The Divine Feminine in Fairy Tales - Part 1
Our Lost Goddesses
Much is written today about the resurgence of the “Divine Feminine” which emphasizes the fact that Abrahamic monotheism promoted masculine concepts of deity.
Of course, the feminine in spiritual beliefs did not die out. Roman Catholicism did an excellent job making up for this with the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the Cult of Saints.
Local goddesses could be absorbed into regionally popular female saints, and even the Virgin herself was presented with distinct incarnations influenced by the flavor of the people worshiping her.
In the West today, even in the United States, our telling of our own history heavily favors Protestantism while pointing out the negatives of Catholicism. However, the Protestant Reformation attacked the “pagan” elements that survived within Catholicism with great vigor.
And, what many people do not realize today is that 1) Protestant reformers were far more fundamentalist extremist than any version of Protestant church we see today, and 2) these reformers purposefully targeted folk beliefs and practices.
It is difficult for us to comprehend today, but many reformers preached strongly against belief in fairies. Fairies were named in books on demonology, and belief in fairies was so heavily tied to witchcraft that it came up frequently in witch trial confessions.
There are many examples of female figures in fairy lore, many of which may be vestiges of older goddesses.
(See the article on The Queen of Elphame in the first issue of Mythology Magazine).
So, did the Reformation succeed in finally stamping the Goddess out of European culture? Absolutely not. She lived on in the most unlikely of places, the fairy tale.
Fairy tales get a bad rap these days...
Modern bloggers and social commentators have been quite negative about the fairy tale in recent years. You know, there is a strong anti-feminist bandwagon growing lately. And, I understand very much why feminism was and is needed, so I will not join that bandwagon.
However, EVERY ideology has the tendency to go awry when it goes too far. And, like many of the necessary social movements of the 20th century, this is another area where sometimes these so called “warriors” of perceived social justice in the 21st century are speaking out of ignorance.
Disney films receive quite a lot of flack these days for promoting “outdated” images of women in fairy tales.
However, I find this quite unfair. Some insist that Disney’s versions are terrible compared to “the original.” Well, I hate to break it to them, but even Grimms’ and Perrault’s versions were not the “originals.”
Fairy tales arose in oral folk tradition. They, just like folktales, myths, and legends, varied by era, by region, and by the individual telling the tale. Disney is just one more storyteller interpreting old tales for the modern age.
And, even Disney fairy tales are changing. It is now nearly 100 years since Snow White (if you can believe that!), and just look at the difference between old school Disney such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella and their newest releases like Brave, Tangled, and Frozen.
Women were strong in fairy tales
Much of the modern feminist criticism of fairy tales revolves around the portrayal of women as domestic and dependent on a man to better their lives.
Well, we must remember that fairy tales reflected the realities of life during the times they developed. And, frankly, up through the first half of the 20th century those realities for women hadn’t changed much.
Feminism and women’s rights changed the opportunities available for women in the West. Which is precisely why today’s Disney fairy tales reflect a different kind of heroine than their earlier films did.
But, just because women’s lives revolved around domestic chores does not at all mean that these portrayals are weak. In fact, that is insulting to the many modern women who enjoy a more traditional lifestyle.
You may have heard of Joseph Campbell’s theory on the Hero’s Journey, which is a pattern found in many heroic myths and legends worldwide.
(See a great discussion on how George Lucas used this pattern in Star Wars in Mythology Magazine’s second issue).
Well scholar and author Theodora Goss, who teaches fairy tales at the university level, has come up with her own theory on the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey.
A version of this is available on Goss’ blog, but a longer and more developed version was published in Fairy Magazine Issue 30.
There are several stages to the journey Goss observed in many fairy tales. And she says (in the Fairy Magazine version):
“The ‘fairytale heroine’s journey’ can teach us important lessons about our own journeys. After all, our society isn’t as different as we sometimes think from the societies in which fairy tales were told and written.
And women’s lives aren’t as different, either. We may be CEOs and university professors and artists, but we still leave our homes, enter dark forests, find temporary places of shelter.
We must still learn to use the gifts we were given, find friends and helpers along the way. We must certainly learn to work, so we can make our way in the world.
And we still long for true partnership, for a home where we can rest. Unlike fairy tale heroines, we will probably make this journey not once, but many times during our lives.”
So, you see, there are many lessons in fairy tales that are, indeed, relevant to the modern reader of either gender. And, it seems very misguided and, frankly, ignorant and uninformed to assert that fairy tale heroines are poor examples because the realm they occupied at the time was in the domestic sphere. That’s akin to insisting the men in fairy tales are poor examples because they are woodsmen or fishermen when most modern men wear business suits.
The Goddess in Fairy Tales
Fairy tales differ from other kinds of stories in that they usually contain a supernatural element, hence the “fairy” in fairy tale.
It may be the presence of a witch, a good fairy, or the presence of some other magical element.
And though there is a category for Christian folklore, and certainly much European folklore was “Christianized,” it is interesting to note the complete absence of Christian elements in most European fairy tales.
Fairy tales don’t always feature a female protagonist, and even when they do there are often male figures present. But when church sermons were preaching male dominated Bible stories, when religion featured an all male cast of characters and European holidays promoted stages in the life of a male deity, the common folk kept their native culture alive in their folk and fairy tales. And, especially after the Reformation, fairy tales kept the presence of female figures alive and thriving in European culture.
You will have seen fairy tale characters inspired by memories of goddesses many times without realizing it. Many fairy tale heroines are depicted with a special connection to nature and animals.
This fits very well with the Indo-European goddess archetype. Goddesses such as the German Holle and Gaelic Cailleach were known as protectresses of forest animals. The Celtic Brigid was associated with domestic animals like cattle and sheep.
And although the Anglo-Saxon/German goddess Eostre/Ostara is contested, I strongly assert that she was legitimately venerated. Like Brigid, she was probably associated with the light of longer days, but especially springtime, fertility, and the animals most associated with those things, such as the hare.
The influence of indigenous European spirituality
In native European spirituality, men and women could identify with deities that appealed to them for the attributes they represented. While both sexes worshipped deities of both genders, people often had special connections to deities that related specifically to their sphere of influence.
So, Viking warriors often worshiped Odin and Thor who represented war and death (Odin) and strength and protection of kinfolk (Thor), while wives and mothers often placed a high focus on Freyja (fertility) and Frigga (domesticity). And, of course, all of these figures were multi-faceted with other associations as well.
So, when Christianity moved in and made God strictly male, and especially when the Protestant Reformation extinguished the veneration of Mary and the saints, that put women in a position of having to deal solely with male figures for their spiritual needs.
That may not seem problematic on the surface. But for issues of fertility, childbirth, and other “female” issues, would you prefer to talk to your mother or your father, your auntie or your uncle?
The German figure of Holle is a great example of a figure we’re quite sure was a goddess who lived on as a fairy tale figure in the Frau Holle tale (sometimes called Mother Holda).
And, Holle is very much like Frigga (so much so that many believe she is a variation of her) in that she ruled over domestic chores. She also was associated with fertility and appealed to in regard to the health of infants.
Figures like fairy godmothers demonstrate a female supernatural presence who watches over girls and women, and whom can be appealed to for help with the problems faced by females in their everyday lives.
Even more striking, in some versions of Cinderella, her fairy godmother is the spirit of her departed mother who lives on in a tree. Well, we know that many Northern European peoples venerated both ancestors and trees. So this example is strong evidence for the lingering of old pagan belief in fairy tales.
End of Part 1
If you enjoyed this article so far, please continue on to Part 2, which explores the importance of crafts such as spinning in the daily lives of women, how it appears in fairy tales, and a retelling of a fairy tale you probably have never heard before which synthesizes the many ideas discussed here!
And for more like this...
My name is Carolyn Emerick and I write on the history and folklore of Northwestern Europe. Please follow me on Facebook to be alerted when new articles come out.
© 2016 Carolyn Emerick