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Folklore: fairy tale motifs

30 May 07 - 10:23 PM (#2064569)
Subject: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: CapriUni

Note #1: I'm no expert. I'm not an anthropologist, or professional folklorist who has gone out into the world and found any hard evidence for my ideas, but I have read a bunch of stuff collected by professional folklorists, and these are ideas that my poor little brain has concocted that make more sense to me than not. Make of that what you will.

Note #2: I originally wrote the bulk of this post in my personal LiveJournal:; before creating this thread, I searched for "Fairy tale", "fairytale", "Folktale" and "Grimms," and found nothing that covers this this general ground. So I'm hoping that this can be a thread that others can add to, as well, if they have insights into common fairy- and wondertale motifs, since there is much crossover between stories that are told and stories that are sung.

  • Mother Goose/Old Spinster as Storyteller:
    This is the first literary, published image of "Mother Goose," and appeared as fronticepiece of the 1697 edition of Perrault's Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités (thanks to my friend Paul Andioch for finding it for me!). Her audience is a mix of adults and a child, and, if you're wondering what she's doing, she's spinning with a drop spindle (link to a clearer photo).

    The mechanical spinning wheel wasn't even invented until the 1500's or so, and even then, could only really be used by people wealthy enough to spend their time indoors in houses with smooth, finished floors, where the spinning wheel would have a sturdy foundation. Up until then, (and after then, for the common folk), every woman who spun (i.e. every woman) did so by hand. One advantage of using the drop spindle was that you could tuck it into your belt and take it with you while you did other chores, like feeding the giant chickens.

    Think about it: every thread in every piece of cloth, from the sails of ships to bed linens to underwear, had to be spun this way, and the spinster has to be constantly alert, and keep her hands still, to make sure the spindle is going at a constant rate, so that the thread is even and strong. What do you do to keep yourself from dozing off with the monotony of it, and to keep the kiddies occupied, so you don't have to get them out of trouble every five minutes? One thing that solves both problems well is telling stories (today, we let the DVD player do it). Which is why, in English idiom at least, "To spin a yarn" is synonomous with "To tell a story." So, by default, folk and fairy tales are women's art. The Grimms brothers may have written down the stories, but to get them in the first place, they invited the neighborhood sisters to their house (one of the brothers, I forget which, had asthma and couldn't travel comfortably, so they weren't the 19th century version Alan Lomax, wandering folklorists, that many picture them to be).

  • The Youngest Child Becomes King:
    I remember once, years ago, watching a documentary on PBS on Maquac monkeys, that said a) that social status is passed through the highest ranking females of the troupe, and b) the youngest offspring of the highest ranking female has the second highest status besides the mother. I also remember reading, years ago (it could have been in a world mythology or religion course in college), that in societies where property is inherited through the matrilineal line, it's the youngest child, rather than the eldest, who inherits the bulk of the wealth.

    This makes sense, when you think about it: The youngest is the most likely to be still at home when the mother dies (and taking care of mom and the estate) and older siblings are more likely to have already moved away and started families of their own. So it's just easier for the youngest to keep living there than for the eldest to move house again and come back to the nest. But in patriarchal societies, the father-head-of-the-household has more reason to fear that his eldest son will, one day, usurp his position (as happens in lion prides, and pretty much every Greek myth ever preserved in writing), so it's best to appease him with promises of the largest share of the pie if he lets dear old dad die of natural causes.

    So all those stories where it's the youngest child who surpasses the older, macho, greedy brothers and becomes king could well be: a) a cultural memory, passed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition, of the time when society was in transition between Matrilineal and Patrilineal inheritance, b) a gut feeling of wishful thinking, or c) a little combination of both. Personally, my money's on c. One of the Grimms' stories pretty much spells out this conflict in exactly so many words: The Twelve Brothers.

  • The Wicked Witch Vs. the Beautiful Princess:
    Okay, I admit it. Even though I've always loved fairy tales, for years, I had a giant, rather heavy, Wiccan/Neo-Pagan-shaped chip on my shoulder about how witches were portrayed. It really came to a head the year my mother died, just a few days before Samhain. Here I was, at a deep, spiritual crossroads in my life, at the most spiritual, mystical of the Sabbats, and everywhere I looked there were those horrible cartoon images of green witches with warty noses. Since I couldn't get away from them (I couldn't go eat in the cafeteria without seeing them), I decided to look at them in a different light, and pretend that these were just pictures of the Goddess-as-Crone, since, after all, the Crone began her reign at Samhain.

    Then, a lightbulb blinked on, and I thought back on the fairy tales I've read. You know how, when you see a play, and you notice that two characters are never on stage at the same time, you begin to wonder if the two parts are played by a single actor? ...Yeah. That's what I noticed, and began to wonder, about the witch and the beautiful princess. In Snow White, for example, the witch is simply forgotten about after Snow White is woken from her poisoned sleep. In East of the Sun, West of the Moon the witch literally goes boom in a puff of smoke after the fair maiden rescued the prince (so there's a bit of gender reversal there).

    So ever since then it's been my personal theory that the "Fairytale," is actually a remnant of seasonal magic ritual, where both the Witch and the Princesss are representations of the Goddess. The former represents Winter and Stagnation, and the latter represents Spring and Regrowth. And the trials the Prince has to go through to vanquish one and free the other represent the sacrificial rituals performed by shamans and oracles. This theory may be complete nonsense, anthropologically speaking, but it works for me, and it's the symbol structure I use when creating new, literary, versions, of fairytales. Oh, and I can point to at least one Grimms' tale that shows the Crone-Witch in an ambiguous-to-good, testing-the-prince-to-strengthen-him, Goddess-of-plenty sort of way: The Goose Girl at the Well (Oh, and as one of the main attributes of this Crone is her large flock of geese, I also can't help but wonder if She's one of the origins of "'Mother Goose' as Source of Ancient Women's Stories").

31 May 07 - 08:53 AM (#2064829)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: Grab

I just recently got a book on Scottish folk tales (from the "Scottish souvenirs" section at Edinburgh airport). That talks explicitly about folklorists having alterady categorised folk tales from across Europe by theme, much as you're trying to do.

Don't look at me as knowing anything about this. But I can give you some references out of there if you like.


31 May 07 - 10:09 AM (#2064888)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: CapriUni

Oh, I know of folklorists who've catagorized themes and motifs. One of the most famous is The Motif Index of Folk Literature by Stith Thomson, which I have on my shelves.

I was thinking that this thread could be a little deeper and more personal, where people who tell the stories and sing the songs can share the history behind the motifs, alongside personal insights.

So, how do you like those tales? Do you have a favorite, so far?

31 May 07 - 10:45 AM (#2064918)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: Bee

This is a link to the Wiki summary of the fairy tale Childe Rowland. I read this story when I was around eight or nine years old, in a fairy tale collection where it was retitled The Erl King, and some of the details were omitted or changed. The tale affected me more strongly than other equally gruesome stories, though I'm not sure why. Possibly because of the involvement of a church as an important feature (Burd Ellen walks widdershins around the church, so allowing the Erl King to capture her), as opposed to a castle or hut in the woods, which as a child I had no direct experience with.

Our family church was tiny, over 150 years old, high on a rocky hilltop in a secluded, forested, rural place, and only about fifty metres from a jumble of big rocks which the old Gaelic people (mostly immigrants from Benbecula and near islands) named the 'Creckins' (that's phonetic, I've no idea how the word is spelled), by which they meant 'Fairy Hole', and some of them believed fairies lived there. So I was always tempted to try it out, but never quite had the nerve to walk counterclockwise around the church. ;-)

31 May 07 - 10:57 AM (#2064931)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: MMario

as a slight thread drift - CU - have you seen/read the "500 Kingdoms" series from Mercedes Lackey? The premise of the series is the force of "tradition" trying to fit people into archtypes and the various twists and turns those can take.

31 May 07 - 11:08 AM (#2064941)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: katlaughing

Beautifully done, CU! Thanks and I will be back.:-)

31 May 07 - 11:48 AM (#2064972)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: TheSnail

Inheritance by the youngest son, known as Borough English, was part of the law in some parts of medieval England. See -

31 May 07 - 12:21 PM (#2064987)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: CapriUni

Bee --

In her book O, Mother Sun! A New View of the Cosmic Feminine, Patricia Monahagn draws connections between goddesses of the sun and goddesses of spinning a weaving (the rays of sunlight being the strands of yarn from which the goddess weaves the world), and, as she points out, if the spindle starts turning in the wrong direction, all the spinster's work is undone. So walking widdershins (oppoisite from the turning of the sun) "unbinds" the world -- looses the fabric between this world and the faery world.

I once attended a meditation where the woman leading it directed us to draw counter-clockwise spirals to grow stronger... Since I knew about widdershins, this made no sense to me... until I learned, later, that she had been taught by a shaman in South America. Then, it made perfect sense (and this is why, if you're going to use magic -- either for real, or as a fictional device, it's important to understand the principle behind it, rather than just repeating it by rote)

MMario --

No, I've not come across that. I'll have to keep my eyes open for it... personally, I think I fit most into the Fool archtype than anything else.

TheSnail --

Thanks for backing up my vague memory with historical information! This is why I love Mudcat!

31 May 07 - 01:34 PM (#2065048)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: Bee

Interesting, CapriUni, the connection with the spindle.

But - am I missing something regarding South America? The sun rises approximately in the East and sets in the West over the whole of the planet. (Note: I have never been good at interpreting mirror images and currently have a devastating spring cold, so Bee no think so good.)

31 May 07 - 01:41 PM (#2065053)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: Peter T.

The classic book on motifs in fairy tales is by Vladimir Propp.


Peter T.

31 May 07 - 01:55 PM (#2065074)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: GUEST,highlandman

In our (northern) hemisphere the sun appears to pass from east to west via the southern part of the sky. Hence the shadow of a stick appears to rotate in the direction we call clockwise. (Never mind that clocks run clockwise for that very reason.)
In the southern hemisphere the sun also passes from east to west, but does so via the northern part of the sky. Hence the stick's shadow goes the other way around, so cultural references to "sunwise" from south of the equator would of course be reversed.
Does that help?

31 May 07 - 02:27 PM (#2065097)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: CapriUni

Bee -- Highlandman's explaination is a good one. If you have trouble visualizing it, it might help to get something tall and slender, like a candle, and eperiment with a flashlight, so you can see how the shadow moves. First, move the flashlight from right to left from behind the candle, then, move it from left to right, but in front of the candle. You'll see the shadow move in a circle, and turn in opposite directions. I guess the general rule of thumb is: no matter where in the world you are, pay attention to the flow of things, and go in the same direction -- whether it's following shadows around a church, or driving your car in traffic! ;-)

Peter T. -- thanks for the recommendation! Do you remember the title? And why is this book considered the classic?

23 Apr 13 - 07:21 PM (#3507976)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: MorwenEdhelwen1

@Capri: Added you as a friend on LiveJournal. Is that okay with you?

24 Apr 13 - 06:15 AM (#3508108)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: Jim Carroll

Anybody with a serious interest in fairy and folk tales might want to keep a look out for Georges Denis Zimmermann's (he of 'Irish Songs of Rebellion') fairly definitive, 'The Irish Storyteller' - detailed and excellent - and thick enough to stand on to reach the top shelf if you don't like it.
Jim Carroll

24 Apr 13 - 09:12 AM (#3508175)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: Claire M


I've always loved fairy tales,& folk music,(although I much prefer the pixies-&-castles sort). I'm even having a garden done with these sort of themes. I strongly believe that interest in one feeds interest in the other. As a child I really thought folk musicians were witches & their songs were spells, & when they met up they talked in Old English!

It probably started when I saw this.

Oh my, the song!

& this didn't help either

Is it me
or does the theme sound like 'Light Flight at the end?)

I suppose the reasoning behind not bothering to correct me
was keeping me from being bored – which worked – & hoping I'd get it out of my system . I didn't. It's got worse. I still want to be a witch now.

I'd have loved to have been alive if/when the world was really like that, or people were really like that, but I can't so I write my own. I got a fairy tale book for Xmas, it weighs a ton but it's got all the stuff I loved in it – old-fashioned language, none of the gruesome bits cut out.

I WILL be back. When shall we 3 ..........oh bum!...... meet again??(evil screechy laugh)

24 Apr 13 - 09:16 AM (#3508177)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs

I think this link Child 1 takes you to the collection of Child ballads which is described as containing "Ballads involving Superstitions of various kinds, — as of Fairies, Elves, Water-spirits, Enchantment, and Ghostly Apparitions; and also some Legends of Popular Heroes."

A good supporting text for these ballads is "Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads" by Lowry Charles Wimberly L C Wimberly

You could also try reading the Mabinogion Mabinogion @ Sacred Texts

24 Apr 13 - 09:17 AM (#3508178)
Subject: RE: Folklore: fairy tale motifs
From: GUEST,SteveT

That was me above as Guest - but it wouldn't accept the post when I had my "name" on it. Have I offended someone??