The Rebirth Archetype in Fairy Tales:

 A Study of Fitcher’s Bird and Little Red Cap

by Ronald L. Boyer
Graduate Theological Union


This paper examines Jung’s rebirth archetype in two popular fairy tale narratives, focusing on how it is described, how it specifically functions within the narratives, and on underlying mythopoeic imagery from which the narratives are constructed.  The preliminary study combines formalist intertextual literary analysis of Fitcher’s Bird (better known as Bluebeard) and Little Red Cap (better known as Little Red Riding Hood) with a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and transmedial hermeneutical perspective grounded in the theories of Carl G. Jung, Arnold van Gennep, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Marija Gimbutas, and other major interpreters. The paper provides a Theoretical Overview and applies the theory to archetypal interpretation in the two tales.  The findings hold practical implications for the contemporary relevance of fairy tales as tools of psychological analysis, wisdom tales, and repositories of mythopoeic symbols.  The findings also contribute to an increasingly wide-ranging multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective in the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

In this essay, the author explores the archetypal imagery of rebirth as described by the co-founder (with Sigmund Freud) of modern depth psychology, Carl Gustav Jung (1939/1971, pp. 45-82). Perhaps more accurately, this paper examines the “eternal theme” and “mythologem of death and [emphasis added] rebirth” (J. L. Henderson, 1963, p. 6, 17) or the “archetype of death and [emphasis added] rebirth” (Northrop Frye, 1976, p. 114), since the very concept of rebirth in all its forms implies a type of death, symbolic or literal, that precedes the actual or symbolic renewal or regeneration of life.  The archetype is studied specifically as represented in two popular fairy tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, Fitcher’s Bird (best known as Bluebeard) and Little Red Cap (best known as Little Red Riding Hood), based on German oral folktale sources (Campbell, 1951/1990, pp. 9-10).

This paper answers the questions:  Do fairy tales describe imagery indicative of this initiatory (i.e., death-rebirth) symbolism common to myth and ritual the world over?  And if so, how is this symbolism portrayed within fairy tale narratives and how does it specifically function within these literary narratives?

   Methodology.  In this study—which is preliminary in the sense that it opens a lens on a subject that far exceeds the scope of this paper—the internal structure of two major Germanic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm will be examined from two distinct but interwoven critical perspectives.  The study combines formalist intertextual literary analysis with Jung’s analogical method of amplification of imagery (i.e., identification of analogies in a wide variety of myth-motifs).  The first approach will analyze, compare, and contrast the literary structure of the tales in terms of formal elements, including dramatis personae, setting, plot, themes, climax, and resolution.  This intertextual, formalist literary analysis will be augmented by a cross-cultural, transmedial, multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary, hermeneutical perspective broadly grounded in the theories of Carl G. Jung, Arnold van Gennep, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, Vladimir Propp, Marija Gimbutas, and other major interpreters. 

     The analogical method of amplification.  The fairy tales chosen for this study are not approached as closed units, but rather as open, virtual texts which open out into contextual narrative networks of repetition and analogue, as deconstructionist literary critic and Blake scholar Saree Makdisi (2003, pp. 110-117) suggested. Makdisi’s approach offers an approach resembling Jung’s analogical method of amplification (i.e., identifying close parallels or analogues) of the imagery. The Jungian method of amplification of analogous imagery will be applied to identify key archetypal features of the tales.  As Marie-Louise von Franz (1977/1990) observed, amplification is the sine qua non “which cannot be left out in mythological interpretation” (p. 146), a form of circumambulation of “mythological motifs.” For a detailed discussion of the Jungian method, read von Franz (1970/1996), “A Method of Psychological Interpretation” (pp. 37-45).

     Archetypal methodology.  In Fitcher’s Bird and Little Red Cap, the symbolic structures, motifs, and images are consistent with those found in pre-Indo-European mythico-ritual traditions, opening out geographically well beyond the Grimm’s indicated Teutonic origins of their stories.  Briefly stated, archetypal methodology emphasizes identification of “myth-making” (mythopoeic or mythopoetic) structural features in the text, that is, recurring archetypal imagery widely evident in ancient myths, rites, and symbolic artifacts.

  The Limited Scope of the Paper

The limited scope of this paper requires that the author foregoes an in-depth analysis of the tales based on any given interpreter or discipline referenced above.  This limitation similarly excludes a survey of rebirth symbolism in fairy tale literature.  The subject matter is far too extensive for a brief paper, and detailed, comprehensive treatments of this subject within either of these contexts is better left to future researchers as subjects of theses and dissertations.

Organization of the Study

The paper is organized into two major sections.  It begins with a Theoretical Overview giving the broad theoretical and interpretive context of the study.  Given the scope and complexity of the subject matter, particularly the wide range of theoretical perspectives brought to bear in interpretation, it seems necessary, to begin with a broad sketch of the literature bearing directly on the rebirth archetype as well as its application to the specific genre of fairy tale literature.  Here, I trust that the reader will bear in mind that my review is little more than a brief survey of an increasingly vast field of emerging knowledge that can only be treated superficially within the framework of this essay.  Given the relatively brief scope of this paper, the reader is encouraged to consult these source materials for detailed discussion of various interpretive theories that follow.  The Theoretical Overview is followed by a discussion of findings in an intertextual analysis of the fairy tales, with interpretive commentary on each story’s symbolic structure and imagery.

A Theoretical Overview follows that begins with a summary of my Literature Review on the rebirth archetype (see Boyer, 2017).

Theoretical Overview

The study of the rebirth archetype, and the study of fairy tales, both begin with the study of myth (Boyer, 2017, pp. 1-18). 

The Renewed Relevance of Myth

Until the last century or so, the relevance of myth had been largely discredited by the advancement of scientific empiricism and its positivist philosophies.  However, the Romantic tradition kept alive a form of knowledge based on imagination and feeling that bore fruit in the work of humanists from Goethe to anthropologists Adolf Bastian, J. J. Bachofen (1926/1992), and others (see Joseph Campbell, xxv-lvii, in Bachofen, 1926/1992).  These humanistic scholars laid the groundwork for a view of reality that emphasized the “creative and imaginative side of human nature and our capacity for metaphor and symbolic expression in the form of religious myths and rituals, and culture as a whole” (Boyer, 2017, pp. 4-5).

According to literary scholar David Leeming (1992), the catalyst for the “reemergence of myth as a phenomenon to be taken seriously” came from a “host of great anthropologists and psychologists around the turn of the century, who saw in myth a rich source of material for their study of human nature” (p. 5).  These pioneering scholars included Sir James Frazer, E. B. Tylor, Bastian, and Ernst Cassirer, among others.  Of particular interpretive importance were the theories of the “two great founders of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.”

The Rebirth Archetype: A Multidisciplinary/Interdisciplinary Perspective

     Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which originally appeared in 1890, was regarded as one of the most influential works of the 20th century (Campbell, liv, in Bachofen, 1954/1967).  Frazer (1890/1963) focused his study on death and rebirth symbolism found in primitive religions throughout the world.  Significant for our present study, Frazer claimed that the secrets of preliterate mythmakers and ritualists can be pieced together “from scattered hints and fragments and from the recollections of it which linger in fairy tales” (p. 802).  His direct legacy was inherited by influential female scholars.  These included, most notably, Jane E. Harrison (1903/1991), who studied the primitive structure of ancient Greek religion, and medieval scholar Jessie L. Weston (1922/1957).

     The rebirth archetype in rites of passage.  Around the time Frazer and Harrison’s works appeared, the ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep (1908/1975) published his early field studies of rites of passage. Van Gennep interpreted initiatory rituals and other rites of passage as death-rebirth mysteries (pp. 91-110) evident in a wide variety of preliterate cultures.  Conversant with Frazer and Harrison, van Gennep viewed regeneration as a “law of life” (S. T. Kimball, viii, in van Gennep, 1908/1975).  The regenerative principle, van Gennep claimed, was expressed in “rites of death and rebirth” (van Gennep, pp. 65-194).  His three-part initiatory schema (p. 21) was most influential in the anthropological work of Victor Turner (1962/1992, p. 31, 37).  Turner, like van Gennep, interpreted the symbolism of “metaphorical death and rebirth” (pp. 32-33) in tribal initiations. Van Gennep also influenced Jung, Campbell, and Eliade.

     The rebirth archetype in Jung’s depth psychology.  Influenced by Frazer and van Gennep, psychologist Carl G. Jung (1916/1991) added the perspective of depth psychology to the emerging multidisciplinary consensus of scholars observing the recurrent symbolism of death and rebirth found in myths and rites across the world.  He addressed the archetype of rebirth in his first major book, in a chapter entitled “Symbolism of the Mother and Rebirth” (pp. 202-265).   Later, Jung identified the myth-motif of rebirth as an archetype (i.e., a widely recurrent symbolic feature of myths and rites throughout the world).  In the years that followed, and throughout the 20th century, a growing chorus of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary scholars interpreted rebirth symbolism in a wide range of mythopoeic narratives.  These disciplines include comparative religions and mythology, anthropology, folkloristics, literary theory, psychoanalysis, and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

     The rebirth archetype as a symbol of transformation.  Jung (1939/1971) defined the myth-motif of rebirth as an important psychological archetype—an archetype of transformation represented in a variety of forms.  The symbolic motif is expressed in a wide range of forms, including imagery of resurrection, as a symbolic form, and renovatio, a term Jung borrowed from alchemy (pp. 45-81).  For our present purposes, we will use Jung’s definition of rebirth as renovation and/or essential transformation, or participation in a process of transformation (e.g., participation in rites of initiation).  For Jung, rebirth symbolism represented a structural event in the psyche, a psychic developmental process Jung termed individuation.  Jung’s individuation process, Mircea Eliade (1958/1975) observed, “is accomplished through a series of ordeals of an initiatory type” (p. 135).  Jung (1939/1971) described rebirth as the “archetype of transformation” (p. 81) “that must be counted among the primordial affirmations of mankind” and “found among the most widely differing people” (p. 50).

     The rebirth archetype as the theme of initiation.  Jung’s analyst successors carried this initiatory interpretation of mythopoeic structure forward.  Arguably the most important work on rebirth, among Jungian analysts, was published by analyst Joseph L. Henderson and co-authored by Jungian scholar Maud Oakes (1963).   In the Editor’s Foreword to The Wisdom of the Serpent: The Myths of Death, Rebirth, and Resurrection, philosopher Alan Watts established the theme of the collection as the “cycle of birth, death, and rebirth,” “about the most basic theme of myth and religion” (xi).  Henderson focused on the “theme of initiation” (p. 4) as the “theme in which the experience of death and rebirth is central” (p. 4), which he viewed along with Jung as the archetypal pattern of psychological development.

     The rebirth archetype in related disciplines.  In addition to Jungian analysts, important scholars in a variety of disciplines influenced by Jung have continued the amplification and interpretation of archetypal rebirth symbolism.  These include, most notably, the works of  comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (1949/1973; 1990, pp. 55-59), historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1951/1974; 1958/1975, pp. 1-20, 81-102), and archetypal literary theorist Northop Frye (1976b, p. 114).  Of particular interest, in terms of the present study, are the theories of Eliade, Frye, and, more recently, feminist archeologist Marija Gimbutas (1991).

     The rebirth archetype as initiatory schema.  Eliade understood death and rebirth symbolism as the “initiatory schema” widely found in religions the world over and discussed the rebirth archetype as a central feature of the phenomenology characterizing shamanic initiations in preliterate societies.  He described the tripartite archetype of the “universal” initiatory schema as “suffering, death, resurrection” (pp. 33, 64-65, 76-77), the “symbolic death represented in almost all initiation ceremonies,” imagery that appears in Germanic mythology and folklore (p. 384).

      The rebirth archetype in prehistoric goddess iconography.  Feminist archaeomythologist Marija Gimbutas based her interpretations largely on the writings of Campbell and Eliade, extending analysis of the death and rebirth myth-motif to the earliest evidence of the matristic Goddess religion of prehistoric Europe that can be traced back approximately 30-35,000 years (Gimbutas, 1991, p. 331; Krippner and Rock, 2011, p. 60), to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic era.  Gimbutas viewed the Goddess religion as a prehistoric forbearer to the later patriarchal religions and mythologies associated with Indo-European patristic traditions discussed by Frazer and others. Building on the work of Bachofen (1926/1992) and Harrison (1903/1991), and relying on later myth interpreters Campbell (1949/1973) and Eliade (1951/1974), Gimbutas interpreted archeological artefacts and symbolic iconography discovered in excavations of Neolithic village sites in Old Europe (c. 7,000-3,500 B.C.).  Gimbutas concluded that the iconography of the Goddess suggested that “throughout prehistory images of death do not overshadow those of life: they are combined with symbols of regeneration” (Gimbutas, 1991, xxii).

     The rebirth archetype in literature.  Northrop Frye wrote extensively about the rebirth archetype as the mythopoetic structural symbolism in literature (1976b, 1980).  Recently, literary theorist Christopher Booker (2004) studied the recurring themes and plots of fairy tales, novels, and motion pictures from the Jungian perspective.  Booker identified the rebirth plot (pp. 193-214) as one of the major literary plots, including those found in folk and fairy tales.

     The rebirth archetype in Freudian and neo-Freudian depth psychology.  Finally, the archetype has been discussed in Freudian and post-Freudian literature, most notably by scholars Geza Roheim and Bruno Bettelheim, and Czech psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof.  Bettelheim (1975/1989), for example, briefly mentioned the theme of rebirth in the fairy tale, Little Red Cap, in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Perhaps Roheim (1945) best summarized the consensus of the literature: “Death and rebirth are the typical contents of all initiation rites” (p. 116).  Transpersonal psychologist and former Freudian psychiatrist Stanislav Grof wrote extensively on the subject, including its initiatory symbolism (Grof, n.d.), imagery induced by LSD in therapeutic experiences (Boyer and Bonder, 1981, p. 30), and in the futuristic art of H. H. Giger.  Initiatory symbols appear in folk and fairy tales.  “So long as the material of folklore is transmitted,” wrote Campbell (1990), “so long is the ground available on which the superstructure of full initiatory understanding can be built” (pp. 58-59).

On the Nature, Origin, and Interpretation of Fairy Tales

For those of us coming of age in American modernity, fairy tales—in the form of children’s literature—occupy a special place in our development as childhood equivalents of myth.  Fairy tales were not always meant for children, a developmental concept that only emerged in the past few centuries.  “In former times,” Marie-Louise von Franz (1974) indicated, “until about the seventeenth century, fairy tales were not reserved for children, but were told among grown-ups in the lower layers of the population—woodcutters and peasants, and women while spinning amused themselves with fairy tales” (pp. 10-11; also von Franz, 1972/1993, p. 1).

     Structural identity of myths and folk and fairy tales.  Myths and fairy tales share both striking similarities and equally noteworthy differences.  One main distinction is that, unlike myths, which are considered by indigenous populations as “true stories” (Eliade, 1976/1990, pp. 24-26) with an important and sacred, social function, folk tales (from which fairy tales are derived) are less culturally significant, popular stories told for entertainment (Frye, 1990b).  A second distinction is that, while myths are closely tied to their indigenous locales, folk tales are highly migratory and nomadic, “traveling all over the world and interchanging their themes and motifs” (p. 33).

In terms of similarities, Frye (1990b) asserted that there is “no consistent structural difference” (p. 33) between myths and folk tales, an important insight in terms of our study.  Myths, said Frye (1976), do not differ “in structure, from the folk tales and legends that are often told simply for fun by wandering story-tellers” (p. 19).  Furthermore, he stated: “There are only so many effective ways of telling a story, and myths and folk tales share them” (1976, p. 9).  Frye specifically linked folk and fairy tales to the literary genre of romance.  “Romance is the structural core of all fiction … being directly descended from folk tale” (p. 15).   Like myths, folk and fairy tales are narratives possessing recurring characters (i.e., dramatis personae), plot structures, themes, and symbolic images or myth-motifs, analogues or types that permit a morphology or classification of recurring images by which analogous types are identified.  Excellent reference works for comparison of major motifs found in myths, folk tales, and fairy tales have been authored by folklore scholars, Stith Thompson (1958) and A. A. Aarne (1961; see Tatar, 1999, pp. 373-378).

Like myths, folk and fairy tales are told using a symbolic grammar of structural imagery filled with literary and/or psychological archetypes. According to Maria Tatar (1999) in The Classic Fairytales, to cite one example, the most popular fairy tale of all, Cinderella, has an estimated 800–1,000 or more variants, including an ancient Chinese tale, “Yeh-hsien,” first recorded c. 850 A. D., but originating in antiquity (pp. 107-108). This begs important questions.  How does such a phenomenon actually come about?  How does a particular myth-motif appear in one indigenous society and reappear across many cultures in remote parts of the world separated, in antiquity, by great and impassable distances?

     On the origin of fairy tales.  Here we find ourselves concerned with the question of origins, a slippery slope where scholarly debates have gone on unresolved for decades or longer, and where some definition of terms seems required.  While our purpose is neither to prove nor disprove any particular theory of fairy tale origins, some discussion seems necessary and relevant and provides a conceptual frame for the interpretation of the study’s materials.

     A question of origins.  As concerns folk and fairy tales, the search for origins has both a temporal and a spatial axis.  The spatial aspect (i.e., where the myth-motifs are found) has already been suggested in the discussion of rebirth symbolism, which is widely distributed geographically and cross-culturally.  While claims of universality are perhaps unprovable, the rebirth motif is unquestionably found in myths and rites the world over, reaching back in time to at least the Upper Paleolithic, beyond which little evidence exists. This temporal aspect refers to the fairy tale’s history, when and how it came to be.  Can we trace the motif to earlier historical forms?  And, if so, what can we know concerning the image’s creation, its psychological and creative origins or authorship?

     Remnants of ritual symbolism in fairy tales.  While a number of theories concerning the origin of fairy tales exist, and the debate is hardly conclusive, one of the dominant theoretical lineages suggests that myths and fairy tales are the detritus of rituals, an idea shared by most of the theorists discussed in the foregoing literature on rebirth, starting with Frazer.  An early example is evident in Jessie Weston’s view that the symbolic narratives of the Arthurian romances are filled with the fragments of primitive myths and rituals.  According to Weston (1920/1957): “The Grail Story is not … the product of imagination, literary or popular. At its root lies the record, more or less distorted, of an ancient ritual, having for its ultimate object the initiation into the secret of life” (p. 203).

This ritual, Weston (1920/1957) continued, “survives today, and can be traced, all over the world, in Folk ceremonies, which, however separated by the countries in which they are found, show a surprising identity of detail and intention” (p. 203).  She concluded that medieval romance legends had their origins, like fairy tales, in folk-lore.

Influenced by these early scholars, Eliade (1957/1987) represented the idea of these sacred, mythico-ritual origins in his assertion that they survived in secularized modernity in the form of “camouflaged myths and degenerative rites” (pp. 204-205).  In anthropology, Turner (1962-78/1992) reinforced this view when he wrote that the “decomposition of ritual, has been the genesis of the arts” (p. 153). For an excellent discussion of such debates, Eliade’s summary is recommended (1976/1990, pp. 18-27).

     Propp’s ritually-based theory of the origins of folklore.  Recorded and creatively reinterpreted from folkloric oral tradition by storytellers like  Straparola, Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales have become a subject of modern literary criticism.  As pioneering folklorist Vladimir Propp (1928/1999) suggested in his classic work on folklore theory and morphology, Theory and History of Folklore (first published in 1928 as Morphology of the Folktale), folklore and literature share many features, including the fact that they are both verbal arts (pp. 5-9).  Propp (as cited in Tatar, 1999, pp. 378-381) offered an important clue for approaching the meaning of such tales, in line with Weston’s perspective, noting that their original function, like that of myth, was an integral part of ritual that, with the decline of ritual societies, took on an independent life.  In his discussion of the collective authorship of folklore, he observed that fairy tales arose in “prehistoric times within a framework of some ritual” that “survives through oral tradition to the present” (p. 381).

Propp’s hypothesis of the connection between ritual and folklore is echoed by myth-critic Northrop Frye (1990a), who indicated that archetypal literary analysis explores the narrative text in terms of its archetypal features, for example, the analysis of plot in terms of “generic, recurring, or conventional actions which show analogies to rituals” (p. 105).  Propp made a similar suggestion in his discussion of the prehistoric, collective authorship of folklore when he observed that fairy tales arose within the “framework of some ritual” (as cited in Tatar, 1999, p. 381) and “circulates, changing all the time” (p. 381).

     Myths, rituals, or both?  Not all theorists agree on which came first, rituals or myths.  Weston (Henderson, 1963, p. 77) argued for the ritual origin of mythology; Eliade argued for the primacy of the mythic narrative.  Frye stated that one of the “major nonliterary social functions of myth” is that of explaining or

     providing the source of authority for rituals … The ritual is … the epiphany of the myth, the manifestation … of it in action….In literature itself the mythos or narrative of fiction, …especially of romance, is essentially a verbal imitation of ritual or symbolic human action. (1976, p. 55)

All the “possible forms” of romance, for example, “can be found in any good collection of folk tales.”  For our purposes in the study, we treat them as a single mythico-ritual narrative with myth and ritual being interdependent but distinct in their forms of enactment, the first a narrative oral storytelling form, the latter the ceremonial, collective performance of the mythic narrative.

     The question of authorship.  Long before these orally-transmitted short stories for children were recorded by scholars in literary forms, they originated and developed as part of a constantly evolving collective, anonymous authorship in folkloric oral traditions around the world.  Like their mythic counterparts, the roots of fairy tales reach back to primordial antiquity, where the creative origins of any given folk or fairy tale is forever obscured.

     Collective authorship.  Although modern literary theory treats fairy tales within the genre of children’s literature, the original stories from which these relatively recent literary narratives are apparently derived are part of a worldwide, indigenous, mythico-ritual, oral storytelling tradition now lost in the vast unknown of prehistory.  Leeming (1990) addressed the question of authorship of myths—and the same can be said of folk tales—as the products of “collective authorship, the human mind wrestling en masse with the mysteries, attempting to make earth conscious of itself,” as products “almost invariably … [of] the people themselves.”  The myth, like its close cousin the fairy tale, has its origins in the “collective ‘folk’ mind” (pp. 6-7), said Leeming, with the specific form of the tale perhaps created by individual shamans.

     Shamans as prototypical storytellers.  Perhaps, the shamans of indigenous tribal societies throughout the world, in their roles as the first storytellers, artists, and originators and perpetuators of ceremonial rituals and the myths these ceremonies enact, were the creators of these original symbolic tales or at least the symbolic imagery contained in the tales.       “Shamans appear to have been humankind’s prototypical … storytellers” (Krippner and Rock, 1991, p. 31).  At the very least, shamans and other tribal elders, became the guardians and curators of these sacred, oral storytelling traditions (Wiercinski, 1989, as cited in Krippner and Rock, 2011, p. 48).  The role of shamans in the creation of myths and rituals is apparent in the remarkable correspondence of imagery in mythico-ritual systems to the phenomenology associated with the initiation of shamans.  Today, creative writers are admonished to write from inside, to write what they know.  In their traditional roles as storytellers and ceremonial priests, shamans, like today’s storytellers and artists, probably created the metaphorical and symbolic forms expressed in the myths and ritual patterns of their tribes in a similar manner, that is, from the inside out.  If so, did some of this shamanic phenomenological structure and imagery make its way into folk and fairy tales? Apparently, it does, as the exceedingly widespread evidence of the archetypal symbolism of initiatory death-rebirth indicates.

     The interpretation of myths and fairy tales.  Joseph Campbell (1951/1990) viewed the work of Emile Durkheim as a turning point in the modern interpretation of myths, citing Durkheim’s recognition of “a kind of truth at the root of the image-world of myth” (p. 32).  This idea was affirmed and deepened by Freud and Jung, who focused on the “symbol-inventing, myth-motif-producing level of the psyche,” the “source of all those universal themes.”  “Mythology is psychology, misread as cosmology, history and biography,” observed Campbell, and the “folktale is the primer of the picture language of the soul” (p. 37). “Through the vogues of literary history, the folk tale has survived,” he explained, “Told and retold, losing here a detail, gaining there a new hero, disintegrating gradually in outline, but re-created occasionally by some narrator of the folk.”

     Historical diffusion or archetypal experience. As Maud Oakes (1963) observed, students of myth—and the same may be said of folk and fairy tales—do not agree whether their “archetypal motifs” arose from a common source, through historical diffusion, or “from many sources that sprang into existence in different parts of the world simultaneously” (p. 76) according to Jung’s theory of archetypes.  Perhaps, she wisely concluded, both are right.

One prominent explanation of mythic and fairy tale origins is that these tales were widely distributed through historical diffusion, that story elements were transmitted through social intercourse of different tribes or societies.  Given the highly migratory nature of folk tales, the likelihood of this theory seems reasonable.  But what of the instances where no historical diffusion of cultures seems possible?  What if, for example, the same motifs appear in the puberty rites of the Trobriand Islanders, and in the creation myths of North American tribes?

     The creative source of archetypes in visionary experience.  Such mysteries are precisely where Jung’s archetypal theories prove most useful.  Von Franz (1970/1996), for example, rejected E. B. Tylor’s early attempt to “derive fairy tales from ritual” (p. 31) in which he theorized that “the ritual died, but its story has survived in fairy tale form.”  Von Franz preferred the idea that the basis of the talesis not a ritual but an archetypal experience” (p. 12).  Elsewhere, she (1974) wrote: “Theories as to the origin of fairy tales are very different: some say that they are degenerated remnants of religious myths, … others that they were once a part of literature which degenerated into fairy tales” (p. 11).  She concluded that a story originates from a “nucleus” of a “parapsychological experience or a dream,” amplified by locally found motifs.

Von Franz continued to develop her theory of psychological origins even as she eventually embraced a theory of historical origins that came close to reconciling the two.  In Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales (1997), von Franz expanded her thinking on the creative origins of fairy tales to “those of the population who … are gifted with a strong imagination” (p. 15), including those with “visionary experience” and folk poets or storytellers, including the storytellers of primitive tribes.  She added, significantly, that shamans and medicine men are the “mediumistically or parapsychologically gifted members of the tribe who have an immediate contact with the unconscious” (p. 160), and hence likely originators of the tales.

     Since the aim of this essay is neither to prove nor disprove any specific theory regarding the historical or psychological origins of folk and fairy tales, the reader is encouraged to read von Franz’s (1970/1996) excellent overview “Theories of Fairy Tales” (pp. 1-23), including a formal Literature Review (pp. 20-23), for her discussion of prominent theories, including those of her mentor Jung.

     Fairy tales as psychology. Whatever its actual source, von Franz (1997) observed, the story told or enacted must be a story that “fit the psyche of the whole collective” in order for the story to survive.  She postulated that fairy tales mirror “the most basic psychological structures” of humanity, and that fairy tales can more easily migrate than their mythic counterparts, because they are so “elementary and so reduced to its basic structural elements that it appeals to everybody” (p. 12).  Collectively, von Franz indicated, they provide a “kind of intuitive mapping of the structure of the collective unconscious” (p. 21), an invaluable knowledge base for an analyst.  Ultimately, von Franz (1977/1990, p. 217) observed: “The language of the psyche is myth.”

          The psychological interpretation of fairy tales.  Like myths, fairy tales have recovered relevance for modern people when understood as psychological expressions with contemporary value as tools of self-understanding.  To the reader of fairy tales, a wide range of thematic features and subjects are familiar, from their powerful affects (fear, terror, love, horror, disgust, hatred, revenge, violence, and grief) to the extremely disturbing and “monstrous” actions that drive their plots (murder, cannibalism, incest, deception, theft, abduction, and abandonment).  As Campbell (1951/1990) indicated, the Grimm brothers and others pointed out that folk tales are “monstrous, irrational, and unnatural” (p. 30), a feature shared with myth. Whatever the emotions portrayed or the often violent and/or sexual acts that drive the story, as von Franz (1972/1993) suggested, “I will assume that there is no difference between fairy tales and myth, but rather that they both deal with archetypal figures” (p. 5).

     An archetypal perspective on fairy tales.  According to archetypal psychologist James Hillman (1979), fairy tales take place in a psychical, mythopoeic (mythopoetic) landscape of other worlds, where supernatural powers and mythical figures (witches, ogres, monsters, animal helpers, and fairies) are taken for granted as part of ordinary life, and sorcerers and their magic talismans, spells, and enchantments abound (p. 51).  Hillman specifically interpreted the myth-motif of “entering the Underworld”—an archetypal structural feature essential to the death-rebirth symbolism in myths, rites, and fairy tales—as a shift in perspective from the material to the psychic or imaginative realm.  Such tales insert the reader into an enchanted other world, a perilous realm through which all heroes and heroines must make their dangerous passage into the depths.

     The psychology of folklore and fairy tales.  That folklore and fairy tales offer fertile ground for application of the archetypal depth psychological theories of Jung is well established in the interpretive literature of analytical psychology.  Jung himself suggested that the archetypesprimordial images found throughout the world in art, religion, and dreams—find abundant expression in both myths and fairy tales (Jung & Kerenyi, 1949/1973, p. 72).  Jung’s protégé, the analyst von Franz, wrote seven books applying Jung’s hermeneutic to the specific interpretation of fairy tales and their symbolic illustrations of Jung’s aim of human development, the individuation process, which she described as a “natural, ubiquitous phenomenon which has found innumerable symbolic descriptions in the folk tales of all countries” (1977/1990, vii).

     Von Franz (1977/1990) and Jung defined individuation as a “psychological process of inner growth and centralization by which the individual finds its own Self” (p. 1).  “One can even say,” von Franz observed, “that the majority of folk tales deal with one or another aspect of this most meaningful basic life process in man.”  Furthermore, Jung and von Franz, both analytical psychologists and psychotherapists, inspired a hermeneutics of fairy tales as repositories of psycho-spiritual wisdom carried forward by mythopoeic oral storytellers and neo-Jungian interpreters.  These modern oral storytellers include poet Robert Bly (1992), known for his bestselling mythopoetic interpretation of the fairy tale Iron John, and Bly’s oral storytelling heir-apparent, Martin Shaw (2011), best known for his poetic masterwork, A Branch from the Lightning Tree.  As von Franz (1970/1996) indicated, summarizing the Jungian interpretive approach in her major work, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales: “The fairy tale itself is its own best explanation … that is, its meaning is contained in the totality of its motifs connected by the thread of the story [emphasis added]” (p. 1).

Findings and Discussion

Fitcher’s Bird (Bluebeard)

Like so many popular fairy tales, many variants of this basic story exist.  The story popularly known as Bluebeard, in which a woman uses her husband’s key to enter a forbidden room, where she discovered the dead bodies of her husband’s victims, is a story attributed to Perrault “in which there are no direct antecedents in folk tales as far as we know [emphasis added]” (Bettelheim, 1975/1989, p. 299).  Further, Bettelheim claimed, the story is not really a fairy tale, according to his definition, because nothing supernatural or magical occurs.  Both assertions regarding Bluebeard—that it has no antecedents and contains no supernatural or magical events—are challenged by other researchers.  First, the French folklorist, Paul Delarue, a scholar credited with mapping out the history of the Bluebeard motif, has documented the liberties taken by Perrault “in transforming an oral folktale into a literary text” (Tatar, 1999, p. 142).  More specifically, Jungian analyst von Franz (1974) contradicted Bettelheim’s assertion concerning lack of antecedents, stating that the motif of a “forbidden chamber … is a frequent theme in fairy tales” (p. 71).  Her assertion is supported by the classification models of tale types described in Aarne’s (1964) The Types of Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography (as cited in Tatar, 1999) in which the forbidden chamber is associated with an ogre.  Secondly, Bettelheim’s assertion concerning the lack of “supernatural” or “magical” features is incorrect with regard to the later variant of the tale—based on oral folk tale sources—that appeared in the collections by the Brothers Grimm as Fitcher’s Bird, originally published in 1812 (see Tatar, 1999, p. 142, 148-150).

Synopsis of the tale, Fitcher’s Bird 

     A sorcerer, disguised as a beggar, went from door to door stealing pretty girls who are never seen again.  One day, he appeared at the door of a man with three daughters.  The first daughter answered the door, and was magically captured and taken to the sorcerer’s secret home in the deep woods.  The sorcerer told the oldest daughter that he must go traveling, and left her with the keys to his household.  Among them was a single key that he warned her not to use to enter a secret room that he strictly forbade her from entering, upon pain of death.  He also gave her an egg that she must keep safe no matter what.  After his departure, the curious girl came across the door to the forbidden room and used the key to enter.  There she was horrified to find a vat filled with blood in which the dismembered pieces of the sorcerer’s many female victims floated.

Startled, she dropped the egg, which was stained by the blood.  Unable to remove the stain, the sorcerer returned and immediately saw evidence of her betrayal of his orders.  He murdered and dismembered her, adding her to the collection of serial murder victims in his bloody vat.

Figure 1. Bluebeard hands his wife the key to the forbidden room.
Illustration by Gustave Dore.

He returned to his most recent victim’s home, where he captured her younger sister in the same magical way, with the same horrifying results: death and dismemberment.  Then he returned a third time to capture the youngest sister, a clever girl, who stored the egg in a safe place.  When she entered the forbidden room, she discovered her two dismembered sisters, their body parts lying in the basin of blood.  Through some magic of her own, she reassembled her sisters and magically restored them to life.


Then, she hid her sisters, and when the sorcerer returned and found no blood on the egg, he married the youngest sister.  Later, she put her sisters in a huge basket filled with gold, with which she covered her sisters, and ordered her husband, the sorcerer, to take the basket somewhere, warning him that she’s keeping an eye on him.  Every time he paused from exhaustion, he heard a voice—seemingly his wife’s—ordering him to get going, because she’s watching him.  Meanwhile, she prepared for the wedding, and disguised a skull to imitate her and set it where the sorcerer could see it.  She disguised herself by covering herself with honey, then rolling in bird feathers to appear as a large bird.  No one recognized her, including her husband, when he passed her on the road.  When he returned home, her brothers and others were waiting for him and they killed the sorcerer.  She and her sisters returned home safely.     

     Discussion of the rebirth archetype in the narrative imagery of Fitcher’s BirdWhile there is much in this story worthy of examination, the present focus is on the symbolic imagery of the rebirth archetype (i.e., death and rebirth) in the narrative.  However, an important archetypal feature appears early in the tale that is related to the rebirth archetype and leads into the main line of interpretation: the idea of an involuntary quest.

     The shamanic-heroic motif of abduction.  The first half of the narrative concerns the serial-killing sorcerer and his abduction and murder of the first two sisters, whose grisly slayings set up the ensuing action.  Abduction is a central archetypal motif in shamanism, where shaman’s vocations sometimes appear as an involuntary election, sickness, and abduction by spirits (Eliade, 1951/1974, pp. 23-35, 87, 108-109).  The abduction motif is also an archetypal feature of Campbell’s hero quest paradigm, where he discussed the involuntary call to adventure (Campbell, 1949/1973, pp. 49-69).  Examples of abduction abound in myth and fairy tales, including Persephone’s abduction by Hades, Tristan’s abduction by Norwegian pirates, and Dorothy Gale’s abduction by a tornado that transports her to Oz (Boyer, 2014a, pp. 21-24).

In terms of story development, the heroine’s magical healing and resurrection of her sisters appears at about the midpoint of the tale where the moment pins the two halves of the story together.  After her two sisters were murdered, the third and youngest sister faced the same perilous test.  The sorcerer returned to their home to charm and abduct the third daughter, who is described as “clever and cunning.”  At the castle in the deep woods, he repeated his standard test:

After handing over the keys and egg, he went away, and she put the egg in a safe place.  She explored the house and entered the forbidden chamber.  And what did she see!  There in the basin were her two sisters, cruelly murdered and chopped to pieces.  But she set to work gathering all their body parts and put them in the proper places: head, torso, arms, legs.  When everything was in place, the pieces began to move and joined themselves together.

The two girls opened their eyes and came back to life [emphasis added].  Overjoyed, they kissed and hugged each other. (Tatar, 1999, pp. 149-150)

This explicit rebirth (or resurrection) imagery is described in the moment in the story when the third sister, the clever one, sat the egg aside and entered the forbidden room.  As von Franz might say, her “entrance into the forbidden chamber … leads to a higher development of consciousness” (p. 179). The story’s plot revolves around the conflict between the youngest sister and the villainous sorcerer, a Bluebeard figure, a black magician who bewitched the three sisters, a shadow figure that played an important role, for example, in Mediterranean cultures “probably since the Stone Ages” (von Franz, 1997, p. 81).  The girl struggled to survive and liberate herself and her sisters from his clutches.  The stakes that drive the plot are high; it is a struggle between life and death.  This struggle between the powers of death and life are personified in the contest between the girl and the sorcerer, and manifests in the girl’s magical ability as a powerful healer and necromancer capable of raising her two sisters from the dead.  This moment addressing the theme of rebirth—explicitly portrayed—is a major plot point of the story, as it leads to the first (false) climax, where the sorcerer returns home, and tests her.  But the clever girl passed his test by protecting the egg, and in the second and true climax of the tale, successfully passed by her nemesis on the road, disguised as a bird.

     The ancient symbolism of the egg.  The egg symbolism is critical to the tale on several levels.  First, the egg is a universal symbol of fertility and birth, associated, for example, with the regenerative power of fertility goddesses in Celtic myth, and as we shall see, the much older figure of the Great Goddess in prehistoric Europe, suggesting that the girl’s powers of renewal stem from her role as a goddess.  As Frye (1976) observed, resurrection, “a movement upward to a higher world,” is celebrated in the “images of the fertility cycle, including eggs” (p. 150).  Second, the egg is a common archetypal image featured in creation myths the world over, the primordial universe often imagined as a cosmic egg from which the world is created. “The egg,” said von Franz (1961-62/1978), is sometimes identified with the universe and sometimes more especially with the rising sun” (p. 144). “Hence the motif of the egg is often mythologically associated with the motifs of light and sunrise” and a “complete rebirth of the world” (p. 149).  The account in Fitcher’s Bird also brings to mind accounts of Samoyed shamans whose souls are born (or reborn) when they hatch from a bird’s egg.

     Egg as rebirth-fertility power.  By preserving the fertility power of the egg, a symbol of the sun that dies each night and is reborn with the following dawn, the heroine both preserved her own life and obtained the shamanic power to restore her sisters’ lives.  As Bachofen said (1926/1992), “no symbol can be better calculated to raise the spirit … to an intimation of one’s own rebirth than that the egg; it encompasses life and death, binding them into an inseparable unity” (p. 25).

      Archeomythologist Gimbutas (1991) further discussed the prehistoric symbolism of the egg (pp. 212-221, 322).  “The significance of the egg is clear from the earliest stages of the Neolithic in Europe and Anatolia” (p. 213). “Egg forms … go back even further, into the Upper Paleolithic.”  She posited several categories of egg symbolism, including the motif of birds carrying a “cosmogonic egg” (p. 213) and discussed egg symbolism in prehistoric art as a fertility symbol of “potency, abundance, and multiplication” (p. 139).  Building on Bachofen’s earlier interpretation, she added, significantly:  “The symbolism of the egg bears not so much upon birth as upon a rebirth [emphasis added] modeled on the repeated creation of the world (Eliade, 1958, p. 414, as cited in Gimbutas, 1991, p. 213).”  The egg is a universal “symbol of regeneration” (Gimbutas, 1991, p. 213, 323); and, the egg is an “obvious symbol of the compacted potential of regeneration” (p. 219).

     The shamanic imagery of dismemberment and resurrection.  The youngest sister is portrayed as a necromancer who miraculously reconstituted the dismembered bodies of her sisters, whom she magically healed and transformed, bringing them back to life.  This portrayal of the heroine as a trickster with the magical ability to heal and raise the dead suggests that she is a powerful sorceress or female shaman herself.  Eliade (1951/1974) indicated that “shamans are believed capable not only of bringing back the strayed souls of the sick but also of restoring the dead to life [emphasis added]” (p. 313).  This shamanic imagery is reinforced by numerous additional shamanic features of the tale, including the original abduction, the mysterious egg, the motif of dismemberment and “basin of blood,” as well as her subsequent escape by disguising and transforming herself into a bird.

     Regenerative magic and the motif of the cauldron. The concern with regenerative magic, for example, permeates Old European mythology.  An example of the later Indo-European survival of rebirth symbolism appears in old Welsh tales of the archetypal Celtic bard, Taliesin (see “The Tales of Gwion Bach” and the “Tale of Taliesin,” in Ford, 1977, pp. 159-181).  In Celtic mythology, for example, the ideas of rebirth and of resurrecting dead (or nearly-dead) warriors goes back to the earliest myths; magic cauldrons served as regenerative vessels, like the Gundestrup Cauldron of Denmark (Boyer, 2015b, 2016, p. 14).  Collectively, these images suggest a symbolic story structure and imagery rooted in indigenous tribal societies of great antiquity.  The motif of dismemberment associated with a cauldron (i.e., “basin of blood”) is evident in diverse cultures.  For example, an Indonesian “Cinderella” forced her stepsister into a cauldron of boiling water, then had the body cut up (Tatar, 1999, p. 101).

     The shamanic theme of dismemberment. As Eliade (1951/1974) demonstrated in his classic study of shamanism, the theme of dismemberment is characteristic of the experiential phenomenology of shamanic initiation throughout the world (pp. 34-35).  According to Eliade, shamanism is “pre-eminently a religious phenomenon of Siberia and Central Asia” (p. 4) though not confined to that region of the world (p. 6)—for example, North and South America, Africa, and Indonesia (pp. 53-58)—that has striking similarities to both ancient Turko-Tatar and protohistorical Indo-European religions (pp. 10-11).  Eliade described, for example, an initiatory shamanic dream related by a Samoyed shaman in which the novice shaman dreamt of his death during an encounter with a dream figure who “cut off his head, chopped his body in pieces, and put everything in a caldron” (pp. 38-41), imagery that calls to mind both the Gundestrup Cauldron and the “basin of blood” containing the dismembered sisters in Fitcher’s Bird.

According to Eliade, the dismemberment motif is extremely ancient, a “great mythological theme” closely related to the “descent to the underworld” in aboriginal, shamanic initiation rites.  In another work, Eliade (1958/1975) described the initiation of a Yakut Siberian shaman, in which spirits “cut off his head” and he was forced to watch his own “dismemberment” and body hacked to bits and put them “into a kettle.” (p. 90).  Finally his bones were put together and covered with flesh. A second example described a Buriat shaman of the Tungus tribe whose body was cut up and his flesh cooked and boiled in a pot (p. 91).  Eliade (1967/1977, pp. 423-445) summarized the phenomenology associated with shamanic initiation:

Every initiation involves the symbolic death and resurrection of the neophyte.  In the dreams and hallucinations of the future shaman, may be found the classical pattern of the initiation:

he is tortured by demons, his body is cut in pieces, he descends to the netherworld [emphasis added] or ascends to heaven and is finally resuscitated. That is, to say, he acquires a new mode of being, which allows him to have relations with the supernatural worlds. (p. 424)

As Krippner and Rock (1991) observed:

Physical deconstruction is evident, in many of the dreams and visions in which some shamanic initiates report being torn apart and dismembered.  For the prospective shaman…this … is followed by a reconstruction of bones and flesh, during which there is an ecstatic rebirth” (p. 30).

      The dismemberment/resurrection theme in mythology.  Finally, Henderson (1963) discussed the dismemberment theme as it appears both in shamanism and in mythology, with triple goddess figures like Hecate “who exult in destroying their loving victims and apparently see no inconsistency in again restoring them to life” (p. 19).  A classic example of the motif appears in the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis, “where the mother gathers the dismembered limbs of her consort and brings life to them again” (p. 18).  In any event, if not for the symbolic dismemberment, there “could never be a reintegration of the old parts” (p. 19).

On the surface, interpreted literally, the imagery of dismemberment in the tale might be understood as an early horror story about a savage serial killer of women.  Yet viewed psychoanalytically, as we have said, this superficial reading fails to consider the latent meanings yielded by a symbolic interpretation of the text (Freud, 1899/2005, p. 264).  Viewed in terms of its numerous analogues in shamanism, the manifest imagery of the story might also be understood at a deeper latent level as a tale of a battle between a male and female sorcerer, or between a male sorcerer and a female shaman.  Many indigenous cultures distinguish between good shamans (curanderos/as, or healers) and evil shamans (sorcerers, or black magicians) (see Eliade, 1951/1974, pp. 117, 184-189).  From this perspective, the young heroine proves the more powerful magician, a gifted necromancer and healer (curandera) whose two sisters undergo a perilous trial of initiation, in which they are magically restored to life, in order to act as protective agents of the younger sister—as aspects of her triune self.  This triple form suggests their collective identity as remnants of the Triple Goddesses of prehistoric European mythology, a subject to which we will return and discuss in detail.

      The archetype of the trickster.  Following the rebirth of the dismembered sisters, the second half of Fitcher’s Bird tells the story of the trickster-like deception by the youngest sister, and her successful rescue and liberation of herself and her sisters from the evil sorcerer.  Stories about the archetypal trickster, Paul Radin (1956/1973) observed, are among the most widely distributed myths, found among the “simplest aboriginal tribes” (xxiii) including the myths of North American Indians (see Leeming, 1990, pp. 163-171).  Trickster symbolism is also associated with shamanism.  Shamans can also be tricksters (Hansen, 2001, p. 27, as cited in Krippner & Rock, 2011, p. 14), an observation originally made by Jung (1956/1973): “There is something of the trickster in the character of the shaman” (p. 196).  Jung associated the trickster with the psychological figure of the shadow, and described the trickster’s power as a “shape-shifter” with the dual-nature, “half animal, half god” related to “figures met with in folklore and universally known in fairy tales” (p. 195), all features consistent with the imagery in Fitcher’s Bird.

     Imagery of the “treasure hard to attain.”  The second half of the tale described the girl’s cunning trickery in getting the sorcerer to carry her sisters and his gold treasure off to safety, where the sisters can in turn rescue her by sending their brothers to kill the sorcerer.  The function of this miraculous event of raising her sisters from the dead is essential to the story’s further development.  Without the sisters being symbolically brought back to life, the resolution—obtaining the treasure—cannot occur.  Treasure of various kinds appears frequently in myths and fairy tales.  Symbolically, the sorcerer’s gold might be interpreted as a symbol of the numinous, to borrow Aristotle’s phrase (Aristotle, Metaphysics, as cited in Bachofen, 1926/1992), as “this thing/that glitters in the underworld” (p. 65).  Jung might regard the gold as a numinous image of the “treasure hard to attain,” which he defined as the power of life renewal (rebirth).  As von Franz (1976) indicated, the Self—the “unknowable inner center of the total personality and also the totality itself,” is symbolized in religions and mythologies by the “image of the ‘treasure hard to attain’ … an inner psychic manifestation of the godhead” (p. 1).

Without the resurrection of the dismembered sisters, the youngest sister’s future escape—and the permanent removal of the threat by killing the sorcerer—cannot occur.  Such an ending would be merely tragic, either in life or in fairy tales, a feature uncharacteristic of folklore and fairy tales, where happy endings are typical.  Additionally, the function of this moment of resurrecting and disguising her sisters, then disguising herself and escaping, is a portrayal of the youngest sister as both clever and cunning—deception being the ruse of countless heroes in myth and literature, typically when coercive power is stacked overwhelmingly against them—and as a trickster-figure, a sorcerer (or a shaman) herself, a magical healer and necromancer with the powers to raise the dead.

The power of disguise and deception is a characteristic attribute of mythical gods and heroes.  Among Greek gods, for example, Hermes is known as a trickster, a breaker of boundaries.  Greek heroes sometimes imitate Hermes; Odysseus stands out as an exemplar of quick wittiness and deception.  In the medieval Celtic romance of Tristan and Isolde, for another example, Tristan’s ability to deceive his rivals equals his heroic martial prowess in combat.  In Fitcher’s Bird, the youngest sister’s “deception and theft and disguise” are—like the tricks used by her masculine counterparts—“enlisted in a good cause” (Frye, 1976, p. 133).

     The prehistoric costume of the bird-girl.  The shamanic features of the tale are reinforced in the heroine’s escape from the house of death (underworld), cleverly disguised as a bird.  Bird symbolism is very ancient and widespread, and the close association of both egg symbolism and bird symbolism in Fitcher’s Bird is worth exploring.  Von Franz (1990, pp. 1-218) offered a detailed psychological analysis of the symbolic theme of psychological and spiritual transformation in the imagery of birds in Individuation in Fairy Tales.  Per von Franz (1997), the “appearance of the bird is an augury” (p. 100), as it is in tribal societies and ancient religions.  “You know that birds appearing and doing the unexpected represents a sign from the gods,” and a “typical sign from the unconscious.”  Among the Siberians and Altaians, the shaman’s helping spirit has an animal form, including “all kinds of birds” (Eliade, 1951/1974, p. 89).  According to Eliade, shamans also turn themselves into animal forms, including birds (p. 93).  The animal “symbolizes a real and direct connection with the beyond” (pp. 93-94).

     Bird-transformation in shamanism.  Like the death-rebirth motif and the dismemberment theme, the heroine’s transformation into a bird suggests remnants of mythopoeic features characteristic of shamans in diverse cultures the world over.  For example, scholar Sharon MacLeod (2011) discussed the bird costumes of the Druids, citing the example of Suibhne, who lived in a nest in a tree (pp. 73-89). This idea is directly preserved in yet another death-rebirth folktale recorded by the Brothers Grimm filled with motifs from Celtic shamanism and myths. “The Juniper Tree” (Tatar, 1999, pp. 190-197) closely associated the shamanism of the ancient Druids with motifs of shapeshifting into birds—the “feathered cloaks” of the mythical bards—and shamanic death-rebirth imagery.


Figure 2. The Bird-Masked Man with bison, Lascaux cave shaft. France, c. 17,000 B. C

Such images were traced back even further by Gimbutas (1991).  Gimbutas (1991) speculated that the iconography of men in bird masks “probably are portrayals of participants in rituals or worshipers of the Goddess” (p. 327).  “Bird-masked men,” she wrote, “appear as participants in rituals” (pp. 178-179).  From the perspective of archetypal literary theory, this is a type of “animal mask,” the “total significance” of such figures being that of “fertility spirits, part of the death-and-rebirth pattern of the lower world” and, in the context of the descent journey of the shaman-hero, a “representation of Ovidian metamorphosis” (Frye, 1976, p. 116).

     Bird symbolism in the Upper Paleolithic.  These ideas were discussed in depth by Campbell (1990) and Eliade (1951/1974).  Both Campbell and Eliade connected the motif of bird-transformation with hunting cultures of the Upper Paleolithic in Western Europe, which began approximately 30,000 B. C. (Gimbutas, 1991, p. 331; Campbell, 1976/1990, p. 46, 50; Krippner and Rock, 1991, p. 60) and ended around 7,000-8,000 B. C.  Significantly, this is around the time the first evidence of shamanism appears (Eliade, 1951/1974, p. 503).  The oldest evidence of the bird-mask motif occurs in the famous Paleolithic cave painting of the “Bird-man” at Lascaux, a figure interpreted as a shaman (Eliade, 1951/1974, p. 503).

     Bird symbolism as shamanic power of flight.  The bird symbolism is interpreted in association with shamanistic trance and reputed shamanic powers of flight (Campbell, 1990, p. 166).  According to Eliade (1951/1974, p. 69), the “appearance of an eagle is interpreted as a sign of shamanic vocation.”  “Birds are psychopomps,” Eliade observed.  “Becoming a bird oneself … indicates the capacity, while still alive, to undertake the ecstatic journey to the sky and the beyond” (p. 98).  “As for the bird,” Eliade (p. 191) indicated, “it of course symbolizes the shamans magical power of flight.”  The Mazatec Indian shaman, Maria Sabina, alluded to her shamanic journeys as a bird in her healing chants:  “I am a woman who flies./I am the sacred eagle woman” (Estrada, 1981 (abridged), pp. 93-94, as cited in Krippner and Rock, 1991, p. 44).   Siberian shamans, Eliade (1951/1974) observed, make their costumes out of birds.  “The bird most often imitated is the eagle” (p. 156). The bird costume, he continued, is “indispensable to flight to the other world” (p. 157).

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber, relying largely on Eliade’s writings on shamanism, identified the bird as the “classic symbolism of shamanism” (Wilber, 1981, p. 70, as cited in Krippner and Rock, 2011, p. 26), although some shamanic societies use different totems, for example, the deer or bear.  According to Eliade (1951/1974), who developed the “soul-flight model” of shamanism, the “shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld” (p. 5). Although criticized for his overemphasis on shamanic flight or ecstasy, Eliade noted that the power of flight symbolized by bird imagery was necessary for shamans to return successfully after journeys of descent for soul-retrieval. According to Eliade (1951/1974):

In Siberian folklore the hero is often carried by an eagle or some other bird from the depths of the underworld …. Among the Goldi the shaman cannot undertake the ecstatic journey to the underworld without the help of a bird-spirit … which ensures his return to the surface. (p.204)

Campbell (1951/1990) agreed with Eliade’s interpretation of bird symbolism and noted that a “persistent syndrome of motifs” can be identified in shamanic traditions stretching from the Upper Paleolithic in Europe to the “final twilight of the Great Hunt in the North American Plains” (pp. 166-167).  One of the most persistent features, he observed, “is the association of shamanistic trance with the flight of a bird” (p. 166).  “In many lands,” said Campbell, “the soul has been pictured as a bird” (p. 167).  But the “bird of the shaman is one of particular character and power.”  He related the story told by a Siberian Tungus shaman of certain trees in the forests of Siberia where the “souls of shamans are reared,” an image to which I can personally attest during my initiation on November 2, 2012 by the Siberian-Altaic shamanka Illyria Kanti.  At the conclusion of the initiatory rite I was welcomed to the community of Siberian shamans and instructed that following the ceremony, my tutelary spirits nested in a tree in the forests of Siberia.  According to this tradition, the higher the shaman is located on the tree, the greater his or her powers of sight.  As Campbell indicated (1951/1990, p. 167), many contemporary Siberian shamans wear bird masks and bird costumes, like the image of a presumptive shaman painted in the Paleolithic cave shaft at Lascaux.

     Eliade (1951/1974) discussed the “ornithological symbolism” of shamanism (pp. 36-43; 156-157; and p. 404), including the integral relationship between symbols of dismemberment, bird transformation, the egg, and shamanic rebirth. After being dismembered by devils, wrote Eliade, the shaman’s soul is hatched with the aid of the Bird Mother, “transformed into a bird.” Eliade also indicated the use of bird costumes and masks by shamans, used to hide from evil spirits on descents in the underworld realm of death, a recognizable feature of Fitcher’s Bird in what Frye (1976) would call the “animal disguise theme” (p. 134).  When a shaman leads the dead into the “Kingdom of Shades,” he disguises himself “in order not to be recognized by the spirits” (Eliade, 1951/1974), p. 166).

     Implicit structural death-rebirth imagery.  These shamanic motifs are symbolic elements related to the most important archetypal feature of the tale, the symbolic death-rebirth structure of the journey itself.  Like shamans, hero-initiates in countless myths and rites undertake a transformative journey into the depths.  The symbolic topographical route this journey takes uses natural metaphors, including journeys into the depths of enchanted forests, subterranean caves, Jung’s “night sea journeys,” and other symbolic routes into the realm of death.  As Frye (1976, p. 148) indicated, the lower world can be either “submarine” or “subterranean.”  The Sumerian Goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, descended into a subterranean underworld, the Land of the Dead (Frye, 1976, p. 89).  Some nekyia (underworld) journeys, like Dante’s Inferno, use all three routes in a single mythopoeic narrative (Boyer, 2014b, pp. 1-19).

     Symbolic descent through a dark forest.  In Fitcher’s Bird, the symbolic descent takes place on multiple levels, suggested by the setting of the main action.  First, the initial action of the story occurs out-of-doors, in an impenetrable, “deep, dark forest,” according to Bettelheim (1989), a common setting for European fairy tales (p.93) symbolizing the descent into the unconscious (p. 94), an interpretation of the forest symbolism shared by Jung (von Franz, 1997, p. 63).  Viewed as a rite of passage, using van Gennep’s model, the heroine is separated from her home and crosses a threshold into another world, symbolized by the forest.  The journey into a forest is a typical metaphor of depth in hero quests, for example, in Celtic quests.  For the reader familiar with the Arthurian romances, the quest typically begins with the entrance of the hero into a forest of some kind, as Campbell (1949/1973) often said, “right where the forest is thickest.” “Typical of the circumstances of the call,” he wrote, is the “dark forest” (p. 51).  As Frye (1963), indicated, this imagery lies at the heart of the romance genre as a “quest of the knight journeying into a dark forest in search of some sinister villain” (p. 10). While the plot of Fitcher’s Bird lacks the central masculine theme of the deliberate quest, the heroine certainly found herself in a dark forest, captive and presumed victim of a sinister villain.

     The forbidden room as Land of the Dead.  On another level, when the scene shifts indoors, the perilous place is represented as a forbidden room, symbolically a dark underworld realm, in other words, a symbolic Land of the Dead. According to Frye (1976), the “descent to the lower world … is sometimes a world of cruelty and imprisonment” where a heroine can be “trapped in labyrinths or prisons” (p. 129).  In this story, the devilish sorcerer personifies the role of Hades-Pluto, lord of the Greco-Roman underworld.  The act of resurrection of the Persephone-like heroine, who entered that perilous room and freed her sisters, resembles Jesus Christ in biblical mythology.  Jesus, according to the apocryphal gospel called “Christ Harrowing Hell,” descended into Hell for three days between Black Friday and Easter, liberating the dead before his resurrection.  As Frye (1976) added, the convention of escape is frequent: “however dark and thick-walled,” the “dungeon or whatever” seems “bound to turn into a womb of rebirth [emphasis added] sooner or later” (p. 134).  In the Grimm Brothers variation of the tale, Bluebeard’s “last wife put an end to the series of slaughtered brides.  In most versions of the Bluebeard story, and elsewhere, the victims are allowed to escape or revive” (Frye, 1976, p. 118).

Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood)

Like the Bluebeard fairy tales, the story of Little Red Riding Hood is told in numerous creative variants.  Little Red Riding Hood, the title of Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, is the name by which many modern Western readers know the story.  The best known version of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the heroine and her grandmother are reborn from the wolf’s belly, appeared in the 1812 tale by the Brothers Grimm, known as Little Red Cap.  According to Bettelheim (1989), this is the most popular version of the fairy tale, which depicted the rebirth of Little Red Cap and her grandmother (p. 166).  “Little Red Cap and her grandmother do not really die, but they are certainly reborn” (p. 179).  He added: “If there is a central theme to the wide variety of fairy tales, it is that of a rebirth,” a theme he associated specifically in Little Red Cap with the biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish, to which we will soon return.

Synopsis of the tale, Little Red Cap

     The story concerns a pretty little village girl.  Everyone who met her loved her.  She was especially loved by her grandmother, who knitted her a red cap to wear, for which everyone called her Little Red Cap.  One day her mother sent her into the deep woods to take her grandmother some wine and cake, warning her not to depart from the path leading there.  As soon as she entered the woods, the little girl encountered a wolf, who accompanied her, asking where she’s going.  Naively, she gave the predatory beast precise instructions to her grandmother’s house.  The wolf, pretending to be Little Red Cap, entered the cottage and devoured the grandmother.  Then he dressed in her clothes, entered her bed, and awaited the girl.

When Little Red Cap arrived, the wolf pretended to be her grandmother, although the little girl observed strange features on the ersatz grandmother, and questioned the wolf about his big ears, big teeth, and so on, to which he famously answered, “the better to eat you with.”

He leapt from the bed and gobbled up the little girl.  Sometime later, a woodsman wandered by and noticed the grandmother snoring and entered to check on her.  There he found the wolf and started to shoot it.  But thinking that perhaps the grandmother was inside, he cut open the wolf’s belly with scissors.  He soon noticed the little red cap and pulled the girl from the wolf’s belly, and her grandmother soon after.  Then the wolf died, and all three rejoiced.

     Representation and function of the rebirth archetype in Little Red Cap.  The dramatis personae of the tale include Little Red Cap (hero/main character/protagonist), a monstrous wolf (main character/villain/antagonist), the girl’s mother (minor character) and grandmother (major character), and a woodsman (also a major character).

Figure 3. Little Red Cap in bed with the wolf.  Illustration by Gustave Dore.

The central conflict that drives the plot is between the naïve girl and a villainous (presumably male) wolf.  The highly sexual nature of many fairy tales is well-documented, making them amenable to Freudian psychoanalytical interpretations (e.g., Bettelheim, 1989).  The conflict closely resembles the dynamic in Fitcher’s Bird, where another pretty young girl struggled against a powerful male adversary.  Like Fitcher’s Bird, the stakes are high, between life and death.  The wolf, a monster that Little Red Cap encountered in the woods, tricked her, then dashed ahead to her grandmother’s house where he devoured her grandmother and disguised himself as her.  Later, he tricked the girl when she arrived, and devoured her also.

     Wolf symbolism.  As von Franz (1974) wrote, the wolf is a complex figure.  Associated with the sun and intelligence in Nordic mythology, the animal has a negative aspect in old German mythology (p. 214).  Despite the wolf’s extraordinary intelligence and cunning, its undoing stems from its over-greedy appetites (p. 215).  Fortunately, a huntsman came along who cut the wolf open, liberating the two females from the monster’s belly.  As Frye noted, the “happy endings of life, as of literature, exist only for survivors” (1976, p. 135).

     Explicit death-rebirth imagery.  Like Fitcher’s Bird, the story of Little Red Cap possesses a number of important mythopoeic (archetypal-symbolic) structural features, constellated around the rebirth motif.  In this story, the rebirth imagery is explicit, as in Fitcher’s Bird, but represented in a different manner:  Little Red Cap was eaten alive, then miraculously restored to life by the huntsman, who delivered her (by Caesarian section) from the monster’s belly.  The rebirth motif plays a central role in the development of the plot, as it does in Fitcher’s Bird.  As in Fitcher’s Bird, the setting is revealing:  The perilous encounter occurred in the deep woods, in a room or building that functions as an analogue to the Land of the Dead, that is, a place where death is directly encountered.

     Deep woods as Land of the Dead.  This threat of death is announced from the beginning in Fitcher’s Bird; the story, readers are explicitly told, concerns a sorcerer who preys on girls who disappear.  In Little Red Cap, the danger is announced later in the tale, and only implicitly, when Little Red Cap entered the woods and met her dangerous adversary.  “Grandmother lived deep in the woods, half an hour’s walk from the village.  No sooner had Little Red Cap set foot in the forest, than she met the wolf,” (Grimms, 1812, as cited in Tatar, 1999, p. 14) portrayed as a “wicked beast.”  The naïve girl—polar opposite of the “clever and cunning” heroine in Fitcher’s Bird—had no idea of the wild beast’s wickedness so she “wasn’t in the least afraid of him.”

After being tricked by the wolf, and giving him detailed directions to her grandmother’s home, the girl and wolf temporarily parted company.  The villainous wolf took advantage, racing ahead to the grandmother’s house, where he tricked the grandmother into thinking he was her granddaughter.  Lifting the unlocked latch, as the scene shifted indoors, he entered, went straight to her bed, and “gobbled her up.”  Again, as in Fitcher’s Bird, the death-rebirth motif pins the two halves of the tale together, the death of the grandmother being the approximate midpoint, the first of two female deaths—like the deaths of the two sisters in Fitcher’s Bird—and drives the action toward the climactic encounter of the girl and the wolf.  The wolf disguised himself as the grandmother, then waited in bed for the girl to arrive.  When she arrived, her female instincts warned her of the danger, but—being dangerously naïve—she ignored her gut reaction.  When she stepped into the cottage, she had “such a strange feeling that she thought to herself: ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m usually glad to be at Grandmother’s, but today I feel so nervous” (p. 15).

In Jungian terms, the wolf-monster—like the dark magician in Fitcher’s Bird—might be understood as an archetypal figure of the heroine’s shadow, the repressed, unconscious dark side that she must confront.  She has looked into the depths of evil and consequently has, in von Franz’s words, “the very disagreeable job of looking at her own shadow” (1972/1993, p. 202).  Naïve about her own intentions, Little Red Cap is the proverbial “babe in the woods;” anyone can lie to her or trick her, and she will believe them and fall for it.  She ignored her self-protective instincts but observed unfamiliar features of her grandmother, and interrogated her about her “big ears,” eyes, and hands, and finally, her “scary mouth.”   “The better to eat you with!” said the wolf, who then “leaped out of bed and gobbled up poor Little Red Cap.”  So, psychologically, Little Red Cap has been swallowed by her shadow, and now both female characters are presumptively dead, entering the Land of the Dead through the gaping jaws of the monster, whose belly is their presumptive tomb.

     The rebirth archetype in Little Red Cap.  In Perrault’s (in Tatar, 1999, pp. 11-13) stylized 1697 literary version, this is the climax, the tragic end of the tale.  In the Grimm’s later version, based more faithfully on oral folk tradition, it is a false climax.  In the Grimm’s variant, a huntsman wandered by the house, and hearing the wolf snoring, grew curious, entered the house, and recognized the sleeping wolf:

He pulled out his musket and was about to take aim when he realized that the wolf might have eaten Grandmother and that she could still be saved.  Instead of firing, he took out a pair of scissors and began cutting open the belly of the sleeping wolf.  After making a few snips, he could see a red cap faintly.  After making a few more cuts, the girl jumped out, crying: ‘Oh, how terrified I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s belly!’ And then the old grandmother found her way out alive. (Tatar, 1999, p. 15)

After her liberation, in the resolution that follows the second and true climax of the tale, the girl quickly killed the wolf by filling his belly with rocks, her most heroic act.  In the denouement, the three characters rejoiced as the girl thought to herself, “Never again will you stray from the path and go into the woods, when your mother has forbidden it” (Tatar, 1999, p. 16).  Little Red Cap, although less naïve than at the start of the tale, is at best a passive heroine, ultimately rescued and emancipated from death by a male huntsman, hardly the powerful young sorceress of Fitcher’s Bird.  Her transformation is mostly educational, a step in the direction of obedience to her mother and acceptance of received maternal wisdom.

     The rebirth archetype as structural theme.  The real transformational arc in the Grimm’s version is the story itself; in recording the folk tale with rebirth imagery as the climax of the narrative, the Grimm Brothers restored the full structural arc of transformative death-rebirth to the heroine, a key structural feature absent from Perrault’s more literary variation.  In so doing, they restored the complete archetypal structure of the fairy tale, the “single mythological theme” and full tragic/redemptive arc of “down-going and up-coming, which together constitute the totality of … life” (Campbell, 1949/1973, p. 28; also see Harrison, 1903/1991, p. 123, 126).  Viewed from the vantage point of depth psychology, Jung (1934/1980) wrote, “The descent into the depths always seems to precede the ascent.” Eliade (1951/1974) described equivalent shamanic imagery as a “universal theme of death and mystical resurrection of the candidate by means of a descent to the underworld and an ascent to the sky” (p. 43) without which the hero quest forfeits its central initiatory meaning.

     The structure of narrative as descent and ascent.  Frye (1976) viewed the same narrative trajectory through the lens of a literary critic: “There are … four primary narrative movements in literature, including a “descent to a lower world” followed by an “ascent from a lower world” (p. 97).  “All stories in literature,” Frye indicated, “are complications of, or metaphorical derivations from … these … narrative radicals.”  For example, in the Indo-European mythologies of male heroes, the “death-and-rebirth … form of the … quest is a descent through [a monster’s] open mouth into his belly and back out again” (Frye, 1976, p. 119), a theme he compared to the biblical story of Jonah and to Christ’s descent to hell (p. 119, 148).

     The tomb-womb metaphor.  As Campbell (1949/1973), Frye (1976, p. 112), and others suggested, the symbolic tomb must become a womb (p. 90).  Gimbutas picked up on this paradoxical image of the womb-tomb, or womb (birth)-tomb (death)-womb (rebirth) motif.  Without this difficult topographical journey of ascent or return from the underworld, these fairy tales are merely tragedies, an ending more typical of the French stylists and an increasing displacement of mythopoeic imagery characteristic of modern fiction.

     Implicit structural death-rebirth imagery. The other realm in which the symbolic tomb is located is identical to the main setting of Fitcher’s Bird: a deep, dark forest.  Within this other world of the forest, a room appeared in which the heroine encountered, and triumphantly overcame, the powers of death personified as a powerful and monstrous male.  This trajectory follows the symbolism of the mythical hero’s archetypal descent into the Land of the Dead in condensed form.  The adventure of the hero’s journey, Campbell (1949/1973) said, often begins with entrance into a deep forest or enchanted woods.  This is a typical depiction of depth imagery in Celtic tales, for example, where the deep woods or enchanted forests represent the route into the depths of the other world or netherworld.

     Threshold passage into the dark woods.  Like Fitcher’s Bird, the setting of Little Red Cap’s story is a deep, dark forest.  This motif is found throughout Celtic mythology, for example, and its later derivatives, from the most ancient origin myths and hero tales like that of the mythical Prince Pwyll in the Welsh Mabinogi (Ford, 1977, pp. 35-56) to the medieval Arthurian romances where knights quest for the Holy Grail.  Frye described the imagery of the hunt as a form of descent to the lower world.  “A knight rides off into a forest in pursuit of an animal” and sometimes “finds himself in a forest so dense that the sky is invisible” (p. 104). These heroes, as Campbell observed (1949/1973), enter “right where the forest is thickest.”  Dante’s journey into the depths of Hades-Hell described in The Inferno represents an early literary adaptation of this symbolic topographical landscape; the setting for initiating Dante’s journey into Hell famously begins when he is “lost” in a “dark wood” (Dante, 1308-1320/2002, p. 3).

     The hut as symbolic Land of the Dead.  Little Red Cap’s journey, like that of the heroine in Fitcher’s Bird, began when she entered this dark wood, where the depth imagery is amplified in the form of her grandmother’s hut.  Unlike her patriarchal hero counterparts, she does not quest into the forest for an animal, but fatefully meets an animal (i.e., the wolf) along the way.  “On the lower reaches of descent we find the night world,” wrote Frye, “often a dark and labyrinthine world of caves and shadows where the forest turned subterranean” (1976, p. 111).  Like Fitcher’s Bird, the realm of death is symbolically depicted as an enclosed construction, a room (or a one-roomed hut)—a symbolic tomb where certain death awaits, a metaphorical shadowed cave “where the forest turned subterranean.”  In short, the heroine entered the Land of the Dead.  In Little Red Cap, the girl and her grandmother were devoured alive by the monster-wolf; in Fitcher’s Bird, two female characters—the heroine’s two sisters—were murdered and dismembered in the sorcerer’s forbidden room.  In the latter, the forbidden chamber is the symbolic Land of the Dead, the burial site where women die and are cut to pieces.  In Little Red Cap, the ultimate Land of the Dead is the monster’s belly, that is to say, the paradoxical womb-as-tomb, the “earth-mother, the womb and tomb of all living things” (Frye, 1976, p. 112).

      Motif of being devoured by a monster.  Restoring the full transformative arc in the Grimm’s folk tale version of the tale—that is, the archetypal motif of being devoured by a monster and miraculously escaping death—opens the story into a vast and ancient network of mythic heroes and initiates devoured by monsters and miraculously liberated from death.  Little Red Cap followed in the steps of countless mythic heroes, from Jason (of the Argonauts) to biblical Jonah and the fairy tale heroine, Nennella.  In Giambattista Basile’s fairy tale, Ninnillo and Nennella, the little girl heroine was swallowed—like biblical Jonah (see Boyer, 2015a)—by a gigantic magical fish.  After a longtime in the fish’s belly, she escaped, returning to life.

This myth-motif of being devoured by a monster, before coming back to life, is so common that both Jung (1916/1991, pp. 298-304) and Campbell gave central archetypal importance to the image of the devoured hero, captive in the “belly of the whale.”  Campbell (1949/1973) examined the motif of “The Belly of the Whale” in detail as a major structural metaphor in hero myths, equating the motif with Jung’s “night sea journey” or nekyia journey in the underworld that Campbell described as the “worldwide womb image” and “sphere of rebirth” (pp. 90-95).

Eliade (1958/1975) discussed the motif at length in his chapter on “Being Swallowed by a Monster” (pp. 35-37), the “symbolism of the monster’s belly” understood as an “initiatory pattern” that has attained the “widest dissemination and has been constantly reinterpreted in various cultural contexts” (p. 36).  Eliade associated the motif with the metaphor of returning to the womb of the Mother Earth, where the initiate dies and, following a period of gestation, is reborn from the Great Mother, an idea conveyed in images of entering “the womb of the Great Mother … or into the body of a sea monster, or of a wild beast”  (p. 51).  Little Red Cap, like so many ritual initiates around the world, isolated in her grandmother’s cabin, has been swallowed by the monster, “to be in its belly, hence … ‘dead’ … and in the process of being born” (p. 63).  Gimbutas traced the metaphorical womb-tomb imagery found everywhere in the prehistoric Goddess religion of Old Europe to a later development in the Minoan female mysteries, where “transformation from death to life took place and where initiation rites were performed” (p. 223).

     The analogues of dismemberment and being devoured by a monster.  Henderson (1963) observed the analogy between being swallowed by a monster and dismemberment in shamanic initiations, the shaman being capable of “magic flight” and ability to both descend into underworlds and ascend to heaven, perhaps by actually transforming into a bird (pp. 60-61). “Initiation to the underworld,” said Henderson, “is often symbolized by a swallowing monster” (p. 43).  Significantly, Eliade (1958/1975) reported an account of shamanic initiation, an elaborate initiation in which he recognized “two principal initiatory themes:” “being swallowed by a monster, and … bodily dismemberment” (p. 98).  In short, the dismemberment imagery in Fitcher’s Bird, and the motif of being swallowed by a monster in Little Red Cap, turn out to be equivalent images, both rooted in shamanic initiation.

     Fragments of the white goddess or triple goddess image.  Finally, an important symbolic feature of the dramatis personae in both fairy tales deserves discussion, as it offers a clue to the entire complex of ancient symbols and images that appear in both folk tales recorded by the Grimm Brothers and helps integrate the underlying symbolism of the imagery in both narratives.

In Fitcher’s Bird, the characterization of “three sisters” suggests imagery of an ancient symbolism more completely realized in Little Red Cap, which also includes three female characters: a virgin (Little Red Cap), a mother (her mother), and a crone (her grandmother).  The crone and fairy godmother, said Campbell (1949/1973), is a “familiar feature of European fairy lore” (p. 71).  This imagery is presumptively a remnant of the Triple Goddess figures of ancient matrilineal cultures predating the rise of patriarchy in Old Europe.  These female trinities were discussed by Harrison in Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903/1991, p. 243, pp. 257-321), and extensively researched by both Robert Graves (1948/1976), in his classic scholarly epic, The White Goddess—to which Frye (1976, p. 120, 125, 183) and von Franz (1977/1990, p. 12) referred—and Marija Gimbutas (1991) who discussed the figures in depth in The Language of the Goddess.

Eliade associated shamanism with Indo-European and Turko-Tatar mythologies, patriarchal traditions marked by an absence of goddesses he indicated characteristic of the Indo-Mediterranean area (p. 10), but contradicted by Harrison’s earlier studies.  Harrison discussed Greek women’s festivals of “immemorial antiquity” and “primitive character” (p. 120), evolving eventually into the “most widely influential of all Greek ceremonials, the Eleusinian Mysteries.”  The structure of these sacred ceremonies was the classic archetype of initiation, taking place between the “Kathodos and Anodos, Downgoing and Uprising” (p. 121, 123), an idea borrowed by Joseph Campbell (1949/1973, p. 28).

     Female trinities and bird-women. Harrison (1903/1991) discussed two important images in connection with this death-rebirth structure of initiation: female trinities and bird-women, two images found in Fitcher’s Bird that lead back to prehistoric, matriarchal origins as supernatural bird-women and divine or semi-divine female trinities. Among the bird-women she listed the Gorgons, Harpies, and Sirens, and included illustrations of artefacts depicting bird-women (pp. 176-77).  “Uniformly the art-form of the Siren is that of the bird-woman.  The proportion of bird to woman varies, but the bird element is constant” (p. 195).  Quoting Ovid, Harrison asserted that the “bird form of the Sirens was a problem even to the ancients.”  “Whence came these feathers and these feet of birds?” asked Ovid (as cited in Harrison, 1903/1991).  Harrison interpreted the bird, including the winged-bird woman figure as “the soul” (p. 201), and traced the figure to the Erinyes of whom it was said: “These were three in number and were called Venerable Goddesses, or Eumenides, or Erinyes” (p. 242).

Harrison traced the ancient evolution of the bird-woman and triune female deities, depicted in one form as gentle figures bearing “tokens of fertility, flowers or fruit,” and natural symbols of rebirth, serpents “as the symbol, not of terror … but merely of that source of wealth, the underworld” (p. 256).   From Harrison’s perspective, the heroine in Fitcher’s Bird might be listed among the animal forms “among the recognized Greek gods … half animal, half human,” (p. 259) beings “half-way between man and god.”

Before Apollo, lay an ancient succession of women goddesses (p. 261): “’Themis she/and Gaia, one in form, with many names’” (Aeschylus, as cited in Harrison, p. 261). Harrison’s  description calls to mind the female trinity in Little Red Cap, the maiden (Little Red Cap), bride/mother, and grandmother (i.e., crone), matriarchal goddesses who reflect the life of women (pp. 262-63).  “We call her rightly the Great Mother and the ‘Lady of the Wild Things’,” but “farther back we cannot go” (p. 266).  She is the “mother of the dead as well as the living,” united in the figures of Demeter and Kore, “two persons though one god” (p. 272).   

     Iconography of the triple goddess.  In her discussion, Harrison (1903/1991) explored the “origin and significance of the female trinities” (p. 286-319), the “triple forms.”  “We find not only three Gorgons and three Graiae, but three Semnae, three Moirae, three Charites, three Horae, three Agraulids, and as a multiple of three, nine Muses” (p. 286).  She added that the trinity-form is confined to the “women goddesses….Dualities and trinities alike seem to be characteristic of the old matriarchal

Figure 4. “The Three Witches from MacBeth” by Alexandre-Marie Colin, 1827.

goddesses.”  In her subsequent description, the trinity more closely resembles the three sisters in Fitcher’s Bird, evolving into “’maidens threefold’ … three daughters … a ‘triple yoke of maidens’” (p. 287).  “Once the triple form established,” Harrison wrote, “it is noticeable in Greek mythology the three figures are always regarded as maiden goddesses, not as mothers” (p. 288).  The three sisters in Fitcher’s Bird meet this description.  Like the triune goddesses of the ancient Greeks, the heroine and her two sisters can be regarded as “three persons, yet they are but one goddess” (p. 289), in yet another form a trinity of fertility goddesses pictured on an archaic votive relief (p. 289), the “earliest sculptured representation of the maiden trinity extant.”

Based on these descriptions, the female trinities in both Fitcher’s Bird and Little Red Cap appear as unconscious vestiges of matriarchal Triple Goddesses, part of the Great Goddess tradition that survived the patriarchal transformation of a competing, Indo-European tradition—and later Judeo-Christian tradition—of male heroes.  This matristic tradition reaches back to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic long before Old Europe.

     The triple goddess as prehistoric bird goddess.  Gimbutas (1991) traced the more ancient origins of the Triple Goddess motif to the iconography of the prehistoric “Bird Goddess,” a figure of great antiquity, which she addressed in detail (pp. 3-79) as a “trans-functional” image “associated with life creation and regeneration” (p. 1).  She dated the bird-woman hybrid to the Upper Paleolithic, found in figurines (tentatively dated to c. 18,000-15,000 B. C.) with a bird’s posterior accompanied by female symbolism suggesting the generative function.  The Bird Goddess is characteristically linked with a “triple source” linked with the “triple Goddess,” said Gimbutas (1991), a tradition continued throughout the whole of prehistory and history, down to the Greek Moirai, Roman triple Mates or Matronae, Germanic Nornen, Irish triple Brigit, three sisters Morrigan and the triad of Machas, Baltic triple Laima, and Slavic triple Sudicky or Rozenicy. (p. 97)

Gimbutas interpreted the triple form of the Goddess as symbolizing the Goddess as the owner of the “triple source of life energy necessary for the renewal of life” (p. 97). As previously discussed, throughout prehistory, the iconography of the Goddess “combined images of death with symbols of regeneration” (Gimbutas, 1991, xxii).  Gimbutas traced the triple form of the Goddess to lunar symbolism in Old European images.

The moon’s three phases – new, waxing, and old – are repeated in trinities or triple-functional deities that recall these moon phases: maiden, nymph, and crone; life-giving, death-giving, and transformational: rising, dying and self-renewing.” (p. 316)

Importantly, she corrected earlier interpretations of the prehistoric Goddess as solely a fertility Goddess in archaeological literature.  These images in Paleolithic and Neolithic iconography “cannot be generalized under the term Mother Goddess,” as they possess more functions than simple fertility.  “They impersonate Life, Death, and Regeneration” (p. 316).  Her functions include, but are not limited to “fertility, multiplication, and renewal” (p. 317)

     Egg symbolism and the bird goddess of regeneration. The Bird Goddess (p. 326), Gimbutas claimed, is the “Goddess of Death and Regeneration” (p. 185).  More emphasis is placed in the iconography on regeneration than on death.  This ideology is represented in the complex symbolism of the egg, the egg that appeared in Fitcher’s Bird.  The egg symbolism of Fitcher’s Bird is connected to the tomb-womb symbolism of Little Red Cap.  For instance, as Gimbutas (1989, p. 218) observed, the idea of a tomb as an egg is preserved in the rock-cut “egg-shaped tombs” in the Central Mediterranean region.  “We are dealing here,” she concluded, with “polyvalent symbolism, with that of both death and rebirth, tomb and womb, at once” (p. 219).  In Little Red Cap, the belly of the wolf is this symbolic womb-like tomb.

Gimbutas (1991) interpreted tomb symbolism as the result of ancient tomb builders building tombs to resemble the body of the Mother Goddess, as images of the Goddess’s “regenerative womb” (p. 324).  This idea of tomb-as-womb is evident in Neolithic graves and temples in the shape of eggs (xxiii).  In ancient Europe, Neolithic graves “were oval in shape, symbolic of an egg or womb” (p. 151), an idea she traced back to Paleolithic origins. She summarized the theory (pp. 151-157): “Burial in the womb is analogous to a seed being planted in the earth, and it was therefore natural to expect new life to emerge from the old” (p. 151).

     Continuity of symbols in matristic oral tradition.  Gimbutas (1991) focused her study on the Neolithic period and followed the “continuity of symbols and images forward to later prehistoric and historic times and also backwards, tracing their origin to the Paleolithic” (xvi).  These symbolic forms were, according to Gimbutas, “passed on by the grandmothers and mothers of the European family, the ancient beliefs survived the superimposition of the Indo-European and the Christian … leaving an indelible imprint on the Western psyche” (xvii).  She argued that ancient beliefs recorded in historical times, as well as still existing rural traditions (like European folk oral traditions from which the Grimm Brothers recorded Fitcher’s Bird and Little Red Cap), are “essential to the understanding of prehistoric symbols [emphasis added], since these later versions are known to us in their ritual and mythic contexts.” “Nevertheless, the Goddess religion and its symbols survived as an undercurrent in many areas … [and many] of these symbols are still present as images in our art and literature, powerful motifs in our myths and archetypes in our dreams” (xxi).  Gimbutas explained this survival in terms of a “strong memory of a matrilineal system” (xxii) in late prehistoric and early historic eras.  An example might be, for example, the survival of the Celtic triple goddess imagery in the medieval romance literature of Tristan and Isolde, where three different Isoldes appear, and as the three Guineveres of the Arthurian mythos.  This image is not only represented by the many versions of the triple goddess in Celtic antiquity, such as the Goddess Brigid, but has numerous analogues in many lands, for example, the three-faced Hecate and the three moira or fates of ancient Greece. The Hecate, or death goddess/crone variant survived, for example, in the three witches featured in Shakespeare’s play MacBeth.

     Fragments of goddess imagery in folk and fairy tales.  According to Gimbutas (1991), the “Goddess gradually retreated into the depths of forests or onto mountain tops, where she remains to this day in beliefs and fairy stories” (p. 321).  “Old European goddesses appear in European folktales, beliefs, and mythological songs.” The bird goddess, for example, continued “as a Fate or Fairy” or as a bird form (p. 319), as in Fitcher’s Bird.  “Memories of her live on in fairy tales, rituals, customs, and in language.” “Collections such as Grimm’s German tales,” she added, “are rich in prehistoric motifs describing the functions of … this … Goddess.” (p. 319).

As variations of incarnations of the Triple Goddess of the Celts, both fairy tale heroines embody features, for example, of the Celtic sovereignty goddesses of Indo-European mythology. Their magical restorative powers of rebirth symbolically parallel their roles as fertility and death goddesses who govern the seasons of the moon and resurrect the crops—the “white goddess who always kills, and whose rebirth is only for herself” (Frye, 1976, p. 183). Frye concluded: “At the bottom of the mythological universe is a death and rebirth process which cares nothing for the individual.”

     The hybrid forms of matristic and patristic traditions.  While the origin of the central plot in Fitcher’s Bird could theoretically be attributed to the relatively late literary fairy tales associated with the French salons, or its direct antecedents in ogre tales, the preponderance of symbolic imagery in both folk tales can be traced to the prehistoric origins of shamanism and the ancient Goddess religion of prehistoric Europe that emerged approximately 30-35,000 years ago.  Gimbutas (1991) theorized that Old European culture was transformed from matrilineal to patriarchal around 4,300 to 2,800 B. C. by the invading proto-Indo-European Kurgan people (xx).  The patriarchal tradition of Indo-European mythology did not outright replace the ancient matriarchal tradition, but rather fused the two symbolic systems in a hybrid.  One of the central features of the symbolic iconography—the religion of the Goddess in Triple Form associated with the initiatory archetype of birth, death, and rebirth—was preserved and continued in its male counterparts, for example, in shamanistic tribal societies.

In the prehistoric imagery of eggs, death, dismemberment, rebirth, resurrection, bird transformation, being devoured by a monster, etc., the “ancient symbolism” of Jung’s archetypes or primordial images is “transparent,” “especially in folktales” (p. 79).  According to Gimbutas (1991), the Indo-European mythologies did not replace their antecedent religious symbols, but incorporated them.  “The outcome of the clash of Old European with alien Indo-European religious forms is visible in the dethronement of Old European goddesses” that lead to a gradual “hybridization of two different symbolic systems.” These “most persistent features in human history”—that is the prehistoric symbols and images of the ancient Goddess religion that predated and flourished in Old Europe—were assimilated into Indo-European ideology (p. 318).

Further, as Campbell pointed out, “a tale may have a different origin than its elements” (p. 30).  In any event, there can be no doubt that much of the imagery found in Fitcher’s Bird makes complete sense when compared to its analogues in both ancient patriarchal and matriarchal societies, in tribal shamanism and in the imagery characteristic of prehistoric religion of the Great Goddess in Old Europe.  This indicates the “transformation that a shamanic schema may undergo” (Eliade, 1951/1974, p. 437) when incorporated into a myth or folk tale.  Eliade deserves to be quoted at length:

As can never be sufficiently emphasized, nowhere in the world or in history will a perfectly “pure” and “primordial” religious phenomena be found.  The paleoethnological and prehistoric documents at our disposal go back no further than the Paleolithic; and nothing justifies the supposition that, during the hundreds of thousands of years that preceded the earliest Stone Age, humanity did not have a religious life as intense and as various as in the succeeding periods. (1951/1974, p. 11)

To prospective critics, I am reminded of F. M. Cornford’s admonition:

Many literary critics seem to think that an hypothesis about obscure and remote questions of history can be refuted by a simple demand for the production of more evidence than in fact exists.—But the true test of an hypothesis, if it cannot be shewn to conflict with known truths, is the number of facts that it correlates, and explains. (Cornford, 1934, as cited in the epigraph to Weston, 1920/1957)

Judged by such a standard, a reasonable observer can perceive, in the symbolic imagery and structure of Fitcher’s Bird—and to a similar but arguably lesser extent, Little Red Cap—the survival of very ancient traditions rooted in shamanism and in the matriarchal symbolism of the Goddess trinities of the Upper Paleolithic, imagery filled with symbolism of death and rebirth.  Alongside the better known, later patriarchal traditions (i.e., Indo-European mythology and Judeo-Christian mythology), the central imagery of the prehistoric Goddess religion—orally-transmitted by untold generations of European mothers and grandmothers—survives in folk tradition and fairy tales.  This archetype of the Great Goddess or Great Mother, according to von Franz, was the “dominant archetype of Mediterranean civilization for long before Christianity” (1977/1990, p. 12).  “In studying fairy tales,” wrote von Franz (1972/1993), “I first came across feminine [emphasis added] images which seem to me to complement this lack in the Christian religion” (p. 1).  According to von Franz:

As the conscious religious views of Western Europe in the past two thousand years have not given enough expression of the feminine principle, we can expect to find an especially rich crop of archetypal feminine figures in fairy tales giving expression to the neglected feminine principle.  We can also expect to retrieve from them quite a few lost goddesses of pagan antiquity [emphasis added]. (1972/1993, p. 10)

Concluding Discussion

In the foregoing study of the rebirth motif in fairy tales, a close reading of the rebirth archetype’s unique but recognizably similar characters, settings, and plots indicates that formal literary structural elements found in Grimm’s fairy tales often bleed into a vast network of narrative analogues found in the mythico-ritual imagery of pre-Indo-European antiquity—including, significantly, shamanic initiatory motifs.  These two popular Germanic fairy tales are constructed out of foundational narrative symbolic features that have survived since ancient times and are found in numerous cross-cultural storytelling traditions.  The most recognizable and constant mythopoeic remnant is that represented in the motif of death-rebirth itself.  Regardless of the unique and contrasting structural features of Fitcher’s Bird and Little Red Cap, both tales contain many formal features in common, features that—upon close examination—open into symbolic narrative structures found the world over, preserved since prehistory in oral traditions of folklore whose symbolic language survives in contemporary literary and cinematic narrative analogues.  Like the heroine in Fitcher’s Bird, “Neo,” the futuristic hero of The Matrix film trilogy, raised his lover, “Trinity,” from the dead; like Little Red Cap, Walt Disney’s puppet-hero, “Pinocchio,” miraculously escaped the belly of the monster that devoured him.

Fairy tale heroes and heroines, like their mythic counterparts, abound in examples of initiatory, ritual death-rebirth structure and symbolism, from Snow White (Tatar, 1999, pp. 74-100) and Ninnillo and Nennella (Zipes, 2001, pp. 700-704) to Two Brothers (Zipes, 2001, pp. 374-390) and the Juniper Tree (Tatar, 1999, 190-197).  Certainly, the unique fairy tale narratives discussed in this paper, also constructed of conventional, age-old symbolic structures—two out of countless fairy tales featuring death-rebirth structure—serve to illustrate Campbell’s (1949/1973) idea of a unified “hero with a thousand faces,” an underlying narrative structural unity expressed in an endless parade of local variations (Campbell, Preface, 1949/1973).  Fairy tales, in which recognizable features of “camouflaged myths and degenerated rites” (Eliade, 1957/1987, pp. 204-205) are preserved, transmit key elements of an ancient storytelling legacy whose symbolic language of primordial imagery and initiation (i.e., death and rebirth) survives the transformation of stories, rooted in aboriginal oral traditions that reach as far back as historical evidence allows. These age-old metaphors are projected forward into their entertainment-oriented modern and postmodern literary (and cinematic) forms where, in the genre of so-called “children’s literature” and its film equivalents, they continue to enchant, entertain, and enlighten through the ages.


     The densely-packed, initiatory shamanistic imagery in Fitcher’s Bird and the common worldwide mythico-ritual motif of a heroine who survives being devoured by a monster in Little Red Cap—and imagery derived from the prehistoric matriarchal religion of the Triple Goddess in both tales—points to a historical source of the tales as fragments of ancient, initiatory narratives.  As such, fairy tales can be appreciated as more than the simple children’s tales we popularly understand them to be, as repositories of psychological wisdom relevant to our contemporary world.  As mythopoetic narratives, they also contribute to a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary epistemology, including psychology, cross-cultural anthropology, comparative mythology and religion, folkloristics, literary criticism, and more—including more recently, archeology, pagan studies, creative writing, popular culture, and mass media studies.[1]



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List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Bluebeard hands his wife the key to the forbidden room. Illustration by Gustave Dore.

Figure 2. The Bird-Masked Man with bison, Lascaux cave shaft. France, c. 17,300 B. C.

Figure 3. Little Red Cap in bed with the wolf. Illustration by Gustave Dore.

Figure 4. “The Three Witches from MacBeth” by Alexandre-Marie Colin, 1827.

[1] I would like to express my gratitude to the Saybrook University Chair for the Study of Consciousness, in Oakland, California, for support in the preparation of this manuscript.