Fairy tales appeared thousands of years ago in India and ancient China. There are testimonies of fairy tales going back to the thirteenth century B.C. in ancient Egypt, while in ancient Greece fairy tales are referred to by Homer and Herodotus.
The fairy tale, an age old form of entertainment, has been the focus of interest of multiple and varied academic disciplines. Folklorists, philologists, sociologists, historians, psychologists, educators, and even theologians have all approached the fairy tale from a different perspective, as a result of which a number of theories abound on the subject. Here we would like to focus on the psychological aspect of this intriguing topic.
The universality of fairy tales:What is justifiably interesting about fairy tales is that even though they come from various civilisations at different time periods, traditional folk tales share many common traits in their mythological content. Even non-neighbouring countries as well as those distanced from one another have similar traditional fairy tales. A fairy tale from a remote German village is almost identical to one of Greece or India. For instance, the story of Little Red Riding Hood may be found in 70 variations in France, Iran, China, and several African countries. Furthermore, African tribes share narrative similarities with the indigenous peoples of north and central America. The notable point about this universality of fairy tales is that it manifests periodically, which does not easily explain how these myths were passed along on the trade routes of old, due to the enormous distances involved and the lack of means of transport at the time.
The psychoanalytical approach to the origins of fairy tales:
Based on these facts, research into fairy tales has produced various interpretations of their origins and the messages they potentially convey. The most interesting of these is the psychoanalytical interpretation of mythological narratives. In attempting to explain the source of mythical expression and its significance, Sigmund Freud equated myths with dreams, concluding that in both cases (myths and dreams) the same psychological mechanisms are at work. Just as man’s dreams stem from the individual subconscious (where repressed desires and urges of the human psyche are expressed), so do myths make up the deposits of unconscious processes (where the unfulfilled desires and internal conflicts of humanity are essentially expressed).
In the investigation of fairy tales C.G. Jung disagreed with Freud, who considered myths to be the dreams of mankind and therefore the remnants of childhood, and by contrast maintained that fairy tales constitute the most mature product of humanity. For Jung, beyond the “threshold of consciousness” lies the individual unconscious where all of man’s inhibitions can be observed, and beyond the individual unconscious there is the collective unconscious of a catholic nature. In the collective unconscious all human beings are participants; it constitutes a shared resource for mankind.
Arising from the collective unconscious are the archetypal images found in myths, fairy tales, and dreams. For many, Jung’s theory was the most satisfactory answer to the question of the interrelationship of mythological content, existing in peoples distanced from one another, geographically as well as temporally. With Jungian theory the metaphysical aspect of almost every fairy tale, expressed in a way that aids the just outcome of the story, becomes understandable. Through fabulous heroes, the unrealistic world of fairy tales enables man to overcome his age old fears and fulfill (even mentally) longstanding desires such as being able to triumph over death, to fly or to be invisible.
Self-knowledge through fairy tales:
Modern psychotherapy went one step further and, through the pioneer Hans Dieckmann, maintained that fairy tales may be used to help adults deal with psychological problems. An effective way of helping a patient is to have them remember and consciously narrate a favourite fairy tale. According to Dieckmann, our favourite fairy tale is not an accidental memory deposit, but its meaning and symbols hold answers to personal problems. Recalling our favourite fairy tale and realising its deeper meaning enables us to understand our troubling unconscious thoughts and fears. Thus re-identifying with our favourite fairy tale hero, his adventures and exploits, we may understand significant dimensions of ourselves.
So if fairy tales were born out of common needs of the human psyche throughout the ages to relieve the anxiety of human existence and comfort the fear of death, then through fairy tales man may approach truths in which hidden answers to existential concerns may be found. By recalling a favourite fairy tale, each one of us might travel into the depths of one’s soul, and find guidelines for greater and smaller decisions in life. Evidently fairy tales – the remnants of ancient knowledge – have not been created to lull children to sleep but to rouse adults to consciousness.
Chrysoula Hadjitaki-Kapsomenou, To neoelliniko laiko paramythi (The Modern Greek Folk Tale) – Institute of Modern Greek Studies
Donald Haase, Psychology and Fairy Tales