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Accepted Paper:

The Snake and the Child: an ethnographic perspective on death and mourning in conflicting human and nonhuman social orders  
Silvie Lang (University of Kassel) Lodewyk Barkhuizen (University of Tartu)

Paper short abstract:

We explore tale type ATU 285 (The Snake and the Child) as a mourning narrative in which conflicting human and non-human social orders act as both the catalyst and scapegoat for social and physical death.

Paper long abstract:

ATU 285 (The Snake and the Child) tells of a bond between a human and nonhuman

being, and how, from the anthropocentric disposition of the parent, this relationship

causes fear and uncertainty that results in social and physical death.

Using a corpus of texts from German fairy tale collector Franz Xaver von Schönwerth

(1810–1886), as well as a contemporary oral version from South Africa, we explore how

ATU 285 acts both as a cautionary tale (in its archival form) and a mournful lament (in

its oratory form). From the perspective of the parent, the killing of the snake (as a

dangerous intruder) will safeguard the child and mend the disrupted social order.

Death, in this sense, is a necessary condition for both the protection of the child and the

preservation of a dominant order. However, the child, grieving the loss of its companion,

falls into physical and emotional decline, and ultimately dies, suggesting an intimate co-

dependence, not only between human and nonhuman entities, but also between social

order and physical well-being. This suggests, ‘life’ (or living) as active participation in

social order(s); placing death as variations of non-participation, e.g. the grief of the child

as a progressive non-participation—a social death that leads to physical death.

Using ATU 285, we show how a simple tale, when observed across its archival and

oratory forms, becomes a complex expression of the nuanced relationships between

certainty, uncertainty, death, dying, grief, loss, and preservation of the integrated social

and physical body.

Panel Narr02
Uncertain death: narrative and physical death and the spaces in between
  Session 1 Saturday 10 June, 2023, -