Paganism in Fairy Tales

Hello everyone,

I thought I would bring up a subject that’s of great interest to me. When you say that you attribute religious/mythological significance to fairy tales, most people will look at you kind of funny. On the other hand, we have had a thread recently about working with Baba Yaga, so it seems there is some acceptance that at least certain fairy tale figures are unambiguously pagan or mythological.

I actually have a theory that Slavic fairy tales like those of Baba Yaga are especially archaic. During the 19th century, many romantic scholars analyzed fairy tales in depth and tried to find deeper mythological meanings in them. Modern scholarship tends to be much more skeptical. Yet most western scholarship has focused on Germanic fairy tales like those of the Grimm’s collection. In the past, it was assumed that these were preserved fossils of “Aryan” culture.

In reality, I’ve found that the paganism in Grimm’s fairy tales seems much more degraded than that in Slavic stories. Both have a story about a bird stealing golden apples and being pursued by a hero. Yet the Grimm’s version of this story, “The Golden Bird” is a silly animal fable about a foolish hero who only succeeds because of the aid of an extremely exasperated fox. Meanwhile, if we look at the Serbian “Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples” we see a much more mythological story in which the hero discovers that the Peahens are shapeshifting princesses (Daughter of the Sea, in some stories) and later has to rescue one from Koschei the Deathless or a Dragon. The Slavic variants of this story actually have many parallels to the Nart Sagas of the North Caucasus, which affirms their pre-Christian nature.

 Of course that’s not to say that German fairy tales don’t have their little gems of pagan belief, like Frau Holle for example, but they just seem harder to find. That’s not surprising, because we know that a lot of folklore was probably destroyed by industrialization and the uprooting of old-fashioned agrarian life. By the 19th century, when many of these stories were recorded, you had many places in Eastern Europe where peasant life was not very different from the middle ages. Germany was much more modernized, and that probably had an impact on the German folk memory. Also, the proto-Germanic language probably dispersed across Europe around 500 B.C., during the iron age, whereas the Slavic migrations didn’t happen until the middle ages. So the Slavs stayed isolated and formed a cohesive group for about a thousand years after the Germanic tribes had scattered and diverged from one another, which could have helped preserve ancient narratives in the Slavic folk memory.

I’ve compiled a list of Eastern European fairy tales that I consider to be relics of Slavic paganism below.

I was wondering if anyone else has delved into fairy tales or folklore in order to recover past knowledge. If so, what has been the result?

Slavic Fairy Tale List:

Vassilissa the Beautiful
The Frog Tsarevna
Maria Morevna
Ivan the Cow’s Son
Nikita the Tanner
Finst Falcon
The Crystal Mountain
Koschei the Deathless
Elena the Wise
Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What
Vassilissa Golden Tresses
The Sea King and Vassilissa the Wise
King Bear
Water of Youth, Water of Death, Water of Life
Prince Danila Govorila
Ivan the Peasant’s Son and the Little Man Himself
God and the Devil
The Lime Tree
King Kojata
Baba Yaga

Balkan/South Slavic:
The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples
Kiss Miklos and the Green Daughter of the Green King
Mirko the King’s Son
The Reed Maiden
Praslea the Bold and the Golden Apples
The Three Brothers and the Golden Apples
Bash Chelik

West Slavic:
The Jezinkas
The Wood Lady
Three Doves
Plavachek the Coal Burner’s Son
Good Ferryman and the Water Nymphs
Princess of the Brazen Mountain
Princess Miranda and Prince Hero
The Eagles
The Mouse Hole and the Underground Kingdom
The Frog King
The Three Golden Hairs of Grandfather Allknow

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