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The Divine Feminine in Fairy Tales - Part 1

Updated on June 09, 2016
CarolynEmerick profile image

Carolyn Emerick writes about history, myth, and folklore of northwestern Europe.

Fairytale illustration by Warwick Goble
Fairytale illustration by Warwick Goble

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.

The Virgin Mary on a vintage card. She was given titles such as "Queen of Heaven" and "Star of the Sea" which highlighted her effective role as goddess.
The Virgin Mary on a vintage card. She was given titles such as "Queen of Heaven" and "Star of the Sea" which highlighted her effective role as goddess.

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.

Snow White, illustration by Arthur Rackham
Snow White, illustration by Arthur Rackham

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.

Illustration by John Bauer
Illustration by John Bauer
Russian fairy tale illustration by Frank C. Papé, 1916
Russian fairy tale illustration by Frank C. Papé, 1916

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).


"Once Upon A Time," by Henry Meynell Rheam, 1908
"Once Upon A Time," by Henry Meynell Rheam, 1908

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.”

"Grannonia and the fox" by Warwick Goble
"Grannonia and the fox" by Warwick Goble

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.

By Valentine Cameron Prinsep, 1897
By Valentine Cameron Prinsep, 1897

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.

"The Fairy appearing to the Prince in the Grotto," Warwick Goble illustration for Cenerentola
"The Fairy appearing to the Prince in the Grotto," Warwick Goble illustration for Cenerentola
A Warwick Goble illustration for "The Six Swans"
A Warwick Goble illustration for "The Six Swans"

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.

"Freja" by John Bauer
"Freja" by John Bauer
The Virgin Mary in her role as "Star of the Sea," protectress of seafarers
The Virgin Mary in her role as "Star of the Sea," protectress of seafarers

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.

Cinderella praying to her mother's spirit within the tree. Illustration by Elenore Abbott
Cinderella praying to her mother's spirit within the tree. Illustration by Elenore Abbott

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

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    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 14 months ago from the Ether

      Carolyn - I enjoyed this thoroughly this morning. I'll be reading Part II very soon. I have to agree with you, Fairy Tales get a bad rap and they shouldn't! People should see them for what they are and were. Thanks!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 14 months ago

      Hi Kitty, thanks so much for reading!

    • DS Dollman profile image

      Darla Sue Dollman 14 months ago from Loveland, Colorado

      Enjoyed reading this set--great details and research! Shared this one with everyone. I think it's an important, as well as enjoyable read.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 14 months ago

      DS, thank you so much for reading, very happy you enjoyed it! Unusually for me, there was no research for this one. But, it was built on a backlog of previous research and reading :-)

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 14 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      I do agree with you that fairy-tale heroines often get short shrift. I once saw a book telling women not to take Cinderella as an example because she passively waited to be rescued by her fairy godmother and/or prince. This overlooks the fact that Cinderella was persevering, and - critically - retaining a sweet spirit, in a very difficult situation in which she had no options. She did not have an attitude of entitlement, and she was not passive. She kept working, without becoming bitter. It's more than any of us could do!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 14 months ago

      Hi Jennifer, Right! And, dammit, she went to that ball! She utilized the resources available to her, accepted a hand up when it was offered (which we ALL have to do once in awhile) and even though the bullies were gonna be at the ball, she didn't let that stop her! So what if marrying a Prince was "making it" back then? Maybe if we taught our daughters AND our sons to really look for a Prince or Princess for their mate, someone worthy of them, and teach them to also BE worthy of such a mate, we'd see less people choosing and being terrible mates these days! ;-)

    • DS Dollman profile image

      Darla Sue Dollman 14 months ago from Loveland, Colorado

      I LOVE your reading of Cinderella! That's awesome!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 14 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I love this hub, Carolyn. I think that the idea of the divine feminine is very important. Reading about its presence in the past was both interesting and enjoyable.

    • emge profile image

      Madan 14 months ago from Abu Dhabi

      I love fairy tales and this wasca lovely hub. So fresh and pure. Thanks

    • Farawaytree profile image

      Michelle Zunter 14 months ago from California

      Fantastic hub! Should have been Editors Choice ;) Beautifully written and the pictures were divine. Look forward to more...

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 14 months ago from USA

      Having stories with female protagonists and female themes is important. I read your explanations with much interest and loved that quote about being CEOs and university professors and artists but still going out into the dark forests. Oh, the big bad wolves we face!

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      J David Lloyd -Edwards 8 months ago

      Brilliant article. Thank you

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