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The Divine Feminine in Fairy Tales

Updated on April 30, 2017
CarolynEmerick profile image

Carolyn Emerick writes about the 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 the 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 vehemently 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.

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.

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

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.

Illustration by John Bauer
Illustration by John Bauer

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 originals.” 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.

Russian fairy tale illustration by Frank C. Pape, 1916
Russian fairy tale illustration by Frank C. Pape, 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 in which 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.

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

The Fairy Tale Heroine's Journey

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.

Well scholar and author Theodora Goss, who teaches fairy tales at the university level, has come up with her own theory, 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. It seems very misguided and, frankly, ignorant and uninformed to assert that fairy tale heroines are poor role models 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 of manhood 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 use of the word “fairy." 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, these tales kept the presence of female figures alive 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 have seen fairy tale characters inspired by memories of goddesses many times without realizing it. Many 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.

"Freja" by John Bauer
"Freja" by John Bauer

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 worshiped 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.

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 an excellent example of a figure we’re quite sure was a goddess who lived on in the tale of Frau Holle (sometimes called Mother Holda).

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 was appealed to regarding the health of infants.

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

Other figures, like fairy godmothers, represent a female supernatural presence that 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 substantial evidence for the lingering of old pagan beliefs in fairy tales.

"Frigga Spinning the Clouds," by John Charles Dollman, 1909
"Frigga Spinning the Clouds," by John Charles Dollman, 1909
Art by William Bouguereau
Art by William Bouguereau

Maidens, Spinning, and the Goddess

I recently happened upon some fairy tales I hadn’t heard of before which got me thinking about these things. They featured young women, the traditional female craft of spinning, and a female supernatural figure that struck me as a vestige of older goddesses.

Now, returning to the notion that fairy tales depict domestic lifestyles not always valued by a modern audience, it’s important to note that the work performed by women in the home was as crucial to the survival of the family as the work done by men outside of the home. Spinning was necessary to make yarn and thread, which was required for textiles.

It may seem mundane and inconsequential to our modern minds to see spinning turn up so often in fairy tales, but it was work that had to be constantly done in the days before machines. This work clothed the family and could also be a source of income.

A vintage image of the Slavic goddess Mokosh, shown spinning
A vintage image of the Slavic goddess Mokosh, shown spinning

We bristle at the term “women’s work” today. But, the reality is that men are physically better able to do certain kinds of heavy work, and so chores like spinning fell to women.

The importance of spinning in the lives of European women is emphasized by the presence of spinning wheels and distaffs in the imagery relating to many European hearth goddesses.

"Apparition in the Woods" by Moritz von Schwind, 1858
"Apparition in the Woods" by Moritz von Schwind, 1858

Hearth goddesses preside over the home, the sphere of women, domesticity, fertility, and childbirth. As mentioned above, Frigga and Holle fit this goddess type, as does the Slavic goddess Mokosh. All three goddesses are often depicted with a distaff in hand.

Holle was known to

  • value industry (meaning diligent hard work),
  • reward hard working girls, and
  • punish lazy ones.

This role was carried over to her fairy tale incarnation, known as Frau Holle.

"The Girl at the Spinning Wheel" by Katherine D. M. Bywater, 1885
"The Girl at the Spinning Wheel" by Katherine D. M. Bywater, 1885

Habitrot: A Scottish Spinning Tale

This is a fantastic tale that both speaks to the local flavor of Scottish culture and the broader European cultural patterns seen in other regions. You can read the full tale here, but I will give you a brief retelling.

The storyteller opens by explaining that “the spinning-wheel had its presiding genius or fairy.” By that, he means a spiritual being associated with spinning, much in the way old pagan Greek gods patronized a craft or occupation. He says the Scottish spinning fairy is called Habitrot.

The story’s protagonist is an unnamed maiden who is the object of her mother’s ire for her lazy disposition.

Because the girl was of marrying age, which was quite young in those days, her mother fretted that she would not find a good husband for no man would marry such a lazy spinster.

Losing her patience, the goodwife gave her daughter a large amount of lint to spin and a deadline of three days to spin seven skeins of yarn.

The poor girl tried her best, but without much practice, she lacked the skill to spin such a large amount so quickly. Frustrated with how little she finished by the end of the first night, the girl cried herself to sleep.

The Norns, Hermann Hendrich, 1906
The Norns, Hermann Hendrich, 1906

What Is a Spinster?

This was before the word spinster came to mean an old maid. At this time it simply meant a woman who spun. The “ster” suffix denoted a female practitioner of any trade in archaic English. For example a male who brewed beer was a brewer, but a female was a brewster.

A fairytale illustration by Warwick Goble
A fairytale illustration by Warwick Goble

Since it was clear she wasn’t going to finish, the girl gave up and wandered outdoors, across a meadow, to a flowery knoll filled with wild roses beside a stream.

Upon sitting down, an old woman appeared drawing out her thread in the sunlight.

The girl greeted the crone and said, “I should be spinning, also. But, I shall never finish in time, so there is no point trying.” The old woman replied that she would do the task for the girl.

Overjoyed, the girl ran home to retrieve her lint, hurried back to the knoll, and placed it upon her new friend’s lap.

Upon receipt, the crone’s body began to turn to mist until she disappeared completely!

With no indication of what the woman’s name was or where she should retrieve her yarn, the girl didn’t quite know what to do.

She wandered around the knoll for a bit until she eventually fell asleep in the afternoon sun.

Peasant girl sleeping, by Leon Jean Basile Perrault
Peasant girl sleeping, by Leon Jean Basile Perrault

Suddenly, the maiden was startled awake by the sound of a voice. She was shocked to see that it was already evening!

Looking around for the voice, she discovered it was coming from inside of a witch’s stone, which is a stone with a naturally occurring hole in it.

Peering through the hole, the girl saw a cavern where several old women sat spinning. “Little did you know, dearie, that my name is Habitrot,” advised the crone as she indicated that the girl’s spinning was finished.

Habitrot directed another crone to bundle up the girl's yarn for it was time to take it home to her mother.

"A Golden Thread," by John Strudwick, 1885
"A Golden Thread," by John Strudwick, 1885

Barely containing her elation, the girl began scurrying home. Habitrot soon caught up with her and placed the bundle in her hands. The young maid was so grateful and wished to do something to return the favor. Habitrot insisted she did not want anything apart from the girl to keep it a secret who had spun her yarn

When the girl returned home, she saw that her mother had made black puddings, called sausters. The girl was starving after her adventure. She set her seven skeins of yarn down and ate seven sausters and then went to bed.

Well, when her mother awoke the next morning she was conflicted between the shocked joy she felt to see the seven skeins of yarn completed versus her anger that her sausters were eaten.

Inside view of a peasant's cottage, by John George Mulvany.
Inside view of a peasant's cottage, by John George Mulvany.
An illustration by Herbert Cole for Tom Tit Tot
An illustration by Herbert Cole for Tom Tit Tot

Overwhelmed by her emotions, the mother ran into the street yelling, “My daughter’s spun seven, seven, seven! My daughter’s eaten seven, seven, seven!”

Over and over she called this into the streets until the local young laird rode by. Confused by her exclamation, the laird approached her and said, “Goodwife, what is the matter?”

The woman repeated, “My daughter’s spun seven, seven, seven! My daughter’s eaten seven, seven, seven!” Seeing the laird’s confused expression, the goodwife said, “Well, come and see for yourself if you don’t believe me!”

When the laird entered the goodwife’s home and saw the seven skeins of yarn, he marveled at the industriousness of a young lady who could spin so much so quickly and asked the goodwife to meet her daughter.

When our maiden appeared in the doorway, the laird was smitten on the spot and asked for her hand in marriage. And, of course, the two lived happily ever after.

A fairy tale illustration by Kay Nielsen
A fairy tale illustration by Kay Nielsen
Birchwood forest, an illustration by Sutton Palmer, 1904.
Birchwood forest, an illustration by Sutton Palmer, 1904.

Analysis

I truncated the story just a bit for this article, so I encourage you to read it in its entirety. I had also intended to share another tale, every bit as lovely and endearing, with you, but shall forego it due to length.

The second story is a Czechoslovak fairy tale called, "The Wood Maiden" (which you can read here).

It bears much in common with "Habitrot," but its protagonist is far from lazy. She is an industrious girl named Betushka, and the supernatural figure is a beautiful young maiden instead of an old crone.

It is much more common for hardworking girls to be rewarded in fairy tales, and such is the case in "The Wood Maiden." It's also worth noting that several European goddesses can appear as either young or old, such as Holle and the Cailleach.

In both tales, the supernatural fairy women are encountered deep in wild natural settings. The wood maiden appears to Betushka in the birch woods, whereas Habitrot appears beside a stream.

Water is often associated with goddesses in Northern European folklore. Holle is associated with ponds. Sacred springs and natural wells were venerated from pagan into Christian times, often associated with a female guardian spirit (more on that here).

Likewise, the birch tree held sacred meaning in Slavic culture, and they turn up in the folklore from that region.

Like the German Holle, both of the beings in these tales were associated with spinning and nature, appeared to young women, and rewarded both maidens with prosperity at the end of each story.

We can see very powerful connotations of pre-Christian pagan goddesses that lingered on in subtle but important ways in European fairy tales. When you know where to look, you will see many more examples spring up.

Image by Moritz von Schwind
Image by Moritz von Schwind

In an age when fairy tales are often derided for their representations of women, I think it is time we paused to take a deeper look.

We can see here that stories like this taught young women about the value of working hard at skills that were important and valuable in their time.

All children of both genders can learn from that.

And, we can see clear connotations of the divine feminine represented in many fairy tales. This gave girls spiritual figures to look up to, to seek for guidance, and to inspire hope.

We still turn to religion and our favorite stories for the same things today.

© 2016 Carolyn Emerick

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    • profile image

      J David Lloyd -Edwards 17 months ago

      Brilliant article. Thank you

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 22 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!

    • Farawaytree profile image

      Michelle Zunter 22 months ago from California

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

    • emge profile image

      Madan 22 months ago from Abu Dhabi

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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 22 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.

    • DS Dollman profile image

      Darla Sue Dollman 22 months ago from Greeley, Colorado

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

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 22 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! ;-)

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 22 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 22 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 :-)

    • DS Dollman profile image

      Darla Sue Dollman 22 months ago from Greeley, 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 22 months ago

      Hi Kitty, thanks so much for reading!

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 22 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!