with a patience and kindness of rhythm, and with trust in life ,and with trust in oneself and the other. It’s a natural unfolding but what is meant for us will never pass us by.
In the psyche, the bear often symbolizes our own ability to navigate through our emotional wildlands, and to regulate our own feeling life. The bear power is in the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert and aware, and when needed to quiet down into a hibernative sleep – the higher purpose of which is to renew our energy for the next cycle and phase of life. It also offers us insight on the ability to be both/and: both patient and initiative, both generous and fierce, both tender and resilient, both kind and protective. We make our boundaries known clearly, we protect our territories, and we shake the skies when we need to; yet we remain fair, compassionate and accessible at all times.
Relationships always go through their own phases but if we learn to pay attention to our beloved every day, then we can always re-learn and re-discover the kissing, the holding and the caring. Every marriage has its wild parts; the wild within us and the wild parts of our partners. There is an allowance and acceptance that we’ll never fully know another, but that’s okay. Our inner worlds too change as we change but we can always stay curious and explore one another like art, seeing beautiful new angels and shades every day.
Photography by Katerina Plotnikova
When two worlds meet, they touch, they kiss, and we find that love is not only felt in the hearts, it is known by our hands also.
Just as in animal bridegroom narratives, some lovers cannot reconcile their different worlds, while others do. And then there are those who sometimes lose each other, but somehow, someway, they find their way back, and are able to not only reconnect but to actually finally build something true and real. This reunion however comes only after a time of self-reflection, transformation and radical self-honesty.
Spiritual development isn’t for the faint of heart, but real love too isn’t for the faint of heart.
Love is a greedy kingdom that demands all of us, every part, it’s a complete dissolution of self as we take another in our heart and in our life.
Blood of my blood, bone of my bone, I give you my heart, I give you my vow, our hearts beat as one, our souls again kiss as one, from time before time beyond time, a love as past lives, as now, as always and forever, and then after, again.
Illustration by Kay Nielsen
In Margaret Atwood’s poem, Habitation, she beautifully portrays the ways in which a marriage is both a challenge and an opportunity for a deepening.
The poem is basically stating that the idea of marriage is still almost primitive to us. It is something humans cannot really understand and need to work at because it is not quite natural to us. She emphasizes the need to dedicate our effort into one another and the need to build our marriage from the ground up.
The core of marriage expressed in the poem is that it must be based only on love, not on physical trappings like the ideas of house or the white picket fence. These are not what binds a couple for a lifetime. What binds us in love is our ability to adapt in any climate and adjust through the changing shapes as we walk along the wilderness.
And sometimes learning, or re-learning, to build our fire, as primitive as it may sound, is actually the path forward and towards each other.
And where is this east of the sun, west of the moon?
It is the whisper of the trees, the unknown horizons towards which your eyes shift, as if you are looking for something, waiting for something, seeking something, yet perhaps you don’t even know what yet. It is the calling you towards itself, with a voice older than us, and more ancient than time. It is the things you feel attracted to, as if they have possessed your soul since childhood, things which feel familiar more than one life should allow.
It is the knowing of your heart; the knowing that somewhere beyond the mountains, beyond the seas, is the one you were made for, just as he was made only for you. To reach this place, this place where your heart belongs, you just have to trust, listen and follow it.
This article features excerpts from my essay Wild Marriage, and is part of my series “The Story Threads” where I discuss the various layers of famous tales, lore and myth, and how it all relates to our modern world. Previous posts in these series include What Donkeyskin Knows, What Cinderella Knows, What The Snow Queen Knows, What Sleeping Beauty Knows, What Rapunzel Knows, The Gift of the Magi, The Dandelion Girl, What Snow White Knows, Beauty and Her Beast, Weaving Life, Bluebeard, Étaín, and many more that you can find in my folklore + myth section.
For more of my writings, browse through my Art of Love.
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Cover photography by Eugenio Recuenco.