Viktor Vasnetsov: The Unsmiling Tsarevna (Nesmeyana). 1916-1926, oil on canvas

Spellbound, almost hypnotized, you float through magic lands of enchantment with fairy princesses, talking frogs, magic cats and candy houses, with Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and a whole host of others. Was it like this for you when you read fairy tales as a child? It was for me – I was as enchanted as Sleeping Beauty when she dropped off into her 100-year sleep. And the magnificent illustrations of some of those talented old children's book illustrators (Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane, Kay Nielsen, et al.), made the journey even more intoxicating.

Now, as an adult with years of research under my belt, I have come to the conclusion that many if not most of these fabulous old fairy tales originated among goddess-oriented Europeans. This is exciting, because it means fairy tales hold secrets about how our ancient pre-patriarchal ancestors viewed goddesses, magic, good and evil, the first humans, and other potentially fascinating aspects of their spirituality -- information we can't really wring out of many other sources.

Although I wish I could take credit for it, the idea that fairy tales are all about goddesses is not mine. Even the Brothers Grimm, back in the early 1800s, wrote that fairy tales originated among pre-Christians. And the German culture historian and goddess scholar Heide Gottner-Abendroth, the great Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, and one of America's foremost authorities on the fairy tale, Dr. Jack Zipes, all suggest it's not just any old pre-Christians who created European fairy tales – but rather ones whose lives revolved around female deity. In these tales the princesses and even the witches themselves are actually secret code for "goddess."

Just one thing fairy tales have to teach us about our ancient Goddess ancestors is this: these ancestors considered certain sensory experiences to be sacred territory. For example, in fairy tales, dancing, the enjoyment of physical beauty, and laughing are all sacred activities. According to Vladimir Propp (1984) in the Russian tale "The Frog Princess" the Goddess, disguised as a princess, creates the world by dancing it into existence:

"The time came for dancing; the tsar called upon his elder daughters-in-law, but they deferred to the frog. She straightway took Prince Ivan's arm and came forward to dance. She danced and danced, and whirled and whirled, a marvel to behold! She waved her right hand, and lakes and woods appeared; she waved her left hand, and various birds began to fly about. Everyone was amazed..." (Afanas'ev 1973: 121).

And the stupendous physical beauty of princesses (remember: they're really the Goddess in disguise) is virtually worshipped by fairy tale characters and narrators alike. Perhaps a good fifty percent of all European fairy tales are populated by at least one drop-dead gorgeous princess:

  • "In old times when wishing still helped one, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone in her face." From "The Frog King" (aka "The Frog Prince").
  • "As she was so beautiful, the King's heart was touched, and he was smitten with a great love for her.... Then he caused her to be dressed in rich garments, and she shone in her beauty like bright daylight...." From "The Six Swans."
  • "And when Cinderella appeared at the festival in this dress, every one was astonished at her beauty."
  • "She was so beautiful, she looked like an angel,... her cheeks were pink, and her lips like coral..." From "Sleeping Beauty."
  • " ... [H]e saw therein a maiden of the greatest beauty! She lay as if asleep, and was wrapped in her long fair hair as in a precious mantle. Her eyes were closely shut, but the brightness of her complexion and a ribbon which her breathing moved to and fro, left no doubt that she was alive. The tailor was looking at the beauty with beating heart ...." From "The Glass Coffin."

Laughing is another sensory experience considered sacred in fairy tales. In more than one fairy tale men who can make a princess laugh are handsomely rewarded. In contrast, Christian religious texts use laughter primarily to express ridicule or contempt. "In Christianity it is death that laughs, the devil laughs, and mermaids laugh; the Christian God never laughs. 'Christ never laughed,' the artist A.A. Ivanov remarked to Turgenev, while painting his Christ..." (Propp 1984: 137). I don't know about "Christian" mermaids, but it's true: I at least have never heard anything about Christ or Jehovah breaking out into fits of laughter.

As a matter of fact, when it came to beliefs about laughter, Pagans and Christians were as alike as a good joke and the flu. On the one hand, the Church was known to actually prohibit people from laughing (both in and outside church services), while for many pre-Christians laughter was a religious duty. They believed, for example, that it was not only okay to laugh at funerals but an absolute necessity. "Thou shalt laugh at the birth of a baby" might be an understandable commandment, but "thou shalt laugh during funerals" takes a bit of explaining. According to Vladimir Propp the key to understanding this and other pre-Christian beliefs about laughter is the obvious truism that while the living can laugh, the dead cannot. Therefore, if one is in the land of the dead (as Propp maintains European shamans sometimes were, for example, or, in some areas of Europe, coming-of-age initiates), one must not laugh. But conversely, if one is in the land of the living – at a funeral, for example -- one is actually commanded to laugh:

It has long since been observed that laughter had a special meaning in the religious life of the past... Usener compared laughter accompanying death and funerals with laments, and believed that laughter frees people from grief. Someone who is grieving must be made to laugh and, therefore, buffoons mix with mourners. (Propp 1984: 126-27)

Who knows? Maybe our ancestors were on to something here. Modern scientists do now suspect that laughter is good for our health (Martin 2001), and maybe laughter does indeed help us get over grief faster; perhaps pitching the clowns out of funerals was a move backwards, not forwards.

It was, of course, the Church that tossed the "buffoons" out of our funerals. For centuries the Church has frowned upon any and all kinds of gaiety at services for the dead. As early as the 9th and 11th centuries, for example, Regino of Prum (Bishop from 892 AD to 899 AD) and Burchard of Worms (Bishop from 1000 AD to 1025 AD) worked like the devil to wring all merriment out of funerals, insisting that merrymaking was disrespectful to the dead. Both men lashed out at the following kinds of pre-Christian funeral activities:

"Devilish" songs, eating and drinking, jesting, dancing and wild laughter ... Unlike Irish monks, Regino and Burchard had no objection to lamentations and wailing but only to what Burchard called the "unsuitable gaiety" and "noxious singing" which gave the appearance of rejoicing rather than grieving at the death of one's fellow. (Filotas 2005: 320-21)

While pre-Christians considered it laudable to laugh at funerals, they considered it definitely uncool to laugh in the Land of the Dead. According to Vladimir Propp, rites of passage in many ancient cultures involved the initiate cruising through the Land of the Dead (typically in trance). Propp believes that some fairy tales are about this Pagan belief in the ability of the living to travel with the dead, with one example being the Grimm's "The Twelve Brothers," in which twelve boys are bewitched and turned into ravens. Since the tale takes place in the Land of the Dead, the boys' sister saves them by refusing to talk or laugh for seven years:

In myth and folktales, as well as in ritual, we can also observe the interdiction of sleep, yawning, speech, food, looking, etc. Consider just one example: in the Grimms' tale about twelve brothers, the girl is told, "For seven years you must be dumb, you must neither speak nor laugh ..." All these interdictions point to the opposition of life and death ... (Propp 1984: 130)

Other tales similar to "The Twelve Brothers" include "The Six Swans," also from the Grimms, in which a girl's six brothers are turned into swans, and she must not speak or laugh until she has woven shirts for each of them; and "The Twelve Wild Ducks," a Norwegian fairy tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe.

So our pre-Christian ancestors considered laughter extremely potent stuff -- able to protect babies, vanquish grief, and even lift curses. Perhaps even more important however was laughter's role in safeguarding the human food supply. Propp names three different goddesses, from three widely separated ancient societies, who had to be coaxed into laughing in order to prevent catastrophic damage from befalling their people: In Greece it was Demeter, in Japan, Amaterasu, and in Scandinavia, Skadi. In the first two cases, failure to make the goddess laugh would have been deadly. Demeter's laughter brought back the spring, and Amaterasu's the light (Propp 1984: 139-143).

And of course without the warmth of spring and the sun, plants and animals have as much of a chance at survival as a mouse in the clutches of an underfed cat. What's more, without their food supply (plants and animals) humans are in even greater trouble than the mouse. So getting the goddess to laugh actually puts food on the table at lunchtime, and failure to do so means human starvation. We're getting down to the nitty-gritty here when you talk about yanking away the world's food supply!

Propp insists that this relationship between goddess laughter and the food supply is the meaning behind the "The Princess Who Would Not Laugh" fairy tales. In these stories, the princess (goddess) refuses to laugh – until someone provokes her into it by being funny, silly or doing something unexpected. In the Grimms' "The Golden Goose," for example, the king is worried sick about his daughter the princess, who refuses to laugh. To anyone who can get her to break out in a fit of the giggles he promises her hand in marriage. Meanwhile, the main character, Dummling, is kind to an old man in the forest, and the man rewards him with a magic goose dressed in mesmerizingly gorgeous golden feathers. Whoever touches this goose (and who wouldn't want to?), is stuck fast, so Dummling is soon leading a long line of folk all stuck to the goose, or to each other.


Dummling takes the Golden Goose to the Inn. Illustration by L. Leslie Brooke, from The Golden Goose Book, Frederick Warne & Co., Ltd. 1905. Image from Project Gutenberg eText 15661

At the sight of Dummling jogging by with his line of stuck folk, the princess "began to laugh quite loudly, and as if she would never leave off." As a result Dummling won not only the princess, but the kingdom as well. In his Green Fairy Book, Andrew Lang includes a similar story, "The Magic Swan," in which a wise old woman replaces the old man, and a swan takes the place of the goose. And from Russia Aleksandr Afanas'ev also collected a similar tale: "The Princess Who Never Smiled" or "The Unsmiling Tsarevna."

In sum, it seems that fairy tales have much to teach us about our goddess-oriented ancestors' religious beliefs and practices. As a matter of fact, I believe the corpus of European fairy tales form a kind of oral Goddess Bible, one that contains many of the same kinds of information the holy books of other religions do: information about the history of goddess spirituality, for example, about how the Goddess created the earth, about the first man and woman (unlike Adam and Eve, they weren't kicked out of The Garden!), and about our relationship with the divine. Unlike other holy books, however, fairy tales also provide information about magic and our proper relationship to it. As we grow older, I think many of us begin to intuit all of this on a deep level. As C.S. Lewis once said, "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again."

This is a modified extract from Breaking the Mother Goose Code: How a Fairy Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years, forthcoming this fall (2014).


Sources Cited

Afanas’ev, Aleksandr. 1973. Russian Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon Books.

Filotas, Bernadette. 2005. Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Culture in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature. Studies and Texts 151. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Gottner-Abendroth, Heide. 1995. The Goddess and Her Heros. Stow, Massachusetts: Anthony Publishing Co.

Martin, Rod. 2001. “Humor, Laughter, and Physical Health: Methodological Issues and Research Findings.” Psychological Bulletin 127(4): 504-519.

Propp, Vladimir. 1984. Theory and History of Folklore. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press.

Zipes, Jack. 2013. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton and Oxford: University Press.