Symbolism in Sleeping Beauty
By H. R. Conklin
(author of The Eternity Knot in the Celtic Magic series)
Sleeping Beauty has long been my favorite fairy tale. I first heard it on the little toy record player my grandmother gave to me. The record set came with several classic European fairy tales, both as an illustrated book and a corresponding record. I was preschool-aged when I first listened to Sleeping Beauty, and I thought the story must be about me. After all, just like Aurora, I lived in a small cottage on the edge of a sunny meadow and a deep, dark wood. My house was even surrounded on three sides by a dense blackberry bush we could not penetrate. It was enough to cause me to fall in love with the story. You can imagine how difficult it was for me to grow into a teen during the late 1980s and hear that the popular fairy tales were being considered anti-feminist. Was I really expected to turn my back on the fairy tales I loved so much if I also wanted to demand equal rights? As it turned out, no. Fairy tales are actually full of empowering feminist symbols.
I came to learn that Sleeping Beauty is about the societal forces at work attempting to keep the young girl a maiden, never to grow into womanhood. This is the story of an overpowering masculine force, the king/father, trying to keep his daughter a little girl forever. He does his best to keep her from ever pricking her finger, symbolic for experiencing her first blood or menses. But the menstrual cycle is a journey that not only do most women go on, it is a journey that we go on alone. We might be, and hopefully are, surrounded by a group of women we can turn to with questions (i.e. our fairy godmothers), but ultimately, we are on a personal journey of transformation from maiden to woman.
Let’s look at the twelve fairies (in older versions of the story than Walt Disney’s) who are invited to the christening of baby Aurora, served dinner with twelve golden plates. These plates symbolize the twelve full moons of the year, golden and round. But the king and queen have left out the thirteenth fairy, just as the thirteenth moon was left out of the solar calendar. Thirteen is often considered an unlucky number, and while I was growing up I often heard that a woman’s period was “the curse” and not to be spoken about. This version of the story comes out of an austere era of chastity belts, corsets, and long skirts to hide the women behind. We are only just stepping away from such an era. It was less than sixty years ago that a girl had to wear skirts to school. So, when the thirteenth fairy is not invited it is a lot like women not being invited to the table of men. Because there are only twelve plates (the solar/masculine year) the thirteenth fairy (the lunar/feminine year) cannot attend. Yet, the thirteenth fairy shows up anyway and curses the girl. She will prick her finger, she will have her first menses. Kind of like when “Aunt Flo” shows up when we least want her to. But is it a curse or a blessing?
We know that growing older can’t be avoided, but the father especially struggles to fathom letting his daughter grow up, so he reacts to the thirteenth fairy’s curse by burning all the spinning wheels. Spinning wheels in fairy tales represent fate, and he is determined to change his daughter’s fate. Even in the Disney version of three fairies, who are the three old women raising Briar Rose (Aurora’s pseudonym) out in the woods, they represent the three Fates common in many a story from the Norse, English, and French. Fate cannot be changed, at least not in a myth or a fairy tale, and certainly not when it comes to the coming of maiden blood.
Aurora returns to the castle and climbs the stairs, symbolizing attaining knowledge, pricks her finger on the spindle or spinning wheel and falls asleep. Her age varies with different version: thirteen, fifteen, seventeen, but coincides with the age girls often get their first blood. Some as young as eleven, but not usually so young in this fairy tale. This is another clue to what this story is really about.
With the whole castle and the entire countryside fallen into a deep sleep (symbolic for blindly following a norm, in this case “keep girls young,”) a thorny hedge grows up around the kingdom, protecting them. An interesting thing about the teenage mind is that teens are known to need more sleep. There is actually a physiological response going on that this story accurately depicts in metaphor. Their rational brain, the frontal lobe, is still developing so rational decisions are not readily available. Their Limbic system is firing so their emotions are extreme. In essence, the young teenager is asleep, not yet an adult. Aurora, a young teenager, sleeps as she waits to grow up, and society sleeps with her, unwilling to let her grow up. Society, after all, prefers young humans over old humans, as often advertised on television.
While Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) sleeps, she is given a gift. We aren’t told what happens to her as she sleeps so we often assume nothing at all happens. She must simply be waiting for her prince to come and kiss her awake. This is where this particular fairy tale gets in trouble with feminism. However, if you’ve read The Myth of Inanna (a Sumerian myth) or Persephone (a Greek myth), I believe we get a hint to what is taking place while she sleeps. In these two stories, both women travel into the depths of the world and must overcome a trial. Inanna triumphs over death while Persephone embraces death, both journeys culminating in a more complete woman in these two stories.
The gift for Aurora is completeness; in essence, womanhood. In stillness, sleep is bringing alive Aurora’s imagination on her way to becoming a woman. Rational thoughts, which are still under the influence of the emotional brain, are maturing. When she awakens, she is a woman with a well-rounded, rational, emotional, and imaginative mind. She has had her first menses, (remember when she pricked her finger.) The king cannot stop the natural cycle of Aurora becoming a woman. The thirteenth fairy made sure of this.
Yet, something else also took place within the princess while she slept. Her feminine and masculine sides came together in her. The original story of Sleeping Beauty is “Sun, Moon, and Talia” from 1634 in which Sun and Moon are the twin children of the sleeping maiden, who is raped while she sleeps. This is a harsher metaphor of her coming into womanhood. The 1697 version of this story is “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” by Perrault and it, too, has a rape bringing about twins. As harsh as this metaphor is, the sun is often seen as masculine and the moon is often seen as feminine, as we saw with the cycle of the year. Disney removed the rape scene and the twins (Sun and Moon) and placed instead a prince that penetrates the hedge and awakens the sleeping princess. The hedge, like a forest, symbolizes darkness, or an unknowing. With the arrival of wholeness (masculine and feminine coming together) the roses bloom, something the philosopher Carl Jung considered to represent the integration of male (thorns) and female (flower.) Again, higher knowing is gained by the girl who is now a young woman.
Through understanding the symbolism in fairy tales, my favorite childhood fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, is saved. A person with a well-balanced mind, one with rational thinking, emotional thinking, an imagination fully blossomed, and the feminine & masculine energies intertwined is, indeed, a happy person. The “happily ever after” has nothing to do with the marriage between two humans, but a marriage of the mind of a complete and whole woman, in spite of her father trying to keep her young forever. The feminist in me rejoices and it’s still one of my favorite stories. I have shared it in my Women’s Story Circles.
For more about my circles, check out my website www.wildrosestories.com. For more about symbolism in other fairy tales, read Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde and her other writings. https://www.marinawarner.com/book/from-the-beast-to-the-blonde-on-fairy-tales-and-their-tellers/ I have found I enjoy reading fairy tales even more now that I know they contain sacred symbolism. I thoroughly enjoyed researching the fairy tales and myths I used in my Celtic Magic series for this reason.