Fairy Tales have sort of fallen out of fashion. Especially the ones with a female main lead, which are seen as old fashioned and misogynistic. Princess is just sitting waiting for her prince, LOL.
But this is a very misinformed approach. These tales have survived for thousands of years for a reason– they resonate with us deeply and speak to something within us. These are not just childish stories for entertainment but speak to larger psychological and spiritual truths within us.
Most of the Fairy tales speak to the feminine within us– and all of us, male or female, have this feminine with us. It is this inner female that resonates with the fairy tales and the message they teach.
I got introduced to this idea by Marianne Williamson (in one of her audio lectures). Although she briefly touched on it, once I got the “key” to the fairy tales, as it were, a whole world opened up to me.
The male/feminine within us
The male within us is the outgoing, extroverted, (usually) angry, running after money/earn status personality.
The female is relaxing, introverted, (usually) calm and peaceful.
We have both the male and female characteristics within us. And we need both in our spiritual and material lives, though some jobs may put more emphasis on the male part (trial lawyer, public speaker, politician) and some on the female part (psychologist/counsellor, nurse, teacher).
For this article, I will stick to the spiritual aspects of the inner male/female personalities.
In meditation, the male techniques are things like Hatha Yoga, any forceful Yoga including a few types of Pranayama, any meditation done with force, or forcing yourself to sit for long periods of time.
Feminine meditations are those like devotion, compassion (metta in Buddhism), forgiveness in Christianity, and Vipassana (as there is nothing to “do” except watch the breath in the simplest format).
In many Zen exercises, especially one where you have to sit for hours and hours, the actual meditations are feminine but become male due to the force applied.
I’m not making any judgement about which techniques are better; merely pointing out there is a difference. But I will mention the general spiritual community looks down on “feminine” techniques– which is why sitting with a straight back for hours is considered more macho and useful than practising loving compassion towards ourselves.
The Hidden Feminine Message in Fairy Tales
Most fairy tales are talking to the feminine in us. Some symbolism:
The Princess: Is almost always the inner soul, the deep childish self, our connection to the Divine. For most people, the Princess is asleep, ie, they never realise their spiritual nature. This pure self takes “birth” in us after some spiritual practice or suffering.
The Evil Queen: Is almost always the ego, the part of ourselves that is addicted to our suffering. The evil queen or the ego vehemently hates the princess because the spiritual self because it stands for everything the ego doesn’t: A deep faith in the universe, innocence and faith in the divine.
While the evil queen hates the princess, she cannot kill it; because it is the ego that is transient and fleeting. The spiritual self is our connection to God and so cannot be killed, at least never by anything as pathetic as the ego.
But the ego can put the spiritual self to “sleep” where she forgets who she is and gets stuck in the material world, stuck in a “dream like” state or Maya.
The Prince: Is the Divine Intelligence as a lover, who takes pity on us and wakes us from our dream of suffering. As I said in my post on the Gift of Suffering, most of us will usually awaken after extreme suffering and as a grace from God.
Let’s look at a few fairy tales to get a taste of the hidden meanings:
Snow White is the pure soul, untainted by the corruption of the world. So of course the evil egoic queen wants to kill her!
As I said, the ego cannot kill the inner soul, but it sure can try. Snow White survives the 1st attempt and makes it to the forest, where many wild creatures help her. These are the forces of nature that will help us on our path without any expectation of a reward; mainly because by helping the divine in us, they are helping the divine in the universe.
She is taken in by the dwarves, who are in a way short and incomplete men. They all have character flaws expressed in their names like Grumpy and Sleepy. So they cannot replace the Prince (or God) but in spite of their faults, they still are kind enough to help Snow White.
The ego isn’t fooled for long, though; she realises Snow White is alive when the mirror tells her. The mirror had me confused for a bit– what does it represent? Some people say it represents the material world or the ego’s own reflection, as the queen uses it to buttress her vanity. But the mirror always tells the truth, which it wouldn’t if it was based on the ego’s reflection.
I think the mirror is the Truth: the Deep and Heartful Truth. No matter how much the ego tries to pretend it is so powerful and unbeatable, it is at its core terrified it will die one day. I remember reading a book where it said many dictators, despots and evil kings would wake up screaming in the night, worried the people they tortured would be coming back to torture them.
And so, the ego tries to kill the spiritual self again but fails. She does put the spiritual self to sleep, where it must lie until the Prince comes to wake her.
And this is one of the core truths of the feminine path (and dare I say it, even the male path, because shock the male path is inferior to the feminine path, at least in the spiritual domain): At some point, the ego and the poison of the world will become too strong for us and we will collapse under it. At such times, there isn’t much we can do but wait.
The modern mind, used to Now, Now NOW! hates this waiting, but that is the reason why these fairy tales are so important.
I want to bring up sleeping beauty, as at least by my understanding, the villain in this story isn’t the ego.
If you don’t know the story, the king invites all the fairies to bless his newborn daughter but doesn’t invite one wicked one. She turns up anyway and causes the child to die on her 16th birthday.
The other fairies lament they cannot remove the curse, but they can change it. So instead of death, the beauty will sleep for 100 years until her prince comes.
When I read a version of this story, it said the evil fairy was an old crone, a fairy who could only give bad luck. And that’s when it clicked for me.
Many cultures have the myth of the crone, a wicked goddess or fairy who brings bad luck and death. In Hinduism, Dhumavati fills this role (most Hindus haven’t heard of her as no one worships her!). Japan had the god of poverty Binbōgami.
The thing about these dark gods is: You cannot hide from them, or try to ignore them. You must confront them and face them. These gods represent our shadow self, our darkest feelings of shame and disgust we try to hide from. This is usually called Spiritual Bypassing.
Hinduism has another tale: the great god Shiva(which means peaceful) was originally called Rudra the Terrible. He was a wild and angry god, a lot like the crone goddess and so the other gods avoided him.
He isn’t invited to a big ceremony all the other gods are performing, and not only that, the chief of the gods insults Rudra; so, in anger, his wife Sati kills herself.
Rudra becomes angry and kills all the gods. This causes a disturbance in the heavens as in the Indian system(and Chinese/Japanese, from my limited understanding of them) the gods are more like the spiritual government. Without the gods, all the duties they performed are left undone and humans start to suffer until another great God Vishnu comes and calms Rudra down.
Sleeping Beauty is a similar tale; one of warning. There is a darkness in us that must be faced, no matter how much it scares us. Pretending it doesn’t exist only makes the darkness angrier and she turned up on our doorstep anyway. In this story, the king and queen try to hide from their shadow self, and so the shadow self attacks them. They would have been better off just confronting their inner demons and dealing with them earlier.
Marianne Williamson, from whom I first got the idea, explained this tale as such: The fairy godmother is our Higher Self (or Buddha nature) who wants us to fulfil our spiritual goal (the Prince).
The fairy uses the things Cinderella already has, like the pumpkin and the mouse to create her carriage and dress. The message is: We don’t need any special skills or knowledge on the Path, God works with whatever we have. The step-sisters in this tale had wealth, and some of the other women had external beauty, but they all lacked the one thing the Prince (our Divine Self) really wants: Innocence and an internal beauty.
The story also tells us our divine inheritance cannot be stolen by the ego or by the petty world (like when the stepsisters try to force their feet into the sandal).
Beauty and the Beast
Is an interesting one, as the beast represents the insane ego, always willing to attack and hurt, like a beast. The inner feminine must use love and compassion to tame this animal self and not force. The tale also shows our shadow self can become our best ally once we change it with compassion.
The Little Mermaid
Is very obviously a symbol of the soul being entranced with the physical world and descending into it. Ariel faces a lot of pain and challenges, as that is what the physical world is like.
In the Disney version, she finds her prince and lives happily ever after. But in another version I read, she fails to win the prince and dies, though she does bless him from the heavens. The 2nd version, while depressing, is a warning to those who would try to find joy in the physical world. I will leave it to you which version you prefer 🙂
We could do this with all the other stories, but there is one fairy tale that blew me away. When I read it to my son, I was like, wow! This is obviously a spiritual text, how come no one has noticed it before? And it’s a perfect example of a female version of the Hero’s Journey, where the Heroine uses her faith, determination and hope to solve her problems rather than using her sword to murder anyone on her way (which is how most male Hero Journeys go).
The Snow Queen
There are many variations of this tale, as there are for all fairy tales. I will go with the one I read, but which seems to be the most popular.
A demon king makes a mirror that will only show people the worst in everyone else. While transporting the mirror, it shatters and the pieces spread all over the world. Rather than being angry, the demon king is actually happy as the splinters of this mirror enter people’s eyes and they start seeing the bad in everything.
This very first section, sort of a prologue to the story, reveals a great truth. The mirror, or rather its splinters, is the egoic way of thinking that only sees the worst in everyone. A sort of a cynical and very harsh view of people that always assumes the worst in humans. This cynical view has always existed but has become hyper-strong in the social media world where every small incident can be blown up to make it seem catastrophic.
Our 2 main characters are Gerda, a young girl, and Kai, her brother (or friend in some stories). They spend their time playing with roses and singing their favourite song.
Like all mythical tales, their idealistic world is shattered when an evil splinter enters Kai’s eye and he becomes cold and aloof, even cruel, to everyone around him. Gerda tries to talk to him but he won’t listen.
Kai here is the logical or outgoing (or male) mind. It is also the ego which is easily corrupted by all the negativity in the world.
Gerda is the inner spiritual self or feminine mind. The spiritual mind isn’t corrupted, but at least in the short term, it is weaker and loses the battle to negativity. Gerda fails to change Kai’s heart.
And then enters the Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen is the most complex (IMO) villain in any fairy tale. She can represent many things, amongst them the extremely logical mind which ends up becoming cold and uncaring (more on this below).
The Snow Queen is the Ego with a big E– she only cares about herself and looking beautiful. She is also the world of illusion or Maya– Kai only sees her external beauty and not the cold cruelty that lies beneath it. He is hypnotised by her and falls prey to her.
The Cold Logical Mind
I want to take a small break and talk about the logical mind. Modern people worship it and put it on a pedestal. We should all be logical, the modern person says. And certainly, this logical mind gave us many miracles of science, vaccines, freedom from the superstitions of old etc. But it also gave us nuclear bombs, pollution and environmental damage.
That is because the logical mind is, in itself, insane. It is the main tool of the ego. Like many people, I was enamoured with the logical mind till I started seeing its problems. It was Sri Aurobindo who warned me of this–the ego hides behind the logical mind, using its “logic” to play its status games and suppress others.
If you have ever been in a narcissistic relationship, you will know narcissists are some of the most logical people around; and the reason it’s so hard to get away from them is that they have great logical answers to everything (at least in their own mind).
When these logical people come to spirituality, they bring their “logic” to it, which usually ends with them realising they are already soooo enlightened, and they have nothing to do.
And now, back to the Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen is the epitome of the cold, uncaring logical mind that only cares about itself and looking superficially beautiful. Though the logical mind is usually shown as male, the Queen as a woman also makes sense at least from a story point of view: She is a counter to Gerda, who is simple and innocent. The Snow Queen is cunning, and to use a modern term, sexy; while Gerda is a simple village girl. No wonder Gerda can’t compete 😉
While she is outwardly pretty, she has no inner beauty. But Kai, with the splinter in his eye, only sees her outward beauty and is entranced with her. And so he leaves.
He had been very cruel to Gerda before he left, yet she goes after him. Because the inner spiritual self is full of love and compassion, and like God, it doesn’t abandon us even when we abandon it.
And so starts Gerda’s journey.
The 1st Challenge: The Golden Prison
What I found very interesting is the 1st challenge Gerda meets on her way. It is what could be called a golden trap.
Gerda meets a nice witch. This nice witch can see that Gerda has zero chance of defeating the Snow Queen. And she is right in this, as the Snow Queen remains undefeated in this story (as we shall see later on). Unlike wicked witches in most stories, the Queen isn’t a person but a force of nature and as such cannot be destroyed, any more than we could destroy a typhoon or a tornado.
And so the good witch, worried about Gerda, casts a spell on her so she forgets about Kai. She adopts Gerda as her daughter and treats her well.
About a year later, Gerda pricks her thumb on a rose thorn and suddenly remembers Kai and escapes.
This is an interesting puzzle– the witch was clearly nice and wanted to help Gerda. But she put her in a golden prison. While safe, she forgot her purpose. This is something we need to be careful about– choosing a life, a job, a career, a relationship, where we are materially happy and safe but where we lose the purpose of our life.
The Dark Forest
Not everyone Gerda meets wants to stop her. She meets a princess who takes pity on her and lends her a horse carriage, warm clothes and food. Gerda makes quick speed and catches up on the time she lost.
But as she gets closer to the Snow Queen’s homeland (near the North Pole, of course!) she enters a dark forest where robbers steal everything from her.
This itself is a message: While material comforts are good and often useful, ultimately we need to have faith in the universe. Gerda keeps her faith.
The robbers were planning to kill her, but the daughter of the robber’s chief saves her and helps her escape. We see that there are allies even in our darkest times.
The Lapp and Finn women
Gerda makes her way to another two kind women, one from the Lapp and the other from the Finn tribe(modern Finland). The 2nd woman is a powerful witch and the Lapp woman asks her to give Gerda magical weapons. The Finn refuses.
It might seem a bit cliched, but the Finn woman says: Gerda has everything she already needs inside of her.
The Snow Queen’s Palace
Gerda finally reaches the palace of the Snow Queen. It is a very beautiful palace made of unique snowflakes arranged in beautiful symmetry. Again, the cold logical mind can produce beautiful things but they are cold and spiritually detached from our life.
Kai is trapped inside the palace. He’s given the task of making the symbol of infinity but he is completely stuck and isn’t even aware how much time has passed. Infinity is another word for the Universe, the Divine, and God. Kai can never complete the puzzle because the logical mind can never discover God.
When Gerda comes to him, at first he doesn’t recognise her; but then tears come to his eyes and the evil mirror shard in this eye melts away. Showing the power of evil is limited when facing true love (yes, I know it sounds very cliched, but the cliches exist for a reason).
Then Kai and Gerda together complete the Infinity symbol and escape; to me, it shows that both the male (logical, outward facing) and female(emotional, spiritual, inward-facing) are needed to achieve transcendence. While Gerda, as the inner feminine, was not enslaved by the Snow Queen, she was still incomplete without Kai.
The Snow Queen is not defeated but she no longer has any power over Kai. This shows that just because we become spiritually awake, it doesn’t mean the Universal Ego is defeated. It just can no longer affect us. This is also one of the teachings of the Buddha, that enlightened beings must return to Earth to help others, even at great risk to themselves, just as Gerda risked her life for Kai.
And there you have it. I find this story brilliant. From a spiritual point of view, it is a real Upanishad , which means hidden or secret teaching. The story also works on a material level, as it is a great example of a Hero’s Journey. And the fun part it stars a heroine rescuing a trapped prince for once.
This post came out a bit long but I hope it gave you food for thought. As Marianne Williamson showed me the key, I hope I have shown you the power and hidden meanings behind supposedly “simple” fairy tales.
Going forward: Re-read your favourite fairy tales, but with this key in mind, and see the secret message it teaches you.
Todo: Meditations based on hidden meanings of the fairy tales??