The good and wicked fairies in Sleeping Beauty have an interesting heritage. In medieval legend, fairies and fays often attended the birth of heroes to prophesy their fates. These stories go back even further, to mythology and ancient religions, where goddesses looked upon newborn children and laid out their fates.
Perceforest is a French prose romance first printed in 1528, but may have been composed as early as 1330. It's very very long, but there's one section in particular that is clearly a version of Sleeping Beauty. This interlude tells of Troylus and Zellandine, ancestors of Sir Lancelot (yes, that one). When Zellandine was born, her aunt was given the task of setting a table with food for the goddesses who witnessed the childbirth, so that they would be pleased and lay out a blessed life for the child. These three goddesses were Venus, Lucina, and Themis. In myth, Venus is the goddess of love, Lucina of childbirth, and Themis of order. Themis is also the mother of the three Fates, and in this tale she is identified as the goddess of destiny. When the goddesses sat down to eat, Themis' knife was missing. It had just fallen under the table, but Themis felt insulted; thus, she cursed Zellandine to prick her finger with flax while spinning and fall into an unending sleep. The goddess Venus, more kindly disposed to the child, found a way around the curse.
When Zellandine falls into a sleep from which she cannot be wakened, the goddess Venus arranges for her paramour, Troylus, to be carried into her tower. Influenced by Venus, Troylus has sex with Zellandine and she becomes pregnant and gives birth while still unconscious. Her newborn son Benuic, trying to suckle, sucks on her finger and draws out the splinter of flax, awakening her.
In "Sun, Moon and Talia" - included in the Italian Pentamerone (1634) - the story is much the same, except that there are no goddesses in attendance. Instead, wise men and astrologers cast the newborn Talia's horoscope and foretell that a splinter of flax will endanger her. The story proceeds in much the same way, with a few exceptions. Instead of one baby, the sleeping Talia gives birth to twins named Sun and Moon. And the story does not end with her awakening. The king who found her already has a wife! In her jealousy, she attempts to have Talia and the kids cooked and eaten. Sympathetic servants save them, the queen is put to death, and Talia lives a long and happy life with her family.
Unlike Zellandine, Talia displays no trauma after what is, honestly, a rape. Zellandine loves her betrothed but still feels violated, and the narrative at least hints that Troylus' actions are wrong. Talia and the king, though, are hunky-dory.
In 1697, Charles Perrault retold this tale as "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood." The three goddesses of Perceforest are echoed by seven fairies who show up to give gifts at the christening, and an eighth, elderly fairy who shows up unexpectedly. Everyone thought she was dead, so unfortunately they did not provide her a place setting with jewel-encrusted golden utensils like the other seven fairies. When the other fairies give gifts of beauty and good temper, she adds an early death. Like Venus, another fairy softens the curse to a sleep (this time around, it is specifically for one hundred years) and lays the path to an eventual happy ending and romance.
The unsavory elements of "Talia" are softened. Perrault's prince doesn't even kiss Beauty. He just happens upon her at the very moment when she naturally awakens. Their children Dawn and Day are born legitimately after a proper wedding and consensual sex. Even the jealous first wife from "Talia" is replaced by a monstrous mother-in-law.
These three stories are all different, but all point to legends about Fate and Destiny. In fact, the word "fairy" may ultimately derive from the Latin Fata, or fate. You have the the Greek Fates or Mourai, the Norse Norns, and others worldwide. In the Greek myth of Meleager, the Fates appear a week after his birth to foretell his fate that he will die as soon as a certain piece of wood on the fire is consumed. His mother seizes the wood and puts it in a safe place, but of course eventually the wood is burnt and Meleager perishes with it. These Fates were portrayed as three old women spinning thread; each thread was a human life. Klotho spun the thread, Lakhesis measured it out, and Atropos cut it.
There is another medieval work, from before Perceforest, which features a scene similar to Sleeping Beauty. There is no enchanted sleep, but there is the encounter with otherworldly women who have strong feelings on table settings. Le Jeu de la Feuillée by Adam de la Halle is a French play which has been dated from around 1262 to 1278. In one scene, the characters set a table for the fairies: three beautiful ladies named Morgue, Arsile and Maglore, attended by Fortune.
Morgue and Arsile crow over the lovely table and the beautiful knives they've been given to eat with, but Maglore doesn't get a knife and is not happy. Morgue and Arsile go on to bestow gifts of good fortune on the men who set the table; for instance, giving one of them fame as a poet. The angry Maglore, however, gives bad fortune (such as baldness).
Morgue is Morgan le Fay. She was often portrayed as part of a group with attendants, sisters or companion queens. In her oldest known appearance, she was the leader of nine sisters. She played the "fay attending on the birth" role in stories of Ogier the Dane and Garin de Montglane. In many tales, her group is a multiple of three; the Norse and Greek Fates are three in number. Three is significant. Birth, life and death. Childhood, adulthood, and old age.
Europe has widespread traditions of leaving out meals for a goddess-fairy and her retinue on certain nights (often around midwinter). If the house is in order and the food has been left out properly, the goddess will be pleased and bless the house - but when angered, some versions turn violent. In many cases, this goddess oversees tasks of spinning. She may have names like Spillaholle (Spindle Holle), Spillagritte, Spellalutsche,or Spinnsteubenfrau. Again we have a goddess tied to spinning, just like the Fates.
One other similar medieval tale: in the 13th-century French work Huon of Bordeaux, the hero meets Oberon, a diminutive sorcerer. Oberon 's birth was attended by noble and royal fairies, but one grew angry because she "was not sent for as well as the others." As a result, she cursed him never to grow taller than a three-year-old. Intriguingly, the 14th-century Turin manuscript identifies Oberon's mother as none other than Morgan le Fay.
The Sleeping Beauty we know today has strong similarities to both "Talia" and Perceforest. The incident of the missing knife travels from "Le Jeu de la Feuillee" (13th century) to Perceforest (16th century) to Perrault (late 17th century) where each fairy receives "a solid gold casket containing a spoon, fork, and knife of fine gold, set with diamonds and rubies."
"Sun, Moon and Talia" does not fit into the pattern as neatly. Despite the supernatural qualities of Talia's sleep, it's apparently random. Zellandine and Sleeping Beauty are victims of Fate personified, a being which can be angered or appeased by human actions. But for Talia, it's just something that is going to happen, not for any observable reason. Her future is not bestowed by a fairy, but detected by learned men who study her horoscope. Similarly, there are two ninth-century Chinese Sleeping Beauty stories, "Shen Yuanzhi" and "Zhang Yunrong," where it is also simply the heroine's destiny to die young/fall into a coma.
However, even in the story of Talia, where there is no angry goddess of fate, her doom is still tied to the act of spinning. She enters her deathlike sleep when she encounters an old woman spinning thread. As Perrault's Beauty pricks her hand on a spindle, Talia gets a splinter of flax under her fingernail.
Also, when she gives birth, she is attended by two fairies (fate in Italian) who care for the newborns and arrange food and drink for her. Just like other fays and goddesses, they show up for a birth.
"Talia" and the Chinese tales, some of the oldest surviving Sleeping Beauty stories, leave the listener with questions. I'm not sure whether a culture believing in gods of fate filled in those questions, or whether those questions are remnants from a culture that believed in gods of fate. But put all these stories together and it makes sense: Sleeping Beauty's terrible fate was the work of an angry goddess, later reinterpreted as a fairy. Why was this goddess angry? Because the ritual welcoming her to the child's birth, the ritual meant to ensure the child's good health and future, had not been properly performed. So the thread spun by the Greek Fates became a weapon against the child whose life it represented. Another goddess of fate, who had been properly appeased, intervened to help. The moral: honor the gods to ensure your child's good future.
There was once a king and queen that lived very happily together, and they had twelve sons and not a single daughter. We are always wishing for what we haven't, and don't care for what we have, and so it was with the queen. One day in winter, when the bawn was covered with snow, she was looking out of the parlor window, and saw there a calf that was just killed by the butcher, and a raven standing near it.
"Oh," says she, "if I had only a daughter with her skin as white as that snow, her cheeks as red as that blood, and her hair as black as that raven, I'd give away every one of my twelve sons for her."
The moment she said the word, she got a great fright, and a shiver went through her, and in an instant after, a severe-looking old woman stood before her.
"That was a wicked wish you made," said she, "and to punish you it will be granted. You will have such a daughter as you desire, but the very day of her birth you will lose your other children."
This is from the Irish story of "The Twelve Wild Geese," a variant of Aarne-Thompson type 451, the Brothers Turned into Birds. Interestingly, it begins with nearly the same incident as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."
In many stories of Type 451, the birth of a daughter somehow coincides with the loss of her older brothers. When she grows older, she takes on the responsibility of seeking them out and saving them. She travels into the wilderness until she finds her brothers' new home. Sometimes she hides or secretly does housework for them until they discover her. For various reasons, the brothers are cursed (usually turned into birds). She can only free them by remaining silent for years while she makes shirts for them. At this point, a king finds her alone in the forest. He marries her, but his mother takes a dislike to her and tries to convince him that the girl is a witch. The mother goes so far as to kidnap the heroine's newborn children, cast them out to die, and then accuse the heroine of killing and eating them. The heroine, still sworn to silence, can do nothing to defend herself even when she's about to be burnt at the stake. However, she manages to finish her task in the nick of time, restores her brothers to human form, and everything turns out fine. She gets her kids back, the king learns the truth, and the mother-in-law is punished.
It's possible that some Type 451 stories were influenced by elements of Snow White. In "The Twelve Wild Ducks" (from Norway) and "The Twelve Wild Geese" (from Ireland), a queen wishes for a child who is white, red and black, and this child is subsequently named Snow-White-and-Rose-Red. In "The Six Swans," it is a hateful stepmother who curses the brothers.
On the other hand, quite a few versions of Snow White begin exactly like Type 451, with the brothers going missing. Instead of moving in with dwarfs, the Snow White character winds up with her long-lost brothers. Some examples of this are "Udea and her Seven Brothers" from Libya, "The Girl of the Woodlands, Her Brothers and the Rakshasa" from India, a tale from Asia Minor collected by R. M. Dawkins, and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."
If you bring "Sleeping Beauty" into the mix, there are even more similarities. The Italian "Sun, Moon and Talia" and Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" don't end when the heroine awakens from her sleep. In "Sun, Moon and Talia," a king rapes the sleeping Talia and begets twins upon her, which eventually wakes her. However, he already has a wife, who in a jealous rage tries to have Talia and her children cooked and eaten. Fortunately, she fails. In Perrault, the first wife is adapted into the king's mother instead.
This episode seems unfamiliar until you realize it's really a version of "Snow White," with the sequence of events switched around. Similarly, in the Indian "Princess Aubergine" (yes, Aubergine), when a king takes an interest in the heroine, his first wife becomes jealous. There are no seven dwarfs, but the first wife has seven sons whose deaths stall her and thus protect Aubergine. Eventually, the wife's plots succeed and Aubergine is left in a deathlike coma. Here, again, the king impregnates the heroine while she's unconscious.
In these three tale types - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and "The Brothers Turned into Birds" - the sequence of events are a little different, but they are generally the same events.
First, there's the main character's birth. Snow White stories often begin with a childless woman's wish for a child. "The Brothers Turned into Birds" has a woman with many sons wishing for a daughter instead. In the Grimms' "Briar Rose," the heroine is born after her parents long for a child.
The colors white, red and black are a long-standing theme across literature, but tend to recur in Snow White tales. In all three of the tale types discussed here, it's common to find mentions of roses. The heroines have names like Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red, Briar Rose, Blanca Rosa or Rose-Neige. Red and white flowers, particularly roses, are associated with the heroine of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans." When turned into ravens or swans, the enchanted brothers tie into a black or white color scheme.
In both "Snow White" and "The Brothers Turned into Birds," the heroine goes out into the wilderness and discovers a house inhabited by a group of men, whether they be dwarves, robbers, or her long-lost brothers. She does domestic work for them, and they protect her from outside threats, at least for a while.
Then there's the jealous rival who attempts to send her to her death. All three tales focus on a maternal figure devouring her children. Snow White's stepmother wants to eat her lungs and liver. Sleeping Beauty's mother-in-law tries to cook her and her children as a meal. In both cases, the executioner (a huntsman in Snow White, a chef in Sleeping Beauty) takes pity on the heroine and substitutes an animal to be eaten in her place. Meanwhile, in "The Twelve Wild Ducks," the mother-in-law accuses the heroine of cannibalizing her own children. To enforce the lie, she throws the heroine's children to wild animals, but the animals spare them. The same basic ideas are there, just a little scrambled.
While Sleeping Beauty and Snow White narrowly escape being cooked, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" faces burning at the stake. Similarly, Snow White's stepmother gets the punishment of dancing in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
In all three cases, there's a curse involved. Sometimes there's also textile work. Talia and other Sleeping Beauties fall into a coma when they pierce their fingers spinning thread. The heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" often has to break her brothers' curse by making shirts for them - a process which involves picking, carding, spinning and knitting.
The biggest difference is that unlike Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" never undergoes an enchanted sleep. Instead she spends a period of self-imposed silence while she labors to break her brothers' curse.
However, the long isolation in the wilderness until her discovery by a king is still the same. The king finds her deep in the forest - whether in a castle surrounded by thorns, in a glass casket, or sitting in a tree. Stricken by her beauty, he immediately claims her. Uncomfortably for modern readers, the heroine is unable to communicate, since at this point she is either unconscious or sworn to silence. She gives birth while still in this state.
As said before, many stories share motifs. However, these three stories dovetail in fascinating ways.
One children's singing game, collected in St. Louis in 1944, has an interesting plotline.
LaDora was a pretty girl;
She lived up in a castle high.
One day there came a wicked witch;
She point her stick right in her eye.
She fell asleep a hundred years;
The princess clucked the hinges down;
The princess picked LaDora up,
Tra, la, lala, la, la, lala!
It's Sleeping Beauty in song form!
The collector, Leah Yoffie, seemed baffled by the song. She heard it from a little girl who knew it as a "ring game," but found no one else who recognized it. However, other scholars quickly recognized the song as a variant of "Fair Rosa" or "Thorn Rosa." Here's one version of the lyrics to this song:
Thorn Rosa was a pretty child,
Pretty child, pretty child,
Thorn Rosa was a pretty child,
She lived up in a castle high...
One day there came an ugly witch...
Thorn Rosa slept a hundred years...
A thorny hedge grew giant high...
One day there came a handsome prince...
He broke right through the thorny hedge...
Thorn Rosa wakened at his touch...
They all lived for a hundred years,
A hundred years, a hundred years,
They all lived for a hundred years,
A hundred years.
The song is accompanied by a game, in which a girl playing Thorn Rosa sits at the center of the group. Around her is a small circle of children holding hands, representing the castle. An outer circle of children represents the hedge. A child playing the ugly witch enters the circle to touch Thorn Rosa and put her to sleep. The prince then breaks through the circles and wakes Thorn Rosa.
The LaDora version seems pretty garbled but is clearly the same song. Yoffie didn't include the tune, so it can't be compared, but she might have shortened the song. Originally, each line was probably a repeating verse of its own.
So where did this song come from?
In 1897, Franz Magnus Bohme collected a German version which was somewhat more elaborate. It was titled Dornröschen (literally "Little Briar Rose"), being an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale.
Most scholars believe that the song was of artistic origin. It's a play-by-play adaptation of the fairytale. It never appeared until the 1890s, when it was printed in several books, and Bohme said that it was created for use in playschools. Translations simplified the lyrics almost immediately, and modern versions focus on repetition.
An English translation was published in 1908 in in Folk Dances and Games by Caroline Crawford. It entered tradition as a popular game, probably usually taught to children by adults. The song appears in the Roud Folksong Index as "Fair Rosa," number 7889. There are multiple variants listed, including "Fair Rosie," "Sweet Rosebud," or even "Forosa."
In 1915, Dagny Pederson and Neva L. Boyd translated a Danish variant. The song still exists in Danish today as "Tornerose var et vakkert barn." Herbert Halpert recorded two New Jersey versions in 1935 - "Thorn Rosa" and "The Princess Slept for a Hundred Years." The same year, over in Ireland, Sam Henry collected "Fair Rosa" in Coleraine, County Londonderry. From Ecuador, "Rosa era linda" appeared in Rique Ran: Games and Songs of South American Children by Mary L. Goodwin and Edith L. Powell (1951). A Belgian version recorded around 1958 runs "La bell' au bois, la bell' enfant." In the 1985 book The Singing Game, Iona Opie listed many versions of the song.
The song has definitely entered oral tradition since the time it was written. Most recently, it has been covered by the children's band The Wiggles under the title "There Was a Princess."
As a sidenote, in 1883, William Wells Newell printed a couple of songs from Massachusetts and Texas. The basic game is the same - a girl pretends to sleep in the middle of a ring, until a boy breaks through to kiss her.
Here we go round the strawberry bush,
This cold and frosty morning.
Here's a young lady sat down to sleep,
This cold and frosty morning.
She wants a young gentleman to wake her up,
This cold and frosty morning.
Write his name and send it by me,
This cold and frosty morning.
Mr. ____ his name is called,
This cold and frosty morning.
Arise, arise, upon your feet,
This cold and frosty morning.
Newell asserts that this song is descended from an old English May-game and suggests it developed from the story of Sleeping Beauty. However, although there are similarities to the Thorn Rosa circle dance, there's a pretty big leap from these lyrics to the Sleeping Beauty plot.
You can listen to a modern version of Dornroschen at Mama Lisa's World, or watch some versions like Thorn Rosa, Fair Rosa, or "There was a lovely princess" (from 1957!) on YouTube.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.