The Motif of ‘the Ill-Willed Nursing Woman Who is Harmed’ in the Mythologies of Herakles and Krishna

  • Arjan Sterken


The present paper explores the motif of ‘the ill-willed nursing woman who is harmed’ in the mythological accounts of Hēraklēs and Kṛṣṇa. Core versions are distilled from five Greek and seven Sanskrit texts. As to the former, Hēra is deceived or persuaded in nursing Hēraklēs and when she throws him off, her milk either gives Hēraklēs immortality or forms the Milky Way. As to the latter, Pūtanā poisoned her breast to kill Kṛṣṇa, but dies when Kṛṣṇa drains her life. By applying the method of ‘reciprocal illumination’ I uncover a general structure behind both texts and distinguish six basic elements: the identity of the nurse; the content of the breast; the deception; the harm done; the gift; and the aftermath. While I intend to show that both stories contain these same basic elements, they both use and develop them in different ways with different but related results.