Redemption Motifs in Myth and Fairytale
by Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.
Myths and symbols are in the language of the soul. A myth helps us to take a situation to heart and know what we must do.
– Jean Shinoda-Bolin, Crossing to Avalon, 1995
By exploring symbols buried deep within myths and fairytales, we get to look down Alice's rabbit hole at redemption motifs that help us learn what is relevant for change, healing, and transformation. Themes of descent and suffering are part and parcel of a transformative journey along the path of individuation. From myths, we learn important information about ourselves; learn how to survive frightening challenges, and we discover how to make our lives more meaningful. Myths and fairytales give us a universal language to explore this inner change and allow our experience to be understood.
Terms such as “redemption” and “salvation” are not only associated with the teachings of established religions, but are also connected to experiences of everyday life. According to famed Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung, “redemption” and “salvation” are universal intra-psychic archetypal motifs, meaning redeeming the divine within (God), or revealing the numinous in the darkness (that which has been unknown) and making it known.
Redemption also occurs in the therapeutic setting. Recently, a client came to see me for therapy because of a recurring dream that frightened her. In her dream, she was being beaten with hazel sticks while immersed, or imprisoned, in a pool of water. Here was a lovely, intelligent young woman, bedecked in bangles and beads and veiled with a beautiful smile, yet her inner experience told a different story – a story about a scared self that felt trapped and vulnerable. The water motif suggests her belief that she needed cleansing. Water, baths and beheadings are symbolic of the potential for transformation, thus are redemption motifs often found in fairytales and myths. They, like sweat lodges, baptisms, and mikvahs, are about cleansing, purification, rebirth, and renewal. A wand of hazel, like a scepter, was known by ancient Greeks and Romans. In fairy tales, the hazel sticks became a magical wand. The hazel sticks offered the potential for truthfulness and wisdom.
Redemption in fairytales refers to a condition in which someone has been cursed, bewitched, or condemned without cause, and as the result of the events and obstacles in the story, they are redeemed (Von Franz, 1980). It is, in fact, the task of the hero in the story to redeem the bewitched person and to build up or strengthen the ego when it is in a fragile state. Psychologically speaking, depression is one such “fragile” state, one that happens frequently along the journey towards transformation. In the story of Snow White, our heroine was abandoned in the dark forest with nothing but walls of thick trees around her, a metaphor for the depression and suffering from which she must now free herself. In order to move to maturity, Snow White now needs to bring consciousness into a dialogue with the unconscious. The characteristics of the Seven Dwarfs (Doc, Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy, Happy, and Grumpy) are metaphors for the psychic energies within – the conflicting, dormant, shadowy impulses that can move and guide Snow White towards redemption.
The Structure of Myth
The classic structure of the mythic adventure, such as The Hero's Journey, involves leaving home, going on risky travels full of obstacles, and returning home transformed – changed forever. The transformative journey of heroes and heroines represent a collective inner experience that can be understood as metaphors for psychological change. Through myth we learn from centuries of wisdom about life. Indeed, storytellers might conceivably have been our first psychologists.
The slaying of the monster in fairytales is really about slaying the monster within. Biting into the apple is a metaphor for the experience of awareness and enlightenment. In stories requiring the hero to search for a buried treasure, that search is really about a quest for the gold within, the true soul that is lost, hidden, or trapped in the unconscious. The hero must retrieve this gold in order to be redeemed, healed, or made whole. In everyday life, when we feel out of sorts, off-center, or unable to function in the usual manner, we feel somehow “bewitched,” lost or pulled off-balance. It affects us in a global way and we feel compelled to set it right. In so doing, we can all be the hero or heroine of our own journey on our own quest for self-discovery.
The Fragile Years
It all starts in childhood with an injury to the developing self when the "treasured" part of the psyche is bound, gagged, buried, or held prisoner in an unwelcoming emotional environment. The child’s preciousness lies curled up in a corner, dying, unseen, unheard. The child is at the mercy of the unmet ego needs and emotional manipulations of their parent or parents who may themselves be narcissistically wounded. The child’s own developmental needs are "bewitched," or left for dead.
Cinderella shouts out on behalf of such emotionally abandoned children, banished to the attic and left in a state of confusion and non-communication. The magical Fairy Godmother symbolizes the wise self, the intuitive inner voice within each of us that knows our potential and pushes for transformation. Cinderella's childhood survival calls for her to mask her true self and put on a front of achievement and self-sufficiency, "working until weary" (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1972), serving the needs of others.
The Healing Process
Psychotherapy welcomes a re-membering of the child's own painful story of emotional imprisonment, early childhood narcissistic wounding, and emotional abandonment. Viewed through a psychological lens, fairytale plots and motifs use symbolic imagery to illuminate an inner experience, provide insight into human behavior, real life experiences, and illustrate life patterns that guide us along a journey of transformation. Because they are written in the language of the soul, their symbols and metaphors model ways to help others wrestle with life’s challenges, face conflicting aspects of the self, and sow the seeds of change.
In therapy, the telling and retelling of the soul's wound to an empathic ear awakens the client’s deadened, wounded parts to its sleepy potential. The client feels “heard” by “an other", a fairy godmother, whose magic wand is simply an empathic ear. Eventually the client’s wounded core feels touched and the psyche begins healing the Self. Let your heart tune in to the richness of the client’s underground world, the inner world, as told in myths and fairytales.
As a psychologist, listening to a patient’s story means tending to the inner language, soul, and that language often speaks through symbolism, dreams, and metaphor. Psyche’s symbols can help move one past the concrete, the material world, towards the unfolding of a deeper layer of knowing, wholeness, and individuation, redeeming the buried treasure, the divine, the gold within.
"Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family."
– Virginia Satir
Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., 818.501.4123, www.drgelt.com