I was trying not to fidget as I sat on the hard, unforgiving walnut pew. It was a gorgeous summer day out, and I was locked inside breathing stale air and with nothing to look at but the dreary speaker, and, behind him, a life-sized, picture of a sweet-looking man about to be hung from nails driven through his hands. I was visiting my parents, who love to take me to church, and I just wasn’t able to say no.
As I sat I daydreamed about our indigenous European ancestors. They did “church” outdoors, in fragrant, airy forests with wild bluebells, warbling birds, and gentle breezes caressing their skin, ears and eyes. Instead of doing hard time on walnut benches, they got to dance, chant, hold hands and jump through fires.
I thought too about how some fairy tales expose the differences between Christianity and ancient pre-Christian religions. Take the Grimm Brothers’ “The White Snake” for example: rattling around in this fairy tale is almost everything in the Adam and Eve story, from the snake, the apple, and the garden, to the Tree of Life and the two lovers. And in each story it is the same two items — the snake and the apple — that transport the tale to its final ending. Other than that, however, the two tales’ conclusions are as different as a day at the beach and a week with the flu, with the Grimms’ characters being blessed with everlasting contentment while Jehovah’s are cursed with eternal damnation.
The differences between the two tales don’t end here. Unlike Eve, the woman in “The White Snake” doesn’t hog the apple all to herself — she shares it with the man. It’s this sharing of Aphrodite’s Apple of Love that triggers the woman’s feelings for the man, and is partially responsible for the tale’s happy ending: “They cut the Apple of Life in two and ate it together; and then her heart became full of love for him, and they lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.” Of course for eating that same apple, Adam and Eve were consigned to never-ending misery.
A recap of the story of Adam and Eve: In the beginning the two lived blissful lives in the Garden. All day long they propped their feet up, ate, drank and made merry. Only one thing was forbidden them: the apples dangling off the Garden’s Tree of Life. When the snake sashayed on stage and sweet-talked Eve into biting into the forbidden fruit, God threw a tantrum: “Cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life….” Gen. 3.17-18.
Other striking differences between the two tales center around the snake. Jehovah’s snake deals only with Eve, never Adam, who’s a passive, do-nothing kind of guy. Not so in “The White Snake.” The White-Snake man – one of the king’s servants – stealthily munches on a piece of the mysterious white snake the king dines on alone every night, after which he (the servant) can suddenly understand the speech of animals. So, unlike the Biblical snake, the white snake gives its humans not something harmful, but something of marvelous value.
Soon the servant puts the snake’s gift to good use. After he’s accused of stealing the queen’s ring, he overhears a duck admitting she swallowed the piece of jewelry, whereupon he quickly retrieves the ring and returns it to Her Majesty. As a reward, the king gives the servant a horse to travel the countryside. During his travels the man overhears various animals lamenting their troubles, and he helps all of them: fish suffocating out of water, ants being squashed by horse hooves, and ravens starving to death.
Eventually our hero rides into the land of a king searching for a man to marry his daughter; whosoever can complete a few (next-to-impossible) tasks will win the princess’ hand. (Like Heide Gottner-Abendroth, I believe fairy tale princesses are symbols for goddesses, so this princess too would be a goddess, and the servant would be her heros, or mortal lover.) With the help of his animal friends the servant passes all tests: the fish help him locate a ring the king flings into the sea, the ants help him gather millet strewn on the ground, and when the princess herself strolls into her garden and challenges the servant to bring her the “golden apple from the Tree of Life,” it’s the ravens who help the man complete this final task:
The youth did not know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would have gone on for ever … though he had no hope of finding it…. He came one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. But he heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three ravens flew down to him, perched … upon his knee, and said, “We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving; … we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.”
We already learned that it’s the sharing of this apple that lands the man and woman smack into Paradise, for forever and ever.
In sum, “The White Snake” is about humans, animals and deities working together to achieve elegant life outcomes for all. In contrast “Adam and Eve” is about a passive male burned by a demonic woman who trusted a ‘dumb’ animal. Whoever created the Grimm story seems to be saying “See, this is how we Europeans did things in the past: we didn’t start people in The Garden and kick them out for making mistakes. We did it the other way around — started people out with nothing, dropped obstacles in their paths, and then let them work through the obstacle course and finally waltz into Paradise.”
To that, I say, “Amen!”
Gottner-Abendroth, Heide. 1995. The Goddess and Her Heros. Stow, Massachusetts: Anthony Publishing Co.
This is a modified excerpt from Breaking the Mother Goose Code: How a Fairy Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years, published Feb. 2015 by Moon Books, and available at most online bookstores.
Go here to read the complete text of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale #17, “The White Snake”: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/authors/grimms/17whitesnake.html
Jeri Studebaker, author of Breaking the Mother Goose Code and Switching to Goddess, has advanced degrees in archaeology and anthropology. She is a member of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.