Common tales in Italian, Swedish and British Ballads: a comparison


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1. The concealed death     2. The return of the dying son     3. Edward/Sven I Rosengard     4. How an old Viking saga  

5. Brun the Robber/L'inglesina/Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight     6. De Två Systrarna / The Cruel Sister      7.  Interactive Exercises



6.   De Två Systrarna (The two sisters ) / Cruel Sister


This Scandinavian ballad, De Tva Systrarna, is the root for the Scottish variant that follows.


Där bodde en bonde vid sjöastrand
Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön
Och tvenne döttrar hade han.
Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön.

Den ena var vit som den klara sol
Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön
Den andra var svart som den svartaste kol.
Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön.

”Vi tvättar oss bägge i vattnet nu
Så blir jag väl som viter som du.”

”Å tvättar du dig både nätter och dar
Så aldrig du blir som viter som jag.”

Och som de nu stodo på sjöastrand
Så stötte den fulaste sin syster av sand.

”Kära min syster du hjälp mig i land
Och dig vill jag giva min lille fästeman.”

”Din fästeman honom får jag ändå

Men aldrig ska du mer på gröna jorden gå.”

Där bodde en spelman vid en strand
Han såg i vattnet var liket det sam.
Spelemannen henne till stranden bar
Och gjorde av henne en harpa så rar

Spelemannen tog hennes guldgula hår
Harporsträngar därav han slog

Spelemannen tog hennes fingrar små
Gjorde harpan tapplor på
Spelemannen tog hennes snövita bröst
Harpan hon klinga med ljuvelig röst

Så bar harpan i bröllopsgård
Där bruden hon dansar med gulleband i hår

Trenne slag uppå gullharpan rann
Den bruden har tagit min lille fästeman

Om söndan så satt hon i brudstol röd
Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön
Om måndan hon brändes i aska och dö
Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön.

Once lived a peasant near a lakeshore

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

Two daughters he had

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


One of them was bright like the sun

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

The other was dark like the darkest coal/charcoal

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


Come; let us go end wash ourselves in the lakeshore

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

So I will be as white as you

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


Washing yourself day and night

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

Will never make you as bright as I am

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


When they stood there on the lakeshore

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

Pushed the oldest one her sister to water

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


Oh my dearest sister, help me to the shore

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

I will give you my beloved one

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


Your beloved one will come to me anyway

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

But you shall never walk on God’s green land anymore

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


There lived a folk musician close to the shore

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

He saw in the bay the swimming corpse

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


He carried the little maiden to the shore

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

Of her body made the sweetest harp

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


He took the little maiden’s golden hair

He made tiny strings on the harp

The musician took her tiny fingers

He made (tapplor?) on/of the harp


He took the little maiden’s snow-white breasts

This harp shall tickle delightful sounds


Then they took to the wedding (garden)

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

Where the bride danced with golden ribbon on her hair

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake


Three sounds from the harp were blown/played

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

That bride had taken my beloved one


When the third sound from the harp was played

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake

The maiden who sat on the bride’s chair was dead

Cold, cold winds are blowing from the lake



Cruel sister

(Child 10)

The ballad Cruel Sister or Two Sisters as we have seen comes from the Scandinavian countries where it is still sung. As usual when a ballad comes from another country you lose details or you add deeds and characters that are closer to the communities that sing the tale. However there are so many versions of this ballad in all Scandinavian languages with so many variants that it is impossible to go back to a feasible original story. As the ballad exists in English in form of fairy tale and it contains many recurrent episodes found in some Scandinavian versions we can attain to this as a possible complete story.

Once upon a time there were two king's daughters who lived in a bower near the bonny mill-dams of Binnorie. and Sir William came wooing the elder and won her love, and plighted troth with glove and with ring. But after a time he looked upon the younger sister, with her cherry cheeks and golden hair, and his love went out to her till he cared no longer for the elder one. So she hated her sister for taking away Sir William's love, and day by day her hate grew and grew and she plotted and she planned how to get rid of her.

So one fine morning, fair and clear, she said to her sister, “Let us go and see our father's boats come in at the bonny mill-stream of Binnorie.” So they went there hand in hand. And when they came to the river's bank, the younger one got upon a stone to watch for the beaching of the boats. And her sister, coming behind her, caught her round the waist and dashed her into the rushing mill-stream of Binnorie.

O sister, sister, reach me your hand!” She cried, as she floated away, “And you shall have half of all I've got or shall get.” “No, sister, I'll reach you no hand of mine, for I am the heir to all your land. Shame on me if I touch her hand that has come 'twixt me and my own heart's love.” “O sister, O sister, then reach me your glove!” She cried, as she floated further away, “and you shall have your William again.” “Sink on,” cried the cruel princess, “no hand or glove of mine you'll touch. Sweet William will be all mine when you are sunk beneath the bonny mill-stream of Binnorie.” And she turned and went home to the king's castle.

And the princess floated down the mill-stream, sometimes swimming and sometimes sinking, till she came near the mill. Now, the miller's daughter was cooking that day, and needed water for her cooking. And as she went to draw it from the stream, she saw something floating towards the mill-dam, and she called out, “Father! Father! Draw your dam! There's something white, a merry maid or a milk-white swan coming down the stream.” So the miller hastened to the dam and stopped the heavy, cruel mill-wheels. And then they took out the princess and laid her on the bank. Fair and beautiful she looked as she lay there. In her golden hair were pearls and precious stones; you could not see her waist for her golden girdle, and the golden fringe of her white dress came down over her lily feet. But she was drowned, drowned !

And as she lay there in her beauty, a famous harper passed by the mill-dam of Binnorie, and saw her sweet pale face. And though he travelled on far away, he never forgot that face, and after many days he came back to the bonny mill-stream of Binnorie. But then all he could find of her where they had put her to rest were her bones and her golden hair. So he made a harp out of her breast-bone and her hair, and travelled on up the hill from the mill-dam of Binnorie till he came to the castle of the king her father.

That night they were all gathered in the castle hall to hear the great harper king and queen, their daughter and son, Sir William, and all their Court. And first the harper sang to his old harp, making them joy and be glad, or sorrow and weep, just as he liked. But while he sang, he put the harp he had made that day on a stone in the hall. And presently it began to sing by itself, low and clear, and the harper stopped and all were hushed. And this is what the harp sung:

O yonder sits my father, the king,
Binnorie, O Binnorie;
And yonder sits my mother, the queen;
By the bonny mill-dams o' Binnorie.

And yonder stands my brother Hugh,
Binnorie, O Binnorie;
And by him my William, false and true;
By the bonny mill-dams o' Binnorie.”

Then they all wondered, and the harper told them how he had seen the princess lying drowned on the bank near the bonny mill-dams o' Binnorie, and how he had afterwards made his harp out of her hair and breast-bone. Just then the harp began singing again, and this is what it sang out loud and clear:

And there sits my sister who drowned me
By the bonny mill-dams o' Binnorie.”

And the harp snapped and broke, and never sang more.

As about the hundreds versions of the ballad, both in the Scandinavian countries and in the British Isles, basically each one has a different end. It is as if each singer enjoyed inventing something different for the final part. In some Norwegian variants the harp breaks into pieces and the blonde sister is restored to life whereas the black-haired one is burnt or buried alive as a punishment for the crime. In another Norse version the girl's bones are turned into a pipe that is brought to the family to play to determine who killed her. When the sister plays the pipe, blood spews forth and the pipe plays of her guilt - so she is condemned and pulled apart by horses. One version from Sweden has a miller discover the girl and bringing her back to her family where she forgives her sister.

The ballad is also known in the United States where generally the cruel girl asks a miller to drown her sister in exchange for gold. Both will pay for their crime: the miller was hanged on the gallows high, and the cruel sister was burnt at the stake nearby. The funny thing is that the American knight courts one of the sisters giving her a beaver hat.

Characters: A lady, her two daughters, a knight, two minstrels, the daughters' father.

Setting:       The north sea shores, the north sea strand, the wedding party at the father's hall.


//the bitrate must be specified in order to work properly Clicca here E' necessario Flash! Scaricalo gratis!

(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Silvia Bozzeda, Maurizio Dehò) 


There lived a lady in the north sea shore,   

Lay the bent to the bonnie broom. 


Two daughters were the babes she bore. 

Fa la ralla la la la ra la la la.


As one grew bright as in the sun, 

So coal black grew the elder one.  


A knight came riding to the lady’s door,  

He’d travelled far to be their wooer.  


He courted one with gloves and rings, 

But loved the other above all things.  


«Oh sister will you go with me,  

To watch the ships sail on the sea?»  


She took her sister by the hand,  

And led her down to the north sea strand.  


And as they stood on the windy shore,  

The dark girl threw her sister o’er. 


Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,  

Crying: «Sister reach to me your hand. 


Oh sister, sister let me live,  

And all that’s mine I’ll surely give.»  


«It’s your own truelove that I’ll have and more,   

But thou shalt never come ashore.» 


And there she floated like a swan, 

The salt sea bore her body on.  


Two minstrels walked along the strand, 

and saw the maiden float to land.  


They made a harp of her breast bone,  

Whose sound would melt a heart of stone. 


They took three locks of her yellow hair, 

And with them strung a harp so rare.  


They went into her father’s hall,   

To play the harp before them all.  


But as they laid it on a stone, 

The harp began to play alone. 


The first string sang a doleful sound:  

The bride her younger sister drowned. 


The second string as that they tried,   

In terror sits the black-haired bride.  


The third string sang beneath their bow, 

And surely now her tears will flow.

(Lyrics from the version in the CD Cruel Sister by the British folk group Pentangle)

Let's try now to analyze this peculiar Scottish version bearing in mind, as usual, that the comment refers to this version only.

Once again there is a refrain: Lay the bent to the bonnie broom. This repetition in each stanza was functional to the chorus that followed the solo singer in his performance and informs us about the content of the story. We know that the bent or rush, combined with the broom, was protective against the evil eye and the evil spirits in general. Once again the audience, in old times, could feel from the very beginning of the ballad, that the story in it was likely to be magic.  The story was set in the north sea shore. The north was perceived as negative whereas the south was usually positive in ballads.

The two sisters have a precise physical connotation; as we know the ballad is of Norwegian origin and people in Norway are generally blonde: the black-haired people were the ones coming from other countries i.e. possible enemies. Moreover it was an accepted belief that fair was good and black was bad. The younger sister was as bright as the sun; many people looked at the sun as a god that gave light and life. Even in Christian times some people continued to worship it. The medieval man was terrified by the lack of light; at night the evil powers were stronger, the dead could rise from their graves, the devils and witches could plot against common people. God, as well as the sun, is light, the devil is the prince of darkness. The younger sister represents all the good qualities. She is as blonde as the good fairies in fairy tales. On the other hand the elder sister was black as coal, a mineral which is dug in the mines, underground, in the dark, where the devil resides. She represents the opposite of the sun. The ballad can be read as the representation of the eternal fight between good and evil, light and darkness.

In our story a knight arrives from far to court the two sisters. We know from other versions that they are the king's daughters. We can imagine, as the custom was, that a marriage is arranged between the two families and the knight knows he has to marry the elder sister. He actually loves or prefers the blonde but he has no choice. Therefore he proposes himself to the dark-haired one who grows jealous when she realises that the knight is actually in love with her younger sister. She decides then to act and plots a solution: she invites her sister for a walk to the north sea strand and takes her by the hand. To take someone by the hand often means that something negative is expected for the one who is taken. Furthermore the younger sister is led to the north sea-strand.

While the crime is being committed the singer underlines the bad qualities of the elder sister who is called dark. Symbolically it is the sun that is being killed by the night. In contrast to that the blonde floats like a white swan.

What the minstrels do with the body of the girl is quite macabre but the act is functional to the revealing of the truth at the end. With three locks the minstrels will make three strings; it is easy for the listeners of the ballad to understand that the harp will have magic qualities as number three is a magic number. The harp will sing three times, each time with a different string, and will denounce the crime.

The harp is put upon a stone. In Scandinavian and Scottish folklore some big stones were used for ceremonies and had the reputation of being magic. So we have the power of the magic harp sustained by a likewise magic stone.

The harp began to sing with the voice of the drowned sister. The Vikings believed that the soul was in the bones; no wonder that a harp made out of the girl’s breast bones could speak. The transmigration of the soul in the shape of an animal, a tree or other forms and the existence of ghosts or dead who can speak in their tombs is frequently found in European ballads; this is what remains of ancestral beliefs before Christianity.

Both the fairy tale and our version of the ballad end with just the revelation of the crime. We are free to add an end we like (the blonde sister comes alive again?).

In fairy tales justice triumphs and we are reassured that mean people might be punished after all, if not in real life, at least in our fantasy. Fairy tales had also the function of consoling poor people for the injustice they had to suffer from the ones who detained the power.

The singing or speaking instrument belongs to the magic world of fairy tales and although we have not found versions of this ballad in southern Europe, there are fables that share this particular feature. I was told one by Loredana Petronio who had heard it from her grandmother in Padua. The griffon vulture was the title she remembered.

 Once upon a time there was a king who had lost his sight. According to the doctors the only remedy to recover it was to spread the fat of the griffon vulture on his eyes. The king then sent his two sons in search of the bird promising his throne to the one who would catch it. The young one after a few days found and caught the bird. The deed provoked the envy of the elder brother who decided to kill him. After the murder he hid the corpse underground leaving a mound with a cane on it. He went back to court where he was welcomed with joy by his father declaring not to know anything about his brother.

A shepherd found the mould and took the cane to make a flute. As soon as he tried to blow into it the flute began to sing alone: “Oh little shepherd who holds me in your hand, I was killed on the hills of Siena and I'm going to tell you why: it's because I had caught the griffon vulture.”

The little shepherd decided to keep that strange instrument and after some days he went to the royal palace where they were still cheering the king for his recovered sight. The shepherd blew into the flute and it repeated the same sentence. All wanted to try it and every time the flute uttered the name of the one who was blowing into it. The brother was invited to try it but as soon he put it in his mouth the flute uttered: “Dear brother who holds me in your mouth, you killed me on the hills of Siena and I'm going to tell you why: because I had caught the griffon vulture.”

The elder brother was punished with death. He was thrown down a ravine into a barrel spiked with nails.    

The points in common with Cruel Sister are many:

- There are two brothers (instead of sisters).

- A brother kills the other out of jealousy.

- The killer is the elder.

- A magic instrument is made.

- The magic instrument reveals the murderer.

- The killer is punished (in many versions of the ballad).