World Folklore: The Child Cast Adrift


Artwork by Charles Foster – Public Domain

The Child Cast Adrift

Many myths and legends from many cultures around the world revolve around the theme of a child deliberately abandoned in the wilds or cast adrift on the ocean or a river.  The story involves a  helpless and defenseless baby committed by adults to take their chances of survival but against all odds and often with the help of divine intervention the baby survives to grow up and play a significant part in the culture of a society.  More often than not they become great leaders saving or inspiring their people.

Usually, those that cast the helpless babe adrift are not doing so with the intention of actually killing the child but are offering up for the chance of divine intervention, or luck, in the hope that the baby will survive the ordeal.  Sometimes it is the only chance the baby will have of survival because it has been rejected in some way by those who have power over it or others who wish it harm.  Presented here are four ancient examples from folklore and mythology around the world concluding with an example from modern fiction.

Moses in the Bull Rushes

The Old Testament tells how the population of Hebrews living in Egypt had grown to such an extent that the Egyptians grew concerned that they were becoming too powerful.  They forced them into slavery and to reduce their numbers the Pharaoh decreed that their newborn babies were to be drowned in the Nile.  The Hebrews prayed to God for help and he sent them Moses who was to lead them out of Egypt.

In a desperate hope that her baby might somehow escape this fate the mother of Moses placed him in a basket and sets him afloat in the reeds where Pharaoh’s daughter routinely went to bathe in the river trusting in God that he would be saved and fulfill his destiny. Pharaoh’s daughter did find him and he was rescued and survived growing up to lead his people out of Egypt to freedom.

Sargon of Akkad

Sargon of Akkad was a king in Mesopotamia from 2334 to 2279 BCE.  He was said to have been an illegitimate son of one of the priestesses of the temple of the goddess Innana and never knew who his father was.  His mother, whose name was not known, could not reveal her pregnancy or to keep the unnamed baby,  so she placed him in a basket and cast him adrift on the Euphrates River.

A man called Akki  who was an “irrigator”, or “drawer of water”, of King Ur-Zababa of Kish in Sumer found and rescued the child and brought up the baby.  The boy grew up to become king, conquering Mesopotamia and creating one of the first known multinational empires.  Although the name of the child is not known, when he became king he became known as Sargon and was regarded by many as the greatest man who had ever lived.

An account of Sargon’s birth and early boyhood is found in  a Neo-Assyrian text:

“Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkadê am I,
My mother was lowly; my father I did not know;
The brother of my father dwelt in the mountain.

My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the bank of the Purattu (Euphrates),
My lowly mother conceived me, in secret she brought me forth.

She placed me in a basket of reeds, she closed my entrance with bitumen,
She cast me upon the rivers which did not overflow me.

The river carried me, it brought me to Akki, the irrigator.

Akki, the irrigator, in the goodness of his heart lifted me out,
Akki, the irrigator, as his own son brought me up;

Akki, the irrigator, as his gardener appointed me.
When I was a gardener the goddess Ishtar loved me,
And for four years I ruled the kingdom.”  (1)

Romulus and Remus


She-wolf suckles Romulus and Remus – Public Domain

According to the Roman historian Livy, Rhea Silvia was the daughter of Numitor who was the king of Alba Longa, an ancient city in the Alban Hills in what is now central Italy.  Amulius, the brother of Numitor seized the throne and killed all of his brother’s male heirs and forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, making her take a vow of chastity and thinking that then there would be no challengers to his rule.

Possibly the gods had other ideas because Rhea Silvia conceived twins by the god of war, Mars and named them Romulus and Remus.   By some accounts, the usual punishment for a Vestal Virgin who broke their vows was death by being buried alive which was imposed on Rhea Silvia.  When the twins were born, Amulius, determined that there would be no challengers to him had them cast adrift on the River Tiber to certain death.   Both these acts were designed to avoid him having to bear the blame and carry the blood-guilt for their deaths.

Once abandoned on the waters the twins floated dangerously down the river at the mercy of the current  until Tibernus, the god of the river, came to their aid. The river god ensured their safety by calming the waters and causing their basket to catch in the roots of a nearby fig tree.  A she-wolf came across them and suckled them and a woodpecker brought them food and fed them.  They were found by a shepherd by the name of Faustulus. He and his wife took them in and brought them up as their own.

Although the twins became shepherds like their father they also went on to become great leaders and acquired a substantial following.   They both agreed they would found a city but in a quarrel over where it should be built Romulus killed Remus and went on to found Rome.

Taliesin of the Shining Brow

Taliesin is believed to have lived between 534 and 599. He was the chief bard in the courts of at least three kings of the Britons and is associated with the Book of Taliesin, a text from the 10th century containing his poems.  The conception and birth of Taliesin is a strange tale and begins on the banks of Lake Bala, North Wales, where Tegid Foel and his wife Ceridwen lived.  This couple had a daughter named Creawy who was very beautiful and a son called Morfan who was unbelievably ugly and stupid beyond hope.  Ceridwen had brewed a potion that was meant to improve the looks and intellect of Morfan but which accidentally was ingested by one of her helpers named Gwion Bach who got the benefits from the potion instead.   Ceridwen was furious with Gwion Bach and sought revenge which led to a chase which involved the two changing them shapes into different animals before Ceridwen turns into a hen finally eats Gwion Bach, who had turned into a  single grain of wheat in a pile of wheat. She then finds she has become pregnant with him when she returns to her true shape.

She gives birth to him and although she plans to kill him the baby is so beautiful she cannot find the heart.   However, she is determined to be rid of him and so places him in a leather bag and throws him in the sea.  Fortunately for the baby, he is found by Elffin who was the son of  Gwyddno Garanhir and was renowned for his bad luck.  One day when Elffin was inspecting his fishing traps to his dismay he found no fish just an old leather bag that had been tied at the top.  Hauling in the bag and untying it he was shocked to find a baby boy inside.  The baby had the whitest brow he had ever seen and he called the child, “Taliesin”  which means, “how radiant his brow is”.

Elffin decides to take the child home with him and on the way, and to his surprise, the baby begins reciting poetry.  From this Elffin surmises the boy must have been purposely sent to him as a guide and as a bard and prophet who will help him to overcome his enemies.  From that day on Elffin’s luck changes for the better and his fortunes begin to prosper.

Taliesin grows up to become the most famous bard in Britain and foretells correctly that Maelgwyn Gwynedd an evil king would be killed by the “yellow beast.”  The poetry of Taliesin becomes inspirational for the defenders of Britain in their struggle with the invading Saxons and he makes a famous prophecy revealing the fate of the Britons:

Their Lord they shall praise,
Their language they shall keep,
Their land they shall lose –
Except wild Wales.

Around the World

The theme of the abandoned baby is found in the folklore and mythology of many different cultures around the world.  From ancient India, the Hindu epic the Mahābhārata tells the tale of Karna and from Greek mythology is the tale of Oedipus, though he was abandoned on a mountainside rather than cast adrift in a river or the sea and there are many other examples.

In Modern Times

The theme of a baby cast adrift has many variations around the world in different cultures and still continues in modern fiction.  One of the most modern and well-known stories of a baby cast adrift is the story of Kal-El from the planet Krypton.  His parents placed him in a space rocket pointing it towards the planet Earth in the hope of finding safety for their son as their own planet was blown apart by a nuclear chain reaction.  The rocket reached Earth and crash landed and was found Jonathan and Martha Kent, a childless couple, who owned a farm in the United States of America. The childless couple took in the baby and brought him up as Clark Kent alias Superman.

© 27/07/2016 zteve t evans

Reference and Attributions

Copyright July 27th, 2016 zteve t evans



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