How Snow White and Her Cruel Stepmother Help Us Cope with Evil

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“Mirror mirror on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?”

Whether we first heard these words read to us as a bedtime story, or in a darkened theater, enthralled by the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, (where it was actually “Magic mirror on the wall,” although most people remember it otherwise), the queen’s imperious question casts a spell. We know trouble will soon follow. Even the littlest girls get it and hold their breath in anticipation and concern. “Fairest of all” shocks us with its competitive edge, touching a core part of our feminine selves. Attractiveness, it presumes, determines our status and value as a female. Beauty, we will come to understand, is an asset, but also a curse.

Queen and mirror for Stepmother evil postVanity and envy are the twin engines that drive the story of “Sneewittchen,” the title used by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm when they recorded the folktale in 1812. It became “Little Snow-White” in English translations based on the Grimms’ final 1857 version of the tale. Most fairy tales originate as oral stories repeated over generations and reflect older strata of cultural development when humans lived closer to nature and the membrane between the real and the imagined was more porous. Birds spoke to humans, the wind was a spirit, and giants trod the earth. The collected fairy tales we know today are a distillation of many iterations, the product of countless imaginations told by many tellers. But despite their ancient origins, fairy tales remain relevant to our postmodern selves and depict the dramas of the human soul, one of which is the confrontation with evil. This frequent motif reflects our experiences with destructive forces symbolized by giants, trolls, witches and monsters. The tales suggest ways to recognize and discern good from evil and provide solutions to life-threatening challenges.

Drupsteen Queen for Stepmother Evil postFairy tales set down no single way to deal with evil. In some stories, the heroine outsmarts the opposition, as Gretel does in “Hansel and Gretel” when she pushes the witch into her own oven. In other tales, flattery wins over the devil; in others, a physical battle is required. Sometimes the hero, aided by magical helpers, must become invisible so as not to be seen by the enemy or must simply fly away. In fairy tales characters are typological rather than psychological. They encapsulate known “types” rather than individuals—the king, the queen, the fisherman and his greedy wife, the selfish sisters, the abandoned child. This makes it easy to identify victims and perpetrators.

By taking a closer look at these absolute types, we can spot what roles have dominated our psyches.

Evil is a source of suffering, but enduring suffering brings with it a new level of consciousness, a mature personality, and if we are lucky, wisdom. Fairy tales often begin with a state of deficiency. The king has died or the queen is barren or the poor miller has no money. A crisis ensues that begets suffering, symbolic of psychological pain. The hero or heroine takes up the task to resolve the crisis and end the suffering; radical transformation is in the making. Just so, crises in our own lives can precipitate a search for meaning and a transformation of self.

Peddler Witch for Evil Stepmother postIn “Little Snow-White,” a stepdaughter is persecuted by a stepmother for having something the latter wants: youth and beauty. As in real life, envy provides the fuel for ruthless behavior. In the case of Snow White, the envier demands nothing less than the total annihilation of the envied one.

The D. L Ashliman translation of the 1857 version of “Little Snow-White opens this way:

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.

Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.

The opening scene occurs in winter when life is buried under a layer of coldness. A wistful mother longs for a child, a daughter like herself. She pricks her finger and drops of blood splatter on the frozen ground, hinting at an ominous situation to come. We soon learn that when the child is born, the mother dies. Here, then, is the deficiency at the beginning of the tale: the absent mother and the motherless child. We are next told that the king, now mentioned for the first time, has taken another wife, “a proud and arrogant” woman. The new queen is Snow White’s stepmother.

In fairy tale language, the stepmother embodies traits we associate with evil: rage, envy, jealousy, greed, self-absorption, cunning cleverness, and uncanny powers. Rarely do we meet a kindly stepmother, for like all fairy tale figures, the stepmother is an archetypal symbol not an illustration of a real individual whose feelings, emotions, and thoughts we are privy to. The wicked stepmother contains all that we fear and loathe in the feminine, a female devil whose diabolical nature and brutality frighten us. Unlike her male counterparts, the monsters and Bluebeards who inhabit other tales and engage in bloody combat and wizardry, the witch/stepmother’s weapons of choice are more devious— gossip, poison, and directing others to do her dirty work. Her power to bewitch and the inexhaustible amount of energy she expends to carry out her nasty wishes is the stuff of nightmares. She is the hag on a broomstick, mad Bertha locked in the attic in Bronte’s Jane Eyre; she is Cruella De Vil. In fact, in a 2014 UK survey, one-third of the 2,000 adults polled voted the Evil Queen in “Snow White” to be “the scariest fairy tale character of all time.”

Dwarfs remove comb for Evil Stepmother postAs a universal figure, the witch or stepmother or evil-doing woman reappears in fairy tales across time and continents. That she is a mother and cruel engenders in us a peculiar dread. The wicked mother figure presents a paradox: if we are to survive childhood, we need our mothers to nurture us, but the evil mother wishes to devour our being. We fear her ravenous desire for power, her one-sided narcissism and obsessive nature as we fear our own hunger for power and rage, the split-off and dissociated qualities in ourselves C. G. Jung called our shadow, those despised parts of self we project onto others. In psychological terms, the denial of what is most troubling in us is a primitive defense mechanism that strives to keep us ignorant of what we are unwilling to face. In “Snow White” we have the positive and negative aspects of the feminine self. While the queen is “all bad,” Snow White is too good, too pure, too innocent, and thus unable to discern the evil in her midst. Psychologically speaking, the unacknowledged dark forces within her have been projected onto her stepmother. However, being “the good one” does not prevent suffering; in her regressed childlike state, Snow White is vulnerable; she fails the test of each of the three temptations offered by the queen, and becomes immured in a glass coffin.

Fairy tales and dreams share a compensatory function in alerting us to unconscious elements in our psyches. The witchy woman in our dreams may well symbolize some stifled, raging, but unrecognized part of ourselves. The stepmother stands in contradistinction to “the good mother” whose qualities lie on the other end of the spectrum. The “good mother” is all loving, giving, caring, beautiful, kind. But she is often too passive, too innocent, or too weary to protect her child. In this tale as in many others, the good mother dies at the outset, leaving the daughter the task of having to find the path to maturity.

For Snow White, the death of her real mother and the arrival of a stepmother appears to portend disaster, but the challenges presented by the new queen’s cruelty are actually good news for Snow White. As Terri Windling notes in her wonderful blog post “Snow, Glass, Apples: The Story of Snow White,” “Unlike sons who set off to win their fortune, who are journeying toward adventure, the daughters are outcasts, running away. The princes usually return at the end of the story, bringing treasure and magical brides. Princesses do not return; they must forge new lives, new alliances.”

Queen poison for evil stepmother postBy forcing her to leave home, grow up, and discover who she is, the stepmother’s malevolence moves our heroine along the path to self-discovery and resilience ending in her psychological growth. The cruel queen makes three attempts to kill her competition, and with each attempt the younger woman is seduced by her own desire and narcissism, accepting the laces, poisoned comb, and ultimately the poisoned apple from the disguised queen. Until she faces the existence of evil and her own naiveté, Snow White will remain a child.

If you’d like to chew on one aspect of this story, consider this:  “Little Snow White” is a story about emotional development set in motion by the arrival of evil. The tale has a satisfying ending: the evil queen dances herself “to death in red-hot iron shoes.” Yet we must remember: we have the evil to thank for the plot twists that lead to Snow White’s awakening. In stories as in life, evil sometimes gets the ball rolling. Without the evil stepmother, there would be no story.

Dance for us! Marcel Mercado http://www.marcelmercado.com evil stepmother post



Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes

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Preparation for the witches’ sabbath. Etching by D. Vivant-Denon after D. Teniers the younger.

Anyone who has been raised by a cruel or neglectful mother can attest to a painful legacy of rejection. The effects of deprivation of good maternal care are uncontestably at the core of a host of psychological maladies. Our first relationship is with our mothers. Across cultures an infant’s first attempt at word-forming starts with babbling the sound Mamommy, maman, mater, mutti, amma, mare—as if from birth we are programmed to call out to the person most likely to sustain our lives.

But what do we make of negative mothers, those who do not care for and attend to us? Once, on a friend’s sheep farm where I’d gone to help with lambing, I witnessed the sad spectacle of a mother ewe rejecting her offspring. Tottering on its weak legs, the lamb struggled to nuzzle and suckle, but the ewe shoved the lamb from its udder. The lamb tried again, and again the ewe kicked and butted until the newborn lamb collapsed and gave up. Recently, while reading Peg Streep’s excellent book, Mean Mothers, this haunting image returned to me.

“. . . not all mothers love, unconditionally or otherwise. For the mother who doesn’t, the cultural myths of unconditional love and maternal instinct require her to hide and deny her feelings at all costs, even if she cannot always keep herself from expressing them in words or gestures. There’s no room in the mother myth for the mother who resents all the attention her infant or toddler needs, or who chafes at the necessary loss of freedom and self-focus the transition into motherhood usually entails.”—Peg Streep, Mean Mothers

Our personal mother may be cruel and inadequate in fulfilling our needs, but it’s helpful to enlarge our understanding of their influence by exploring the archetypal dimensions of motherhood and situating the personal within the context of the universal. As Carl Jung writes:

“. . . all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes

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Behind the personal mother is the archetype of the Great Mother. She is the force that drives creation and destruction, fecundity but also the barren womb. The Great Mother is Mother Nature who brings us fruit and grain but also hurricanes, drought, and locusts. She is Gaia, Demeter, Isis, and all the other goddesses from the beginning of time who have been worshiped and propitiated, demonized and thrown out.  She is not our birth mother, she is the our psychic heritage of what motherhood attains, and she carries within her the poles of good and bad mothers that come down to us through fairy tales and myths.

“These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.” —Carl Jung, Four Archetypes

As the bad mother we know her as the queen in Snow White, as Cinderella’s stepmother, as Circe or Medusa, whose gaze turns us to stone. These figures stand for a reversal of positive mothering. Instead of providing food and comfort, they seduce and devour, harboring a secret malicious intent. They “eat up” our self-confidence or numb us with their betrayal. Many of us read these tales and identify ourselves in the narrative. We say, Yes, my mother is just like that, and we can understand that from the beginning of time there have probably been mean mothers, and realize, because of this long history, that we too can survive our own.

Among the archetypes, the witch is a fascinating figure. When someone calls another “a witch,” we know exactly what they mean. The witch has powers. She is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging our own impulse to conform. To not conform, especially as women, puts us at risk of being called a witch (or the rhyming word that begins with a B).

“The witch figure presents an awesome image of the primordial feminine concern with herself. Maternal life spends itself like life’s blood flowing outward to nourish the sounds and bodies of loved ones. In the witch figure, life flows inward and downward to fuel the dark recesses of a woman’s psyche or a man’s anima.”—Ann and Barry Ulanov, The Witch and the Clown: Two Archetypes of Human Sexuality

The witch reminds us there may well be unnamable and untamable aspects of ourselves where passions stagnate and fester. What parts of us don’t fit into the conventional idealized feminine? Do we harbor an urge that wishes to transgress and to cross borders? Historically, innocent women have been tortured and killed because the prevailing masculine rule feared female sexuality.

What if we draw on the full complexity of the mother archetype and think of our mean mothers in another way: as women whose creativity has been stifled, the vital flow of their creative energies dammed up, ignored or rejected, and thus unavailable to be consciously used? Without a positive outlet, these women may experience a fixed negativity that damages their ability to nurture.

The hundreds of similar fairy tales illustrate the universality of certain psychic phenomena. In most tales, the witch is a persecutory figure. She pounces on victims who feel helpless to defend themselves. In reality, young children can be helpless victims of parental neglect, and good fairies do not always intercede. But as adults, we can see beyond our own situations to the archetypal dimensions that underlie our present reality and discover we do not suffer alone. In these tales, help of some sort usually steps forward to rescue the heroine, often in the form of animals, birds or toads. We can hope that these also represent archetypes: inner helpers cultivated in our own psyches who will lead us out of harm’s way.

Fuseli Night Hag Lapland Witches 2 for Mothers Witches post
The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches by Henry Fuseli (1796) illustrating lines 622-66 from Milton’s Paradise Lost “the night-hag when, called, / In secret, riding through the air she comes, Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance / With Lapland witches, while the laboring moon Eclipses at their charms.”