Thinking About the Future in Fairy Tales: an Egg Yolk, Wrapped in an Eggshell, Locked in a Fire Bird, Concealed in a Wild Ox
(This blog entry discusses Grimm’s Fairy Tale The Crystal Ball. To read the fairy tale before reading the article, hit the link at right Crystal Ball Gazing).
In the very first sentence of Grimm’s fairy tale The Crystal Ball, we are introduced to a powerful sorceress, whose three sons are filled with deep brotherly love for each other. One can only expect trouble in such a family hierarchy and true to fairy tale form, the looming crisis is described succinctly. In many folk traditions wizards are persons of enormous importance. Others can only gaze upon them in a mixture of fear and wonder. This is the situation we find at the start of the tale and whether by intention or not, the sorceress’s three rather defenseless sons now find themselves up against powerful magic.
In pagan cultures sorcerers were doctors, conjurers, magicians, soothsayers, high priests and consultants in all things regarding war and peace. They were perhaps the most important individual in the community and were “obeyed more than the chief.” * The sorceress in this story seems to be engaged in a type of activity associated with shamans and referred to as blood-brotherhood. Here an alliance with a wild animal is sought in order to bring back to the magician the creature’s specific powers. This might even be alluded to in the brotherly love reference in the narrative. It was believed that the wizard could assume the form (or have others assume the form of) of an animal, and thus could enter the beast’s realm. The purpose was often to retrieve a sick or dying person, fetch the person’s soul or acquire mantic or divine knowledge. In this tale, the two older brothers are turned into eagle and whale, but the hero is left on land in the realm of the living. Thus, the story is laid out as a three-fold quest, with the seekers exploring land, air and water. The goal of the hero’s quest is the Castle of the Golden Sun.
But heroes are prone to be side-tracked and it is interesting that the first creatures the youngest brother encounters are two giants. In Deutsche Mythologie Jakob Grimm says that folk tradition viewed giants as the oldest creatures living on earth; they belonged to a stone age and represented the old nature-gods. They are unintelligent and their dim-wittedness is often juxtaposed with the keen intelligence of mortals. The giants confer on the protagonist his wishing cap, an indispensible aid to get wherever he needs to go. In other words it is the seeker’s encounter with the past that successfully catapults him forward into the future.
Instead of finding a lovely princess, the hero finds a shriveled and wrinkled hag. The fairy tale knows that human perception cannot grasp some truths directly. By gazing into a looking glass, the hero catches a glimpse of the most beautiful woman in the world. Perhaps we could say he has recognized the essence of her being, the divine self or the divine spark within. His first words of response are “How can you be redeemed? I will not avoid any danger.” But we know that his own redemption is also on the line.
It is only toward the end of the story we actually come to the crystal ball. In this tale it is not the typical spherical crystal used to foretell the future. Surprisingly it appears as a meager egg yolk, locked within an eggshell, embedded in a fire bird, concealed in a wild ox. (In other words a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma.) Our future has the promise and mystery of life itself but it is locked deep within our being and awaits transformation. This future is our own unfolding potentiality, but we must free ourselves from the powers that control us. It is perhaps fitting in this forward-looking tale that the couple is united by a pledge to their common future (but not by a wedding).
After overcoming obstacles aided by his spiritual helpers eagle and whale, the youth is crowned King of the Castle of the Golden Sun. This is reminiscent of other tales, most strikingly the Sun Prince (see link at right) and might be referencing the afterlife. Gold is the color associated with the gods and their dwellings and the realm of the gods would be an appropriate destination for a proper hero when he leaves this life.
Modern day rituals for thinking about the future seem meager compared to the world of the fairy tale. Perhaps we associate the act with worry or even fear of our own mortality. But we are still obsessed with the future, even if this longing is frequently only expressed in making New Year’s resolutions about weight loss. Imagining the future has always been a part of what it is to be human.
To read more about the fire bird or phoenix symbolism hit the following wiki-link:
* Writing about the nature of wizards/sorcerers in pagan cultures. Sir James Frazier says in The Golden Bough that “In all tribes … doctors are conjurers – are magicians – are sooth-sayers, and I had like to have said high-priests, inasmuch as they superintend and conduct all their religious ceremonies; they are looked upon by all as oracles of the nation. In all councils of war and peace, they have a seat with the chiefs, are regularly consulted before any public step is taken and the greatest deference and respect is paid to their opinions... the shaman was, and still is, perhaps the most important individual ... In the absence of any definite system of government, the word of a shaman has great weight: as a class they are regarded with much awe, and as a rule are obeyed much more than the chief.”” (Page 101 Sir James Frazier, The Golden Bough).
To read more about the high priests and prognosticators in fairy tales:
Or a saint that sees the future:
Or about a crystal ball:
Read more fairy tales by clicking on link: