Literature / Twenty-Five Tales of the Vetala
The Twenty Five Tales Of The Vetala
is a Hindu legend, originally written down in Sanskrit in the 11th century CE but probably based on oral stories that are much older.
The Framing Device
is that of King Vikram, who is strong and kind but not all that wise. Every day, he sits in his throne room and sees various people. One person who comes every day is a random beggar who always offers the king a piece of fruit. Since a piece of fruit isn't that impressive a gift for a king, Vikram just hands the fruit over to his advisor and doesn't think about it at all. Then, one day, Vikram's pet monkey
steals the bit of fruit and throws it at the floor, breaking the skin. This reveals that inside the fruit was a jewel. Vikram immediately asks his advisor what he's been doing with the other bits of fruit, to which the advisor responds he's been throwing them into a random room and hasn't even bothered to look at them. Vikram goes to the room, and finds a lot of rotting bits of fruit on the floor, with a jewel inside every one.
Intrigued, Vikram asks the beggar why he does this. The beggar reveals he's really a sorcerer, and says that if Vikram comes with him to a cemetary that night and helps him with a simple task, he'll gain much more than simple earthly riches. Vikram agrees, and goes to the haunted cemetary. The sorcerer tells him that to complete the ritual, he needs a body hanging by a tree that is possessed by a spirit - a vetala
. He warns Vikram not to speak to the spirit, and Vikram goes to the tree and starts carrying the body to the sorcerer on his back.
Then the vetala starts talking to Vikram. It at first gets no response, then decides to tell a story. A prince and his counsellor see a beautiful girl from another city that the prince wishes to marry. The counsellor hatches a plan, which works, but the girl then tries to kill the counsellor out of jealousy. The counsellor then hatches a plan to get the girl banished from her city so she can live with the prince; the girl's parents then die of grief. The vetala asks Vikram: Who was responsible for the parents' deaths? The girl, who escalated things? The counsellor, who chose this particular way to get her out of the city? Or the prince, who started the whole thing? Vikram says the king of the city
, because the prince and the girl were in love and thus not as logical as normal and the counsellor was doing his duty; the king, as the lawmaker of the area, should have seen through such plots.
The vetala responds by flying back to the tree.
So happen the twenty-four tales of the vetala (the Framing Device
being the twenty-fifth of the title). Each time Vikram gets the vetala
from the tree and tries to carry it to the sorcerer, the vetala tells him a story with a confusing moral and flies all the way back to the tree. With each story, Vikram gets wiser
. The legend is believed by some to be the origin for the nested stories of the Arabian Nights
, and is quite well known in its native India. There is a translation by an American Indologist named Arthur William Ryder on Project Gutenberg
that is quite accurate to the original. A book by comparative mythologist Heinrich Zimmer called The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul's Conquest of Evil
deals with the psychological implications of the legend in some detail.
- Dark Is Not Evil: While the sorcerer is a dark evil force, the cemetary, corpses and the vetala itself are good.
- The Hero's Journey: Vikram goes through it, with his ultimate boon in some translations being a wise and successful king in life, and when he dies, he'll become even more powerful than all the gods. The Hindu gods.
- Obviously Evil: The sorcerer, who Vikram trusts enough despite his plan being 'come to this creepy haunted place and lug around a corpse for my dark magic and I'll make it worth your while'.
- Secret Test of Character: The vetala tells all twenty-four stories as a way to make Vikram a better person.
- Spell My Name with an "S": The story is known in Urdu/Hindi as Baital Pachisi and in Sanskrit as Vetala Panchavimshati; for this reason, the vetala is sometimes called a baital.
- Too Long; Didn't Dub: The word 'vetala' is often translated as 'vampire' in English renderings of the tale, but the two beings are not quite the same. A vetala is specifically a ghost that is possessing a corpse, and while vetala can make trouble for humanity, they can also protect it, and they don't suck blood or life force like vampires. For that reason, it's left in the original Sanskrit word on this page.
- To be fair, Western vampires were also seen as spirits who possessed corpses in some variations of the mythology.
- Trickster Mentor: The vetala borders on being The Gadfly, but it genuinely does want Vikram to get wiser.