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Icelandic folk-tale: The Virgin Mary and the Ptarmigan

Next Sunday is Whitsunday, so here is a story that mentions that holiday.

This story sounds very much like it might have first been told about some goddess and then transferred to the Virgin Mary.

Once upon a time the Virgin Mary called all the birds in the world to her. When they came she ordered them to walk through fire. Knowing she was the Queen of Heaven and very powerful, they dared not disobey and all of them jumped into the fire and waded through it, with the exception of the ptarmigan. But when they got to the other side of the fire all the feathers on their legs had been burned off and only the bare skin remained, and so it has been to this day. 

As for the ptarmigan, whose feet remained feathered because she didn’t wade the fire, her disobedience made Mary so angry that she laid a hex on the bird, saying that she should henceforth be the most harmless and defenceless of birds and likewise so persecuted that she would always live in fear, except on the Whitsun. Furthermore, the falcon, who was her brother, would henceforth hunt her for food.

However, Mary was not completely without mercy and gave the ptarmigan the gift of being able to change colour according to the seasons, turning all white in the winter to bland in with the snow and grayish brown in the summer to blend into the shrubs, so the falcon would not find her too easy a prey.

So ti has been ever since. The ptarmigan is harmless and persecuted by all, especially the falcon who kills and eats her every chance he gets. But when he gets to her heart, he knows she is his sister and becomes so overcome with grief that whenever he has killed and eaten a ptarmigan he will cry out in grief for a long time afterward.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.


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