From Virile Woman to Womanchrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature

By Barbara Newman | Go to book overview
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3. "Crueel Corage": Child Sacrifice and the Maternal Martyr in Hagiography and Romance

Once upon a time in India, we read in Jātaka stories, the future Buddha was born as a prince named Vessantara, who distinguished himself by his great generosity. After giving alms of all that he owned, the prince with his wife and children went off to the Himalayas to live the life of an ascetic. One day a brahman came along and asked Vessantara to give away his children as slaves for the brahman's wife. The sacrifice was a cruel one, but

As the generous Vessantara gave him the children, the earth itself quaked from the power of his spirituality, and he wished that by this most difficult gift he might at last win the state of perfect mind. The children were bound and beaten by the cruel brahman, even before they were out of their father's sight. The heartbroken Vessantara went into his hut and wept bitterly as the cries of his children faded into the distance. Meanwhile the gods detained the children's mother in the forest until nightfall.1

The frantic mother searched all night without finding her offspring, but she had little time to grieve, for the next day another brahman arrived and Vessantara gave her too away. Yet the story has a happy ending: the brahman turns out to be a disguised god who is only testing Vessantara, and because of his flawless generosity he is restored to his kingdom and the family is reunited.

In this Buddhist folktale, medievalists will recognize a distant analogue of the story of Griselda. The legends of both East and West are filled with tales of sacrifice in which a parent slays or abandons children in order to prove devotion to a god or allegiance to a principle. In one important respect, however, the Griselda story differs from both the Buddhist legend and most classical and biblical exempla of child sacrifice. It is Vessantara, not his wife, who gives up the children; she remains unaware of his deed and is horrified to discover her loss. This paradigm covers the great

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