This month: fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fairy Tale of the Supranormal Bride

Excerpt from "Hylas and the Nymphs", J.W. Waterhouse


The Supranormal Bride: Taboo, Impropriety and the Power of Language

In the Fairy Sister’s Wedding (see link at right) we encounter a common figure in fairy tales, the supranormal bride, a being who is really a goddess or demi-goddess but consorts with humans and longs to be mortal. The goddess in this fairy tale appears in duplicate form as twin in the propitious month of July, at the moment the corn has almost reached maturity and will soon be ready for harvest. Thus, her powers, which are aligned with plants and vegetation in the narrowest sense and with fertility, bounty and fecundity in a broader sense, are magnified. According to many folk traditions, twins had special powers that often included control over rain and weather. The goddess's powers would be especially potent if she were also a twin.

The twin fairies promise their prospective mates every boon an earth goddess can bestow. But from the very beginning we get an inkling that the masculine virtues of beauty, pride and courage will fall short when confronted with the feminine qualities of a supernatural bride. Even though they are paragons of virtue (“No one was their equal in all the kingdom.”) and as twins their strengths are also doubled, we know the marriage between the brothers and their fairy wives will culminate in disaster. The problem is not that the grooms are looking for love in all the wrong places (behind a bush in this fairy tale), but rather that they are incapable of fulfilling the strict conditions of their marriage. The fairy wives stipulate two taboos. The first is a food prohibition, tied to ritual cleansing in preparation for marriage. The second is a speech prohibition, tied to naming things and the power of language. The younger brother fails the test immediately. Chewing on a corn kernel barely seems to constitute an infraction. But this thoughtless impropriety has dire consequences, underscoring the frailty of human understanding while hinting at a higher world order that human beings fail to grasp. Punishment is swift and harsh, the sinner is relegated to a life of isolation cut off from his parents and clan. The last we hear of him, he is entering a monastery.

And so we come to what I believe is the heart of this fairy tale: the taboo. In his exhaustive study of magic and religion, Sir James Frazer defines charms or spells as a form of positive magic. A person believes he can regulate the course of nature or an outcome by acting in a certain way such as reciting a particular charm. Taboos, in contrast, are a form of negative magic. By abstaining from certain behaviors, a person hopes to align himself with the forces of nature, thereby promoting the fertility of the earth, the multiplication of plants and animals and promotion of his own kind. According to Frazer, by abstaining from doing certain things, people avoid infecting the earth with their own undesirable state or condition. The taboo prohibiting certain speech in the fairy tale seems like an easy precept to fulfill. But humans are frail beings and to some extent prone to failure. As the fairy tale illustrates, it is the shortcomings of humans, not of the gods, that brings calamity into the world.

The speech prohibition in this story is also interesting in and of itself. The word Fee means both fairy and crazy (fay and fey). The taboo prohibits the husband from naming the essence of his supernatural bride’s character, fairy, while also restricting the pejorative form of the same word, crazy. These diverging usages reflect alternate attitudes toward the deity. On the one hand, the earth goddess was beneficent, having the power to confer fruitfulness. But a contemptuous attitude toward these deities was also possible. The goddesses who had the power to control hail, rain and the weather were frequently likened to witches who rode broomsticks through threatening black hail clouds. These were thought to be essentially malign forces. It was in the best interest of all to harm these creatures whenever possible. Connecting the deity to these destructive forces was equivalent to calling the deity crazy: an act of profanity and desecration and a very serious offence. Naming was also viewed as a way to perform magic because there was a powerful relationship between the object or person and its name. A thoughtless remark could not only bring about the wrath of the gods but also inflict real harm.

The Fairy Sisters’ Wedding ends on a tragic note. The family loses its matriarch, who has brought countless blessings. In this tale the barriers to a union between a mortal and divine being are impossible to bridge. The Swiss folktale Gnome Wife Tirli-Wirli (see link to right) is more optimistic. The husband’s remorse suffices to bring about reconciliation. The couple is subsequently able to enjoy a long and fruitful life together.

There are many examples in which the gender roles of this story are reversed. Instead of a supernatural bride, we encounter an otherworldly groom who prohibits his wife from using certain speech. Frazer contends that it is often the person most intimately connected to the individual by blood or marriage that must adhere to the strictest taboos. The Swan Knight is one example of this form.

Fairy Tales on this Blog featuring a Supernatural Spouse:

Gnome Wife Tirli-Wirli
Life in the Castle

Life in Another Castle
Gerhard the Good, Swan Knight
Hans-My-Hedgehog

The Artist as Hedgehog
Fairy Sisters’ Wedding


Further Reading:
Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough
Please read, pass on to others and enjoy.
Do not copy, plagiarize or pilfer. Thanks!

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