How the Devil Married Three Sisters, and Related Tales (Murderous Suitors, Part 1)

Once again, I’m coming back to one of the tales mentioned in my previous post about badass women in folktales.

What I like best about this tale — besides, you know, all the killing and trickery it involves — is that there are so many tales featuring murderous suitors brought to justice. And even within different “types” (as grouped by the Aarne-Thompson-Uther system), there are multiple variants. I love seeing many variants of a tale, because it is interesting to compare different version and find where they differ and where they resemble each other.

The Three Types

There are a lot of tales about murderous suitors, which fall into three main types, each category containing multiple variations.

1. Bluebeard (ATU type 312): The doomed bride is rescued by her brothers

2. How the Devil Married Three Sisters (ATU type 311): A woman rescues herself and her sisters (her husband’s previous victims), often tricking the husband out of riches in the process.

3. The Robber Bridegroom (ATU type 955): A woman discovers her suitor is a murderer and reveals his crimes to her family and friends, who kill him.

I’m most interested in type 311 and 955 — but I’ll start off with just type 311 in this post.

A Forbidden Chamber Full of Corpses … and Questions

Illustration by Winslow Homer, one of three images in “The Bluebeard Tableau,” from a Sept. 1968 issue of Harper’s Bazar.

As the sisters wonder in “The Three Chests: The Story of the Wicked Old Man of the Sea,”

“But why in the world had he given her the key if he really didn’t want her to open the door? The more she thought about it the more she wondered.”

Or as the third, bolder, sister reasons,

‘”If I am mistress of the house,” Lisa said to herself, “why should I not unlock every door?'”

I’ve always wondered, what if she hadn’t opened that door?

The story doesn’t go there, probably because that’d be boring.

I could read into it more, though. This is purely speculation, and I might be overthinking it, but the strength of a good tale is that it can hold as much meaning as you want to put into it. That’s what keeps stories alive — the possibility of many interpretations, applicable to more than one time and place.

Is there an implication that, somehow, not opening the door isn’t an option? That women are untrustworthy, prone to questioning the will of those superior to them and putting their curiosity above respect for their husbands? Considering the society these stories were born into, that seems like a possible undercurrent.

Or maybe it’s not an option because the alternative is to live happily, obliviously, with the man who murdered his previous wives — your own sisters.

Or — and this is the realistic interpretation of the situation — there is no “safe” option. He doesn’t kill/punish because he must, to hide his true terrible identity (whether it’s his identity as the Devil himself or as a murderer), but because his wives disobey. If it were discovery of his crimes that troubled him, he wouldn’t have been giving out the key to his murder-room.

And there’s another question: Why did he kill his first wife? It certainly wasn’t for discovering a room of corpses. At that time, it would have been an empty room. Or maybe she did something else he didn’t like. Maybe he just killed her on a whim.

In other words, even perfect obedience won’t save them. After all, he’d killed multiple wives before, for what was on its face a trivial transgression — or so it must have seemed to each wife as she turned the key to an arbitrarily off-limits door, ignorant of horrors it concealed. At best, even the most obedient wife could expect a life of fear and cruelty, not worth all the riches in the world.

The Third Sister

Fitcher's Bird Grimms Household Tales
Illustration from Grimm’s Household Tales from a variant, “Fitcher’s Bird.”

I’d feel bad leaving you with such a bleak verdict — and, it seems, the original tale-tellers felt the same. So we have a third sister, cleverer, bolder, and braver than the first two.

I think this sister was born of wish rather than reality, hope more than optimism.

I especially enjoy the third sister’s — Margerita’s — characterization in “How the Devil Married Three Sisters.” This is her reasoning for marrying the man who has married and subsequently … misplaced … her two elder sisters:

Finally he courted the third sister. She was a prudent maiden, and said to herself, “He has certainly murdered my two sisters; but then it is a splendid match for me, so I will try and see whether I cannot be more fortunate than they.” And accordingly she consented.

Wow. That’s awfully cold. And pretty arrogant — why should she survive marrying a man who’s killed his two previous wives?

Turns out, this isn’t arrogance, but confidence. Because she finds her sisters behind the door (first placing the bouquet her husband gave her in water, so that it doesn’t get scorched by hellfire and give away her disobedience), pulls them out of Hell, and then proceeds to trick the Devil himself into carrying all three sisters home in trunks full of his own gold.

And it may not even be that cold a thought — we’re not told whether the sisters’ family s rich or poor, but if the second sister marries him despite the strange disappearance of her elder sister, and then the third sister sees what happens and thinks, “Well, he may be a murderer, but I’ll take that risk,” they couldn’t have had many options.

Or maybe a rich murderer was truly Margerita’s idea of “a splendid match,”  considering she had no qualms about tricking the Devil himself.

Whew. That was a lot. I could go on much longer just talking about these type 311 stories, but I think I’ll move on to type 955, “The Robber Bridegroom,” in my next post.

Thoughts about these interpretations? Other topics from these stories that I didn’t mention, but should have? Suggestions? I’d love to hear it — please leave a comment below!


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