Fairy tale wisdom

Posted on Sep 30, 2012 in Book reviews, Spiritual living

Snow White in the glass coffin

by Michel Zablodskiy: http://bit.ly/MlT5xQ

I’ve always loved fairy tales and could sense in them, even at an early age, a kind of innate magic and significance, but I don’t think it was until my university days that I realised the depth of their wisdom.

I chose to study Old French as one of my English literature options (don’t worry, this isn’t going to get too cerebral!) and one of the authors I read was Marie de France and her wonderful 12th century lais – short but vivid narrative poems about knights, maidens and adventure. One of these lais struck me particularly forcefully; it was called Bisclavret and was about a werewolf. As we studied the poem we talked about how the werewolf depicted the two aspects of being human; the uncontrolled, animal nature which only thinks of itself and its own gratification, opposed to the controlled and refined social/spiritual creature who extends love beyond itself. It certainly didn’t seem fluffy and insubstantial.

Later I remember enjoying Angela Carter’s fantastic and erotic take on Red Riding Hood, “The Company of Wolves”, in book and film form. The genre has always held a fascination for me, and so I found myself picking up a copy of the complete tales of the Brothers Grimm on my last visit to Waterstones.

The first thing I noticed was how symbolic and resonant all the numbers were – there’s always a three, or a seven, or a 12/13 and as I re-read Snow White I found myself seeing all kinds of spiritual teaching reflected in the content. OK, I understand that you can pretty much see what you want to see in most things, but I thought it was worth having a go at exploring this fairy tale and seeing how deeply the resonance sounded.

I’m not going to repeat the whole story here, but you can look it up in any faithful translation. The brilliant version I’m working with here is translated by Jack Zipes. That said, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin……

The story opens with the Queen¬† pricking her finger while sewing. Any myth or story involving thread – spinning, weaving, sewing – alerts us to the fact that we’re talking about the archetypal spinning wheel of the stars, destiny, life/death, and the individual thread that represents our individual existence within this context. The three Greek goddesses collectively called the fates were depicted as spinning the metaphorical thread of a person’s life and then cutting it to to end it. The needle we use in these activities seems to represent the sharp sting of physical mortality; the Queen dies shortly after this incident, and in another tale it’s the prick of a needle that sends Sleeping Beauty into her long sleep.

Then you have that description of Snow White using three very symbolic colours – red (her lips), white (her skin) and black (her hair). These colours are used in many traditions to represent different aspects of the spiritual/mystical life. I have found the following references for example in Eastern and Western tradition:

  • Birth/initiation
    Becoming, doing the work
    Union with God/death
  • The three major nadis of the body (ida, pingala and sushumna)
  • Perfect wisdom
    Creative force
  • The colour changes of the philosopher’s stone during alchemy

I’m sure there are many more. So from the very start there are clues that we’re telling a symbolic story.

Snow White is first of all living in a castle, and it’s interesting that in the sixteenth century Teresa of Avila describes the soul as a castle and “your home, your safety net”. Then the nasty step-mother arrives, an incomer from beyond the castle walls, and the pull of the material and imperfect world with all its challenges begins. Snow White must, for her own learning and development, be thrust from the safety of her protected environment. Just as we as sparks of the Divine Spirit must leave our Spirit Source and venture alone into the world as souls. Just as we cannot stay in the comfort of home for the whole of our lives because what would we learn there?

She must go into the woods, always a representation of the great and scary unknown. I think the episode with the huntsman is a welcome reminder that not everything or everyone in the world is nasty like step-mum. Compassion and honour do exist and Snow White is clearly shown this by the giant man who could so easily snuff out her little light but chooses not to.

Snow White stumbles upon a little cottage. Now, in Jungian psychology and in dreams a house represents yourself. So Snow White finds herself keeping house (maintaining her own wellbeing) for seven dwarves. It’s not too much of a stretch from there to see the dwarves who live in this house as the seven chakras, and so our heroine is effectively clearing out, nourishing and caring for the seven energy centres of her body. It’s also interesting that dwarves are very much of the earth and the material world, not only that but these ones are specifically described as mining for precious stones. Their everyday work is literally to dig deep into the hard, dark depths of the material world and extract the gems, the spiritual lessons.

As Snow White grows in spiritual knowledge through her work on the seven chakras, she grows more beautiful and this means she begins to be drawn back towards Spirit and her true nature. Nasty stepmother, living only from the ignorant ego (all that preoccupation and identification with how she looks and her rampant insecurity is classic ego behaviour), now makes three attempts to kill our heroine. In spiritual advancement or learning, the stages towards enlightenment are often described as “three degrees”.

The three attempts on our heroine’s life are her three great tests on the way to enlightenment and reunion with Spirit. You’ll notice that each test involves trying not to let the witch (the world) and her influence into the carefully well kept house of Snow White’s being.

First she is laced into a too tight girdle that stops her breath. Breath is literally life force and channelling the life force and spiritual energy through the breath is a major part of Eastern teaching. So snow White’s first initiation is about the importance and life-giving qualities of the breath.

Secondly she has a poison comb placed on her head in her hair. I believe this is referring to her crown chakra, and the fact that nasty step-mum tries to contaminate Snow White’s pure connection to the Divine through this chakra. Also, there are many mythical associations between hair and personal power and strength (think about Samson!). So this initiation is about maintaining an uncorrupted connection to the Divine and keeping your energy clear and strong.

Finally, nasty step-mum tempts Snow White to take a bite of the poison apple. Now even the sceptic has to admit that this is rather reminiscent of a certain other lady being tempted to take a bite out of another apple in another rural setting?! The apple represents knowledge and immortality (the mystical Avalon was also called the Isle of Apples), and so this final initiation asks Snow White to face the ultimate challenge of death and learn the truth about it.

And die she does…well, apparently. The dwarves make her a glass coffin and here’s another clue about spiritual significance because the pure clarity of substances like glass or crystal always represent the purity of the soul. There she rests until the Prince, the part of her that remembers its true nature, that of eternal Spirit, finds her. He has been irresistibly and inevitably drawn to the light she has gained through her experiences which allow the two (he as Spirit which we often call Higher Self and she as Soul) to reunite. This is what’s known as the sacred marriage.

As the Prince tries to move the coffin to take her home, a sudden jolt frees Snow white from her temporary sleep, death, and she comes to life again. I like the detail that she coughs up the piece of poisoned apple. As a modern woman, I might say she’d swallowed a lie and now she is rejecting it! Deception chokes the truth and the light. The closeness of her Spirit has awoken her to knowledge of her immortality.

I don’t believe that “happy ever after” means the sugary, rose-coloured, unrealistic conclusion most people assume it to be. Actually the Grimm brothers don’t even use it in this particular tale, but it usually gets added. I think it means that our heroine is now sure of her immortality and her place in heaven at one with Spirit for eternity, and she can live the rest of her physical days without fear. That sounds pretty happy ever after to me without a hint of saccharine. The worldly challenges that once seemed harsh and frightening don’t go away, but they can now be accepted with equanimity, and Snow White knows without doubt that death for the body is not death at all.

We have seen a renaissance for the fairy tale over the last few years, especially in film versions or modern takes on scenarios that are rooted in these ancient stories. I think it’s because we sense on some level (even if we don’t “know”) the knowledge encoded in them, we identify with the archetypes of hero/heroine, good fairy/bad fairy because they are aspects of ourselves, and more than ever now we need to believe in real magic.

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Semele Xerri

© Semele Xerri is a psychic intuitive guide, healer, animal communicator, and Reiki Master Teacher. To find out more about her and her services, go to her Work with me page.

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