Friday, December 07, 2012

Fairy Tales and Greek Myths

We're all familiar, of course, with the basic fairy tales. Most of us are probably far more accustomed to the Disney versions, which while they preserve something of the story, sometimes miss a bit of the meat and all of the horror -- you'll never see a Disney movie about The Maiden Without Hands. Thankfully, I have a copy of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Translated by Jack Zipes (Bantam, 1992), from which to refresh your memories of the important bits for the purposes of this post.

I'd like to start with an excerpt from the fairy tale of Brier Rose AKA Sleeping Beauty.

[...] the queen gave birth to a girl who was so beautiful that the king was overjoyed and decided to hold a great feast. Not only did he invite his relatives, friends, and acquaintances, but also the wise women, in the hope that they would be generous and kind to his daughter. There were thirteen wise women in his kingdom, but he had only twelve golden plates from which they could eat. Therefore, one of them had to remain home.

[...] When eleven of them had offered their gifts, the thirteenth suddenly entered the hall. She wanted to get revenge for not having been invited, and without greeting anyone or looking around, she cried out with a loud voice, "In her fifteenth year the princess shall prick herself with a spindle and fall down dead!"

And maybe we should throw in an excerpt from Snow White as well? Just to make it interesting. Same edition.

Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 6

She had a magic mirror and often she stood in front of it, looked at herself, and said:
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
who in this realm is the fairest of all?"
Then the mirror would answer:
"You, my queen, are the fairest of all."
That reply would make her content, for she knew the mirror always told the truth.
I wouldn't actually recommend to anyone that they sit down to read the Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm all at once. Ever. The redundancy is incredible, and it gets really tiresome well before you hit the half-way point. The Grimm's Fairy Tales are best read in small doses, with some space in between. I was assigned to read it for an English class once and made the mistake of reading it all at the last minute, and while I like having the book sitting on my shelf, I doubt I'll ever pick it up for leisure. So what made me pick it up now? Not only pick it up, but start quoting passages to you, gentle readers? Greek Mythology, of course.

While researching the Trojan War, I found a number of references to The Judgment of Paris, one within Apollodorus's The Libraries -- a fairly excellent catalog of myths and stories about the Olympian gods and demigods. It was an annotated translation, and I read this within the notes:

The story ran that all the gods and goddesses, except Strife, were invited to attend the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, and that Strife, out of spite at being overlooked, threw among the wedding guests a golden apple inscribed with the words, “Let the fair one take it,” or “The apple for the fair.” Three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, contended for this prize of beauty, and Zeus referred the disputants to the judgment of Paris.

We know that Rome did a lot to spread the influence of the original Greek Myths and heroes, and we also know that Rome's influence reached all the way from Africa in the south to Britain in the North, and certainly the Germanic tribes absorbed a good deal of Roman culture. But until this moment, looking at the Judgment of Paris and reflecting on the fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, it never occurred to me how much of it stuck.

At this point, Strife has become the thirteenth fairy, and Paris, poor Paris, the Magic Mirror on the wall. Unfortunately, Paris doesn't possess the impartiality of the mirror. He can be bribed, and the goddesses (I'm sure Hercules would tell us that Hera is the definitive evil step-mother) go about taking advantage of that weakness at once.

I wonder if the Brothers Grimm, educated men that they were, realized the parallels of what they were recording?

***Originally posted on, January 7, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. i appreciate your post, you were able to relate certain fairy tales with mythology [greek], however, why did you articulated that Hera is the evil step mother? as a i knew it, because i have read the story of the Judgment of Paris, all of the goddesses [Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena] bribed Paris to win the golden apple. But, it is Aphrodite who won for he promised Paris the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman of Troy. But, still your ideas are brilliant.


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