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The Secret Symbolism of Fairytales

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Fairytales are not just simple stories

The most known and beloved fairytales are known almost everywhere across the western world – indeed, they are so fascinating that every single time they sound as interesting as the first time. In fact, they are so magical that even children are never bored of them, even though they have heard each of these fairytales countless times. Why does this happen though? From Cinderella to the Girl with the Silver Hands, fairytales were not initially destined to be heard by children, but by adults, who listened to them as if they were movies. As a result, even if fairytales seem like simple stories they have a deeper meaning and with the use of symbols, storytellers were finding ways to transfer the meaning of those stories to the people. For example, a hair comb meant sex, a forest represented the adulthood while a red apple symbolized death… Due to the symbols, these fairytales survived through the years. Nowadays, everyone knows about them and can connect with them in a way. Even though the storyteller of the market might narrate about a girl who was lost in the woods or for glassed shoes, the people enchanted as are they are, cannot understand the true meaning of the story…

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The Infinite Forest of the Symbols

Some of those symbols are very common to the European fairytales: the forest, for example, symbolizes the adulthood and the change – maybe that is perhaps, it is forbidden for children to enter a forest on their own. The prince in the Sleeping Beauty, helps the princess to become an adult, from a child to a loving bride (the same applies for himself, from a prince to a king). In order for him to find her, he has to pass through a forest of roses. Having survived this challenge he shows that he is cable to lead her – through the same forest – to the real world, and that is the world of the adults. The Little Red Riding Hood will chose to disobey the rules of her mother and will pass through the forest, despite the warnings that the place is not for little girls: that way she will expose herself to the dangers of sexuality (and as result: loss, which is being represented by the bad wolf). Hansel and Gretel will be lost in the forest too: they have to base on their own strengths in order to survive and return to their parents. Snow White will be lost in the forest and as a little girl that she is, will take the responsibility of the seven dwarfs. In any case, the forest represents the transitioning phases in the life of a person. The main character will have to survive so that they can be accepted by the adult community- the journey in between the enchanted trees is nothing else more than a coming of age ritual.

To sleep and to Dream

Another powerful symbol in the fairytales is sleep. A character who is in lethargy usually represents sexuality in a latent form: Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are in a deep state of sleep. In both cases, the prince will have to kiss them so that they can wake up, and in turn they will lead them to the world of sexuality (and adultness). It is not coincidental that in older versions of the fairytales the prince did not give a simple kiss but they had intercourse with them in order to wake them up.

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Hair combs & Roses

A rose also symbolizes sexuality: in older versions of the Snow White, her mother gets pregnant by swallowing a rose petal. Rosebushes block the prince’s way to the Sleeping Beauty, Beauty will steal a rose and she will be guided to the castle of the Beast… the list is endless. Except the roses, there is also the hair comb, which has another significant role: it is usually poisoned or enchanted, and represents the feminine powers in fairytales like: Snow White, the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. After the myth of Persephone, the food, has also played an important role to some fairytales. Take for example the red apple of Snow White and the witch’s candy house. They both were representing the death for the heroes of the fairytale. In a way these symbols were to warn the listeners for the moral danger of having easy earnings.

Secrets and Lies

Beyond their lyrical moments, fairytales often hided images that entire societies overlooked. Fairytales like The Two Brothers and The Girl Without Hands imply forms of violence in a more brutal way than that of the Snow White and Cinderella: in the last two fairytales, the main character is simply deprived from their social status. In the Girl Without Hands, the family of the main character cuts of the hero’s hands with an axe at the command of the devil. After the incident, the girl tries to form her own “functional” family. This story is dedicated to those who face any form of violence in their own homes. This always leaves a psychological trauma to people who experience it. There is a similar case in the Two Brothers story as the daughter of the family who is not being abused by her mother, and does not accept that her two brothers suffer, is being presented as one-eyed.

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Blood on Snow

Even if fairytales have been accused of being immoral, their goal is not only to entertain but to convey a message to those who listen to them. In contrast to religious in content stories, fairytales are usually more dark so that their symbols are well engraved into our memory without us noticing. Exaggerations? Below there will be an analysis on the details of the most known and beloved fairytales so that they can adapt to each era. The Snow White for example, is full of symbols, from begging until the end. Her mother, by piercing her finger with a needle, is asking for a child with red lips like the blood that she lost (during the childbirth), white skin like the snow (on which the blood is dripping) and black hair like the wings of a raven, which was present at the scene. The needle represents sexuality: the image of the thread passing through the hole, represented the gift of 12 needles that were given to teenage girls when they turned fifteen. In central Europe prostitutes would pass a needle through their sleeve so that people can identify their profession (in constant with the pin that was never used symbolically). Thus, Snow White’s mother with her sexual act (that is symbolized by the needle and the blood, which leaves a stain on the virgin white) ends up in fertility (the child) but to death as well (which is predicted by the presence of the raven in the scene). The entire absurd image of the sewing out in the snow is nothing but a metaphor for sex – not absurd at all as at the time many women were dying during childbirth. Snow White’s stepmother which takes the place of her mother, is a demonization of the Mother, which leads to the old lady/witch: her preoccupation with magic and her refusal to take on maternal duties place her in a position that in Christian years was purely demonic (not many good witches existed, only fairy godmothers). The mirror is a clear symbol of her vanity. When she asks from the hunter (once again a symbol of power) to deliver her, Snow White’s heart and blood to initiate her ritual is not just a sign of her wickedness but her desire to receive, in a pagan way, the qualities of her ancestor. Snow White moves into the woods, as we analyzed above, which symbolically represents the unknown, the transformation and the adulthood. Snow White’s beauty was a problem within her house, but to the world of the adults that was her power: the hunter takes pity on her and the seven dwarfs in turn take her to their home. During her stay in the dwarfs house, vanity and curiosity are the two factors that will head her to death: despite the warnings, one day she will get close to the window and her disguised mother will offer her the poisoned apple (comb or corset) that will lead her to a symbolic death. The prince who will make love to her, prepares the ground for an either dull waddling or to simply bring her back to life.

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