So last we heard the king has his seven children, six boys and one girl, hidden away in a castle in the woods where noone could ever find them, including him, without the aid of a magical ball of yarn that rolls on the ground.
Now, the king's new wife gets jealous about him going to see his children all the time; she is "displeased about his absence". Here comes the trouble the wise woman knows the king needs in order to develop his own wisdom, to become whole, to move out of his fearful, defensive position (he has his authentic self, his childlike aspects, strongly hidden). She's going to get to the bottom of it.
In the psychological sense, let's propose this guy is probably the dreamy sort. Not that there's anything wrong with dreaming, but earth element (the witch, the archetypal feminine) strongly recommends that if you came here to earth, you should most likely be doing some earthly things, or why did you bother? And more generally, alchemical wisdom stresses balancing the elements, learning at least some mastery of all of them, or we are going to be lame. We could profile this guy as always reading about archetypally masculine, air element "enlightenment" (hunting), for example, or going to retreats and meditating a lot and wondering why his everyday life experience doesn't really change.
Maybe he's a braniac, a person who relies on his head to address any and all situations, including his important relationships. Or maybe he's even a substance user- while he's high (visiting the children) he's enlightened, connected, sure, but then he's got a whole different, fearful and unfulfilled experience when he comes down. As I like to say, the mind is a terrible thing- out of balance, of course.
In fact, his swan-sons do live in a rude earth element hut, the hangover effect. Wherever he goes, there he is... the archetypally feminine earth element cannot be avoided, just as the wise woman tells him he must commit to marry the daughter. This guy (or woman) with the deeply hidden children is easily found in our human experience- especially if you are a head tripper, a seeker- or a substance user! As Jung and the founders of A.A. realized, this human urge to get high is a religious yearning for divine connection, the ethereal "level" of air element. Though there are countless ways to imagine this king-psyche, here's an A.A. (and of course its countless offshoots) quote that dovetails perfectly with our story. It echoes the witch's insistence on the king doing anima work or he will die hungry in the woods;
In order to break out of this stagnant situation the feminine wisdom "troublemaker" needs to expose what's causing it. She "bribed his servants with much money" and they spill the beans. Fulfilling the role of the "bad guy" (the stepmother frequently does) in the story, just like the stepmother in Snow White, she "gave herself no rest" until she addressed the situation; she's our motivating force, like fear of death in the A.A. quote. She "made some little white silk shirts, and sewed a charm in each, as she had learned witchcraft of her mother." When the king's hunting, she gets the clew and enters the woods. The kids see someone coming and they think it is the king. The stepmother queen throws a charmed shirt over each- except the maiden, who had not run out. The six brothers turn to swans and fly away.
We can and should envision all of the feminine figures in the story as manifestations of the one person's feminine side here addressed. I know it may be hard to deal with intellectually, but in this story there are 2 women (or a woman and a maiden) who do the same thing; they sew six beautiful shirts for the brothers. Therefore, we can imagine the sister and the stepmother as a combined inner character, two parallel archetypally feminine lines. Similar to Penelope, they use magical fiber arts skills to create marvelous shapeshifting shirts, or coverings, for the king's much loved inner boys. Ultimately there are three feminine aspects here; the Maiden (Sister), the Mother (stepmother and mother-in-law) and the Crone (old woman/witch). This is the triune goddess, who represents and governs the psychospiritual development of the feminine for both men and women.
The stepmother-queen could have made any sort of shirt, but she made white silk shirts, and a more heavenly form of clothing is not to be found. Silk is the finest natural thread used by humans; it is truly a royal material when you consider what mastery and crafting it took to create clothing from it back in the day when everything was done by hand. White is (among other things) a symbol of purity, of spirit; it was probably the color most often worn by priestesses in ancient Greece. Just as the king (along with the rest of us) has hidden his beautiful inner children away in order to protect them from from harm, just so does the queen hide them away, as creatures of the air. She is the cause of the situation and the revealer of it, both. This layering of meaning is common in symbology, in metaphor, where beginnings and their endings are represented with circles and spirals. The question itself holds the answer. Here's our friend Rumi;
Again, the inner feminine evil stepmother character, representing (from one perspective) threat and fear, creates a situation in which the king is disconnected from his inner boys now. The story's telling us that's how we get disconnected from the soul; we became scared over the years or perhaps through traumatic events and hid it deep in our psyches, that castle in the deep, dark woods. Children often represent our soul connection, and so do swans. The same disconnection of the sons thing happens in The Seven Ravens (last story interped at this blog) only it is the father's actions that initiate the inner soul disconnection. That's another prespective.
The story is giving us different angles on the same event, since it's wise to know that stories always vary depending on whose perspective you're using. We have (so far) the king's, the witch-stepmother's, and the sister's. This variation on the situation is almost always the case in these stories, especially if they are long enough. It's also a very common thing in dreams. Our dreaming psyche typically gives us several ways of looking at an issue within one dream. You just have to find the correspondences; ask "How is this event the same as the other?"
Stories of all types tell us that the way to undo some situation is to discover how it was created; that's the basis of psychotherapy, though mainstream psychotherapy, being mostly aware of mundane, linear consciousness, is often stuck on that level of identifying as our past. As in the case of walking a labyrinth, we can come more or less full circle when we discover the origins of our conditioned behaviors; in the labyrinth the entrance and the exit are parallel. Shirts that hide are made + shirts are created that reveal why and how the first shirts were made to begin with=understanding. The ball of yarn is unrolled, and then rolled back up again; the tapestry is woven and then unwoven. This is just some of the magic that lies beneath the symbolism of the fabric arts.
So the boys are gone, and the king comes to the inner castle, and there's no one there but the daughter.
"'Where are thy brothers?' asked the King. 'Ah, dear father,' answered she, 'they are gone away and have left me behind,' and then she told him how she had seen from her window her brothers in the guise of swans fly away through the wood, and she showed him the feathers which they had let fall in the courtyard, and which she had picked up.
The King was grieved, but he never dreamt it was the Queen who had done this wicked deed, and as he feared lest the maiden also should be stolen away from him, he wished to take her away with him. But she was afraid of the step-mother, and begged the king to let her remain one more night in the castle in the wood.
Then she said to herself, 'I must stay here no longer, but go and seek for my brothers.'"
Notice she picks up feathers; these feathers are an indication of air element coming to earth. From that simple metaphor we can make a quick guess that this is the maiden's work; to help the king combine heaven and earth. White feathers falling from the sky is also one of Frau Holle's signifiers.
She leaves at night, the time for inward-turning, and walks in the woods all night and day, "until she could go no longer for weariness". It is often an abject weariness which takes us into our deeper psyche, into altered states of consciousness, in fact. We just can't keep up with the worldly drama, the illusion that we might be "getting somewhere". Exhausted folks have trouble feeling important, coping with the physical reality; incompetent, they are forced into the stillness which the king originally employed in the forest. Perhaps in A. A. terms they "hit bottom". Our striving for perfection, our airy dreams and our natural desire for beauty and love and whatever else we imagine would make life better, are for the moment lost; that which we have been running from, covering up, is revealed. We fall to Earth. Indeed sister comes to "a rude hut". "Rude" is an earth element word which comes from Latin "rudus", "broken stone".
The rude hut describes a state of being, a psychic construct, as buildings usually do in dreams; in this case it is our king's. She finds a room with six beds, "she did not dare lie down in one, but she crept under one and lay on the hard boards and wished for night." She doesn't dare lie down in it because to do so would symbolically put her in the same state of being which has possessed the brothers. She needs to keep her distance in the psyche; she isn't wanting to become a swan, however beautiful they might be. She's our earth element "ground crew", and she's about to get very busy bringing heaven to earth- or earth to heaven. The fact that she's under the beds is also significant of her groundedness; she lies on the floor.
In that magical time when day meets night (evening) that began this journey (King also finds the witch in the evening) she hears the rustle of the swan's wings. They "alighted on the ground, and blew at one another until they had blown all their feathers off, and then they stripped off their swan-skin as if it had been a shirt. And the maiden looked at them and knew them for her brothers, and was very glad, and crept from under the bed."
The shirts are a metaphorical device that can be read a number of ways. Basically, they are a covering, though, which determines how the king "sees", imagines, and therefore experiencse the brothers. The stepmother's shirts have caused the inner children to look a certain way in the psyche. Usually our way of "looking" at something is determined by our beliefs about it. The sister's shirts are different; she sees the brothers differently and will transform the soul-boys and therefore the beliefs and values of the king, into a more earthy version of these inner children. Once the six years of shirt making is over, he will experience his inner children differently, mostly in the sense that he can always embody them. They are not ethereal, not an idea, not a shameful secret, not under attack, not distant from him in the psyche, not left behind in his past; they are HIM, a previously embodied experience in childhood magically covered up, hidden, by none other than himself. Traumas and conditioning aside, if we do not value our archetypally feminine embodied experience as sacred, we will devalue it, and believe value lies only in the archetypally masculine air element, in intellectuality and spirituality. That's my society's usual experience. The sister is here to fix that.
The siblings are happy to see each other, but the brothers tell her "'You must not stay here,' they said to her; 'this is a robber's haunt, and if they were to come and find you here, they would kill you.'"
What's up with the robbers? Must be another "clew", right? I like this quote I got from the Online Etymology Dictionary, a place I frequent often, in reference to the word "rob";
It is the attempt of the more shrewd to take advantage of the less shrewd. It is the attempt of the strong to oppress the weak. It is the old robber baron in his castle descending, after men have planted their crops, and stealing them. [Henry Ward Beecher, sermon, "Truthfulness," 1871]
In short, this hut with its six beds is a place where folks are into worldly power. A desire to worldly power would be the easiest interpretation of the stepmother's jealous or possessive actions, too, as would the up and coming actions of the sister's mother-in-law. This desire for worldly power within the king's psyche is what needs exposing and transformation. When folks are too taken up with the physical, with earth element, with the mundane, with ordinary consciousness as seen through the eyes of the conditioned personality, they have not balanced heaven and earth. They get crude and crass, greedy and grabby.
So this is the current state of the king's psyche; he's flipping between spiritual connectedness and his power hungry personality, like most of us do. Maybe when he's feeling religious or spiritual or whatever, he's happy and loving (visiting the children). But then he goes into "the world" (earth element, the robber's den) and falls back into old greedy patterns, imagining that he is busy accomplishing important things, that others ought to conform to his expectations and desires, building up treasures on Earth, etc. Alchemy asks us to learn the embracing of both our earthly experience and the high-flying, ethereal air element nature rather than flipping between them, to weave them together. We understand and have compassion for both of these orientations in self and other. We judge not the robber, the worldly one, nor the possibly misguided seeker; we understand that they are both about the same business, searching for love in the manner of the unwise. Can't have too much Rumi:
And for the Grand Finale- a song.
A song from the king's voice, right? Both song and story begin with starting down a road alone...
Well, I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still
Then comes evening. The world got still (in the story, "he stood still"). The chorus:
I'm learning to fly but I ain't got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Spiritual aspirations, however they manifest, are air element, "learning to fly". "Coming down is the hardest thing"- the rude hut, the crude, robber-like, unbalanced earth element orientation. At the end of the song there's the line "What goes up must come down", too- exactly what this story tells us. Better figure out how to make heaven on Earth!
Well, the good ol' days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn
Remember I said the king needs to let go of his old orientation to the inner child? That's one way to think of "the good 'ol days might not return". Notice all four elements are in this song, the flying (air), rocks (earth, dirty road and hill,), the sea (water), and fire (both the sun and the burning).
Well, some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I've started out for God knows where
I guess I'll know when I get there
We have the king's crown (steal your crown), symbol of both earthly and ethereal power. The crown which can be stolen, however, is an earthly crown (remember the robbers?). The heavenly crown is eternal in nature, and it's never been stolen by anyone, though we might worry about weird second wives stealing our much loved inner children or whatever our fears might be. We also might feel "beaten down", like the weary sister.
"Started out for God knows where" would be one way to imagine the pathless path, since there's no goal. Anyway- I say it's an excellent song for our king!