The Twa Sisters

September 22, 2008

This is an old story from Europe. There are over 21 versions of the story with different themes and details. The basic tale is about a young woman who is drown in a body of water by her older sister. In most versions, her body is pulled out of the water by a miller. All versions of this ballad include this basic framework but there are many differences in the other details of the story.

The motivation for the killing is most often jealosy. Some versions illude to the older sister being jealous of her sister for her looks and her relationship with their father. Many versions include a wealthy gentleman suitor who favors the younger sister. In these later versions, the drowning girl becomes aware of her sisters motivations and calls to her from the water, promising that the older sister may marry the suitor if she pulls her out of the water.

The next major difference between the versions of this murder ballad involve the miller. Many of them speak of the miller’s daugher, or son in some cases, who spies the body in the water. The child reports to the miller seeing a swan or a pale body floating in the water. The miller pulles the corpse out of the water.

The next series of events also varies in the tellings of this story. Some of them feature the miller robbing the corpse of her riches, most often rings, and throwing the body back into the water. In these versions the miller is often hanged for the killing of the young woman.

Other versions depict the miller building musical instruments from the corpse, often using her hair for fiddle strings and in some cases her breast bone to build a harp. The miller either travels the land playing the instruments or sells them to a fiddler. The wraith of the murdered woman is awakened when the instruments are played at which point she identifies her sister as the murderer.

I think the history of this murder ballad proves the resonnance of its themes and that it has great potential as the featured narrative in my thesis.

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One Response to “The Twa Sisters”

  1. drewcogbill Says:

    Dan- Nico Muhly, a young, modern composer, has a great musical treatment of this story on his newish album mothertonuge. have you heard it? remind me to play it for you next time i see you.


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