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The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World, painted by Pieter Breugel the elder (1559) Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. (Public Domain)

Dirty Dark Secrets Behind Ancient Fairy Tales

Presumed innocent, yet dirty dark secrets are imbedded in the bedtime stories told to children. Fairy tales are magical narratives that pervade the young minds of children so deeply, leaving imprints on their subconscious that can mold their every-day lives. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the 20th century child psychologist and author on autism, ancient cultures had no hard lines: “separating myths from folklore and fairy tales; all these together form the literature of preliterate societies.”

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (1916) (Public Domain)

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (1916) (Public Domain)

Fairy tales contain well refined messages of a spiritual nature which not only emulate truths about how to live life, but they hold watered-down versions of some pretty dark historical occurrences. Involving social crimes such as incest, rape, cannibalism and bestiality the original fairy tales were a lot darker and so much is this the case that many would be way too terrifying for today’s snowflake millennials to consume.

Illustration in The fairy tales of Charles Perrault 1628-1703; Clarke, Harry, 1889-1931, illustrator. London: Harrap (1922). (Public Domain)

Illustration in The fairy tales of Charles Perrault 1628-1703; Clarke, Harry, 1889-1931, illustrator. London: Harrap (1922). (Public Domain)

The Ancient Origins of Fairy Tales

The original stories which inspired later fairy tales were either told orally or dramatically reenacted, but they were never written down. This causes a lot of obscurity and uncertainty in determining not only their origins but their course of development. According to a recent BBC article, researchers at universities in Lisbon, Portugal and in Durham, England, claim some fairy tales date back more than 6,500 years.

These stories also openly exchange plots, motifs, characters and events with one another and as global travel increased, they became blended with stories from foreign lands. The Arabian Nights was compiled around 1500 AD and Chinese Taoist philosophers such as Liezi and Zhuangzi recounted fairy tales in their philosophical works, but the first famous Western fairy tales are those of Aesop written around the 6th century BC in ancient Greece.

At the earliest stages of culture ancient stories were loaded with magical and supernatural themes, for example, The Golden Ass or The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, which is according to Augustine of Hippo the: “only ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety.” The protagonist of the story, Lucius, at the end of the novel, is revealed as having been born in Madaurus, the hometown of Apuleius and the plot revolves around his ‘curiosity’ (curiositas) and burning desire to experience and practice magic. He is transformed into a bird and then accidentally transformed into an ass before embarking on a deeply metaphorical quest, before the goddess Isis takes him into her cult.

Illustration of a French version of The Golden Ass in which Lucius is returned to human form at the procession of Isis. (1947) Jean de Bosschère. (Public Domain).

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