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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November Hauntings: the Feast Day of Lemuria November 9


Doppelgänger and Our Own Internal Demons

An illusive spirit appears in Grimms' Saga No. 260 Ghost as Married Woman (full text below). 
The ghoulish apparition in this story can be likened to a doppelgänger or fetch, a true replicate of a living person whose appearance announces illness, danger or death. According to folk tradition nothing was quite so unnerving as seeing your own doppelganger for then your own death was imminent.  Grimms' saga goes to great lengths to present the apparition as an exact physical copy of the lady of the house. But another interesting interpretation equates the doppelgänger with an outward manifestation the sub-conscious, here the malice an older woman feels toward her younger female relative. 

The saga suggests there are all sorts of things that may haunt people, including living disgruntled relations. An extension of this theme is that past deeds or even thoughts or memories are the ghosts that haunt us today. This idea is prominent in numerous works of literature and is also a key element in the play Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen. Likewise in the Grimms' Tale Snow White (see link or posting above) the evil queen is driven to action by thoughts that haunt her, ultimately harming herself and others.

Since ancient times distinctions have been drawn between the various manifestations of ghosts. The Romans distinguished between peaceful or essentially happy spirits (manes) and the tortured kind, who appear as terrors in the night (lemure or larvae).
The lemure were the restless spirits of the dead who wandered the earth. Their feast day was Lemuria celebrated on November 9 and May 13. At midnight on these days the master of the house had to placate these spirits with an offering (typically black beans).

Ghosts also purportedly appeared in processions racing through the landscape, only to disappear inside a mountain (see Gratzug). To be caught up in such a procession meant certain death but there were also other ghosts that could cause real problems. These were the Irrlicht or Irwisch (in German) and are often described as a fiery man or blue shimmering light. English folk names for these luminous clouds of light include Jack in a lantern or Will with a wisp. These wisps of blue are often seen in November and December during the advent season, an especially active season for experiencing ghosts in all of the their variety.

To read the more about doppelganger, hit the Wiki-link below. This link also provides interesting accounts of alleged doppelganger sightings, including one of Abraham Lincoln:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doppelg%C3%A4nger


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Have you experienced a sudden drop in fortune? Then your Hopfenhuetel or Butzenhaensel has probably left you.



Ghost Theory Expounded Here


(So what does ghost theory have to do with the latest book of short stories, Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro? The title story of this collection is based on the life of 19th century Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalesvsky, the first woman elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences and the great-great granddaughter of Johann Ernst Schubert, the Lutheran theologian whose ideas about Ghost Theory are outlined below.)

What is a ghost? The answer probably depends on whom you’re talking to. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a ghost as “an apparition of a dead person that is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.” The dictionary goes on to explain that it is common for ghosts to appear to the living even though they are not really part of this world. Haunting seems to be crucial to their existence for they either spook a person or a locality, but often both at the same time. Ironically much of what we know about the nature of ghosts comes to us from theologians or treatises seeking to dispel widespread belief in them. One of the earliest harangues against ghosts can be found in Deuteronomy 18: 10 – 11, cf. 13: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or a daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.” Despite these assaults on popular tradition, belief in ghosts has flourished and these spirits often appear in fairy tales wandering the earth or even possessing a living person (on this website see Gratzug, Crossing to Remagen, True Eckart and Frau Holle, Ghost of Boyne Castle, Ghost Ship, Lurching Hand, Ghost as Married Woman)

Unwittingly, perhaps, the Catholic Church promoted belief in ghosts in their doctrine of purgatory, which provides a middle place for souls transitioning between life and death and thus a physical place for ghosts to reside. It was Augustine who finally endeavored to bring the teachings of the church into sharper focus and overturn popular superstition. He did not deny the existence of ghosts but did argue instead that their appearance and activity were due to demonic forces acting in the world. This rationale was continued in the 18th century when the German theologian Johan Ernst Schubert outlined his Ghost Theory in two treatises: The Appearance of Souls after Death and The Location of Souls after Death. Here Schubert explores the various notions of what happens to us at death and the nature of ghosts in general. Yale University has several items in its rare books collection written by Johann Ernst Schubert, but I am not aware of any library in America that holds this particular work. I am therefore posting excerpts of translations of Schubert’s text because they illuminate folk beliefs reflected in many of the fairy tales posted here.

What is the essence of a ghost? To Schubert this question is inextricably tied to the nature of our souls. He says “The soul is in and of itself an invisible essence. If we assume that the soul is located near the ashes (or decay) of its body, you still would not be able to see it or sense it. If it appeared, the soul would either have to re-construct the body, in which it formerly dwelled or build a body from other material to be able to appear to the eyes of the living. The one thing is just as impossible as the other….. " Thus souls are not body-builders, but instead more like invisible clouds or transparent vapor. Schubert envisions them hovering close to their limp and decaying bodies, or, by extension inhabiting the cemetery.

More Schubert quotations and information about his ghost theory can be found at http://afterlifeinfairytales.blogspot.com/

Vernacular literature offers a rich variety of ghosts that do not fit so neatly into an organized theology. The ghosts of fairy tales and legends haunt mountains, forests, lakes and even houses. They are not the dead stuff so painstakingly defined in Schubert's theology and many ghosts (especially in Grimm's Saga) do not seem to be motivated by malevolence. In popular lore ghosts often have preferences, likes and dislikes. They have favorite seasons (winter) and the time around All Soul’s Day (November 1) was believed to be the time it was easiest to breach the barrier between the living and dead and see one. In cold and dark months they are often spied running merrily through a courtyard, riding in a sled, playing music or dancing in the parlor. They love to wear colorful garb adorned with bells and they actually seek out human companionship. The Swedish Tomte is one such ghost. He has the stature of a child but the face of an aged man. Often appearing in a red cap, an offering of tobacco or a shovel-full of earth would appease such a house spirit. These ghosts, known as kobold, shellycoat, brownie or heinzelman love to play tricks on the mortals with whom they live. They love to laugh and perform mundane household chores for the family they haunt. But their persistent appearances are often perceived as an annoyance, their rituals a nuisance or even an embarrassment to the master of the house. Instead of receiving a small boon, house spirits are often rebuked with unkind words or jokes. This enrages the kobold and causes him to leave the family he has been associated with for centuries. When the ghost leaves, the family’s fortune collapses. In German folk traditions these spirits are often named Huetchen, Hopfenhuetel, Eisenhuetel, Heinz, Butz or Butzenhaensel. These ghosts like to live in the stable, cellar, silo or even a favorite tree. Often they have their own room in the house under the eaves and a soft indentation can be seen on the pillow or chair where they sleep. Or they may even sleep in the same bed as the humans, with whom they live. On Thursday these spirits will not tolerate any wood-cutting or spinning. They love to play the harp, talk to everyone in the household and reveal secrets. Because of this familiar relationship, they are often referred to as uncle or father-in-law. But there is also a more sinister form of these spirits, who are then referred to as poltergeist or rumpelgeist.

Here are the various names of house ghosts or spirits in saga and fairy tales:
Aitvaras (Lithuanian house ghost, his manifestations include black rooster, black cat or flying snake. A devil or evil spirit, who demands the soul of the person he haunts and then richly rewards him (Faust))
Bukura e dheut (Albanian fairy. Helpful and very powerful. Only a god or angel is capable of performing the same functions. Her castle is guarded by magical animals. Sometimes she has a demonic connection. She is protected by a three-headed dog.)
Brownie (Scotland and Northern England: a house ghost. Similar to a Heinzelmannchen in Central Europe. In Cornwall, Brownies are responsible for guarding bees.)
Domovoj (Russian, ghosts incarnating from dead souls, they protect the family and its cattle , dom means house.
Druden (Truden, Old Norse trotha meaning “treten or “stossen”/ "kicking" or "pushing") (A female demon appearing especially in Southern Germany and Austria who disturbs sleep or performs evil magic. The word “Trute” is middle-high German for “ghost” and is synomynos with “witch”. The pentagram or “Drudenfuss” was a protection against evil spirits (Goethe’s Faust).
Elves (Old English Aelfen. There were 3 types: Mountain Elves, Water Elves or Forest Elves. The English tradition characterizes them as lovely female spirits and they appear in German literature in this form in the 17th century. They love music and dance. Herder and Goethe refer to their king as “Erlkoenig” (Elf King)
Haltia (Finnish “protector”, ghostly protectors of a house, mill or hearth/fire. The person who first establishes or builds a house or who first made fire in the house can become this house spirit.
Heinzelmaennchen (Germany, Central Europe, helpful house spirits of gnome-like stature with red or green clothing and usually with red hair. They are indefatigable helpers of house occupants and provide good advice. Mean spirited comments or curiosity drive them away. Also called Heinzlein (short form for Heinrich) and a euphemism for a demon or devilish spirit.
Juma (Finno-Ugric, Finnish for ghosts of the earth, water, wind and house.)
Kobold (Central European, beneficient house spirit. Name means ruler of the chamber or house (from English: cove meaning chamber and old meaning ruling), i.e. the spirit ruling the house. Also appear as mountain spirits, who rob silver and return valueless cobalt. They work as invisible spirits for the good of the house.)
Majas gars (Latvian house ghost. Even in the 19th century Latvian farmers hoped to achieve the beneficence of such spirits through prayer and offering, thus assuring the fortune of the house and its inhabitants.
Para (Finnish folk tradition, a house ghost that often appears in the shape of snake, frog or cat; responsible for multiplying a household’s fortunes in the form of grain, milk, butter and also money.
Pukis (Lithuanian dragon with a helping function, acts as house guide or bringer of treasure.
Shellycoat (Scottish kobold, loves bells on clothing, likes to play tricks and laugh, acts as true servant but a Shellycoat's presence is perceived as an annoyance.)
Teraphim (Hebrew for house idol, bestows charity and riches to a family, assumes a position of honor and leadership within the family, assures family’s inheritance and also serves oracular purposes. Mentioned in Book of Judges.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Grimm's Saga No. 260: Ghost as Married Woman


Grimm's Saga No. 260

In the time when Johann Casimir was Duke of Coburg*, his Master of the Stables was named G. P. von Z. This master of the stables first resided in the street called Spitalgasse, afterward in a dwelling subsequently inhabited by D. Frommann and then in a large villa outside town, which was called Rosenau. Finally he took up residence in the castle where he also acted as captain of arms. A ghost forced him to these frequent moves. In appearance this spirit looked exactly like his living wife, so much so, that each time when he entered a new dwelling and sat at his table he often doubted whether he was in the presence of his true wife. For the spirit followed him out of each house and everywhere. When his wife once again suggested moving into new living quarters to avoid the ghost, the apparition began to cry out in a loud voice: “Go where you will. I will follow you, even to the ends of the earth!” This was not an idle threat for when the Master of the Stables moved out, the doors of the houses he left behind slammed shut with ferocious force. From then on the spirit was never seen in the abandoned house but only in the new residence.

Every day when the true wife dressed herself, the ghost appeared in the same clothing regardless of whether it was a fancy dress or an every-day dress and the colour of the fabric didn’t matter. This is why the wife never went about her household tasks alone, but was always accompanied by a servant. The spirit often appeared between eleven and twelve o’clock. If a priest or man of the cloth was present, the ghost did not appear. Once  when Johann Pruescher the Father Confessor had been invited and the noble man and his wife and sister accompanied him down the stairs, the spirit began to climb the stairs from below at the same time. Through the wooden rail it gripped the young maid’s apron and disappeared when she began to scream. Once the spirit lay on it’s side over the threshold to the kitchen. When the cook asked “What do you want?” the spirit responded “I shall have your mistress.” But the mistress of the house never experienced any harm. Things did not go as well for the young maid, the sister of the nobleman. One time the spirit hit the girl so hard on the face that her cheek swelled up and the girl had to return to her father’s house. Finally the spirit retreated and it became peaceful in the house once more.

*  
John Casimir (German: Johann Kasimir) of Saxe-Coburg (Gotha, 12 June 1564 – Coburg, 16 July 1633) was the Duke of Saxe-Coburg. He was the descendant of the Ernestine branch of the House of Wettin. / Wikipedia

To read more about Ghosts and Ghost Theory, click on the links.


To read about ghosts and all they manifestations click on the link:
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Friday, October 23, 2009

In this tale for hallow e'en, a hand lurches through the darkness at the church of dead souls.


Three Tales for Halloween: Beware of the Hand in the Dark

Tale 3: The Lurching Hand

This strange story happened in the year 1517 in the St. Lorentia Church and adjacent graveyard. Early in the morning of All Souls’ Eve, a pious old lady left her home to attend the Angels' Mass at church. But when she stood before the gate to the cemetery she found it was midnight instead of morning. She heard a dull murmur coming from within and so she entered. There she saw an old priest whom she did not know standing before an immense congregation. As she walked down the aisle to take her accustomed seat, she felt a hand on her shoulder pulling her gently back. Struggling free, she once more attempted to take her customary place. This time she saw an iridescent hand floating toward her through the darkness. When it gripped her shoulder, she felt a chill seize her body and she could not walk any further. Then she noticed persons sitting on her right and left side, some without heads or without arms or legs. Many of these persons she had known in her lifetime. She sat down in the nearest pew trembling with fear. Because she only recognized dead people, those she knew or did not know in her lifetime, she believed she was in the presence of departed souls. Terrified she did not know whether to remain in the church or leave or what she should do. Finally she saw her sister-in-law, who had died just three weeks before. Because she knew her sister-in-law had been a kindly, angelic woman while she lived, she approached the spirit and asked “Dear sister-in-law, God save us, how do we get out of here?” The sister-in-law replied “When the priest turns to pronounce the blessing, then make haste and leave the church. Do not turn back but flee!” She watched and when the priest began to turn and say his blessing, she hurried from the church. Behind her a great tumult rose up as if the entire congregation were rushing out and following her into the cemetery. She felt the hand once more ripping at her shoulder and grasping for her coat. She could not move past the gate until she slipped out of the coat and left it lying near a tombstone. Hastening home, the church bell rang out three hours past midnight. The next day the townspeople found lying next to each tombstone one small piece of torn fabric from the woman’s coat.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Three Tales for Halloween: Vampire Empire


Tale 2: Vampire Empire

In Livland the following story is told: on All Soul’s Eve a young boy can often be seen limping about in the streets at dusk. He calls all those who follow Darkness, whose numbers are too numerous to be counted, to come with him. They cannot resist and soon a large throng forms. At midnight another larger man can be seen walking beside the boy, with whip in hand made from plaited strands of iron wire he herds the multitude. He brings down this utensil on the vampires and werewolves running before him and drives them toward the castle on the hill. Their curses and groans reverberate off the steep cliff wall and can be heard in the next village.



To read about all manner of ghosts and their manifestations:

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/11/have-you-experienced-sudden-drop-in.html

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Three Tales for Halloween: The Cat in the Willow Tree



Three Tales for Halloween Tale 1, Grimm’s Saga 250: The Cat in the Willow Tree
There once lived a farm boy in Strassleben who told the following story: In his village there was a certain maid, who had lost her wits to dancing mania. Often no one knew where her dancing took her, she seemed to lose her senses completely and then vanish. She would only return home after some time had lapsed. Once, this same farm boy and other workers decided to follow the maid. When once again on Sunday the girl began to dance and amuse herself in the company of the workers, she suddenly departed. But they all crept after her in stealth. She left the inn and went out into the field and ran off without looking around, straight to a hollow willow tree, in which she hid herself. The workers followed, curious to see whether she would remain some time in the willow. They waited at a place where they could stand well-hidden. After a short time they noticed that a cat jumped out of the willow and crossed the field back to Langendorf. Now the fieldhands approached the willow; there they saw the maid, or better said her body, leaning against the tree completely rigid. They could not bring her back to life however fiercely they shook her body. They were overcome with terrible dread; they left her body standing and returned home. After some time they could see the cat creeping back through the field and then it slipped silently into the willow and vanished. Some moments later the maid emerged from the willow and returned to the village.


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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A German Fairy Tale about the Problem with Bread Shoes



(Another saga about Bread Sin. However gloomy these tales might appear to the modern reader, they do reflect a deep reverance for the food we eat. Perhaps these tales are most fitting to read in the autumn as we approach Thanksgiving, All Souls' Day and Halloween. It is also interesting to read this fairy tale alongside The Shroud, see link at right.)


Grimms’ Saga No. 238: Bread Shoes

A woman from a respectable family had a child who was the apple of her eye. When it died, she did not know how she could express the love and tenderness she felt before the babe was lowered into the earth and she would see it nevermore. And as she washed and dressed the child and placed it in its coffin, it struck her that its little shoes were not fine enough. She took the whitest flour that she had and made a dough and from this she baked soft bread shoes. The child was buried in these shoes. But the child would not give the mother any rest or peace but instead appeared looking mournful until its coffin was dug up again and the little shoes of bread were taken from its feet and replaced with proper shoes. From then on, the child was quiet and returned no more.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

God is Bread in this German Legend



Although a rather bleak tale, this German legend illustrates the notion of a deity residing within the bread and thus its sacred nature. This belief caused quite a controversy during the Reformation but can actually be traced back to pre-Christian notions about the sanctity of grain. Read this alongside A Walk Through the Forest: a Recipe for Resilience  to explore how food is depicted in the Fairy Tale.

Grimms’ Legend No. 5: God’s Food

There once were two sisters; one of them was childless and rich, the other had five children and was a widow. The widow was so poor that she no longer had bread to feed herself or her children. In her dire need she approached her sister and said “My children and I suffer from the harshest hunger. You are rich, give me some bread.”

But the woman who was stone-rich spoke “But even I have nothing in my house!” And she drove the poor woman away with her evil words. After some time the husband of the rich sister came home and wanted to cut a piece of bread. But when he cut the first slice from the loaf, red blood flowed from within. When the woman saw this, she was terrified and told her husband what had happened. He rushed to the poor sister and wanted to help. But when he entered the chamber of the poor widow, he found her praying. She held the two youngest children in her arms. The three oldest lay on the floor and were dead. He offered her food but she replied “We no longer long for earthly food; God has already satisfied three. He will also hear our pleas.”

The widow had hardly spoken these words, when the two little ones took their last breath. This broke the woman’s heart and she sank to floor dead.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reading Hänsel and Gretel: Stepmother and witch, the ladies we love to loathe.



The fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel features two female characters that audiences love to abhor: the stepmother and wicked witch. It is the behavior of the stepmother that frequently launches the action of a fairy tale. The scheming machinations of this female, who we know from the beginning is not really the true mother, catapults the objects of her villainy into life-defining moments of distress and terror. Her evil actions speak for themselves and in this fairy tale, nothing is said (or needs to be said) about how the children feel toward the woman. She is fully human yet fully horrid and concerned only with her own welfare. We understand this type of person and perhaps even recognize elements of her character in our own acquaintances and family. Though thoroughly bad, there is nothing preternatural in her ability to make bad things happen. She does real harm to the other characters, but in the end she is usually dead or receives her just reward. In hindsight we can usually say that the evil stepmother is crucial as catalyst for transformation in the narrative.

The witch is another story. She is aligned with the forces of evil and thus her powers are stronger than the stepmother’s. Her supernatural qualities make humans appear even more frail and defenseless. In Hänsel and Gretel her unique attributes are animal-like and include recognizing creatures by their scent. Other characteristics include red eyes and indeterminable advanced age. She usually has something that people absolutely need or even worse, absolutely desire. That is the source of her power and why she can always lure the protagonists into her lair. But her powers are not without limit. Like the stepmother, she can do real harm. But fairy tale characters who look deep inside themselves can often find the resources they need to overcome the witch. The hero or heroine can always choose to take action or not. When put up against a supernatural being, he or she must develop resourcefulness and ingenuity, those qualities that have hitherto lain dormant. When these untapped qualities are finally unleashed, the witch has no power over the individual.

In fairy tales witches or sorceresses frequently have the power to reveal the future and thus they influence human destiny. They can shape-shift, disappear, do real harm to cattle and crops and also exercise control over the weather. But they usually cannot take a person’s life and thus it is up to the individual to develop strategies to overcome their evil.* This has caused some commentators to believe that witches are merely personifications or symbols of our inner struggle to become more fully human. Other writers have lamented the fact that the loathsome characters in fairy tales are mostly female. I would argue that the crucial characters in fairy tales are almost exclusively female. The male characters, such as the father in Hänsel and Gretel, are frequently weak and indecisive. Even Hänsel is not the true hero of the story for it is Gretel’s swift thinking that saves the day.

* The fairy tale Frau Trude is one exception. The witch ends up killing the girl because she is not up to the challenges of transforming her character.


To read the fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel click on the link:

 http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/fairy-tale-about-food-or-lack-of-it.html

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Reading Hänsel and Gretel: a Journey of Filial Love and Survival



A Walk Through the Forest: a Recipe for Resilience

The situation is dire indeed in the fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel. We are told in the very first paragraph that “a terrible famine ravaged the land” and it was impossible to find even the most basic sustenance, bread. Without any relief on the horizon, the parents plot to rid themselves of their offspring in the hope that by losing their children in the forest they will somehow save themselves. Fairy tales are filled with examples of such extreme behavior and here the abandonment of children is equivalent to murder by neglect. A natural disaster is at the root of the crisis. The famine has not only ushered in a period of physical hardship but it has introduced widespread spiritual decay as well. This is a time when murder and cannibalism become strategies for survival. This fairy tale might be based on memories of the Great Famine of 1315 – 1322, which caused millions of deaths by starvation in Northern Europe. Catastrophic weather patterns produced greatly diminished yields in crops. The resulting calamity hit all echelons of society and many incidents of child abandonment and cannibalism have been documented by the chroniclers of the times.

Into this grim landscape come the innocent children, who are fully attuned to the gravity of their situation. Stripped of the protection and security offered by a properly functioning family, the children must make their own decisions and define their own survival plans. Hänsel tries to take charge and protect his sister. He comforts the crying Gretel and assures her that God will not abandon them. This might be a reference to the crisis in confidence the Church experienced during and after the Great Famine. Organized religion seemed impotent against the destructive forces that had been unleashed and the authority of the Church and God were called into question. But with the faith of a child, Hänsel insists on holding fast to his past beliefs as a prescription for survival.

Faced with impending death, Hänsel takes action while his sister responds to each new situation by crying, appearing frail and helpless. The gender roles in this fairy tale have often been criticized. But it is Gretel’s quick thinking that ultimately saves the day when she pushes the witch into the oven. And at the conclusion of the tale, Gretel gives her “duck speech” to Hänsel, signaling a new sort of self-reliance and confidence. Injecting a dose of fairy tale realism into the narrative, Gretel gently reminds her brother that the weight of two children on the back of a duck would probably cause them both to drown.

This fairy tale also has older motifs that pre-date the food shortages of the fourteenth century or other medieval famines; they are the bread and food images in the narrative, which are intriguing in and of themselves. Bread is one of the oldest foodstuffs and evidence of leavened bread can be found in the archeological record going back 6000 years. The very earliest references to bread are restricted to small or broken pieces, leading scholars to surmise that the first loaves were similarly small fragments. The fairy tale often mentions such broken bread pieces and they appear here in Hänsel and Gretel as the crumbs left as markers on the path through the woods. In the saga Queen Huett the proud monarch takes soft bread crumbs to clean away mud and in the saga Semmelschuhe the proud princess fashions shoes from little pieces of bread. In the world of the fairy tale, these acts are examples of depravity and sacrilege. Bread, one of the most fundamental necessities for survival, is sacred in these stories. Pre-Christian rites in Europe also reflect the consecrated status of bread. Sir James Frazer describes a custom in France in The Golden Bough . A god or corn-spirit was believed to reside in the last harvested sheaf of grain, which was ritually eaten in the form of a baked dough-man. Frazer cites numerous examples of this ancient custom of ritually eating the god or indwelling spirit of the harvested grain. He concludes that the Christian rite of communion absorbed these earlier pagan practices. The notion of a deity being bodily present within the grain and being harmed by a sacrilegious act is also illustrated in the Grimms' legend God’s Food. Here, the loaf actually gushes blood in response to an evil deed. And although Hänsel and Gretel are starving, they do not begin their feast on the witch’s house of bread and cake until Hänsel blesses their meal.

The period of sorrow and misfortune ends when the two protagonists make their way home. Their journey includes crossing an immense body of water, which is often a metaphor for dying. After walking through a strange and uncertain landscape, they finally reach a place more familiar. Their reunion with their father is joyful. The father hadn’t had a moment’s peace since he left his children in the forest. The children bring back wealth and prosperity in the form of gems and pearls. If only the family had stuck together during the crisis! Sorrows do end, the strong can persevere with their principles still intact and they are often rewarded in the end. Unfortunately, without the journey there is no transformation. One must take up life's challenges however terrifying they might be, because they are indispensable in making us what we are.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A fairy tale about food, or the lack of it: Hänsel and Gretel

The woodcutter and his family, Veneto, c. 1890.
Fratelli Alinari Museum of the History of Photography, Florence/Italy (Click on picture to enlarge.)

Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 15: Hänsel and Gretel

A poor woodcutter lived with his wife and two children at the edge of a deep forest. The boy was named Hänsel and the girl Gretel. The man had nothing to eat or drink. Because a terrible famine ravaged the land, he could no longer find his daily bread. As he lay in bed that night thinking, he tossed and turned.

Sighing he said to his wife “What shall become of us? We cannot provide for our poor children because we don’t have anything for ourselves!”

“Listen husband,” the wife replied, “Tomorrow in the very early hours we shall take both children into the woods where the trees are the thickest. We shall light a fire and give them each a piece of bread. Then we shall go to work and leave them alone. They will not be able to find their way home and we shall be rid of them.”

“No wife,” the husband replied. “I won’t do it. How could I bring myself to abandon my own children in the forest? The wild animals would soon come and rip them to shreds.”

“Oh, you fool,” she replied, “Then all four of us must die of hunger; you should start now and mill the boards for our coffins.”

She did not leave him in peace until he consented. But the two children could not fall asleep because of their hunger and had heard everything that their step-mother had said to their father.

Gretel cried bitter tears and said to Hänsel, “Now we’re in trouble!”

“Be still, Gretel. Do not be afraid. I will do something to help us.”

And when the old folks had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his jacket, opened the lower part of the cottage door and slipped through it. The moon shone brightly and the white stones lying in front of the cottage glimmered like pennies. Hänsel knelt down and filled his jacket pockets with has many as he could cram inside. Then he returned home and said to Gretel, “Be comforted, dear sister, and sleep peacefully. God will not abandon us.” And he lay down again in bed.

When day was breaking but before the sun had risen, the woman came and woke both children. “Get up you lazy children. We shall go into the forest and cut wood.” Then she gave them each a piece of bread and said “You have something for your noon day meal, but don’t eat it before then, for you won’t be getting anything more.”

Gretel took the bread and placed it under her apron because Hänsel had the stones in his pocket. Then they all made their way into the forest. When they had walked a short distance, Hänsel stopped and looked back at the cottage again and again.

The father spoke “Hänsel, why are you looking back and staying behind. Pay attention and don’t forget to move your legs.”

“Oh father. I am looking for my white kitten, which is sitting on the roof and wants to say good bye to me.”

The woman spoke “Fool, that is not your kitten. It is the morning sun shining on the chimney.” But Hänsel was not looking for his kitten. Instead, he was dropping one of the smooth pebbles from his pocket onto the path.

When they had arrived in the middle of the forest, the father spoke. “Gather wood, children. I want to make a fire so that you are not cold.” Hänsel and Gretel gathered brushwood and made a small stack.

The fire was ignited and as the flame burned high, the woman said “Now lie down near the fire and rest. We shall go into the forest and cut wood. When we are finished, we shall return for you.”

Hänsel and Gretel sat down by the fire and when noon came, they each ate their little piece of bread. And because they heard the sound of an axe chopping wood, they believed their father was near. But it wasn’t the wood axe it was a branch, which their father had bound to a dead tree. And the wind blew it back and forth and it made a beating sound. Because they had sat still so long, their eyes fell shut in fatigue and they were soon fast asleep. When they finally awoke it was darkest night.

Gretel began to cry and said “How shall we now find our way out of the wood?”.

But Hänsel consoled her: “Wait a bit until the moon has risen. Then we shall find the way.” And when the moon rose, he took his little sister by the hand and followed the trail of pebbles. They lay there glistening like newly minted coins and showed the way. The children walked the entire night and as daylight was breaking, they arrived once more at their father’s house. They knocked on the door and when the woman opened and saw that it was Hänsel and Gretel, she spoke

“You evil children, why did you sleep so long in the forest? We thought you didn’t want to return ever again.” But their father rejoiced when he saw his children, because leaving them all alone had broken his heart.

It was not long after when there was despair in every corner of the house. The children heard how the mother spoke to the father at night in bed “Everything has been eaten. We only have half a loaf of bread. After that, the song is over. The children must go; we shall bring them deeper into the woods so that they cannot find their way out again. Otherwise, nothing can save us.”

The man was sorely troubled and he thought ““It is better to share your last morsel with your children. But the woman would not listen to what he said and scolded him and accused him. And so it was: whoever agrees once, must agree again. Because the woodcutter had given in the first time, he had to give in a second time also.

But the children were awake and had heard their parents’ conversation. Hänsel got up and wanted to gather pebbles again, but when he went to the door, he found the woman had locked it and he could not get out. But he comforted his little sister and said “Do not cry, Gretel, and go to sleep. Sleep peacefully, dear God will help us.”

Early the next morning the woman came and got the children out of bed. They both received their little crust of bread, but it was even smaller than before. On the path, Hänsel broke it into crumbs in his pocket. He often stood still and threw the crumbs on the ground. “Why are you always stopping, Hänsel, and looking around? Go your way,” the father said.

“I am looking for my little dove, which is sitting on the roof and wants to say goodbye,” Hänsel said.

“You fool,” the mother said. “That isn’t a dove, that is the morning sun shining on the chimney.” But Hänsel crumbled all of his bread and threw the crumbs on the path.

The woman led them even deeper into the woods to a place she had never seen in her entire life. Once again an enormous fire was made and the mother said “Stay here children and when you are tired, you may sleep a bit. We will go into the forest and chop wood. In the evening, when we are finished, we shall return and fetch you.”

When it was noon, Gretel shared her bread with Hänsel, who had scattered his pieces over the path. Then they fell asleep and evening came, but no one returned for the poor children. They awoke in the darkest night and Hänsel consoled his sister and said “Wait Gretel until the moon rises. Then we will see the bread crumbs, which I scattered. They will show us the way home.”

When the moon had risen, they started out but they could not find any crumbs. The many thousands of birds, who fly in forest and field, had pecked them all away.

Hänsel said to Gretel “We will find the way.” But they did not find it. They walked an entire night and day from morning until evening, but they never came out of the forest. They were enormously hungry because they only found a few berries lying on the ground. And because they were so tired, they lay down under a tree and went to sleep.

It was now the third morning since they had left their father’s house. They started to walk again but only found themselves deeper and deeper in the wood. If help did not arrive soon, they would soon fade away.

When it was noon, they saw a beautiful, snow-white bird sitting on a branch. It sang so beautifully that they stopped and listened. When it was done, it beat its wings and flew away. They followed until they reached a little house and the bird landed on its roof. When the children came very close, they saw that the cottage was built of bread and covered with cake. But the windows were made of bright sugar.

“Let’s dig in,” Hänsel said, “and have a blessed meal. I will eat a piece of the roof, Gretel you can eat from the window, it’s sweet.” Hänsel reached up and broke off a bit of the roof to try how it tasted. Gretel stood in front of the window and nibbled at the panes. A fine voice called from inside the cottage

“Crunch, crunch, crouse!
Who’s nibbling on my little house?”

The children replied

“It’s the wind,
The wind so wild,
The heavenly child,”

And they continued eating with abandon. Hänsel, who thought the roof tasted very good, tore off a large piece and Gretel pulled out a large, round window pane, sat down and enjoyed the food. At once the door fell open and there stood a woman as old as the hills. She supported herself on a crutch and walked out slowly. Hänsel and Gretel were so afraid that they let their morsels drop from their hands. But the old woman shook her head and said “Dear children, who brought you here? Come inside and stay with me. You shall not be harmed.” She took both by the hand and led them inside her little house. There, a splendid table was prepared with ample food, milk and pancakes with sugar-sweets, apples and nuts. Afterward they were led to two pretty little beds made up in white. Hänsel and Gretel lay down and thought they were in heaven.

The old woman was so cordial but in fact she was a witch who lay in wait for children. She had only built the house of gingerbread to lure them in. When one fell under her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it. And this was her feast day. Witches have red eyes and cannot see far, but they have a keen sense of smell. Like animals, they notice when people approach. When Hänsel and Gretel came close, she laughed scornfully “Now I have you and you shall not escape again.” Early in the morning before the children awoke, she was already up and when she saw them resting so peacefully, with full red cheeks, she murmured to herself “They shall be tasty morsels.” She grabbed Hänsel in her boney hand and put him in a stall and locked him in with a barred door. Cry as he may, it didn’t help him. Then she went to Gretel and shook her awake and called “Get up, you lazy bones! Fetch water and cook a good meal for your brother. He is sitting outside in the stall and will fatten up. When he is plump enough, I shall eat him.” Gretel began to cry bitterly but it was all for naught. She had to do what the evil witch commanded.

Now the best food was prepared for Hänsel, but Gretel got nothing but empty crab shells. Every morning the old woman crept to the little cage and called “Hänsel, stick out your finger so that I can feel whether you shall soon be fat.” But Hänsel extended a little bone and the old woman, who had weak eyes, could not see and thought it was Hänsel’s finger. She was amazed that he was not gaining weight. When four weeks had passed and Hänsel remained lean, impatience overcame the witch and she would not wait any longer. “Now, Gretel,” she called to the maiden, “Be quick and carry water. Hänsel may be fat or lean, but tomorrow I shall slaughter and cook him.”

Ach, how the poor little sister wept and wailed when she carried the water. The tears flowed from her eyes and fell down her cheeks. “Dear God, do help us,” she cried “If only the wild animals had devoured us in the woods, then at least we would have died together.”

“Spare me your blather,” the old woman said “None of it will help you now.”

Early in the morning Gretel had to go out and fill the pot with water and hang it over the fire. “First we shall bake,” the old woman said. “I have already heated the oven and kneaded the dough!” She pushed poor Gretel out to the oven, from which the flames of fire could already be seen lapping the edges. “Creep inside,” the witch said and see whether the oven is hot enough so that we can push the bread inside.” When Gretel was inside, she would shut the oven door and Gretel would roast inside and then she would also eat her. But Gretel noticed what she had in mind and said “I don’t know how I could do that. How will I get inside?”

“Dumb goose,” the old woman said. “The opening is large enough. Don’t you see, I could slip in myself,” and she crawled forward and put her head in the oven. Gretel gave her a shove so that she fell in and closed the iron door and lowered the latch. Hu! She began to scream horribly. But Gretel ran away and the godless witch burned to death miserably.

Now Gretel ran to Hänsel and opened up the little door of his stall and cried “Hänsel we are saved, the old witch is dead!” Hänsel jumped out like a bird free of its cage when the door is opened. How happy they were, hugged each other, jumped around and kissed! And because they no longer needed to fear, they went to the house of the witch and in every corner they found boxes with pearls and beautiful gems.

“These are much better than pebbles,” Hänsel said, and filled his pockets with as many as he could.

Gretel said “I also want to bring something home,” and filled her apron full.

“But now, let us leave,” Hänsel said, “so that we get out of the witch’s forest.” They had only walked a few hours when they reached an enormous body of water. We can’t pass over and there is also no bridge.”

“And no ship sails here,” Gretel answered, “but a white duck is swimming and if I ask, she might help us cross.” They called,

Little duck, little duck,
Hänsel and Gretel stand
Where no plank or bridge land.
So take us on your little white back.”

The duck came and Hänsel sat on its back and then asked his sister to sit beside him. “No,” Gretel replied “It will be too heavy for the duck. He shall bring us over one after another.” And the good animal did just that. When they were happily on the other side and had walked a time, the forest began to seem more familiar to them. Finally they spied from afar the house of their father. They began to run, pushed through the door and rushed inside. There they fell around their father’s neck. The man hadn’t had a happy hour since he left his children in the forest. But his wife had died. Gretel shook out her apron pockets and pearls and bright gems bounced around the room. Then Hänsel threw one handful after another out of his pocket. Their sorrow and misfortune had ended. Now they lived together in pure joy.

My story is over and there runs a mouse. Whoever can catch it, can make a big, big fur cap.


Read more about the fairy tale:

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/reading-hansel-and-gretel-journey-of.html


http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/reading-hansel-and-gretel-stepmother.html

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/10/god-is-bread-in-this-german-legend.html

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Food and the Fairy Tale: An Aerial Bridge of Stone and a Lord's Godless Daughter



Grimm’s Saga No. 236: Shoes Made from Bread Rolls
In Klatau, a quarter hour from the village of Oberkamenz, there once stood a castle on Hradek Mountain. Today you can still see the ruins of the fortress. In ancient times the lord of the castle had a bridge built all the way to Stankau, which is at least an hour away. They took this bridge whenever they wanted to walk to church. This lord had a young, proud daughter. She was so overcome with pride that she had bread rolls hollowed out and wore the little loaves on her feet instead of shoes. One day when she was wearing these shoes and walking across the bridge to church, she put her foot on the last piece of the bridge. At once, the entire castle sank into the ground. Her foot prints can still be seen in the stone, which made up the last step of this bridge.



To read about the significance of bread in fairy tales:

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/reading-hansel-and-gretel-stepmother.html


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In this Saga A Powerful Giant Queen in Tyrol Does Not Respect God's Gifts




Grimm’s Saga 234: Lady Huett, Queen of the Giants
In ancient times a powerful giantess lived in Tyrol, Lady Huett. Her home was the high mountains that encircled Innsbruck. Now these rocks are gray and barren but in times of old they were teeming with forests, rich fields and green meadows. One day Queen Huett’s small son came home crying and miserable. He was covered in mud from head to toe and his clothes were blackened like a miner’s garb covered with soot. He had tried to break off a branch from a fir tree to make a riding stick. But because the tree stood at the edge of a marsh and the ground below him was soft, he sank up to his neck in mud. Luckily, he was able to free himself and run home. Queen Huett comforted him and promised him a new shirt. She called her servant and commanded him to bring fresh bread and clean her son’s face and hands with the loaf. The servant had barely begun to do the sinful act with God’s sacred gift when a dark storm blew up, covered the heavens and dreadful thunder could be heard all around. When daylight returned, the rich corn fields, green meadows and forests along with the dwelling of Queen Huett had all vanished. Where once the landscape had been rich and prosperous, the land was now a desert with roughly strewn stones. Not a single blade of grass grew there; all was dry and barren. In the middle of it all stood Queen Huett, the Queen of the Giants, turned to stone. And she shall stand there until Judgment Day.



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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reading the Writing on the Wall: My Husband is a God, but My Friends are All a Bunch of Sheep




Reading the Fairy Tale The Sun Prince

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.

To read a fairy tale about the peaceable kingdom of animals:

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/11/peaceable-kingdom-of-fairy-tales.htm

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fairy Tale of the Sun Prince



The Wonderful and Strange Fairy Tale of the Sun Prince
(A fairy tale from the Merino region of Switzerland)


A long time ago there lived a father and mother with their four children, a grown girl and three small boys. The father wanted to marry off his daughter to someone he liked. But because his daughter refused, he wanted to kill her.

One day the maiden told her mother she should look and see what was written on the wall of her bedroom. When the mother entered her daughter’s chamber, she found an inscription on the wall “Your daughter is my bride and I am the Sun Prince.” When the mother returned to the parlor, her daughter had vanished. The Sun Prince had taken her.

From that day on, the mother was deeply troubled and cried most of the time. The three brothers noticed this as they grew older. They begged their mother to say why she was so sad. After they had learned the fate of their sister, they could not find a moment’s rest. The oldest son took the prettiest horse in their stable and went out looking for the Sun Prince. After a very long trip he arrived at a large dwelling, where he tied the horse next to the door. A woman emerged and she said he should bring his horse into the stable. Horses were not tolerated near the door.

After the youth took his horse to the adjacent stable, the woman asked what kind of trip he was undertaking. “I must go to look for my sister, who married the Sun Prince!”

“Then you are my brother,” the woman replied and hugged him. Both went to the Sun Prince, and the brother asked permission for his sister to visit their home so that she could visit their mother one last time. “I will allow it,” the Sun Prince replied, “If you tend my sheep an entire day. But as sign that you have watched them, in the evening you must bring me what the sheep have eaten during the day.”

The youth thought “That won’t be difficult!” And early the next morning he went out into the fields with the sheep of the Sun Prince. Soon the herd came to a very deep valley. The sheep crossed the river flowing through the valley floor without difficulty. But the youth did not know how to cross the river. When the sheep saw from the other bank, that the shepherd stayed back, they sent two older sheep to fetch him. They motioned to the shepherd that he was to hold tightly to their tails. But the shepherd was afraid and did not dare do what the sheep commanded. By evening, he was still on the same side of the valley and when the sheep returned, he plucked some grass and put it in his sack, because he thought that was what the sheep must have eaten on the other side of the river. When they arrived at the house of the Sun Prince, the sheep first bowed to the Sun Prince, then to the wife and lastly to the shepherd, who then showed the Prince the grass in his bag. “My sheep don’t eat that!” the Prince cried loudly and the youth sadly returned home.

The second brother decided to see what would happen to him if he tended the herd of the Sun Prince. But he, too, did not have the courage to hold tightly to the tail of the sheep and stayed back.

In the evening he plucked several leaves, placed them in his sack and brought them to the Sun Prince. When the Sun Prince saw this, he said “You did not tend the sheep and must return home without your sister!”

Because this brother also returned home without his sister, it was left to the youngest brother to try to bring back his sister. After a trip lasting many days and years, he arrived at the dwelling of the Sun Prince, where he endeavored to tie his horse to the post. When the Sun Prince heard what he wanted, he made the same proposal as he had to his brothers. At the first light of morning the youth went out with the sheep. But when he came to the stream in the valley, he let the old sheep guide him through the water to the far side.

On the far side of the water, the youth saw the sheep entering a chapel and as they crossed the doorway, they were all transformed into humans. Once inside the chapel they all celebrated mass. After the service, they entered a nearby inn and ate a celebratory feast. The youth could see what wonderful and delicious food the sheep ate. He tried a bit of the best cake and placed it in his sack. When he returned home with his herd that evening, two old sheep once again pulled him safely through the river. When they arrived home, the herd first bowed to the youth and then to the Sun Prince and then to his wife. After the youth showed the Sun Prince the cake, he and his sister were immediately brought home the following morning and stayed until evening. When the sun went down, she vanished for always.

To read more about the Sun Prince:
http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/reading-writing-on-wall-my-husband-is.html

Read more fairy tales by clicking on the link:
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The German Fairy Tale of the Mysterious Bee Queen






Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 62 The German Fairy Tale of the Mysterious Bee Queen


Two king’s sons went out looking for adventure and fell into a wild, dissipated life and did not return home. The youngest, who was also known as the dummkopf, went out looking for his brothers. But when he finally found them, they laughed and mocked him. He was a simpleton, they jeered. How could he succeed in life when they had failed so miserably and they were so much smarter? And so it was, the three brothers decided to go out together and soon they came upon an anthill. The two oldest wanted to stir up the sand and see how the little ants scurried fearfully around, carrying off their eggs. But the dummkopf said “Leave the animals in peace. I won’t tolerate your harming them.” The brothers continued on their way and came to a lake, where many ducks were swimming. The two brothers wanted to catch a few and roast them, but the dummkopf would not allow it. He said” Leave the animals in peace. I won’t tolerate your harming them.”

Finally they came to a bee nest. There was so much honey that it trickled down the trunk of the tree. The two older brothers wanted to light a fire under the tree and suffocate the bees, so that they could rob them of their honey. The dummkopf once more said “Leave the animals in peace. I won’t tolerate your harming them.” Finally the three brothers arrived at a castle. Here the stalls were full of stone horses. But not a single human being was found. They went through each room of the castle, until they arrived at the very last door. The door had three locks but in the middle there was a keyhole. Spying through the hole they saw a gray little man sitting at a table. They called to him, once, twice, but he did not hear. Finally they called a third time. He stood up, opened the locks and came out. But he never said a word. Instead, he led them to a richly set table. When they had eaten and drunk their fill, the old man brought each brother to a separate sleeping chamber. The next morning the gray little man came to the oldest, woke him and took him to a stone tablet. Three tasks were written on the tablet, and fulfillment of the tasks would redeem the castle. The first task was this: in the woods under the moss lay the pearls of the king’s daughter, one thousand in number. They all had to be gathered and if a single pearl was missing when the sun set, the person who was searching for them would be turned to stone. The oldest went out and looked the entire day. But when day was over, and he had only found one hundred, it happened just as the tablet had foretold. He was turned to stone. The next day the second brother took up the adventure. It did not go much better for him. He had found more than two-hundred pearls when he was turned to stone. Finally, it was the dummkopf’s turn. He searched through the moss but it was difficult finding pearls and took too long. He sat down on a stone and began to cry. And as he was sitting there, the ant king came, whose life the dummkopf had once saved. He arrived with five-thousand ants and it didn’t take long for the small animals to gather the pearls into a little pile. The second task was to fetch the key to the princess’s bed chamber at the bottom of the sea. As the dummkopf approached the water, the ducks came swimming, whose life he had once saved. They dove under and fetched the key from the depths. The third task was the most difficult. Among the king’s sleeping daughters the dummkopf had to determine the youngest and dearest. But they all looked the same and nothing distinguished them except for the fact that before they went to sleep, they each had eaten a different sweet: the oldest a sugar cube, the second, some syrup and the third a spoon of honey. The bee queen, whose lives the dummkopf had preserved against fire, arrived with her bees. The queen alighted on the mouth of each princess, but at last she lingered near the mouth of the princess who had eaten honey. In this way, the king’s son recognized the rightful princess. The magic was now over, everyone was freed from their sleep and the brothers who had been turned into stone, took on their human shape again. The dummkopf married the youngest and dearest daughter of the king and became king after her father’s death. But his two brothers married the other two sisters.




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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fairy Tale of the Supranormal Bride

Excerpt from "Hylas and the Nymphs", J.W. Waterhouse


The Supranormal Bride: Taboo, Impropriety and the Power of Language

In the Fairy Sister’s Wedding (see link at right) we encounter a common figure in fairy tales, the supranormal bride, a being who is really a goddess or demi-goddess but consorts with humans and longs to be mortal. The goddess in this fairy tale appears in duplicate form as twin in the propitious month of July, at the moment the corn has almost reached maturity and will soon be ready for harvest. Thus, her powers, which are aligned with plants and vegetation in the narrowest sense and with fertility, bounty and fecundity in a broader sense, are magnified. According to many folk traditions, twins had special powers that often included control over rain and weather. The goddess's powers would be especially potent if she were also a twin.

The twin fairies promise their prospective mates every boon an earth goddess can bestow. But from the very beginning we get an inkling that the masculine virtues of beauty, pride and courage will fall short when confronted with the feminine qualities of a supernatural bride. Even though they are paragons of virtue (“No one was their equal in all the kingdom.”) and as twins their strengths are also doubled, we know the marriage between the brothers and their fairy wives will culminate in disaster. The problem is not that the grooms are looking for love in all the wrong places (behind a bush in this fairy tale), but rather that they are incapable of fulfilling the strict conditions of their marriage. The fairy wives stipulate two taboos. The first is a food prohibition, tied to ritual cleansing in preparation for marriage. The second is a speech prohibition, tied to naming things and the power of language. The younger brother fails the test immediately. Chewing on a corn kernel barely seems to constitute an infraction. But this thoughtless impropriety has dire consequences, underscoring the frailty of human understanding while hinting at a higher world order that human beings fail to grasp. Punishment is swift and harsh, the sinner is relegated to a life of isolation cut off from his parents and clan. The last we hear of him, he is entering a monastery.

And so we come to what I believe is the heart of this fairy tale: the taboo. In his exhaustive study of magic and religion, Sir James Frazer defines charms or spells as a form of positive magic. A person believes he can regulate the course of nature or an outcome by acting in a certain way such as reciting a particular charm. Taboos, in contrast, are a form of negative magic. By abstaining from certain behaviors, a person hopes to align himself with the forces of nature, thereby promoting the fertility of the earth, the multiplication of plants and animals and promotion of his own kind. According to Frazer, by abstaining from doing certain things, people avoid infecting the earth with their own undesirable state or condition. The taboo prohibiting certain speech in the fairy tale seems like an easy precept to fulfill. But humans are frail beings and to some extent prone to failure. As the fairy tale illustrates, it is the shortcomings of humans, not of the gods, that brings calamity into the world.

The speech prohibition in this story is also interesting in and of itself. The word Fee means both fairy and crazy (fay and fey). The taboo prohibits the husband from naming the essence of his supernatural bride’s character, fairy, while also restricting the pejorative form of the same word, crazy. These diverging usages reflect alternate attitudes toward the deity. On the one hand, the earth goddess was beneficent, having the power to confer fruitfulness. But a contemptuous attitude toward these deities was also possible. The goddesses who had the power to control hail, rain and the weather were frequently likened to witches who rode broomsticks through threatening black hail clouds. These were thought to be essentially malign forces. It was in the best interest of all to harm these creatures whenever possible. Connecting the deity to these destructive forces was equivalent to calling the deity crazy: an act of profanity and desecration and a very serious offence. Naming was also viewed as a way to perform magic because there was a powerful relationship between the object or person and its name. A thoughtless remark could not only bring about the wrath of the gods but also inflict real harm.

The Fairy Sisters’ Wedding ends on a tragic note. The family loses its matriarch, who has brought countless blessings. In this tale the barriers to a union between a mortal and divine being are impossible to bridge. The Swiss folktale Gnome Wife Tirli-Wirli (see link to right) is more optimistic. The husband’s remorse suffices to bring about reconciliation. The couple is subsequently able to enjoy a long and fruitful life together.

There are many examples in which the gender roles of this story are reversed. Instead of a supernatural bride, we encounter an otherworldly groom who prohibits his wife from using certain speech. Frazer contends that it is often the person most intimately connected to the individual by blood or marriage that must adhere to the strictest taboos. The Swan Knight is one example of this form.

Fairy Tales on this Blog featuring a Supernatural Spouse:

Gnome Wife Tirli-Wirli
Life in the Castle

Life in Another Castle
Gerhard the Good, Swan Knight
Hans-My-Hedgehog

The Artist as Hedgehog
Fairy Sisters’ Wedding


Further Reading:
Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough
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