I recently saw the film Maleficent (enjoyed it!), another adaptation of the Sleeping Beauty folklore, especially of Disney’s famous animated version from 1959. Maleficent is told, contrarily, from the point of view of the “evil” fairy godmother, much like Wicked revisits Oz from the point of view of the misunderstood and ill-treated Wicked Witch of the West.
These reboots are fun, but sometimes it’s unremarked, amid criticism of the many, many remakes of stories Hollywood now produces, that this reconception of stories has been ongoing ever since the printing press was invented. Actually since long before then, but it’s harder to tell how the bards changed each other’s work where we don’t have copious recordings from the firesides.
(The following theory may be covered extensively elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it. Serious scholars employ classification systems to group folkloric tales, and I believe this one is ATU-type 410, under Tales of Magic, Supernatural or Enchanted Wife (Husband) or Other Relative, 400-459, but there isn’t any ATU number for the story elements I’m discussing here, at least, I think not, being a non-scholarly story hobbyist.)
When Disney created its animated film, it springboarded (pun intended, as you’ll see) from the well-known fairy tale of a sleeping beauty by the Brothers Grimm, “Little Briar Rose.” Well, those German brothers were re-telling it themselves, after hearing the French tale of Charles Perrault, “La Belle au bois dormant” or “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood,” which was part of a collection published back in 1697.
The Sleeping Beauty by German painter Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920)
But Perrault was not the original author of his tale either. And going back is where we re-discover the real meaning behind the story. Regardless of what Disney fans might attest, L’Aurore isnt the name of the sleeping princess, but actually the name of her daughter, otherwise Aurora or, more tellingly, Dawn. She is the twin sister of a boy named Le Jour or Day. Dawn and Day are the sleeping princess’s children, and Perrault’s own inspiration for his tale was most likely Giambattista Basile, an Italian, whose tale was published even earlier in 1634, and was called “Sole, Luna, e Talia,“ or in translation, “Sun, Moon, and Talia.”
Now it gets good.
Are fairies really the stewards of the wheel of the year?
When considering the “sleeping” princess’s birth, she’s a golden child of exceptional beaty, for whom there’s usually a party with 12 fairy guests, going around in turn, each with a unique blessing to gift her. Combining this with the sleeper’s children, overtly named Sun and Moon (or Dawn and Day), the astrological underpinnings of the tale become apparent. The tale is perhaps analogous to Persephone’s disappearance into the underworld of the dead (like a wakeless sleep) during winter, the fallow season. The 13th fairy guest to the glorious young princess’s celebration, the uninvited one who curses her, is bad luck in number and deed, breaking the previous harmony of the twelve signs of the zodiacal year. In fact, hopping briefly into Norse mythology, the much-maligned Loki also plays 13th guest in a similar legend as well. He, too, arrives uninvited and wrathful to a banquet and arranges the death of the most beautiful golden hero of the world, Balder, and at the point of a mistletoe-tipped arrow no less. At this mournful event, the earth falls into darkness. Sounds wintry, doesn’t it?
I mention such low treachery now, because all of these older versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale have similarly awful acts in them that will horrify a modern reader if taken as straight reportage and not metaphor.
Sleeping Beauty by English painter Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902)
For example, the sleeping princess is usually raped by traveling royalty who find her irresistible while unconscious. This maintains her “innocence,” but she becomes pregnant and usually bears twin children to her attacker, later her contrite husband in some accounts. That happens to poor Talia before she bears Sun and Moon in Giambattista Basile’s tale, but if we go back even farther, the assault features in the earlier-still version of the Sleeping Beauty tale, “Histoire de Troïlus et de Zellandine” from very popular collected volumes of romances called Perceforest, most likely composed in France between 1330 and 1344.
Increasingly tipping the nod as to the underlying meaning and the solar/seasonal connection, the medieval story from Perceforest in which poor Zellandine delivers a child of rape from within her coma was, apparently, even performed at Catholic Masses in Germany as part of Shrove Tuesday. Well, that very date will soon be celebrated on February 17th of 2015 as Fat Tuesday or Mardis Gras, when we buckle down to the last forty gray days of Lent before Easter or the spring equinox, depending who’s counting. It’ll be helpful to know, for the next gruesome part, that “lambing season” is said to begin at this same time.
So, what of the sleeping beauty’s twins? Well, often it’s one of them, a hungry newborn infant, who suckles the splinter of flax, or what-have-you, from the sleeper’s finger, and that‘s what wakes her from her curse. No romantic kiss as such is involved. It’s the relentless drive of burgeoning new life. The sleeper awakens, not knowing what’s happened to her, but now a mother to delivered babies, suddenly appearing as do other chicks and foals and lambs and calves at this time of year.
Painting of a medieval sheep market, Norwich, c. 1300
We can tell the sleeping beauty’s twins may also be metaphorically related to the springtime’s new livestock arrivals, because they’re–yes, it’s horrible again–usually ordered to be slaughtered. In Perrault’s tale, they’re actually ordered cooked and served with mustard sauce (sauce Robert). Horrors aside, that sounds a lot like the ritual Passover sacrifice of a lamb or the traditional Easter feast, the culturally widespread sharing of the “first fruits” of the year in spring rites. Anyway, the sleeping beauty’s child or children are saved (whew) by a kind-hearted cook or servant, who swaps out their prepared corpses with, you guessed it, lamb or even kid goat. And the evil queen who’s ordered the slaughter, in these early tales either the king’s legitimate wife or his ogress mother, is satisfied with the substitution. Is it a kid or a kid? She can’t seem to taste the difference. Hmmm.
Battista’s sleeping beauty’s name, Talia, is said in baby name dictionaries to be an old Hebrew or Aramaic name that has the meaning “heaven’s dew” or “lamb,” indicating the blessing of divine abundance. Well, dew is found at the birth of the day, and lamb at the birth of the year. Easter, a very lamb-riffic holiday with plenty of nods to abundant new life, occurs during the sign of Aries, the ram. Aries is a cardinal sign, meaning the beginning of a new season, and as the so-called first house, it’s also known as the youngest sign or “the baby of the zodiac,” which kicks off the year gamboling at the spring equinox. You may note that in Battista’s tale, the innocent lamb Talia is also supposed to be sacrificed with her children to be fed to the royalty.
Sure, there are many shades of Medea and other culinary child-servers in the earliest of these tales, too, but don’t let me sidetracked on that, or the twins Romulus and Remus, or their mother the Vestal Virgin…I’d be here all day. Unlike a clapped-out modern movie franchise’s sextilogy (I’m claiming it as a word), each one of these 6 sleeping beauties remains fascinating to me. I adore the way layered legacies of traditional storylines continue twisting and looping upon themselves while remaining relevant and compelling.