Curious History: The Origins and History of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween)
Halloween’s origins date back more than 2,000 years. On what we consider November 1, Europe’s Celtic peoples celebrated their New Year’s Day, called Samhain (SAH-win). According to Irish mythology, Samhain was a time when the ‘door’ to the Otherworld opened enough for fairies and the dead to communicate with us; Samhain was essentially a festival for the dead.
On Samhain eve—what we know as Halloween—spirits were thought to walk the Earth as they traveled to the afterlife. Fairies, demons, and other creatures were also said to be abroad. It is still the custom in some areas to set a place at the Samhain feast for the souls of dead kinfolk and to tell tales of one’s forebears. However, the souls of thankful kin could return to bestow blessings just as easily as that of a murdered person could return to wreak revenge. Fairies were also thought to steal humans on Samhain and fairy mounds were to be avoided.
People stayed near to home or, if forced to walk in the darkness, turned their clothing inside-out or carried iron or salt to keep the fairies at bay. The Gaelic custom of wearing costumes and masks was a bid to befuddle the harmful spirits or ward them off. In Scotland, young men would dress in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. They were known as ‘guisers’ and the practice was common in the 16th century in the Scottish countryside. Candle lanterns, carved from turnips, were part of the traditional festival. Large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces and set on windowsills to ward off evil spirits.
Samhain was later transformed as Christian leaders co-opted pagan holidays. In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day. The night before Samhain continued to be observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades, though under a new name: All Hallows’ Eve—later “Halloween.”
Children going door to door ‘guising’ or ‘galoshin’ in costumes and masks, carrying turnip lanterns, offering entertainment of in return for food or coins, was traditional in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. At the time of mass transatlantic Irish and Scottish immigration, the custom of Halloween in North America began.
The Grimm brothers felt a deep affinity for the following fairy tale and others like it. The Twelve Brothers is just one of three variations on this theme the Grimms included in their collection. The other two are the The Six Swans and The Seven Ravens. These stories are about sibling solidarity, heroic behavior and self-sacrifice in order to survive the destruction of the family unit. This is not unlike the Grimms’ own life story. The children in these tales band together and through “industry, cleanliness, order” as Zipes puts it they overcome adversity.
Unfortunately, as all Grimm fairy tales are, this literary fairy tale is aimed at a male audience and written from a male perspective so the women in this fairy tale get put through the wringer. To be fair to The Twelve Brothers, though, this fairy tale alone of the three features a heroine who is (relatively) independent and aggressive in her pursuit of what she believes to be right.
The opening of this fairy tale was rewritten between the first publication and the second. What remains the same is this. A king and queen have twelve sons, the queen is pregnant for a thirteenth time and the king decrees that if the child is a girl the other twelve children will be killed. The reasoning is what changed between versions.
“I would rather cut off all their heads than have a girl among them.”
That’s version number one. The father would rather his sons be dead than have to have a girl for a sibling. I’m not sure why they went back and changed it but the whole tone of the opening was altered by it. The second version actually inverts this story line.
“If the thirteenth child you are about to bear turns out to be a girl, then the twelve boys will have to be put to death, so that her wealth can be great and so that she alone inherits the kingdom.”
The king acknowledges the unfairness of gendered inheritance laws and seeks to correct this oversight by murdering his sons so that they can’t inherit. Lovely. “So much for sexism in fairy tales,” Margaret Atwood quips. This also, by the way, neatly makes everything that happens after the thirteenth child’s birth her fault. Wait and see.
Freud views all this as a phantasmal fear come to life since it shows fathers murdering their sons, a fear on both sides of the knife. He cites Abraham and Issac of the Bible and Laius and Oedipus in myth as both fathers attempt to murder their sons to avoid a certain fate.
In The Twelve Brothers this murder is avoided with the intervention of the queen. The king gives her a key to a locked room containing twelve wooden coffins with twelve little pillows for their heads. He then tells her to say nothing of this and to show the room to no one.
Her youngest son Benjanmin, another biblical reference, is always at her side and is described throughout the fairy tale as “soft” and “weak” because of this. He begs to know why she is so sad and finally she breaks down and shows him the coffins and then hatches a plan. The boys will go out into the woods and climb the tallest tree so that they can watch the tower. She will run up a white flag is she has a son, but a red one if she has a daughter. If they see a red flag they are to flee.
The brothers stay out in the woods and take turns climbing the tallest tree to watch the tower. When the queen runs up a red flag at the birth of their little sister the brothers become angry.
“Are we going to die just because of a girl! Let’s take an oath to avenge ourselves. If we run into a girl, her red blood will flow.”
This misogyny is really dark and sinister. It also shows that the brothers don’t want to blame this turn of events on their father whom they love even as they are on the run from him. They would much rather shift the blame to an unknown as they face abandonment and loss of home and parents.
The boys manage to find an abandoned cottage. Fairy tale forests are full of those. There they set up a home for themselves. They realize their society construct requires a female for the household but their new oath kind of makes that awkward so…
“Let’s live here. Benjamin, you are the youngest and weakest. You can stay and keep house while we go out and look for food.”
So the eleven brothers hunt and Benjamin stays home and cooks. This works out for several years, much like how the dwarves must have lived before Snow White.
Meanwhile back at the castle many years have passed and the princess has grown and become very beautiful. She has a star on her forehead that, according to Maria Tatar, marks has as being of royal descent. Not to mention it is awesomely alliterative, in German it’s Stern (star) Stirn (forehead). On a huge laundry day the princess finds twelve small shirts. She asks her mother about them and her mother breaks down and tells her everything. That’s when the princess decides she needs to go find her brothers right away and make sure they are okay and just like that packs up the shirts and leaves.
In The Six Swans and The Seven Ravens the stories also feature shirts that are central to the story line, identifying the missing brothers, and a star is associated with the lone princess. Each story takes these same elements and remixes them into very different tales. For example the princess in The Six Swans is useless compared to the princess in The Twelve Brothers who just walked out on her parents the moment she found out what they did to her brothers. A streak of aggressive feminine independence rarely seen in Grimm fairy tales.
She heads off into the same forest her brothers disappeared into years ago and finds the same cottage. On walking in she finds Benjamin and asks after her brothers, showing him the shirts she had brought with her.
“I’m a princess, and I’m searching for my twelve brothers. I’m willing to go as far as the sky is blue to find them.”
Benjamin tells her she’s in the right place and they have a joyful reunion with lots of tears, kisses and hugs. Then Benjamin remembers his brothers and warns her about their oath to kill the first female they see. The princess isn’t bothered by this.
“I would gladly give my life if I could save my twelve brothers.”
Your brothers do not deserve you. Benjamin comes up with a plan and hides her under a tub until the brothers come home. Then he plays the “I know something you don’t know” game and annoys them so much with it they promise not to kill the first female they see. At that moment the princess is revealed and shown to be their sister that caused all the trouble in the first place. They are so happy to see her they all hug and kiss her. She is no longer an unknown and clearly values their lives to seek them out like this.
She then sets to work keeping the house clean, picking herbs, keeping food on the table and so on with Benjamin there to help her. Much like Snow White this is to show the princess’ goodness through her industriousness and good housekeeping skills. While she did do the cooking the fairy tale goes to pains to show that she puts things on the fire but does not light or put it out herself, presumably Benjamin does. According to Ruth Bottigheimer women in Grimm fairy tales never control fire. Ever.
One day the princess goes out into the garden and sees twelve white lilies growing there. She decides to pick them so that she can give one to each brother at dinner that evening. On picking the lilies her brothers suddenly turn into ravens. Frightened and now alone in the forest she turns to see an old woman who scolds her.
“Dear child, what have you done? Why didn’t you leave those twelve white flowers alone? They were your brothers, and now they’ve been turned into ravens forever.”
The princess bursts into tears and begs for a way to disenchant them. The old woman tells her there is one way but it so difficult as to be impossible. The princess must be completely silent and not smile for seven years. If she says even one word her brothers will die.
In fairy tales men are far more likely to be transformed into animals by an enchantment. Women remain human but are rendered catatonic and are forever still and beautiful like in the fairy tales Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Males on the other hand are transformed into an animal shape, often at the hands of an older woman. Just look at any of the many animal bridegroom stories for proof of this, from The Princess and the Frog to Beauty and the Beast. Maria Tatar points out how this can be viewed as commentary on women’s attitudes toward male sexuality. Of course silent and still Snow White and Briar Rose, the fairest of them all, can also be seen as “a statement on folkloristic visions of the ideal bride.”
Joyce Thomas points out how in The Twelve Brothers and similar fairy tales the brothers are always turned into birds, and because there are so many flock grouped birds at that. There is some word play involved in that as well as the German word for bird, Voegel, also is commonly used to refer to the penis. And for those that argue that some of these tales originated in France the word for bird there is Zoizeau which sounds very similar to zizi a common childish word for penis in French. The brothers in these three fairy tales are reduced to this basic form for years until long after the sister has reached adulthood.
Ruth Bottigheimer describes the princess’ sentence as a “redemptive silence” she also points out that while women are sentenced to long periods of silence the rare male character who faces a vow of silence finds they are “brief and attenuated.” Joyce Thomas points out how the terms for breaking the enchantment in fairy tales like these are more often ones of longevity and endurance not ones of feeling. The sister suffers in silence, but again is confident in herself.
“I know that I will be able to free my brothers.”
She climbs into a tree and starts silently spinning and many years pass. According to Maria Tatar the princess is spinning her way to salvation and finds deliverance by withdrawing from the world and retreating into silent domestic activities.
Marina Warner points out the irony in that many storytellers were women so in telling a tale like The Twelve Brothers they violate the edicts of silence and forbearance that the fairy tale attempts to teach.
One day a king passes through the wood and finds the princess spinning in the tree. He asks her if she will be his wife and she nods to give her consent. He then plucks her out of the tree and takes her back to the palace where they marry and are happy together for many years, though in all of that time the princess is silent and never smiles or laughs.
Enter the mother-in-law. She begins to stir up trouble, slandering the princess and accusing her of terrible things. The mother-in-law tells her son the girl must be a common beggar, that she was up to godless tricks and that even as a mute she should at least smile and laugh.
“A person who can’t laugh must have a bad conscience.”
More word play in the word Rabenmutter, there is no word for it in English but in German it literally translates as “mother of ravens” and is commonly used to refer to an abusive mother, or step-mother. In this story the mother-in-law is certainly that.
The king didn’t believe her at first but his mother kept up the accusations for so long, and his wife of course could say nothing in her defense, that finally the king became convinced that the princess was evil. He sentenced his wife to death.
So the princess was to be burned at the stake. The king watches on from an upstairs window with tears in his eyes as he still loved her. As the flames began to lick at the (still silent) princess’ clothes the seventh year came to a close. Her brothers fly in to the rescue transforming all around her from twelve ravens into the twelve brothers she loved. They then turned and began stomping out the flames, saving their sister’s life.
Once she was free and safe, reunited with her brothers once again, she told her husband everything. Once the king learned of the vow of silence and the curse he was relieved and they “lived together in harmony until their death.”
The mother-in-law on the other hand was brought before a judge and sentenced to death by being boiled in oil in a barrel full of poisonous snakes. Both of these death sentences were common at the time for witch craft. Her death ends the fairy tale.
Like most fairy tales or nursery rhymes that feature a character named Jack “Little Jack Horner” is up to no good.
In this famous nursery rhyme we have a short tale on opportunism and the reward and gloating that goes along with managing to acquire something valued, in this case a plum.
The text is short and simple enough.
Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating his Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”
Many interpretations of this nursery rhyme simply stuck with the opportunistic undertones and the rhyme was often used as social commentary on various people throughout history that took advantage of a situation for personal gain. Remember most nursery rhymes were deliberately vague and written and recited during a time when outright social commentary that named names was at best not a politically smart move and at worst a good way to get yourself be-headed.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that scholars began to assign the nursery rhyme to a particular event during the Tudor era. King Henry VIII was attempting to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and getting a lot of trouble for it from the Catholic church (after all they gave him special dispensation to marry her in the first place, since she was his brother’s widow). As a result he made himself head of the Church of England and declared England a Protestant nation so that he could divorce and marry who he pleased.
In the early sixteenth century King Henry VIII began to dissolve the Catholic monasteries and that’s where our Jack Horner comes in, or should I say Thomas Horner. Thomas was the steward of Richard Whiting the last abbot of Glastonbury. In order to appease the king and potentially spare the abbey the abbot decided to attempt to bribe the king by offering him twelve of Glastonbury’s lesser properties in a Christmas (mince) pie.
Now whether this was an actual pie is contested. But delivering or finding goods (deeds, jewels, other valuables) in nursery rhymes is often in the guise of a pie. This might have just been the most secure way to transfer secret valuables in the sixteenth century.
Thomas Horner was sent to the king with this pie. Along the way he stuck in his thumb and pulled out a piece of plum real estate in the form of the deed to Mells Manor in Somerset. This he kept for himself, delivering the remaining eleven deeds to the king.
Quite a clever fellow as it’s not like the abbot could have called him out on it. He would risk exposing himself as having bribed a king and further fueled the propaganda the king’s men were already industriously spreading about corruption in the Catholic church.
The king was just adding to an already wide-spread dissatisfaction of the Catholic church, Martin Luther had already nailed his complaints to a church door just twenty odd years earlier. The Canterbury Tales had been written another forty years before that.
So it should come as no surprise that the bribe ultimately failed. The monastery was dissolved and Richard Whiting was executed.
Thomas Horner on the other hand kept his property and it remained within the family until well into the twentieth century.
His family of course claims that all of this is nonsense and that Thomas Horner bought the property from the king fair and square after delivering the bribe. Of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? And, in fact, the king did sell the properties he was given at a deeply discounted rate to his Protestant supporters. This was done in part to raise money and partly to gain loyalty in the event of rebellion in the tumultuous times of the Tudor era.
As further proof of this version of events there is another nursery rhyme that features Thomas Horner:
Hopton, Horner, Smyth and Thynne
When the abbots went out, they came in.
Horner, and several other men, saw an opportunity in the redistributing of Catholic lands to come up in the world and they took it. Buying the land that formerly belonged to the abbots and moving in just as the abbots were forced out. This nursery rhyme is seen as a Protestant version of the events in “Little Jack Horner”.
The nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner” on the other hand is considered by some to be more of a Catholic view of how things happened when Glastonbury abbey was dissolved.
Which version is true? No one really knows. But neither side comes away with hands clean, so perhaps it was a little bit of both.
What makes this fairy tale stand out from the others is its almost mythic themes of life and death and rebirth. We have two opposing main characters set up against each other in a battle over the lives of seven children. On the one hand a self-centered, devouring dark wolf who wishes to devour the children. On the other is a self sacrificing, saving light mother who wishes to protect and nurture the children. In between them are the mother goat’s seven kids who have to learn to distinguish between the two.
While many people from many walks of life and many cultures may have claimed (in fairy tales and in real life) to have stolen treasure from the supernatural beings of Faerie not all of them were successful. In fact many of them failed quite spectacularly at it and they didn’t generally get to walk away unscathed from the encounter either. The saying about letting sleeping dragons lie (said of course when you see one lying on a gigantic pile of treasure) goes double when dealing with a faerie (or elf, or troll, or witch).
The number one punishment generally given is loss of magical companionship. Many of the thieves in fairy tales were only given the opportunity to access such treasure because they stumbled across a door or were invited down into Faerie. There they enjoy the dance, but not the feast (see Godmother for the Elves for why that is), they play with the fairies if they are children or otherwise enjoy themselves at their magical host’s expense. While there they witness the magic of Faerie and want to take some of it back with them. Sometimes the thief takes something as simple as a flower, sometimes a golden ball, sometimes real gold or silver. In any case the first, and sometimes only, punishment is the immediate loss of Faerie. They find themselves back in the real world, sometimes without their treasure for their trouble, and the magical world they were in is lost to them forever. Sometimes on the heels of this discovery is madness for the thief in question. He or she will lose their wits for the rest of their life for daring to trifle with a magical being.
In Germany there is a fairy tale surrounding the king of the snakes, a large snake himself. He likes to go out and sun on a rock on bright and sunny afternoons and will leave his crown sitting beside him. Many fairy tales talk about attempts by various thieves to steal that crown left lying so temptingly nearby. In one famous example a man on horseback grabs it and rides off with it. He gets home safe and sound, or so he thinks, and is just about to take the crown down from the saddle when a snake that was hidden in his horses’ tail strikes out and bites him with a predictably sad ending after that.
In other fairy tales sometimes the victim will start to cry loud and long because they were robbed and will deafen the thief permanently with their cries. Other times the thief is forced to return the treasure, as we talked about in part one, or they end up having the item stolen back. The number one item stolen by thieves is a cup of some sort (or a flask, or drinking horn, or goblet, or chalice). The thief is offered it by a magical being and they will dump the contents of the drink and run with the valuable container. If they are on horse back wherever the liquid lands on their hose the hair will be singed off of it proving the magical nature of the treasure. In one memorable fairy tale this is also how it is stolen back. The next Christmas a beggar comes to the house and asks for a drink and the ditzy housewife (it’s always a ditzy housewife) offers the fairy cup her husband had stolen the year before, with predictable results as it is no beggar at all but a troll in disguise. It’s called karma.
Aside from being bitten by a snake (and, okay, maybe the madness too) many of these fairy tales have been pretty tame and fair in their retribution. But that was not always the case. Some of the most violent and sinister retributions are also the ones that cross from being a fairy tale to claiming to be true. In a Norse fairy tale a man shoots silver bullets over the heads of some trolls as they were attempting to carry off his bride (see Adult Changelings for more on that type of fairy tale). He grabs her and mounts a horse and rides off. One of the trolls tries to slow him down by offering him a cup of wine to drink on the way. He casts out the wine but keeps the cup and now he has both the girl and a golden cup for his trouble. The trolls then call out, “The red cock shall crow over thy dwelling!” By the way that is apparently troll-speak for arson. On arriving home the thief sees that his entire home has been engulfed in flames.
In a Swedish fairy tale a servant rides out to discover the source of a revelry occurring outside of the house. When there he discovered a group of trolls celebrating and is offered a cup of wine and a pipe to smoke asking him to partake in celebration of the great troll King. The servant grabbed the cup and the pipe and rode away on his horse. Having made his escape he then gave these items to his master. Two days later the horse died and the day after that the thief died as well, the mansion has since burned twice and the family has never prospered. Regardless they at least claim to still have both the cup and the pipe to this day. This is all according to a 100 year old book so I decided to look up how the place has done since then and the town this fairy tale took place in, Ljungby, has since had a large part of the town center burn to the ground in 1953, and the bass player in Metallica died near there in a tragic bus accident in 1986. Still sounds cursed to me.
In Germany the witches like to party just as much as the trolls of Sweden. One poor farmer was having his fields torn to shreds by their shenanigans and wanted the partying to stop, or at least to take place on someone else’s property. Again a servant was sent to shoo the party people away and again this was met with trouble. He was offered drink from a golden horn but was warned by a fellow servant that the witches just wanted to poison him with it. So he cast the drink out and ran home. All the doors and gates were left open so he was easily able to make it through and across the threshold where he was safe. A gentleman turned up the next day and begged for the horn to be returned. If the farmer would return it they would build walls seven feet high around his lands, if he would not his barns would burn down three times and he would face financial ruin. He was given three days to think about this but the farmer still decided that he would no return the horn. At harvest time just as the last of the fields’ bounty were brought into the barn the barn was set alight and burned to the ground with all of his stores in it. The next year this happened again and again the year after that. By the end of the third year he had nothing and only with the help of the King was he able to afford to buy seed for the next year. He started to search for the owner of the horn and sent it around to everywhere he could think of, even as far as Constantinople, to no avail. He never saw the witches again.
In a Danish fairy tale a beautiful young elf maiden offered a drink from a golden drinking horn to a young man on a journey. He didn’t trust the drink and poured it out behind him and took off with the horn on horse back. As with other fairy tales the liquid singed the hairs from the horse’s hide wherever it landed. The elf maiden pursued him but was foiled when the lad managed to cross a stream. The elf maiden begged him to return the horn and promised him the strength of twelve men if he did. The young man accepted the bargain and returned the horn. Unfortunately with the strength of twelve men came the appetite of twelve men, which is why I’m listing this in the epic fail post though he did get what he asked for.
In Germany, Norway and England there are fairy tales concerning punishments for thievery from magical beings that lasted for several generations. In a German tale many generations of a family were punished with disunity for refusing to drink the offered cup and instead casting out the contents and stealing it. In a tale from Norway the thief’s family was punished onto the 9th generation with a bodily blemish. But perhaps one of the most well known generational story comes from England. Again a group of fairies were having a party near a well and the nearby household became curious about the noise and came to check it out. As soon as the people attempted to view them the fairies vanished but left a beautiful cup behind (see the legend of Lady Godiva for more on vanishing fairies in English fairy tales). A voice cried out:
“If this glass do break or fall,
Farewell the luck of Edenhall!”
The luck of Edenhall did hold out for quite some time according to the book I read, but being 100 years out of date I decided to check up on the place and apparently it didn’t last forever. The family loaned the cup to a museum in 1926 and Eden Hall was shortly after demolished in 1934. The cup is currently in possession of the nation of England as of 1958.
There are tales from all over the world about humans stealing from supernatural beings for one reason or another, going all the way back to Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus for humankind. In later days when fairies were believed real and stories were just beginning to be recorded thefts were said to happen then too. People stealing from nymphs or fairies or ghosts or other such creatures. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not and it was to their peril to try.
There are so many fairy tales and folktales and legends surrounding these robberies and they are used in so many stories from all over the world that I am not even going to be able to scratch the surface here. So I am going to do a short series on theft from Faerie. In all of these I will list some rules that are common to many of the stories. Today I will cover the ways that have been told over and over in many societies that garner success when stealing from a faerie. Next I will include the many that did not succeed and their punishments for daring to rob a magical being of that which is theirs. Finally I will talk about precisely what was stolen and why.
When robbing from a fairy (or troll, or pixie, or ghost, or even a rabbit) there are many ways to attempt to avoid capture and make off with your treasure. The most popular and obvious is simply crossing the threshold of home. Sometimes that alone is enough to stop the pursuers right in their tracks. Sometimes you additionally need to slam the door behind you. Occasionally even that doesn’t work as the supernatural beings will be howling outside and pounding on the door and walls threatening you. At that time sometimes it is best to simply throw the treasure back. In one case where this happened the man dashed around his home throwing the treasure into a sack and then tossed it out the door. The fairies told him that he still had treasure enough and they left. In the morning the man found a silver cup that had fallen behind a chair.
It didn’t always have to be crossing a threshold either. Sometimes simply crossing a cross roads is enough. Often crossing a stream or river helps. One man miss stepped when crossing a stream and stepped into it. The elves had to call off the pursuit because when he stood in the stream he was beyond their power. The bridge was not good enough, physically standing in the stream or river was.
There are other limits to a fairy’s power. Fairies are sometimes believed to have been divided into factions. The thief manages an escape with help from a rival faction. The rival will tell the thief what cross roads to cross or what fields to go through that are outside of the fairy’s power thus allowing them to escape. In one fairy tale the rival urged the thief to run through the rye and not the wheat. The rye stalks were taller and did help to slow down the troll more but it still was not enough. It took the crowing of the cock at dawn to finally bring an end to the pursuit.
Violence also comes into play at times in fairy tales like these. In one fairy tale a man shot silver bullets over the heads of the magical beings and they vanished leaving behind their treasure. In a different tale a troll wife appeared at the door of a knight and offered him a goblet full of wine. He took the goblet and drew his sword and beheaded the troll that gave it to him. He then offered the goblet to his king who renamed him in honor of this deed and gave him a new coat of arms with a beheaded troll on it.
Probably one of the biggest ways to defend yourself against faeries after stealing from them is to invoke Christian names or symbols. These have been shown in many fairy tales to have a strong affect on the magical beings of Faerie and are often said to save many a life. In one fairy tale where rabbits (a being often considered to be bewitched) were leaping about one threatened to bite a young man. He invoked the name of God causing them to vanish. A voice then cried out lamenting the loss of their silver beaker. Further searching later turned it up and the man sold it for a very large sum though neither he nor the goldsmith he sold it to could read the strange name engraved on it in a script they had never before seen. Other times the thief would throw a rosary on the thing they wished to steal thus preventing the fairy from reclaiming it and allowing them to claim it for themselves.
When fleeing angry fairies a thief will sometimes run into a church and find protection on their hallowed ground. Occasionally while in their flight the thief will pray to God and offer the treasure to his service if he can just find safety where ever that is. Upon successfully robbing Faerie they often donate their treasure (usually a drinking horn, chalice, goblet or cup) to a local church where it then goes on to be used in communion. Some churches have “fairy cups” with histories such as these to this very day.
When the Grimm brothers got a hold of this tale they went to town changing it to suit their agenda. The Frog King (you might know it as The Princess and the Frog) is a Grimm fairy tale about a princess, a frog and her promise to him that she really doesn’t want to keep. There were many versions before the Grimm one that involved multiple princesses, the youngest of which was the only one to find interest in the frog. The frog promises fresh clean water to each but only the youngest took him up on his offer. When the frog turns up later the princess reminds herself of her promise and keeps it in good faith all on her own. He asks for love and devotion and that devotion was shown by allowing him to sleep under her pillow thus breaking the spell. When he becomes a prince they consummate their love immediately and live happily ever after. Needless to say there was not nearly enough violence and entirely too much immorality (premarital sex!) for the Grimm brothers. So they combined a few fairy tales and added quite a bit to make theirs.
In the Grimm fairy tale The Frog King a princess plays alone at a stream in the woods. She is so lovely that the sun marvels at her beauty. She also is tossing a golden ball at this time because it is her favorite play thing. She accidentally drops the ball into the stream and starts to cry. The frog hops up at this point and says, “What’s going on, princess? Stones would be moved to tears if they could hear you.” She thinks the frog is slimy and repulsive but decides to share her woe about her favorite golden ball. The frog promises to fetch the ball if she would make him her companion. She is shocked at this suggestion for who has a frog as a companion? That’s disgusting! She agrees to it but when the frog gives her the ball she immediately takes it and runs away with the frog calling after her.
That evening at dinner with the royal court there is a knocking at the door. It is none other than the frog. The princess slams the door in his face and returns to her meal. The king asks his daughter about it and she spills the entire story, about the frog and her golden ball and her promise. The frog then recites a rhyme:
Princess, little princess,
Let me in.
Think back now.
To yesterday’s oath
Down by the cold, blue water.
Princess, little princess,
Let me in.
The king orders his daughter to keep to her promise and so she is forced to allow the frog into the dining hall. The frog then demands to be lifted up to the chair, the princess hesitates and the king orders her to do so. Then the frog asks to be lifted up to the table. After that the frog asks for her to move her plate closer to him so that he can partake of the meal as well. I have talked before about the import of breaking bread and sharing a meal with someone in Godmother for the Elves. It was a sign of fellowship, of forming a whole together, in this case it might be considered a wedding breakfast. She is raising the frog to be a peer on her level by doing this.
When it was time for bed the frog asked to be taken up to her bedroom and for her to turn down the covers for him. At this point the princess begins to cry. He is disgusting and clammy, slimy and misshapen and she does not want him in her bed. The king then scolds her for making the promise in the first place if she didn’t want to keep it and orders her to take the frog up to her room. Once in the room the frog asks to be lifted up to the bed. Again the princess hesitated and the frog threatened to tell her father if she didn’t. Then the princess gets angry.
She is tried of lifting up this creature that is so beneath her and she is done with his clinging ways. She picks up the frog, alright, and then hurls him as hard as she can against the wall. “Now you’ll get your rest, you disgusting frog!” This is when the magic happens. The princess’ act of passion results in the frog, upon striking the wall, to begin to transform, the creature that stands up from the foot of the wall is not a frog at all, but a prince. The princess has broken the enchantment. They immediately rush off to her father and ask his permission to marry which he duly grants. Safely married only then do they consummate their marriage. In the morning they pack up and a carriage pulls up outside from the prince’s kingdom ready to return him to his rightful place on the throne with the princess at his side.
At the back of the coach was perched Heinrich, a faithful servant to the prince who had been loyal to him all these years he was a frog in the forest. As they set off a loud crack was heard and the prince asked what it was. The servant Heinrich replied that it was simply one of the hoops around his heart breaking now that he no longer needed them to keep his heart from bursting with pain and sorrow from the loss of his prince. The loud crack was heard two more times before Heinrich’s heart was free.
Heinrich was completely an invention of the Grimms and actually stole his hoops around his heart from a princess who had hers break in a different fairy tale. The Grimms hoped to make him a national icon, standing up this loyal and true male character against a female who continually tries to wiggle out of a promise and so wrote him into their flagship fairy tale The Frog King.
I also found it interesting that the Grimms felt the need to place a male king into this fairy tale to tell the princess what to do and to order her to do what was right, especially since following her heart (against the wishes of her father, I’m sure he wouldn’t have liked her killing the frog in anger after making that promise) was what got her the happily ever after. Also having this be the message changes the fairy tale significantly. Unlike Beauty and the Beast, which teaches women that if they simply learn to love their husband he will no longer be such an animal, The Frog King urges the princess to be more discerning about her suitors. If she finds that she constantly has to lift him up to her level be prepared to kick him to the curb, and maybe the wake up call will finally make him into a prince.
Obviously this is not the version most well known in America. Here the Grimm fairy tale was rewritten again by the Victorians to a more Beauty and the Beast message. They also renamed the tale from The Frog King to The Princess and the Frog. In their version the frog asks for a kiss in return for retrieving the golden ball. The message becomes love the frog, be brave enough to even give him a kiss, and he will turn out to be the man of your dreams.
There is also a coming of age thread in both of these fairy tales. The princess goes from being a child playing with a ball to being a wife to a prince. Some say that the clammy, slimy, frightening and disgusting frog is actually a phallic symbol. The princess fears the frog and doesn’t want to touch it, let alone allow it into her bed. Eventually doing so marks her transition from a child to a woman.
The researchers say the nationally representative survey of more than 5,000 men and women is the largest and most comprehensive study of single adults to date. And it reveals a sea change in gender expectations.
“Men are now expressing some traditionally female attitudes, while women are adopting some of those long attributed to men,” says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who helped develop the survey with social historian Stephanie Coontz and Justin Garcia, a doctoral fellow with the Institute for Evolutionary Studies at Binghamton (N.Y.) University.
“For me, as a historian, it’s just amazing confirmation about what has changed in the last 40 years,” says Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
The Brother’s Grimm (and their fairy tales) always have a preoccupation with law and order, with strict rules and fierce religious retribution and “The Ear of Corn” showcases this extremely well. It is incredibly short so I will just quote the two paragraphs here.
In former times, when God himself still walked the earth, the fruitfulness of the soil was much greater than it is now; then the ears of corn did not bear fifty or sixty, but four or five hundred-fold. Then the corn grew from the bottom to the very top o f the stalk, and according to the length of the stalk was the length of the ear. Men however are so made, that when they are too well off they no longer value the blessings which come from God, but grow indifferent and careless. One day a woman was passing by a corn-field when her little child, who was running beside her, fell into a puddle, and dirtied her frock. On this the mother tore up a handful of the beautiful ears of corn, and cleaned the frock with them.
When the Lord, who just then came by, saw that, he was angry, and said, “Henceforth shall the stalks of corn bear no more ears; men are no longer worthy of heavenly gifts.” The by-standers who heard this, were terrified, and fell on their knees and prayed that he would still leave something on the stalks, even if the people were undeserving of it, for the sake of the innocent birds which would otherwise have to starve. The Lord, who foresaw their suffering, had pity on them, and granted the request. So the ears were left as they now grow.
Certainly a cautionary tale (as so many Grimm tales are) for gratefulness and a warning never to take bounty and plenty for granted. Be thankful, yes, but the subtext is or else.
I couldn’t help thinking of the out cry that came when people first started talking about using Soybeans for fuel. In a time when so many people are suffering from world wide food shortages to take that food and use it to power a car instead of feeding a starving person resulted in an outcry around the world. As Americans our image was already suffering from two unwieldy wars, a poorly spoken president and our flounce from the United Nations. Now this was made all the worse by essentially, well, ripping plentiful food off the stalk and using it to wipe off our dirty frocks.
There are Americans I have talked to that still don’t understand the fuss. That argue over it and get so much wrong.
But gas prices are so high!
But we can’t possibly get our food over there!
But we don’t even need that food!
But we can’t give them that food!
But it’s not like we’re starving in this country!
Hopefully reality isn’t as cruel as a German fairy tale. Be thankful.
P.S. I’m not against finding alternative forms of fuel, I think oil dependence is something I will see fade out in my generation. I do think that soybeans replacing oil in the millions of cars, planes, boats, trains, and factories in this country is a pipe dream that people just haven’t bothered thinking through to its logical conclusion. Look up how much oil we use, look up how much soybean we would need to use to equate that, then figure out how much of the food, the fields of other food, and so on that “we don’t use” we would have to give up to make that a reality.
Our population is hitting seven billion, folks. Maybe now is not such a good time to prioritize feeding machines over feeding people.
I have already talked about changeling children, and the horrors they had to suffer at the hands of a superstitious and gullible society. Occasionally in fairy tales adults were switched for changelings as well. Sometimes men were seduced by visions of female loveliness or drink or song and were led away by the fairies never to be seen again, straight out kidnapping the man and leaving no false image in his place.
But the gender more often kidnapped by fairies, and considered far more valuable, were women. Particularly women who were unbaptized or unchurched, and especially those that had recently been through a birth. I have talked already about the woman as a magical creature in her own right in the legend of Lady Godiva and it seems in these fairy tales and legends that child birth is where a woman is considered to be at her most valuable (with abilities so great even a magical fairy would envy them) and also most at risk for being kidnapped and having a changeling left in her place.
This has already been covered partly in the fairy tale Godmother for the Elves, women were desired to help fairy mothers through the dangerous and uncertain waters of a birth. Fairies, it is assumed, rarely birthed children. Sometimes they are considered to be infertile, sometimes birth is beneath them and only for the human women they kidnap to bear their children, sometimes they just live so long they do not require to have as many births as humans would in a time when a human rarely lived to see 35.
This also brings us to another reason women were kidnapped. They were required to help the elves continue their family lines and were forcibly wed to an elven male and forced to bear his children. Other times they kidnap a mother who is nursing or pregnant so that they can leech her precious milk for their young ones.
In the case of the women, regardless, an image was usually left of them in the real world that they had left behind. Sometimes it was a figure of themselves carved out of wood or stone and left to lie in the bed in her place, in the morning she is presumed dead and buried by her loved ones. In one way or another it would be brought to the attention of her husband or another male person that she is in fact not dead and the body is dug up and burned and the quest for the real woman begins, usually to great success.
Other times a female fairy, or elf, or witch was left in her place and so the vivacious, friendly, loving wife becomes a mean spirited, independent and contrary shrew. This is a sign of an adult changeling in fairy tales. In these cases she is often hacked to death with an axe or burned alive in a fire or threatened with one, the other, or both until the real woman is brought back in her place. Again either the husband notices the changeling and rescues the wife or another male steps forward and does likewise.
Occasionally children are the first to note the mother is not truly dead or not truly the woman who now claims to be their mother. In any case a male is the one to rescue her from her fairyland prison, occasionally aided by a son if he is old enough.
These beliefs died out about half way through the 19th century. The occasional story would creep up in an old newspaper of a widowed husband begging to dig up his dead wife because he dreamed she was trapped in Faerie, or women would be brought up on charges of attempting to drown a child to get it to confess to being a changeling, but these cases were, eventually and slowly, frowned upon by an gradually educated society. The very real fear, of children strangely formed or strangely spoken, of women independent and stubborn and strong, of men missing without a trace, was all but forgotten and instead was eventually relegated to the nursery. By the 20th century these were nothing but harmless fairy tales told to amuse children in their Victorian homes, and nothing more.