Friday, November 4, 2016

Unusual Births in Fairy Tales

It's fairly common in fairy tales for women to give birth to unusual babies. Sometimes their child is only the size of a thumb, as in Thumbling tales and variants; it might be a Snow child, or sometimes a mother might even give birth to a child that is a food, like the Pumpkin Girl, or the women born of mangoes or cucumbers in Papua New Guinea. Sometimes the mother gives birth to a healthy, human child-only to have it stolen as she is accused of giving birth to a wolf/bear hybrid, such as in Armless Maiden, or some other sort of animal. In the world of fairy tales, such accusations were believable enough to the other characters.

I used to think of tales like this as being a commentary on how we treat people who are different, and an encouragement for the underdog, which is certainly still true in many cases. But I've been reflecting on tales like these, especially where a child is born under some kind of unusual circumstances, and not just enchanted or cursed later in life (some Beauty and the Beast tales fit under each category-for example, Prince Lindworm was a lindworm from birth, unlike the cursed Beast of the French tradition).

Since being pregnant myself, I have a new level of respect for the mothers in these tales, and a sympathy for the anxiety that prospective mothers face. Even in our modern age where we can hear the baby's heartbeat and see ultrasounds, it can be pretty easy to feel anxious about your baby in between doctor's visits. For all we know now, there's still so much that's unknown-even for those who choose to find out the gender, it's still a mystery for months; as future parents, we wonder which traits our child will inherit from each of us, and what their personalities will be like-which can be exciting as well as frightening. On top of that, there's always the risk of health problems.

So I can only imagine how my current fears and anxieties would be amplified in an age where medical knowledge was limited and often wrong-many of these older superstitions, such as how to tell which gender your baby is by a variety of ways, still exist today. I can only assume that one of the purposes of such tales was a way for prospective mothers to express their fears.

I've also noticed that food and babies seem to be unusually connected in folklore. Even if a mother is more likely to give birth to a thumb-sized child than a piece of food, often these births are a miraculous result after a mother ate something (although, in Snow Child tales, it's possibly a hint that the mother was unfaithful but claims it was a supernatural birth). Pregnancy is a very odd time-for a while it's not obvious you're pregnant, it just looks like you maybe ate too much. I'm not sure how much was known in other cultures about pregnancy, they might have assumed the baby grew in a separate organ from the stomach, but it feels and looks like your baby is growing in your stomach. Not to mention the havoc your baby can wreak on your digestive system, first making it hard to keep things down, and then giving you a ravenous appetite-lately I've been feeling a lot like an ogress or a witch from fairy tales who will eat anything in sight! Then there's also the fact that we still measure a growing baby's size by, usually, corresponding fruits and vegetables (my baby has gone from being the size of a blueberry to a bell pepper to a spaghetti squash, and many other fruits and vegetables in between!).

And of course, pregnancy cravings can be the catalyst for the action in fairy tales, most notably Rapunzel. Whereas now, we're told to indulge our cravings with moderation, in other cultures, it was believed that not meeting a pregnant mother's cravings would result in bad luck. Of course, it's doubtful that that bad luck would have been worse than having to give away said child in order to meet those cravings...

Kristiana Willsy has a great article on The Toast, Hunger is the Beginning of Every Folktale. Fairy tales usually center around the greatest of human desires-whether it's literal hunger, or the desire for love, sex, or children. And often those desires become combined to the point where they are one and the same-"If the story begins with the lack of a child, then hunger becomes central. Food often replaces sex in folktales, and witches with some rule-bound delicacy are the fertility specialists of choice, second only to daring the fairies
to give you a baby hedgehog, a snow-child, or an infant the size of your thumb." (emphasis mine)

Sarah Allison also has a great post on unusual births in fairy tales. These stories often start with a woman desiring a child, and she is given something to eat that will impregnate her...only usually, she is given some kind of warning and disobeys it.  So these children are initially some sort of punishment, although it's ironic that they often turn out to be the hero in the end, like Tatterhood. So while on the surface these tales may seem like more misogynist white noise, warning women against curiosity and disobedience, it seems that the real message of these tales is not to underestimate those who are different-sometimes those very differences end up being an advantage-or even that the so-called "mistakes" we make might not really have been mistakes at all in the grand scheme of things.

In "Juniper Tree," the mother wishes for a child while peeling an apple by the Juniper Tree. From there, the gestation period of her child is linked to the growth of nature. It's her gorging on berries from the Juniper Tree that would appear to lead to her death (even though she supposedly "dies of joy", but it seems unnecessary to mention eating the berries and falling sick and predicting her own death if it's all a coincidence, and this bears similarities to the other food warnings in pregnancy tales). Later, it's the children's request for an apple that leads to the murder of this son, reminiscent of the wish that brought him about in the first place (as well as the famous poisoned apple in Snow White).

There are also tales in which an older woman desires to eat children-from the witch in Hansel and Gretel, Baba Yaga, the ogress mother in law in Perrault's Sleepinng Beauty, to the evil stepmothers in Snow White and Juniper Tree. To eat a child is the reverse of giving birth to them-Snow White's mother may have hoped to reabsorb her beauty through eating her organs, or it could be representative of trying to hinder a child's growth rather than letting them turn into adults. The fear of being eaten is always present in fairy tales, sometimes representing a literal fear of wild animals, but sometimes more symbolic. Fortunately, even if the worst fear is realized and a character is eaten, in fairy tales this is not necessarily the end-like Little Red Riding Hood, the hero may emerge triumphant and wiser for the next round against the wolf.

Illustrations-"tom Thumb," Jemima Blackburn; "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivy; Rapunzel images from Pinterest (anyone know the artist??), "Juniper Tree" by laurasmythart

11 comments:

  1. Someday I'll have to do my own "Top 7" post on unusual births/babies.

    Interestingly, Japan has a whole bunch of tales with unusual babies in them. There's Momotaro, who was born from the center of a peach. The Princess Kaguya, who was born out of a stalk of bamboo. Issun-Boshi, who's basically a Japanese Thumbling. Strong Tarou, who was molded out of dirt. There's even one where a child was born as a pond snail.

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    1. Gotta love those! I'd love to see a collection of unusual fairy tale baby stories.

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    2. I'd like to see that list too! Especially the Japanese ones, which I'm not as familiar with, I've only heard of some of these through other bloggers like yourself!

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  2. Walter Scherff suggests that some stories of unnatural births actually come from children's phantasies about childbirth. For example in the German Tale Hans Törfsoden (sod of peat), the parents get the advice from a witch to churn a peat in a butter tub and from that sod of peat a baby boy is created. This might seem very random, unless you know that like some cultures parents tell small children that babies are brought by the stork, in some regions of northern Germany they were told instead that babies were made by churning peat - just like butter is made from churning milk. The story of the Snow Maidenis reminiscent of children ascribing the snow men they made human qualities and getting very upset once they melt. In these stories the unnatural birth is often not the cause of a misshapen, sstigmatized child, but something positive. Perhaps because to children it does not seem unnatural.
    Other stories of unnatural births seem to come from a mother's perspective though. Tales like King Lindorm in which a mother's mistake results in a catastrophe(which interestingly is resolved not only by a woman, but also in a scene that has sexual connotations), a fear that today still is very real, with pregnant women often being critizized for their lie choices like exercise and diet, because of the assumption it will harm their child. Even thoughthe advice is probably well intentioned it can cause great anxiety in expecting mothers.

    Some tales adress both perspectives. In Hans my Hedgehog a mother'scareless wish, results in the birth of a "freak", but after the birth the story explores the hardship of an "unnatural" i.e, deformed child from the sons perspective. LaterHans my Hedgehog is quite successful and the image of a hedgehog riding a rooster is bizarre, but in a funny, not an appaling way. So the positive outcome of the unnatural birth is still present.

    Nowadays many women feel pressure to have a "natural" birth and women who had cesar sections are often stigmatized for their decision, even if they had good reasons. Similarly processes like artificial insemination are still not seen as acceptable by large parts of the population. The notion that "unnatural birth" means "wrong birth" and can only result in "wrong" children is still embedded in our subconscious it seems. The latently racist and sexist urban myth about the woman who gave birth to a black baby after artificial insemination, because the wrong sperm was accidentally inserted, shows that. If you're ever faced with such prejudices it might help not to think of King Lindorm, but of Hans Törfsoden and Hans my Hedgehog, who became smartboys and in My Hedgehog's case successful adults, despite the unusual circumstances surrounding their birth

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    1. That makes sense, that many stories would be the child's own speculation. But, I would think that legends like the stork would be relatively recent, like from the Victorian period. Before then, wouldn't most children have been more aware of the facts of life from seeing livestock and/or sharing a one room house with their parents?

      I didn't even think of connecting "unnatural" births to these stories too, but it's very true that many women who end up having unplanned C sections feel very guilty afterwards, like they failed at giving their child the best possible birth experience, even though most children born that way are very healthy! The main thing I seem to be learning as I try to come up with a birth plan is to keep an open mind and be prepared for anything. Women who want drugs may go into labor too quickly and end up doing it the old fashioned way; women who aim for totally natural may have complications and need interventions. It's another powerful reminder than we can't control our children, before or after birth!

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  3. Kristin, the metaphor continues when your child starts shoving your organs around inside you to weird and uncomfortable locations - even your heart! It's so very weird, but also cool. Under normal circumstances there would be something very wrong if that were happening, but instead, that's life pushing it's way into your world. Very intimate. For many parents, when the baby is born it feels like your heart now exists outside your body, in the form of that child. It's terrifying and wonderful all at once. Not easy though - never easy. But fairy tales are very good at reminding us f that part.

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    1. I know, I'm already getting nervous because any of the discomforts I'm feeling now I know will only get worse as this little one gets bigger and bigger! But I know it will all be worth it...even despite the challenges.

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  4. Thank you for such an interesting and thought provoking post (as per usual!) This has triggered a half-formed idea; I've recently been reading around addiction and addictive behaviours and food is commonly used and abused, especially by young women, as a form of control. I'm imagining that hundreds of years ago when a woman was confined to the domestic sphere food was something she had most control over...I'm wondering if there is a link between food and women taking ownership of their fertility? Rapunzel, again, being the obvious one to consider for this possibility. Not a fleshed out thought by any means but thought I'd leave it here to be pondered! x

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    1. That's a very interesting thought! I've read that many pregnant women feel they have the right to indulge themselves simply because of all the things we're denied now-from alcohol to lunchmeat to certain activities and medicines, it can be really overwhelming, so we figure we deserve a big bowl of ice cream at the end of the day! I'm not sure how much pregnant women were told to limit in earlier cultures, but they would still be sacrificing a lot, from morning sickness to aches and pains (and probably all the while still expected to cook and clean for the family and raising other kids!).

      And, as far as taking ownership goes, there are rumors floating around about how certain things you eat may make you more likely to conceive a boy or girl, and some women who really want one of the other will try to control the outcome by altering their diet. Certain foods are also thought to help your fertility in general so there's definitely a link today, and I wouldn't doubt it was there in past generations too!

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  5. I'm thinking now of a couple of stories where the mother gives birth to an apple or a sprig of myrtle. I think I also read somewhere that in the stories where the mother is accused of giving birth to an animal, the implication was bestiality.

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    1. I'd be interested in reading those stories! I guess the bestiality implication makes sense, although in fairy tales it's so common for characters to shapeshift back and forth the whole concept of marrying an animal seems to be no big deal to anyone

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