The Fairy Godmother
A recurring fixture in the folklore of northern Europe is the fairy godmother. This mysterious woman appears by magic to attend the birth or Christening of an infant, often a child who is seemingly of no special importance. She may be alone, or accompanied by other women. She comes uninvited either to bless or curse the child, displays various magical abilities, and then just as mysteriously departs, perhaps to reappear at some distant future date, or perhaps never to be seen again. This quaint figure of children’s fairy tales has more importance in the history of Western magic than most people realize. Let us take a look at some of her folk characteristics, and then consider her true identity and significance in the context of the Western esoteric tradition.
The first thing that must be observed about fairy godmothers is that they are not nearly so common in ancient folklore as might be supposed, given their modern popularity. They appear in two of the most beloved fairy stories — Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella — both of which were turned into animated films by the Disney Studios. This cinematic treatment helped spread the fable of the fairy godmother far and wide in the 20th century.
In Sleeping Beauty, the fairy godmother first appears in the version by Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), published in 1697 in France in his hugely popular Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose). In the portion of the tale that concerns us, seven fairies are invited to the Christening of a newborn princess by her loving parents, in the hope that they will confer magical gifts upon the child and act as her godmothers. To honor them, the king orders seven plates of gold to be made for them to use at the Christening feast. However, an eighth fairy who is older and unattractive decides to come to the Christening, and when she sees that no gold plate has been made for her, she feels that her dignity has been slighted.
Six of the fairy godmothers bless the infant girl with various life gifts. The crone is the seventh to approach the child, and she curses the baby with the curse that when she touches a spindle, she will prick her finger and immediately fall dead. One of the fairies had observed the crone and has hung back to go last, and although she cannot undo the curse of the evil fairy, she renders it less severe, proclaiming that the girl will not drop dead but will fall asleep for one hundred years, whereupon she will be awakened by the kiss of a prince.
Perrault’s version was based on an older story by the Italian Giambattista Basile (?1566 – 1632), published posthumously by his sister in 1634 under the title Sol, Luna e Talia (Sun, Moon and Talia), in which there is no fairy godmother. In this earlier tale, the name of the baby princess is Talia. At her birth, astrologers cast her horoscope, and predict that she will come to harm from a tiny splinter of flax. Her father, the king, takes every precaution to keep her away from flax, but one day the girl sees an old woman spinning flax on a spindle, and out of curiosity decides to try it. A splinter of flax gets embedded beneath her fingernail, and she falls down in what appears to be death. The king cannot bring himself to bury his beautiful and beloved child, so he lays her safely to rest on one of his country estates.
After some time has passed, another king who is hunting in the forest comes upon the girl and is so enamored with her apparently lifeless form that he has sex with her, then goes away. Still deep asleep, the girl gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl who are named Sun and Moon. One day, when the boy is unable to find the breast of his unconscious mother to suckle, his pangs of hunger cause him to suckle her finger, and he draws out the splinter of flax. She immediately awakes.
The earliest version of the story, Perceforest, published in France in 1528, has goddesses in place of fairy godmothers. In this version, three goddesses visit a female child named Zellandine at her birth celebration. They are obviously intended to bring to mind the three Fates of Greek mythology, although their names are different. The first, Lucinda, confers the gift of health on the infant, but the second goddess, Themis, curses the child because the goddess took the absence of a knife beside her plate at the feast as a personal slight. Her curse is that Zellandine will one day impale her finger on the point of a distaff, and sleep until it is removed. The third goddess, Venus, cannot undo the curse placed on the head of the baby but mitigates it by prophesying that one day the distaff will be removed and the curse lifted.
In the popular version of Sleeping Beauty recorded by the Brothers Grimm, titled Briar Rose and published in 1812, the fairy godmothers number thirteen, twelve who give gifts to the infant princess, and one who curses the child out of spite. The gift of the final good fairy softens the curse of the twelfth. Much was made of this number of fairy godmothers, but since they were only eight in number in Perrault’s older version of the story, the importance of the number thirteen may be exaggerated.
The story of Cinderella goes back as far as the ancient Greek historian Strabo (64BC – c. 24AD), who wrote in his Geographica about an Egyptian girl named Rhodopis who was forced to wash clothes in a stream while the other servants attended a celebration sponsored by the Pharaoh, Amasis. While she was working, an eagle snatched away her rose-gilded sandal and carried it to Memphis, then dropped it at the feet of Amasis. The Pharaoh was enraptured by the fineness and smallness of the sandal, and asked all the women of Egypt to try it on, so that he could locate its owner. When Rhodopis was able to put on the sandal, Amasis married her and made her his queen.
Nothing here about a fairy godmother. This magical figure does not appear in the Cinderella story until the 1697 version of Charles Perrault. In his tale, a widower takes in marriage a proud and cruel woman with two grown daughters. His meek and modest daughter by his first marriage is forced by her step-mother to do all the housework, which she performs without complaint. It is her habit to sit amid the cinders, hence her name Cinderella (Cendrillon, in French). One day the prince of the land decides to host a ball for the purpose of choosing a wife. The stepsisters go, but Cinderella has no dress that is suitable for so grand an occasion.
As she weeps in sorrow, her fairy godmother appears, and tells the girl that she will be attending the ball after all. The fairy turns a pumpkin into a coach, mice into its team of horses, a rat into the coachman and lizards into footmen. She creates for Cinderella a gown and a pair of glass slippers, but warns the girl to be home before midnight, since that is when the spell will be broken. Everything goes well and Cinderella is the belle of the ball, but the next night when a second ball is held, she becomes careless of time and departs in haste just before midnight, leaving behind her one of her glass slippers. The prince searches the kingdom, seeking the girl whose foot fits the slipper. When Cinderella tries on the shoe, he knows he has found her, and this is confirmed when she brings forth the other glass slipper, which has not vanished away along with the coach and her gown.
In the version of Cinderella (Aschenputtel in German) published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, there is no fairy godmother. Instead, Cinderella is helped by the ghost of her dead mother, represented by a pair of birds that perch in a tree growing above her mother’s grave. Thus the supernatural element is still present, but it is ancestral spirit in nature rather than fairy.
Role of the Fairy Godmother
These examples should be sufficient to give some notion of the stereotypical role of the fairy godmother in fairy tales, particularly the literary tales written by French writers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy (1650-1705). These were not true folk tales, but imitations of folk tales, or composed stories based in part on genuine folk tales. In these stories the fairy godmother makes more frequent appearances than she does in true folk tales.
It is the usual role of a human godmother to give a Christening gift, and to watch over the spiritual education of the child. The fairy godmother takes on the same obligations as a mortal godmother, though the reason these obligations are assumed is not always clear. Sometimes it is done as a fair exchange, as when the seven fairies were invited to the feast by the king, and given golden plates as gifts; other times, it seems motivated by some unseen occult requirement. The child is destined from birth by the Fates to receive the gift of its fairy godmother, who is merely an instrument of destiny. Indeed, the Fates of Greek mythology are probably the prototypes of the fairy godmothers of later children’s fiction, as suggested by their thinly veiled appearance in the 1528 French version of Sleeping Beauty, described above.
In mythology, the gifts of the gods can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on the circumstances under which they are received, and the uses to which they are put. Fairy tales simplify this dichotomy by making the gifts of good fairies always good, and the gifts of evil fairies always evil. In life, what seems good may prove to be a curse, and what seems a burden may in the end be revealed as a blessing. Even in fairy tales, good may come of evil, and the curse of the evil fairy godmother results in great happiness in the end, when all problems have been resolved.
An important factor to consider about the role of a godmother is her accepted obligation to watch over the spiritual development and well-being of the child. In Christianity this often takes the symbolic form of the gift of a new Bible to the baby. Spirituality is broader than any particular religion, and if we consider the obligation of the godmother in these terms, she is charged with the general spiritual health of the child. In fairy tales this is symbolized by the various physical and moral virtues that are given to the child as gifts, such as beauty and wisdom.
Nature of the Fairy Godmother
The fairy godmother is a spirit, not a being of flesh and blood. This is seldom made clear in the fairy tales, where she is given a physical body and is made to dine at the Christening feast. In ancient folklore and mythology, spiritual beings often received physical bodies. For example, the angels in the Old Testament were described as being like men in every respect. They eat, drink, sleep, and have material bodies. Similarly, the witch’s familiar was usually described in physical terms, and malicious spirits such as incubi and vampires were credited with physical forms.
The archetype of the evil fairy godmother is Grandmother Lilith, a female demon of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians who made her way into Hebrew folklore via the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th century BC, during which the Jews were taken as slaves from the Kingdom of Judah to Babylonia. During their stay in Babylonia, they picked up much of the mythology of the Babylonians, including the myth of Lilith, who was fabled to be a horrible old crone with unkempt long gray hair and long, dirty fingernails, yellowed teeth and glaring red eyes, who visited the cribs of newborn infants. Sometimes Lilith merely played with the infant, but at other times, seemingly on a capricious inclination, she would kill the baby by stealing away its breath.
Lilith is not often regarded as a fairy. She is more likely to be classed among the demons of hell, but this is an arbitrary classification, since she is Sumerian in origin and predates the Christian concept of hell, with its orderly demonic hierarchies.
Fairies are indigenous to Celtic lands, although similar nature spirits exist around the world. Perhaps more than any other spirit, they are apt to be regarded as physical by those who believe in them. They live in a kind of parallel universe that has portals into our reality under certain hills recognized as fairy mounds. The doorways to these fairy realms materialize from nowhere to allow the fairies to enter or leave, and just as swiftly vanish, leaving no trace. This transition from the fairy realm to the human realm happens most often at twilight, in the gloaming when the world is caught in a timeless moment between day and night. They are also more frequent at the equinoxes, when the seasons are in balance.
Transitional periods of the day or year facilitate the transition between fairy reality and human reality. A portal of any kind is a transition between one place and another. In the gloaming, fairies become visible to the eyes of those psychic enough to see them, but at other times of the day they are more difficult to see, unless they wish to be seen. The birth of an infant is a kind of life transition, from the spiritual reality into the physical reality, so it is natural that fairies would appear at this time.
It is a mystery as to why fairies should wish to associate with humanity, yet this has always been the case throughout their history. They are known to appear to men, woman and children, and to abduct them into their fairy realm, where they may keep them forever, or may release them after a prolonged time has passed. The fairy practice of kidnapping children, and leaving a fairy child in their place, is frequently mentioned in the literature about these strange and somewhat frightening spirits.
As usual, these events are described as completely material in the accounts of them that have come down to us, but it is more probable that they are spiritual events. A man is not physical taken to fairyland, he falls into a trance or coma, and is taken there on an astral level of reality. There are records of those who, when they lay down and went to sleep on fairy mounds, fell into a coma, or even died. I say that it is “probable” that these are merely spiritual events, not certain, because accounts exist of those who simply disappeared for days or years, and who when they suddenly reappeared, told tales of having lived among the fairies in their world.
The parallels with alien abductions are obvious. But whether these parallels suggest that aliens are fairies, or that fairies are aliens, or that both are something else that has yet to be accurately described, I leave to your conjecture. It seems fairly certain that there is a some underlying connection between fairy abductions and alien abductions.
Can the fairy godmother of folklore be an alien being who confers upon a newborn child certain superhuman abilities? Is this the root of this persistent motif? Children abducted by aliens are sometimes said to be altered or enhanced in various ways — to possess psychic abilities that they did not have before the abduction. There is also the belief that aliens are breeding a race of hybrid children, half-human and half-alien, who possess more than human abilities. Again, this has parallels in the ancient belief that spirits could interbreed with human women and engender offspring. Jesus is one such being, according to this view — half human and half something else.
A tutelary spirit is a spirit that teaches, guides, and protects a human being. The idea that certain spirits watch over and protect human beings with whom they are in some way linked is universal. This belief has taken many forms, as different human cultures try to come to terms with it. Often it is looked upon as protection by dead ancestors of their descendants. Whole religions exist based on this belief, that the dead watch over their children and children’s children. It is a reasonable explanation as to why a spiritual being would bother to protect a living person, or even take an interest in that individual.
Sometimes, spirits associated with certain places develop links with the people who live there, and come to watch over and guide them. For example, a nature spirit dwelling in a spring might form an attachment to a man who owned the land occupied by the spring; or a house spirit might become fond of a person living in the same house. A fairy associated with a certain thorn bush in a farmer’s field could form some sort of personal interaction with the farmer — although in the case of fairies, that interaction is just as likely to be harmful as helpful. But fairies are capable of affection, and even love, for human beings. Their affection is capricious, and easily turns into jealousy or malice.
The ancient Greeks believed that certain special men, who were by their nature semi-divine, had daemons — tutelary spirits — joined to their lives. The most famous man who was guided by such a daemon was the philosopher Socrates, whose daemon was well known to his contemporaries. Socrates made no secret of the fact that his tutelary spirit often intervened in his life when he was about to make a mistake, to warn him not to do it. The day Socrates drank the hemlock that killed him, he told his friends that he knew it was the right thing to do, because his spirit had not warned him against drinking it.
Some men were even believed to be favored by the gods. Often they were men who were hybrids, half mortal and half divine by nature. The god who was one parent of such a man would continue to watch over him throughout life. These demigods were the heroes of ancient Greek mythology, such as Hercules and Achilles. The belief that one of their parents was divine was just a way of trying to explain why they were favored by spirits in their lives. Some Greek writers held the view that Socrates was semi-divine, as was Aristotle, and Alexander the Great, just because of the great works they accomplished during their lifetimes, which seemed to their biographers to be beyond unaided human abilities. A man capable of miraculous works must have superhuman aid — such was the common opinion among the Greeks.
A more plebian notion arose among the Greeks that every man received at birth both a good daemon and an evil daemon. These two tutelary spirits were at constant war with each other, which canceled out most of their effects on the life of the person to whom they were attached. The good daemon whispered sound and helpful advice, while the evil daemon suggested actions that were worthless or harmful. This idea carried over into Christianity in the form of the good angel that is supposed to sit on the right shoulder of every person, and the evil angel that sits on the left shoulder.
The good daemon and evil daemon take the forms in the fairy tales of the good fairy godmother and the evil fairy godmother, whose efforts to some extent cancel each other out. The good daemon cannot simply banish the evil daemon, but it can to some degree moderate the mischief the evil daemon is able to cause.
Most people recognize the term “familiar” in connection with witches, who were supposed by the demonologists of the Inquisition during the Renaissance to have demons that served their needs and desires. However, the concept of a familiar spirit is much broader than that. A familiar is any spirit that is attached to a human being.
Familiars perform various functions. They teach, guide, protect and also serve. Some were considered to be low spirits, in the nature of servants, while others are looked upon as more sophisticated and powerful. The Church regarded all familiars as subservient demons, who pretended to serve the witch while really working to corrupt the witch’s soul. This is a narrow and simplistic view, dictated by the religious dogma of those who held it. However, familiars do appear to be of varying degrees of power and sophistication. Some are simple beings that fulfill well defined and limited functions. Others are complex and act more as partners in the lives of those human beings to whom they are linked.
Shamans would sometimes take to wife familiar spirits who were, in many respects, their superiors on both power and wisdom. They would also have mortal wives upon whom they engendered children. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the spirit wife of a shaman would confer various benefits and gifts on the head of the newborn child of the shaman by his mortal wife.
Some spirits are associated with entire bloodlines. The best known is the water spirit Melusina, one of the dames blances (white ladies) who watched over the descendants of Raymond of Poitou. The white ladies were considered to be fairies. Raymond married Melusina and had children by her. Even after Melusina abandoned him because he broke his vow to her that he should never look upon her on a Saturday, she continued to watch over their descendants, and would appear wailing with sorrow when some great catastrophe was about to befall the bloodline.
So what exactly is a fairy godmother? She is a spiritual being who either blesses or curses the life of a newborn child. Because she is a spirit with the power of working magic, her blessing or curse has practical consequences. The curse of one spirit may be countered, at least in part, by the blessing of another spirit. These spirits are linked with the lives of the infants they visit, but the exact nature of that connection remains unclear. It may be based on a blood relationship. The infants may be spirit-human hybrids, or descendants of such hybrids; or it may be that the fairy godmother is a dead ancestor of the infant, and is not really a fairy at all.
Most people will dismiss the whole notion of fairy godmothers as absurd. However, it is undeniable that some human beings appear to be born with gifts and abilities that are so far above those of humanity in general that they are looked upon as supernatural. The myth of the fairy godmother is one attempt to explain where such extraordinary gifts come from. It is somewhat simplistic, as are most mythic explanations, but like most myths, it has a seed of truth at its heart that is worth considering.
Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.
©2008 Donald Tyson
Edited by Sheta Kaey