Symbols and symbolism play an important role in fairytales. Many of them are never noticed, as we listen to the story and accept it for what it is: a fairytale. However, many of these stories have roots in ancient myths and over time take on a new dress. If we were to dissect a fairytale we would find many interesting “tidbits” of information that come through to us through the use of symbols. While symbols and their meaning differ from culture to culture, for the sake of this article I will use those familiar to us in the Western world.
Numbers play an important role in fairytales, for numbers are absolute. One of the most prominent numbers used within the fairytale genre is the number three. This number is considered a“perfect” number in that it represents the Trinity, as well as, and the triad of mother, father and child. It is three wishes that are granted, three feats by which a hero must prove himself and quite commonly a family of three siblings that feature in a story.
Common household items were symbolic and were not inserted into fairytales by chance. The spindle, comb, mirror, and candle are just a few objects we find within these tales that are indicative of weighty meanings. It is by no accident that Sleeping Beauty pierces her skin on a spindle; for the important significance of this symbol is in its association with fate, death and triads. It is the Greek female triads the Fates, so beautifully captured within the fine arts, as spinners of the yarn of fate. (Clotho does the actual spinning, while Lachesis catches up the thread; the third sister Atropos, cuts the thread, thereby putting an end to the life of a mortal.)
Both peasant women and aristocratic ladies spent much of their time spinning; therefore the spindle became a symbol of “contemplative life” in Medieval Europe. The spindle is double-edged in the story of Sleeping Beauty. Not only is it a means by which Sleeping Beauty falls victim to the witches curse, but the banishment of the spindle would have caused a major disruption to life as it was known within both the peasant and aristocratic society. (Just the thought of having to live a life without one’s spindle must have been nightmarish to those who listened to the story.)
The mirror is an important symbol in the fairytale Snow White, for it is through its “reflection” that the Queen discovers she is not the “fairest of them all.” According to ancient customs, the mirror is the magic porthole by which a person is linked to their reflection. In extension, the belief that demons have no reflection was helpful when peasants suspected someone of being a vampire. The connotation that Snow White’s stepmother could not see her own self in a mirror (since she had to ask the mirror how she looked) makes her all the more evil a force to be reckoned with.
Look for Part two next week.