Hag, Hex, Harpy or Hierophant?
Three types of Pictish stones in North Eastern Scotland bear witness to a changing worldview as Christianity spread across Europe, displacing paganism. The earliest Pictish stones contain only carvings of pagan symbols that are mostly indecipherable today. Animals both fantastic and familiar along with domestic utensils seem to have preoccupied the imagination of early Picts.
The second type of stone occupies a middle ground and reflects a transition period when the old faith collided with the new religion. Pagan motifs and the Christian cross sit comfortably side by side on these stones. The third type of Pictish stone, and presumably the most recent, contain only the Christian cross.*
Pictish stones are a good metaphor for understanding the fairy tale. Best represented by the second or middle type of stone, the fairy tale contains both pagan symbols and Christian imagery and often reflects the early church’s endeavors to combat unbelief expressed in polytheism and superstitious myths and cults. In 500 A.D. the majority of people living in Europe were not Christian. But by 1000 A.D. most but not all of the population had been Christianized. As Christianity spread it may have crossed the minds of many pagans to preserve at least part of their old traditions by combining them with the new. In fact early accounts of the Anglo Saxons report that there were people among them who believed both in Christ and the pagan gods, or at least continued to call upon these pagan deities if they had been helpful before. To convert an often reluctant population, early missionaries simply transformed pagan festivals into Christian festivals and gave them a new name. Many pagan religious sites, temples and courts were retained, built over and given Christian significance. Pagan deities were depicted as being weak but not without some power. They became malevolent forces and continued in oral traditions as devils, sorcerers, giants and witches. If benevolent, they were linked to the saints or the Virgin Mary. The earth goddess, a powerful deity in pagan ritual, was transformed into hag, hex or harpy. Instead of keeper of esoteric knowledge and principles, the earth goddess or priestess is often depicted as witch, evil fairy godmother or woman with magical powers. To find the last vestige of paganism in a fairy tale, look to the character imbued with magical powers, quite often a woman.
* To read more about Pictish stones in Scotland see: The Traveller's History of Britain and Ireland by Ricahrd Muir, 1987, Mermaid Books
Click on the link to read the fairy tale Rapunzel: