In the tantalizing tale of the Sun Prince (full text below), the abundant Christian images (flock of sheep attending church, who belong to a Christ-like Sun Prince) could easily lead one to believe this is a religious parable. But a closer analysis of the text reveals an unruly narrative with threads that do not tie up so neatly. As the eldest daughter attempts to explain to her baffled mother, we, too, must read the writing on the wall to fully grasp the significance of this tale.
A rather somber Sun Prince has abducted a mortal bride and taken her off to his abode far, far away. (This is reminiscent of other stories of wife-snatching gods such as Persephone and the God of the Underworld.) The eldest brother endeavors to find his sister and alleviate his mother’s grief. When he finally finds her, he discovers that the bride and her husband consort with a flock of sheep, river-swimmers who are semi-divine beings. But the most remarkable part of the story is stated in two rather unexceptional phrases: Although the oldest son has taken the prettiest horse his parents possess, when he arrives at the dwelling of the Sun Prince the brother is told to “…bring his horse to the stable. Horses were not tolerated near the door.” If we infer that a temple is the only appropriate abode for a Sun Prince and that horses were not tolerated near the temple in this tale, we come a step closer to understanding the story.
The horse was of vital importance to Indo-European peoples and features prominently in their mythologies. Horses were considered to be the most noble, sacred, trusted and intelligent of all animals. Almost every god in Indo-European mythology had his own named horse endowed with supernatural powers. Because of their special status, horses were kept directly next to temples and were used in sacred rites, including sacrifice and soothsaying. The sound of neighing alone was believed to bring fortune and health. An association between horses and the sun god has also been documented for numerous ancient tribes. It was the sun god who appeared in the morning sky with his horses and pulled the solar disk across the heavens in his wagon or chariot. Archaeologists have found such images throughout Europe (Trundholm sun disk, Celtic coins, Helios images, to name just a few examples). The fact that horses were not tolerated near the dwelling of the Sun Prince in this story, points to a cultural context outside the norm. This fairy tale comes from a remote region in Switzerland that was dependent on the sheep and not the horse for its survival. Bordering on Italy near the town of Merano, the area is still renowned for its fine wool and hand-woven fabrics.
Many ancient cultures personified the sun as a god and the earth as a goddess. The marriage between sun and earth was responsible for the fruitfulness of the earth and reenacted in religious festivals and cult practices. In many cultures bowing to the rising and setting sun was a daily ritual. This is echoed in the actions of the pious sheep of this fairy tale who show their reverence by bowing to the Sun God, his wife and finally the newly initiated youngest brother. The special cake the sheep eat is likely a reference to the round cakes made especially to honor the Sun God in religious ceremonies. In his book Indo-European Poetry and Myth, M. L. West surmises that such cakes might originally have been symbols of the sun itself.
The most delightful figures in this fairy tale are the sheep. They straddle parallel universes: the familiar world and an otherworldly realm beyond the wild river. Crossing a river is often a metaphor for dying in folktales (See Crossing to Remagen, link at right). At the very least the river crossing in this tale signals a transition into another spiritual dimension. The sheep seem to represent guardian angels or beings whose function is to assist mortals reach higher spiritual enlightenment, possibly a sort of heaven or the afterworld. In a delightful reversal of roles, it is the sheep who act as shepherds, coaxing and prodding the three brothers. They undergo a physical transformation as they cross the threshold of the chapel, which might actually be a metaphor for an unseen spiritual metamorphosis (or might even suggest a physical resurrection after death). However one reads the story, these sheep are indeed indispensable companions and guides.
At the end of the tale the grieving mother is granted a visit with her departed daughter. But when the girl vanishes for always, we presume her new role is too important for earth visits and she can no longer be bothered with the concerns of mortals. It would be interesting to find out what happens to her youngest brother, the one whose initiation facilitated by the sheep brought about the reunion in the first place. Has he become a priest on earth, ministering to mortals, or does he now inhabit the realm across the river? Only the Sun Prince knows for sure.
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