In my copy of Grimm's there is a little trio of stories about brothers and sisters; this one precedes The Seven Ravens (last 4 posts). As the amazing illustration above (Rovina is definitely my kind of artist; check out her work for sale here on INPrint) depicts, there's lots of symbolic beauty to be had; a beautiful young woman, graceful swans, the threat of immolation, of martyring- dying for the sake of others (though that's not the symbolic meaning). There is the evil stepmother, the trusting husband, the saving of the cursed. I chose The Seven Ravens first because it promised to be shorter; this one could get long, for sure. But one never knows until it winds out.
Here are a few versions on line; the U of Pitt and the Gutenberg.org site (you will be taken to the title page, scroll down, select the story from the table of contents). There are as per usual variations on the lost swan brothers; Hans Christian Andersen has one titled The Wild Swans I guess, which is also as per usual for Andersen full of extraneous garbage aggravating to the symbolist. It's like someone's taken a beautiful handmade item- a table inlaid with gold, for example- and covered it over with cheap paint and glitter.
So let's cut to the chase- quite literally in the case of this story, which begins with a king hunting in the forest.
"Once a king was hunting in a great wood, and he pursued a wild animal so eagerly that none of his people could follow him. When evening came he stood still, and looking around him he found that he had lost his way; and seeking a path, he found none."
As always, the beginning of these alchemical tales gives us a foundation for interpreting what follows. Here we have the inner king, the figure of our masculine inner authority, who is hunting. This hunting bit describes him as a "seeker", in New Age spirituality parlance. He's seeking enlightenment, the authentic self, Truth, wisdom, unity consciousness, etc. etc. whatever you want to call it. This hunting metaphor is also found in the great myth of Narcissus, which I interped starting 8/24/13.
Pursuing a wild animal means wanting to meet with some aspect of the psyche that's unfamiliar to the conditioned persona, since tameness means essentially just that; conditioned. "Tame" means "fits into human society", into ordinary, daytime consciousness. We humans are all part tame and part wild. The common fairy tale symbol of entering the woods (sister will also do so) is the same; entering the depths of psyche beyond the conditioned persona. The fact that in doing so he leaves others behind fits, right? This sort of hunting usually happens best when we are alone. The Greek goddess Artemis as well as Roman Diana holds this half-tame, seeker-in-the-woods archetype, as do centaurs and other divinities.
The reason it's pathless is that when you stand there, in true stillness, you realize that whatever you could want is always here. From that unity consciousness perspective "going somewhere" is a fun story we cocreate with other humans as part of our sojourn in the time-space continuum. As part of our human developmental trajectory we "lose ourselves", our essential, authentic, spiritual self, our souls, our here-now beingness, in order to find it again. In the seeming "journey" of rediscovering it, in that process, we create a human life, like a blind painter who's going to get their sight back some day and see the painting they've been fabricating. Paradox is the place where the everyday consciousness meets the eternal, and metaphor, poetry, is the language that best describes it.
This "returning home" Ram Dass mentions is one of the themes in the last story here interped, The Seven Ravens. The metaphor of the path as painting is used in The Odyssey, only there, it's a weaving. Penelope weaves as her husband Odysseus journeys home; his experiences on the "road" (and on the sea) are incorporated into a work of destiny-art cocreated by the masculine and feminine aspects of the one psyche that the couple Penelope-Odysseus represents. This form of symbolic interp I exercise assumes first that all characters in the story are aspects of one person's experience and psyche, though our inner figures also manifest "outside" us. We are masculine and feminine beings, whatever our gender. Every night Penelope dismantles her work; it's the pathless path, the product-free weaving...it's the process that matters, not the goal. You don't take anything with you when you leave here but the transformed spiritual being that you are; you are the work of art.
Just as our sister will tend unwaveringly to her sewing, so does our personal development require that we place our attention on it instead of sitting in front of the TV all day eating junk food. Though folks may yearn for "enlightenment" at a very young age (as I did), from the wisdom standpoint that's not always advantageous. Our experiences in duality consciousness are pigments we use to develop wisdom, so- the more, the better, as long as we don't get more than we can digest. Experience is cocreative money in the wisdom bank, as it is in learning symbolic interpretation!
The illustration is of Mother Holle, or Frau Holle, in her Crone form, a Germanic wisdom, life and death, fate and destiny triune divinity or goddess. There's a tale in the Grimm's collection about her that addresses the very issue presented in the last 2 paragraphs; if you want to check it out go here. She's a winter goddess; in Germany she is the queen of the witches. "Witch" (like "wisdom") automatically implies healing, the journey to (or back to, in Ram Dass's words) wholeness, to authentic selfhood. Her nodding head implies (as the reference to evening does) that she's an inner doorkeeper. She's between sleep and waking; neither here nor there, a paradox, beyond definition. She can point us in the direction of psychic material that we've kept hidden from the daytime personality so that we can reclaim and redeem it. That's the sort of healing we're talking about in these stories.
That's just what the king asks about;
"'My good woman' said he, 'can you show me the way out of the wood?'
'Oh yes, my lord King,' answered she, 'certainly I can; but I must make one condition, and if you do not fulfill it, you will never get out of the wood again, but die there of hunger.'
'What is the condition?' asked the King.
'I have a daughter' said the woman, 'who is as fair as any in the world, and if you will take her for your bride, and make her Queen, I will show you the way out of the wood.'
The king consented, because of the difficulty he was in, and the old woman led him into her little house, and there her daughter was sitting by the fire."
The inner wisdom figure (witch) asks him to make a commitment here; marry the daughter. Just as I mentioned above, experience is the great wisdom developer, and when we commit to experience long term intimate relationship with a significant other, we are also committing to relationship with our inner man or woman. Remember the basic alchemical rule; as within, so without. It's sure and certain that magnetism between two people is created using that rule. Without commitment, without diving in and no immediate or easy way out, we don't get truly entangled in the human experience. We've got to get into trouble, as Michael Meade says; fated "trouble" challenges us to realize our destinies, our own unique wisdom-weaving. Again, this is a big part of Odysseus's journey; getting into trouble.
Mother Holle's name supposedly comes from "to prick", like the holly bush; without painful relationship pokes we don't develop wisdom. We may enter some sort of permanently enlightened state, but if it's not the result of working with earthly experience, which includes working with pain, suffering, and restriction, it's not wisdom, in my book; knowledge, but not wisdom. Symbolic wisdom figures are usually women for this very reason; earth element and therefore embodied experience itself is archetypally feminine. It's the Biblical Eve and her snake offering the apple of the Tree of Knowledge.
The king hungers for wisdom, chasing his inner wild animals through the woods, and the witch offers a permanent solution to his hunger. As a matter of fact, she promises that if he doesn't do his inner work with the feminine, his search for wisdom, enlightenment etc. will continue unresolved to the end of his human life; he will be permanently stuck in the search, wandering in the woods, and "die there of hunger". Like most of us, he will die in the state of identifying with the conditioned personality, none the wiser for his years. He will remain ignorant of his feminine side, and therefore remain dualistic in his outlook and actions. The energy behind seeking, hunting, is archetypally masculine, by the way; air element.
So in order to attain wisdom the king must take this unknown, generic woman, "fair as any in the world" into intimate relationship. In a sense, it doesn't matter so much who the woman is, as that he make the commitment. We can learn something about ourselves from relationship with anyone- especially if it "causes" suffering! The inner feminine characters for a man are called anima figures in Jungian psych. A man can recognize powerful anima aspects by magnetism; strong attraction and repulsion. This is an indication as to where his sometimes buried inner feminine power lies, behind what inner and outer masks. Since one of the aspects of the divine/archetypal feminine is sheer physical beauty's magnetism, that's a universally attractive feature, but there are many other subtler aspects that can attract.
I include the picture above (before the Jungian Valentine), of the goddess Hestia, one of the most ancient and mysterious of Greek goddesses, the goddess of the hearth. She is one of the "pure" goddesses; she never shows her face in the world and we have almost no physical representations of her. She is the innermost of the innermost of feminine aspects, the sacred inner flame of feminine truth. Is this one quality of the witch's daughter sitting by the fire? Fire element is a merciless revealer of truth, burning away the outer shell, the "extra", excess, leaving only the bones...
The king had been married before, and his first wife had left seven children, six boys and one girl, whom he loved better than all the world..."
Notice the King's repulsion; this anima figure is beautiful, but also rings his inner shadow bells.
Let's imagine the first wife as the "wife" or anima he was born with; the feminine that's not yet been tampered with by conditioning, not been rejected and/or feared, one for which he has no conscious or unconscious negative judgments. This first anima often shows up as a sister, thus these stories of sisters saving brothers.
There are seven children, also mostly unconditioned, childlike, innocent aspects of our king. This number seven is used in The Seven Ravens, as well as the seven dwarfs in the story of Snow White. The Seven Ravens interp here begins on 9/12/2014; Snow White on 9/23/13.
Since I did the seven thing very recently (Seven Ravens), and it doesn't really need detail in this story, I will be brief on the matter. Traditional philosophy and healing systems use the planets (there were once seven), their correspondences, and what is known as chakras in contemporary U.S. In short, chakras are energy centers ranged along the body vertically. The first "contains" psychospiritual energetic information about an individual's relationship to the physical body, to Earth. The second, governed by the moon, holds energetic patterns of our relationship and orientation to and experiences with our childhood family, with our watery emotions, our creative vortex, etc. And on up the body to the 7th crown chakra- unity consciousness, transpersonal experience.
So this fear of the king's is a metaphor for the overall process of creating our personalities and therefore our inner shadow material. As we are growing up, we have many experiences that cause us to hide away the innocent, beloved aspects of our selves- who we were "initially, before you got lost" in Ram Dass's words. This reference to fear describes every one of us. The stepmother stands in for fear of harm itself, in that regard, as she always does in these fairy tales. She is the feared, or the wild, feminine, the wild animal the king was hunting. Fear is the result of separating ourselves from someone or something because we ascertain a possible threat to life or well-being, thus we can recognize states of duality, of separation, because they elicit fear. Some portion of our fear is existential rather than conditioned; the human intellectual mind (there is also cosmic mind) is naturally afraid of the unknown, since it experiences itself as separate, period.
This hidden wood is also the wood that the king seeks wisdom in, the inner experience. The children are "so hard to find that the king could not have found it" because they are in the part of the psyche that he himself has consciously, or more likely unconsciously, placed these childish aspects. That which we have hidden from ourselves through self-and-other judgement is truly hidden from us, though folks around us might see it all too easily!
The clew or ball of yarn is a marvelous addition to the tale. It reminds us of another story that comes to us from ancient Greece, of Theseus and Ariadne (above). Theseus wishes to slay the minotaur, a voracious (notice the reference to hunger; our king might die of it) half-man, half-bull that resides underground at King Minos's island castle. This beast requires sacrifices of 7 young women and 7 young men every 7 years- our healing with sevens theme again. To shorten this reference, let's just say that the powerful and fearsome half-beast Minotaur represents some shadow material for Theseus (and for all of us). Theseus wants to stop the killing of the psyche's inner youths, and one of the problems with the task is that the minotaur lives in a labyrinth or a maze (both would be slightly different in meaning). If he finds his way in, he may not get out. However, the princess Ariadne (our fairy tale's "wise woman") takes a shine to him and gives him just that; a clew of yarn, a "clue" or guidance concerning the ins and outs of inner work.
The Six Swans also has a child-eating reference; the sister's mother-in-law takes her babies and accuses Sister of eating them. Basically, this eating of youths and babies is the hungry one (always the ego or persona) consuming our creative energies which could be used for our own psychospiritual development.
"...a wise woman had given him..."- Don't forget our king has solicited advice from a wise woman already- the witch. She did give him a clue; get intimate with your feminine side. Commit to loving it, no matter what it looks like, no matter how much it repels you, no matter how much you fear it. Notice there's a ring outside the labyrinth entrance above? And the labyrinth is in the general shape of a labyrinth. I'm going to finish for today with a little reminder on the ring symbolism I elaborated on in The Seven Ravens . The clew, or ball, of yarn is a geometric circle, right? Like the ring and the wheel, it's a symbol of unity consciousness.
I mentioned in The Seven Ravens blog that the wedding ring is (in its inner alchemical sense) a symbol of commitment to the marrying of our masculine and feminine sides, the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage. This marriage represents the psychic event when some aspect that we had been dualistic about, some place in our psyches where we've judged one side good and the other bad (fear is an indication of "bad"), though we might not have known it, is now unified. We see both sides of the story and we're fine with both; we don't identify with either one. We don't fear either one- or if we do we don't fear it enough to have to act on the fear anymore. We react to fear by embracing it, understanding that it's an inner aspect pointing to love, signalling an area of inner disconnection for and about us. Fear is not truly about "other", about reacting to "the world". It's about our inner states.
So when you enter into a committed intimate adult relationship (especially when you actually wed, because that ritual activates the archetype in your psyche), you are agreeing to reflect for each other the masculine-feminine dualities, as well as the unities, within. You enter the archetypal zone where it becomes obvious what these opposites and dualities are, since the significant other is constantly reflecting that to you. Just as Brunhilde in Wagner's Ring Cycle must lie within a ring of fire that can only be penetrated by the bravest of heroes, so does the work of reclaiming our inner feminine or masculine through relationship commitment burn us. It brings up our fears, for one thing; fear is experienced/alchemically represented as either fire or ice (water). I just watched the recent film about June Carter Cash, Ring of Fire, and the song which she wrote and Johnny made famous talks about that archetypal love zone. In The Six Swans the stepmother, the fair woman met by the fire, the witch-daughter, is this burning, purifying ring of fear-fire.