The Wages of Greed and Hubris by Barbara Ardinger

Barbara ArdingerHistorical note: I took the name Formosus (r. 891-896) from one of the popes of the Dark Ages. After his death, his body was exhumed, dressed in papal vestments, and put on trial for political crimes. The corpse was found guilty, and the vestments were torn off it. Then it was thrown into the Tiber. A monk pulled it out, and it is said that the corpse was then burned.

Of course, if the fisherman in this story resembles anyone in modern politics….

Near the bend of the great blue river where it empties into dark sea, there once lived a fisherman and his wife. Although they were so poor they lived in a rickety hovel on the bluff above of the river, the fisherman’s wife was smart and thrifty and the fisherman himself was unusually devout. He always managed to save a brass coin to drop into the basket at the church of the new religion in the town. Of course, the fisherman also found time to pay frequent visits to the public house in the town, where he had many friends with whom he often sang long into the night. He had also gained a bosom companion at the new church. This was a dwarf named Formosus, who held an ambiguous ecclesiastical office. The fisherman visited Formosus whenever he had a new thought, and the pair often retired to the public house to continue thinking together.

Every morning the fisherman climbed down the path to the riverbank to catch fish for his wife to sell. One morning, when he cast his line into the sparkling blue water, he felt something heavy on the hook. He pulled and pulled, and eventually a great, shiny dolphin rose out of the water. Now everyone knows that dolphins almost never leave the dark sea or swim in inland rivers.dolphin

“This is a great miracle!” said the fisherman. “I’ll have to tell my friend Formosus about this and get his interpretation of this miracle.” He took great care to pull the hook out of the dolphin’s lip without tearing it. After apologizing to the fish for hooking it, he released it back into the river. During that afternoon, he caught only a few small fish. “Oh, well, At least we can eat them for supper.”

When he stopped at the church to see Formosus on his way home, the dwarf was not there. The fisherman soon found his friend at the public house. When he told him about the dolphin, the first words the dwarf said were, “Fool! It must have been a magical fish. When you released it, why didn’t you ask it for a favor?”

“I never thought of that,” replied the fisherman, who had never noticed that his friend wore an amulet with the outline of a fish on it. “But it’s a good idea. I think I’ll go back and see if it’s still there. Uhhh, but what would I ask it for?”

The dwarf was very clever. “You could ask it for a nicer home for your poor wife. And be sure to tell them both it was my suggestion.”

Unfortunately, on his way down the cliff in the dark, the fisherman slipped and injured his legs. Climbing painfully back up, he thought he saw a large eye watching him from the river. When he finally limped through his door, he had very little to say to his wife.

“Oh, well,” said the wife. “Misfortunes happen. But what are we going to eat tomorrow? There’s almost nothing left on the shelf.” She bandaged her husband’s legs and put him to bed.

When Formosus came by first thing in the morning with a prayer book and a bucket of beer, she let the men talk and went outside by herself to think. “Well, I guess I’ll have to be the fisherman today,” she finally said to herself.

Dagon charmWhen she went back in to tell her husband her plan, Formosus took her aside. “I was going to give this talisman to your good husband,” he said, “but I will give it to you instead. It’s a charm to protect you from the dolphin’s power, which is surely evil.” He handed the wife a piece of parchment attached to a purple cord. Drawn on the parchment was a man wearing a hat that looked like the open mouth of a fish. “This will keep you safe,” he said. “And remember that you must give my church a greater tithe of any fortune you receive from this dolphin.”

When she reached the riverbank, she cast her line into the water and promptly caught a fish of respectable size. As she was unhooking it and setting it into her basket, she heard singing in the water. She promptly held the talisman out over the river. She also recited a summoning spell she had learned from the town’s seeress.

Subtle dolphin of the sea,
As I command thee, come to me.
I wish to beg a boon of thee.

After a minute, she was astonished to see a great red and gold dolphin come swimming to the shore. “What kind of spell is this?” it asked, “And who thinks I can be bound up by it? Why do you call me?”

The fisherman’s wife curtsied. “My husband caught and released you yesterday,” the dolphin nodded, “and his friend said that you might grant us a favor. Good Sir, let me beg this of you. We live in a hovel. It’s cold and drafty and it stinks. My husband is unable to catch enough fish to enable us to earn enough to repair our roof and hearth. Now, I don’t want to vex you, Sir, but could you perhaps give us a new home?”

The dolphin considered this for a minute. “Your husband has a good heart,” it said, “and so do you. Your request is reasonable. I’ll grant your wish.” It waved a fin at the wife’s basket, and suddenly the basket was filled with fish for her to sell. “Go home and see what you will see.”

The wife stuffed the talisman into her apron, curtsied again, and climbed up the path. She walked home singing.

The hovel was gone! In its place stood a pretty little cottage with a water-tight roof and two windows of real glass. Her husband was sitting on a little carved stone bench outside the door. As soon as he saw her, he stood up, using a crutch a neighbor had made for him, and led her inside, where he showed her a kitchen with a full larder, a sitting room with comfortable furniture, and bedroom with a tall, curtained bed.

“Is this not fine?” he asked. “It’s surely what we—what you deserve. I’m sure the dolphin sent it. Formosus is the best friend we have, for that dolphin was obviously caught in his spell.”

The wife had little to say, except that someone had to sell the fish she’d brought home. Her husband was unable to carry the basket and manage his crutch, so with another look around the cottage, she set out for the marketplace. After selling all the fish, she bought a few things she needed and hid the remaining coins in a safe and secret place.

The next day, the fisherman’s legs were weaker. Even with two crutches, he was barely able to stand, so he sent his wife to the church with a silver coin for the basket. When Formosus came out of the side chapel, he thanked her and said he would watch over her husband. The wife sighed and picked up the fisherman’s gear and headed for the river.

Three days later, the fisherman was still sitting on the carved stone bench, but he seemed dissatisfied. “Wife,” he said, “my friend Formosus says we surely deserve a better house. After all, it’s because of his charm that I—we—you received a boon from the dolphin.”

The wife put down her broom, picked up the fishing gear, and set out for the river. She noticed that the sun was hidden behind gloomy clouds today and the surface of the river was gray.

Subtle dolphin of the sea,
As I command thee, come to me.
Iwish to beg a boon of thee.

The dolphin swam up and raised his head. “Oh, it’s you. What do you want?”

“Not I, Sir Dolphin, but my husband. We seem to have changed roles, and now I must support him. And…well, now he’s not satisfied with our nice little cottage. He and his friend say it’s insufficient for his…well, he says, for his improved status in the town.”

“Good wife, for you and your good heart, I’ll grant the wish.”

The fisherman’s wife curtsied to the dolphin again and set about fishing. When her basket was full, she went back up the path, not really expecting to find anything new.

castleBut lo and behold!—there on the familiar bluff above the river stood a great castle lording it over the town. As she crossed the drawbridge, she saw the fisherman sitting in a tall sedan chair with four men standing behind him. Formosus was seated in an identical sedan chair. They promptly led the wife into the great hall, where they were served a dinner of venison and stuffed quails and doves’ tongues by a butler and three pretty pages, one to serve the fisherman, one to serve Formosus, one to serve the wife. The wife sent her basket of fish to the town’s marketplace with one of the many servants. “Waste not, want not,” she murmured as she put the money he brought her in a safe and secret place.

After a few days, the fisherman called his wife into his bedroom. “Wife,” he said, “Formosus tells me I should be the King. My greatness is becoming known far and wide. People come to listen to me. They ask me to judge their disputes. Go back to the dolphin. Demand that it make me King.”

“But, husband, how can you be King? You’re of humble birth.”

“Simpleton, do as I command! Go!”

Shaking her head, the fisherman’s wife pulled out the talisman again and climbed down the path to the river. She saw that half the sky was dark and threatening, that the surface of the river was black and rough.

Subtle dolphin of the sea,
As I command thee, come to me.
I wish to beg a boon of thee.

“What does he want?” the dolphin asked.

The good wife blushed. “He and his friend say he deserves to be King.”

“Does he know the responsibilities of a King?”

The wife smiled. “He’s thinking of the honor and the glory and the fame. But he’s my husband, and I want to please him.”

“Well,” said the dolphin, “you’re a good woman. You’re doing the best you can do. Great Mother Earth will reward you. Your husband is King. Go home.”

Now there were great heraldic flags flying from the tallest towers of the castle. There was an army of knights practicing with their swords in the courtyard. The common people of the town were waiting quietly in line for an audience with the King, who was seated on a golden throne.

“Well, husband, I see you’re King now.”

“Yes. I am King.”

And he dismissed the common people and showed her around the throne room, which was paved with marble. Golden chandeliers hung from the ceilings, and the walls were hidden by golden tapestries. The ladies-in-waiting were sitting in a corner with their embroidery and the Fool was singing a foolish song. Formosus, now wearing a bishop’s miter, sat on an ebony throne beside, and one step down from, the King’s throne. “I am the Chancellor,” he said.

After a week, the fisherman summoned his wife into the Hall of Mirrors. “Wife, I find that time hangs heavy on my hands. Formosus says that a gentleman of my dignity should be Emperor. King is insufficient. Go back to the dolphin and command it to make me Emperor.”

“But, husband, it’s a fine thing to be King. And I cannot really command the magical dolphin. It’s only through his kindness that you have received so much.”

“Nevertheless, I am dissatisfied! Let me Emperor. I will build a great cathedral for the new religion and Formosus will be my Minister, General, Champion, and Lord of the Bedchamber, all in one. Go! I command you!” And the King turned away and commanded his pages to bring more wine.

Heavy of heart, the wife went to the river. She saw that the sky was all black except for one small patch of heavenly blue in the distance. Fierce winds were blowing, lightning was flashing, and great waves were agitating the river, which was grayish green. She and took out the talisman and waved it. She tried three times before she could recite the spell properly.


Subtle dolphin of the sea,
As I command thee, come to me.
I wish to beg a boon of thee.

“What does he require now?” the dolphin asked.

“Alack and alas, he wants to be Emperor.”

“Go home. He is Emperor.”

The magnificent palace the fisherman’s wife saw was ten times more resplendent than the King’s castle. From top to bottom, it was decorated with fine marble statues, and soldiers in uniforms decorated with medals and epaulets with golden fringe were blowing trumpets and beating kettle drums. A part of the old familiar town had been leveled, and now men swarmed like ants building the cathedral.

The wife crept into the palace by the scullery door. Following the sound of singing, she found her husband in the throne room, which was as large as a whole city. Its floor was inlaid with a mosaic of precious stones and the walls were too precious to touch. The Emperor sat on a golden throne a mile high and held the orb and scepter in his hands. Formosus sat on his throne, too, and he wore an amethyst ring as big as a mountain.

“Well, husband, you have your wish. What more can you want?

“I must think on that awhile.”

Formosus stood up on his throne so he could reach the Emperor’s ear and whisper to him. They conferred together at length while the courtiers and bishops and generals waited in respectful silence.

“I will be Pope.”

“But the dolphin won’t do that! He wouldn’t want to.”

“Nonsense. You’ve got the spell to control the damn fish. If it can make me Emperor, it can just as easily make me Pope. I must be Pontiff Of All The World.”

Now the wife began to be frightened. Where would this end? “But husband—”

“Woman,” said the dwarf Formosus, “you are a nothing but a feeble vessel. You are your husband’s vassal. Do as I—as he commands, or he will sell you as a slave to the Moors.” While Formusus was speaking, the Emperor turned away and commanded his generals to bring more wine.

Shaking down to her clogs, the poor wife trudged back to the river. It was now as dark as deepest night. Fearsome winds were blowing up and down, and a great storm was brewing. The waves nearly washed the woman off the path.

“Well,” said the dolphin, “now what?”

“I am ashamed to say it. Yet, he is my husband, and I have loved him for many years. He would be Pope.”

“He is foolish behind measure. Still, you don’t put on airs. So, yes. Go home.”

The new throne room as nearly as large as the whole known world. The papal throne was solid alabaster and as vast as ten barbarian cities. The room was overflowing with gold and candles and works of art and incense. Multitudes of nuns and monks were on their knees before the fisherman, who wore the triple crown and vestments of cloth of gold.

“Husband, are you Pope?”

“Wife, I am Pope.”

“Are you content?”

The fisherman sat without moving. Not acknowledging the prayers coming from below, he sat as still as one of the marble pillars supporting his throne. Soon Formosus, who wore a red cape and tall red shoes, spoke into the fisherman’s ear, and they began to confer concerning indulgences to be sold, nephews to be promoted, nieces to be rewarded, lands to be conquered, armies to be purchased, riches to be seized, and art to be created to magnify the new Pope’s magnificence.

A week later, the fisherman’s wife was summoned again.

“Wife, why cannot I command the sun and the moon to rise and set and the stars to shine?”

“Husband, what on earth are you saying?”

“I must be Lord of the Universe. Formosus says that for a man of my stature, dignity, and intellect, Pope is insufficient.”

“But, husband, no one can make you Lord of the Universe. There are only Great Mother Earth and Her Sisters. They have always managed the universe. I beg you—be satisfied with what you are!”

But the fisherman flew into a rage, and it was such a terrible rage that the earth quaked beneath him and thunder and lightning split the sky above him. “I will be Lord of the Universe! I will command the cosmos to move!”

At the river, all was dark. All was calm. The water and the land shone under a blood-red light.

“What now?” asked the dolphin.

“I cannot say it. He would be—no, I cannot say it. Only our Great Mother Earth can command the universe, but even She is not so proud.” And the wife tore up the talisman and threw it into the river. “I cannot…but I…but still…still, I want to please my husband, for I have always loved him.”

“Such foolishness,” said the dolphin. “He suffers from hubris, and you are his enabler. The talisman and the spell? They never had any power over me. I granted your wishes out of a larger power that I am part of, but now you have touched the end of my patience. Your husband has no shame. And the dwarf Formosus is a tempter unto overweening pride. He was sent for fools like your husband. Be done with this folly. Go home.” The dolphin sank into the river. A minute later, the wife heard the echo of its last words. “Go home.”

She sank to her knees and cried, but the dolphin swam away toward the dark sea. Finally, the fisherman’s wife crawled up the path. And there, where it had stood for as long as anyone could remember, there stood the old hovel. The fisherman was limping back and forth, naked and mad, soiling himself, kicking at empty wine bottles, pulling out his hair, shaking his fists, and cursing all the goddesses and gods.

The wife stared at him for a long time, and then, finally, she retrieved her money from its safe and secret place and, without looking back, set off along the road beside the river.

And Formosus the dwarf? He was driven from the town to live with the beasts of the field. He ate grass with the wild asses, spoke no known language, and his nails grew until they were like birds’ claws. Eventually, he crawled downstream toward the unknown lands.


Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Fiction, General, Mother Earth

Tags: , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. just amazing. well detailed and organized!!


  2. Wonderful new ending to a satisfying retelling of an old tale. Right on, write on!


  3. a gripping tale, Barbara A. with so much wisdom and truth, and perhaps some prophetic properties?


  4. Did you know that 1 out of every seven dwarfs is dopey? hahahahaha This one was. Good story. I like reading historical novels from all periods. Nothing much changes, greed, corruption, power-mongers, stupid easily led people etc. Never ends does it.


  5. Had me captured from the first sentence. Thank you.


  6. Nothing Like A Story!

    Tell All The Truth But Tell It slant–/Success In Circuit Lies/Too Bright For Our Infirm Delight/The Truth’s Superb Surprise…/The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually/Or Every Man Be Blind–

    Poem By Emily Dickinson

    Thank You For This “Truth.”


  7. Thanks for sharing your poignant story in these days of greedy wall street titans.


  8. Clearly she was as greedy as he was. Not a once did they ask for him to be well!


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