When was once upon a time?

When was Once Upon a Time?

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Lecture date: Sun, 20th Sep, 2015
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Estimated 7 min read

When was once upon a time is an investigation into myth, including religions and, as the title suggests, fairy tales as well. The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, among other things, a four volume work, published between the mid-1960s and 1970s entitled Mythologiques. This was a collection of all the myths of North and South America, over a thousand in all. The final chapter in book four was called ‘All one myth’ and he described them as reflections of one another.


The Archetypal Hero

Another person who studied myth and fairy tales in some depth was the psychologist Karl Jung. One of his followers, the well-known writer and broadcaster Joseph Campbell published a book in 1949 entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the prologue he wrote of the mono myth, a term which he said he acquired from James Joyce. The following review from Time magazine demonstrates the breadth of vision of Campbell’s book:

“ … Joseph Campbell presents the composite hero. Apollo, the Frog King of the fairy tale, Wotan, the Buddha, and numerous other protagonists of folklore and religion enact simultaneously the various phases of their common story. The relationship of their timeless symbols to those discovered in dream by contemporary depth psychology is taken as a starting point for interpretation. The psychological view is often compared with the words of such spiritual leaders as Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Lao-tse, and the ‘Old Man’ of the Australian tribes. From behind a thousand faces the single hero looks out, archetype of all human myth.”

We can see then that this one myth is not just in the Americas but around the world.  As the quote above suggests, this myth is also timeless, so now we take a look at time. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, also followers of Jung, wrote The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, published in 1991, in which they said:

“When we began this book we intended simply to gather together the stories and images of goddesses as they were expressed in different cultures, from the first sculpted figures of the Palaeolithic era in 20,000 BCE down to contemporary pictures of the Virgin Mary. This seemed worth doing because one way in which humans apprehend their own being is by making it visible in the images of goddesses and gods. But in the course of this research we discovered such surprising similarities and parallels in all the goddess myths of apparently unrelated cultures that we concluded that there had been a continuous transmission of images throughout history. This continuity is so striking that we feel entitled to talk of ‘the myth of the goddess’, since the underlying vision expressed in all the variety of goddess images is constant: the vision of life as a living unity.”

We can conclude then that this myth is not only present around the world but also that there has only ever been one myth. The Myth of the Goddess begins around 22,000 years ago with the stone sculptures found from the Pyrenees to the Indus valley. These stone images are all female but not children, nor older women. They are all of child-bearing age, so we might agree with Emile Durkheim that the first sacred object was the female body. What is interesting about Baring and Cashford’s book is that the images of women are gradually displaced, so that by the end of the book all the myths are told from a male point of view and that the sacred female images have been subordinated to the sacredness of male sky gods.


Our Beliefs Have Changed

It is obvious that we have learned everything we know. It is less obvious, however, that we have also learned everything that we believe. Beliefs are acquired in a much more informal way through our families and the communities in which we grew up. We are left then, with a series of largely unconscious assumptions. It is important to stress that the relationship between our various beliefs and reality is a complex one, and that beliefs are not phenomena which exist purely in the brain. The way we act in the world is justified by referring to our beliefs, and our beliefs in turn are justified with reference to our actions in the world. In this way we can conclude that if the imagery of women and men changed over time, then that must have reflected a changing reality on the ground.

All the world’s myths, in other words, are a record of the transition to patriarchy, which means of course a transition from an earlier way of life. This contradicts a virtually universal belief that men have always been in charge of human affairs. This universality of a belief which is not actually true entitles us therefore to refer to it as myth. It was Lewis Henry Morgan in the mid-19th century who introduced the Western reader to the notion of a classificatory kinship system, later to be known as the equivalence of siblings. This was a female-centred family system where women stay together (matrilocality) and descent was through the female line (matrilineality). The equivalence of sisters means that their children are regarded as the children of them all, and the children regard all the sisters as mothers. There are no relations called aunts, nieces and nephews, or indeed husbands, and all the sisters’ brothers are seen as fathers. Fatherhood then is a social relationship and not a biological one. Biological fathers are visitors from another kinship group (affines).

One other major transition was that from lunar time to solar time (from hunter-gathering to agriculture). It was during the neolithic when animal herding (pastoralism) began. It is not possible to own a wild animal, but with domestication comes ownership and also fierce competition between men to own more animals. Of course what follows from this is the purchase of women (privatisation). This loss of status amongst women and the increasing power of men is what the myths are all about. We must not assume that this was accomplished without a need to overcome a great deal of resistance, and so was a time of violence. One of the outcomes therefore was that these, now male myths, was to deny much of that violence.

There are three ways of interpreting myths. Religious fundamentalists believe their particular myths are true. The second most common interpretation is to read them at face value. This is true of Levi-Strauss, Karl Jung and his followers and all those musical tellings such as opera and ballet where myths are very commonplace. There is a third way of interpretation which is to take the male myth and peel back the layers to reveal the original story.


A Version of Sleeping Beauty

So to conclude here is a peeled version of Sleeping Beauty. Once upon a time there was a king and a queen. Immediately this sets the tale in historical time as it could never have been told before there were such people as kings and queens. The queen has a longed-for baby and they invite all their friends and relations to the naming ceremony. In the kingdom there are thirteen fairies and twelve of them are invited by the queen. These fairies give their blessing to the baby. These are in the form of attributes such as beauty in order to attract young men when it’s time to get married. The more attractive she is the more young men will want to marry her, so the king is then in a position to select the right son-in-law to make a good alliance (nothing to do with love).

The thirteenth fairy who was not invited to the party enters in a great fury and says that the girl, in her fifteenth year, will prick her finger on a spindle, bleed, and fall down dead. One of the fairies says that instead of dying she will sleep for a hundred years. The fairies represent the old female-centred way of life but only the thirteenth fairy is trying to hang onto the old ways, one of which was that a girl’s first menstruation was the occasion for a great celebration. So she brought the gift of blood, a blessing which she turned into a curse. This of course is not any old curse but the curse. The king, who did not want to present his daughter in marriage at the moment when she is bleeding, attempts to defy the laws of nature by ordering all the spindles in the kingdom to be burnt.

But of course nature will not be thwarted and the thirteenth fairy’s prediction comes true. Such is the power of the blood that the whole castle shuts down and is surrounded by a rose briar full of thorns which is impenetrable. So it remains for hundred years when a young prince arrives, the briar dies back and he is able to enter the castle, which begins to awaken. The final moment of the story is when the prince sees sleeping beauty on a couch and falls in love, bends down to kiss her and she wakes and falls in love with him. However, this is the patriarchal version of the story which disguises as love a brutal act of rape.


Thinking on Sunday

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Peter Logan

Peter Logan is first and foremost a thinker. He has a degree in history, although he did this for pleasure rather than as a springboard to a career. He has lead an eclectic life with various occupations ranging from playing in a rock-and-roll band, working in the docks to working…