27. 鶴女房 - The Crane Wife (Japanese Folklore)

In today's episode we expose Zoe as a The Decemberists nerd as we discuss the Crane Wife, a tragic and fascinating figure from Japanese folklore. We talk about the animal-wife tale type, the messages about healthy and unhealthy relationships within these stories, and compare it to similar stories from other cultures.


Family of Earth and Sky: Indigenous Tales of Nature from Around the World by John Elder and Hertha Dawn Wong

“Is the Animal Woman a Meek or an Ambitious Figure in Japanese Folktales? An Examination of the Appeal of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales” by Fumihiko Kobayashi

Tsuru no Ongaeshi - Japanese Folktale

Types of Japanese Folktalesby Keigo Seki

The Paris Review - The Crane Wife - The Paris Review

Cranes Mythology and Culture – KZN Crane Foundation.

Married to Magic: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms in Folklore and Fantasy

Transcript below cut:

Musical intro

Zoe: Hello and welcome to Mytholadies,the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all over the world. We're your hosts--

Lizzie: I'm Lizzie.

Zoe: And I'm Zoe. Lizzie, how's it going? (laughs)

Lizzie: Pretty good. Um, I've been talking about my thesis, like, a bunch of different episodes, but now I'm, like, actually starting it, so that's pretty exciting.

Zoe: Awesome. Yeah, that's really exciting. I'm glad you're getting to start it.

Lizzie: Yeah, I had to change my research question, but--

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: --that's fine.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: It's still the same general topic, but now I'm doing, like, non-native English speakers, and, like, if they would prefer to use English when talking about mental health issues.

Zoe: Ooh.

Lizzie: But I--how--I don't know if I have a specific research question, but I'm willing to do that, like, next couple of days. But, um--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --that's the general topic.

Zoe: Yeah, so it's, like, more specific.

Lizzie: Yeah. Exactly. It was too broad before, unfortunately.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah, I gotcha. Mm hmm. That makes sense.

Lizzie: How are you?

Zoe: I'm good. I've had a few days off of work, um, more than usual, so that's been nice. I've been chilling, I've been doing a lot of reading.

Lizzie: That's nice.

Zoe: Uh, so that's been good. Mm hmm. So Lizzie, you did the research, so who are we talking about this week?

Lizzie: Today, we're talking about the Crane Wife (Zoe gasps) from Japanese folklore!

Zoe: Ohhh! (Both laugh) Okay!

Lizzie: Cause when you texted me, like be--like, oh you're listening to The Crane Wifeby The Decemberists I was like oh, (laughs) yeah. Also--

Zoe: Yeah, no--

Lizzie: Also, um--

Zoe: I was just excited you were listening to The Decemberists. I wasn't even thinking about it (laughs).

Lizzie: (overlapping) I know, I was, like, oh, God (both laugh). Um, I was listening to it because I know you like them, and that album kept coming up in my research. Also--

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: --you don't know this, audience, but I'm wearing a shirt that has cranes on it for thematic dressing-up.

Zoe: Awesome! Maybe I'll take a screenshot later (Lizzie laughs) and we can post it with the episode. Mm hmm.

Lizzie:Yeah, so, it's a crane-themed day. Um, but I actually changed into this, like, an hour ago for recording.

Zoe: Amazing. We love it (laughs).

Lizzie: Anyway, the Crane Wife. Do you know the story?

Zoe: Um, so vaguely? I mean, I've listened to the songs, but--

Lizzie: Yes you have (laughs).

Zoe:--I don't know it exactly.

Lizzie: Okay.

Zoe: I-I wanna hear you say it.

Lizzie:Well, that's good. Cause we're talking about it today (both laugh). Um, so there are actually two two very similar folktales. The first one is called 鶴の恩返し (Tsuru no Ongaeshi) which means, "The Crane’s Return of a Favor" or "The Grateful Crane," and the second is called 鶴女房 (Tsuru Nyōbō), or the Crane Wife. Um, they're basically they're similar, but I'm gonna tell two different versions.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie:Um, so unfortunately I don't really have any historical background or etymology for you today. I will say however that the crane has great symbolic significance in Japan, as well as in many other places. In Japan, cranes represent longevity and good fortune because of their fabled lifespan of 1,000 years.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: There is an ancient Japanese legend that says that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, a crane will grant you a wish.

Zoe: Yes, I was thinking about the--the paper cranes when you were talking about that.

Lizzie: Yes, I also had to read that in elementary school, I don't know about you (Zoe laughs),that book.

Zoe: I didn't read it, but I remember, like, seeing it, and, like, hearing about the story.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: If-if you fold 1000 paper cranes you get a wish, or something.

Lizzie: Yeah, and there's a book based on that, yeah. So, the crane is also the subject of Haiku poetry and of iconography in Japan in general, for example in the logo of Japan Airlines.

Zoe: Mm!

Lizzie: So now the first story, which is "The Crane's Return of a Favor." Once upon a time, there was a poor young man working on his farm. As he was working, suddenly a white crane fell down from the sky and landed at his feet. The young man noticed that there was an arrow piercing the bird’s wing, having been attacked by a hunter, so he decided to take care of the crane and nurse it back to health. He removed the arrow and tended to the wound until the crane could fly again. He advised the crane to avoid hunters, and the crane flew away.

After working the rest of the day, the farmer returned home to find a beautiful young woman waiting for him. She said that she was his wife now, to which the young man replied that he was poor and didn’t have the means to take care of her. The woman said that that wasn’t a problem because she had plenty of rice, and so the two of them could live together happily. As it turned out, the rice that she brought with her never diminished, and the bag always remained full no matter how much rice they ate.

Eventually, the man’s new wife asked him to build her a weaving room. When the young man finished building it, she made him promise that he would never come inside, no matter what.

Zoe: Mmm.

Lizzie: After he promised her, she locked herself in the weaving room for seven whole days before coming out. When she emerged, she had weaved a beautiful piece of cloth, which she told the young man to go and sell at the marketplace for a large sum. He did so, and they got a good price for the cloth. After that, the woman returned to her weaving room to weave a new piece. However, the man became curious as to how she wove such a beautiful item and decided to peek into the weaving room.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: What he saw was that instead of his wife, there was a crane in front of the loom, plucking out its own feathers and using them as thread. When the crane saw him, it said, “I am the crane that you saved. I wanted to repay you and so I became your wife, but now that you’ve seen me I can’t stay here any longer.” And with that, she flew away and never returned.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Sounds familiar?

Zoe: Yeah, it does. It sounds a lot like the-the songs, so--

Lizzie: (laughs) Oh, well, great.

Zoe: --pretty close to the story. And also sounds--it sounds similar to some other stories, but I don't know if you wanna get into...

Lizzie:What stories did you think that they sounded like?

Zoe: Uh, it sounds like Eros and Psyche from Greek mythology.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Psyche being told that she can never look at Eros, and her getting curious and looking at him, and then being punished for that. Um, a little bit of Rumpelstiltskin, just cause of the weaving--

Lizzie: (overlapping)Ahh, okay.

Zoe: --in general. I mean in general, there are just so many stories that are, like, I'm gonna do this thing, but you have to promise not to do this--like, not look, and of course the person always looks.

Lizzie: Of course, yeah (laughs).

Zoe: And there are also just so many stories that are--I think it's, like, a big motif in, like, Irish folklore that's like, oh, you rescue this animal, and then it turns out it was secretly, uh, a fairy or a goddess or something, and now they're gonna repay you, or something like that.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Zoe: And so, yeah. I just--it's a fun motif.

Lizzie: It really is. I'm actually going to mention Eros and Psyche later, but the other ones, uh, not really.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: But anyway. For the second version, "The Crane Wife." There was a man called Karoku who lived with his elderly mother on a mountain, where he made charcoal for a living. One winter, he was heading toward the village to buy some bedding for him and his mother when he came across a crane that had been caught in a trap. Karoku went to release the crane when the man who had set the trap came running over and admonished him for interfering in his business. Karoku offered to buy the crane from him, using the money that he had intended for new bedding. The crane flew away once it was freed.

Karoku returned home. The next evening, a beautiful young woman came to their house and asked to spend the night there. Karoku said that his hut was too small and he was poor, but she insisted, and in the end he allowed her to stay. During the evening, she said she had something she wished to talk to him about, and told him she wished to marry him.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: He replied that he had never seen such a beautiful woman as her, and that he was very poor, so there was no way he could provide for her such as she needed. But she begged him to make her his wife. He accepted, and then they were married.

A little while after, Karoku’s new wife requested that he put her in a cabinet and leave her there for three days. She told him to close the door very tightly, and not to open it until she came out. He did so, and on the fourth day she emerged, having woven a beautiful cloth. She told Karoku to sell it for a good price and so he took it to the lord of the province, who paid three thousand ryo for it and asked for another one just like it. When he told his wife this, she requested he shut her in the cabinet for one week this time so that she could weave another. She told him once again not to open the cabinet door.

By the time the week was nearly over, Karoku began to worry for his wife, so he opened the cabinet door to ask her if she was all right. Inside the cabinet there was a crane that had all of its feathers plucked out and was weaving the feathers into the cloth. The crane said to him, “I have finished the cloth, but since you have seen who I really am, I’m afraid you can no longer love me. I must return to my home. I am not a human but the crane that you rescued. Please take the cloth to the lord as you promised.” After having said this, she flew away. As she did this, thousands of cranes appeared, taking her with them. But this story doesn't end there.

Zoe: Hmm!

Lizzie: So, Karoku had at this point become a very rich man, but he missed his wife and longed for her. He traveled throughout Japan looking for her, but couldn’t find her anywhere. One day, he was resting by the seashore when an old man rode to shore on a boat. Karoku asked where he came from, and he said he came from an island called “The Robe of Crane Feathers”. Karoku eagerly asked if the old man could take him to the island, and the man agreed. They arrived at a beautiful white beach, and once Karoku had left the boat, the old man rowed away. Karoku walked up the shore and eventually came to a beautiful pond. In the middle of the pond, there was an island, and on the island stood that naked crane. She was surrounded by a myriad of cranes because she was the queen of the cranes.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie:I know. It's a pretty fun detail. Karoku stayed a little while on the island and was given a feast. Afterward, the old man returned with the boat, and Karoku had to return home. The end.

Zoe: Oh, wow.

Lizzie: I know. It ends, like, a little abruptly, I feel like, but...

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Lizzie: Because it's like, I don't know. Like, was there a nice reunion? I don't know. But.

Zoe: It was--yeah. It was only temporary.

Lizzie: Exactly. They only could be in each others' lives for, like, temporary parts of time.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Lizzie: Anyway, though. What do you think?

Zoe: So, just to get this out of the way, cause it's on my mind (Lizzie laughs). If she had plucked all her feathers out, how could she fly away?

Lizzie: That's a fair point.

Zoe: I know it doesn't matter. But that's on my mind. Anyways (laughs).

Lizzie: I hadn't even thought of that. Can't birds fly because of their hollow bones?

Zoe: I mean it helps, but, like, the feathers are what they need in order to, like, lift them off the ground, I thought.

Lizzie: Maybe that's--maybe that's why the other cranes came to help her.

Zoe: Yeah, that--that was sort what I was thinking, is she was gonna fly away, and then, like, all the cranes came to, like, lift her up.

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs).

Zoe: But she didn't fly by herself (laughs). Cause I don't think that's how bird aerodynamics works. But I am not an ornithologist, so.

Lizzie: Fair enough. I don't know either.

Zoe: Second of all, I think it's interesting that in this one, it seems he was motivated to check on her not because he was just, like, curious, or wondering what was going on--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: --but because he actually really cared about his wife, and he, like, wanted to make sure she hadn't, like, died in the cabinet?

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: Like, that had been in for an entire week, like, I think that's very understandable, personally?

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Uh, so I thought that was interesting. Uh, it made--like, it's a bit more sympathetic. I mean, I think the guy's pretty sympathetic in general. I don't really feel like he's--

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: --a bad person. But, like, in general, like, I think it very much is, like, fair that he would want to check on his wife after she's been in a cabinet for almost a week.

Lizzie: I agree. And I think it's also excusable in these types of stories in general, especially in, like, Eros and Psyche, they should be able to know what their spouse looks like.

Zoe: Yeah! And I think it was interesting, like, specifically the phrasing of "now you've seen who I really am." Like, we can't be married anymore. It's like--

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: --the implications of that are very interesting.

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: And I'm--I'm, like, wondering if you're probably gonna talk more about that later, but, like--

Lizzie: Say what's on your mind.

Zoe: Okay! I'll speak my truth. Um--(both laugh) basically, if you're in a relationship, the idea that if you show who you truly are to your partner, that automatically means that your relationship has to end, and you--if you're--always have to, like, be hiding some part of yourself from your partner in order for your relationship to work, that feels like a pretty depressing view of relationships.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And, like, an unhealthy view of relationships. And so I think it's interesting that it's, like, well, she had to be hiding it from him, and when he found out, they had to stop. There was some sort of, like, constraint, like there was some sort of contract or clause that was keeping them from being, like, wholly together, their knowing everything about each other.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And so, yeah. I think that's just a really interesting and I think, like, you know, very much a commentary on, like, societal roles within a marriage.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. Definitely.

Zoe: So--yeah. I just think that's really interesting view of how marriages and relationships are supposed to work.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Possibly in, like, the society that the Crane Wife exists in.

Lizzie: I'm actually going to talk about that! So you're spot on.

Zoe: Yeah. I thought you probably would be (Lizzie laughs). And then I think that it's interesting he gets to go see her again, but it's very temporary, and then--

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: --you have to leave.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: You know? They just can't go back to the way things were before.

Lizzie: I think the queen of the cranes detail was really interesting.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Definitely.

Lizzie: I don't know anything more to say about that, but I think it's pretty fun.

Zoe: Yeah. Well, my thought is, like, as the queen of the cranes, well she prob--might have had more, like, authority, and, like, autonomy than maybe the other cranes? Cause she's the queen, she can do whatever she wants. So maybe she could, like, stay with this guy for a while.

Lizzie: Yeah, maybe cause she was the queen she has, like, more powers, and that's why she was able to, like, leave--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --and, like, be a woman, and stuff.

Zoe: Yeah! But then also, like, maybe she couldn't stay away from her people forever, and maybe even if he hadn't walked in to, like, see her true identity, she would have left him at some point because she had her other duties.

Lizzie: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I completely agree. So, first I want to talk about how the Crane Wife is just one example of a larger theme in Japanese folktales that Fumihiko Kobayashi refers to as “animal-wife tales”.

Zoe: Hm!

Lizzie: These involve the marriage or cohabitation between an animal woman and a human man. Some other examples from Japan include the Frog Wife, which involves a man rescuing a frog from a snake and then the frog wife momentarily leaves to grieve a family member. And then the man sees a bunch of frogs in a pond and throws a rock at them, and the wife comes home wounded. When the wife realizes that her husband is the one who threw the rock and he has discovered her true form, she leaves.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: I thought you would like that one.

Zoe: I do like that one. I do like the idea of a frog wife.

Lizzie: Not the throwing of rocks at the frogs, though. Yeah, yeah (laughs). There's also the Clam Wife, where a man saves a clam and the clam wife cooks him soup every day. Then one day he discovers her urinating clam juice into the pot.

Zoe: (laughs) That's so interesting!

Lizzie: I thought that was pretty fun.

Zoe: Of all the animals to have as, like, an animal wife, to choose a clam.

Lizzie: I know.

Zoe: I-I think that's--that's so fun.

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs). Um, the Snake Wife, which involves a man rescuing a snake. Then the snake wife becomes pregnant and confines herself to a hut while she’s pregnant, but the husband peeks into the hut and sees a snake, so she leaves him with the child but also gouges out one of her eyes so that the child can lick it when it wants milk.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Yup! There's also a fox wife, a cat wife, and a fish wife or tortoise wife.

Zoe: Hm. Those all make sense.

Lizzie: Yeah! I believe the Crane Wife is the most well-known out of all of these.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: There are examples of these in other cultures as well, but Kobayashi notes that what makes Japanese animal-wife tales different is that it’s the animal woman who knocks on the door of the man’s house, and it’s the animal woman who leaves the man. Some examples of animal-wife tales from other cultures include the Scottish selkie wife, or seal wife--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --and the Korean pond-snail wife. In the selkie wife tale, the man captures the selkie who reluctantly marries him.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: The man steals her skin, and she tries to leave him by looking for her skin. When she eventually finds it, she turns back into a selkie and escapes. In the pond-snail wife tale, a man hears a woman’s voice in a field, where he then discovers a pond-snail, which he brings back home with him. After he does that, when he returns home for the day, there is always a home-cooked meal waiting for him. He discovers that the pond-snail has turned into a woman and that she cooked the meals for him. The man captures her and takes her as his wife, but then a feudal lord steals her away. The man dies of sadness, and the pond-snail wife takes her own life.

Zoe: Wow!

Lizzie: The ending to this tale can vary regionally, and sometimes involves a happy ending where the couple defeat the feudal lord and then live happily ever after. So that's...nice.

Zoe: Mm hmm!

Lizzie: Kobayashi also mentions the story of Melusine, who is a figure from European folklore, usually French, who is a serpent or fish from the waist down and marries a nobleman, who she makes promise to give her privacy while she bathes. When she realizes that he has seen her bathing and discovered her true form, she leaves him.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: There are also a number of other stories that you could compare to the Crane Wife, for example the Norwegian folktale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” or the Chinese Legend of the White Snake, or a story that Scheherazade tells in A Thousand and One Nights about a man who marries a tortoise, but we don’t have time to get into all of that. But generally, the archetype of marriage or cohabitation between a human and a non-human, or specifically between a human man and an animal wife, is extremely common in many parts of the world.

Kobayashi mentions in the article “Is the Animal Woman a Meek or an Ambitious Figure in Japanese Folktales? An Examination of the Appeal of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales,” that one thing that distinguishes Japanese animal-wife tales from animal-wife tales from other places, and also one of the main things that make this tale type notable is that it’s the animal wife who approaches the man. One reason this is notable is because it involves a reversal of what’s expected of women to be the one who initiates the cohabitation and who actively seeks out the man.

Zoe: Hmm.

Lizzie: This is atypical, according to the social order of Japan as typically noted in folktales, where there was a general attitude of “gentlemen first, ladies second," such that even gods and goddesses had to adhere to it. In this way, the appeal to the animal-wife tales is the gap between reality and fantasy, a gap that is common to folklore in general and is, in this case, meant to evoke surprise or even humor. In this way, we can read animal-wife stories such as “The Crane Wife” as a sort of punishment to women who initiate romantic contact with men.

Zoe:Huh. Yeah.

Lizzie: That is one interpretation. I wanna know what you think is the moral of the story.

Zoe: Gosh. Well, so, now that you've said that, I'm thinking a lot about the question of respecting boundaries.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: In a relationship. And so in the story, like you said in these stories, we see a woman who approaches a man willingly to start a relationship, which as you said goes against the general social order--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: --which says that men approach women and initiate romantic relationships. And in this relationship we have a woman who sets a specific boundary, we have the woman who says I'm gonna make this sewing room, or, like, this weaving room, or, I'm just gonna go into this cupboard, or whatever, and you can do anything else, but you can't come in here. And then we see that boundary eventually being violated, and that causes the end of the relationship. So now I'm wondering if possibly we can interpret the story as being a moral that you need to respect boundaries in relationships, possibly.

Lizzie:That's true, yeah.

Zoe: I mean, I think you could say that it's a punishment for women who approach men for romantic relationships, but I don't think that's really the case. I think that, um, in a lot of the times, even though the woman's approaching the man, the man actually is doing the action first. It's not like the woman just saw the man and was like, oh, that's a nice-lookin man. I'm gonna go, like, talk to him.

Lizzie: Yeah, like, she's trying to repay him.

Zoe: Yeah! It's a repayment. There's some sort of exchange going on. Like he saved her life, and she's like, okay, now I'm gonna marry you. So there's still, like, some level of exchange, and it's not just totally the woman's free will.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And so I don't really think it, like, necessarily, like, a punishment for, um, a woman, like, deciding to be the instigator in relationships.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Because it doesn't fully feel like the woman's free will instigating in general.

Lizzie: Yeah. And I will say that I feel that in most of the animal wife tale types from, like, other places, the woman has a lot less agency--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --which you could certainly interpret in a variety of ways. For specifically the Japanese one, something that I read--it's not in my notes, but I read about this Japanese myth, um, between Izanagi and Izanami, who were two gods, and--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Izanagi was the man, and Izanami, the woman, had to--or, like, she approached Izanagi, and then they--they, like, made babies (Zoe laughs). But then, like, the first baby was, like, a leech, and it was told, like, your baby is, like, disgusting because she approached him instead of the other way around.

Zoe: Hmm. That is interesting.

Lizzie: That's, like, a very Sparknotes version--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --but that's the gist.

Zoe: Okay, yeah. So that--there's a precedent.

Lizzie: (overlapping) So it's like a trope thing in Japan.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Basically.

Zoe: Yeah. I definitely see that.

Lizzie: Yeah. So I see how they would get this analysis--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --within the context of Japanese folklore and mythology.

Zoe: Yeah, definitely. I think the other thing is that I also don't think the woman is the main one being punished in the story. I think it's more of the man being punished.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: He's the one who's losing his wife.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Like, and a lot of livelihood. Like, he's getting a lot from the woman. She's bringing the rice, she's weaving the cloth that's bringing him lots of money and stuff. So, like, I really think, in general, like, the man's the one that's losing the most.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Out of the relationship.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe:So I--that's why I--also why I don't see it necessarily as a punishment. But that context of that story's also very interesting--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: --and makes a lot of sense. Makes that analysis make a lot of sense.

Lizzie: Yeah. Agreed. So, one of my first thoughts with this tale is that it reminds me of stories that are common in mythology and folklore about a couple where one of them is keeping a big secret and makes the other promise not to inquire. For example, you mentioned this already, Eros and Psyche from Greek mythology, and the French folktale of Bluebeard’s Bride.

Zoe: Mmm.

Lizzie: In the Greek myth, Eros hides his identity from Psyche and doesn’t allow her to see his face so that she doesn’t find out he’s a god, and when her curiosity leads her to find out his identity, she is punished. In the story of Bluebeard, he makes his wife promise not to open this one chamber in their manor, but when she does, she finds the dismembered bodies of his former wives.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, at least one way you could read stories like this is sort of like, curiosity killed the cat, like, don’t inquire into things you’re told not to, or maybe even that you should blindly trust your spouse. Like you mentioned before, I think about don't cross boundaries that you're told not to cross.

In CJ Hauser’s 2019 short story “The Crane Wife”, the narrator goes to study the whooping crane after breaking off an engagement, and she talks about the folktale that the story is named after, briefly. She says, "She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.” Later it says, "There are ways to be wounded and ways to survive those wounds, but no one can survive denying their own needs. To be a crane-wife is unsustainable.”

Zoe: Mmm.

Lizzie: So there are ways to read this story as sort of a moral to the husband, that he should not betray his wife’s trust, that he shouldn’t have gotten involved with the beautiful woman with mysterious origins to begin with. I prefer to read it as a story about the crane who decides to turn into a woman, only to have to destroy parts of herself in order to be with the man who saved her. Perhaps the crane wife feels a duty to the man who saved her and she wishes to pay back the debt, or perhaps she falls in love with him—either way, I really enjoy CJ Hauser’s analysis that the crane wife is someone who has her own needs and desires that she hides, but that hiding parts of herself and destroying parts of herself is unsustainable, both for her own wellbeing and for her relationship. She spends so long erasing herself and denying her own needs that she hurts the both of them and has to fly away forever. It's an allegory that says you can’t go too long pretending to be something that you aren’t, or the consequences will be dire.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense.

Lizzie:(overlapping) In the lens of lar--yeah.

Zoe: S--

Lizzie: In--

Zoe: Oh, I was just saying I think that makes a lot of sense! Yeah.

Lizzie: Okay. In the lens of, like, the larger theme of stories like Cupid and Psyche or Bluebeard’s Bride, or even the Greek myth of Pandora, we can see the Crane Wife as another example of someone whose unsatisfied curiosity regarding their spouse ultimately leads them down a dangerous path. The American folklorist Boria Sax takes it a step further, saying, “Just as marriage between two people unites their families, so marriage between a person and an animal in myth and fairy tale joins humanity with nature.”

Zoe: Mmm.

Lizzie: In this view, such tale types reflect the relationship between nature and the human world. It shows not just that it’s unsustainable for a person to deny their individual needs, but that it’s unsustainable for a member of the world of nature to belong in the human world. It shows a changing view of the relationship between humanity and nature, or between civilization and nature. As I mentioned before, animal-wife tales and folktales in general rely on the gap between reality and fantasy, and in the case of the Crane Wife, it is shown that trying to bridge this gap is doomed to fail. The crane wife was never meant to live the rest of her life with the young man regardless as to whether he found out the truth. Their worlds are too different, and their needs and desires are too different. But even the fact that the crane wife needed to hide core parts of herself in order to be with the man clearly indicates the inevitable failure, like you mentioned.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Unlike with the story of Eros and Psyche, the message seems to be that it isn’t possible to live your entire life in a lie or denying or hurting parts of yourself. This is simply another type of doomed love that can’t be sustained.

Zoe: Yeah! I definitely agree with all of that. And I like that a lot.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. Thank you (Zoe laughs).

Zoe: I mean, I think it's a good message, and it was--you know, what I was thinking about earlier, like, you can't hide entire parts of yourself. Relationships need to be open. And I think that the analysis of, if you're in a relationship and you feel like you have to hide entire parts of yourself, the short story author whose name I can't remember--

Lizzie: CJ Hauser.

Zoe: Yeah. CJ Hauser saying, like, you know, to be a woman in a certain relationship means you have to hide certain aspects of yourself is not sustainable and it's not a good way to be in a r-romance. And I think that's an important lesson to take away and remember when you're looking for romance, is that you shouldn't look for someone who you have to hide whole parts of yourself from. You need to, like, look for someone who will accept all parts of yourself, and, like, embrace all parts of yourself, and I think that's really important.

Lizzie: I agree. And I also think that the gendered aspect of this story is also, like, not a coincidence. Like--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --even in Eros and Psyche, where genders are reversed, it's still the woman who suffers. Like, Eros doesn't suffer anything, really, except that he, I don't know, gets his feeling hurt, I guess (Zoe laughs). But--I mean, he's the one that kidnapped her, by the way.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: So, either way, same kind of deal. But--and then in most of the stories, it's the wife, the animal wife who is the woman and she's the one who suffers--well, arguably the one who suffers the most, having to pluck out her own feathers, having to, like, do all this stuff to hide from her husband--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --and, you know, basically living her life trying to repay him just because he saved her, you know.

Zoe: Mm hmm. And I think it's also interesting because, like, in the story of Eros and Psyche, eventually Psyche is triumphant. Like, she has to go through a bunch of trials that Aphrodite sets in front of her in order to, like, prove herself, whatever, worthy of the love of Eros, or whatever.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: But eventually she succeeds and she's able to fully be with Eros and see him and look at him, and, like, they're able to fully be together.

Lizzie: But also she had to go through all these trials just because she dared to, like, want to see what her husband looks like.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: You know.

Zoe: Yeah. And so I think it's sort of a different message. It's, like--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: --it's sort of more like a message of, like, the power of love conquering all--

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: --and, like, the opposing forces, as opposed to this one's sort of being like, this deception and dishonesty isn't sustainable. It's like--and also in Eros and Psyche, wasn't it, like, more Aphrodite's influence being, like, she's not allowed to look at you because Eros was in love with her, or whatever? I don't know.

Lizzie: I don't recall.

Zoe: Maybe I'm making that up. Anyway. Maybe that's true! Maybe it's not. Either way, it was more about, like, working to make the relationship work and overcoming the deception--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Whereas with the Crane Wife, it seems that it-it just didn't work out. It--the, the deception was insurmountable.

Lizzie: (overlapping) It was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Zoe: Yeah. And then I sort of am like going back to my idea of her being, like, the crane queen, and, like, she's the queen of the cranes! She's got other duties.

Lizzie: True. She belongs to a different world.

Zoe: Yeah! She can't just run off with a guy and, like, neglect her subjects, you know what I mean?

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Like, she's gotta--she's got duties to her people, and that's--like eventually she probably would have had to go back anyway.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: I think that's a really interesting story.

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: I obviously knew about it because of The Decemberists' songs and albums, and (Lizzie laughs) it seems like they followed the story pretty closely, at least, I think, like, the first story is the one that it's based on. But--

Lizzie: I think the first story where there isn't, like, a crane queen and an island is the one that's normally told.

Zoe: Yeah. Yeah, and I think they mention, like, an arrow at some points, so.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: But I might have made that up. I don't know. I don't listen to lyrics as much (Lizzie laughs). Anyways (laughs). Um, just vibes. Anyway. Yeah! But it's really interesting to hear, like, the origins of the story, the actual story and the analysis, and all the analysis was super cool! So thank you.

Lizzie: Yeah! And like we mentioned, the, um, the Crane Wife is the basis for--or abasis for the album The Crane Wifeby The Decemberists. There's also another band which is called The Crane Wives. There's also a lot of references to the Crane Wife in anime, as I gather from Wikipedia. And there's a short story by CJ Hauser, as I mentioned.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: It's a very nice short story. It has very little to do with the Crane Wife, actually, but they mention her.

Zoe: Awesome, yeah. Thank you so much for listening. Uh, if you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to subscribe, leave us a review, tell all your friends how much you love it. We read all your reviews, we love them so much. Thank you! And we'll see you back here in two weeks for another episode.

Lizzie: Thank you!

Zoe: Thank you! Good bye.

Outro, underscored by music:

Zoe: Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today’s episode was researched and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix, with help from Margot and Zaïn. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter (and now Tumblr) @mytholadies, and visit us on our website at Mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thanks for listening! See you next time.