The Loss and Search for a Loved One
Variations of a Literary Theme

"On my bed, in the nights, I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. I will rise now, and go about the city. In the streets and in the broadways Will I seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not," (Song of Songs – s.below).

Throughout the history of literature, three types have developed over time: Myth, Legends and Fairy Tales, and Modern Literature.
Legends and Fairy Tales are fantastic stories collectively created. Sometimes quite complex, they seem to have a meaningful subtext, and have been the subject for interpretation on the basis of human experience, psychology and philosophy. 
Modern Literature is the creation of individuals who have signed their names to the work. They usually deal with the individual life experience, psychology and philosophy, and are based – even the fantastic ones – on events and possibilities taken from real life.
Myth (which means "story" in Greek) is the hardest to define, because it rarely exists in its pure form in a writing; it is quite reasonable to assume that its collective creation happened many centuries before writing began around 5000 years ago. Looking at 30,000 year-old cave paintings, and "Venus" figurines, that are evidently based on mythical ideas, it may easily be concluded that myth started right at the beginning of story telling, developing together with the development of language itself. (My idea, contrary to many scholars', is that language began as soon as we started walking on two legs. Together with freeing the hands for carrying and making things, the throat was also freed for emitting more complex sounds than apes do; and because humans are such expressive beings, as soon as they could control a certain number of sounds, they started telling stories to themselves and to each other; and the first stories they told were myths).
If we take the appellation "Myth" to mean (following Robert Graves' definition) "a story which uses a symbolic shorthand language to present and describe natural, real events,” the basic essential myth can be derived from the complex story which has reached us in its more highly developed form as it appears in ancient literature.
My contention is that the theme presented in the title of this article appeared first in the basic Nature Myth, developed into its Fairy Tale (or Legend) form, and continues to be used today in Modern Literature.
A. Myth.
The basic myth using the theme of the title of this article is this: the great Mother goddess of Nature and Fertility had a young lover who represented, both in myth and in ritual, the vegetation on Earth. The life of this lover is tied up with the seasons: he flourishes during the fertile season of late winter and spring, their love is consummated at high summer; he dies and goes down to the Underground during the dead season of the year – late summer or "dead of winter", and rises again with the new revival season. During the vanishing of this Loved One, the Goddess mourns his Loss and Searches for his body.
This basic theme was told as different but similar stories all round the ancient Middle East and beyond, and appears in the well known literature from various countries: these are the stories of Ishtal and Tammuz from Mesopotamia; that of Ashera/Anat and Baal from Canaan; of Aphrodite and Adonis from Cyprus; Isis and Osiris from Egypt; Cybele and Attis from Anatolia; and Demeter and her daughter Core (meaning "girl") – rather than lover – from Greece.
Here is a section from the original lament of Ishtar (or Inanna, by her Sumerian rather  than Akkadian name) for Tammuz:

     "At his vanishing away, she lifts up a lament,
     'O my child!' at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament;
     'My Damu!' at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament.
     'My enchanter and priest!' at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
      At the shining cedar, rooted in a spacious place,
      In Inanna above and below, she lifts up a lament.

The following is a part from the Syrian Ukaritic scripts of Baal and Anat:
    "Mightiest Baal goes not to his palace,
    the Rider of Clouds does not come home...
    Anath too goes to and fro, walking and wandering
    over every mountain down to the heart of Earth,
    over every hill to the heart of the fields.
    She comes to the pleasant place, the Fields of Bliss
    that border the shore by the realm of Death.
    And there she finds Baal, lying dead on the ground."

And the Homeric Hymn of Demeter and Core, who is called by her regular name Persephone:
    She sped off like a bird, soaring over land and sea,
    looking and looking. But no one was willing to tell her the truth,
    not one of the gods, not one of the mortal humans,
    not one of the birds, messengers of the truth.
    Thereafter, for nine days did the Lady Demeter
    wander all over the earth, holding torches ablaze in her hands.
    Not once did she take of ambrosia and nectar, sweet to drink,
    in her grief, nor did she bathe her skin in water.
    But when the tenth bright dawn came upon her,
    Hekatê came to her, holding a light ablaze in her hands.
    She came with a message, and she spoke up, saying to her:
    “Lady Demeter, bringer of hôrai, giver of splendid gifts,
    which one of the gods who dwell in the sky or which one of mortal humans
    seized Persephone and brought grief to your philos thûmos?
    I heard the sounds, but I did not see with my eyes
    who it was. So I quickly came to tell you everything, without error.”

B. Between Myths and fairy tales.
1.The theme of Loss and Search survived long after it had lost its basic symbolic meaning expressing the natural cycle of the seasons. A story from around the beginning of the Christian Era, which marks a crossroad between Myth and Fairy Tale, is that of Cupid and Psyche appearing in the Roman writer Apuleius' book, The Golden Ass. It tells how Cupid, the god of Physical Love, son of the Love goddess Venus, fell in love with a young and very beautiful woman named Psyche ("soul"); he married her in spite of his mother's objection, on condition that she never finds out his true identity. The girl loves him, but driven by her two sister's incitement, combined with her own curiosity, she finds him out. He immediately leaves her, and:

"Then Psyche fell flat on the ground, and as long as she might see her husband, she cast her eyes after him into the air, weeping and lamenting piteously; but when he was gone out of her sight, she threw herself into the next running river, for the great anguish and dolour that she was in, for the lack of her husband... Then Psyche traveled about in the country to seek her husband Cupid..."

This story has the double characteristics of Myth and Fairy Tale: many of the characters appearing in it are known deities, besides Cupid himself: his mother Venus, Pan, Demeter, and others. On the other hand, none of them has any special affinity to Nature, and none of them plays any symbolic part except the two protagonists, Cupid and Psyche. And this symbolism is connected much more to human psychology and philosophy than to that of natural events, which denotes the story more of a fairy tale than myth.  

2.The story – either myth or legend – of Cupid and Psyche is the forerunner of many similar proper fairy tales, the characters of which are quite human, though it is possible to discern traces of some original myth in them.

One of Cupid's features is his ability to change his shape at will. Shapeshifting appears in many fairy tales and legends, both in the European Grimm Brothers' collection and in the Eastern Arabian Nights. A story which is taken from a Russian collection of fairy tales, and includes both the theme of the title and shapeshifting, is that of "Vasilisa the Beautiful." However, the characters in it are reversed in their function: the mysterious lover is a woman, Queen Vasilisa ("queen" – (who is called in another version Yelena the Fair)), who takes the form of a frog and vanishes when her husband, Prince Ivan, chosen from among three sons, reveals her identity, and he mourns her loss and goes in search for her. Finding her skin gone, Vasilisa flies away in the shape of a grey cuckoo, and Prince Ivan "gets out to seek his wife... beyond the Land of One Score and Nine..."

"East of the Sun and West of the Moon" is a Northern story from a Norwegian collection. The father here is a poor Norwegian peasant who has many sons and one daughter whom he can't feed; that's why it is easy for him to give his only daughter to a rich polar bear who comes asking for her... At his home, the girl finds out, of course, that he is a handsome prince, and is very happy with him; but very much like Psyche, she misses her home and mother, who on visiting her daughter by the Bear's permission, incites her daughter to find out who her husband is, suspecting him to be a troll (as Psyche's sisters suspected Cupid to be some kind of villain). In the very same way, the girl lights a wax candle, a drop from which falls on her husband's skin and wakes him up. As a result, he vanishes from her life and she sets out to look for him, "in an island that lies east of the sun and west of the moon..."
The subject expressed in this article's title appears a few times in Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales; in particular, in stories where a number of unwanted brothers are driven out of their home for the sake of one sister. It is that sister who mourns her lost brothers and sets out in search of them. The stories that are based on this theme are "The Twelve Brothers," "The Seven Ravens," and "The Six Swans." The theme forms part also of "Cinderella," when she escapes from the Prince's ball at twelve o'clock at night and the Prince goes in search of her; Cinderella's appearance as an unknown princess could be considered her shapeshifting phase.
C. Between Fairy Tales and Modern Literature.
1.In the 19th cent., Hans Christian Andersen wrote many stories that may be shown to exist in the heading to this section. On the face of it, his stories look like usual fairy tales:  fantasy in genre and full of adventures; but they have two characteristics that set them apart and actually make them quite modern in essence. First of all, they are written by an individual author who not only signed his name on them, but also felt free to add many philosophical ideas that have very little connection to the basic story. This way of modern writing is very obvious in his tale "The Wild Swans," a story which is a combination of two of Grimm's stories: "The Twelve Brothers," and "The Six Swans."

In "The Wild Swans," a king's second wife turns his twelve sons into swans, so that she can care solely for her daughter. But the daughter mourns for her lost brothers and goes in search of them: "with a strange cry, they flew through the windows of the palace, over the park, to the forest beyond... Poor little Eliza was alone in her room playing with a green leaf, for she had no other playthings..." and she remembered "all the kisses they had given her..." Then Eliza herself is made ugly by the stepmother, and, "poor Eliza wept, and thought of her eleven brothers, who were all away. Sorrowfully, she stole away from the palace, and walked, the whole day, over fields and moors, till she came to the great forest. She knew not in what direction to go; but she was so unhappy, and longed so for her brothers, who had been, like herself, driven out into the world, that she was determined to seek them." The style, so different from usual fairy tale impersonal style with its deep emotion and beautiful descriptions, demonstrates the story to be real modern literature, in spite of its obvious fairy tale content.

But the swans themselves are mythical creatures, and are known from ancient Irish mythology to be the incarnation of some deities. A similar use of ancient myth appears in another story by Anderson. "The Snow Queen"  is known from ancient Scandinavian mythology (she appears again in English modern literature as the Queen of Winter in C.S.Lewis' Narnian story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). In Anderson's tale, the Snow Queen snatches the boy Kai and takes him away to the North Pole to live with her, while his girl friend Gerda goes out in search for him. The story's symbolism is seasonal in nature, as Gerda is closely connected with springtime rose blossoms, which makes it a seasonal myth. Andersen's individual style and ideas, however, again turns a potentially mythical tale into an actual modern literature.

2.We have to turn to more realistic writers than Andersen, to find the theme presented in the title in modern literature. One such writer is Nevil Shutes, especially in his book A Town like Alice. In this novel, a young English woman, Jean Paget, meets in Wartime Malaya a young Australian man, Joe Harman, both being abused by their Japanese conqueror. Nothing much happens between them during their forced march through the jungle, but after the war, when Joe finds out that Jean was not married, and she finds out he has survived his torture, they each go on a search trying to find the other. The story, a real modern literature, is not just about individuals, their thoughts and emotions, but is even told in the first person, as if presenting the author himself as being involved in its events.

The theme of the Loss and Search of a Loved One is as common in modern literature as it is in fairy tales, so much so it would be impossible to mention all such cases. It appears, for instance, in one of Agatha Christie's detective stories – "The Arcadian Deer" from The Labors of Hercules: A young country man approaches Hercule Poirot with the story of a young woman, who had let him make love to her and disappeared. The man, mourning the loss of that woman, lets Poirot make the search. It seems that being a famous dancer, she had disguised herself when meeting that young man, thus completing her character as the traditional shapeshifter.

Another story appears in the framework of Roger Zelazny's Amber fantasy series , in its last book, Prince of Chaos. Merlin, the hero of that part of the series, is saddened by the loss of his father, Corwin, the hero of the first part. When searching for him, Merlin finds out that Corwin has been imprisoned in his own ritualistic tomb by Dara, Corwin's former lover and Merlin's mother. The interesting point in this book is that all the actions – the capture, the loss and the search and Corwin's release, are done magically, as both Dara and Merlin are sorcerers.

Perhaps the strangest, as well as the most poignant, story of Loss and Search is the one appearing in James Hilton's book Random Harvest. The story's chronological (though not literary) beginning is Charles Rainier's war injury, in which he has lost his memory. While still in his state of amnesia, he falls in love and marries a woman. Then he goes away, gets hit by a car, and a switch happens inside his brain: he loses his recent memory, but recalls again his old self up to his being wounded. As a result, he loses all memory of his wife, and spends a great deal of his recalled life in a search for her – all that time unaware that she has found him and even married him! It means that the whole situation of Loss and Search occurs only in his mind rather than in reality. The book ends when he accidentally finds clues that make him remember, thus regaining what has never been actually lost.

In contrast to myths and fairy tales, which form the collective lore of a culture, modern literature, including fantasy stories, is personal in nature. It does not deal with the symbolism of myth or the magic of fairy tales, but contains the full range of human experience of events, emotions and philosophies. Like Myth, Modern Literature deals with the real, physical world; however, it presents and describes it in plain language rather than in a symbolic one.  As a result, any kind of interpretation of it would be done on the basis of the individual history and background of the author's. It is interesting to note, however, how a theme which used to be collective in its interest and importance, turns into a subject that can affect separate and different individuals.
Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice
James Hilton: Random Harvest
Roger Zelazne: Amber – Prince of Chaos.
Agatha Christie: The Labors of Hercules – The Arcadian Deer
Song of Songs -
Ishtar, Tamuz and Ereshkigal -
Anat and Baal -
Isis and Osiris -
Demeter and Cora -
Cupid and Psyche -                              
Princess Frog (Yelena) - The Frog Princess (Vassilissa) -  
East of the Sun and West of the Moon:
Grimm Brothers (text) -
Grimm Brothers (list) -
The Wild Swans -
The Snow Queen -


Witches Lore,  nonfiction, Issue 3, June 1, 2008

Mythological Giants and Their Wars,  nonfiction, Issue 12, September 1, 2010

King David in the Cave, nonfiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012

Human Sacrifice, nonfiction, Issue 26, March 1, 2014

The Loss and Search for a Loved One, Issue 28, September 1, 2014

The Mythology of Water, Issue 32, September 1, 2015

Mazes and Spirals, Issue 33, December 1, 2015

Tala Bar, I am a writer and an artist and I live in Israel. I studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and I hold a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University; before my retirement, I was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. I am interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and I write with these subjects in mind. In literature, I am particularly interested in fantasy and science fiction and I have written and had published stories, novellas, novels and essays both in Hebrew and English. A list of my published works in English can be found in this address:!/editnote.php?draft&note_id=668947876498985&id=100001513373155    

Samples of my art works and some family photos can be found in the following address:                                                

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