Fairy tales for the Yuletide season!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Future in Fairy Tales: the Prophesiers



The Future in Fairy Tales
The Prophesiers: Newsy Norns and Wee Wives


In ancient Germanic mythology, prophesy and magic were most often associated with women. Illustrious seers went by various names; they were often called the Three Fates, the Goddesses of Destiny or Norns. In Scandinavian mythology, their number was usually three (but we also find them in groups of twelve or other numbers in fairy tales). The three sisters of fate were named Urd (The Past), Verdandi (The Present) and Skuld (The Future). Legend has it that they lived near the Urd Fountain, a deep spring which flowed over the root of the Tree of Life and formed a lake around it. Beautiful, brilliant white swans swam on this lake. The Norns never ceased dipping their silver horns, which the gods themselves had given them, into the water of the spring to drench the roots of the Tree of Life so that it never withered.
In Fairy Tales, Norns often appear at the birth of a child, bestowing gifts of fortune or a curse, often tied to premature death. Perhaps the two most famous tales with an appearance of a prophesying Norn are Sleeping Beauty and The Doomed Prince (be sure to hit the links at the right for examples of these prophesiers: Norns, Sleeping Beauty and Doomed Prince, where they are Hathors.) Two other fairy tales posted on this website Godfather Death and Godmother Death feature deities that have a distinct Norn-likeness.
Many tales reflect the cultural importance attached to seers and their visions. A fairy tale protagonist often derives his success in life from the foresight conveyed to him either in the form of an apparition, auditory revelation or some other sensory or extra-sensory experience. Visions (or prior knowledge obtained in many different ways) seem to be something most fairy tale characters welcome, but not all can experience. A seer, who has supernatural or even semi-divine qualities, may even bestow the vision as a gift upon the seeker. The recipient then assumes protégée status. Why a certain person is selected is never fully revealed. It is interesting to compare and contrast the varieties of revelatory experience as described in the Icelandic tales and the Legend of St. Meinrad. The legend suggests that Meinrad has the ability to see the future because of his godly life. Through prayer, meditation, and an existence entirely devoted to the love of God, St. Meinrad has achieved enlightenment. However, his unique powers are fostered by isolation from community. In Icelandic sagas, the opposite is the case, the seers are elevated members within a social framework and the strong bonds among clans and persons are reflected in the narrative. Prophetic ability among these seers seems to be innate. One can only surmise that the first hermits and contemplatives who deviated from tradition and sought a life outside of a strong community were probably perceived as true revolutionaries. Both Christian legends and pre-Christian fairy tales stress the importance of accepting one’s destiny. It is important to love your life, embrace your fate and become what you are. The fairy tale frequently describes such identity-shaping transformations, sometimes even involving acceptance of the final metamorphosis, death itself. Abnegation might actually be seen as the ultimate form of self-realization (and not to be confused with self-loathing in any of its loathly forms).

The following tales involve further permutations of the Norn-function:
(Germanic tribes did not have priests or druids, instead they had Wise Women, Weisse Frauen, who appeared in white linen robes to their people and acted as seers in times of war and peace. The most famous of all was Velleda, who lived near the Rhine River. At a time of immense danger for the Roman army, she foretold the fall of the Roman Empire. Not only did the capital city burn, but huge campaigns were launched against the Romans. )

The Acorn Stone
The Roman Field Marshal Drufus had penetrated Germany as far as the Elbe River. He stood thoughtfully on its banks, contemplating his next move, when a giant woman in white robe appeared to him. She was the most famous of all Germanic seers, who also appeared during battles and urged sons, husbands and lovers to fight honorably. She called to him “Where are you going Young Drufus, who cannot be satisfied? You want to have all of our lands, but fate does not will it! Flee! Flee! You stand at your life’s end!” Because of this apparition, Drufus retreated. He fell with his horse and broke his leg. Carried by his companions to Mainz, he died immediately. He was thus considered to be the founder of the City of Mainz. He was beloved by his legions. They therefore built a monument to honor his remains and it is called the Acorn Stone. It rises up from the ground and appears as a dark-gray, round, tower-like mass. The markings have long vanished, the height and shape of the stone have suffered many changes. Only the iron-hard core remains, which testifies to the human skill and artistry of the Romans.

And in this Saga of the Brothers Grimm, a farmer ignores a Wee Wife’s gift of second sight, with dire consequences:

Grimm's Saga 47
The Wee Mossy Wife


In 1635 a farmer by the name of Hans Krepel lived near Saalfeld. One day in the afternoon he went out to the heath to cut wood, where he met a wee mossy wife. She spoke to him: “Father, when you stop chopping wood for the day, carve three crosses in the trunk of the last tree you fell. Luck will be with you.” After these words, the mossy wife went on her way. The farmer, a coarse and crude fellow, thought to himself “What good is such blabber to me and what do I care about such bogies?” He refrained from carving the three crosses and instead went home that night. The next day just when he was about to go back to the wood to continue chopping, the wee mossy wife returned and spoke: “Ach you man! Didn’t you carve the three crosses yesterday? That would have helped both you and me, for this afternoon the wild huntsman shall chase us and at night we shall have no rest and he will kill us in a gruesome fashion. We shan’t have any peace from him if we cannot sit on such carved tree trunks. He can’t do anything to us when we sit there, then we are safe.” The farmer answered: “Haha, what good would the crosses be? I’m not going to carve any just to please you.” The wee mossy wife was seized by such a rage that she assailed the farmer and pressed him fiercely, a man otherwise strong of nature, until he became quite ill and wretched. Since that time he carefully follows the advice he receives. He has never ceased carving crosses in wood and has never again encountered anything so frightful.


War and Peace
In the year 1644, on the 18th of August, the Prince Elector Johann Georg I moved his army past the city of Chemnitz. There, his men captured a wild little wife in the thicket of the area. She was only one ell high but otherwise had a human shape. Her face, hands and feet were smooth, but the rest of her body was rough. The wee wife began to speak: “I prophesy and bring peace to all the land.” The Prince Elector ordered that the wee wife be released, because twenty-five years earlier a wee husband had been found with the same shape. He foreboded unrest and war for all the land.

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