Ballad of The Walled-Up Wife

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Alan Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife : A Casebook. The book's cover illustration, "The Bridge of Arta", is by Spiros Kardamakis.

'The Walled Up Wife' is a folkloric ballad of Eastern European and Indian origin that tells of the sacrifice by immurement of a female victim in order that the construction of a citadel or other built structure might successfully be completed. The ballad exists in many different forms, varyingly concerning the construction of a castle, a monastery, a bridge or a well. Versions of the ballad have been recorded across the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and India.


"The Building of Skadar", first published by the early Serbian folklorist Vuk Karadžić in 1815,[1] represents the ballad in one of its classic forms. It takes as its subject the construction of a citadel in the ancient Balkan city of Skadar, or Shkodër, in present day Albania.[2]

Three brothers and their three hundred strong workforce have been laboring in vain on the construction of a citadel on the Bojana River; for three years anything they have built during the day collapses at night.

A vila[3] calls to Vukašin, the master-builder, and the elder of the three brothers. She tells him that in order to end his torment and ensure that what he builds by day remains standing at night, the wife of one of the three brothers must be sacrificed: whoever of the three wives arrives first to bring their husband's lunch the following day should be walled-up inside the walls of the citadel.

Vukašin relates the vila's words to his two brothers and warns them to not say anything to their wives so that the outcome can truly be left to fate. He, however, breaks the oath, as does his brother Uglješa, and they both warn their wives of the danger and instruct them to not come to the construction site the next day. Only the youngest brother, Gojko, keeps the promise to not tell his wife.

The following day Gojko is heartbroken to see his wife approaching the citadel first. He explains away his tears to her, and the two older brothers lead her off to be immured. She at first thinks they are in jest and plays along, as "three hundred artisans" build up the wall to her knees. As the wall reaches her waist, however, she realizes their intent and pleads with the brothers, to no avail. She implores them to leave a window in the wall at her breast, so that she might continue to feed her infant son—and at her eye level, so that she can see when he is brought to her. This the builders grant her. For a week she continues to feed her son when he is brought to her, and, though her voice fades behind the wall after a week, milk continues to flow for her child for a full year thereafter—as it does from the walls of the citadel to the present day.[4]

Regional Variations

Rozafa Castle, in Shkodër, Albania, purported location of the immurement documented in "The Building of Skadar".

The ballad is most typically considered of Balkan origin, but there are many regional variations. Several versions exist native to the Santal peoples of India, where the tale usually concerns the construction of a water tank.

One theory for the geographic spread of the ballad is that it was carried by Sinti and Roma ‘gypsies' who arrived in Europe from northern India in the early fifteenth century.[5] Alan Dundes points out how the gypsy peoples were often employed as masons.[6]

The Indian versions of the ballad usually tell of seven brothers who have been working on digging a water tank. After repeatedly failing to strike water, they are advised by a Jogi that, in order for the water to flow, they must sacrifice to the tank their only sister. They do this, sending her into the centre of the dry tank, which then quickly fills with water, drowning her. These versions of the tale usually end with the sister being transformed into an Upel flower, which her betrothed then passes and plucks, bringing her back to life as a semi-deity.[7] In one of these versions, the brothers’ motivation for the sacrifice of their sister is justified to the grieving mother with reference to the perpetuation of the family name through the completion of the ‘meritorious work’ of the tank, which will benefit all who pass by and use it.[8]

"The Bridge of Arta" is another well-known variant of the ballad, of Greek origin. Here again, three brothers are laboring over the construction of a bridge over a river, and it is the master builder who must sacrifice his wife. As with the Skadar tale, the wife brings lunch to the construction site, and is led down into the foundations of the bridge on the pretext of helping her husband search for his wedding ring, which he claims to have dropped there.[9]

In most versions of the ballad some kind of supernatural element such as a fairy, or angel advises the master mason what he needs to do to ensure the success of his construction; in others, the mason dreams it.[10]

Zora Devrnja Zimmerman has identified several sites as the architectural subjects of the various Eastern European versions of the ballad. In addition to recognizing Rozafa Castle as the fort at Skadar in Serbian versions of the ballad, she acknowledges Fort Deva on the Maros River, Hungary as the site of the “Clement-Mason” version, and the monastery at Arges as the building referred to in the Romanian "Manole, The Master Mason”.[11]

Foundation Sacrifice

The Cathederal of Curtea de Arges in Romania is said to be the location of the "Monastery of Arges" version of the ballad.

Traditional beliefs in the necessity of a ‘foundation sacrifice’ in order to secure the stability of a new building exist worldwide.[12] In the Old Testament, Hiel the Bethelite is said to have laid his firstborn son in the foundations when he was rebuilding Jericho.[13] In ancient India, a pregnant woman was the favored sacrificial victim—as, it is said, at the sacred wall at Hampi. Legend has it that St Columba buried St Oran alive in the foundation of his monastery at Iona, in order to secure its stability and longevity.[14]

Human skeletons uncovered during excavations or demolitions at ancient sites appear to confirm that this was indeed a widespread practice. In 1844, a wall was broken open at a location where, legend held, a maiden was walled into the castle at Nieder Manderscheid in Germany: a skeleton was found embedded inside. When the bridge gate at Bremen was demolished, a child’s skeleton was revealed; and during a restoration of the parish church at Holsworthy in England, a skeleton was found—and evidence of hastily completed brickwork around that portion of the wall even suggested that a live immurement had taken place.[15]

Later, there is evidence of human models substituted for actual sacrificial victims. Other customs believed that the ‘captured’ shadow of a person could substitute for their actual immurement, though the person thus captured would subsequently die of other causes within forty days. The sacrifice of an animal, often with its blood spilled onto the foundation stone of a new construction, is also widespread and survives into the present day.[16]

These practices spring from varying beliefs and traditions. Offering a human sacrifice was thought of as appeasement of the spirits of the earth upon which a building was constructed—or of the spirits of a river across which a bridge was built. The spirit of the sacrificial victim, likewise, could be thought of as a protector of a citadel or city wall from hostile outside forces. The notion of sacrifice as a purification of a threshold is also common.[17]

Paul G. Brewster has pointed out echoes of the ballad’s theme of foundation sacrifice throughout other folktales and ballads. The still popular children’s rhyme 'London Bridge’, though omitting an overt conclusion of immurement, nevertheless retains elements of the ballad in its chronicling of repeated structural collapses and attempts to forestall them. Some scholars believe the true ending has been sanitized in modern forms of London Bridge and point to the ‘arch' games and dances that accompany non-English versions of the same rhyme, where dancers create an archway by holding hands aloft, through which the participants must pass; one child passing through is then ‘snatched’ and held by the rest of the dancers as the rhyme reaches a macabre conclusion.[18]


Appeasement of the gods for man's hubris

Most critical interpretations of the ballad center around the theme of foundation sacrifice, whether to appease local territorial spirits or the more universal gods whose powers of creation are arrogantly usurped by man in his ambition to build.

Zora Devrnja Zimmerman has emphasized this latter understanding; “…when mortals presume to rival divine creation with their own, they will incur the wrath of the gods. Belief in this notion conflicts with personal ambition, so strategies of appeasement inevitably follow. In the Master-Mason legends, progress is allowed only after the penalty for trespass onto divine territories is paid. The penalty is a sacrificial offering.”[19] This interpretation is in turn linked to the notion of ‘hubris’, which in classical Greek literature was a necessary component of human progress, despite the penalties to be paid: “Human ambition advances civilization, but it also brings about suffering. In short, mortals are punished for their defiance of the gods, but defiance gives knowledge.”[20]

Thus Vuskašin, the elder brother and master mason, becomes a prototypical Fasutian creative, whose guile and ambition enables the successful completion of his project—at the expense of the happiness of his faithful, if artless, brother and the life of his brother’s wife.[21]

Sharon King has also interpreted the ballad as an allegory for human will and ambition, the conception of art, and the issue of what its limits are or should be. She reads "The Master of Manole", a Romanian version of the ballad that centers around the construction of the Monastery at Arges, as a series of boundaries transgressed in the name of 'great art’.[22]

Spiritual animation of a new building

Mircea Eliade, on the other hand, explores the notion of spiritual transference that takes place through the act of human sacrifice as the central motif of the ballad. “To last, a construction (house, technical accomplishment, but also spiritual undertaking) must be animated, that is, must receive both life and a soul. The ‘transference' of the soul is possible only by means of a sacrifice, in other words, a violent death. We may even say that the victim continues its existence after death, no longer in its physical body but in its new body—the construction—which it has 'animated' by its immolation; we may even speak of an 'architectonic body’ substituted for a body of flesh."[23]

This underlying ideology is in turn related by Eliade to fundamental myths around the foundation of a cosmogony—where the founding of the world itself was predicated on the killing of a primordial giant (whose scattered limbs formed the continents of the earth). Thus, every act of creation becomes linked to an act of violence, a notion that it is not difficult to apply in an architectural context, given Eliade's conception of the dwelling—be that house, palace or city—as an imago mundi, a recreation of a cosmos at an intimate scale.[24]

Male appropriation of female creativity

Other writers, have examined the ballad as an allegory or male-female relations and the institution of marriage. The ballad's 'rite of passage' inscribes the working life of the male as predicated on the enclosure of the female; an enclosure that can as readily be understood in relation to the walls of the home (in the case of marriage), as the walls of the foundational monuments of a city or state (as in the varying versions of the ballad).[25]

Alan Dundes has pointed out the symbolism, in some versions of the ballad, of the wife being enticed into the building’s foundations on the ruse that her husband has dropped his wedding ring; similarly, “by entering marriage, the woman is figuratively immured. She is kept behind walls—to protect her virtue and to keep her confined.”[26]

The tale thus inscribes an axis of active working male and passive nurturing female—literally in the Skadar versions of the ballad, where ‘mother’s milk’ continues to flow from the citadel’s walls. Ruth Mandel has explored this in terms of a culture-nature dichotomy. Male cultural creativity can only ever be an appropriation of female natural creativity, an appropriation that, in the ballad, takes the violent and destructive form of sacrifice. “Male culture lacks the self-creative ability inherent in female nature and therefore must take it from the woman. Culture appropriates nature, then, through an inversion or destruction […] The men are intent on sacrificing her because she has something they need, to wit, creative natural powers.”[27]

Claudio Sgarbi has echoed this reading of the ballad as an expression of male jealousy of female fecundity. Pregnant women or nursing mothers being victimized by "professionally impotent" master masons suggests a profound unease generated by the failure of the male intellectual's attempts to co-opt or recreate the genuine fertility of childbirth in their own creative endeavors. Male envy of woman's ability to conceive is, Sgarbi concludes, "psychogenetically older and therefore more fundamental" than Freudian "penis-envy".[28]


  1. Vuk Karadžić, "The Building of Skadar", in: Alan Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife : A Casebook (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 3-12. Dundes notes that German folklorist Jacob Grimm was fascinated by the "The Building of Skadar” and made his own translation of the Karadžić text, which he sent to Goethe—who was appalled by its “heathen barbarity". See: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 188
  2. The castle in the Skadar version of the ballad is usually identified as Rozafa Castle, built during the early fifteenth century, when the city was under Venetian rule. See: "Shkodër," Wikipedia, last modified October 22, 2018; and Theo Thimo, "Rozafa: The Wife & Mother Half Buried Within The Citadel’s Foundation", Medium, July 18, 2018, retrieved October 23, 2018.
  3. In Slavic mythology, a supernatural being that inhabits the mountains. See: "Supernatural beings in Slavic religion", Wikipedia, last modified July 31, 2018.
  4. A milky substance that continued for centuries after to ooze from the walls—probably lime water leaching from the stone—was collected and said to have curative powers for mothers having trouble breastfeeding. Some versions of the Skadar ballad incorporate this detail: "Yea, even today the white milk flows, for a miracle most high, And a healing draught for women, whereof the breasts are dry!" See: Paul G. Brewster, "The Foundation Sacrifice Motif”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 49.
  5. "Who Were the “Gypsies”?", United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, retrieved October 23, 2018.
  6. Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 26
  7. G.A. Campbell and Cecil Henry Bompas, "Three Santal Tales”, in: Alan Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 13-24.
  8. Ibid., 18.
  9. See: B.J. Gilliat Smith and W.R. Halliday, "The Song of the Bridge”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 27-34.
  10. Mircea Eliade, “Master Manole and the Monastery of Arges”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 74-77.
  11. Zora Devrnja Zimmerman, "Moral Vision in the Serbian Folk Epic: The Foundation Sacrifice of Skadar”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 148.
  12. See: Paul G. Brewster, "The Foundation Sacrifice Motif”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 35-62.
  13. "In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the LORD, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun." 1 Kings 16:34, ESV.
  14. "Oran of Iona", Wikipedia, last modified June 27 2018.
  15. Brewster, "The Foundation Sacrifice Motif”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 37-38.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 39.
  18. Ibid., 50-51. Brewster identifies versions in German, French and Italian that echo ‘London Bridge’, but maintain grisly endings of one kind or another.
  19. Zora Devrnja Zimmerman, "Moral Vision in the Serbian Folk Epic: The Foundation Sacrifice of Skadar”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 149.
  20. Ibid., 151.
  21. Krstivoj Kotur has written of the younger brother in the tale as an emblem of Christian sacrifice and goodness, offering one reason for the survival of the ballad from a purported pre-Christian past into the present day folklore of Serbia; its theme of heathen sacrifice echoes with the sacrifice at the heart of the Christian religion—that of God of his only son. See: Krstivoj Kotur, “The Value of Innocent Sacrifice”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife,139-144.
  22. Sharon King, "Beyond The Pale”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 95-101.
  23. Mircea Eliade, “Master Manole and the Monastery of Arges”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 82-83.
  24. Ibid., 83-84.
  25. Lyubomira Parpulova-Gribble, “The Ballad of “The Walled-Up Wife”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 169-184.
  26. Alan Dundes, “The Ballad of “The Walled-Up Wife”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 198.
  27. Ruth Mandel, "“Sacrifice at the Bridge of Arta”: Sex Roles and the Manipulation of Power”, in: Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife, 164.
  28. Claudio Sgarbi, "Architect's Bellies: Reflection on the Plumbing of Masculine Conceptions", in: Plumbing : sounding modern architecture, Nadir Lahiji and D.S. Friedman, eds. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), 182-198.