Pretty maid Ibronka and the Devil

Pretty Maid Ibronka


Complete tale with analysis: Jungian principles and their relevance to Jungian therapy

There was a pretty girl in the village. That is why she was called by the name of Pretty Maid Ibronka. But what of it if all the other girls – and what a bevy of them used to gather to do their spinning together – had a lover to themselves, and she alone had none? For quite a while she waited patiently pondering over her chances, but then the thought took over her mind: ‘I wish God would give me a sweetheart, even if one of the devils he were.’ psychoanalysis

The Irish Girl
Ford Madox Brown, 1860. 

Ibronka represents not a woman but the feminine principle. Women identify most readily with the feminine but, as Jung showed, it is also a part of a man’s psychology. This story concerns the maturation of the feminine.

She was pretty which means attractive: she would inspire and attract others to her, leading to relationships. She represents the Aphrodite aspect of the archetypal feminine. Her maturation would be through relationship (outer and inner) and we can guess that the story is about the quality of her relating.

But Ibronka did not fit into the collective of the other girls because she did not have a outer-world lover. Thus she was singled out for a special fate, for a more psychological life, one less dependent upon the traditional path of lover, romance, marriage and children. Symbolically this suggests what Jung called the inner marriage, the marriage of anima and animus.

Spinning is a feminine activity, the spinning of a story, the weaving of ideas, day-dreaming. It may become obsessive and take a person out of life. The image of spinning suggests that Ibronka was beginning to engage the animus or archetypal yang which includes ideas, spirit and light as well as penetration, discrimination, cleavage and killing.

girl spinning painting

Girl spinning 
Print: source unknown 

When Ibronka prayed for a lover who might be the devil she invited a visit from the animus.

That evening, when the young were together in the spinning room, in walks a young lad in a sheepskin cape and a hat graced with the feather of a crane. Greeting the others, he takes a seat by the side of Pretty Maid Ibronka.

Well, as is the custom of the young, they start up a conversation, talking about this and that, exchanging news. Then it happened that the spindle slipped from Ibronka’s hand. At once she reached down for it and her sweetheart was also bending for it, but as her groping hand touched his foot, she felt it was a cloven hoof. Well, great was her amazement as she picked up her spindle.

Ibronka went to see them out, as on that evening the spinning had been done at her place. Before separating they had a few words together, and then they bid each other goodbye. As is the custom of the young they parted with an embrace. It was then that she felt her hand go into his side, straight through his flesh. That made her recoil with even greater amazement.

There was an old woman in the village. To that woman she went and said, ‘Oh mother put me wise about this. As you may know, for a long time they have been waging their tongues in the village, saying that of all the village girls, only Pretty Maid Ibronka is without a sweetheart. And I was waiting and waiting for one, when the wish took my mind that God would give me a sweetheart, even if one of the devils he were. And on that very same evening a young man appeared, in a sheepskin cape and with a hat graced with a crane feather. Straight up to me he walked and took a seat by my side. Well, we started up a conversation, as is the custom of the young, talking about this and that. I must have become heedless of my work, and let the spindle slip from my hand. At once I reached down to pick it up, and so did he, but as my groping hand chanced to touch his foot, I felt it was a cloven hoof. This was so queer it made me shudder. Now put me wise, mother, what should I be doing now? ‘

Ibronka was surprised that her man had a cloven hoof and no flesh, but she was strong minded and asked for advice. Her strong mind shows that she has already assimilated some of the animus.

Her man was the devil in the form of Pan, a goatish phallic god linked to dance, music, revelry, and panic. Ibronka was seduced by the rushing, intoxicating quality of the animus spirit.

Germany Munich.Attic Red Figure.Hydria Painter.320 BC

Attic Red Figure. 
Hydria Painter.320 BC. Germany, Munich 

The old woman seemed to understand the whole problem. She was a wise old crone, that is, the archetypal wisdom from the feminine. She stands for special knowledge, not developing consciousness but ageless wisdom, an overplan, the master director.

Old Uighur Woman

Old Uighur Woman 
China Photo 

‘Well,’ she said, ‘go and do the spinning at some other place, changing from here to there, so you can see if he will find you.’

She did so and tried every spinning room there was in the village but, wherever she went, he came after her. Again she went to see the old woman. ‘Oh mother, didn’t he come to every single place I went? I see I shall never get rid of him this way, and I dare not think of what is going to come of all this. I do not know who he is, nor from where he came. And I find it awkward to ask him.’

‘Well, here’s a piece of advice to you. There are little girls in the village who are just learning to spin, and they find it good practice to wind the thread into balls. Get yourself such a ball, and when they gather again at your place for the spinning, see them out when they leave, and while you are talking to each other before parting, fuss about until you can get the end of the thread tied in a knot around a tuft in his sheepskin cape. When he takes leave and goes his way, let the thread unwind from the ball. When you feel that there is no more to come, make it into a ball again following the track of the unwound thread.’

This is a reference to Ariadne’s thread which enabled Theseus to find his way into the labyrinth where he slew the minotaur, a story much older than christianity.

Theseus and Minotaure

Theseus and Minotaure 
Burne-Jones, 1862 

But in our story it was a woman who followed the thread. What does that mean? Theseus prevailed with a sword while Ibronka prevailed through language. Ariadne was passive. Ibronka represents a more evolved form of the feminine.

Well, they came to her place to do the spinning. The ball of thread she kept in readiness. Her sweetheart was keeping her waiting. The others began teasing her: ‘Your sweetheart is going to let you down, Ibronka!’

‘To be sure, he won’t. He will come; only some business is now keeping him away.’

They hear the door open. They stop in silence and expectation: who is going to open the door? It is Ibronka’s sweetheart. He greets them all and takes a seat at her side. And as is the custom of the young, they make conversation, each having something to tell the other. Amid such talk the time passes.

‘Lets be going home, it must be close to midnight.’

And they file off and leave the room, one after the other. Outside the house a final goodbye was said, and each went his way and was soon bound homeward.

And the pair drew closer to each other and were talking about this and that. And she was manipulating the thread until she got the end knotted around a tuft of wool in his sheepskin cape. Well, they did not make long with their conversation as they began to feel the chill of the night. ‘You better go in now, my dear’ he said to Ibronka, ‘or you’ll catch cold. When the weather turns mild we may converse at greater leisure. ‘

And they embraced. ‘Goodnight,’ he said.

‘Goodnight,’ she said to him.

And he went his way. And she began to unwind the ball as he was walking away. Fast did the thread unwind from the ball. And she began to speculate how much more there would be still to come but, no sooner than this thought came into her head, than it stopped. For a while she kept waiting. But no more thread came off the ball. Then she started to rewind it. And bravely she followed the track of the thread as she went winding it into a ball again. Rapidly the ball was growing in her hand. And she was thinking to herself that she would not have to go very much further. But where would the thread be leading her? It led her straight to the church.

‘Well,’ she thought, ‘he must have passed this way.’

But the thread led her further on, straight to the churchyard.

The churchyard places this story in the context of Christianity. But the story is about the Wotan-underside, the dark passions not accounted for in the Christian collective.

dark church yard.jungian psychoanalysis

St Andrew’s churchyard 
Howard Stanbury, 2012 

And she walked over to the door. And through the keyhole the light shone from the inside. And she bent down and peeped through the keyhole.

A keyhole restricts the point of view, allows only a narrow observation of detail, and thus protects the viewer. A god is too expansive or too terrible, strange, unknowable and dangerous, to be fully seen by a human.

To a greater or lesser degree everyone’s sense of self is vulnerable and everyone’s grounding in reality is insecure. Neglect or abuse which leads to narcissistic injury makes us more insecure. Thus our sense of self can be ‘devoured’ by an archetype: we can become overwhelmed by grandiose identification with it or, in negative grandiosity, crushed by it. Dreams, fairytales and religious rituals help us to make contact with an archetype but in a protected limited way, so that we can learn from it without being devoured by it. Thus we observe an archetype through the ‘lens’ of a dream or a fairytale.

old keyhole

Old keyhole 
Photo: source unknown 

And whom does she behold there? Her own sweetheart. She keeps her eye on him to find out what he was doing. Well, he was busy sawing the head of a dead man in two. She saw him separate the two parts, just the same way we cut a melon in two. And then she saw him feasting on the brains from the halved head. Seeing that, she grew even more horrified. She broke the thread and, in great haste, made her way back to the house.

Because the animus was eating brains he represents death and disembodiment. The brain implies over-spiritualization or over-intellectualization which can suck the life out of us. Ibronka was exposing herself to this danger. This image repeats and confirms our interpretation of the keyhole, that we need protection from archetypes.

But her sweetheart must have caught sight of her and briskly set out after her. No sooner had she reached home in great weariness and bolted the door safely on the inside, than her sweetheart was calling through the window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’

She answered, ‘Nothing did I see.’

‘You must tell me what you saw, or your sister will die.’

‘Nothing did I see. If she dies, we’ll bury her.’

Then her sweetheart went away.

Ibronka was not in the Devil’s power. She visited him but retained her autonomy, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. The stories of Ibronka and Jacob both show that we are responsible for discriminating ourselves from an archetype.

Jacob and angel Rembrandt

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel 
Rembrandt, 1659 

The Devil would have devoured Ibronka’s brain but she insisted that she had her own mind, that he could not know what she knew. She safeguarded herself by following – at least in the Devil’s presence – the Confucian injunction: ‘speak no evil’.

First thing in the morning she went to the old woman. In great agitation did she appeal to her, as her sister had died. ‘Oh mother, I need your advice.’

‘What about?’

‘Well, I did what you advised me to do.’

‘What happened then?’

‘Oh, just imagine, he was sawing a dead man’s head in two, just the same way we’d go about cutting up a melon. And there I stayed and kept my eye on him, to see what he’d be doing next. And he set to feasting on the brains from the severed head I was so horrified that I broke the thread and in great haste made my way back home. But he must have caught sight of me, because as soon as I had the door safely bolted on the inside, he was calling me through the window, “Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?” “Nothing did I see.” “You must tell me what you saw, or your sister will die.” I said then, “If she dies, we will bury her, but nothing did I see through the keyhole.” ‘

‘Now listen,’ the old woman said, ‘take my advice and put your dead sister in the outhouse.’

Next evening she did not dare to go spinning with her friends, but her sweetheart was calling again through her window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see through her window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see through the keyhole?’

‘Nothing did I see.’

‘You must tell me what you saw,’ he said, ‘or your mother shall die.’

‘If she dies, we will bury her, but nothing did I see looking through the keyhole.’

He turned away from the window and was off. Ibronka was preparing for a night’s rest. When she rose in the morning, she found her other dead. She went to the old woman. ‘Oh, mother, what will all this lead to? My mother too – she’s dead.’

‘Do not worry about it, but put her corpse in the outhouse.’

In the evening her sweetheart came again. He was calling her through the window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, tell me, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’

‘Nothing did I see.’

‘You must tell me what you saw,’ he said, ‘or your father shall die.’

‘If he dies, we will bury him, but nothing did I see looking through the keyhole.’

Her sweetheart turned away from the window and was off, and she retired for the night. But she could not help musing over her lot; what would come of all this? And she went on speculating until she felt sleepy and more at ease. But she could not rest for long. Soon she lay wide awake and was pondering over her fate. ‘I wonder what the future keeps in store for me?’ And when the day broke she found her father dead. ‘Now I am left alone.’

She took the corpse of her father into the outhouse, and then she went as fast as she could to the old woman again. ‘Oh, mother, mother! I need your comfort in my distress. What is going to happen to me?’

‘You know what’s going to happen to you? I may tell you. You are going to die.

Her relatives and she herself died. An encounter with an archetype takes us out of life in the sense that much libido is withdrawn for an internal struggle: dreams, depression and sleepless nights all subtract from ordinary life.

That Ibronka stored their bodies in the outhouse shows that she met adversity with healthy skepticism. She was not afraid of the Devil’s power over death, was not compulsively sensitive or concerned for others, was willing to be ruthless. When we meet an archetype we must be tough and unimpressed. We are forked creatures who have to shit every day. The outhouse matters more than the church.


wood outhouse.jungian psychoanalysis

Squat outhouse 
Ropianka Beskid Niski, Poland: Tomasz Kuran, 2005 

Now go and ask your friends to be there when you die. And when you die, because die you will for certain, they must not take out the coffin either through the door or the window when they carry it to the churchyard.’

‘How then?’

‘They must cut a hole through the wall and must push the coffin through that hole. But they should not carry it along the road but cut across through the gardens and the bypaths. And they should not bury it in the burial ground but in the ditch of the churchyard.’

Well, she went home. Then she sent word to her friends, the girls in the village, and they appeared at her call.

In the evening her sweetheart came to the window. ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’

‘Nothing did I see.’

‘You must tell me at once,’ he said, ‘or you shall die.’

‘If I die, they will bury me, but nothing did I see through the keyhole.’

He turned away from the window and took off.

Well, for a while she and her friends kept up their conversation. They were only half inclined to believe that she would die. When they grew tired they went to sleep. But when they awoke, they found Ibronka dead. They were not long in bringing a coffin and cutting a hole through the wall. They dug a grave for her in the ditch of the churchyard. They pushed the coffin through the hole in the wall and went off with it. They did not follow the road, but went cross-country, cutting through the gardens and the bypaths. When they came to the churchyard they buried her. Then they returned to the house and filled in the hole they had cut through the wall. It so happened that before she died, Ibronka enjoined them to take care of the house until further events took place.

If Ibronka had gone with the herd she would have been seized by the devil. Consciousness must be cunning, must take nothing for granted, must replace collective rituals with individual action.

Under threat from the animus-spirit, the feminine reverted to the soil, to the earth or ground of instinct, to simple vegetative functioning (see von Franz’s interpretation of the fairy tale The Handless Maiden).

That Ibronka lay in a coffin means that she was completely passive, renouncing all yang action. This was extreme yin or which allowed her animus-infection to run its course, like bed-rest for a fever.

Before long, a beautiful rose grew out of Ibronka’s grave.

hybrid tea rose flower

‘Opening Night’ Hybrid tea rose (detail)
Capitol Park, Sacramento: Roy Winkelman, 2011 

The feminine was renewed. We know there had been a deficit in Ibronka’s femininity because she had not found a beau. When she faced the animus her femininity evolved.

This story is as relevant to a man’s psychology as it is to a woman’s; both sexes could benefit from facing the animus. If a man or a woman is possessed by spiritual or intellectual ideas (frequently true of scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals of all kinds) then that person is first and foremost possessed: the feminine potentials which might balance the spirit (empathy, feeling, emotion, pleasure, proportion, relationship) all tend to be blocked.

The grave was not far from the road, and a prince, driving past in his coach, saw it. So much was he taken by its beauty that he stopped the coachman at once. ‘Hey! Rein in the horses and get me that rose from the grave. Be quick about it!’

At once the coachman came to a halt. He jumps from the coach and goes to fetch the rose. But when he wants to break it off, the rose will not yield. He is pulling harder now, but still it does not yield. He is pulling the rose with all his might, but all in vain.

‘Oh, what a dummy you are! Haven’t you got the brains to pick a rose? Come on here, get back on the coach and let me go and get a flower.’

The coachman got back on to his seat, and the prince gave him the reins, which he had been holding while the other went for the rose. The prince then jumped down from the coach and went to the grave. No sooner had he grasped the rose, than it came off at once and he was holding it in his hand.

‘Look here, you idiot, with all your tearing and pulling you could not get me this rose, and hardly did I touch it and off it came into my hand.’

Only the princely suitor could win Ibronka. Don’t cast pearls before swine. The coniunctio, the inner marriage between yin and yang, is the highest marriage, not to be confused with common marriage. If we are to pursue the inner work we must see its true value. Otherwise we will not protect it nor accept its cost.

Isis and Osiris

Isis and Osiris
Picture: source unknown 

Well, they took off, driving back home at great speed. The prince pinned the rose on his breast. At home, he found a place for it in front of the dining-room mirror so that he should be able to look at it even while he was having his meals.

The mirror shows that this work must be reflected upon, not just acted out. The meeting of Ibronka and prince was about consciousness.

There the rose stayed. One evening some leftovers remained on the table after supper. The prince left them there. ‘I may eat them some other time.’

This happened every now and again. Once the servant asked the prince, ‘Did your majesty eat the leftovers?’

‘Not I,’ said the prince. ‘I guessed it was you who finished off what was left.’

‘No, I did not,’ he says.

‘Well, there’s something fishy about it.’

Says the servant, ‘I am going to find out who’s in this – the cat, or whoever.’

Neither the prince nor the servant would have guessed that the rose was eating the remains.

‘Well,’ said the prince, ‘we must leave some more food on the table. And you will lie in wait and see who’s going to eat it up.’

They left plenty of food on the table. And the servant was lying in wait, but never for a moment did he suspect the rose. And the rose alighted from her place by the mirror, and shook itself, at at once it turned into such a beautiful maiden that you could not find a second to her, not in all Hungary, not in all the wide world. Well, she sat down on a chair at the table and supped well off the dishes. She even found a glass of water to finish off her supper.

princess eats duck

Sketch of a Princess Eating Duck. Limestone, Paint Tell el-Amarna, North Palace New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, Reign of Akhenaten (1372-1355 BCE).

Then she shook herself a little and back again she was in her place in front of the mirror, in the shape of a rose.

The rose fed at night which means it was fed by the unconscious, for example by dreams. This is another example of repetition, a completely different image which confirms a previous interpretation, that Ibronka’s story is about individuation: the inner marriage is nourished by dreaming and reflecting upon dreams.

Well, the servant was impatiently waiting for day to break. Then he went to the prince and reported, ‘I’ve found it out, your royal majesty, it was the rose.’

‘This evening you must lay the table properly and leave plenty of food on it. I am going to see for myself whether you are telling me the truth.’

And as they were lying in wait, the prince and the servant, they saw the rose alight from her place. She made a slight movement, then shook herself and at once turned into a fine and beautiful maiden. She takes a chair, sits down at the table, and sups well on the dishes. The prince was watching her as he sat under the mirror. And when she finished her supper and poured herself a glass of water and was about to shake herself into a rose again, the prince clasped his arms round her and took her into his lap.

‘My beautiful and beloved sweetheart. You are mine, and I am yours for ever, and nothing but death can us part.’

‘Oh, it cannot be so,’ said Ibronka.

‘To be sure, it can be,’ he says, ‘And why not?’

‘There is more to it than you think.’

The prince begged Ibronka to re-enter human life. As a flower who fed only at night, Ibronka represented the renewed feminine but was not in human relationship; she was true only to herself.

Well, I just remember a slip I have made in the story. Here goes then. On the day she was buried, her sweetheart appeared at her window as usual. He called in to her. But no answer came. He goes to the door and kicks it open. ‘Tell me, you door, was it through you they took out Ibronka’s coffin.’

‘No, it was not.’

He goes then to the window. ‘Tell me, you window, was it through you they took the coffin out?’

‘No it was not.’

He take himself off to the road. ‘Tell me, you road, was it this way they took the coffin?’

‘No, it was not.’

He goes to the churchyard. ‘Tell me, you churchyard, was it in your ground they buried Pretty Maid Ibronka?’

‘No, it was not.’

Well, that is the missing part.

Nothing is without meaning, including the timing of this interpolation which repeats that even in death Ibronka took her own individual path.

Fervently the prince is now wooing her and tries to win her consent to their marriage. But she resorts to evasion. And finally she made her condition, ‘I will marry you only if you never compel me to go to church.’

Said the prince, ‘Well then, we could get along without you going to church. Even if I sometimes go myself. I shall never compel you to come with me.’

Ibronka agreed to marry but not to go to church. Her marriage was unconventional; again this is a repetition which confirms that the issue was individuation. Ibronka had begun to re-enter the collective but her return was incomplete. She preserved her individuality by not rejoining her community, by not bringing back the fruits of her work with the unconscious.

Ibronka and the prince negotiated a compromise which shows that individuation requires talk. To remain oneself while married one must negotiate. So also with the inner marriage.

Here is another part of the story I missed telling in its proper order. As he did not get any the wiser from the answer of the road, and the churchyard either, her sweetheart said to himself, ‘Well, I see I must get myself a pair of iron moccasins and an iron staff and then I shall not stop until I find you, Pretty Maid Ibronka, even if I have to wear them away to naught.’


iron shoe.jungian psychoanalysis

Old horseshoe
Photo: source unknown

In Hindu myth our age is the age of iron and darkness. Iron symbolizes hardness, durability, strength, fetters, evil and yang. Here it represents the remorseless, enslaving, destructive aspect of yang. When yang is excessive it becomes destructive and the feminine must oppose it.

The time comes when Ibronka is expecting a child. The couple are living happily, only she never goes along with him to church. Day follows day, the years slip by. Again she is with child. They have already two children, and they are no longer babes, but a boy of five and six years of age. And it is their father who takes them to church. True enough, he himself had found it strange enough that only his children went with him while all other folks appeared together with their wives. And he knew that they rebuked him for it and said, ‘Why does not your majesty bring along the queen?’

He says, ‘Well, that is the custom with us.’

But all the same he felt embarrassed after this rebuke, and next Sunday, when he was getting ready with the boys to go to church, he said to his wife, ‘Look here, missus, why won’t you come with us too?’

She answered, ‘Look here, husband, don’t you remember your promise?’

‘How then? Must we stick to it for ever and aye? I’ve been hearing their scorn long enough. And how could I give up going to church when the kids want me to go with them? Whatever we were saying then, let us forget about it.’

‘All right, let it be as you wish, but it will give rise to trouble between us two. However, as I see you’ve set your mind on it, I am willing to go with you. Now let me go and dress for church.’

So they went, and it made the people rejoice to see them together. ‘That is the right thing, your majesty,’ they said, ‘coming to church with your wife.’

The demands of the collective paradoxically drew Ibronka further into individuation. When for example a person has to work to support him- or herself this collective demand may help the person to discover more of his or her individual potential.

The mass is drawing to a close and, when it ends, a man is walking up to the couple wearing a pair of iron moccasins worn to holes, and with an iron staff in his hand. He calls out loudly, ‘I pledged myself, Ibronka, that I would put on a pair of iron moccasins and take an iron staff, and go out looking for you, even if I should wear then to naught. But before I had worn them quite away, I found you. Tonight I shall come to you.’

When Ibronka finally went back to church she had to face the destructive side of the animus again. Because of her inner marriage she was stronger and could face it. Until then she could only evade it.

And he disappeared. On their way home the king asked his wife, ‘What did that man mean by threatening you?’

‘Just wait and see, and you will learn what will come of it.’

So both were anxiously waiting for the evening to come. The day was drawing to a close. Suddenly there was someone calling through the window: ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see through the keyhole?’

Pretty Maid Ibronka then began her speech: ‘I was the prettiest girl in the village, but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking – and all the other girls had a sweetheart – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking. Once I let it out, I wish God would give me one, even if one of the devils he were. There must have been something in the way I said it, because that evening, when we gathered to do our spinning, there appeared a young lad in a sheepskin cape, and a hat graced with a feather of a crane. He greets us and takes a seat at my side and we are conversing, as is the custom of the young. And then it so happened – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking – that my spindle slipped from my hand. I bent to pick it up and so did my sweetheart, but as my groping hand touched his foot, I felt at once – but to a dead and not to a living soul am I speaking – that it was a cloven hoof. And I recoiled in horror that God had given me a devil for a sweetheart – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking.’

And he is shouting at the top of his voice through the window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’

‘But when at the parting, as is the custom with the young, we embraced, my hand went straight through his flesh. At that I grew even more horrified. There was a woman in the village, and I went to ask for her advice. And she put me wise – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking.’

And he kept shouting through the window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’

‘And then my sweetheart took leave and went away. And I wished he would never come again – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking. The woman said, I was to try and do the spinning at some other place, once here, once there, so that he might not find me. But wherever I went, there he came. And again I went for advice to the woman – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking.’

And he was shouting through the window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’

‘Then the woman advised me to get myself a ball of thread, which I was to fasten on to his sheepskin cape. And when he asked me and I said ‘Nothing did I see,’ he said, ‘Tell me at once, or your sister shall die,’ ‘If she dies, we will bury her, but nothing did I see looking through the keyhole.’ And he came again next evening and asked me what I had seen through the keyhole – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking.’

And all the while he never stops shouting through the window.

Ibronka told the story her way, omitting the terrible act she saw through the keyhole.

‘And my sister died. And the next evening he came again and was calling to me through the window – but to a dead and not to a living soul am I speaking. ‘Tell me what you saw, or your mother shall die.’ ‘If she dies, we will bury her.’ Next evening he is calling to me again, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’ – but to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking. ‘Tell me what you saw, or your father shall die.’ ‘If he dies, we will bury him, but nothing did I see looking through the keyhole. On that day I sent word to my friends, and they came and it was arranged that when I died they would not take my coffin either through the door or the window. Nor were they to take me along the road to bury me in the churchyard.’

And he went on shouting through the window, ‘Pretty Maid Ibronka, what did you see looking through the keyhole?’

‘And my friends cut a hole through the wall and went along the road when they took me to the churchyard where they buried me in the ditch – but to a dead and not to a living soul am I speaking.’

We have heard this before. Why does the tale take so much time to repeat it all here? Ibronka used her story as an incantation to thwart the devil, a vivid image of the power of words. Theseus used a sword against the minotaur but Ibronka used the head-phallus, the talking cure.

And he collapsed under the window. He uttered a shout which shook the castle to its bottom, and it was he who died then. Her mother and her father and her sister rose from their long sleep. And that is the end of it.

Ibronka became a story teller. When the negative animus persecutes us it does so with affect-laden untruths: we are haunted with shaming, demoralizing, or discouraging thoughts which have power though they are untrue or unfair. Ibronka confronted the animus (‘to a dead and not a living soul am I speaking’) and used yang power to tell her own story.

When we tell a story we recast events to reveal their potential meaning; it is our prerogative as creator to choose the symbolic meaning we wish to emphasize.

Millais Boyhood of Raleigh

The Boyhood of Raleigh 
Budleigh Salterton, Devonshire. John Everett Millais, 1870 

Pretty Maid Ibronka shows that, through story-telling, we create our own humanity.