May 19, 2018
Image- ‘Tree of Life’ by artist: Kako Ueda
Within our culture of information, it is hard to find secrets anymore. We share our daily lives and intimate details in public forums. If we want to learn how to do something, we can find a video for it. The world of secret knowledge is dissipating. But there are still secrets to be found in plain sight if you know how to look for them. Fairy tales hold some of our most secret teachings from a time we can’t easily access because they were created before there was written language, before the printing press, before the internet. These oral tales, passed down generation to generation, imbued the wisdom of our great, great, great, great, great grandmothers and grandfathers. Fairy tales are our bones, a skeletal system that is ancient and eternal, holding up the ideas about how the human psyche develops. Their themes span across literature, time, and culture, providing a guide to the universality of the human condition. Reading the tales for their individual symbolism leads us down rivers of blood, flowing through generation after generation. Some of these paths lead to the heart of it all, and some to small capillaries that reveal our own dead ends. It is in these stories that tales of human individuation are encoded if we learn to follow the signs.
As we first approach the fairy tale, it is best experienced the way our ancestors experienced it, orally and in a group setting. In Fairytale Circle, held each month at Ritualcravt School, we gather within this ancient circle and read aloud the tale, listening together to uncover its hidden mysteries. Parts of the tale surprise us, a mismatch to our expectations of what we thought the story told. Parts of the tale are as familiar as the color of our eyes, bringing back memories and feelings of nostalgia we long ago tucked away in our childhood – or calling to our ancestral memory. The first question we ask as we read the beginning of the fairy tale is what is incomplete, what is missing? This will give us clues as to what direction the tale might take in order to bring about resolution. Working with fairy tales asks us to look inside at what is incomplete in our lives and what cries out to be transformed. It tells us that we are not alone on this path and that generations before us have struggled with the very same things. It is memory held within our soul.
But fairy tales are not for the faint-hearted, and the fairy tale journey can be a long and arduous one. They deal with our most basic instincts and drives, those unconscious forces that lead us to behave in ways we don’t understand. Fairy tales are full of appetite, sex, and violence. Sometimes they are obvious, and sometimes they are in disguise, hidden in the imagery of the tale. Most of the tales illuminate childhood trauma, dismemberment, the devouring mother archetype, and death. For example, in the tale “The Girl Without Hands”, the heroine lays down both of her hands and lets them be cut off by her father to protect him from the Devil. In “Hansel and Gretel”, the old woman with red eyes built a little house made of bread and roofed with cakes to entice the children so she could cook them and eat them. In the tale “Mother Hole”, the heroine experiences a heavy shower of gold that covers her as a reward for her service to the old woman at the bottom of the well. (This might represent the fertility of the Gods showered down upon her, and there is an uncanny parallel to our current president’s situation in this archetype.) The hardships that the characters experience in the tales offer universal guides in how to cope with these hardships ourselves. If you want to learn about how to handle grief and loss, there is a guide in the fairy tale. If you want to figure out how to bring about regeneration and renewal, you can find that secret key in the fairy tale as well. How do your instincts create challenges in your life? When is it helpful to be guided by those strong energies, and when do they cause chaos in your world?
The maiden, the mother, and the crone are recurring figures within fairy tales, and the mysteries of their symbolism are woven throughout these stories. The young feminine is often the hero of the tale, struggling with the challenges of puberty and the patriarchy, such as “Little Red Riding Hood” who’s red cape may represent her sexual development. The mother archetype is often missing or is a ghostlike figure in the tales. In Cinderella, the mother archetype is represented by Cinderella’s visits to her grave and the feminine gifts granted to her by her by her fairy godmother. The crone archetype is often the agent of change in the fairy tale. Without this force, the heroine or hero will not develop and not move forward towards the sacred marriage at the end of the tale. She is essential for the transformation process just like she is the essential nature of the transformation process in our lives. We rejoice when she is introduced in the tale even if she has a reputation for evil because we know psychic change is coming. How does the Dark Goddess work in your life? What is your relationship to meeting her?
The magic of three is the number of synthesis. The heroine or hero must engage in activities that move them forward three times. The resolution will not come from the first attempt – those things are considered luck and not a sign of lasting change. The second attempt could be a coincidence and not a sign of commitment to the change. Transformation only occurs after it is a pattern of behavior, developed out of conscious decisions, represented by the third cycle. In “Rumpelstiltskin”, the heroine cries at the impossible task of spinning straw into gold to save her life. Her tears call Rumpelstiltskin to her, and she makes a deal with him three times. What deals have you entered into and what costs have they exacted? What initiations have you gone through that you have integrated into your being?
The change process is not experienced alone. There are always helpers and guides along the way. Often they can do the work the individual heroine or hero doesn’t have the capacity to do themselves. They can be special objects or animals, often representing ancestors, like the horse Falada in “The Goose Girl” who remembers the heroine’s royal blood even though she herself cannot speak of it. Sometimes they are mice, donkeys, white kittens, swans, or bears, but in whatever form they take, just like the white rabbit in “Alice and Wonderland,” when the animal appears, you follow it down the (w)hole. The reward for doing so will be gifts that can be gained in no other way. What animal guides are showing up in your life, and are you listening to their messages for your change process?
Often there is a resolution in the form of a sacred marriage at the end of the fairy tale for the heroine or hero, but there is almost always a horrific end to the antagonist. The sacred marriage is not about the saccharine sweet romance between a prince and princess. It is the conjunction of the opposites bringing together things that previously seemed incompatible. It is the celebration of the work that was done to create something new and vibrant from something ancient and decaying. It is the creation of the third way of being that is different from the path that has been traveled before, and it should resolve the problem that was presented in the beginning of the tale. In “Donkey Skin,” the heroine arrived at the palace in her beautiful dress, with her blonde hair all alight with diamonds and her blue eyes sweet… The king noticed the charms of his daughter-in-law, and the queen was delighted with her. The prince himself found his happiness almost more than he could bear. The kings of the surrounding countries were invited to the wedding, and they came mounted on huge elephants. Her father wept with joy, and her fairy godmother arrived too. The fairy tale ending means that one cycle of rebirth has been completed and, like the cycle in the spinning wheel of time, it will turn again. The fairy tale ending asks you to look at what you have completed in your life and to celebrate your accomplishments, banishing all those things that held you back. What in your life is ready to be released with the turning of the wheel?
Fairy tales are not children’s stories. They are tangled and thorny maps into the woods that reveal ancient paths, dark secrets, and wisdom as old as the Witch’s world itself. They are our Book of Shadows, and they are our Grimoire. Join me monthly at Ritualcravt to explore the mysteries that they contain.
Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales (1993) Barnes & Nobel Inc.
Perrault’s Fairy Tales (1969) Dover Publications
The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (2010) Taschen
Kaplan, Sarah, What Fairy Tales Tell Us About Where We Came From. Washington Post January 21, 2016.
Liabenow, Alonna, “The Significance of the Numbers Three, Four, and Seven in Fairy Tales, Folklore, and Mythology” (2014).Honors Projects. 418. http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/honorsprojects/418
Shesso, Renna Basic Char-Tarot Symbols-3rd Session-Chart (2005)
Author: Amber Raye Ellis, MA, LAC, is a therapist and archetypal guide that has her degree from Pacifica Graduate Institute in depth psychotherapy. She uses myth, fairy tales and images to help people uncover the unconscious patterns that guide their life experiences. Amber is Hellenistic in her Pagan practice and has worked in dedicated coven environments for over a decade.