Variations on a Theme in Myth
May 24, 2015 9:49 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to find more stories (preferably myths/folklore, but general fiction/film/etc of any time is fine) that contain a certain motif. I would also like to know if there is a term for a story that contains this kind of theme which I can only describe by example beneath the fold. Sorry I can't distill its essence, but I can answer questions if you need more precision.

One example is the part in Japanese myth “The Crane Wife” where the man realizes that his ailing crane wife has been ripping feathers from her wings to weave with her loom. A similar (and gory) take on this is in the movie “Mermaid in a Manhole,” wherein the man paints with the mermaid’s blood and she grows weak. I will add that I have not yet read The Golden Bough but know of it, and I’ll also add that I’m familiar with the Decemberists album The Crane Wife already.
posted by mermaidcafe to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Oval Portrait, by Edgar Allen Poe? Guy gets so engrossed in painting his wife's portrait that he doesn't realize she's wasted away.
posted by kellyblah at 9:56 AM on May 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not like the O. Henry twist from "The Gift" where the wife has been selling her hair to help the guy out?
posted by johngoren at 10:12 AM on May 24, 2015

Best answer: There's an anime series called "Chrono Crusade" which is like that. We'll begin by saying it isn't very good; not worth your time to watch.

Anyway, the protagonist is Sister Rosette Christopher, who has made a deal with a demon named Chrono. Sister Rosette works as an exorcist, using weapons like pistol bullets loaded with holy water, and Chrono accompanies her. When they face something particularly heavy, Chrono can transform into a much more powerful form to fight it. But every time he does, he consumes a bit of Sister Rosette's soul. At the end of the series he has taken it all, and she dies.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:14 AM on May 24, 2015

Writing his last composition sapped the life from Mozart, or so a certain madman in a certain film with Tom Hulce would have use believe.
Though it is more likely Mozart killed himself, by some deadly cocktail of tuberculosis and cirrhosis.
posted by Glinn at 10:21 AM on May 24, 2015

This may or may not qualify, being a myth, but not a story, but pelicans were a traditional symbol of love and self-sacrifice because medieval Europeans believed that they would wound themselves in the chest so that they could feed their chicks with their own blood.
posted by firechicago at 10:29 AM on May 24, 2015

The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde?
posted by HandfulOfDust at 10:30 AM on May 24, 2015

Best answer: What about Shel Silverstein's the Giving Tree? The basic premise is that the tree sacrifices her branches, leaves, etc for this boy throughout his life time. Not a myth, but I think it fits into this general theme.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:46 AM on May 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

If TV shows work, there is a season 3 episode of House, "Son of a Coma Guy,", where the father commits suicide so that his son can have his heart in order to live.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:49 AM on May 24, 2015

> Though it is more likely Mozart killed himself, by some deadly cocktail of tuberculosis and cirrhosis.

No it's not. I love Ebert too, but he's no historian. Nobody knows why Mozart died, though there are plenty of theories; here's a Wikipedia summary of them.

As for the original question, it would really help if you could be more specific; either give more examples or make an attempt to pin down what you're after.
posted by languagehat at 11:24 AM on May 24, 2015


I'm going to say NBC Hannibal.

I'll just leave that there and exit quietly by the service door.
posted by tel3path at 12:53 PM on May 24, 2015

A couple clarifying questions:

Aside from the "self sacrifice" thing, are you specifically looking for some element of fantasy? Like, the kind of sacrifice that doesn't happen in reality? (Maybe that's what you were getting at with this being a theme in myths?) Also, do you want art to be central to the story?

And two more ideas:

What about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde? The more concrete sacrifice is Sybil giving up her stage career, but I suppose Dorian Gray stabbing his painting could count as well. It definitely has some "mythic" qualities in the sense that the portrait ages instead of him, and then when he stabs the painting, he ends up dead himself.

If you aren't looking for specific elements of fantasy, "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry could work, since one of the characters risks (and sacrifices) his life to paint a leaf in order to give another character the will to live.
posted by litera scripta manet at 2:41 PM on May 24, 2015

[TV Tropes Link Warning] Muse Abuse. For values of "muse" to mean sometimes just a single aspect of the artist's body or mind (the crane feathers), and for the artist and muse to sometimes be the same person, but not always.
posted by Mizu at 2:44 PM on May 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a book I read as a kid, the usual fantasy trope--stableboy comes to the castle, gets recruited by EVUL WIZZERD to kill the princess. Every night he cuts out her heart and replaces it with something else--a china heart, I can't remember what else.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:54 PM on May 24, 2015

Response by poster: litera scripta manet et al:

Good questions!

Fantasy is necessary and art/creative expression is preferable but not vital.

I can't think of any real-life versions of this that would hit me the same. It doesn't have to be a fantastic creature (like a crane wife or mermaid) that self-sacrifices, but I'm specifically looking for stories where the sacrifice is somehow magical, like how wing feathers improve the weaving or mermaid blood improves the art.
posted by mermaidcafe at 4:38 PM on May 24, 2015
posted by Jacen at 5:42 PM on May 24, 2015

Tears come to mind.
posted by gray17 at 6:32 PM on May 24, 2015

So there's this work in folklore study called the Stith Thompson Motif Index that gives a number and shorthand name to common motifs, associating them with a brief plot summary that lets you assign stories a 'type.' I don't own a copy, but the index itself can be found online, and I think these would fall under the heading S: Unnatural Cruelty, numbers S200-299, "Cruel Sacrifices." There's also a whole section on love and marriage that might had related stories.

A good research library would have the index in print form. Short version: sacrifice is an extremely common theme in folklore, and you'll find lots of variants.
posted by Miko at 7:42 PM on May 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

The second half of the book THE NEVERENDING STORY has this - note that the book is VERY different from the film, mind; in it, the main character is a little boy who's been reading a book about a fantasy land and suddenly is pulled inside it, just as it collapses. But he is given the power to rebuild it, simply by wishing things into being. It's not until he's created a tin of things and set various forces in motion that he learns that every act of creation stole a memory from him, and he is now in danger of forgetting who he is and how to go home.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:56 PM on May 24, 2015

There is a monk in the book "The Iron Council" by China Mieville who can find out obscure truths, but at the cost of becoming more insubstantial each time, until he finally becomes like a ghost.
posted by xris at 11:36 PM on May 24, 2015

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