The DNA of Fairy Tales: Their Origin and Meaning

By Renee Hall
These fairy tales are not senseless stories written for the amusement of the idle; they embody the profound religion of our forefathers, . . . -- W. S. W. Anson, Asgard and the Gods, p. 21

In this new millennium, fairy tales are flourishing. The children's sections of libraries and book shops are bursting with beautiful editions of well-known fairy tales, with exotic, vivid illustrations. Their collections are worldwide: Russian, German, Japanese, Chinese, Persian, Scandinavian, African, Australian, North American, Yugoslavian, British, and more. To have survived over the ages, the traditional fairy tales must have very strong and special genes -- mere entertainment is very short lived. What is the secret of their longevity?

Let's look at an Indian version of a perennial favorite: Once upon a time a Hindu Rajah had an only daughter who was born with a golden necklace. In this necklace was her soul, and if the necklace were taken off and worn by someone else, the Princess would die. One birthday the Rajah gave his daughter a pair of slippers ornamented with gold and gems. The Princess went out upon the mountain to pluck flowers, and while there one of her slippers fell down into a forest. A Prince hunting in the forest picked up the lost slipper, and was so charmed with it that he desired to make its owner his wife. He made his wish known everywhere, but no one claimed the slipper, and the poor Prince grew very sad. At last some people from the Rajah's country heard of it and told the Prince where to find the Rajah's daughter. He came and asked for her to be his wife, and they were married. Sometime after, another wife of the Prince, jealous of the Rajah's daughter, stole her necklace and put it on her own neck. The Rajah's daughter died, but her body did not decay nor did her face loose its bloom, and the prince went every day to see her, for he still loved her very much. When he found out the secret of the necklace, he got it back again and put it on his dead wife's neck. Her soul was born again in her, she came back to life, and they lived happily ever after.

The lost slipper is also found in an ancient Greek legend which tells that while a beautiful woman, named Rhodope (the "rosy- cheeked") was bathing, an eagle picked up one of her slippers and flew away with it. The eagle carried it off to Egypt and dropped it in the lap of the king of that country. The slipper was so small and beautiful that he fell in love with the wearer of it, had her sought for, and when she was found he made her his wife.

As you will have guessed, Cinderella is the English variation of this story -- "Little Polly Flinders who sat among the cinders." I don't know if it came to England from the German Aschenputtel, the French Cendrillon, or the Scandinavian Askungen -- "ash child." Here we have Indian, Greek, French, German, Scandinavian, and English versions of the same tale, with each country leaving its particular imprint or flavor on a basic story. In an interpretation offered by Elsa-Brita Titchenell in her Masks of Odin, she calls Askungen (Cinderella)

a scion of the "noble ash tree," Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, which bears the worlds with all their life forms on its branches. All living beings are children of the cosmic Ash Tree from the minutest particle to the largest. What is more, each of us is not only a member of the cosmic tree, but a tree of life in his own right.
The ash child is also cyclically reborn from the ashes of its former self, like the phoenix. -- pp. 6-7

Such fairy tales belong to an oral tradition handed down by country people from generation to generation, and only relatively recently written down. Who were their original authors? Scholars of comparative philology and mythology agree that there is indeed a common source. John Thackray Bunce, author of Fairy Tales: Their Origin and Meaning (1878), says that "Celtic, Teutonic and Nordic myths echo the eternal and universal themes and vivid imagery found in sacred books of the Hindus and Persians -- the Vedas and the Zend Avesta . . ." Swedish scholar Fredrick Sander, who published his Rigveda-Edda about 1890, was convinced that Norse mythology came from India and preserves Hindu myths more faithfully than do the classic Greek and Roman, which are much disfigured (Masks of Odin, p. 22).

So our humble fairy tale has a royal -- or rather divine -- lineage. In The Secret Doctrine we read that "the Rig Veda, the oldest of all the known ancient records, may be shown to corroborate the occult teachings in almost every respect" (2:606), and that the Vedas are "the mirror of eternal Wisdom" (2:484). Is this the reason that fairy tales managed to survive the arrival of Christianity in Europe? Fanatics of the new religion caused a devastating blow to folklore and old traditions, which were outlawed and banished as pagan. We are all too familiar with the cruel intolerance and harsh treatment of so-called heretics who dared to show any allegiance to their old customs and beliefs. Perhaps disguised by the fairies themselves, these simple nuggets of pure wisdom escaped the persecution, dogma, and deterioration of formal religious institutions over the ages. Fortunately, distant Iceland escaped this persecution, and there "Saemund the Wise lived and wrote down the poetic Elder Edda. . . . The myths have given rise to numberless folktales and fairy tales which have been adapted to various media for expression, from nursery rhymes to grand opera, . . . and they include collections made by students of folklore such as the brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century" (Masks of Odin, pp. 23-4).

While the ancient records of the Veda and Edda are recognized as the reservoir for myths and their smaller cousins, the fairy tales, the clue to their primary source of inspiration may be found by considering hints in some of the world's oldest traditions, which tell of humanity's golden age of innocence when higher beings impressed our minds with primal truths. This reminder gives us the freedom and confidence to interpret and understand the fairy tale according to our own wisdom.

Many well-known fairy stories share a common format: a forlorn, orphaned young person, cast out from his or her former home, after various trials and tribulations is rescued and united with a loved one -- a parent or royal personage. Cinderella serves as a good model: the orphaned child is trapped and bullied by her wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters, meaning that the human soul is estranged from its spiritual nature or "father in heaven" and comes under the unpleasant control and influence of the lower side of nature. These are not her natural blood relatives, suggesting that the human soul rightly belongs to its better side. Dislodged from its proper status, the soul struggles to recover its legitimate state. By purity and virtue it gains the support and help of its fairy godmother, the spiritual soul. Many tales use the godmother and giver of gifts to represent the soul's finer qualities unfolded through merit. "This elven power uniting the human soul with its divine source is the channel (or elf) which confers on its child all earned spiritual endowments" (Masks of Odin, p. 6).

The analogy of our dual nature thus provides the key for decoding these fairy tales. What a brilliant method of teaching and passing on knowledge of our composite nature, which can be applied on a macrocosmic level as well. Maybe that's the reason why the tales feel comfortable and familiar to us, as if we've always known them -- and of course we have. Whatever the story, it is simply a mirror image of ourselves. The cast of king, queen, prince and princess, father, fairy, witch, frog, giant, ogre, elf, dragon, white horse, beast, orphan child, is part and parcel of each one of us. Our strengths and frailties are portrayed in separate roles, each playing a part in our evolutionary growth, until after the struggles and obstacles -- the unfolding of the story -- we finally find the prince or princess, our higher self, and marry to live happily ever after . . . until we turn the page to the next story.

Did you realize that ancient wisdom was told to you when you were at your mother's knee? And that you parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts are in turn passing on these eternal and vital truths to the next generation of children whenever you tell one of these classical fairy tales, show a video, or take them to see a pantomime or Walt Disney film? Snow White, Aladdin, Puss in Boots, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Beauty and the Beast, and the rest show no sign of waning in popularity even in our busy, noisy age. Unalloyed, these tales continue to enchant, puzzle, teach, and inspire, not only with ethics and altruism, but the esoteric meaning of life itself. Let's hope that like the Sleeping Beauty, those who are still slumbering will wake up to their message: "know thyself."

 (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu

The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favorable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it. -- John Stuart Mill