I was wondering when this Waterhouse painting was going to make itself useful! My reading in Alone of All Her Sex by Marina Warner spurred this little peek at the similarity between sleep and death in symbology and in the human imagination. It would seem that the figure in front, holding the red poppies, is Morpheus, the ancient Greek god of sleep and dreams (yes, the character in The Matrix has the same name). So he's asleep. I'm guessing that his half brother is Orpheus- almost the same name, right? Orpheus did actually die, killed by women who couldn't hear his charming music (his lyre, or maybe a kithara, is next to him). Waterhouse has (I assume) tried to show that the outward appearance of death and sleep can be the same, and that there is a relationship between the two that can be depicted as a beautiful stillness. Of course we can't all look as nice when we die as Orpheus does here. In fact Orpheus was torn into pieces, and that's another story. He is a very complex god, as is Apollo, the other master of the lyre.
I'm making this connection to loosen up any concepts that there needs to be a distinct line drawn between death and sleep from the symbolic view, to widen the categories in imagination. And here's what prompted this:
Likewise, Snow White's body was incorruptible in death for at least one basic reason; she was not dead in the bodily sense. Isolated from "the world" in her magical glass box, a strange and beautiful renunciate, Snow White rides the line between a holy sleep and death, just as Betty Boop rolls along the death-dealing precipice in a ball of snow (previous post). I find it amusing to imagine these icons above as Snow White with the seven dwarves around her instead of Mary and the thirteen disciples. Would Jesus be the Snow White prince, holding her little anima, her soul? When we are in love, we certainly feel the other embraces our very soul, as Jesus does here for his mother. It is quite certain that these themes weave themselves from story to story in the human collective.
The queen sits by a window in the middle of winter, the time the Earth sleeps, a time of inner work and stillness. "Snowflakes the size of feathers were falling from the sky"; what does that suggest? Remember, these stories contain little detail that is not of symbolic significance, in order to enhance the possibility of properly interpreting them. Too much detail and things get muddy and head-trippy. So I imagine the white feathers as falling from angels' wings. We're talking a purity (white) here of an ethereal sort.
She pricks her finger on the needle, and three drops of blood fall on the snow. Just as in Briar Rose's finger pricking, the blood and the snow are interpreted in the alchemical sense as, most simply, sacrifice/loss/wounding and purity/innocence/unity. The number three is the number most thoroughly associated with the sacred in Euro-Western culture. For example, the holy trinities of father, mother, and child, of the three ages of woman, the sacred alchemical three that we're working with here.
This woman in her longing notices that something is beautiful, the blood on the snow; "The red looked so beautiful against the snow that she thought:'If only I had a child as white as...'" and so on. I imagine this thing she notices as a realization that there is something beautiful or maybe just compelling in the suffering she experiences internally, and something beautiful in the thing that seems to cause the suffering (the envious stepmother), by proxy. This is the redemption I refer to over and over, and addressed a bit in the recent post on Eve.
Then the mother gives birth and dies; end of scene 1. One of the tricks of interpreting symbolic stories that I actually learned from doing dream interps is that we dispel any need for linearity. In other words, the scenes in the story can be mixed and matched, shuffled like cards, and this first scene is the story presented in its short form; woman desires to experience life differently, realizes she can do so through working with her inner shadow (evil stepmother) and darn well does it. The baby is her new consciousness on the matter at hand, now undivided into good/evil as it previously was, and when the new consciousness arises, the old one dies. Now she is experiencing life in a less disconnected way.
"The queen died after the child was born" is a device to isolate this part of the protagonist's story and experience from the rest. It's like those dreams you have where a little scene plays out, and then all of a sudden you are in a different scene, though you know it's the same dream. The first scene in the dream presented the story from one perspective, the next scene is the same story or issue only presented in a different way, and etc. People usually say, "And then all of a sudden I was in a completely different place" when they have this going on in dreams.
Within, we are all the inheritors of an abundant and glorious way of being, if we can figure out how to claim it. This inheritance can be claimed despite, and indeed because of, outer destitute or difficult circumstances, as tales like Cinderella tell us. Notice someone being crowned on the left; this represents a new level of inner authority which is always part of connecting more thoroughly with what we sometimes call these days Spirit, universal consciousness, as opposed to duality consciousness. Snow White as both evil stepmother and longing mother will come into her own as queen through this story, a new level of inner authority, where she no longer has to hide from evil/hide her evil. In alchemy, we don't get crowned only once. A given way of relating to the world will end, the old king or queen will die, and then we will receive a new crown.
This is why cooking can be used to signify inner transformation, as it is in Adam's Apples, reviewed in my book of film reviews. There's a dream related in The Hedgehog (also reviewed) that uses the common symbolism of losing teeth. Teeth, as cutting and grinding tools, are part of this alchemical work, as is the digestive tract. Snow White's story also includes eating and cooking. We are the witch's cauldron of transformation.
Notice also that Snow White's time of stillness, her sleep/death, her time of transformation, takes place in an alchemical container, a "transparent glass coffin...that allowed Snow White to be seen from all sides". From all sides? Including the back, maybe (last post)? We are multifaceted beings; that's one of the ways to interpret the symbol of the jewel, with its many reflective surfaces. When we step out of narrow, one-sided visions of self and other, we see another facet of the jewel that we are, that the world is. We see our other face, both the one that we hid from ourselves and the one that we had before we were born, our original face, as in the Zen scripture:
"When you're not thinking of anything good or anything bad, at that moment, what is your original face?" Snow White's going to go beyond that good and bad orientation. It's the desire to see that original face that spurs folks on in their soul development, the longing that starts the tale.
Next- the evil stepmother and her magic mirror!