These stories have important insight to share with us if we move beyond the surface and look deeper. They provide guidance for our regular everyday lives. And, today, as I am processing a personal tragedy, I felt the urge to share how the rich lexicon of European folk belief helps me personally process bumps along the road and direct me upon my life's journey in the hope that this gift can be passed on to others.
Joseph Campbell - The Teacher of an Age
The author whom most people are familiar with when it come to revealing how myths are guideposts for life is Joseph Campbell.
For those who are unfamiliar with him, Joseph Campbell spent five years of his life in his youth holed up in a cabin in the woods just reading, and reading, and reading anything he could get his hands on. He read history, philosophy, great literature, and so forth.
It was only after this that he began exploring the world of mythology and then dedicated his life's work to it.
You see, myth is a phenomenon that emerges out of a primordial cauldron stirring together the ingredients of culture, history, the human psyche, coupled with our innate storytelling passion. Therefore, having a broad interest in the human experience in general as well as experience thinking deeply on literature lends someone the tools to unlock the secrets that mythology has to offer us.
What Joseph Campbell did was to explore world myth at a time when nobody else was really paying attention.
The great age of folk and fairy tale collecting had been over for several decades. In addition, nobody previously had really looked at how these myths are applicable to us today in our own lives.
Previous scholars had discussed myth in a removed way, as dead beliefs of an ancient past that we are long disconnected from, or in a sterile and academic way.
Campbell looked at these myths and thought about how they related to the human experience.
Whether a human being lives in the past or the present, we are still human beings and we are bound to our ancestors through many strands of connection.
From Campbell to Jung and Cultural Context
Aside from Campbell, the most important teacher to help explain why myth matters is Carl Jung. Unlike some others in the field of psychology, which strives ever more to be taken seriously as a "hard science," Jung respected spirituality.
Jung saw the links between spirituality to culture and how mythology formed the framework within the two operate.
Since the human psyche cannot but operate within the culture in which we are born, Jung rightly noted the important role that culture and spirituality (and, hence, myth) played on the psychology of the individual.
What recent evidence amounts to is that culture is tied to ancestry, and the psyche is tied to both. And what people like Jung and Campbell would really wish to impress upon the general public is that myths are a representation of culture's imprint upon the psyche and the psyche's manifestation of cultural heritage.
The Survival of Ancient Archetypes
And, these are things that are fairly obvious and easy for people to connect with and understand. What is more covert, however, is the ancient cultural guidance that is offered in the fairy tale tradition. To our great benefit, the wisdom of our ancestors endured through the ages, but to our equally great detriment, it was forced to be muted and somewhat obscured from our view.
And the idea that feminine divinity was preserved in the folk tradition has been leaking out in the popular lexicon.
Masculine and feminine attributes have both been preserved within the Northern European mytho-spiritual paradigm.
When Europeans were forcibly converted to Christianity, initially the cults of the Virgin Mary and Catholic Saints provided a female presence within state-approved spirituality.
We know that Northern European men venerated female mother deities by inscriptions dedicated to the "Matronae" found throughout Europe which are signed by men. Indeed, the fairy tale canon holds many stories of male figures who are helped by supernatural women and even their own fairy godmothers.
The Fairy Tale Hero's Journey
One of Joseph Campbell's most popular theories is "The Hero's Journey." He outlines steps and stages that hero figures take as they embark on their mission. It's a cycle that is repeated over and over again in ancient myth and legend, and even used in modern fantasy stories such as The Hobbit, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.
Much of what Campbell observed in mythic heros is also echoed in the common fairy tale. The protagonist often finds themself in an unfortunate situation, and so they take it upon themself to change their destiny.
Just as great heroes of myth have to face some kind of ordeal, the fairy tale figure is often confronted with challenges, and they are able to face these challenges typically with supernatural aid.
As shown in Campbell's Hero's Journey outline, the notion that there is symbolic death and rebirth is found in the fairy tale tradition as well. We see it in symbolic sleep, such as with Sleeping Beauty.
It's shown in other ways as well. For instance, the motif of beheading to elicit transformation occurs in some very tales.
"The Well at the World's End" is a "frog prince" story which features beheading the frog to bring about his transformation.
Transformation to true form through beheading occurs in other tales, such as a Czech fairy tale featuring a male protagonist who must behead his guide as one of his tests upon his own journey, which then allows the guide to transform into his true form..
And, like in Campbell's outline, the fairy tale protagonist is usually rewarded for their good character while those who tormented them are often punished for their wickedness. The protagonist then either returns home having solved their problems, or goes off to live in a new home with the expectation of domestic bliss.
Lessons for Life in the Fairy Tale Tradition
So, what can we learn from these archetypes, motifs, and stages of the Fairy Tale hero's journey? Joseph Campbell emphasized that these myths are metaphors for our own lives. And, I assert that fairy tales serve the same purpose.
We all go through dark periods in life. We all have had the experience where we felt mistreated in some close relationship, be it family, friendship, or a romantic relationship gone sour.
We all experience highs and lows, financial setbacks, illness, loss of loved ones, etc. And, when we're in that situation, when things seem very bleak, we can feel rudderless and lost.
However, it's not crucial to view this in a mystical sense. The reality is that guides and teachers are here for us in the real world. Sometimes it's a person you meet in your life who offers help, or from whom you can learn, or someone who embodies certain archetypal figures in their own character and thereby acts as a role model.
And, of course, in the media age we can find teachers and guides through books and other media. Campbell, obviously, was a crucial guide for me along my journey. Without him, I would not be exploring fairy tales here with you.
One thing that we've seen repeated in the European Fairy Tales Series is that the protagonist often takes the initiative to change their fate. The princess in "The Three Heads of the Well" chose to leave her home by her own agency. Her destiny was altered by the guides she encountered along her journey and by the way she responded to them.
The story of Per Gynt deviated somewhat, as he received no supernatural assistance, but he overcame his obstacles through his own cunning and masculine strength. The character of Per Gynt serves as an archetype of the masculine ideal.
The Star Money, although it's a very short tale, holds really important inspirational insight for us. This fairy tale features a little girl who has been orphaned and rendered destitute.
Rather than crumbling or succumbing to despair, the little girl decides to go out into the world and seek out a new life.
Along the way she encounters people who are also poor and she gives away her own clothing to people she deems worse off than she is.
In the end, the little girl is rewarded with wealth for her generosity and kindness.
The message presented over and over again in fairy tales is that you can change your fate. And, if you take it upon yourself to embark on your own personal journey of transformation, as Campbell says, doors will open where you didn't know there were doors; doors that exist for nobody but you. Guides will appear, provided you have the wherewithal to recognize that they are, in fact, guides.
In the fairy tales featuring female protagonists often make the decision to leave an abusive situation and embark on their journey to seek a better life. Male protagonists are often shown engaging in more physically demanding challenges. But, in any event, the decision to make the change, or fight the troll, or seek the grail, or whatever it might be, is one that requires strength of character and determination.
Ultimately, the fairy tale tradition offers psychological-emotional encouragement to help us get through tough times in life.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim discusses this in his book "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales." He explains that these tales are rife with rich symbolism and metaphor that has very primal origins, and the reason they have endured is because they touch us deep within our own psyches.
Bettelheim asserts that grounding children in their own cultural heritage through the telling of fairy tales is crucial for psychological development and well being.
In the meantime, I encourage everyone to dig into fairy tales, adults and children alike. We can glean insight from tales found worldwide, but this is also one way to reconnect to the values that were deemed important for hundreds to thousands of years in our own unique and respective cultures. Therefore, seeking out tales from your own ethnic-cultural background is crucial for grounding and self-development.