Queen Bothildur: an Icelandic Christmas folktale

I found this story in a beautifully illustrated book of Icelandic folktales for children, Tales of the Elves, that I brought back from that country after a visit in 2012.

Tales of the Elves 400

One Christmas Eve, a richly dressed woman knocked at the door of a farm house in Hrutafjord and asked for shelter. The sheriff lived there and said she could stay.  When people asked her name, she said it was Bothildur, but she would not say anything else about herself.

She stayed home while everyone else went to midnight mass, and when they returned, they had never seen the house so clean and beautifully arranged.  The sheriff invited her to stay on as housekeeper, and she excelled at her work.  The following Christmas Eve, she stayed home again, but this time, when the household returned, they found Bothildur’s eyes red from weeping.

On the third Christmas Eve, Gudmundur, the sheriff’s shepherd boy, vowed to discover her secret.  As everyone walked to church, he feigned illness and turned back.  Gudmundur possessed a magic stone that made him invisible.  Holding it in his hand, he slipped into the farmhouse, where he saw Bothildur dressed in the finest clothing he’d ever seen.  She took a green cloth from a chest and set off into the night, with Gudmundur following closely behind.  They came to a lake where Bothildur spread the cloth on the water and stepped onto it.  The shepherd boy just had time to step onto a corner before the cloth began to sink.


It seemed like they were passing through smoke as they sank deeper, but at last they came to a grassy plain in front of a fair city.  Bothildur entered the city where everyone cheered.  A man who wore a crown embraced her and then everyone entered the church for Christmas mass.  Bothildur’s three children ran around the pews playing with three golden rings, until the youngest dropped his and couldn’t find it because the invisible Gudmundur had slipped it into his pocket.

When the service was over and it was time for Bothildur to leave, everyone was sad.  She walked alone with her husband onto the plain before the city.  Both were in tears and Gudmundur heard them say this was the last time they would ever meet.  They parted with great sorrow as Bothildur stepped onto the green cloth with Gudmundur behind her.

Bothildur returned home and was cleaning when the sheriff and the rest of the household returned.  Gudmundur came home later.  When asked where he had been, he told the entire tale of his trip to the land below the waters.  When Bothildur asked if he had proof, Gudmundur withdrew her son’s golden ring.  At that she was joyous.  She explained that she’d been a queen in Elf Land until a witch cursed her.  She could only return home on Christmas eve, and only a human brave enough to follow her to the world below could break the spell.  “Now you have released me and you shall be richly rewarded,” she said.

After saying goodbye to the household, Bothildur vanished.  That night, Gudmundur dreamed she came to him and gave him coins and jewels which he found beside his pillow when he awoke.  Later, he used that money to buy a farm of his own and get married.  In time, he became known far and wide as the luckiest man alive.


In Iceland, winter solstice celebrations were huge events – understandably, for by mid-December, the southern part of the country gets only four hours of light each day, and the northern regions, above the arctic circle, get only three.  Icelanders embraced Christianity in 1000 AD, but to this day, Christmas is a dual holiday, celebrating both the birth of Christ and the return of the sun.

Charming as it is that the doorway to the Other World should open on Christmas Eve, it’s a safe guess that Christmas is peripheral to the tale.  Stories of release from enchantment are found in every culture and predate Christianity.  Sometimes love and compassion break the spell, as in “Beauty and the Beast.”  Sometimes it’s bravery and cleverness, and sometimes even violence – in the first version of “The Frog King” published by the Brothers Grimm, the frog is disenchanted not by a kiss, but when the princess becomes so annoyed with him that she hurls him against a wall.

Aside from its simple charm, what fascinates me about Queen Bothildur’s tale is that Gudmundur, the young disenchanter, brings his own magical implement for the task.  Where do shepherd boys pick up magical stones of invisibility?  Jung believed that stones are frequently symbols of the Self, his term for the fully integrated personality.

Babylonian stone seal, ca 1595-1155 BC.  Creative Commons

Babylonian stone seal, ca 1595-1155 BC. Creative Commons

 Normally, such psycho-spiritual integration is the task of a lifetime, but in stories, legend, and scripture, young heroes as diverse as King David, St. Patrick, and Krishna worked as shepherds or cow herders when they were young.  However simple this folktale may be, it reflects what can be done by a person with a noble cause who is not at war with himself.

Belief in the Huldufólk, or Hidden People, the Elves, is common to this day in Iceland; in a 2007 survey, 57% of the population said they “do not disbelieve” in Elves.  In 2004, Alcoa had to pay a government expert to survey their proposed site for an aluminum smelter to make sure it was Huldufólk free.  Last year, we travelled a highway that had been diverted around an Elven dwelling.  We saw many small houses built on remote hillsides as homes for the Hidden People, and some Icelanders build them churches, in hopes they will convert to Christianity.

That may be an iffy proposition.  “The Icelandic word for Christmas, Jól, contains no reference to Christ or to the church. It is a Norse word that also existed in Old English as Yule.” (1)

Even so, as we read and tell their stories, I suspect the Elves are wishing us a Gleðileg jól go farsælt komandi ár – a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Stardust: a movie review


One day while Neil Gaiman was driving in England, he noticed a wall by the side of the road and imagined Faerie on the other side. He conceived the story of an American author visiting Britain who would discover the wall. Shortly after this, on the night he received a literary award, Gaiman saw a shooting star, and the idea for Stardust was born.

Stardust was first released as an illustrated series in 1997 and then as a novel in 1999, which won an award from the Mythopoetic Society.  A movie version in 2007 received favorable reviews.  After my recent review of Gaiman’s 2013 novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I realized I’d never seen the Stardust movie.  It’s available for rent on iTunes, and I highly recommend it.

Stardust gives us the wall, a wonderful metaphor for much of human culture, erected to keep us out of Faerie, the realm of imagination, heightened emotion, wonders, terrors, true love, and our true selves.

Responsible citizens don't cross the wall.

Responsible citizens don’t cross the wall.

Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a young man who lives in the town of Wall, is a classic dummling.  He’s a klutz who can’t keep a job and is infatuated with Victoria, a girl who won’t take him seriously and whose finance delights in tormenting him.  Yet Tristan’s father, who has been over the wall, says that might be a good thing – most people who find it easy to fit in “lead unremarkable lives.”  Then he tells Tristan the secret of his birth on the other side of the wall.

Tristan and Victoria see a shooting star fall into Faerie.  Still infatuated, Tristan vows to bring the star back to win her hand in marriage.  He forces his way through the wall to begin his search, but he is not the only one who saw the star.

The murderous sons of a dying king in the realm of Stormhold set off to find the star when their father vows that the one who finds it will be his heir.  And Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), senior member of a trio of witches joins the hunt – when stars fall to earth, the witches cut out their hearts and eat them, a little at a time, to preserve their youth and beauty.

Tristan reaches Yvaine the star (Claire Daines) first. Still intent on winning the hand of Victoria back in Wall, he uses a Faire chain to compel her to follow him.

Yvaine and Tristan

Yvaine and Tristan

At first they bicker constantly, but their time on the road and helping each other survive attempts on their lives creates a bond of friendship and finally love between them. Ever the dummling, Tristan is the last to realize this, but is helped when he finds a mentor.  Robert De Niro, in a virtuoso role as Captain Shakespeare, the gay captain of a flying steampunk pirate ship, teaches Tristan to fight, Yvaine to dance, and with a parting gift of  wisdom, whispers to Tristan, “She is your true love.”

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

As with any good dummling story, the ending of Stardust will leave you happy.  Though rooted in the sensibility of a modern coming of age tale, with elements of character development that the old traditional stories lack, Stardust fits Tolkien’s paradigm of the classic fairytale – the wonders and terrors we mortals encounter when we venture into other worlds.

Faerie whispers to us in sunlight, in starlight, and in our dreams.  Those intimations may be what make us most truly human.  No wonder we have an endless appetite for wonder tales, and Stardust is one that thoroughly satisfies.

The North Wind’s Gift: a trickster tale from Italy

If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you read the preceding post, Notes on Trickster stories, which provides a background and context for this article.  Both posts were inspired by “The North Wind’s Gift,” a tale from Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, 1956.  The story came to my attention in Allan Chinen’s discussion of tricksters and appealed because of its relative simplicity and relevance to our own times.

Italian Folktales

Here’s a synopsis of the story:

Once there was a farmer named Geppone who toiled in his fields every day of the year but could barely feed his wife and three children.  The North Wind blew at harvest time and ruined his crops.  Finally Geppone had enough and set out to find the North Wind and demand justice.  He reached the North Wind’s castle.  “Every year you ruin my crops,” he said.  “Because of you, my family is starving to death.”

“What can I do?” the North Wind asked.

“I leave that up to you,” Geppone replied.

The North Wind’s heart went out to the little farmer.  He brought out a box.  “This is a magical box which will give you food when you open it, but tell no one else about the magic or you’ll lose it.”

Geppone thanked the Wind and set out for home.  On the way, he opened the box.  Instantly a table appeared, piled with food.  When he got home, Geppone opened the box again and treated his family to a feast.  He told his wife not to tell anyone, and especially to say nothing to the priest, who was their landlord and a greedy man.

The next day, the priest spoke to Geppone’s wife and wrung the story out of her.  He summoned Geppone and  demanded the box on pain of eviction, offering seeds in return, which proved to be worthless.  As bad off as he was before, the farmer returned to the North Wind’s castle to ask for another boon.

At first, the North Wind refused, saying, “You ignored my warning.  Why should I help you again?”  Geppone pleaded, and reminded the Wind that he was still the cause of the family’s ruin.

“Very well,” said the North Wind at last.  He gave Geppone a magnificent gold box, but said, “Open this only when you are starving.”

On his way home, Geppone stopped and opened the new box.  This time a ruffian with a club jumped out and began to beat the farmer, who struggled to close the lid.  When he did, the ruffian vanished.  Geppone limped home, sore and bruised.  When his wife and children clamored to try the golden box, Geppone left the room.  This time two ruffians jumped out and began to beat the family.  Geppone slipped back into the room, closed the box, and the assailants vanished.

“This is what you must do,” he said to his wife.  “Tell the priest I brought home an even finer box, but say nothing else.”

Geppone’s wife understood and did as her husband instructed.  When the priest called the farmer and demanded the golden box, Geppone feigned reluctance, but at last agreed to trade it for the original box.  The priest rubbed his hands.  The bishop was due to join him for Mass the next day; a feast would be just the thing to win the approval of his superior.

The next day, after Mass, the priest, the bishop, and their retinue gathered for supper.  When the priest opened the box, six ruffians jumped out and beat the clerics.  Geppone, who was waiting at the window, took his time in closing the box to save them.

No one objected when he carried this second box home.  The priest never bothered Geppone again.  The farmer was careful to guard the North Wind’s gifts, and his family lived in ease and comfort for the rest of their days.

You can read the story as it appears in Italian Folktales here:  The North Wind’s Gift


It’s clear at the start of the story that we’re in a post-heroic fairytale world.  Geppone is not out to slay a dragon, rescue a princess, or win a kingdom – he just wants to survive.

Allan Chinen speaks of the different life stages that different fairytales address.  While the majority center on young people venturing into the world,  “middle-tales” like this have older protagonists with different kinds of problems.  From a Jungian perspective, Chinen notes that tricksters usually don’t show up in our dreams when we’re 18 and planning to take the world by storm – they visit us when we’re 40, with a mortgage, a couple of kids, and a car that needs an engine overhaul.

Geppone works from dawn until dark but can barely make ends meet.  His wife doesn’t listen to him, and the landlord threatens eviction.  This setup makes his story seem contemporary – if we’re not in this situation ourselves, one of our neighbors probably is.

We get the feeling Geppone has been down on his luck and taking it on the chin for a while.  Something finally awakens within him and spurs him to action.  As a result, he meets the North Wind, a wild spirit who will become his guardian and mentor and teach him the wiles of the trickster.

The North Wind is invoked in the Song of Solomon, in Aesop, and in Greek and Norwegian folklore.  He shows up in George McDonald’s novel, On the Back of the North Wind, in the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, and in Pokemon.  The North Wind is also associated with thunder gods like Zeus and Odin.  It’s not surprising that he is a shadowy trickster in Italy, where invaders and winter both arrive from the north.

Almost every successful fairytale character wins the help of a guiding spirit, and the North Wind’s help is just what Geppone needs.  It prompts him first to stand up for himself and ask for what he needs and then to learn enough strategy to overcome his oppressive priest and landlord.  To Jungians, fairytale allies like helpful animals, fairy godmothers, and nature spirits represent parts of the unconscious mind that are older and wiser than ego, which gets us into trouble in the first place.

What this means in practical terms is a vast subject, beyond the scope of a few blog posts.  Jung would suggest to patients who were comfortable in a religious tradition to return to it for guidance.  Much of Jung’s work aimed at helping people estranged from existing traditions who still needed to tap inner sources of wisdom.

In the “Power of Myth,” Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell where ordinary (i.e., busy) people might look to experience the wisdom of myth.  Campbell suggested we take 30 minutes or an hour a day in a quiet place where we can read what inspires us and perhaps keep a journal.

Just like this story, the psyche is home to ruffians and riches, and the old stories are not to be taken literally.  James Hillman, a prominent Jungian thinker, always insisted that literalism is the greatest enemy of inner wisdom.  So how does trickster wisdom manifest  in our world right now?  I don’t think we have to look very far.

A world that’s increasingly dysfunctional serves as a magnet for trickster energy, for good as well as for ill.  A Facebook friend mentioned that he once loaned out a book on trickster mythology and never got it back.  That fits the myths of trickster gods like Hermes who are also patrons of thieves.  Hermes may be the supreme image of the trickster.  As fluid as the metal which bears his Roman name, Mercury, he was the messenger between gods and humans who also conducted souls to the afterlife.  Patron of travelers, herdsmen, poets, orators, athletes, and inventors, his herald’s staff, the caduceus, is the symbol of healing to this day.

I find myself watching for positive manifestations of trickster energy, which usually turn up under the radar of corporate and government organizations which carry a vested interest in the status quo.  When you look, quite a few individuals and groups are trying out new solutions.  I’ll post at least one example in the near future.

In the meantime I would love to hear where you find trickster energy in yourself and in those around you.

Notes on Trickster stories

Many of you will have heard the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”  We do, beyond any question.  With a longstanding interest in folklore, I often find myself wondering which, if any, of the old tales can speak to us now and illumine our situation?  I always come back to the trickster stories.

Br’er Rabbit, an Americanized African trickster, from an 1881 book cover by Frederick S. Church. Public domain

Trickster tales are told around the world and may be among our earliest stories; in some traditions, tricksters create the world and bring fire to humans.  Sometimes benefactors and sometimes criminals, tricksters are contrarians, rule breakers, restless beings who disrupt and disturb, who keep creation moving, dealing out life and death in turn.

Groucho Marx, Loki, all of Shakespeare’s fools, and many animals, from Coyote, to Spider, to Br’er Rabbit are tricksters.  We named our first rescue dog Kit, short for Kitsune, which is Japanese for “Fox,” another famous trickster.  The reason should be obvious in this picture:



We have to lock the windows when driving with Kit because she knows how to hit the window button with her paw to roll it down so she can hang her head out, bark at other dogs, and catch the breeze. If Kit had thumbs, we’d be in serious trouble!

Establishments have little use for tricksters, and it’s easy to see why.  We may like them in the movies, but no one wants the Three Stooges to work on their plumbing. Schools are ruthless in their suppression of tricksters.  And yet, in times when the norms break down and the culture looses its rudder, trickster energy may be what we need.  Free of cultural norms and concern for what is polite or even legal, tricksters focus on what will work in the here and now.

After interviews with twin tower survivors, researchers discovered that people waited an average of ten minutes before deciding to exit the buildings.  “Do you think we should leave?”  “Will we have to use vacation time if we go?”  “What about the report I have to finish?”  Once they decided to exit, survivors spent several more precious minutes logging out of their systems and locking their desks and file cabinets.

Researchers concluded from this and other studies, that the human brain is often dangerously slow in reacting to radically different events or disasters.  These are the times when we need trickster energy.  Unbound by convention, the trickster jumps on a desk and yells, “The sky is falling – get the f**k out!”

Allan Chinen, M.D., a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry, wrote about tricksters from the Jungian perspective.  In 2012, I discussed his Once Upon a Midlife, an analysis of folklore aimed at that stage of life.  In 1993, Chinen published Beyond the Hero:  Classic Stories of Men in Search of Soul.

beyond the hero

Chinen argues that despite popular concepts and movies like Man of Steel, The Hero is not the core masculine archetype – the Shaman/Trickster is an older, wiser, and more primal energy.

Like most Jungian’s I have read, Chinen regards tricksters as primarily masculine archetypes.  I’m not sure how opinion stands in currently folklore studies; much work has been done with women’s tales in the last 20 years.  It is Gretel, after all, who uses trickery to kill the witch and save her brother.  Only by wiles can Bluebeard be defeated or brothers saved from various enchantments.

I suspect the difference is that full-time tricksters like Coyote are usually male.  You see it in children at play too, and sadly, it is overwhelmingly boys who get dosed with ritalin when they’re not docile enough for the modern classroom.  As Jung and Hillman both observed, what a culture defines as pathology may say more about the culture than the people it labels as defective.

Guardians of the status quo are wary of tricksters and with good reason.  They are almost always subversive – the Stooges only throw pies in the homes of the 1%, and Charlie Chaplin was no friend of the captains of industry.

Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times."  CC-by-SA-2.0

Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.” CC-by-SA-2.0

To personify self-preservation; to point out the shadow of a dominant culture; to keep the flame of hope and spirit alive; to demonstrate the power to wit to those who are disenfranchised.  Scholars now believe the Br’er Rabbit tales performed such functions for slaves as the Coyote stories did for Native Americans on the reservations.  In all likelihood, these are the gifts tricksters have given for untold millennia.

Next time I’ll look at a classic trickster story that Allan Chinen told, with an eye to it’s relevance for the 21st century.

Lego Fairy Tales

Once again I’m pleased to feature a post by the amazing Lily Wight, who found some fairytale illustrations I doubt that you’ve seen before. I wonder what the career path is – Lego engineer has always seemed like a dream job!

Lily Wight

     This month’s Lego fix features Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty & The Beast and a rather startled Little Mermaid.

     Just hover over the images for extra information…

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Where to find “Tales of the Elves: Icelandic Folktales for Children.”

In December, 2012, I reviewed a wonderful illustrated book of Icelandic folktales, Tales of the Elves.  I’d brought a copy back from our trip to Iceland in the fall, but was unable to find ordering information.

Tales of the Elves cover

At the end of the post, I invited anyone who discovered that information to pass it along, and a reader named Kimberly just did!  Here’s a link to page for this book at Eymundsson, the premier Icelandic bookseller.  This page, in English, gives a price of 2,499 kronur – at about 100 kronur per dollar, that’s $24.99, what I paid in-country.  If you’re still interested, read on, because now the fun begins:

When you add the book to your cart and move on, the next pages are in Icelandic.  With the aid of an online Icelandic to English dictionary, I came up with translations of these questions you’re asked:

Nafn: name
Heimilisfang: address
Postnumer: zip code
Baer: town
Land: That’s country, and there’s a pulldown
Netfang: email address
Simi: phone

Kodi gjafabrefs: Kodi is code, and I couldn’t find the second term. I’m guessing they mean country codes, which from Iceland to the US is 00 + 1 + area code + number.  Here is a look-up table if you live elsewhere.

Okay, fine!  No one ever said navigating through faerie was easy!  Eymundsson says they’re working to bring their international pages online, so one option is to check back with them in six months.

Would I order this book from them if I didn’t have it?

I have a collection of half a dozen illustrated fairytale books I’ve collected over the course of many years and they have an honored place on the bookshelf.  Each one reminds me of some special moment or place when I found it.  Tales of the Elves is the only souvenir I brought back from Iceland, as the sweaters were too warm for this part of California.

The illustrations inside are as fine as the one on the cover, so if you like this kind of illustrated book and have read this far, you won’t be disappointed.

Jorinda and Joringel, Part 2

Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain

Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain

This post continues my discussion of Jorinda and Joringel, a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm.  If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you do so.  What follows will make more sense.  Here is a summary of the story:

A young couple, betrothed to be married, stray too close to the castle of a witch in a dense forest.  The witch freezes the young man, Joringel, on the spot and turns the young woman, Jorinda, into a nightingale.  She cages Jorinda and carries her into the castle where she keeps thousands of other girl-songbirds.  

The witch then frees Joringel, who wanders to a strange town and works as a shepherd for a long time.  At last he dreams of a red flower enclosing a jewel which overcomes all enchantments.  After searching for nine days, he finds such a flower with a large drop of dew inside.  He uses the flower to free Jorinda and the other girls, and strip the witch of her magical powers.  Jorinda and Joringel marry and live happily for many years.

I have referred before to the writings of Marie-Louise Von Franz, Carl Jung’s closest associate, who wrote several books on folklore from a Jungian perspective.  In approaching this story, I reread parts of her Individuation in Fairy Tales (1977).

Individuation was  Jung’s central concept.  He used the term for the ultimate goal of inner-work, the lifelong struggle to realize the Self – not the ego-self but our unique totality, the union of all our tendencies, good, bad, and ugly.  This psychic wholeness can free us from the prison of neurosis.  

Jung and Von Franz listed numerous symbols for the Self:  the divine figures of all religions; the wise old man or wise old woman; the divine child, the helpful animal, mandalas, flowers, jewels, birds, golden balls, circular towers, and almost anything else that implies wholeness or completeness in itself. 

Rose windows in the cathedrals are well known western mandalas, symbols of unity in the cosmos, while our fairytale rose, which breaks all enchantments and hides a pearl, has a similar meaning for the lovers in this story.

English stained glass by William Wailes, ca 1865. Photo by TTaylor, 2006. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jorinda and Joringel, when they finally marry, embody another symbol of the Self in the Jungian view, the divine pair.  The mystery of the male-female union of opposites was often illustrated as a hermaphrodite in the alchemical texts that Jung studied, a western equivalent of the yin-yang symbol.

Fairytales don’t feature hermaphrodites, just normal weird being like giants and dragons, but I think we can look for this theme of “higher union” whenever a folktale ends with a wedding.  But before the happy ending, Jorinda and Joringel have to experience loss and getting stuck.

At the start of the story, they seem very young.  Young people don’t know the dark regions in the forest.  They play with golden balls, their original wholeness, but that is destined to go.  In folklore and in life, innocence makes a fall inevitable.

Everyone goes through stuck times. – the unsatisfactory job or relationship.  What once sustained us loses its flavor.  Marie-Louise Von Franz gave the example of one of her patients – a 43 year old unmarried man who lived at home and took care of his mother.  She had spells of illness whenever he talked of getting a place of his own.

Jorinda is caught in a different but similar trap.  Her transformation into a songbird is unique in my experience.  I haven’t come across this motif in any other tale.  A songbird is a pretty, entertaining, and unthreatening creature – perhaps what our culture wishes for young women and girls.  Yet to interpret the story like that amounts to projecting our modern sensibility onto earlier generations who shared this story around their hearths for hundreds of years – a risky proposition at best.

The witch is old.  Freezing people and caging them as songbirds can be seen as similar strategies for stopping time.  If we want to read this psychologically, we can imagine the witch as those places within that hate change, that cling to youth and beauty as if grasping will prevent them from slipping away.  It’s interesting that the healing flower contains a drop of dew, one of life’s more ephemeral things.

As happens when people are truly stuck, the solution doesn’t come from the characters’ ego selves – it comes from a transpersonal source, a “big dream” that leads Joringel to the magical flower.  And it doesn’t come immediately, but only after this one-time golden boy labors for a long time as a lowly shepherd.  Robert Bly has written in detail about the sobering quality of menial work in folklore.  Von Franz wrote about the value of work in helping the flighty, “eternal youth” in us get grounded.

The historical Saint Patrick was captured at 16 by Irish pirates and sold into slavery.  He worked for six years herding sheep.  He learned to pray in the wilderness and found his way to Christianity.  When the time was right, he heard a voice tell him his ship was ready, so he made his rather miraculous escape.  According to Jung and Von Franz, our inner center, the Self, does things like that.

To me, there is a beauty in these stories that equals scripture.  Faith, trust, kindness, belief in oneself and in the goodness of life, are implicit.  The heroes and heroines have to learn timing and instinct, when to trust and when to be wary, when to speak and when to be still.  They generally learn things the hard way (like us) after taking a fall – if their attention doesn’t falter in the forest, they wind up with a stepmother.  But those who listen to birds, to their own hearts, and to the voices in the wind, find a way to keep going and chose the right path.


I don’t have any definitive answers about what the stories mean – the paths through the otherworld shift too fast for that.  I’m not sure that folklore meanings have that much meaning – I offer the ideas of Jung, Von Franz, and others as maps of where other explorers have gone.  In the end, I think it is living with these stories that matters most.  And then, as Joseph Campbell, another great explorer said, we enter the forest at the point that seems best us and watch for the birds or small creatures beside the road who can guide us.

Jorinda and Joringel: a fairytale from The Brothers Grimm

The witch as an owl by Arthur Rackham

The witch as an owl by Arthur Rackham

I have seen Jorinda and Joringel (sometimes spelled Jorindel) in many folklore collections, but I always passed it by.  A cursory glance led me to think it was much like Hansel and Gretel, not one of my favorite tales.  I’m not alone in skipping it:  I’ve never seen it discussed or analyzed by any of the writers on folklore I read.

I picked it up recently, intending to read myself to sleep, but stayed awake instead.  Jorinda and Joringel is a scary story with unexpected depths as well as features found in other celebrated stories.  One key image strikingly parallels a central symbol from India, which raises other questions.  Here is a summary of the tale:


Synopsis of “Jorinda and Joringel” in The Annotated Brothers Grimm

Once there was a witch who lived in a castle in the depths of a thick forest.  By day she took the shape of a cat or and owl, but at night she appeared as an old woman whose nose curved down to touch her chin.  She would kill and eat any bird or animal that ventured near.  If any human came within 100 feet of the castle, she would freeze them on the spot; they’d be unable to move until she released them.  She turned innocent girls into songbirds and keep them in cages inside the castle; she had 7000 birds and counting.

A beautiful maiden named Jorinda was betrothed to a youth named Joringel.  They enjoyed nothing more than spending time together, and one day they decided to walk in the woods.  “We just have to stay away from the castle,” Joringel said.

As the sun began to set, they heard the plaintive song of a turtledove. Jorinda began to weep while Jorindel sighed and felt oppressed with sadness. He noticed the wall of a nearby castle, but before he could utter a warning, Jorinda was turned into a nightingale. An owl with flashing eyes flew around them thrice and Joringel was frozen in place, a living statue unable to move.

The owl flew into a bush and a moment later an old woman emerged to carry Jorinda into the castle.  When she returned, she freed Joringel from the spell.  He fell to his knees and begged the witch to return his beloved, but she only said, “You will never see her again,” and departed.

Joringel wandered aimlessly in great despair.  He came to an unknown village where he worked for a long time tending sheep.  Sometimes he would circle the castle there but never too closely.

One night he dreamed of a blood-red flower with a beautiful pearl inside.  In the dream, he was back at the witch’s castle, and everything he touched with the flower was disenchanted.  When he woke in the morning, he started to search for the flower.  For nine days he roamed wilderness and village, and at last he found a blood-red flower with a large drop of dew inside that was as bright as any pearl.

He returned to the witch’s castle, boldly strode up, and touched the gate with the flower.  It flew open.  He found the room where the sorceress was feeding her birds.  When she saw Joringel, she was filled with rage, but she couldn’t come within two feet of him.  There were several hundred nightingales – how would Joringel find the right one?  Then he noticed the witch sneaking toward the door with a single cage.

Joringel ran to touch both her and the cage with the flower.  In an instant, Jorinda stood beside him and the witch lost her magical powers forever.  After freeing the other birds, Jorinda and Joringel departed.  They were married and lived with great happiness for a very long time.


After reading the story several times, I jotted down a few of the questions that came to mind:

  1. Why are Jorinda and Jorigel depicted as being so young?  In several translations, they are called “girl” and “boy” rather than “maiden” and “youth.”  Of the three illustrations I found, one depicts them as children.  Why?
  2. People are frozen or turned to stone in stories all over the world.  I thought of The Water of Life which I discussed here, as well as the ice queen in The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  What does it mean to be frozen like that?
  3. Why were the girls turned into songbirds?  Enchanted fairytale people usually wind up in far less appealing shapes.
  4. Another widespread motif is doing menial work for a very long time.   Here it is tending sheep.  More often it’s kitchen work.  Cinderella worked in the ashes for as long as it took a hazel twig, watered with her tears, to grow into a large tree.  Fairytale heroes and heroines wind up doing menial work when they are stuck or stalled in their quest.  If they do it well and for long enough, they find solutions.  Can this tell us anything useful?
  5. My final question concerned the pearl in the blood-red flower.  In western stories, such flowers are always roses; in the east, it would be a lotus.  Om Mani Padme Hum, is probably the world’s best known mantra and is usually (though incorrectly) translated as, “The jewel is in the lotus.”  Are the parallel images merely coincidence?  Or diffusion of stories?  Or the collective unconscious, or what?

These are the kind of things I always wonder about in stories like this.  I hunted and found a reference that doesn’t discuss this particular tale but casts light on these issues.  I’ll discuss them next time.  Meanwhile, if the story raised other questions for you, please post them.  Maybe someone here or a songbird in the tree outside will have an answer for you.

To Be Continued