The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Twelve Brothers

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

There were once on a time a king and a queen who lived happily together and had twelve children, but they were all boys. Then said the King to his wife, “If the thirteenth child which thou art about to bring into the world, is a girl, the twelve boys shall die, in order that her possessions may be great, and that the kingdom may fall to her alone.” He caused likewise twelve coffins to be made, which were already filled with wood shavings, and in each lay the little pillow for the dead, and he had them taken into a locked-up room, and then he gave the Queen the key of it, and bade her not to speak of this to anyone.

The mother, however, now sat and lamented all day long, until the youngest son, who was always with her, and whom she had named Benjamin, from the Bible, said to her, “Dear mother, why art thou so sad?”

“Dearest child,” she answered, “I may not tell thee.” But he let her have no rest until she went and unlocked the room, and showed him the twelve coffins ready filled with shavings. Then she said, “My dearest Benjamin, thy father has had these coffins made for thee and for thy eleven brothers, for if I bring a little girl into the world, you are all to be killed and buried in them.” And as she wept while she was saying this, the son comforted her and said, “Weep not, dear mother, we will save ourselves, and go hence.” But she said, “Go forth into the forest with thy eleven brothers, and let one sit constantly on the highest tree which can be found, and keep watch, looking towards the tower here in the castle. If I give birth to a little son, I will put up a white flag, and then you may venture to come back, but if I bear a daughter, I will hoist a red flag, and then fly hence as quickly as you are able, and may the good God protect you. And every night I will rise up and pray for you in winter that you may be able to warm yourself at a fire, and in summer that you may not faint away in the heat.”

The fairy tale starts out strangely and initially makes little sense on the pure plot level. Why should a peaceful king react so cruelly? Where did the sudden tension come from between king and queen, who had previously lived together in harmony? Why does the king respect the girl more than his sons, so that he wants to leave all his wealth and the kingdom to her? Usually the oldest son was intended to be the heir to the throne at that time. This theme, which revolves around several brothers and a sister, also runs through other fairy tales such as “The Seven Ravens” or “The Six Swans”, and is supposedly widespread and very old. We find a similar symbolism in “Snow White” with the seven dwarfs or even in the Indian epic Mahabharata, where five sons of gods married a woman in order to free Mother Earth from an unbearable burden. So let us assume that the deeper message was still a matter of course at that time and touched many people. Accordingly, we are now trying to shed some light on the spiritual level.

We start from the usual polarity between male and female, so that we consider the king as the ruling spirit and the queen as the birth giving nature, who lived together peacefully and had sons whose symbolism we want to seek more on the spiritual side because of their gender. Their specific meanings remain relatively unclear in this and other fairy tales. The symbolism reminds us of the passage in the Bible when Jesus said to the Samaritan Woman: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband...” Master Eckhart says: “Which were the five Men? They were the five senses with which she had sinned with, and that is why they were dead. “In this regard, one might assume that the king did not want to kill his sons at all. Perhaps he only recognized that when the daughter was born, the sons would meet with her death, and had the coffins ready once before. That makes sense at least as far as one regards death and transience primarily as a principle of nature. That is why he gives the queen the key to the coffins and foresees that nature will rule and that the spirit as a male principle will lose its dominion. He probably even knows how the whole story develops, how Mother Nature has to give birth to her daughter and how she kindly tries to look after her sons, too.

We already know the game with 13 from “Sleeping Beauty”. Our fairy tale could also refer to the extraordinary role of the thirteenth lunar month in the solar year, which only appears irregularly every two to three years. Because it is said that in the very beginning this whole world and the diversity of nature originated from a small disturbance of a harmonious balance. It is similarly described at the beginning of the Bible when Eve lets herself be seduced by the soft hissing of the snake and the self-consciousness awakens with the knowledge of good and bad, from which then desire and hate arose as well as this whole big world in which we human beings have to struggle. So the red flag of passion is hoisted on the tower of corporeality, and not the white flag of a pure spirit.

After she had blessed her sons therefore, they went forth into the forest. They each kept watch in turn, and sat on the highest oak and looked towards the tower. When eleven days had passed and the turn came to Benjamin, he saw that a flag was being raised. It was, however, not the white, but the blood-red flag which announced that they were all to die. When the brothers heard that, they were very angry and said, “Are we all to suffer death for the sake of a girl? We swear that we will avenge ourselves! Wheresoever we find a girl, her red blood shall flow.”

It is described here in an excellent way that we can never completely separate spirit and nature. With the birth of the feminine side of the soul, which represents the self-consciousness and reaches for the apple in paradise, a stark contrast arises, which brings about death. In principle, this happens in every person, whether woman or man. So our own, actually egoistic spirit is turned against us. Our friend becomes our enemy.

Thereupon they went deeper into the forest, and in the midst of it, where it was the darkest, they found a little bewitched hut, which was standing empty. Then said they, “Here we will dwell, and thou Benjamin, who art the youngest and weakest, thou shalt stay at home and keep house, we others will go out and get food.” Then they went into the forest and shot hares, wild deer, birds and pigeons, and whatsoever there was to eat; this they took to Benjamin, who had to dress it for them in order that they might appease their hunger. They lived together ten years in the little hut, and the time did not appear long to them.

The mind now sinks deeper and deeper into nature and finally ends in an ‘enchanted house’, which of course reminds us of our own body, where the senses also live and, as well known, there is a lot of hunger that needs to be satisfied. Benjamin means something like ‘lucky child’ and in the description above reminds of the reason, our youngest and normally weakest child of spiritual development, which stays in the head at home and ‘prepares’ everything, while the five senses hunt for food with their worldly thinking.

The little daughter which their mother the Queen had given birth to, was now grown up; she was good of heart, and fair of face, and had a golden star on her forehead. Once, when it was the great washing, she saw twelve men’s shirts among the things, and asked her mother, “To whom do these twelve shirts belong, for they are far too small for father?” Then the Queen answered with a heavy heart, “Dear child, these belong to thy twelve brothers.” Said the maiden, “Where are my twelve brothers, I have never yet heard of them?” She replied, “God knows where they are, they are wandering about the world.” Then she took the maiden and opened the chamber for her, and showed her the twelve coffins with the shavings, and pillows for the head. “These coffins,” said she, “were destined for thy brothers, but they went away secretly before thou wert born,” and she related to her how everything had happened; then said the maiden, “Dear mother, weep not, I will go and seek my brothers.

Who is this little daughter? Perhaps it is we ourselves who at some point will begin with internal purification, wash the old clothes, and find twelve strange shapes or principles there, about which we are very surprised. In Indian philosophy, for example, one speaks here of the five organs of action (hands, feet, mouth, anus, genitals), the five senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin), thoughts and reason. The thirteenth principle would then be self-consciousness, which later embodies itself as the ego and wants to rise to become king of the body, control the senses and, of course, possess all wealth, as the great king foresaw at the beginning of our fairy tale. If we become aware of these forms inside, then we too could ask Mother Nature: “Who do these forms belong to?” And she says: “These are your brothers who wander around somewhere in the world because they are threatened with death.” She shows us the empty coffins as proof. And maybe we will answer then: “Dear mother, do not cry, I want to go and find my brothers to deliver them from their wandering.”

So she took the twelve shirts and went forth, and straight into the great forest. She walked the whole day, and in the evening she came to the bewitched hut. Then she entered it and found a young boy, who asked, “From whence comest thou, and whither art thou bound?” and was astonished that she was so beautiful, and wore royal garments, and had a star on her forehead. And she answered. “I am a king’s daughter, and am seeking my twelve brothers, and I will walk as far as the sky is blue until I find them.” She likewise showed him the twelve shirts which belonged to them. Then Benjamin saw that she was his sister, and said, “I am Benjamin, thy youngest brother.” And she began to weep for joy, and Benjamin wept also, and they kissed and embraced each other with the greatest love. But after this he said, “Dear sister, there is still one difficulty. We have agreed that every maiden whom we meet shall die, because we have been obliged to leave our kingdom on account of a girl.” Then said she, “I will willingly die, if by so doing I can deliver my twelve brothers.”

“No,” answered he, “thou shalt not die, seat thyself beneath this tub until our eleven brothers come, and then I will soon come to an agreement with them.”

She did so, and when it was night the others came from hunting, and their dinner was ready. And as they were sitting at table, and eating, they asked, “What news is there?” Said Benjamin, “Don’t you know anything?” “No,” they answered. He continued, “You have been in the forest and I have stayed at home, and yet I know more than you do.” “Tell us then,” they cried. He answered, “But promise me that the first maiden who meets us shall not be killed.” “Yes,” they all cried, “she shall have mercy, only do tell us.”

Then said he, “Our sister is here,” and he lifted up the tub, and the King’s daughter came forth in her royal garments with the golden star on her forehead, and she was beautiful, delicate, and fair. Then they were all rejoiced, and fell on her neck, and kissed and loved her with all their hearts.

So we now go out into nature and look for the true spirit that belongs to these forms. First we look outside in the world. In the evening, when it gets dark outside, we also go inside our haunted house and find a boy who understands us, namely reason, which is really our ‘lucky child’, i.e. Benjamin. And when it gets dark outside, of course all the senses, thoughts and actions return to the inside. You’ve probably hunted a lot in the world, but the real news come from reason. Perhaps that is why the saying came about: “Nothing new under the sun...” And so they are reunited with their sister, who is ready to sacrifice herself to her brothers and to serve them.

Now she stayed at home with Benjamin and helped him with the work. The eleven went into the forest and caught game, and deer, and birds, and wood-pigeons that they might have food, and the little sister and Benjamin took care to make it ready for them. She sought for the wood for cooking and herbs for vegetables, and put the pans on the fire so that the dinner was always ready when the eleven came. She likewise kept order in the little house, and put beautifully white clean coverings on the little beds, and the brothers were always contented and lived in great harmony with her.

This will certainly work out for a few years as long as the self-consciousness is humble and serves and follows reason. Then it helps in our body house with the good preparation and digestion of the food, maintains the inner order and ensures that the senses, actions and thoughts maintain a certain purity. That would be a happy life as long as our inner principles live together in unity and harmony.

Once on a time the two at home had prepared a beautiful entertainment, and when they were all together, they sat down and ate and drank and were full of gladness. There was, however, a little garden belonging to the bewitched house wherein stood twelve lily flowers, which are likewise called students.* She wished to give her brothers pleasure, and plucked the twelve flowers, and thought she would present each brother with one while at dinner. But at the self-same moment that she plucked the flowers the twelve brothers were changed into twelve ravens, and flew away over the forest, and the house and garden vanished likewise. And now the poor maiden was alone in the wild forest, and when she looked around, an old woman was standing near her who said, “My child, what hast thou done? Why didst thou not leave the twelve white flowers growing? They were thy brothers, who are now for evermore changed into ravens.” The maiden said weeping, “Is there no way of delivering them?”

(* Studenten-Nelken, or Studenten-Lilien, are a species of small pinks, and are so called because they are much worn by the students of various universities, in the button-hole of their coats. They are sometimes called Federnelken (Feather-pink, or "sop in the wine"). The brothers Grimm themselves, in the notes to "De drei Vgelkens," speak of this flower as the narcissus.)

 “No,” said the woman, “there is but one in the whole world, and that is so hard that thou wilt not deliver them by it, for thou must be dumb for seven years, and mayst not speak or laugh, and if thou speakest one single word, and only an hour of the seven years is wanting, all is in vain, and thy brothers will be killed by the one word.”

At the age of twelve or thirteen, we change significantly. It seems as if a new personality is awakening in our soul, of which it is often said that the innocence of our childhood is now lost. That could explain the symbolism here, that a certain pride awakens in the girl and she breaks the twelve lilies, which are generally a symbol of purity. It is up to our imagination why they are also called students here. At least our senses are often as curious and diligent as students... Since the spirit wanted to create something special, the sensory and action organs fall into impurity with thinking and reason and symbolically fly out into the world as black ravens, so that also the tidy house with the clean garden disappears that has protected the soul. In this way, a new personality emerges from self-awareness with a growing ego, which we commonly call ‘puberty’. The youth suddenly stands in the middle of the world’s wild forest and often feels alone and abandoned by everyone. A difficult time begins with some crises, and young people often even lapse into a great boycott of silence, so that even the parents can barely find access. That may be at least the middle level of our fairy tale, on which young people can recognize themselves in this situation and gain confidence that this experience is nothing extraordinary and that at some point the redeeming king appears:

Then said the maiden in her heart, “I know with certainty that I shall set my brothers free,” and went and sought a high tree and seated herself in it and span, and neither spoke nor laughed. Now it so happened that a king was hunting in the forest, who had a great greyhound which ran to the tree on which the maiden was sitting, and sprang about it, whining, and barking at her. Then the King came by and saw the beautiful King’s daughter with the golden star on her brow, and was so charmed with her beauty that he called to ask her if she would be his wife. She made no answer, but nodded a little with her head. So he climbed up the tree himself, carried her down, placed her on his horse, and bore her home. Then the wedding was solemnized with great magnificence and rejoicing, but the bride neither spoke nor smiled. When they had lived happily together for a few years, the King’s mother, who was a wicked woman, began to slander the young Queen, and said to the King, “This is a common beggar girl whom thou hast brought back with thee. Who knows what impious tricks she practises secretly! Even if she be dumb, and not able to speak, she still might laugh for once; but those who do not laugh have bad consciences.” At first the King would not believe it, but the old woman urged this so long, and accused her of so many evil things, that at last the King let himself be persuaded and sentenced her to death.

At some point this dream will come true, the king’s son appears, recognizes the great beauty, takes the beloved on his white horse and leads her into his wonderful kingdom. Then a big wedding is celebrated and everything is beautiful, if there was no wicked mother-in-law...

If we now go to a deeper level, we can see the great problem of the impurity of our senses and actions by the flight of the black ravens. At some point we stand in the wild forest of the world and recognize how our own senses deceive us, how unreliable our actions and thoughts are, and how death and impermanence threaten us everywhere. Then we could meet the ancient mother who asks us: “How have you been dealing with your senses and thoughts so far? What did you do with them?” Then we could sadly answer: “Is there no redemption at all? Can’t we regain purity?” And she says, “It’s very difficult. There is only one way and that is restraint, the way of asceticism, the great silence. And you will only achieve success at the end of the path.” This is particularly difficult, because we usually want to see the first successes after just a few steps. Well, do we have the courage? Do we have the great confidence that the ruling spirit will save us, like the wise king in fairy tales? This great King, who recognizes us by the sign on our forehead, that is, by our disposition, which is literally ‘written on our forehead’, as is also spoken in the Bible of the ‘seal of God’ on the forehead [Bible, Revelation 9.4]. Are we ready for the great mystical marriage between spirit and nature? Can we overcome the ego within us? Or do we fear the wicked mother-in-law who denies us the expected love and respect for the world, so that we open our mouths and scold loudly to protect ourselves from adversity?

And now a great fire was lighted in the courtyard in which she was to be burnt, and the King stood above at the window and looked on with tearful eyes, because he still loved her so much. And when she was bound fast to the stake, and the fire was licking at her clothes with its red tongue, the last instant of the seven years expired. Then a whirring sound was heard in the air, and twelve ravens came flying towards the place, and sank downwards, and when they touched the earth they were her twelve brothers, whom she had delivered. They tore the fire asunder, extinguished the flames, set their dear sister free, and kissed and embraced her. And now as she dared to open her mouth and speak, she told the King why she had been dumb, and had never laughed. The King rejoiced when he heard that she was innocent, and they all lived in great unity until their death. The wicked step-mother was taken before the judge, and put into a barrel filled with boiling oil and venomous snakes, and died an evil death.

Wow! Which person can have so much trust? That can only be true love, which is not even afraid of death. Selfless love redeemed the brothers from their animal wandering, and the pure brothers in turn redeemed the soul from its ego curse. They put out the red flames of passion that are threatening to burn us. And with pure senses, deeds, thoughts and reason, she can now speak truly. The ruling spirit recognizes the purity of the soul, the mystical marriage in unity is perfect, and the impure, deceitful nature also reaps the fruits of its deeds and has to perish painfully. That’s the end of the tale.

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)
Gambling Hansel - (topic: Delicate game with the world and nature)
... 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 /