Revisiting The Sleeping Beauty
This essay was originally written on April 24, 2013 for a college course called Age of Cathedrals. In order to preserve the integrity of my clunky writing style from nine years ago, it has not been edited in any way. I thought about it, but there's something nostalgic about the weird academic way teenagers are taught to write. I have, however, added images to help you visualize some of the religious iconography. Shout out to the professors at my catholic university who had to read all my papers on why the bible is both the ultimate source for fanfic and fanfic in itself. This is just one of those papers. - Nate
The Sleeping Beauty: A Christian Borrowing of Pagan Ideologies
“Fairytales reveal important truths about life.”
The theory underlying stories of sleeping beauties such as Snow White and The Sleeping Beauty, for she has many different names depending on the story you read, is that girls who are reaching puberty must go into a contemplative sleep before they are to become biological women. In all sleeping beauty stories, a prince comes along and wakes the sleeper, which signifies her moment of maturity. The interesting detail and the one I will explore in this paper is that these pure, virginal sleepers were not active participants in their transitions to womanhood and the subsequent betrothals to their princes. The sleeping, passive innocence and the overall characterization of these 19th century fairytale princesses are borrowed from stories and medieval iconography of the Virgin Mary who is often pictured in a deathlike slumber with golden spinning needles to show both her divinity and her humanity. This borrowing, I will argue, indicates an important social conversation that has a much longer tradition harkening back to pagan legends which were adapted to fit Christian needs while simultaneously being cast off as sinful by Christians.
To understand where this idea came from, it may be helpful to connect a lesser know story, “The Glass Coffin”, to the medieval iconography of The Dormition of the Virgin Mary. It was popular to depict Mary as a peaceful sleeping beauty on an adorned bed, and many of these medieval icons look very similar to the depictions of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in their sleeping scenes. “The Glass Coffin” is a story from Grimm’s Complete Fairytales about a princess who is found in a cave hidden by a rock, similar to Jesus’s tomb. She is cursed and asleep in a glass coffin when a tailor’s apprentice finds her and sets her free. She thanks Heaven and tells him that it is Heaven’s will that they be married and restore kingdom to its former glory. This is a simple, short story that is obviously highly involved with religious iconography and mythology, and it sheds light on one of the most important tropes Snow White and Sleeping Beauty borrow from the Marion stories, that of The Dormition of the Virgin.
Snow White is originally found in the fairytales written by the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, first published in 1812, and has been adapted multiple times but most iconically by Walt Disney in 1937. “Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs” is the main story Disney uses in his adaptation, but he also uses some details from Giambattista Basile’s “The Young Slave”. Basile’s story is significant to this argument because, in his telling, Snow’s mother magically conceives her by eating a rose leaf. This is one of many virgin pregnancies that occur in sleeping beauty fairytales mirroring Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus.
The seven dwarfs, who become Snow’s companions when she is lost in the forest, are noteworthy for several reasons. Mythological dwarves traditionally have no parents, do not marry, and do not have children. They are asexual creatures that do not threaten Snow’s purity allowing her to live in their home without suspicion of any sexual corruption. Also, the number seven occurs in the bible in multiple places and symbolizes holy perfection; so these dwarves serve as her protectors, and only in their absence does she fall into the deathlike sleep. Another biblical reference that reminds the reader that Snow is only human is the three temptations sequence. She is tempted, in the Grimm’s version, three times by her disguised wicked step mother, and all three times she falls into a deep sleep, which the dwarves and the prince save her from. Jesus’ three temptations in the desert are similar, but they are meant to show that he is more than human and lives without sin or fault. In Snow’s case, it is her childlike innocence that allows her to give into temptation without deadly consequences. The consequences do not kill her as they might an adult human because of her innocence.
Sleeping Beauty is a little more complicated, as her story has been told in a few different ways. For clarification purposes, in Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” she is simply “the princess”, in the Grimm’s “The Sleeping Beauty” she is Rosamond or, in some translations, Briar Rose, in Basile’s “Pentamore” she is Talia, and in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” she is called both Briar Rose and Aurora. As all of these stories are not familiar to most, I will offer as much detail as is necessary to explain the relevant symbolism.
Perrault’s princess is awakened by her prince’s kiss. They are instantly married and have a daughter named Dawn and a son named Day. Her children are supposed to be fed to the prince’s mother, an ogress, but they are secretly saved, and when it is the princess’s turn to be eaten she is willing to sacrifice herself to be with her children in heaven, but it is then revealed that her children are still alive and the ogress is killed.  This idea of a mother suffering to be with her children is not unlike Mary’s suffering when Jesus died on the cross. Talia is the most like the Virgin Mary. During her sleep, her eventual prince, who she has not met yet, impregnates her with twins, named Sun and Moon. She gives birth to them while she is still asleep and wakes up when one of her children, who has been feeding from her breast while she slept, sucks the poison out of her pricked finger by accident. She is not a participant in her pregnancy and Bettelheim argues that this is because she is supposed to retail her virginal innocence, like Mary, even after she gives birth.
Disney leaves all of these details out to create a more virginal, pure version of the princess who is most closely modeled after the Grimm’s Rosamond. Why, then, call her Aurora, a goddess known for her sexual prowess, while Sleeping Beauty is supposed to be pure? Remember that her given name, Aurora, is not used until after the prince awakens her. She is called Briar Rose up until this point suggesting a sexual maturity at the point of her awakening. In the Greek myth, Aurora brings the morning every day on her golden chariot. She is notorious for ravishing handsome young men and fell in love with a human, giving her a status similar to Mary’s, simultaneously earthly and heavenly. Note also that the mythological Aurora had a brother and sister named Helios and Selene who were in charge of the Sun and Moon respectively, like the children in the other stories of Sleeping Beauty, and that “aurea” means “golden” in Latin.
All of the versions have some form of golden object or throne in Sleeping Beauty’s bedchamber and they all tell of her sleep being brought on by the prick of a spinning needle. These two iconographies are typical of medieval depictions of Mary who often holds golden spinning needles and thread in Annunciation scenes. This is because she is said to have spun the veil of the temple and she metaphorically “spun” the Christ child himself within her womb. A connection between the annunciation and the dawning of the sleeping beauty’s feminine maturity is made with these spinning needles and golden objects. Also, similar to the seven dwarves, Sleeping Beauty is given gifts by seven fairies in the Perrault, Disney, and Grimm stories. The seventh saves her life with the stipulation that the evil curse will only bring her undying sleep. This fairy also prophesies the coming of the prince to save her, which is a biblical trope especially in regards to The Visitation of Mary and The Annunciation. The seventh fairy acts as a guardian angel of sorts.
The Sleeping Beauty is connected to the sun in all of her incarnations whether with the names of her children or her own name. Likewise, Bettelheim suggests that “Snow White’s perfect beauty seems distantly derived from the sun” and “according to the ancients, seven planets circle the sun, hence the seven dwarves”. The sun may not be directly connected to the strictly Christian Virgin Mary, but this is where pagan mythology can be used to link all of these stories together. Bettelheim points out that fairytales were frowned upon in the Christian community because of their pagan undertones. This argument seems unstable to me since many pagan practices were Christianized in the middle ages forcing the iconography and legends of pagans and Christians to overlap from the start.
A perfect example for this study is the Norse goddess Freyja who was replaced by the Virgin Mary during Christianization of the Northmen. Freyja is an earth goddess, opposed to a sky goddess, humanizing her much more than some other gods, and she is known for possessing the miracle of birth. She also “weeps tears of gold” and “flew over the earth, sprinkling morning dew and summer sunlight behind her”. These are all attributes of the Greek goddess Aurora as well, and the connections to Mary cannot be denied since the Christianization of the Northmen included morphing their preexisting Freyja into the new character of Mary. Interestingly, Freyja is known as “The Fair One” which should ring a bell for anyone who knows Disney’s Snow White, as she is referred to as “the fairest of them all”. Sleeping Beauty too is given this moniker in Perrault’s story, “You would have thought her an angel, so fair was she to behold”. These overlapping references are not coincidences.
It seems, with all the evidence given, that the Christian Virgin Mary, Norse Freyja, Ancient Greek Aurora, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White are all linked back to the same iconography. All four stories are involved in some way or another with magical pregnancies, motherhood, earthliness or humanity, the sun, and some smaller details like gold, virginity, and beauty. This suggests that the origins of all folklore and mythology stem from similar belief patterns in different groups of people. The stories of these women range from Greek myths to 19th century fairytales. The Greek, Norse, and Christian stories are used for religious devotion while the fairytales are less devotional, but all are meant to teach the same lessons of piety in women and the responsibility of mothers.
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