What is the difference between myths and fairytales?

castleMyths, legends, fables, folktales and fairy tales – it is hard to define exactly what they are, what the difference is and which stories belong to which label. Even so, I believe they are all interconnected to some degree. I have always been fascinated by these stories whether they are the long sprawling Greek myths of Homer or short fables of Aesop. They are the inspiration behind many fantasy and horror stories like those by Tolkien, Terry Pratchett and Stephen King.

(For this article I have grouped myths and legends under the same title of myths and fables, folktales and fairy tales under the fairytale title.)

Where do these names come from?

First to define what we mean by ‘myth’. The word is taken from the Greek ‘mythos’ meaning word of mouth, as this is how they would have originally been told before they were written down. These stories are usually quite complex and revolve around how the world was created or epic tales of events and achievements of nations or individuals.

Fairy tales, on the other hand, come from the French ‘conte de fées’ first used by a group of 17th century writers. The word fairy in french is ‘fee’ or ‘feerie’ which means ‘ illusion’, also ‘fey’ was used to describe women who used magic. They are also known as folktales because they are about ‘folk’, ordinary common people. These stories are much more down to earth focusing on the collective wisdom of the people as lessons in morality.

Similarities and differences

Myths and fairy tales have much in common:

  • They are both stories passed down from generation to generation.
  • They have a universal appeal as all over the world the same themes and ideas come up again and again.
  • Both have magical supernatural elements whether from Gods or fairies and witches.

They also differ in a number of ways:

  • Characters: The people whose stories they tell are from very different. Myths usually involve Gods and heroes whereas fairytale characters are more likely to be poor with mundane lives.
  • Time written: Most myths were written a long time in the past; no new myths are being developed. Whereas fairy tales such as Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz were not written that long ago and writers such as Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter have created new tales.
  • Subject matter: Myths concentrate on large-scale subjects such as the creation of the world (literal ‘truths’) or the history of a people or belief. Fairy tales are more mundane, instead writing about ordinary people’s lives and experiences but as not in a way that does not pretend to be based on what the world is actually like.
  • Timescale: Myths are set over long periods of time often covering more than one person’s lifetime. Fairy tales tend to cover an event or period of the heroine’s life.
  • Choice v destiny. In Myths the heroes such as the Greek hero Oedipus, ends up following his destiny whatever path he takes. These stories can be morally ambiguous and do not often have happy endings. Fairy tales involve individual choices and an opportunity to change things. They are more black and white regarding what is wrong or right. Characters are rewarded for choosing good over bad and evil is destroyed.
  • The writers: Myths are told by and eventually written down by learned men to be performed as plays to large numbers of people. Folktales are more likely to be handed down (often by women) verbally in small family or community groups each with their own local slant.

So, is it fair to link them together at all?

I think so. Despite their differences they belong to a distinct genre of storytelling which is still very popular in literature and film, either in their original state or revamped to appeal to different generations. I think the fact that they are constantly evolving and being reinvented is the key to their survival and enduring popularity.

Picture – Castle.Fairy-Tale by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis


Snow Men, Maidens and Queens

small snow maiden Vasnetsov_SnegurochkaMore wintery weather is forecast for this week so I thought I would write a snow inspired blog post.  The snow is very beautiful but quite disruptive. But it is also a thing of wonder and beauty as everything takes on a cloak of white brightness. Many schools are closed and so children are playing in the snow sledging and making snowmen.

‘The Snow Queen’, written by Hans Christian Anderson, is one of my favourite folk tales and I also loved the snowy woods of Narnia in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Snow makes a landscape seem mysterious, but also stark, cruel and foreboding. Most folktales reflect the harsh aspects of snow rather than the playful side. There is a good reason for this as winter can be a very difficult time of year for the people, as well as the birds and animals, due to the cold and lack of food. This got me thinking about some of the folktales from places where people live in cold climates.

In the Snow Queen a boy called Kay is taken away by the Snow Queen to her ice castle and has to be rescued by his friend Gerda. At the start of the story Kay first sees her through his window as a beautiful icy woman in the middle of a snowstorm. This snowstorm is described as a cloud of ‘snow bees’ by his Grandmother and you can image how a flurry of snowflakes could appear like a swarm of bees. Kay asks his Grandmother if the snow bees have a queen – as he knows bees all have a queen. The Snow Queen herself does not have much of a role in the story but the idea behind the character is interesting. She is cold and unfeeling; we never know why she took Kay or what she really wants from him.

The Snow Queen could very well have been the inspiration for CS Lewis’s Jadis the White Witch from ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’.  But unlike the Snow Queen, who is at one with the seasons, Jadis wants Narnia to be in perpetual winter – ‘always winter but never Christmas’.  Again there is no explanation of why – it seems it is just her nature.

Japanese folklore also has a female spirit or ghost, who materialises during snow storms, called the Yuki-onna. She appears in the form of a beautiful pale young woman wearing a white kimono and floats across the snow leaving no footprints.  The Yuki-onna leads unwary travellers to their doom lost in the snow or she freezes them with her breath. Sometimes she takes pity on some men, if they are young and attractive, marrying them and having children with them only to disappear years later.

On a different note, there are a number of Russian folk tales called The Snow Maiden (or Snow Child). In these stories an old childless couple are collecting wood in the snowy forest lamenting their misfortune in not having any children. They make a snowball, throw it and wish that the snowball is a girl. Their wish is granted and the snowball becomes a beautiful young girl who returns with them as their daughter. In some stories she goes out with some friends and melts as she joins them jumping over a fire and in others it is love that melts her frozen heart and with it her body. There is a theme in folk and fairy tales of childless couples wishing for children (Tom Thumb, Snow White) and either through blood or some other charm, they either get pregnant but in these stories the child appears fully grown and there is no happy ever after.

Angela Carter also wrote a version of this story called the ‘Snow Child’ in her book ‘The Bloody Chamber’. The story is similar to the Russian folktales but based more on lust than the longing for a child. In this version a Count out riding with his wife wishes for a girl ‘white as snow, red as blood and black as a raven’. The girl appears naked and the Count picks her up and puts her on his horse. The Countess immediately sees her as a threat and schemes to be rid of her. The girl in this story melts away after being pricked by a rose.

I’m sure there are many more stories written from a perspective of deep winter and next time it snows I will see if I can find some more. So take care if you are out in the snow and make sure you keep away from strange women and be careful what you wish for when you are making your snowman.

Picture – The Snow Maiden by Vasnetsov Snegurochka

It’s the end of the World – again! (Part 2)

World FiresA History of end of the world predictions

There have been many different forecast about the date for the end of the world leading to numerous cults with charismatic leaders. The first recorded Christian doomsday cult was the Montanists in the 2nd century closely followed by the Donatists who predicted the end would occur in the year 380. The year 500 was a popular year for the apocalypse as was the year 1000, the first millennium as the Bible mentions the millennial reign of Christ upon the earth.

A number of famous soothsayers were credited with predicting the end of the world, among them Mother Shipton and Nostradamus. Mother Shipton, born in a cave in North Yorkshire in 1488, made numerous predictions on events during and after her lifetime. These included the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the Civil War and the arrival of aeroplanes, submarines and steel ships. She even foresaw the date and time of her own death. Writing in riddles she predicted the end of the world would occur in 1881 “…The world to an end shall come; in eighteen hundred and eighty-one.”

Michel Nostradamus, a French apothecary, is famous for his book of prophesies published in 1555. These have been interpreted as predicting many world events from the rise and fall of Napoleon and Hitler to the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Despite popular opinion, Nostradamus did not predict the end of the world at all and certainly not in 2012. What he did state was that his prophesies would end on the year 3797, which could be interpreted as the date of the end of the world. If this is the correct date then it is quite a long way off so we don’t need to worry about it yet.

More recent doomsayers include Christian radio host Harold Camping who predicted the world would end on 21 May 2011. Televangelist Pat Robinson believed that God had told him it would end in 1982 and Taiwanese cult leader Hon-Ming Chen who foretold that God would arrive on earth on March 31st 1998. These events came and went without any worse consequence than embarrassment for the prophesiers. But tragically 39 people of the Heaven’s Gate cult were persuaded to commit suicide when Hailey’s Comet reappeared in 1997 as their leader convinced them it would herald the destruction of the earth. They believed that a space craft would arrive and take them all to safety after their deaths.

There have been many non-religious opinions for the cause of the end of the world such as nuclear holocaust or a new ice age. The year 2000, the second millennium, sparked numerous panics related to the solar eclipse and possibility of a computer meltdown. Last year some people were worried that particle accelerator experiments on the Large Hadron Collider ‘might’ cause micro black holes to appear that would swallow up the earth. So far none of those have happened, but there is still time for global warming, earthquakes and stray comets or meteors to keep us on our toes.

What is so special about the Mayan 2012 theory?

The Mayans had a very complex system of calendars which are still in use today in some areas of Guatemala and Mexico. The Mayans were brilliant astronomers who correctly predicted solar and lunar eclipses as well as calculating the solar year well before the Chinese or Europeans.

These calendars worked around numbers of days or year in cycles or ‘counts’ of varying lengths. The length of time for a count could be as little as 13 or 360 days up to the largest cycle of 5,125 years, known as the Long Count. It is the end of the current Long Count calendar on 21 December 2012 that is the source of the Mayan end of the world prophecies for this date.

The Mayans world view is cyclical, with accounts of other cycles ending in destruction only for the world to be reborn again. This end does not necessarily mean the destruction of the world but just the completion of one age leading to a new beginning the very next day.

The first person to interpret the end of the Long Count calendar as predicting the end of the world was Michael Coe, an expert in ancient Mayan civilisation, who stated in 1966 that the end of the Long Count calendar ‘could’ relate to the Biblical apocalypse.

This idea has resulted in many debates on what the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar really means. There is very little written Mayan documentation left as the Spanish destroyed most of their writings so it is difficult to ascertain exactly what they intended. I would note the fact that this calendar is still in use by native Mayans who do not seem to be worried about any impending doom is probably a good reason to suppose there will be a 22 December 2012 after all.

Why are we so interested in the end of the world?

The idea of the end of the world is so prevalent that it must be part of our human psyche and need to find meaning in the world. This could be the view of the end of the world as part of the natural cycle of life and death followed by rebirth. It could also relate to our fear of death and desire to be able to predict exactly when that will be. More worrying is the glee in which some groups relish the coming of the apocalypse and the death of everyone but themselves, although this inevitably ends with disappointment when this doesn’t happen.

Whatever you think, the belief in the end of the world is a powerful theory that just won’t go away – not until the world ends anyway. According to astronomers this will happen in around 5 billion years when our sun burns up and becomes a red dwarf. That is unless there are any huge natural disasters or Godly smitings of course.

Picture courtesy of  Salvatore Vuono at www.freedigitalphotos.net

It’s the end of the World – again! (Part 1)

mayan templeAnother year – another apocalypse

This year’s most prominent end of the world hypothesis concerns the termination of the Mayan Long Count calendar. This calendar’s 5125 cycle comes to an end on 21 December 2012 at 11.11am (universal time); therefore this must mean that the world will cease to exist at this point. It also coincides nicely with the northern hemisphere winter solstice so we at least have the opportunity to celebrate this for one last time. But it looks like there might be no point in buying any Christmas presents this year, at least until 22 December.

Every year there are numerous doomsayers predicting the end of our world. Last year it was the turn of Harold Camping who predicted the Rapture would occur on 21 October 2011. Obviously this didn’t happen as it is now 2012, but that hasn’t stopped the plethora of wild apocalypse theories populating the internet speculating what might happen to the world on 21 December 2012.

What is the end of the world?

The theological study of end of world mythology is called eschatology and comes from the Greek eschatos, which means ‘end’. Most belief systems have their own legends concerning the creation and destruction of the world, usually followed by rebirth or resurrection.

And just to confuse you more, there are as many terms for the end of the world as there are myths:

  • Apocalypse
  • Armageddon
  • Doomsday
  • Judgment Day
  • Ragnarok
  • Gotterdammerung
  • Epic Fall
  • Rapture
  • End of Days

The belief in the immanent ending of the world is not a new phenomenon; the first documented prediction was made by the Assyrians in 2800 BCE. They thought that their world would end soon as it appeared to be “degenerating into moral decay, with bribery and corruption becoming commonplace”. This idea of moral degeneration is a common theme running through many other beliefs; it even sound like it could have been written recently in one of our tabloid newspapers.

Religious end of world beliefs

Jewish eschatology focuses on the coming of the Messiah, a descendant of the line of David. He will come down to earth 6000 years after the creation of the world to reunite the people of Israel. During this time, known as the End of Days, war will lead to the death and destruction of most of the population. Those who are left will live peacefully in a time of plenty where there will be no more wars.

The number of 6000 years after the creation of the world as the date for its destruction is not a coincidence but relates to the 6 days of creation. This number has been used as the basis of many calculations on the when the end of the world will occur, resulting in a number of widely differing dates.

Early Christians believed that the world would end with the 2nd coming of Jesus and that this would happen within their lifetime. Obviously this idea could not sustain itself and when the teachings of the Bible were written down no timescale was specified. The Christian apocalypse is described in the Book of Revelations as a time when after years of war; famine and disease the Anti-Christ will rise up and dominate the world. When this happens Jesus will return to earth and overthrow the Anti-Christ and defeat Satan. This will bring about a new earth for the faithful and an eternity in hell for everyone else – another recurring theme in eschatology.

The Islamic end of the world is similar to the Jewish and Christian ideas. Mohammad foretold that a major catastrophe caused by the arrival of the Anti-Christ would kill two-thirds of the global population. Only with coming of Jesus, the Messiah, would the faithful be saved to live in paradise on earth.

In Hindu mythology the world goes through many cycles where each beginning, ending and then rebirth takes billions of years. At the end of this present cycle, as in past ones, the world will descend into chaos and conflict then Vishnu will return in the form of his 10th avatar Kalki and the world will be reborn to repeat this sequence.

For Buddhists the end will come when Buddha’s teachings are no longer followed. Then the 10 courses of moral conduct will break down and murder, lying, greed and adultery will become the norm. Then when Buddha has been totally forgotten a new Buddha called Maitreya will arrive to renew his teachings and save the world.

In Hopi Indian mythology the destruction of the world is known as the Blue Star Kachina Prophecy. The Hopi believe that the world has already been destroyed 3 times and that we are living in the fourth ready to move into a fifth earth. When this happens the earth’s rotation will be switched and those who refuse to change their ways will go mad. Survivors of ‘the Purification’ will live with nature in a place of spirit and heart. This has also been interpreted by some to mean the end of the world will come in December 2012 even though this date is not mentioned in any of the Hopi prophesies.

Mythological end of the world scenarios

Norse legend tells of Ragnarok the end of the world which, like the Norse world creation, will occur through violence. After 3 years of winter there will be a battle to end all battles, between the Gods and heroes against the Giants. Many of the Gods will be killed in battle and only 2 humans will remain, protected by sheltering under Yggdrasil, the world tree. They will emerge at the end of the battle and go on to repopulate the world.

My favourite end of the world story is the fairy tale of Chicken-Licken. Chicken-Licken was wandering in the woods when an acorn fell on his head. He was so shocked he thought the sky must be falling in and it was his duty to go and inform the king. While on his way, he met up with Henny-Penny, Cocky-Locky, Turkey-Lurkey and Goosey-Loosey, who all joined him on his journey. Unfortunately for them they also met up with Foxy-Loxy. Now Foxy-Loxy either didn’t believe the sky was falling in or didn’t see why telling the king would help and took advantage of their gullibility to lure them into his den then eat them for dinner.  Here is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you overreact to stores about the end of world if ever you needed one.

Part 2 will be published tomorrow – unless the world ends early!

Picture courtesy of Victor Habbick at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Why aren’t film versions of fairy tales any good?

wolfI always look forward to the latest big screen adaptation of fairytales but usually come away from the cinema disappointed. There may be breathtaking scenery, sumptuous costumes and atmospheric sets but it usually feels like there is something missing. I have come to the conclusion that it is the characters that don’t seem quite believable. However good the actors are in the films, the characters usually seem to be very one dimensional.

One of the issues with films, or any type of media, is that whichever period of time it is based in it will always reflect the era in which it was made. This isn’t always a bad thing especially when it comes to the female characters. They were written at a time when women’s role was much more restricted than it is today which is reflected by their parts in the stories. The ass-kicking heroines in today’s films wouldn’t have existed fifty years ago never mind the time they were written. This is all very well but the heroines of today’s films are more like super heroes (great in comic strips or graphic novels) whereas the heroines of fairytales don’t have any special powers. They rely on their wits and determination – that is what makes them so strong and compelling.

Turning our heroines into ‘Wonder Woman’ character diminishes them for me. Instead of being someone we can all relate to and empathise with she is just another ‘muscle man’ depending on might to win the day.

In fairy stories the heroines are just ordinary girls, even if they happen to be princesses, facing the same sort of problems we deal with now, with only the same resources to fall back on as we have. Much as I like to see baddies get beaten up by young girls, I prefer my fairytale heroines to depend on inner resources and bravery rather than physical strength and prowess. It is one thing learning to become strong and independent but they don’t necessarily have to have a black belt in karate as well.

I don’t think this is the only problem with the films. I think another reason that they rarely work very well is because of the way these stories are constructed. The characters in the majority of fairytales are different to more conventional types of stories. The characters have no distinct personalities they tend to be typical of a ‘type’ rather than unique individuals. As written narrative they work because we can project our own ideas of who this person is onto what is almost a blank canvas. So when a film is made about one of these fairytale characters say, Snow White or Red Riding Hood, there is very little to go on in building a rounded character so any qualities they have are unlikely to relate to the ones we have given them our self. This means they are unlikely to live up to our expectations.

Of course there are always exceptions. For me one of the best of these types of films is Neil Jordon’s Company of Wolves, which is based on the Little Red Riding Hood story written by Angela Carter. This works for a number of reasons. One is that Angela Carter had a role in shaping the film so her stories could be portrayed as she wanted. Also her adaption of the Red Riding Hood story differs enough from the original for us to recognise the story but not have a fixed idea of how it should be represented.

The film looks a bit dated now, especially the special effects and wolf transformations, but for me the characters still work. The sibling rivalry, gossiping grandmother and country bumpkin village boy may not be that original but that is part of their charm.

What do you think? Why do these genres of film flop at the cinema? Do you like any other films and if so why?

*Picture courtesy of  netnixxphotography –  http://www.freedigitalphotos.

Welcome to the first Spiral Tales blog

Hi I’m Judith Stafford and I am a freelance writer. I am currently working on creating an online course – called ‘Spiral Tales’ which uses fairy tales and myths to explore our own lives and the world we live in. This is how this blog has started as place to explore issues regarding the psychology of stories especially traditional folktales and mythologies from all around the world.

In this blog I want to discuss how stories written in the past, often handed down verbally from generation to generation can still be relevant to us and have something to tell us about our world today.

I’ve been fascinated by fairy tales, folklore and mythology ever since I started reading. As a child I loved the idea of enchanted forests populated by tree spirits, fairies and talking animals, in fact I still do. I voraciously read all of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, The Thousand and One Nights, Greek and Norse mythology and all the fairy tales I could get my hands on. Now I am reading them again but this time with fresh eyes and a new perspective. I still find them magical and sometimes quite gruesome, but can see that they have deeper meanings than I first thought.

I think these old tales still have much to tell us. We can all relate at some time to losing a parent, trying to secure a brighter future for ourselves, finding a partner and what it means to be happy and fulfilled, which in essence is what fairy tales are all about. I am also looking at mythologies, which although different to folktales in some ways, still contain similar life journeys and themes as well as sharing particular character ‘types’.

Some of the subjects I will be writing about will include the following:

  • The ideas and psychology behind fairy tales
  • My interpretations of myths and folk tales
  • Ideas on archetypes relating to the works of Carl Jung
  • Marie Louis Franz books on the psychology of fairy tales
  • How archetypes are used in storytelling
  • The similarity of myths and folktales from around the world
  • Publicise less well-known stories
  • Book, film and story reviews

I will be posting articles around every couple of weeks and my next article titled “Why aren’t films of fairy tales any good?” will be published around the beginning of December.

 How to leave feedback

Please feel free to leave feedback as I would like to know what other people think. If you want to email me about anything contact me on judith@spiraltales.com. I look forward to reading your views – especially if you don’t agree with me!

* Picture courtesy of  hinnamsaisuy –  http://www.freedigitalphotos.net