Monthly Archives: January 2014

Folklore and Number 3

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Folklore the Number 3

Folklore the Number 3

Rumpelstiltskin and the Number 3.

In the end, Rumpelstiltskin becomes the tricked instead of the trickster. First, he is the trickster and then the others turn the tables and trick him. By calling out his name, he looses his powers. In my collage, Rumpelstiltskin has come to claim the first-born and I am showing the moment just before the group chants out his true name.

One of the aspects of the story that I liked was the use of the power of three.  The spinning wheel goes whirl, whirl, whirl turning the straw into gold.
Rumpelstiltskin gives the Millers daughter 3 days to guess his true name. She has to turn three rooms full of straw into gold. He comes for the baby three months after it is born. The Jaybird, the squirrel and the foxes attract the Game Keeper. He hears the voice of Rumpelstiltskin and watches while the goblin sings and dances around the fire.

Three is a magical number in fairy tales. In most cultures and religions, numbers are carriers of symbolic meaning with often-complicated significance. Numbers are frequently expressions of the cosmic and human order or of the harmony of the spheres.

Three is a particularly significant number for most peoples. It is the synthesis of one and two, the symbol of the principle that embraces all, the image of mediation, and the number of sky (heaven) in contrast to that of earth the number four. The symbolic meaning of three probably relates to the elementary experience of productive fulfillment in the trinity of man, woman and child. Three also forms the basis of numerous systems and ideas of order.  Multiplicity; creative power; growth, overcoming duality, expression; and synthesis are associated with the number three. Three is the first number the word “all” has been appropriated. The number has a beginning, middle, and end. It is man as body, soul, and spirit. It is birth, life, death, past, present and future. It represents father, mother and child.  Once, twice can be a possible coincidence, but three times carries certainty and power.

Folklore has three wishes, three tries, three princes or three princesses, witches, fairies. Three being equivalent to the many, can symbolize a large number, a crowd, three cheers, and signifies fulfillment. Lunar animals are often three-legged. Three is the number of good fortune. Bad luck comes in threes. Counting to three is the minimal amount of counts while setting the rhythm or rate. The third time is a charm. In baseball, the batter gets three strikes before he is out. There are three outs and the side is retired.

In this story of Rumpelstiltskin, the number 3 plays a key role.  In the collage, and old woodcut shows a spinning wheel and a woman spinning. The Miller and the Goblin accompany her.  The King, Queen and the first-born are watching. The Miller stands defiant determined to foil the goblin. When he hears his name chanted Rumpelstiltskin  is so enraged that he stomps his foot driving it into the ground and then yanks his other leg so hard that he splits himself in two.

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“Rumpelstiltskin Is My Name”

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In this collage I portray Rumpelstiltskin as an aspect of the wild and randy god Pan, ancient guardian of the wild.  We find him here creating the magic that will allow the miller’s daughter to spin the king’s straw into gold.

Pan was a god of woodlands and meadows, guardian of both wild animals and flocks with the torso of a man and the hind legs and horns of a goat.  His worship spread far and wide spanning a millennium that we know of and probably stretching back far beyond his first archaeological appearance in the 6th century BCE.

There is a story from the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37) that purports to report the death of Pan.

One day a ship piloted by a sailor named Thamus lay becalmed off the Echinades islands.  Suddenly a great voice sounded from the shore.  It called his name three times.  When he replied the voice shouted, “Tell them that great Pan is dead.”  As he sailed along the shore, the pilot shouted to the people on land that the god was dead, whereupon arose the sound of great weeping.  The news spread fast and when he arrived in Italy the emperor summoned him to be questioned by a committee of scholars.  The learned ones interpreting the event decided that the Pan in question was not the god, but a demon of the same name.  

Early Christians believed this story and took comfort in it, confident that it marked the beginning of the end of the pagan era, but in fact, well into the 4th century B.C.E. coins were being minted bearing the face of the god.  It takes more than a decree to banish a god or to convince people, especially those living close to the land, nature spirits don’t exist.  The spirit of Pan lived on in the tales of the fey, the ‘little folk’, fairies, brownies and gnomes and wood sprites such as Rumpelstiltskin.  Push them into the shadows as we will, such tales still leak past the borders we set; the lines of logic we impose on both our physical and imaginative landscapes._The_Wind_in_the_Willows

Maybe, Rumpelstiltskin wanted a child to raise in the old pagan ways and thus ensure their continuation.  Perhaps, it is belief that keeps gods alive – maybe they do need someone to clap for them.  Thanks to Kenneth Grahame I’ve been a lifelong believer in Pan.  His depiction of the god as the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in his beloved book Wind in the Willows* continues to be the only description of the masculine divine that’s ever truly moved me.

In same way that humans cheated Rumpelstiltskin, I think we cheat Nature – the carbon emissions, the methane, the GMO’s, the dams, the pesticides etc., etc., etc. are all ways we break the pact of reciprocity which is part of the evolutionary cycle.  It grieves me.  It breaks my heart.  If I can help restore balance by creating an image of a powerful Earth elemental at the height of his power, I’m glad to do so.  It’s the sound of two hands clapping – loud and long.

*I’m in good company.  Teddy Roosevelt wrote Grahame a fan letter saying that he had “read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends.”

“What’s His Name?”

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Scan_Pic0016Rumplestiltskin (revised)

“What’s His Name?”

Once upon a time there was an attractive young woman who was an excellent spinner. She worked very hard at spinning and her yarns were known across the kingdom. A Goblin had noticed her and imagined that one day he would have her first born child as his very own. (This is the way goblins think.) The idea that he would father a child with the beautiful girl was highly unlikely since the imp was quite ugly, and the young woman would never agree to such a thing. He was going to have to rely on trickery. He spent most of the next 3 afternoons considering ways he could make his day-dream come true. He loved the idea of having a child.  Someone he could teach all his acquired skills plus the ways of magic. He became obsessed with the idea.

Finally, he could stand it no longer, he had a plan and he set about manifesting what he wanted. First he made an appointment to see the King. The King found the Goblin so repulsive he made the imp stand facing the wall so that he did not have to look into his bitty eyes, nor consider his bulbous nose. The Goblin went on and on about this young woman who could spin yarn. He told the King that she could spin straw into gold. “Besides that,” the goblin said, excitedly, “she is quite beautiful.” The King was thankful for the information; he did not want to anger the Goblin so he gave him a spot of tea, a pot pie and a coin of silver and sent him on his way.

Next the goblin went to the Miller, the young maiden’s father and whispered in his ear. “Miller, How would you like to be appointed the “King’s Miller”! The Miller’s eyes brightened. “I know a way that you can impress the King and get the appointment to Master Miller. Would you like me to tell you how? “

The Miller invited the Goblin into his office and offered him refreshment. “Yes,” said the Miller. “Tell me what I’d need to do.”

The Goblin began. “Dress your daughter in her finest. Take her and her spinning wheel along with several bags of straw to the castle and get an audience with the King. Tell the King that your daughter has come to show him how she spins straw into gold.”

The Miller could hardly believe his ears. “What is that you say?” The Goblin repeated himself, speaking slowly and clearly. “But, Sir,” the Miller said. “My daughter is a wonderful spinner, but she can not spin straw into GOLD.”

“The King doesn’t know that,” the Goblin said, smiling. “It is my plan to trick the King. I plan to come along, disguised of course. I’m going to use my magic to create the illusion that she is actually spinning straw into gold. The King will be so impressed he will ask your daughter to marry him. She will become the Queen.”

“I don’t understand,” said the Miller. “Why are you doing this magic?”
“I want your daughter’s first born child.”
“Heavens NO! That’s a terrible idea,” said the Miller.
“Wait hear me out,” said the imp. “Once your daughter becomes Queen, she can demand the King make you his Royal Miller and require all the farmers in the kingdom to have their grain milled here at your place. Don’t you see, you will become rich.  Your daughter will become Queen, she will have lots more children. She will hardly miss the first born. If you will help me, I shall do all the rest. What say you about this idea.”

After much thought the Miller agreed. So he went to the King and bragged that his daughter could spin straw into gold. “Well” said the King. “Bring her here. I  want to see this phenomenon.”

The next day the Miller dragged his daughter into the Kings chambers set her on her stool and put her spinning wheel in front of her. The Miller’s helper, who was the goblin in disguise,  brought in several bags of straw and set them next to the bewildered daughter.
“Now,” said the Miller, “My daughter will spin this straw into GOLD.”

“What are you talking about,” said the daughter. “Straw into Gold? Are you crazy? Straw can not be spun into gold.”

The Miller lend over and whispered to his daughter. “Try it out! This spinning wheel has been turned into magic. I bought it special for you. Take a handful of straw and start spinning. Do it, you will see.” The daughter did as her father asked. She grabbed a handful of straw and twisted it around the spindle, whir, whir, whir went the wheel and the spool filled with gold. The King sent for more straw. All through the day and night, handful after handful of straw was turned into gold. The King was astonished. The daughter was amazed. Even the Miller was delighted. The Goblin, in his helper’s cloak, began to hum softly. The King called for his men. When they arrived he had the Miller, the Daughter, and the Miller’s helper locked up in another room.

“Bring me the Royal Spinner,” the king yelled. When the old woman arrived she looked at the spinning wheel and then at the King. “You called,” she asked.

“See that, that spinning wheel,” he said. “It spins straw into gold.” The old woman looked at the King as if he was crazy. “Impossible,” she said.
“Here is a bag of straw. I want you to spin it into gold.” The Old woman sat down at the wheel and tried to spin the straw. No matter how hard she tried she could not spin straw, let alone spin it into gold. The king called for another woman and ordered her to spin the straw into gold. She too failed. Then he called another woman, and then another. When the last of the women gave it a try and failed he sent for the Miller’s daughter. He ordered her to spin straw into gold. “Whir, whir, whir went the wheel and the spool filled with gold.”
As the King watched the Miller’s daughter spinning he saw that she was in fact quite beautiful. He loved all the gold she was spinning and he realized he loved her too. So he got down on one knee and asked the Miller’s daughter to marry him and she agreed. She had always wanted to be a Queen. Plus, the King wasn’t all that bad to look at.  It wasn’t long after the marriage that the King made the Miller the official Royal Miller and all the farmers had him grind their grain.  Everyone was very happy. Especially the Goblin. His idea was working.  About 10 months later the new Queen gave birth to a darling little Prince.

The Prince was a healthy, happy baby and one day when the Prince was exactly 3 months old, the Goblin appeared before the Miller. “Well now Miller,” said the imp. “I have come for your daughter’s baby.” The Miller had forgotten about the agreement. “How in the world am I going to get my daughter and the King to give you their little Prince?”

“You will think of some way. Besides I kept my part of the bargain. Now it is time for you to keep your part,“ said the Goblin. “I shall return in 3 days to collect MY little Prince. And I warn you, he had better be here waiting.“ The Miller got tears in his eyes. I can’t do it. That dear little prince belongs with his mother. Taking him away would break my daughter’s heart Take pity please.” He fell down on his knees and begged the goblin to reconsider.  He offered to give the Goblin all of the money and treasures he had received since becoming the Royal Miller. “No” said the imp. “A deal is a deal!”

The Miller was depressed. He didn’t know what to do.  That evening he went to the King and Queen. He told them about the terrible agreement he had made with the Goblin and how the Goblin had played a trick on all of them by using magic to spin straw into gold. The King was outraged. He wanted to cut off the Miller’s head but the Queen  took pity on her father. And after a sleepless night, the three of them came up with a trick of their own. Well, they didn’t exactly come up with the idea by themselves; it was the Royal Sorcerer, Merlin who gave them the answer. Merlin said, “If you can figure out the Goblin’s true name he will have to leave the kingdom because when  his real name is spoken out loud he will lose all his power.  Basically we will neutralize him. The trick will be to figure out his true name. The King beseeched his people to help him find out the True Name of the Goblin.

On the third day at noon the Goblin was due to come and collect the little Prince. At quarter of 12 the Queen was crying for they had not figured out the Goblin’s true name. Into the King’s chambers ran the official Games Keeper “Your Royal Highness,” he said trying to catch his breath. “I think I know the Goblin’s true name. “
“Out with it. Tell us the name.” said the Queen. “Hurry! Please!”
“I was out in the woods this morning and I heard the squirrels barking. I heard the birds, especially the blue jays squawking, and I heard the Foxes crying.  What was all the ruckus about, I wondered. I crept through the bushes and saw an ugly little man, the goblin I think, dancing around a fire.  He was singing and clapping his hands. I continued to hide and I listened to him and what he was saying… “Today I bake, tomorrow I brew, next day, it’s the young child that’s mine just the same as Rumplestiltskin is my name. “

As the Royal clock struck noon, the large chamber door swung open and in strolled the manikin. “So,” where is he”, the Goblin shouted, looking around the room. “Where is MY little Prince” The King, and the Miller stood with their arms folded over their chest. A few feet behind them the Queen was sitting and holding a bundle of blankets. The little Prince was staring at the ugly goblin.

“Not so fast,” said the King.
“Listen here,” said the Goblin. “I don’t want any trouble.” he smiled, his sharp green teeth showing. “If you don’t cooperate I will be forced to use my magic to take the Child in the most unpleasant way.”

“We don’t think so. Your power is no good around here, Rumplestiltskin,” they shouted. Then everyone in the room yelled over and over again. ‘RUMPLESTILTSKIN, RUMPLESTILTSKIN, RUMPLESTILTSKIN!”
The goblin got so angry he whirled around, whirl, whirl, whirl, stomped his right foot so hard that it sank into the earth. Then he pulled at his left leg with both arms and split himself in two. That was it. He was never seen again and never again was straw spin into gold.

The King, the Queen, the Miller and the little Prince lived happily ever after. The end.

How Twitch This Tale?

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Earlier I mentioned that I thought poor Rumpelstiltskin got a raw deal, but of course there are other ways to look at the story.  Change perspective and the rather dim-witted, gullible and mendacious maiden becomes a clever and enterprising young woman who must use subterfuge and beguilement to protect herself from the machinations of greedy and lascivious men.

What was the Miller’s motive in making such an extravagant claim in the King’s hearing?  In the pre-industrial age millers were incredibly important entrepreneurs.  Grain was of no use to anyone until it had been ground into flour.  Local agricultural communities depended on their mills to provide the means to sell a cash crop.  The millers not only ground the grain they helped the farmers sell it.  They were canny sophisticated men, well versed in local politics and unlikely to blab recklessly in the presence of their betters.  So why did the Miller make this boast.  Did he want to get rid of his daughter?  If so why?  Was she already pregnant?  Could the baby have been his?

On the other hand, maybe his daughter was already pregnant with Rumplestiltskin’s child.  The story says nothing of his age or looks, just that he was short.  Perhaps the maiden devised this plan to buy time, find a husband and get rid of a fascinating but creepy suitor.

The story seems to hinge on the value of the newborn child.  Maybe it’s a story about how crazy the longing for a child can make a person and what lengths someone will go to in order to fulfill that longing.

The more I studied this story, the sadder everyone seemed.  The king and the maiden in my collage are both unhappy looking.  Rumple is merely manic.  The message this story carries may be simply what it seems – riches cannot buy happiness.

I gave this story a green background because the forest plays such a large part – at least in my imagination.  The woods are Rumplestiltskin’s stomping grounds.  His magic seems to derive from his relationship to the woodlands.  It is the one place he feels safe enough to utter his true name.

Names are very important in magic.  They hold a person’s personal power.  If the true name of an enemy can be discovered, then he can be forced to do your bidding.  If the true name of a plant or mineral is known than you can use and manipulate it for your own ends. Remember, in the Genesis creation story Adam was granted the right to name each animal and thus define it.  In other words, he was given dominion over the animals.

The sunlit grain fields, the clearing in which the mill stands and the walled extravagance of the castle all speak of land that has been tamed.  The forest is a wild place and maybe Rumpelstiltskin wants only to protect the legacy of wildness for his child, or by extension, all children.  The story may well be a protest against the groundswell of technology presaged by the invention of watermill and spinning wheel.

Different meaning, different issues, different interpretations make these tales timeless.  We see once again that the personal is political and vice-versa.   Every time we revisit the tales, the wheel spins again and straw is spun into gold.

 

Rumpelstiltskin

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This is actually a collage I made years ago. It was the last of a series of fairy tale collages I created last century.  I was never very happy with it.  I think because this piece is a rather traditional overview of the tale and I’ve always felt that in this story, justice wasn’t really served.  It seemed to me Rumpelstiltskin had been cheated.  As I recently discovered, I’m not the only one who felt this way.  Sara Maitland in her beautiful book From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Fairy Tales rewrites Rumple’s story in a much more sympathetic vein.

As you might have guessed, the strange little woodland creature was my favorite character.  I loved the combination of grotesquerie and wisdom, foolishness and wicked pragmatism; besides, like me, Rumple had a very strong innate sense of Justice.  Like me he was an inveterate outsider.

I liked that he lived in the woods and danced wildly around the fire at night.  Because of the time and places I grew up in, I didn’t do any moonlight prancing until my early forties.  it turned out to be every bit as wonderful as I had anticipated.  I despised the greedy king and father. The maiden seemed rather dim at best, not to mention untrustworthy.  Of course, at the time I hadn’t any children of my own and had not an inkling of the lengths a mother would go to keep her child.  Still, in spite of my intervening years and experience I still prefer Rumpelstiltskin and my inner child would have much preferred to grow up in the forest.

One day, while puzzling about what it might mean to spin straw into gold, I suddenly realized that straw could stand for all the mistakes and unpleasantness in my past, while the gold stood for all the meaning, insight and teaching, which had grown out of those events.  With this same end in mind, we have unraveled fairy tales over the past twelve months, harvesting innumerable golden threads that connect our personal lives to the greater history and heritage of humankind.  Thus, Rumpelstiltskin seems a fitting conclusion to our year of twitching our tales and spinning the resultant fallout into gold.