Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Fairy Tales, Magic and Archetype: a Pagan Perspective
I was doing a photo session recently for Lauren's Blog, in which we were portraying the archetypes seen in fairy tales, and experimenting with how they function magically. The shoot, and Lauren's blog, got me thinking about the same subject, something I have written about many times.
In my book Fairy Tale Rituals I look pretty carefully at the magical elements in Grimm's Fairy Tales---ancient tales collected by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in the early Nineteenth Century in the German Black Forest. Those tales have become very familiar to us, largely through adaptation by Disney and other film makers who have re-imagined the stories as tales for children (the Grimms never called them Fairy Tales: they called them Household Tales).
As Samhain draws near, and our ties with the Otherworld become closer, we feel a pull toward these creepy, enchanting tales. Let's take a look at some of the familiar characters of fairy tales, and the magical role they serve in our unconscious and in our psychic journeys.
The Maiden With Issues
A maid with issues, a girl in trouble, a chick bereft...In a few stories it is a boy: Strong Hans, and Hans the Hedgehog being examples, but these are obscure tales. We like the ones about girls. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle...the most familiar fairy tales begin with a sympathetic character, a young woman, who is robbed of her birth right.
Being robbed of her birth right is a key element. Cinderella is the daughter of a king, and should inherit the kingdom, using it as a dowry to become the eligible bride of a prince. But her mother's death leads to her father's remarriage, and her step sisters are favored to the point where Cinderella is marginalized and forsaken. Her refuge is a tiny garden beside her mother's grave, where she plants and cares for a hazel tree (in the Grimm's tale, there is no fairy godmother, no pumpkin, no mice and no frogs).
Sleeping Beauty is also a princess; her father snubs a witch (or Faerie in the original tale) and so his daughter is placed under a curse. She will die on her fifteenth birthday (the age of puberty, maturity, eligibility for marriage); another witch/Faerie alters the spell so that the girl will merely sleep for a hundred years. Sleeping beauty is robbed of her young adulthood, and of her place in her own world (in a hundred years she will wake up to a very changed world). In the Italian version, Sun, Moon and Talia, Talia is raped in her sleep, and so is robbed of her right to choose a husband or consent to her childrens' heredity (as this theme would be seen from a Nineteenth Century point of view, rather than from the modern POV of rape as a crime against a woman's right to consent to access to her body).
Belle is a princess as well. Her father pisses off a beast, who demands the daughter in return. No, not the two older daughters; they won't do. And not Little Broom Stick, the daughter's best friend who is a commoner: the beast magically knows Little Broom Stick is not dad's daughter when dad sends the peasant girl in his daughter's place. None but Belle will do to appease the beast and live in his castle.
In each case, the protagonist must be a girl. Why? Easy: girls procreate. Each heroine's plight threatens her ability to bring life into the world in the proper way. Cinderella cannot marry the prince---her step sisters will marry him, and birth the babies she was supposed to have; Talia/Sleeping Beauty sleeps (hibernates, or dies) just as she enters puberty; and Belle should be with a CW hunk, but instead she is with a monster. Bad for baby-making.
While from a Nineteenth Century point of view, making babies was considered a woman's purpose, magically we can see this as the creative energy all women have that connects them to the Goddess force in our world: the ability to channel the female divine, and bring healing, love and life into the world. Each heroine is given a challenge: find a way to resume your rightful place, or life will not be sustained. Each girl must face this challenge, often guided by no plan but their own intuition (for Cinderella, her mother's love; for Sleeping Beauty, time itself; for Belle, her ability to see the beast in his true form). If she is successful, she will right the balance of life and death; if she fails, death will prevail.
And who often puts the girl in this peril?
The Wicked Witch
Witch, bitch, Faerie, mom... all may be used to describe the evil woman who we love to hate in so many tales. Dad is usually conspicuous in his absence. In most tales, dad marries step-mom, or keeps real mom around, but when the problems between mom and daughter ensue, dad is nowhere to be found. In Hansel and Gretel, dad simply goes along with the plan to murder the children; in Snow White, dad marries mom and is never heard from again; Dad is very telling in Cinderella: he refers to the girl by saying “only my dead wife left behind her a little stunted Cinder wench; it is impossible that she can be the bride.”
Dad is useless; it is mom, who should care for and nurture each girl, that harasses, tortures and attempts to murder her daughter. In Hansel and Gretel, mom tries to starve the children, then as the “witch” or Faerie, tries to plump them up so she herself may eat them; in Cinderella step-mom tortures the girl by forcing her to renounce her royalty and become a scullery maid; in Little Snow White, mom instructs the huntsman to kill her daughter; and in Rapunzel, surrogate mom sequesters her charge away, cutting her off from the world.
Why is mom so uncool? We have already said that each girl represents the seed of life, the ability to bring nurture and the procreative force into the world: Let's look at how each girl realizes her power. For Snow White, the fear of death and the retreat into the forest allow her to journey inward (her sleep-death-hibernation) and wake knowing her destiny; this is also true of Talia. Cinderella's step mother pushes the girl to discover her true mother's spirit, in the form of a bird, which imbues the girl with strength and magic. And for Hansel and Gretel, mom forces them into the forest, and forces them to become a team, working together to thwart their peril. Gretel also finds her power in speaking to enchanted creatures, who work to aid her and her brother.
In each tale, mom is something more than a bitch: she is a vehicle of each girl's initiation. Without mom, these would be the Paris Hiltons of the Nineteenth Century, living off king dad and queen mom, partying like it's 1899. But through the mother's seeming torture, each girl discovers that hidden strength or power within herself that allows her to transform: in each tale, mom is a priestess, teaching the hard lessons through tough love.
Creatures Of The Night (Creature O-of The Night)
In each tale, the girl must make her shamanic, if you will, journey into the Underworld. There, she is always aided by a magical creature. Cinderella retreats into a garden planted around her mother's grave: there she meets a magical bird, who gives her the gowns she will need to attend the ball (a three day affair in the original tale); Hansel and Gretel are guided to the house-made-of-food in the forest (the Underworld) by a bird whose singing only Gretel can understand; on the return trip, it is Gretel again who calls a swan to carry the children across a wide lake in order to come home. For Snow White and Rose red, it is a bear that leads them to a dwarf's treasure in the forest-Underworld. And for little Snow White, it is first a bear (the huntsman kills a bear and brings its liver and lungs home to mom to prove the girl is dead), and later the Dwarves who guide her journey in the Underworld forest.
In each case, one may see the relationship between girl, mom and magical creature as similar to the Lovers card in the Waite-Smith tarot. In that card (which has nothing to do with romantic love, despite its name) we see a man, a woman (portrayed as Adam and Eve) and an angel standing in a triangle. The man looks at the woman, the woman looks at the angel, and the angel looks down upon the two. One interpretation of this symbol is the three parts of the mind: the man is the conscious mind, who is directed by the unconscious or by intuition (the woman); the angel is the super-conscious, the part of the mind connected to deity. In fairy tales we see the same three-fold connection: mom is the conscious world, whose hardships and challenges force the heroine to rely on instinct and intuition, gained often by shamanic journey (sleep-death); the bird/bear/dwarves are deity, speaking to the girl in the secret language of dreams or symbols, allowing her to reach her full birthright as one who can create life (often seen by her marriage to the right man, who will place his seed in her).
In each tale, we see the story of Kore-Persephone-Inanna. The girl must travel to the Underworld, forced by her mother (Persephone guided by Demeter). There she is stripped of her clothing and jewelery (in these cases, her birth-right). She is guided by some sacred animal (for Persephone, that is death himself, Hades, and the enchanted pomegranate seeds). She hibernates in death for the long winter. When she returns to the physical world, she may bring the spring, rebirth, or simply birth. We see this vividly in The frog Prince: the princess is crying because she has lost her golden ball (the sun, life). The frog must return her ball by diving into the well (the Underworld). He tries to inhabit her world as a frog, but cannot: he is a creature of the Underworld, and must be reborn to our world. There is no kiss in the tale: rebirth must be gained through death. The princess thrusts the little creature against the castle wall, squishing him. He rises as her prince, ready to allow her to bring life (the sun) back into the world.
These tales remain alive and important to us two hundred years later, (and more: some were collected by Bechstein and Perrault up to two hundred years before the Grimms), because these archetypes are so powerful. We see in them the challenges we face daily, and in the magical formula that allows us to rise above these challenges through intuition, inner journeying, and our connections with the cycles of Nature and life itself.
Photos are © Kenny Klein: the maiden in distress is modeled by Stephanie Mitchell; the evil queen is modeled by Lauren DeVoe (Blue Star Owl); Bansidhe The Cat is modeled by Bansidhe The Cat. I never caught the Ibis' name.
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