Sleeping Beauty and the Medial Feminine
It may seem like a long way around – but this thread leads back to the problem of Sleeping Beauty, whose going under and coming out were mediated by the feminine principle active in fairies, who are little and look young but in fact are ageless beings (like the Moirai or Graiai, the Greek spinners, who were ‘fair cheeked’ but had the grey hair of a spinster). To sleep for a hundred years because a spindle or distaff was turned against you would mean that you were ‘cursed’ by the feminine side of the family. Although sleep is classically close to death (brothers Hypnos and Thanatos), the curse of sleep is not literally death-dealing, which indicates some hope for girls who fade into a sleep state at fifteen. Like Persephone, they can come up again out their phase of sleep-in-season.
The ‘season’ that puts the girls to sleep is the pubertal awakening. (The prick of the spindle drew first blood.) Depending on a girl’s relationship to her mother and a mother’s relationship to her own sexual nature the pubescent girl will bloom or suddenly fade. In our story the queen mother had been barren for many years. She had been unable to conceive. The kingdom was characterised by the repression of feminine fruitfulness. Finally, when the sterility is turned to creativity because the queen in her bath is visited by a frog (a little sperm-man, a croaking harbinger of spring, companion to mid-wives), there is a princess born in the kingdom – to give the kingdom another chance. It is said that the girl’s father delighted in her – but the mother or maternal principle in the story gets split up into conflicting feelings about the girl, represented by the wishes of the wise women. Consequently she is nurtured and drained at once. She is fed by the good (conscious) wishes of beauty, virtue, gentleness, and so on, but an opposite tendency pulls her toward death.
In describing the consequences of one type of ‘negative mother complex’ in a girl, Jung says that an identification with the mother comes about which leads to the
…paralysis of the daughter’s feminine initiative. A complete projection of her personality on the mother then takes place… Everything which reminds her of motherhood, responsibility, personal relationships, and erotic demands arouses feelings of inferiority and compels her to run away – to her mother, naturally, who lives to perfection everything that seems unattainable to her daughter… The daughter leads a shadow-existence, often visibly sucked dry by her mother… These bloodless maidens are… so empty that a man is free to impute to them anything he fancies. In addition, they are so unconscious that the unconscious puts out countless invisible feelers… The girl’s notorious helplessness is a special attraction.1
Sleeping Beauty’s countless feelers are deadly to the men who are drawn to rescue her – the feelers are thorns in the encircling hedge that pierce men to death in the same way the girl was pricked to sleep. It is often the case that the bloodless maidens or somnolent young women unintentionally kill all possibility of relationship when a lover approaches. (This is related to the mother’s curse of not wanting the girl to know herself as sexual being; the ‘way into’ the girl becomes thorny – like the vagina dentata – and only blooms after one hundred years to allow a man easy entry.) Such daughters also have the effect of putting those around them to sleep:
The King and Queen who had just come home, and had entered the great hall, began to go to sleep, and the whole of the court with them. The horses, too, went to sleep in the stable, the dogs in the yard, the pigeons upon the roof, the flies on the wall; even the fire that was flaming on the hearth became quiet and slept, the roast meat left off frizzling, and the cook, who was just going to pull the hair of the scullery boy, because he had forgotten something, let him go, and went to sleep. And the wind fell, and on the trees before the castle not a leaf moved again.
When the wind falls, the spirit (pneuma, wind or breath) dies down. There is no visible movement. All energy has been withdrawn: Demeter, the principle of awakening seed and soil, has withdrawn into a cave, covered her head, and gone into grief. Earth lies dormant. Instinct represented by the horses, dogs, pigeons, flies and fire, is paralysed.
Sometimes working psychologically with people who disappear from the surface of reality is not effective. Sleep (depression, unsatisfying sexuality as a dutiful wife, endless chores as a mother and numbing household service as a char are all examples) is the curse, but it also heals. After a while – one hundred years, a very long time, time enough for everything to have changed – the person will reappear. The put-off sexuality will emerge. A woman who was numb and inaccessible will thaw, the thorns will turn to flowers. The only reason given for this is miraculous, unexplainable. Suddenly, after years of princes having perished miserably in the thorn hedge, it opens one day to receive a prince who is, as far as we know from the story, of no special merit: he just happens to come on the right day. But he must be an instrument of the wise woman who softened the original death curse to the sleep of one hundred years. It is she who parts the hedge, permits access and the eye-opening kiss. The old woman who spun the length of sleep is there at the awakening. Her presence is the mediating function of the unconscious that brings the girl ‘out of herself’.
Adapted by sb from Nor Hall, The Moon and the Virgin, pp.197-200.
1Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype’in Four Archetypes, pp.23-24.
The vagina dentate or toothed vagina is a common motif in folklore, mythology and modern dreams. Many heroes have died a gruesome death attempting intercourse with a ‘tooth mother’. Variations on the theme are caves with spike-like rocks at the entrance and giant, carnivorous, open-mouthed fishes.
Ritual has the power to function as the means to accessing ‘one hundred years’ i.e. enacting and drawing in mythical/eternal time which ushers in healing of that realm.