As a child, one of my favorite stories was The Goose Girl. Gruesome as it may seem, the character I loved best and remember most clearly is the faithful horse Falada, whose head gets chopped off. Even in death he remaines a faithful helpmeet. Of course, Falada was a magical horse and the magic was always my favorite part. I also liked stories with blood in them. I think there may be arcane bits of knowledge we’re born with or are privy to through the collective unconscious. Or maybe, the deep knowledge of blood mysteries is part of a woman’s heritage, encoded in her DNA from birth. The magic associated with blood runs like a red thread through fairy tales and myth. In The Goose Girl the mother pierces her finger and lets three drops of blood fall on a handkerchief which she gives to her departing daughter as a magic talisman.
Then, there’s geese. Geese have always been great favorites of mine – possibly because I liked this story so much and read it so often. In ancient Egypt the goose was thought to have laid the primordial cosmic egg, but also to have hatched from it as the sun. Geb the Earth god was sometimes called The Great Cackler! (Egyptian mythology is terribly confusing – mostly because we don’t know enough and try to interpret things according to current cultural sensibilities.) In north Africa it is still (4,500 years later!) customary to sacrifice a solar goose at the solstice.
In Rome a sacred flock of geese lived in the grounds of Juno’s temple. Their duty was to raise an alarm if and when the city was attacked. Indeed, in 390 C.E. they did foil a stealthy night raid by enemy Gauls. To this day people use geese to protect their property. In my collage a large goose stands behind the girl in a protective stance. It “has her back.”
Obviously, geese represent return journeys and thus the “heroine/hero’s journey” of Campbell fame. The journey for the quest of self includes leaving home, descending into the dark, facing one’s demons and returning to the community with a treasure. The Goose Girl story follows this formula, taking our heroine through an initiation from childhood to adulthood. Like so many of these stories, this one served me well. The Goose Girl taught me to value courage, perseverance, and ingenuity. I wanted to make them my own.
I didn’t realize how much she meant to me until years later, well into my fourth decade, I encountered a terracotta sculpture called Gaia Goose Girl. I wish I knew the name of the sculptress. Her goose girl was a near life-size figure of a lovely young woman with a face full of strength and character accompanied by a goose. Seeing it brought back every feeling of identification, love and longing I felt when first reading this tale. That kind of experience is what makes art so important. The art piece acts like a catalyst, constellating a host of amorphous feelings and associations in a way that captures both memory and significance, but at the same time, allows new insights to unfold.
My sculptress is not the only one to find inspiration in the goose girl. In Göttingen town, famous for its old university (Georgia Augusta, or “Georg-August-Universität”), which was founded in 1737 stands a decorative fountain whose main figure is called the Gänseliesel (Goose Girl). On the day they are awarded their doctorate degrees, students are drawn in handcarts from the Great Hall of the university to the Gänseliesel-Fountain in front of the Old Town Hall. There they have to climb the fountain and kiss the statue of the Gänseliesel. This practice is actually forbidden, but the law is not enforced. She is considered the most kissed girl in the world. The students remind me of Little Conrad (Kürdchen) in our story.
Most interesting, in light of the conjunction of horse and geese in our story, is a report by Vasily Vasilievich Radlov that in the Altai mountains (mountain range in East-Central Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together), after the ritual sacrifice of a horse, the shaman ascends on the back of a goose in pursuit of its soul.
All the bits and pieces, hints and allegations are what truly fascinate me about these tales. This story has everything – wise elders, a nefarious villainess, a faithful spirit guide, a sacrifice, a mistaken identity, importunate young men, a charming prince, restoration and retribution, but other fairy tales are often thin on plot and sometimes appear simplistic on the surface. However, no matter how simple, the tale usually contains a detail or two rich in association and resonant with meaning. For me, it isn’t so much about deciphering that meaning as relishing its presence. It’s the ambiance of the stories that make them so endlessly fascinating. The grok is everything.