A few years ago I encountered a Norwegian folktale titled “Prince Lindworm.” This tale was completely new to me and aspects of it have lingered as I contemplate the future of my country.
In “Prince Lindworm,” a childless Queen wants an heir and follows the advice of the Wise Woman she meets in her garden. The Wise Woman tells the Queen where to find two magical roses, instructs her to eat only one, and warns that she “will be sorry” if she eats both. The Queen, of course, eats both and gives birth to twin boys. The elder child emerges as a serpent or lindworm and immediately disappears into the forest. Only the Queen witnesses this birth and, as this is not the child she wants to parent, she remains silent. The second boy is beautiful and healthy and grows into a fine young man. When he is of age to seek a wife, his path is blocked by his unknown exiled brother, Prince Lindworm, who has grown into a massive, repulsive serpent and claims his right to have a bride first. The Queen admits her failure to follow the Wise Woman’s advice and the kingdom must cope with the knowledge that the heir to the throne is an exile.
So many individuals and groups are exiled by our culture—forced to the marginalized edges of American society and required to survive within the confines of narrow stereotypes and without the many unseen privileges and benefits that accrue to those dwelling in the patriarchal mainstream. The list of those exiled includes women, indigenous peoples, people of color, the differently abled, the entire LGBTQ community, and, of course, Mother Earth.
As a nation, America does not want to acknowledge that we have raped Mother Earth and intentionally marginalized so many of our citizens. We do not want to admit that this ‘great’ country was built on both the cultural and physical genocide of the indigenous peoples and on the vile and despicable act of slavery. Everything our ancestors defined as ‘other’ was exiled from their realm, and their religion gave permission—justified and legitimized these actions. Today we are living in the era when the exiles are returning, demanding their birthright.
Those exiled from mainstream American culture are just like us—our human sisters and brothers—individuals we meet in daily life. In order to maintain the boundary between the accepted and the exiled, lies and myths are created and perpetuated about the exiles. There’s no point in listing those lies here—we all know them and have likely been branded by some of those lies ourselves. Lies transform the exiles into monstrous serpents and justify continuing their exile. Lies distort reality and keep us from seeing the exiles for who they truly are—our siblings.
A bride is found for exiled Prince Lindworm—daughter of a neighboring king—and she is devoured on her wedding night. A second bride is found and suffers the same fate. Reluctant to anger another neighbor, the King orders the royal woodcutter—an old man who lives at the edge of the forest—to give his only daughter in marriage to Prince Lindworm. Although in the story, she is nameless, I’ve named her Frida.
Weeping in the woods on the eve of her wedding, Frida encounters the same Wise Woman who once advised the Queen. The Wise Woman knows that buried inside Prince Lindworm’s frightening exterior lies a worthy human being. She tells the maiden how she can save herself, the Prince, and also the kingdom. Unlike the Queen, Frida follows her instructions.
On her wedding night, Frida asks to be dressed in 10 snow-white shifts and that an armload of whips, a bucket of lye, and a bath filled with milk be placed in the bridal chamber. When they are alone, the Prince orders her to remove a shift. She tells him to shed a skin first. He is outraged and says that no one has ever asked him to do this. She stays strong and repeats her request. He complies. She covers his shed skin with one of her shifts. The shedding and removing of layers skin and clothing continues until he is revealed as a huge, thick mass.
Looking him in the eye, Frida dips the whips in the lye and whips him all over—stripping from his hidden true self the lies and myths that have concealed him. Next she bathes him in milk and wraps him in her arms. They fall onto the bed and into deep sleep.
I want to pause here to consider the character and determination of Frida–a simple peasant girl who had never been far from home. The journey to the palace—the luxurious trappings of royalty—the snotty attitudes of everyone present—a lesser young woman would have crumbled under any of these burdens.
But Frida was different. She came from the borderlands—from the edge of the forest—and brought with her new tools, a different kind of knowing and an ability to see clearly.
In the morning, Frida was found sleeping peacefully at the side of a handsome prince. There was great rejoicing, and Frida and the Prince ultimately became King and Queen.
It took a young peasant woman to accomplished what the power and authority of the King could not. She looked the exile in the eye and dared to reveal his true self. In doing so, she created the conditions that allowed him to be enfolded back into the kingdom.
I see this myth is a metaphor for our time. Young women around the world are stepping up. As a marginalized gender, most women come from the borderlands—the luminous boundary between ancient women’s wisdom and the hard cold edges of modern society. We are called by a passionate desire to heal this troubled planet. The young women hold mirrors, showing us the true nature of our culture. And they carry the keys to uniting the kingdom—the wisdom necessary to enable us to see clearly those that have been exiled and the compassionate hearts that will support us in enfolding all the disenfranchised back into a beloved community of the whole.
To read the full story of Prince Lindworm, visit https://www.worldoftales.com/European_folktales/Norwegian_folktale_3.html#gsc.tab=0
Mary F. Gelfand is an ordained Interfaith Minister and a Wiccan High Priestess. A former board president of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS), she is an experienced teacher of Cakes for the Queen of Heaven—adult education program focused on feminist thealogy and the Great Goddess. Her spiritual life is rooted in the cycles and seasons of the natural world which are so abundantly visible in New England. She reads and teaches about feminist theology, the Great Goddess, mysticism, and the mysteries of Tarot. As a fiber artist, she enjoys weaving tapestry and knitting gifts for strangers and friends.