This month: fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reading the Lithuanian Fairy Tale, Godmother Death


In the Lithuanian fairy tale Godmother Death (full text below), neither man nor god reign supreme. Rather, both characters engage in a life-and-death struggle for power, influence and survival. This tale is best read along with Godfather Death and the Possessed Princess (for full text, hit links at right) to gain some understanding of recurring notions of life and death, healing and infirmity and the status of humans alongside deities. I like this story for its rich detail and forceful characters. Even the children are no shrinking violets and are drawn to discover the source of underground moaning instead of being repelled by it. Contrasted with the story Godfather Death from the Brothers Grimm, we encounter attitudes toward life and death that are both strangely similar yet unique. Most tellingly, death here comes in the form of an earthy goddess, not a skeletal male messenger. In fact this goddess was quite comely at one time, before she experienced her own sort of death and was imprisoned beneath the soil for seven years. Like a seed lying dormant, she miraculously returns to life, suggesting that death is only one part of a mysterious cycle of life, death and rebirth. Another noteworthy feature of this story is that death is an eager killer and not merely a passive harbinger of one’s demise. Remarkably, the godmother is not reluctant to finish off her godson once he has riled her. We also see the ancient idea of healing being tied to supernatural forces. Like other gifts of prestige or riches, the power to heal is conferred or taken away by the gods. Godmother Death plays a role very similar to a Norn in this story, appearing at the birth of a child, granting gifts which fundamentally shape the quality of the child’s life and in that regard being a real presence or even spiritual guide throughout life (perhaps in fact suggesting that each person carries his own death with him throughout life). Because this fairy tale includes older notions of Norns and earth goddesses, I am inclined to believe it is an earlier version of the story we find in the Brothers Grimm collection.


Copyright FairyTaleChannel.org