The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Golden Bird

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

In the olden time there was a king, who had behind his palace a beautiful pleasure-garden in which there was a tree that bore golden apples. When the apples were getting ripe they were counted, but on the very next morning one was missing. This was told to the King, and he ordered that a watch should be kept every night beneath the tree.

The King had three sons, the eldest of whom he sent, as soon as night came on, into the garden; but when midnight came he could not keep himself from sleeping, and next morning again an apple was gone. The following night the second son had to keep watch, it fared no better with him; as soon as twelve o’clock had struck he fell asleep, and in the morning an apple was gone. Now it came to the turn of the third son to watch; and he was quite ready, but the King had not much trust in him, and thought that he would be of less use even than his brothers: but at last he let him go. The youth lay down beneath the tree, but kept awake, and did not let sleep master him. When it struck twelve, something rustled through the air, and in the moonlight he saw a bird coming whose feathers were all shining with gold. The bird alighted on the tree, and had just plucked off an apple, when the youth shot an arrow at him. The bird flew off, but the arrow had struck his plumage, and one of his golden feathers fell down. The youth picked it up, and the next morning took it to the King and told him what he had seen in the night. The King called his council together, and every one declared that a feather like this was worth more than the whole kingdom. “If the feather is so precious,” declared the King, “one alone will not do for me; I must and will have the whole bird!”

This fairy tale also begins with many symbols that quickly lead us to a spiritual level. We do not want to forget that symbols cannot be defined uniformly. They are like fingers that point to something much larger that is hard to explain. So here we see the king as the ruling spirit, the world as the playground of the spirit, and the famous apple tree as the tree of life with the golden fruits of eternal life, strangely vanishing. The sons of the king could be regarded as our souls who have a certain task to accomplish in this world. And this task is about nothing less than the golden apples of the tree of life. It reveals the Bible’s vision of the Tree of Eternal Life, and the Night Watch reminds us of the capture of Jesus when his disciples fell asleep, and he said, “Watch and pray that you do not fall into contempt! The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak.” [Bible, Matthew 26:41]

This constant mindfulness is a very important exercise on the spiritual path, so that one does not always fall back into the dream state of illusion. For this, the yogis sit and meditate to direct their minds to the true and to recognize the cause that makes us perishable beings who must fear death. And of the three brothers, of course, it was again the most simple-minded, who probably showed in the world the least passion and who had the power to this mindfulness. So he recognized the golden bird in the moonlight, i.e. in the cool and clear light of the mind that shines in the night when the outer world is silent. Although this bird settles on the tree of life, it does not stay, but quickly flies away with our everlasting fruits. For the eternal or the truth is not dead, but alive like a golden bird, which visits us every day, but escapes again and again, when we sink back into the dream of illusion, catch it or shoot our arrows at it, with what here probably the thoughts are meant. For it is well known that rational thoughts cannot grasp the eternal truth. This truth can neither be caught in the web of concepts nor hit with the arrows of thoughts. Thus, this golden bird also reminds us of the mystical Phoenix, which, in the sense of “die and become”, likewise symbolizes the eternal life that one cannot hold on to.

At least our young man already has so much merit that he receives a small feather at his attempt, which expresses the incomparable value of the golden bird. And now, the search is really going on. This is the usual way in nature that we are fed with something small in order to achieve the great.

The eldest son set out; he trusted to his cleverness, and thought that he would easily find the Golden Bird. When he had gone some distance he saw a Fox sitting at the edge of a wood, so he cocked his gun and took aim at him. The Fox cried, “Do not shoot me! And in return I will give you some good counsel. You are on the way to the Golden Bird; and this evening you will come to a village in which stand two inns opposite to one another. One of them is lighted up brightly, and all goes on merrily within, but do not go into it; go rather into the other, even though it seems a bad one.” - “How can such a silly beast give wise advice?” thought the King’s son, and he pulled the trigger. But he missed the Fox, who stretched out his tail and ran quickly into the wood.

So he pursued his way, and by evening came to the village where the two inns were; in one they were singing and dancing; the other had a poor, miserable look. “I should be a fool, indeed,” he thought, “if I were to go into the shabby tavern, and pass by the good one.” So he went into the cheerful one, lived there in riot and revel, and forgot the bird and his father, and all good counsels.

The first son relies on his intellect and fails because he sees the world with a rational mind focused on personal gain. He meets the fox, who is considered a smart animal in nature. And as the fox behaves with his “reasonable advice” throughout the fairy tale, we can assume that he is used here as a symbol of reason and wisdom, which can intuitively communicate in us and often gives strange advice that our ordinary intellect sometimes does not understand. The first son rejects the sound advice and even tries to kill reason altogether. So of course he goes the usual way of the greedy ego and loses himself in the tavern of this world, which beguiles the senses, without thinking further about the true meaning of his journey and returning home. It is also typical of our greedy ego that it sees foolishness in reason and reason in foolishness.

When some time had passed, and the eldest son for month after month did not come back home, the second set out, wishing to find the Golden Bird. The Fox met him as he had met the eldest, and gave him the good advice of which he took no heed. He came to the two inns, and his brother was standing at the window of the one from which came the music, and called out to him. He could not resist, but went inside and lived only for pleasure.

The second son is not faring better. He has it even harder because he follows the example of his older brother. The number three is often used for such symbolism. While the two stands more for nature, where the opposing polarities reign and oscillate endlessly, in the three we find yet another dimension for a reasonable development to higher goals. Think of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which is often used on the spiritual level. Or the three natural qualities of passion, darkness, and goodness in the realm of nature, as described in Hindu philosophy as the essence of all developments [e.g. MHB 12.212 or 12.280]. These three qualities are present in all creatures, but in different proportions, similar to our three basic colours of red, blue and yellow, from which all other colours can be mixed to the even full harmony of white. So we could also consider these three sons as symbols of passion, darkness and goodness: the fiery passion of desire and cleverness, the dark lethargy of illusion and lies, and the bright kindness of reason and wisdom. Therefore, the two elder sons are attracted to the vicious life, drowning in the tavern of the world. They forget their real purpose in life. In contrast, the youngest son is described as good-natured and grateful and obviously still has a close connection to reason. Such people are often ridiculed and underestimated in society because they don’t have a disposition to either passion, cunning or fraud to achieve their goals.

Again some time passed, and then the King’s youngest son wanted to set off and try his luck, but his father would not allow it. “It is of no use,” said he, “he will find the Golden Bird still less than his brothers, and if a mishap were to befall him he knows not how to help himself; he is a little wanting at the best.” But at last, as he had no peace, he let him go. Again the Fox was sitting outside the wood, and begged for his life, and offered his good advice. The youth was good-natured, and said, “Be easy, little Fox, I will do you no harm.” - “You shall not repent it,” answered the Fox; “and that you may get on more quickly, get up behind on my tail.” And scarcely had he seated himself when the Fox began to run, and away he went over stock and stone till his hair whistled in the wind. When they came to the village the youth got off; he followed the good advice, and without looking round turned into the little inn, where he spent the night quietly.

The next morning, as soon as he got into the open country, there sat the Fox already, and said, “I will tell you further what you have to do. Go on quite straight, and at last you will come to a castle, in front of which a whole regiment of soldiers is lying, but do not trouble yourself about them, for they will all be asleep and snoring. Go through the midst of them straight into the castle, and go through all the rooms, till at last you will come to a chamber where a Golden Bird is hanging in a wooden cage. Close by, there stands an empty gold cage for show, but beware of taking the bird out of the common cage and putting it into the fine one, or it may go badly with you.” With these words the Fox again stretched out his tail, and the King’s son seated himself upon it, and away he went over stock and stone till his hair whistled in the wind.

When he came to the castle he found everything as the Fox had said. The King’s son went into the chamber where the Golden Bird was shut up in a wooden cage, whilst a golden one stood hard by; and the three golden apples lay about the room. “But,” thought he, “it would be absurd if I were to leave the beautiful bird in the common and ugly cage.” so he opened the door, laid hold of it, and put it into the golden cage. But at the same moment the bird uttered a shrill cry. The soldiers awoke, rushed in, and took him off to prison. The next morning he was taken before a court of justice, and as he confessed everything, was sentenced to death. The King, however, said that he would grant him his life on one condition -- namely, if he brought him the Golden Horse which ran faster than the wind; and in that case he should receive, over and above, as a reward, the Golden Bird.

Well, the good-natured son first lets himself be led by reason and is not seduced by the vices of the world. The fact that he is carried on the tail of the fox could mean that one should not sit on the back of reason and ride it like a horse, but should be led and carried by it. There is always the danger that our ego will even force reason and want to control it for its own purposes. But the good-natured son follows reason and lets himself be carried to a wondrous castle, in whose innermost chamber he can find the golden bird. This castle could be our body in which the soul is enclosed. And the path to the inside is also known to be the way to the golden truth of life.

Of course, the scene reminds us again of a yogi sitting in silence, so that all thoughts and senses are silent, like the soldiers and their king. Only then the mind is clear and you can look to the bottom. In this way, the good-natured one finds the living truth together with the eternal fruits. Here, too, we meet with the advice of reason to trust in the simple and not to be seduced by the outer splendour of gold. But this is not that simple, because the desire is deep-seated in our being and difficult to overcome. So the rational intellect awakens again, and the son tries to put the truth in a golden cage, because of course it should be something special. This is a wonderful symbol and masterfully used here. For with the intellect the selfish thoughts and senses awaken immediately and condemn this daring deed. Why? Our ego is a natural enemy of truth because it knows deep inside that it must go down in truth. Therefore, our ego usually condemns everything that seeks the truth, and if it cannot kill the attacker, it complicates the search with ever new demands. Because this desire for more and more is its essence. And so the search continues:

The King’s son set off, but he sighed and was sorrowful, for how was he to find the Golden Horse? But all at once he saw his old friend the Fox sitting on the road. “Look you,” said the Fox, “this has happened because you did not give heed to me. However, be of good courage. I will give you my help, and tell you how to get to the Golden Horse. You must go straight on, and you will come to a castle, where in the stable stands the horse. The grooms will be lying in front of the stable; but they will be asleep and snoring, and you can quietly lead out the Golden Horse. But of one thing you must take heed; put on him the common saddle of wood and leather, and not the golden one, which hangs close by, else it will go ill with you.” Then the Fox stretched out his tail, the King’s son seated himself upon it, and away he went over stock and stone until his hair whistled in the wind.

Everything happened just as the Fox had said; the prince came to the stable in which the Golden Horse was standing, but just as he was going to put the common saddle upon him, he thought, “It will be a shame to such a beautiful beast, if I do not give him the good saddle which belongs to him by right.” But scarcely had the golden saddle touched the horse than he began to neigh loudly. The grooms awoke, seized the youth, and threw him into prison. The next morning he was sentenced by the court to death; but the King promised to grant him his life, and the Golden Horse as well, if he could bring back the beautiful princess from the Golden Castle.

As we know it from our lives, many things turn around in circles again and again until the problem is finally solved. In this way nature leads us. Our good-natured son is not faring better. On the upper level, here we could say to our children, “How can you be so stupid and make the same mistake again!?” But honestly, that happens to us all the time. And so the game keeps on going with a golden horse running faster than the wind. This symbol reminds us of the pure spirit that can pervade the entire universe in a moment. And it also makes sense, because the golden bird of the pure truth of eternal life naturally includes a pure spirit. And the pure spirit, in turn, requires a pure nature, which is first to be won in the form of the beautiful princess from the golden castle. This brings us back to a trinity that can be seen here as spirit, nature and eternal life.

With a heavy heart the youth set out; yet luckily for him he soon found the trusty Fox. “I ought only to leave you to your ill-luck,” said the Fox, “but I pity you, and will help you once more out of your trouble. This road takes you straight to the Golden Castle, you will reach it by eventide; and at night when everything is quiet the beautiful princess goes to the bathing-house to bathe. When she enters it, run up to her and give her a kiss, then she will follow you, and you can take her away with you; only do not allow her to take leave of her parents first, or it will go ill with you.” Then the Fox stretched out his tail, the King’s son seated himself upon it, and away the Fox went, over stock and stone, till his hair whistled in the wind.

When he reached the Golden Castle it was just as the Fox had said. He waited until midnight, when everything lay in deep sleep, and the beautiful princess was going to the bathing-house. Then he sprang out and gave her a kiss. She said that she would like to go with him, but she asked him pitifully, and with tears, to allow her first to take leave of her parents. At first he withstood her prayer, but when she wept more and more, and fell at his feet, he at last gave in. But no sooner had the maiden reached the bedside of her father than he and all the rest in the castle awoke, and the youth was laid hold of and put into prison.

Again, reason carries our good-natured son to the golden castle, where he is to win the love of the beautiful princess. The bath at night reminds us of the old Easter customs, where virgins went silently to wells at night, washed themselves there and drew Easter water. The night is generally a time of purification, not only in sleep but also in meditation. Because when everything is dark and sleeping outside, the inner light can awaken. And the new challenge of nature here is probably the secular attachment to father and mother. We find similar things in the Bible, where it says, “He who loves father or mother more than me, he is not worthy of me.” [Bible Matthew 10:37] So the challenges are getting harder and harder.

Dadaji also said, “What is true love? That’s the love that does not come and go. Only true love is constant and always the same. True love is divine love. Any other love that falters and increases and decreases is not true love, but personal attachment...” [Aptavani 1,117]

But our youth is not ready yet, guided more by intellect and feelings than by reason, so that in the end he is trapped again. Therefore, the next challenge needs to be mastered:

The next morning the King said to him, “Your life is forfeited, and you can only find mercy if you take away the hill which stands in front of my windows, and prevents my seeing beyond it; and you must finish it all within eight days. If you do that you shall have my daughter as your reward.”

The King’s son began, and dug and shovelled without leaving off, but when after seven days he saw how little he had done, and how all his work was as good as nothing, he fell into great sorrow and gave up all hope. But on the evening of the seventh day the Fox appeared and said, “You do not deserve that I should take any trouble about you; but just go away and lie down to sleep, and I will do the work for you.” The next morning when he awoke and looked out of the window the hill had gone. The youth ran, full of joy, to the King, and told him that the task was fulfilled, and whether he liked it or not, the King had to hold to his word and give him his daughter.

What does this symbol of the mountain mean, which blocks the view of the king from the windows? Here we think again of the body with the five senses through which the mind looks like through five windows into the world. And what hinders our true view? This could mean all the many accumulated things, as well as prejudice, lies, illusion, ignorance, and sin. In India, one would speak of the Karma Mountain, which has to be removed here. Of course this is a huge challenge, because we usually only see the tip of the iceberg. And only with our intellect we will not make much progress. This probably also means the seven days of our worldly week, which are constantly spinning in a circle. On the mystical eighth day, which is considered to be the day of resurrection in Christianity, pure reason appears and carries off the mountain, without the youth having to act personally. Because the ego-I cannot accomplish this work personally. Therefore one speaks here of the grace of pure reason or knowledge. And so the good-natured youth also wins the pure soul or nature as his female half.

So the two set forth together, and it was not long before the trusty Fox came up with them. “You have certainly got what is best,” said he, “but the Golden Horse also belongs to the maiden of the Golden Castle.” - “How shall I get it?” asked the youth. “That I will tell you,” answered the Fox; “first take the beautiful maiden to the King who sent you to the Golden Castle. There will be unheard-of rejoicing; they will gladly give you the Golden Horse, and will bring it out to you. Mount it as soon as possible, and offer your hand to all in farewell; last of all to the beautiful maiden. And as soon as you have taken her hand swing her up on to the horse, and gallop away, and no one will be able to bring you back, for the horse runs faster than the wind.” All was brought to pass successfully, and the King’s son carried off the beautiful princess on the Golden Horse.

The Fox did not remain behind, and he said to the youth, “Now I will help you to get the Golden Bird. When you come near to the castle where the Golden Bird is to be found, let the maiden get down, and I will take her into my care. Then ride with the Golden Horse into the castle-yard; there will be great rejoicing at the sight, and they will bring out the Golden Bird for you. As soon as you have the cage in your hand gallop back to us, and take the maiden away again.

Now it’s about bringing the whole thing home. Of course, the ego waits on the various levels like a hungry vulture for its profit. Again, reason helps with the golden horse, i.e. the pure spirit. Still, it is important not to get overwhelmed by the great joy of the profit, but to seize the true with a pure spirit and to go the way back to the origin, to the Father. This time the young man follows the reason, the great work succeeds and one would like to think, now all is done.

When the plan had succeeded, and the King’s son was about to ride home with his treasures, the Fox said, “Now you shall reward me for my help.” - “What do you require for it?” asked the youth. “When you get into the wood yonder, shoot me dead, and chop off my head and feet.” - “That would be fine gratitude,” said the King’s son. “I cannot possibly do that for you.” The Fox said, “If you will not do it I must leave you, but before I go away I will give you a piece of good advice. Be careful about two things. Buy no gallows’-flesh, and do not sit at the edge of any well.” And then he ran into the wood.

But now it suddenly gets more complicated. Why should he kill the fox, the reason that has served him so well so far? The problem of attachment is really very subtle. Any means that helped us along the way must be released at the right time. This reminds us of Buddha’s famous words: “As a raft, monks, I want to teach you the lesson, fit for escape, not for clinging. Hear that and pay attention to my speech.” But here the youth is lacking confidence again, and he cannot bring himself to do it. He even does not take the further advice seriously, which warns of attachment and carelessness.

The youth thought, “That is a wonderful beast, he has strange whims; who is going to buy gallows’-flesh? And the desire to sit at the edge of a well it has never yet seized me.” He rode on with the beautiful maiden, and his road took him again through the village in which his two brothers had remained. There was a great stir and noise, and, when he asked what was going on, he was told that two men were going to be hanged. As he came nearer to the place he saw that they were his brothers, who had been playing all kinds of wicked pranks, and had squandered all their wealth. He inquired whether they could not be set free. “If you will pay for them,” answered the people; “but why should you waste your money on wicked men, and buy them free.” He did not think twice about it, but paid for them, and when they were set free they all went on their way together.

They came to the wood where the Fox had first met them, and, as it was cool and pleasant within it, whilst the sun shone hotly, the two brothers said, “Let us rest a little by the well, and eat and drink.” He agreed, and whilst they were talking he forgot himself, and sat down upon the edge of the well without foreboding any evil. But the two brothers threw him backwards into the well, took the maiden, the Horse, and the Bird, and went home to their father. “Here we bring you not only the Golden Bird,” said they; “we have won the Golden Horse also, and the maiden from the Golden Castle.” Then was there great joy; but the Horse would not eat, the Bird would not sing, and the maiden sat and wept.

With that, the youth falls back into the darkness of the world, for he is overwhelmed by his brothers, who in fact could be regarded as passion and deceit, and actually were as good as dead. But of course, who would not save his biological brothers from distress? Or was his compassion in the wrong place? That is why it is said that our compassion should always be connected with wisdom and reason. This is not about destroying passion and idleness in the world completely, but to avoid their superiority, since they take us to the gallows or drop us into the well. They destroy reason, virtue and justice without the goodness of wisdom and gratitude. Then of course, profit and success lack the true spirit that gives them real life.

But the youngest brother was not dead. By good fortune the well was dry, and he fell upon soft moss without being hurt, but he could not get out again. Even in this strait the faithful Fox did not leave him: he came and leapt down to him, and upbraided him for having forgotten his advice. “But yet I cannot give it up so,” he said; “I will help you up again into daylight.” He bade him grasp his tail and keep tight hold of it; and then he pulled him up.

“You are not out of all danger yet,” said the Fox. “Your brothers were not sure of your death, and have surrounded the wood with watchers, who are to kill you if you let yourself be seen.” But a poor man was sitting upon the road, with whom the youth changed clothes, and in this way he got to the King’s palace. No one knew him, but the Bird began to sing, the Horse began to eat, and the beautiful maiden left off weeping. The King, astonished, asked, “What does this mean?” Then the maiden said, “I do not know, but I have been so sorrowful and now I am so happy! I feel as if my true bride- groom had come.” She told him all that had happened, although the other brothers had threatened her with death if she were to betray anything.

The King commanded that all people who were in his castle should be brought before him; and amongst them came the youth in his ragged clothes; but the maiden knew him at once and fell upon his neck. The wicked brothers were seized and put to death, but he was married to the beautiful maiden and declared heir to the King.

This up and down makes this story very realistic. Because that’s the way it goes in life, and you should always have enough confidence that after each down there comes an up again. Anyway, reason helps and brings the youth back to the light. But there is already the next challenge, to remain unrecognized before the guards of the forest. What is so superficially described is very difficult at the mental level. Because this is not about changing a few clothes, but letting go of your own identity, to which we usually cling extremely. This includes our name, body and profession as well as our personal history and the outward appearance. This letting go is the incomparable wealth of true poverty or asceticism. With this the youth reaches the court of his father unrecognized. Only the truth of mind, life and nature recognize him, because he is connected with the truth in an inner way and not by external forms. This, in turn, is recognized by the ruling spirit in the form of the king. He judges the bad lie, unites the separated and passes on his rule to the truly worthy.

But how did it fare with the poor Fox? Long afterwards the King’s son was once again walking in the wood, when the Fox met him and said, “You have everything now that you can wish for, but there is never an end to my misery, and yet it is in your power to free me.” and again he asked him with tears to shoot him dead and to chop off his head and feet. So he did it, and scarcely was it done when the Fox was changed into a man, and was no other than the brother of the beautiful princess, who at last was freed from the magic charm which had been laid upon him. And now nothing more was wanting to their happiness as long as they lived.

As mentioned before, every unsolved problem keeps coming up, until it is finally solved. And so the king’s son can finally decide to redeem the fox. What does it mean to cut off his head and paws? Considering the whole story, it’s probably about overcoming the last remnant of the ego-I, which is still hidden in reason and personally identifies itself in the body with thoughts, sense perception, and actions, that is, the head and hands. And the spirit that was hidden in the fox now reveals himself as the brother of the princess of the golden castle, i.e. a being of eternity.

Thus, this fairy tale describes how reason is confined to a narrow body in order to unite the opposites of male and female in true love, to find the golden bird of eternal life, and finally to be redeemed from this physical prison. This symbolism is then certainly the highlight of this fairy tale, which we can only theoretically refer to, like with a finger on the map, so to speak. On this high spiritual level, passion, lie, illusion, pride, attachment, ego and even personal identity disappear. We see how in our story everything is connected on the spiritual level, as every being plays its role and has its place in life. Then basically there is only one mind that embodies itself in different forms and builds a large, living organism. Father, son, reason, soul and nature become a whole, a great sea, on which the individual waves play with and against each other. Finally, the usual opposites of man and woman come together in the mystical marriage of true love, our fairy tale ends and the great bliss begins.

This is a most amazing story, and it could even mean the salvation or deliverance that the great religions speak of. And again, we should not think that this awakening is something very special or completely out of the ordinary. Then we would put the golden bird of truth back in a golden cage and make a lot of noise about it, as happens occasionally. But it takes place more in the simple and hidden. Think of Jesus in the quiet desert, the Buddha in his lonely asceticism, or Krishna in the secluded shepherd’s village, even though their light shone forth over the whole world. None of them needed a golden cage for the truth.

Our Lady’s Child - (topic: The divine sense of nature)
The Frog-King, or Iron Henry - (topic: spirit-nature)
Sweet Porridge - (topic: poverty and abundance)
Cat and Mouse in Partnership - (topic: reason-ego)
The Fisherman and his Wife - (topic: ego madness)
The Golden Bird (topic: reason)
The Twelve Brothers - (topic: spirit, passion and nature)
The Seven Ravens - (topic: The seven principles of nature)
Little Snow-White and the seven dwarfs - (topic: Ego and passion)
The Six Servants - (topic: Supernatural abilities)
The Poor Man and the Rich Man - (topic: the curse of wealth)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[Aptavani 1] Ambalal Muljibhai Patel,, 2004
[Bible] Luther Bibel, 1912
[Faust 1] Faust Part 1, translated by Bayard Taylor, 1870/71
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014,
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /