Guest blog post by Amelia Starling
Sleeping Beauty is heralded as being one of the most passive fairy tale princesses. Whilst this may be true, it is also worth noting that her passivity is not of her own making. At birth, the princess’s fate is irrevocably chosen for her. The wording and motive varies depending on the version of the story, but the outcome is always the same: a long sleep induced by spinning. This fate creates a link between the worlds of fairy tale and mythology, where spinning wheels are more than just a way to make yarn and births are not only attended to by midwives.
Sleeping Beauty is always fated to fall asleep. Edward Frederick Brewtnall, Sleeping Beauty [image in the public domain]
The mythology of many ancient cultures, including Greek, Slavic, Roman, and Norse, contains Fates. These are supernatural beings who literally spin the threads of mortals’ lives. In ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the casters of the princess’s fate differ but they are usually women with supernatural capabilities such as fairies, witches, or seers.
In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar writes that ‘fairies, Wise Women, and goddesses – all these women can be seen as kin to the Fates and the World Mothers.’ No matter their guise they are all one and the same, and connected by their prophetic abilities and duties.
Choosing a spindle as the cause of the enchanted sleep provides another link to the Fates, who use spindles to create destinies. It serves as a reminder that the princess cannot choose, or rather, spin, her fate herself. On his blog Raven’s Shire, Ty Hulse writes that using a spindle ‘is more than just a way to make clothes in folklore; it’s a way to make fate. Fate is spun, and magic is woven by women.’ The fates are usually female, and there are usually three of them. In Greek mythology, the Fates are known collectively as the Moirai. Clothos is the spinner, who spins the thread from the distaff onto the spindle. Lachesis is the measurer, who measures the amount of thread given to each lifespan. Finally, Atropos is the cutter, who chooses the manner of each person’s death and cuts their thread when the time comes. The Moirai are present at births to begin spinning the thread of the newborn baby’s life. Similarly, the Fates of Roman mythology, called the Parcae, determine the lifespan of a baby on the day it is given a name. The Parcae are also three women; Nona is the spinner, Decima is the measurer, and Morta is the cutter.
In Norse mythology, the Three Norns sit beneath Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life. They weave threads of life into webs, or carve runes into the bark of the tree to create destinies. It was a Viking custom for new mothers to eat a bowl of porridge, dubbed ‘Norn porridge,’ as an offering to the Norns in the hope that they would look favourably upon their child.
Offerings are also given to the Fates of Slavic mythology. Their name varies from country to country, but they are generally referred to as the Sudice. Instead of goddesses, they are said to be spirits or demons. They arrive to cast fate at midnight on the third night after a baby is born. Each of them is responsible for a different aspect of life: misfortune, happiness, and death. It is widely believed in Slavic countries that these are the three stages of life, and that the order in which the Sudice arrive on the third night determines the order in which the baby will experience them. It is also said that the words of the final Sudice cannot be undone.
In most versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the seers arrive at the princess’s birth or christening, just like the Moirai and the Parcae. They foretell the princess’s sleep, and then do not appear again for the rest of the story. An exception to this is ‘Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine,’ which many folklorists cite as being the earliest recorded version of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ It is from the French novel Le Roman de Perceforest, which was written anonymously in the 1300s. Perceforest is a prequel of sorts to the legend of King Arthur, and contains many references to various gods and goddesses. The women who cast Zellandine’s fate are Greek and Roman goddesses, as opposed to a nameless group of seers. They also have a stronger influence over the lives of both Troilus and Zellandine throughout the story.
The goddesses who attend Zellandine’s birth are Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, Lucina, Roman Goddess of Childbirth, and Themis, Greek Goddess of Destiny. As with the Norns and the Sudice, offerings of food are laid out for them in the hope that they will be kind to the baby. Zellandine’s aunt arranges the dining table, but Themis’s knife falls to the floor out of sight.
Aurora pricks her finger on the witches spindle. Ann Anderson, ‘Briar Rose’ in Old, Old Fairy Tales [image in the public domain]
When the time comes for them to give Zellandine a blessing, Lucina goes first. She states that ‘this child shall be born with a complete and healthy body.’ This is a much more beneficial gift than the frivolous traits (such as beauty, the ability to play music, and good dancing skills) which the princess receives in Charles Perrault’s and The Grimm Brothers’ later versions of the fairy tale.
Next, it is Themis’s turn. Slighted by her missing knife, she declares that ‘from the first spin of linen that she pulls from the distaff, a splinter will prick her finger and in this way, she will immediately fall asleep, and will not wake up until it is sucked out.’ Themis’s status as the Goddess of Destiny implies that this fate is of her own making, and not merely a prediction. Finally, Venus uses her turn to counter Themis by stating that ‘by my art, I will see that the splinter will be sucked out and I will arrange everything.’ Again, this is not a prediction. Venus personally takes it upon herself to use her powers to change Zellandine’s life – and indeed she does. When Troilus seeks her help to awaken Zellandine, Venus becomes akin to a puppet master. She chastises Troilus by calling him ‘cowardly’ because he is ‘alone next to such a beautiful maiden whom [he] love[s] more than any other and yet [he is] not lying by her side.’ He attempts to restrain his desire, but Venus ‘took her firebrand and set Troilus ablaze and it was as if the heat made him lose his mind.’ Her powers of love and lust meddle with Troilus’s emotions, and provoke him to rape Zellandine whilst she sleeps. This results in her pregnancy, and the baby which sucks the flax from her finger to awaken her.
Venus, the Roman goddess of love, uses her powers in the story of Troilus and Zellandine. Sandro Botticelli, La Nascita di Venere (1483-1485), Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy [image in the public domain]
If the order that Zellandine’s goddesses arrived and spoke is compared to that of the Sudice, then the stages of her life can be proposed as such: First Lucina brings happiness, followed by the death-like sleep from Themis, and then inadvertent misfortune from Venus. Or, perhaps Themis could be seen as the bringer of misfortune and Venus as the bringer of death, in that the loss of Zellandine’s virginity is the untimely death of her maidenhood. She is forced to progress to motherhood without consultation.
As to be expected, Zellandine is distraught when she learns that her virginity was taken without her knowledge. However, she is reassured by the fact that ‘the gods and fortune’ wanted it to happen. She also forgives Troilus, because she understands that he too was subject to the influence of fate. Awful as the whole raped-whilst-sleeping plot is, the fact that Troilus was not acting of his own volition and that he and Zellandine were already in love before she fell asleep softens it slightly. Of course that doesn’t completely excuse the incident, but it’s markedly better than Giambattista Basile’s 1636 tale ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ in which the king decides for himself to rape a random sleeping woman he finds in the woods, and then forgets all about her afterwards. Talia is also awoken by her child sucking the flax from her finger, but unlike for Zellandine this was not foretold and is purely accidental.
In the world of Le Roman de Perceforest, it is abundantly clear that gods and goddesses have immense power over the fate of mortals. Moreover, this power is accepted without question; the characters understand that they are at the mercy of their pre-determined destinies. In the fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the princess’s fate is received with equal seriousness. The roles of its casters may have lessened over time, but their proclamations are no less powerful.
Even today, people in Slavic countries still leave offerings for the Sudice and believe in the three stages of life which they bring. Mythology is not just fiction; it affects how people respond to the world. The Moirai, Parcae, Norns, and Sudice are similar to each other, yet also unique to their own cultures. Linking them together is the universal concern that, like the princess in ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ we may have no control over our futures. But with this also comes the hope that, if Fates do exist and if we are kind to them, they will arrange it so that everything works out well in the end.
Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm: The Bicentenial Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Anon, ‘Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine’ in Le Roman de Perceforest. Found on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41390039.
Ty Hulse, ‘Understanding the Fairies of Sleeping Beauty’ on Raven’s Shire, 2012. http://fairies.zeluna.net/2012/07/sleeping-beauty-fairy.html.
‘The Three Norns’ on Norse Mythology, http://norse-mythology.net/norns-the-goddesses-of-fate-in-norse-mythology/.
Bryan Hill, ’The Three Fates: Destiny’s Deities of Ancient Greece and Rome’ on Ancient Origins, 2015. http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/three-fates-destiny-s-deities-ancient-greece-and-rome-003039.
‘The Narucnici’ on Journeying to the Goddess, 2012. https://journeyingtothegoddess.wordpress.com/tag/sudice/.
‘Sudaje – Female Spirits in Slavic Mythology’ on Meet the Slavs, 2014. http://meettheslavs.com/sudaje-female-spirits-slavic-mythology/.
Giambattista Basile, ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia,’ 1634.
Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the wood,’ 1697.
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ 1812.
Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in creative writing, and is currently an editor for Folklore Thursday. She blogs about folklore and fairy tales, and is especially interested in Sleeping Beauty, witches, and the ocean. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize, and visit her blog at http://thewillowweb.com.