Mythology And Folklore

A look at Tales of Tragic Lovers in World Mythology and what they mean



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When a person thinks of deep and enduring love, numerous stories come to mind of two lovers who were destined to be together.  Overcoming all odds, these two people find each other, fall in love, and manage to thwart all attempts at separation.  "Beauty and the Beast," "Cinderella," and "Snow White" are tales where "love conquers all."  They are inspiring and touching.  But there are also tales where love is tragic.  These often result in one or both lovers dying.  We try not to think about these stories because we want to believe in the power and eternity of love.  But they are teaching stories as well.  Despite the tragedy and/or death involved, they speak to perhaps an even greater love.  A love that cannot be severed even by death.  And though we may all aspire to "live happily ever after" with the man or woman of our dreams, we can also take inspiration from these tragic lovers, many of whom have left a testament to their undying love.

Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl

This Aztec myth involves the beautiful Princess Iztaccihuatl and the handsome and brave warrior Popocatepetl.  They are in love, but before allowing the two to marry, the father of the princess demands that Popcatepetl not only go to war with a rival tribe, but that he return victorious and with proof.  Popocatepetl goes off to fight, but while he is gone, a rival for Iztaccihuatl sends a message that Popocatepetl has been killed.  Filled with grief, Iztaccihuatl falls ill and dies of a broken heart.  When Popocatepetl returns victorious, he finds his love dead.  In his grief, he takes her to the mountains where he makes a funeral pyre for the two of them.  The gods, seeing this love, have pity on them and turn the lovers into two mountains (volcanoes, actually) that stand next to each other to this day and can be seen from Mexico City, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.

Echo and Narcissus

This famous Roman myth (a Greek version exists but is slightly different), a combination of two other myths, tells the story of two almost lovers.  Echo was a beautiful nymph, but suffered from the flaw of being too talkative.  She was used by Zeus to distract Hera so that Zeus could pursue other love interests on earth.  When Hera found out, she punished the nymph by taking her voice and only allowing her to repeat the last few shouted words of another.  The tragedy really begins when Echo sees Narcissus, a very handsome youth, out in the woods.  She falls in love with him, but when she is finally revealed to him, he rejects her.  She spends the rest of her life in sadness, eventually wasting away until all that remains is her voice, repeating the last few words of whatever another shouts.  But Narcissus fares little better.  One day the proud youth sees his own reflection in the water.  He is so taken with himself that he refuses to leave his own reflection and eventually dies there.  And so the narcissus flower (that always grows near water) and an echo are left to us.

These total tragedies often leave us with some remembrance of the people involved.  The volcanoes will be there for thousands of years to come, reminding anyone who looks on them of the great love these two had for each other.  The narcissus flower will remind us of the foolishness of pride and love, while echoes tell us that losing ourselves to grief over something we never had leaves us as less than a shell of ourselves.  Sometimes, though, the tragedy isn't total.  Sometimes the tragedy is one-sided, leaving us with a subtle message that true love is still a two-way street, destined for the pure of heart and purpose.

Apollo and Daphne

In this Greek myth, Apollo runs across Eros and derides him for using arrows, the weapons of war.  In anger, Eros shoots Apollo with a golden arrow for love, and Daphne (a nymph who never wanted to marry in the first place) with a lead arrow for hate.  So Apollo chases after Daphne, who then calls out to her father to save her.  He changes her into a laurel tree.  Apollo, still in love with her, used his powers to make her an evergreen tree, and also claimed the laurel tree as his own (a tradition that still finds its use in the modern day Olympics with the crown of laurel leaves).

The Little Mermaid

We all know the Disney version of this story, but the real version by Hans Christian Andersen isn't nearly as musical or triumphant.  The little mermaid sees a handsome prince and falls in love with him, rescuing him from the sea.  She then trades her voice to a sea witch for legs, though they pain her to use them.  Though she and the prince seem to love each other, the prince eventually marries a princess from another land and the little mermaid dies, her love unrequited.

But even in the best of circumstances, tragedy can befall lovers.  Sometimes the tragedy is brought about by one of the lovers, as in the case of broken trust.

The Snake Prince

In this myth from India, an old woman comes across a magic snake who then turns into a beautiful necklace.  She sells the necklace to the king, whose wife adores it.  Lo and behold, the necklace turns into a beautiful baby boy.  The old woman is called to be a nurse to the boy, and raises him.  The king arranges for his boy to be married to a beautiful princess.  But as the old woman raises the boy, she tells part of the story to different people so that when the prince and princess are married, the rumor of some magic to the prince is discovered.  After consulting with her mother, the princess discovers the prince's secret, which turns him back into a snake.  The princess immediately regrets her actions and has a house built along the river where the prince/snake disappeared.  In time, the prince reappears and another plan is devised whereby he is restored to his human form and the couple lives happily ever after.

Other times, it becomes a case of two lovers who just aren't compatible with each other as they are.  If they choose to give up something of themselves for the sake of their love, the tragedy seems only slight, for in those cases, love truly does conquer all.  These stories then become perhaps the happiest of all tragedies.

Yael and Mulwarra

This Australian story features Yael, a god of the air, and the beautiful human Mulwarra.  One day Yael sees the beautiful human and soars down to her.  The two fall in love.  But because Yael is a creature of the air, he takes Mulwarra up with him where they constantly soar.  Mulwarra is happy with Yael, but she misses the ground under her feet.  So Yael brings her home and, in show of his love, trades in his heavenly wings for legs.  Alas, Yael has trouble walking, and no matter how much Mulwarra loves him, being a human does not suit him.  Yael's father looks down on the lovers, and though he was against the two being together, he sees their love for each other.  His fatherly love wins out.  Though he cannot make Yael happy as a human or Mulwarra happy in the air, he can do something for them.  He turns them into sea lions, where they are able to live happily together.

As much as well love to romanticize about love, these tragic tales of lovers serve as a reminder that love is a fickle master.  More importantly, they tell us that love is not a selfish or egotistical act.  For its own sake only can it be given or asked for.  Perhaps most importantly though, these myths tell us that true love is rewarded.  If not in this life, then certainly the afterlife will see us endure, not only as lovers, but as symbols and reminders to others of what love truly means.

More about this author: Steve Gregory

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