Fairytales and Symbols
Mirror, mirror on the wall what’s the meaning of it all?
Common Symbols in fairytales and what they mean.
Wicked witches, enchanted forests, magic beans and speaking animals:- fairytales are rich in symbols and archetypes. Insight into the meanings of these symbols, allows the reader to understood the tales on a deeper level.
The interpretation of symbols can differ from culture to culture. For instance, in the West, we lovingly adorn bay girls in pink, while in the East, traditionally baby boys are associated with that colour and girls with blue. The Eastern interpretation is easily understandable: pink:- being closest to red on the colour wheel is a masculine ‘fire’ colour, as opposed to the watery feminine blue.
Popular fairytales, in the form we know them, originated from a European culture, from where most of us have originated as well, so that the meaning of the symbols would still hold true for us.
Let’s look at a few of the most popular symbols.
Traditionally in fairytales witches represented the dark or shadow side of ourselves:- aspects that we have repressed. The word ‘witches,’ originates from the word wica meaning wise. They were, in real life, herbalists, healers and often midwives – not the dark force they have become in fairytales. Their persecution occurred as a result of the Christian need to separate God from nature and the pagan religions who worshiped animal and earth related divinities. If Divinity resided in the air/heaven then the Devil must surely reside in the earth. These women, (who related to the earth) often did have strong healing and psychic powers and so were presumed to be working with the Devil.
Sometimes used in place of witches, are step-mothers, who have a similar meaning. Like witches, they are the force that must be destroyed for the heroine to survive (and thrive). The very opposite of the nurturing mother. They refer to the ego nature within us, that must be brought to the light of consciousness for us to spiritually transcend.
Like these witches, the ego is cunning, just as the witch in Hansel and Gretel, who tricks the children into believing that she is going to help them by giving them food and a warm bed, only to attempt to eat Hansel. (The ego attempts to devour our higher being.) So long as we crave things, we are under the power of the ego. The craving the children have for the house made of sweets and cakes, leads them into trouble. Think of the Buddhist philosophy that the root of all suffering is attachment. The ego feeds our desire and attachment to all things, so that we fall under its illusion, which traps us, just as poor Hansel becomes trapped by the witch in a cage.
Because of their ability to fly, birds are seen as messengers from higher realms – a way we humans can connect or receive messages from the Divine. (Think of the expression: “A little bird told me.”) Shamans across cultures adorn themselves in feathers and attempt to communicate information from the gods to us. Birds also represent the ability to soar or rise above our problems, as well as the human soul. They normally assist their fairytale heroes/ines and are often able to speak and offer sage advice.
In earlier versions of Hansel and Gretel, Gretel turns herself into a rose. Snow White pricks herself on a rose and Beauty, in Beauty and the Beast asks her father for a rose. It is a symbol that occurs frequently. A rose is a symbol of the sacred path. A red rose was said to spring from the blood Christ shed on the cross. In other words from his sacrifice came the opportunity through the path he showed, to overcome our karma and find our way to our divine home. Orders such as the Rosicrucians or Rosycross have adopted this symbol as part of their name and teachings.
The rose has thorns that prick our flesh, symbolizing our negative karma in the form of pain and suffering we must endure on our paths to balance and transcendence.
The five sepals, which are green and leaf-like at the top of the stem can be seen to represent the ‘five-fold path’ of the initiate in Western mystery schools and of the Buddha in Eastern mystery schools.
Love, perfection, beauty and the heart are also strongly associated with the rose. Jung saw the rose as representing the integrated self because of the male (thorn) aspect and the female (the seeds and the red petals = menses). Next time then, when you give or receive roses, consider the deeper meaning of their gift.
In days past, mirrors were expensive and a luxury reserved for the wealthy. They were commonly used not only to check one’s beauty, but used for predicting the future and seeing the past. It was said that they were treated with specially alchemically prepared chemicals to enhance the viewer’s psychic abilities.
The mirror then, is not simply a mirror as we know it, but rather the tool of a seer and as such often able to speak, as in Snow White’s step-mother’s mirror. Crystal balls and water have similar properties. Consequently mirrors are seen as the gateway between this world and other realms or levels of consciousness. As a unemotional reflection of events and in some belief systems the soul, the mirror is not able to lie, just as our mirrors today, cannot, in spite of our desire, shed 10 kilos for us or lose those wrinkles!.
The Wolf and Other Tricksters
In Christian symbolism, the parishioners are often referred to as sheep, while the wolf, in being the sheep’s predator, is seen as the devil or instrument of Satan. The wolf is also associated with a man who is sexually predatory. In some versions of Red Riding Hood she actually gets into bed with the wolf, believing that he is the grandmother.
Because of its relation to sex, in a time when sex was seen as separating us from divinity (while interesting enough at the same time in the East, with Tantric practices etc, it was seen as having the opposite effect), the wolf was associated with base desire and the lower aspects oneself. This lower self, in the form of the wolf, wants to devour/rape pure little Red Riding Hood and arrest her (spiritual) journey. She is innocent and unable to distinguish between the sweet goodness of Grandma and the inherent evil of the wolf. (Most of us have met a couple of wolves along the way!) The wolf is cunning and demands attention, seeking gratification at any cost. He has no conscience about eating grandma and tricking them both.
Another way of looking at the wolf is as the Trickster, similar to the hare, cat, fox, coyote, or raven in other tales. These tricksters are often demi-gods in disguise, wise-fools who use tricks and cunning as a way of teaching.
Like the court jester in days of old, the trickster brings to light flaws in our society and natures in such a way as to avoid recrimination himself. He is a fool, after all and how can anyone blame a fool? He is a rebel, a joker who makes fun of authority and plays with the laws of the universe and accepted norms. Like the fool in the Tarot card who gaily steps off a cliff, he is the number zero – the beginning and the end. Because he and his work are illusionary, he can live, die, change appearance, perform magic, and even in animal form, speak.
The Trickster appears in history as teachers such as Hermes Tremegistus, the master of all arts and sciences, ruler of the three worlds of physical, astral and mental planes, the scribe of the gods and keeper of the Book of Life or Akashic records. As Hermes or Mercury (the Roman form of Hermes), the Trickster is often portrayed wearing a broad traveler’s hat or winged cap, with winged sandals and carrying his staff or caduceus. (For example, Puss in Boots is portrayed as having a large feathered hat and boots.) The Trickster, was also the Egyptian god Thoth, the scribe, who was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as the embodiment of the universal mind. He is also associated with the magician Merlin in Arthurian legend.
As the Trickster, Hermes represents good versus evil and consequently duality as well as the chaos of creation, as opposed to the reality of order. He is both destroyer and creator of the world and yet not of the world. Through his antics and questioning of norms, he transforms those around him and fools his pupils into seeing through the illusion of time and the physical world. He was said to teach by tricking his pupils, much as happens in the Native American tradition of Coyote medicine, described in the books by Carlos Castaneda or Brer Rabbit in the books of the same name by Joel Chandler Harris. Brer Rabbit is a practical joker and clever trickster.
Part god, part animal, the Trickster is the divine and wise fool who answers to no one. Most often he focuses on his own gain and rebels against authority, pokes fun at the serious and creates ingenious plans which often are his undoing. His purpose is to get us to question established ways of thinking and take a hard and humorous look at ourselves. In doing so, he is a change matrix. The Trickster often appears in mythology in response to a problem, dragon/witch/negative demon.
The Trickster is referred to as male because he carries attributes often associated with men, such as aggression or anger, sexual promiscuity and self destruction, associated with our lower selves or ego. However a trickster can be either male or female.
When we find trickster symbols or people appearing in our own lives, it is an indication that changes or transformation is taking place, which could be internal, external, or probably both.
The forest or wood
At times in our lives we lose our way in a dark impenetrable emotional forest. Like the twelfth century writer and poet Dante, many fairytale heroes and heroines find themselves in that predicament. They have been betrayed and they are afraid, alone, and craving physical/spiritual food. Remember Snow White being left alone in the forest when her step mother has demanded that the woodcutter kills her? At the time the world is depressing and we cannot seem to find a way out of the situation – we can’t see the wood from the trees. We only see the details and miss the bigger picture in this dark night of the soul. Yet it is this very confusion that gives us the opportunity to turn our lives around and start on a more meaningful path.
Midway upon the journey of our life. I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.Dantefrom the Divine Comedy
A forest is seen as the feminine principle or unconscious, as the light (male principle) cannot shine through its depths. In order to heal we need to deal with the unconscious shadow sides of ourselves – those aspects that we have hidden away for fear that they are not acceptable. If we don’t engage with, “know thyself,” then we cannot become whole. No matter how many good deeds we may do.
The forest, though has a positive side. Like the nurturing female energy, it can offer refuge and protection. It symbolizes going into the unconscious aspects of ourselves to make them conscious. This entry into the dark unknown sides of ourselves is common in most fairy tales and represented by enchanted forests, fierce animals, deep oceans, deserts, wildernesses, and wastelands amongst others. (Even in religion, Jesus goes into the desert as does The Prophet Mohammed.) This is the place where we get tested and we must learn to replace fear with faith. We cannot find our way out of the forest or turn back until we have completed this stage of our journey, but to do so also carries danger and we need courage to surpass its perils. In the forest, we must fight against the forces of darkness within ourselves, if we are to emerge into the light.
But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then?Carl Jung