The Message of German Fairy tales

Our Lady’s Child

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

Hard by a great forest dwelt a wood-cutter with his wife, who had an only child, a little girl three years old. They were, however, so poor that they no longer had daily bread, and did not know how to get food for her. One morning the wood-cutter went out sorrowfully to his work in the forest, and while he was cutting wood, suddenly there stood before him a tall and beautiful woman with a crown of shining stars on her head, who said to him, “I am the Virgin Mary, mother of the child Jesus. Thou art poor and needy, bring thy child to me, I will take her with me and be her mother, and care for her.” The wood-cutter obeyed, brought his child, and gave her to the Virgin Mary, who took her up to heaven with her. There the child fared well, ate sugar-cakes, and drank sweet milk, and her clothes were of gold, and the little angels played with her.

This is a wonderful fairy tale that does justice to fairy tale art. You cannot better connect the different levels and form the necessary contradictions, to slowly unlock the deeper levels. It begins with the woodchopper and his wife, who could no longer feed their only child - a three-year-old girl who, compared to her hard-working parents, certainly needed only a small share of the ‘daily bread’. But the worried woodchopper gives it to another mother who promised the child a carefree heaven. On the upper level, which corresponds to a children’s mind, this is certainly a comfort. Because in the past it was not unusual that even small children were given to a related or known foster family or even to a monastery. This happened not only among the poor but also among the rich and even princes. In this regard, we should be aware that the role of our children in family and society has changed significantly in recent centuries. The fact that the householder here determines the fate of the child points to a real bygone time. In Christianity, the Church increasingly took over the law, and today a child belongs more to the state and the mother than to the father.

Of course, at the deeper level of this story, we again meet spiritual symbolism. There is the woodchopper as a male being who works with the symbolic axe in nature, in the great forest of the world. We have already written a lot about male and female polarity. Out of this polarity arises our soul, who is here a little girl. And in the morning, when the mind awakens and everything appears in the light, he goes out into the world of forms and accomplishes his sorrowful work. The worldly poverty in the story could also mean pure poverty, that is freedom from attachment to all personal possessions. This beautiful mother appears not in vain to him, whose crown is the whole universe with the endless sea of stars. She introduces herself as the Holy Mother, who in her perfect purity gave birth to the Son of God. It is truly a great vision to see this whole universe as a living being in which all life unfolds. This vision reminds us of the mystical body of God in Christianity or the cosmic man in Hinduism. There, for example, we read in the Mahabharata: “This body was the abode of the Vedas (wisdom), and the firmament with all its stars and constellations became the crown of his head. The beautiful sunbeams became his long hair, upper and lower world his two ears, the earth his forehead...” [MHB 12.348] Such a view does not have to contradict our modern, scientific spirit. We, too, know that everything is interconnected, that the chains of cause and effect pervade the entire universe and that man does not live independently of the rest of nature. And to entrust one’s soul to this entirety, appears to us in this fairy tale as a way to the great bliss of heaven.

And when she was fourteen years of age, the Virgin Mary called her one day and said, “Dear child, I am about to make a long journey, so take into thy keeping the keys of the thirteen doors of heaven. Twelve of these thou mayest open, and behold the glory which is within them, but the thirteenth, to which this little key belongs, is forbidden thee. Beware of opening it, or thou wilt bring misery on thyself.” The girl promised to be obedient, and when the Virgin Mary was gone, she began to examine the dwellings of the kingdom of heaven. Each day she opened one of them, until she had made the round of the twelve. In each of them sat one of the Apostles in the midst of a great light, and she rejoiced in all the magnificence and splendour, and the little angels who always accompanied her rejoiced with her. Then the forbidden door alone remained, and she felt a great desire to know what could be hidden behind it, and said to the angels, “I will not quite open it, and I will not go inside it, but I will unlock it so that we can just see a little through the opening.” - “Oh, no,” said the little angels, “that would be a sin. The Virgin Mary has forbidden it, and it might easily cause thy unhappiness.” Then she was silent, but the desire in her heart was not stilled, but gnawed there and tormented her, and let her have no rest. And once when the angels had all gone out, she thought, “Now I am quite alone, and I could peep in. If I do it, no one will ever know.” She sought out the key, and when she had got it in her hand, she put it in the lock, and when she had put it in, she turned it round as well. Then the door sprang open, and she saw there the Trinity sitting in fire and splendour. She stayed there awhile, and looked at everything in amazement; then she touched the light a little with her finger, and her finger became quite golden. Immediately a great fear fell on her. She shut the door violently, and ran away. Her terror too would not quit her, let her do what she might, and her heart beat continually and would not be still; the gold too stayed on her finger, and would not go away, let her rub it and wash it never so much.

Two seven-year cycles have passed and the child enters the adolescence. The little soul is now being tested and asked to take responsibility. And this is about nothing small, but about the whole kingdom of heaven. Of course, this is very important for children, and on the upper level of this fairy tale one could think of twelve doors with teachers who transfer the understanding of the world to experience its happiness and glory. But it is just as important for children to adhere to established limits, to obey the words of their parents and to observe the secular laws. It is very important to learn to master the inner passion and desire, even if the curiosity is great. Because children who know no limits will certainly not bring much good to their parents and themselves. Children should trust their parents that their word is law. This is obviously also the message of this fairy tale for the child spirit, that by obedience you can save yourself from al lot of suffering.

The Christian symbolism stands on the deeper level. First of all we remember the commandment of God in Paradise: “And the Lord God commanded man, saying, Thou shalt eat of all sorts of trees in the garden; but you shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; for what day you eat of it, you will die of death.” [Bible, Genesis 2.16] The twelve apostles are the worldly messengers of the faith, who are worshiped as saints full of glory. The 13th Apostle is then probably God himself, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, approaching this unity is not easy and requires a certain purity that our soul obviously does not possess yet. For, of course, this divine oneness threatens to devour everything egocentrically personal, which is usually so dear to us, and the ego feels the great fear of its death by losing everything in this unity. And yet the soul has touched the supernatural divine, for this golden and true is in all of us, even if we do not want to admit it and try to get rid of it or at least ignore it.

We already know the game of 12 and 13 from other fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty. Here, too, the 13 has a special position, suggests the irrational, and one cannot even say clearly whether it was now a luck or misfortune for our little soul to open the 13th door.

It was not long before the Virgin Mary came back from her journey. She called the girl before her, and asked to have the keys of heaven back. When the maiden gave her the bunch, the Virgin looked into her eyes and said, “Hast thou not opened the thirteenth door also?” - “No,” she replied. Then she laid her hand on the girl’s heart, and felt how it beat and beat, and saw right well that she had disobeyed her order and had opened the door. Then she said once again, “Art thou certain that thou hast not done it?” - “Yes,” said the girl, for the second time. Then she perceived the finger which had become golden from touching the fire of heaven, and saw well that the child had sinned, and said for the third time, “Hast thou not done it?” - “No,” said the girl for the third time. Then said the Virgin Mary, “Thou hast not obeyed me, and besides that thou hast lied, thou art no longer worthy to be in heaven.”

This is a clear message for the child’s spirit. The girl did not obey her mother’s commandment and in addition lied to her three times. Of course this requires punishment. And just as God has thrown Adam and Eve out of Paradise into a sorrowful world, here, too, the little soul is thrown out of heaven.

But as the mind matures and begins to think more deeply, suddenly new questions arise: How could the divine mother, who is really omnipotent, just fail so completely in the upbringing of her child? Were the teachings of the Twelve Apostles so ineffective? What was the sin of opening this thirteenth door to the Divine? Why did she deliberately arouse the child’s curiosity and even give her the key to that door? Why does she give the girl a key that she is not allowed to use? And why does the really pure girl lie to her mother as stubbornly as a naughty child, after living in heaven for so long and even touching the divine?

Then the girl fell into a deep sleep, and when she awoke she lay on the earth below, and in the midst of a wilderness. She wanted to cry out, but she could bring forth no sound. She sprang up and wanted to run away, but whithersoever she turned herself, she was continually held back by thick hedges of thorns through which she could not break. In the desert, in which she was imprisoned, there stood an old hollow tree, and this had to be her dwelling-place. Into this she crept when night came, and here she slept. Here, too, she found a shelter from storm and rain, but it was a miserable life, and bitterly did she weep when she remembered how happy she had been in heaven, and how the angels had played with her. Roots and wild berries were her only food, and for these she sought as far as she could go. In the autumn she picked up the fallen nuts and leaves, and carried them into the hole. The nuts were her food in winter, and when snow and ice came, she crept amongst the leaves like a poor little animal that she might not freeze. Before long her clothes were all torn, and one bit of them after another fell off her. As soon, however, as the sun shone warm again, she went out and sat in front of the tree, and her long hair covered her on all sides like a mantle. Thus she sat year after year, and felt the pain and misery of the world.

That should be a sufficient dreadful punishment for every child’s spirit. Especially the dumbness, the exclusion and loneliness. The hard deprivations in the wild nature may meet more the older children with appropriate experience.

At a deeper level, here we see the sinking into the earthly wilderness. The thorn hedges could symbolize the constraints we are subjected to without the soul being able to escape from them. For Christian circumstances, this story is a daring game, because you might think that the human soul falls into the animal kingdom and lives here like an animal among animals. In Buddhism and Hinduism, this is a common notion of being born again among animals and even plants, to experience there the miserable suffering that one has accumulated through his own sins: “Verily, O Bharata, who has accumulated sin, loses his high status as a human and must take his birth in lower forms down to the plants. Whoever follows his desires cannot know virtue and justice. He who commits sin, but seeks repentance through vows and renunciations, will experience happiness and suffering, and must live with great anxiety in the heart ...” [MHB 13.111] We can only escape these constraints when a higher mind arises. That is why we speak of the superior reason that distinguishes a person from the animal.

One day, when the trees were once more clothed in fresh green, the King of the country was hunting in the forest, and followed a roe, and as it had fled into the thicket which shut in this bit of the forest, he got off his horse, tore the bushes asunder, and cut himself a path with his sword. When he had at last forced his way through, he saw a wonderfully beautiful maiden sitting under the tree; and she sat there and was entirely covered with her golden hair down to her very feet. He stood still and looked at her full of surprise, then he spoke to her and said, “Who art thou? Why art thou sitting here in the wilderness?” But she gave no answer, for she could not open her mouth. The King continued, “Wilt thou go with me to my castle?” Then she just nodded her head a little. The King took her in his arms, carried her to his horse, and rode home with her, and when he reached the royal castle he caused her to be dressed in beautiful garments, and gave her all things in abundance. Although she could not speak, she was still so beautiful and charming that he began to love her with all his heart, and it was not long before he married her.

The higher spirit reappears here as a hunting king. And on his quest he cuts the dense thorn hedge with the sharp sword of knowledge, frees the beautiful soul from her constraints in nature and unites with her. But still she remains silent and cannot speak a human word like the animals. What should she say? Who on earth would believe this fairy tale to have fallen from heaven? As long as our ego-I rules, it is certainly better that we do not know too much about the life before we are born. It is already a big burden to personally identify with the things of this life. This ignorance is also in the interest of our ego, which likes to think of itself as an extraordinary individual that has never existed in this world before and will never again. Sure, that’s a strange aspiration...

After a year or so had passed, the Queen brought a son into the world. Thereupon the Virgin Mary appeared to her in the night when she lay in her bed alone, and said, “If thou wilt tell the truth and confess that thou didst unlock the forbidden door, I will open thy mouth and give thee back thy speech, but if thou perseverest in thy sin, and deniest obstinately, I will take thy new-born child away with me.” Then the Queen was permitted to answer, but she remained hard, and said, “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” and the Virgin Mary took the new-born child from her arms, and vanished with it. Next morning, when the child was not to be found, it was whispered among the people that the Queen was a man-eater, and had killed her own child. She heard all this and could say nothing to the contrary, but the King would not believe it, for he loved her so much.

When a year had gone by the Queen again bore a son, and in the night the Virgin Mary again came to her, and said, “If thou wilt confess that thou openedst the forbidden door, I will give thee thy child back and untie thy tongue; but if thou continuest in sin and deniest it, I will take away with me this new child also.” Then the Queen again said, “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” and the Virgin took the child out of her arms, and went away with him to heaven. Next morning, when this child also had disappeared, the people declared quite loudly that the Queen had devoured it, and the King’s councillors demanded that she should be brought to justice. The King, however, loved her so dearly that he would not believe it, and commanded the councillors under pain of death not to say any more about it.

On the upper level, this story becomes more and more absurd, and one wonders if the girl is really so stubborn and stupid as to sacrifice her own children, her human language, her honour, and her worldly happiness for her pride, even though she already has lived in heaven, touched the divine and felt great repentance in the hell of wilderness, which she still remembers well. So we cannot help but go to an even deeper level and ask ourselves bigger questions. Is this really about the little confession to have opened the 13th door? Any ego would turn its pride from right to left in the face of the promised gain, saying, “Yes, I did!” If we were not even proud to say, “I’ve owned the keys of Heaven, opened the door to God and even touched Him personally!” Would not that be a wonderful victory for our ego to have won the divine besides all earthly things?

The following year the Queen gave birth to a beautiful little daughter, and for the third time the Virgin Mary appeared to her in the night and said, “Follow me.” She took the Queen by the hand and led her to heaven, and showed her there her two eldest children, who smiled at her, and were playing with the ball of the world. When the Queen rejoiced thereat, the Virgin Mary said, “Is thy heart not yet softened? If thou wilt own that thou openedst the forbidden door, I will give thee back thy two little sons.” But for the third time the Queen answered, “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” Then the Virgin let her sink down to earth once more, and took from her likewise her third child.

Now comes the third test, and Virgin Mary even took the young soul by the hand, led her to heaven and showed her the children as they played godlike with the globe. Is not that a wonderfully great and deep view, which already points to a high mental development? This is certainly not the way of a stubborn ego, and we must look deeper here. Is it still the fear of the 13th door? What does the soul deny here so vehemently that she is constantly banished to earth and has to endure so much deprivation and suffering?

Next morning, when the loss was reported abroad, all the people cried loudly, “The Queen is a man-eater! She must be judged.” and the King was no longer able to restrain his councillors. Thereupon a trial was held, and as she could not answer, and defend herself, she was condemned to be burnt alive. The wood was got together, and when she was fast bound to the stake, and the fire began to burn round about her, the hard ice of pride melted, her heart was moved by repentance, and she thought, “If I could but confess before my death that I opened the door.” Then her voice came back to her, and she cried out loudly, “Yes, Mary, I did it.” and straightway rain fell from the sky and extinguished the flames of fire, and a light broke forth above her, and the Virgin Mary descended with the two little sons by her side, and the new-born daughter in her arms. She spoke kindly to her, and said, “He who repents his sin and acknowledges it, is forgiven.” Then she gave her the three children, untied her tongue, and granted her happiness for her whole life.

After all, the soul is even condemned by the world, and even the king cannot help her with all his reason. And the crowd was not so wrong. Is not the queen responsible for the disappearance of her children? Or should we hold the divine mother responsible? And what good would it have been for the Queen to tell people the tale of the Virgin Mary?

But finally, her suffering reaches a point where even the last remnants of egocentric pride break down and the great fear of death dissolves in the heart, so that it becomes free and mobile again. That is the great grace that is hidden behind every suffering. And with that we have arrived at the Happy-End:

Well, the holy mother certainly has not failed in education, nor the apostles in their salutary teachings. Even the opening of the thirteenth door and the touch of the Divine Trinity were not the cause of all the suffering of the soul. Every soul possesses the mystical ‘key ring’ to heaven and even the divine gold of eternal truth. But we vehemently deny it, and that is our great sin. And the painful way the soul has to go through all regions of nature is certainly not an unnecessary path for which one should blame Mother and Father or God and Goddess. And this ‘I did it!’ proclaimed here at the end of this tale as the word of salvation, which extinguishes all the flames of fire, reveals the great light, and brings down the heavenly life to the earth, can no longer be an ordinary selfishness that identifies with personal acts. Because beyond the small ego-I, there is a much larger I, which is denied by our little ego with good reason vehemently. This is probably what our fairy tale speaks on a very deep level. This great I, which is also called the ‘self’, plays like the children with this world globe and also appears in the form of the holy mother with the star crown, the apostle and the holy trinity. It can also be called the great, all-pervading love that overcomes all sin. Jesus also speaks of this great I in the Bible and says, “I am the way and the truth and the life; nobody comes to the father because of me. If you knew me, you also knew my father.” [Bible, John 4.6]

This could complete the circle of this fairy tale and explain the problem with the 13th door. For as long as the small ego-I is still alive and denies the great I, one should not open this door out of desire. Otherwise, it may easily happen that our little ego claims, “I am the way and the truth and the life; nobody comes to the father because of me. If you knew me, you also knew my father. “Then the little ego-I would rise to the deity and reach for the tree of eternal life. This of course has catastrophic consequences, which we certainly all know well.

Thus, this fairy tale as a whole reminds us of the difficult road to salvation, with which obviously our ancestors here in Europe have also been intensively involved. It is self-evident that our beloved little ego must die on this way and that this process does not take place without deprivation and suffering. Who wants to achieve everything, must also give everything. That’s fair and just. And yet we gladly cherish the hope of returning to Paradise with the fluttering flag of our ego, together with all worldly pomp, and if not by spiritual means, then we will at least force it on the material way. Whether the guards with the flaming sword can be tricked or forced by machine power? Well, you can try it...


Introduction
Jorinda and Joringel
Iron John
The Old Woman in the Wood
Hansel and Grethel
Rumpelstiltskin
Mother Holle
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was
Hans in Luck
Godfather Death
One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes
Our Lady’s Child
The Frog-King, or Iron Henry
Sweet Porridge
Cat and Mouse in Partnership
The Fisherman and his Wife
The Golden Bird

[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
[Bible] Luther Bibel, 1912
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014, www.mahabharata.pushpak.de
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens / www.pushpak.de