The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Six Servants

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

In former times there lived an aged Queen who was a sorceress, and her daughter was the most beautiful maiden under the sun. The old woman, however, had no other thought than how to lure mankind to destruction, and when a wooer appeared, she said that whosoever wished to have her daughter, must first perform a task, or die. Many had been dazzled by the daughter’s beauty, and had actually risked this, but they never could accomplish what the old woman enjoined them to do, and then no mercy was shown; they had to kneel down, and their heads were struck off. A certain King’s son who had also heard of the maiden’s beauty, said to his father, “Let me go there, I want to demand her in marriage.” “Never,” answered the King; “if you were to go, it would be going to your death.” On this the son lay down and was sick unto death, and for seven years he lay there, and no physician could heal him. When the father perceived that all hope was over, with a heavy heart he said to him, “Go thither, and try your luck, for I know no other means of curing you.” When the son heard that, he rose from his bed and was well again, and joyfully set out on his way.

After the twelve brothers, seven ravens and seven dwarfs, we would like to think a little more about the six servants of this fairy tale, in order to perhaps shed more light on the mysticism of such fairy tales. The story first speaks of a beautiful virgin who, through her feminine charms, attracts young men in droves. However, no one was able to win her because she was ruled by a sorceress who made the highest demands, so that the young men first lost their hearts and then their heads. Practically, this often happens in life. What mother does not want the best of all men to be a husband for her daughter? And above all, the great mother nature. That love can really make one sick, and that one plunges into great adventures against all reason is certainly also known. For our children the message will then be: With a lot of courage, perseverance and love, the necessary helpers will appear at the right time, and everything can be achieved in life! Wonderful...

However, what kind of great force is that, what we call ‘love’? We can find this power on different levels, from the physical attraction between the positive and negative poles of simple magnets to the love of children for father and mother, the love for the own body, possessions and pleasures up to vice and addiction, but also the love for the opposite sex up to the pure love to God. Love is a tremendous force that moves us all. And the same principle, which is described here as the great early love, we also find on the spiritual path to true love. That makes such fairy tales interesting for all ages, from children to wise old men.

Many well-known symbols reveal a deeper meaning to us. We again meet a king as the ruling spirit, his son as our masculine side, the enchanting queen as the often capricious character of nature and her daughter as our feminine side. These two polarities look for their union within us in the mystical wedding. However, the way there is difficult and full of obstacles. It is not uncommon for the spiritual path to start with a long period of great crises, the tricky seven years, when no doctor can help us anymore. And when everything seems hopeless and all worldly hope disappears, then our spirit may also say: “Now arise and go the great way to happiness! Your usual knowledge will no longer help you.”

And it came to pass that as he was riding across a heath, he saw from afar something like a great heap of hay lying on the ground, and when he drew nearer, he could see that it was the stomach of a man, who had laid himself down there, but the stomach looked like a small mountain. When the fat man saw the traveller, he stood up and said, “If you are in need of any one, take me into your service.” The prince answered, “What can I do with such a great big man?” “Oh,” said the Stout One, “this is nothing, when I stretch myself out well, I am three thousand times fatter.” “If that’s the case,” said the prince, “I can make use of thee, come with me.” So the Stout One followed the prince, and after a while they found another man who was lying on the ground with his ear laid to the turf. “What art thou doing there?” asked the King’s son. “I am listening,” replied the man. “What art thou listening to so attentively?” “I am listening to what is just going on in the world, for nothing escapes my ears; I even hear the grass growing.” “Tell me,” said the prince, “what thou hearest at the court of the old Queen who has the beautiful daughter.” Then he answered, “I hear the whizzing of the sword that is striking off a wooer’s head.” The King’s son said, “I can make use of thee, come with me.” They went onwards, and then saw a pair of feet lying and part of a pair of legs, but could not see the rest of the body. When they had walked on for a great distance, they came to the body, and at last to the head also. “Why,” said the prince, “what a tall rascal thou art!” “Oh,” replied the Tall One, “that is nothing at all yet; when I really stretch out my limbs, I am three thousand times as tall, and taller than the highest mountain on earth. I will gladly enter your service, if you will take me.” “Come with me,” said the prince, “I can make use of thee.” They went onwards and found a man sitting by the road who had bound up his eyes. The prince said to him, “Hast thou weak eyes, that thou canst not look at the light?” “No,” replied the man, “but I must not remove the bandage, for whatsoever I look at with my eyes, splits to pieces, my glance is so powerful. If you can use that, I shall be glad to serve you.” “Come with me,” replied the King’s son, “I can make use of thee.” They journeyed onwards and found a man who was lying in the hot sunshine, trembling and shivering all over his body, so that not a limb was still. “How canst thou shiver when the sun is shining so warm?” said the King’s son. “Alack,” replied the man, “I am of quite a different nature. The hotter it is, the colder I am, and the frost pierces through all my bones; and the colder it is, the hotter I am. In the midst of ice, I cannot endure the heat, nor in the midst of fire, the cold.” “Thou art a strange fellow!” said the prince, “but if thou wilt enter my service, follow me.” They travelled onwards, and saw a man standing who made a long neck and looked about him, and could see over all the mountains. “What art thou looking at so eagerly?” said the King’s son. The man replied, “I have such sharp eyes that I can see into every forest and field, and hill and valley, all over the world.” The prince said, “Come with me if thou wilt, for I am still in want of such an one.”

What sounds so funny and amazing to our children on the narrative level, of course, calls for a deeper contemplation. Anyone who has studied yoga will likely recognize these servants. Similar abilities are already mentioned in the Mahabharata in the Indian yoga system, namely the eight siddhis [MHB 12.317]. Now the narrator of this fairy tale was certainly not an Indian yogi, but obviously, there were people here in Europe with deep insights who described similar experiences only in different terms.

Practically everyone can find these extraordinary or even supernatural servants or abilities within themselves, as far as one is ready to do so. The symbolism used here is closely related to the known body functions. That means: The fat one reminds of a limitless digestion, whereby it is not only about material nourishment, but above all also about spiritual things, which are often much more difficult to ‘digest’. Let us think of terrible memories, trauma or even simple insults that we often carry around with us for a lifetime. Even more difficult are the common illusions that we love so much. The next servant concerns hearing, which can develop to the point of clairaudience, so that we become aware of very subtle things that remain hidden from other people. The tall one reminds us of our thoughts, which can wander through the entire universe and reach great depths just in a moment, as long as they are not walled in. The destroying look reminds us of a view that can penetrate everything and thus dissolve any external form. You should of course be very careful with this. The frosty one is probably the power to control our feelings so that we can even consciously transform them into the opposite, not only heat in cold or cold in heat but also hatred in love or enemies in friends, which can give us great freedom. At the end, there is the eye of clairvoyance or foresight, which will recognize everything and will certainly be a good servant on the spiritual path. Because without foresight, we often do things, that are well meant, but turn into the opposite in the long term.

Seen in this way, this joke story full of strange symbols already takes on a deeper dimension. It could mean the extraordinary abilities that one can find on the spiritual path through appropriate practice and merit. These abilities are found more on a spiritual level than on a physical level, so that one also speaks of subtle abilities. At least, it is a normal effect of meditation, silence and prayer, that the ordinary senses become more and more sensitive and can perceive things that remain hidden from others. Now we are curious to see how these special skills are used:

And now the King’s son and his six servants came to the town where the aged Queen dwelt. He did not tell her who he was, but said, “If you will give me your beautiful daughter, I will perform any task you set me.” The sorceress was delighted to get such a handsome youth as this into her net, and said, “I will set thee three tasks, and if thou art able to perform them all, thou shalt be husband and master of my daughter.” “What is the first to be?” “Thou shalt fetch me my ring which I have dropped into the Red Sea.” So the King’s son went home to his servants and said, “The first task is not easy. A ring is to be got out of the Red Sea. Come, find some way of doing it.” Then the man with the sharp sight said, “I will see where it is lying,” and looked down into the water and said, “It is sticking there, on a pointed stone.” The Tall One carried them thither, and said, “I would soon get it out, if I could only see it.” “Oh, is that all!” cried the Stout One, and lay down and put his mouth to the water, on which all the waves fell into it just as if it had been a whirlpool, and he drank up the whole sea till it was as dry as a meadow. The Tall One stooped down a little, and brought out the ring with his hand. Then the King’s son rejoiced when he had the ring, and took it to the old Queen. She was astonished, and said, “Yes, it is the right ring. Thou hast safely performed the first task, but now comes the second. Dost thou see the meadow in front of my palace? Three hundred fat oxen are feeding there, and these must thou eat, skin, hair, bones, horns and all, and down below in my cellar lie three hundred casks of wine, and these thou must drink up as well, and if one hair of the oxen, or one little drop of the wine is left, thy life will be forfeited to me.” “May I invite no guests to this repast?” inquired the prince, “no dinner is good without some company.” The old woman laughed maliciously, and replied, “Thou mayst invite one for the sake of companionship, but no more.”

They say this world is a riddle and whoever solves it wins immortality. That is Mother Nature’s great challenge. Of course, we can also understand these tasks superficially, that we should fetch the material treasures from the depths of the sea and the earth, which nature has hidden there, or develop into competitive athletes in eating and drinking. However, if we look at it on a deeper level, the first task may remind us to find the unity in the sea of the world, which is symbolized here again as a ring. This sea is red like love and passion. The lofty thoughts carry us and can find unity when we digest, overcome and penetrate the superficial forms and views that dance like waves on the sea. The second task could relate to the mountain of karma that we have accumulated with thoughts, words and deeds and that we need to consume and above all digest on the spiritual path of purification. Here, too, it’s about fat oxen in the sense of our ego and a lot of wine in the sense of illusion and intoxication.

The King’s son went to his servants and said to the Stout One, “Thou shalt be my guest to-day, and shalt eat thy fill.” Hereupon the Stout One stretched himself out and ate the three hundred oxen without leaving one single hair, and then he asked if he was to have nothing but his breakfast. He drank the wine straight from the casks without feeling any need of a glass, and he licked the last drop from his finger-nails. When the meal was over, the prince went to the old woman, and told her that the second task also was performed. She wondered at this and said, “No one has ever done so much before, but one task still remains,” and she thought to herself, “Thou shalt not escape me, and wilt not keep thy head on thy shoulders! This night,” said she, “I will bring my daughter to thee in thy chamber, and thou shalt put thine arms round her, but when you are sitting there together, beware of falling asleep. When twelve o’clock is striking, I will come, and if she is then no longer in thine arms, thou art lost.” The prince thought, “The task is easy, I will most certainly keep my eyes open.” Nevertheless he called his servants, told them what the old woman had said, and remarked, “Who knows what treachery may lurk behind this. Foresight is a good thing— keep watch, and take care that the maiden does not go out of my room again.” When night fell, the old woman came with her daughter, and gave her into the prince’s arms, and then the Tall One wound himself round the two in a circle, and the Stout One placed himself by the door, so that no living creature could enter. There the two sat, and the maiden spake never a word, but the moon shone through the window on her face, and the prince could behold her wondrous beauty. He did nothing but gaze at her, and was filled with love and happiness, and his eyes never felt weary. This lasted until eleven o’clock, when the old woman cast such a spell over all of them that they fell asleep, and at the self-same moment the maiden was carried away.

The third task reminds of the perfect lover who never gets tired. But anyone who has ever tried probably knows that one cannot find immortal happiness in nature. That is why we prefer to consider the spiritual level here, too, and this reminds us of self-knowledge regarding the big question: “Who am I?” Those who practice meditation will soon understand what is described here in the fairy tale in a romantically amusing way and that it is not as simple as the prince first suspects it. Indeed, it is of course the hardest of the three tasks. It certainly takes a lot of merit until Mother Nature might grant us a view on our pure soul in meditation for at least a few moments. Great care is required for this, but usually we fall asleep after a short time or wander with our thoughts into the world. Then it is always good when the moon shines and the beauty of our pure soul becomes visible in this clear light of the spirit. But the magical illusion of nature, which is also called Maya in India, is difficult to overcome and here also overwhelms our king’s son, although he certainly came far.

This task of keeping the consciousness awake also reminds us of a parable in the Bible, which deals with five virgins each, who could stand for our five senses, who have more or less merit for the light of an alert consciousness. Because without this “oil” one sits in the dark: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. But five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish took oil in their lamps; but they did not take oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. As the bridegroom paused, they all became sleepy and fell asleep. At midnight there was a cry: Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him! Then all these virgins got up and decorated their lamps. But the foolish said to the wise, Give us some of your oil, for our lamps will go out. Then the wise answered and said, Not so, lest we and you fail; but go to the shopkeepers and buy for yourselves. And as they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding, and the door was locked...”

Then they all slept soundly until a quarter to twelve, when the magic lost its power, and all awoke again. “Oh, misery and misfortune!” cried the prince, “now I am lost!” The faithful servants also began to lament, but the Listener said, “Be quiet, I want to listen.” Then he listened for an instant and said, “She is on a rock, three hundred leagues from hence, bewailing her fate. Thou alone, Tall One, canst help her; if thou wilt stand up, thou wilt be there in a couple of steps.”

“Yes,” answered the Tall One, “but the one with the sharp eyes must go with me, that we may destroy the rock.” Then the Tall One took the one with bandaged eyes on his back, and in the twinkling of an eye they were on the enchanted rock. The Tall One immediately took the bandage from the other’s eyes, and he did but look round, and the rock shivered into a thousand pieces. Then the Tall One took the maiden in his arms, carried her back in a second, then fetched his companion with the same rapidity, and before it struck twelve they were all sitting as they had sat before, quite merrily and happily. When twelve struck, the aged sorceress came stealing in with a malicious face, which seemed to say, “Now he is mine!” for she believed that her daughter was on the rock three hundred leagues off. But when she saw her in the prince’s arms, she was alarmed, and said, “Here is one who knows more than I do!” She dared not make any opposition, and was forced to give him her daughter. But she whispered in her ear, “It is a disgrace to thee to have to obey common people, and that thou art not allowed to choose a husband to thine own liking.”

Our king’s son evidently had enough merit, since his servants had the power to rediscover the pure soul that had once again vanished far into the depths of the world under the mountains of illusion. In addition, they could even remove all obstacles and bring it back into consciousness. Here you can see what power mindfulness and thoughts can have. Therefore, the spirit wins the pure soul. However, nature has its own ideas about freedom. It cannot be won that easily:

On this the proud heart of the maiden was filled with anger, and she meditated revenge. Next morning she caused three hundred great bundles of wood to be got together, and said to the prince that though the three tasks were performed, she would still not be his wife until some one was ready to seat himself in the midst of the wood, and bear the fire. She thought that none of his servants would let themselves be burnt for him, and that out of love for her, he himself would place himself upon it, and then she would be free. But the servants said, “Every one of us has done something except the Frosty One, he must set to work,” and they put him in the middle of the pile, and set fire to it. Then the fire began to burn, and burnt for three days until all the wood was consumed, and when the flames had burnt out, the Frosty One was standing amid the ashes, trembling like an aspen leaf, and saying, “I never felt such a frost during the whole course of my life; if it had lasted much longer, I should have been benumbed!”

It is said, that great dangers await on the yoga path shortly before the goal. One danger is the proud exultation of victory, which can kindle a fire of passion. For this, it is certainly good to control the emotions and to transform the passionate pride into cool serenity. Then you just have to sit and wait.

As no other pretext was to be found, the beautiful maiden was now forced to take the unknown youth as a husband. But when they drove away to church, the old woman said, “I cannot endure the disgrace,” and sent her warriors after them with orders to cut down all who opposed them, and bring back her daughter. But the Listener had sharpened his ears, and heard the secret discourse of the old woman. “What shall we do?” said he to the Stout One. But he knew what to do, and spat out once or twice behind the carriage some of the sea-water which he had drunk, and a great sea arose in which the warriors were caught and drowned. When the sorceress perceived that, she sent her mailed knights; but the Listener heard the rattling of their armour, and undid the bandage from one eye of Sharp-eyes, who looked for a while rather fixedly at the enemy’s troops, on which they all sprang to pieces like glass. Then the youth and the maiden went on their way undisturbed, and when the two had been blessed in church, the six servants took leave, and said to their master, “Your wishes are now satisfied, you need us no longer, we will go our way and seek our fortunes.”

Those, who have achieved their goal and maintain their mindfulness, can also fend off all other attacks by worldly demons using the remembered water of life to dissolve all opposites with real insight. This water, which the fat man drank from the sea of the world, digested and transformed it for the spiritual path, is a wonderful symbol. We find something similar in the Indian epic Mahabharata, when Saint Agastya drank up the ocean to help the gods to victory in their fight against the demons [MHB 3.105].

The second danger is that the yogi will cling to the supernatural abilities that have served him so well up to now. One must also be able to let go of at the right time. This is very important on the spiritual path. That is why good teachers warn against placing too high hopes on supernatural abilities on the spiritual path; otherwise, one has to fail again because of one’s own egoistic expectations. Not everyone needs such abilities. When they appear at the right time, use them wisely, never brag about them, and when their service is done, let them go again. This is the way.

Half a league from the palace of the prince’s father was a village near which a swineherd tended his herd, and when they came thither the prince said to his wife, “Do you know who I really am? I am no prince, but a herder of swine, and the man who is there with that herd, is my father. We two shall have to set to work also, and help him.” Then he alighted with her at the inn, and secretly told the innkeepers to take away her royal apparel during the night. So when she awoke in the morning, she had nothing to put on, and the innkeeper’s wife gave her an old gown and a pair of worsted stockings, and at the same time seemed to consider it a great present, and said, “If it were not for the sake of your husband I should have given you nothing at all!” Then the princess believed that he really was a swineherd, and tended the herd with him, and thought to herself, “I have deserved this for my haughtiness and pride.” This lasted for a week, and then she could endure it no longer, for she had sores on her feet.

And now came a couple of people who asked if she knew who her husband was. “Yes,” she answered, “he is a swineherd, and has just gone out with cords and ropes to try to drive a little bargain.” But they said, “Just come with us, and we will take you to him,” and they took her up to the palace, and when she entered the hall, there stood her husband in kingly raiment. But she did not recognize him until he took her in his arms, kissed her, and said, “I suffered much for thee, and now thou, too, hast had to suffer for me.” And then the wedding was celebrated, and he who has told you all this, wishes that he, too, had been present at it.

The last great task is humility in order to overcome even the last remnants of personal pride, conceit and cockiness of our nature, which usually bind us to the magic of illusion. With the same humility, the king’s son appeared in the queen’s palace and carefully avoided boasting of his royal dignity. Now the young bride is also tested as our female half and passes this difficult test. Only now, the great mystical wedding can be celebrated in true love in the father’s castle. The great goal has been achieved and the opposites are united in truth.

The symbolism of the whole fairy tale reminds us of the famous wedding in Canaan: “But Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. And when there was insufficient wine, the mother of Jesus said to him, You have no wine. Jesus said to her: Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour has not yet come. His mother said to the servants: Do whatever he tells you. But there were six stone water jugs set there according to the method of Jewish purification, and each one went in two or three measures. Jesus said to them: Fill the water jars with water. And they filled it up to the top. And he said to them, Now draw up and bring it to the master of the food. And they did it. But when the food master tasted the wine, which had been water, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who drew the water knew it), the food master called the bridegroom and said to him: Everyone gives good wine to the first, and when they are drunk, then the lesser ones; you’ve kept the good wine so far. [Bible, John 2.2]”

Here, too, we find the great mystical wedding, the mother who challenges the spirit that does not fear death, the servants and the five senses with thinking as six water jugs for purification, the ennobling of worldly water into pure wine to nectar of immortality, reason as the master of the food and finally the great knowledge. The same great path is outlined in our fairy tale. In this sense, it would be much desirable that we can also be there at this big wedding...

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)
Gambling Hansel - (topic: Delicate game with the world and nature)
Clever Grethel - (topic: Uncontrollable passion)
The Wolf and The Seven Little Kids - (topic: desire)
The Valiant Little Tailor - (topic: a healing way)
... 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
[Bible] Luther Bibel, 1912
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /