Fairytales take kids into worlds of magic and adventure, where princesses live and anything is possible. But fairytales are much, much more than just entertainment for kids; they eloquently and often subtly reveal the deepest-rooted fears and anxieties people had about their world. Fear of death, starvation, and unmerciful weather – all these anxieties and many more show up in fairy tales that might otherwise seem fun and friendly on the surface. Reading and understanding the lessons that fairytales can teach offer modern day people an opportunity to connect with a past that is increasingly more remote from the modern world.
Take the story of Rumpelstiltskin, for example. The big theme of Rumpelstiltskin is the spinning of straw into gold. Straw, essentially dead grasses and grains, is useful for feeding animals and providing bedding for them, but people can’t eat it. Because the vast majority of people ate grains, a bad harvest could mean starvation. Gold is often a symbol representing grain in folklore since grain and gold not only have the same golden color, but were both seen as being extremely precious. In Norse mythology, there are several stories of golden objects being stolen from female deities. These golden objects, representing grain and the fertility of the land, had to be returned so that the land would be fertile once more. In the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack brings back a golden goose to his mother from the giant’s castle and the golden eggs the goose lay ensure that Jack and his mother never want for anything again. Returning to Rumpelstiltskin, the transformation of straw into gold symbolically turns dead land into prosperous land that will keep people from starvation.
A good harvest was literally a matter of life and death for people in the pre-industrial world and as Rumpelstiltskin illustrates, people were willing to do almost anything to keep from starvation. In Rumpelstiltskin, there are two examples of a child being sacrificed to bring gold – symbolic of grain – into the kingdom. The miller sacrificed his daughter to the king so she could spin straw into gold for the kingdom. That same daughter later pledges the life of her first child to Rumpelstiltskin in exchange for Rumpelstiltskin’s help turning the straw into gold. Both times, turning straw into gold was the reason behind the sacrifices of children and this shows how desperate people were for a good harvest. In the pagan religions of Europe, this same desperation led people to make occasional human sacrifices to fertility gods, like the Vanir in Scandinavian, to bring good harvests to the land. Like all fairytales, we cannot know exactly how deep Rumplestiltskin’s roots are, but the desperation to ensure a good harvest at least reflects a very ancient, primal fear people had about crops and starvation.
Can you think of other fairytale examples where gold could represent grain? Are there other possible interpretations about what gold could mean in Rumpelstiltskin? We would love to hear from you, so leave us a comment! And don’t forget to check out our brand new Rumpelstiltskin app!