I have always been drawn to Maleficent. The 1959 Disney film presented her as villainous, but I never bought it. She was dark and powerful and vengeful yes, but not evil. After all, she was Fey. The Fey are not all sunshine and butterflies; they are nature spirits – wild and magical – and not to be trifled with. They are older and mightier than humans and thus deserving of our respect. Should we fail to show them proper honour, as King Stefan and Queen Leah did by failing to invite Maleficent to Aurora’s birth party, we should rightly expect their wrath.
Maleficent Classic – still from the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty.
So I was quite pleased by the new film and the depiction of Maleficent not so much as the “Mistress of Evil” but rather as a terribly wronged Fairie Queen. If anything, I felt that she was much too lenient; any human who so horribly betrayed and abused a Fey got off far too easily by merely having his first born cursed. In any case, the film got me thinking more about Maleficent’s origin and where she came from. How far back could we trace the tale of Maleficent?
Angelina Jolie as the winged Maleficent
Much has been written about the origins of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, but not so much about its characters. So whence did Maleficent come? In Sleeping Beauty she appears without explanation, just as the third fairy was about to bestow her gift upon Aurora. “Well, quite a glittering assemblage, King Stefan” she declares, “Royalty, nobility, the gentry, and…. how quaint, even the rabble. I really felt quite distressed at not receiving an invitation.”
Even if you think you already know the answer, bear with me. I will here argue that Maleficent’s character is much older than anyone has yet suspected, and the story is older than Grimm, Perrault, Basile, and even Perceforest. In fact, this story is from Pagan roots at least 1500 years old, and Maleficent with it.
Little Briar Rose (Dornröschen)
Most people are aware that Sleeping Beauty is an adaption of a story called Little Briar Rose from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, first published in 1812 with a second version published in 1857. The 1812 version, translated by Professor D.L. Ashliman, opens as follows:
A king and queen had no children, although they wanted one very much. Then one day while the queen was sitting in her bath, a crab crept out of the water onto the ground and said, “Your wish will soon be fulfilled, and you will bring a daughter into the world.” And that is what happened.
The king was so happy about the birth of the princess that he held a great celebration. He also invited the fairies who lived in his kingdom, but because he had only twelve golden plates, one had to be left out, for there were thirteen of them.
The fairies came to the celebration, and as it was ending they presented the child with gifts. The one promised her virtue, the second one gave beauty, and so on, each one offering something desirable and magnificent. The eleventh fairy had just presented her gift when the thirteenth fairy walked in. She was very angry that she had not been invited and cried out, “Because you did not invite me, I tell you that in her fifteenth year, your daughter will prick herself with a spindle and fall over dead.”
The parents were horrified, but the twelfth fairy, who had not yet offered her wish, said, “It shall not be her death. She will only fall into a hundred-year sleep.” The king, hoping to rescue his dear child, issued an order that all spindles in the entire kingdom should be destroyed.
According to the Grimm brothers, then, the antagonist of the story is the thirteenth fairy who was angered at being jilted out of an invitation due to the royal household’s limited quantity of golden plates. However, she makes no further appearance in the story. In Sleeping Beauty, Disney had Maleficent charm Aurora and lead her to the spinning wheel. But according to Grimm, on the fateful day when the princess is introduced to the spindle we hear that she “found herself in a small room where an old woman sat spinning flax. She was attracted to the old woman, and joked with her, and said that she too would like to try her hand at spinning.” In no way does the text suggest that the “old woman” was the thirteenth fairy.
“The Thirteenth Fairy”, an illustration by Arthur Rackham for a 1909 publication of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.
It is notable that the Grimms’ version ends rather abruptly shortly after the princess is awoken by a kiss from the prince, and they all live happily ever after. This was not true of the other two, earlier, oft-cited sources of the tale to which we will now turn.
The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (La Belle au bois dormant)
The first of these earlier sources is the most obviously related, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, published by Charles Perrault in his book Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals in 1696. Here are the opening verses as translated by Andrew Lang in the Blue Fairy Book:
There were formerly a king and a queen, who were so sorry that they had no children; so sorry that it cannot be expressed. They went to all the waters in the world; vows, pilgrimages, all ways were tried, and all to no purpose.
At last, however, the Queen had a daughter. There was a very fine christening; and the Princess had for her god-mothers all the fairies they could find in the whole kingdom (they found seven), that every one of them might give her a gift, as was the custom of fairies in those days. By this means the Princess had all the perfections imaginable.
After the ceremonies of the christening were over, all the company returned to the King’s palace, where was prepared a great feast for the fairies. There was placed before every one of them a magnificent cover with a case of massive gold, wherein were a spoon, knife, and fork, all of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. But as they were all sitting down at table they saw come into the hall a very old fairy, whom they had not invited, because it was above fifty years since she had been out of a certain tower, and she was believed to be either dead or enchanted.
The King ordered her a cover, but could not furnish her with a case of gold as the others, because they had only seven made for the seven fairies. The old Fairy fancied she was slighted, and muttered some threats between her teeth. One of the young fairies who sat by her overheard how she grumbled; and, judging that she might give the little Princess some unlucky gift, went, as soon as they rose from table, and hid herself behind the hangings, that she might speak last, and repair, as much as she could, the evil which the old Fairy might intend.
In the meanwhile all the fairies began to give their gifts to the Princess. The youngest gave her for gift that she should be the most beautiful person in the world; the next, that she should have the wit of an angel; the third, that she should have a wonderful grace in everything she did; the fourth, that she should dance perfectly well; the fifth, that she should sing like a nightingale; and the sixth, that she should play all kinds of music to the utmost perfection.
The old Fairy’s turn coming next, with a head shaking more with spite than age, she said that the Princess should have her hand pierced with a spindle and die of the wound. This terrible gift made the whole company tremble, and everybody fell a-crying.
At this very instant the young Fairy came out from behind the hangings, and spake these words aloud:
“Assure yourselves, O King and Queen, that your daughter shall not die of this disaster. It is true, I have no power to undo entirely what my elder has done. The Princess shall indeed pierce her hand with a spindle; but, instead of dying, she shall only fall into a profound sleep, which shall last a hundred years, at the expiration of which a king’s son shall come and awake her.”
Here there are eight fairies rather than Grimm’s thirteen. Interestingly we are given a somewhat more reasonable explanation for lack of an invitation; it wasn’t so much that the King and Queen just didn’t have enough gold cutlery; it was just that everyone thought that she was dead. Still, the offense taken by the fairy may have been just as much about not getting the booty as it was about not being invited.
The eighth fairy curses the princess. Illustration by Louis Pauquet from an 1842 edition of Contes du temps passé.
As in Little Briar Rose, our early Maleficent makes no further appearance in the story. Perrault makes it quite clear that the old woman spinning with the fateful spindle had no idea who the princess was. However there are a few interesting elements to this story that should be mentioned. First, this is the only version prior to the film that has dragons. However these dragons have nothing to do with the eighth fairy; instead they pull the chariot of the seventh fairy when, after the curse manifests, she returns to put the rest of the palace to sleep.
The other element that needs to be discussed is what happens to our prince and princess after they marry. There was no happily ever after for them. Instead, the story takes a bizarre turn; it turns out that the prince’s mother is an Ogre. When the princess gives birth to a daughter, named Morning, and a son, named Day, the Ogre Queen contrives to eat all three of them. Fortunately her plans are thwarted by her clever cook, who substitutes lambs for the children and a deer for the princess. For Perrault’s story, this episode seems almost tacked on as an after-thought, and perhaps for this reason it was omitted by the brothers Grimm, who otherwise rarely shied away from the gruesome. In contrast, this cannibalism element plays a much more central role in the other oft-cited source.
Sun, Moon, and Talia (Sole, Luna, e Talia)
Sun, Moon, and Talia appeared in Giambattista Basile’s posthumous Il Pentamerone (The Tale of Tales), published in 1634, some sixty years earlier than Perrault’s tome. This is a very different story indeed. It opens, as per the 2007 translation by Nancy Canepa:
There was once a great lord who at the birth of a daughter named Talia summoned all the wise men and fortune-tellers of his kingdom to predict her fortune. After conferring a number of times, they concluded that she would find herself in great danger because of a little piece of flax. And so the king issued a prohibition aimed at avoiding that baleful encounter: in his house neither flax nor hemp nor anything of the sort was to enter.
Wait, what? Where are the fairies? Their absence is most conspicuous. The old woman who introduces the princess to spinning is present, but rather than impaling her finger on the spindle, Thalia gets a bit of flax under her fingernail causing her to fall “dead upon the ground”. Thereafter the story is quite different. The lord locks his daughter away and runs off. A passing king happens upon her and rapes her in her sleep then returns to his wife. Nine months passes after which Thalia, still asleep, gives birth to a son and daughter who are given the names Sun and Moon. The daughter Moon, looking for a teat to suckle upon, takes hold of Thalia’s finger and sucks out the piece of flax whereupon Thalia wakes from her sleep. The rest of the story plays out similarly to the second part of The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. In this version, however, the rapist king’s wife plays the part of the ogre and, rather than her trying to eat Thalia and her children, she tries to trick the king into eating them as revenge for his infidelity.
It seems that many researchers, including Basile’s modern translator, have suggested that Basile was Perrault’s primary source for The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (Canepa 413). If this is indeed the case and Sun, Moon, and Talia is the earliest version of the story then we can only conclude that the very first origins of Maleficent is as an anonymous gaggle of wise men and fortune-tellers, and that Perrault simply made up the entire part about the fairies. In the absence of an earlier source we would be left with this rather disappointing conclusion.
Fortunately, there is an earlier source — in fact much, much earlier — and what a source it is! Researchers at least as far back as the late nineteenth century were aware that the anonymously authored medieval French romance Perceforest contained a sleeping beauty story (Lang liv.) The surviving manuscripts for Perceforest date from the second half of the fifteen century, but most evidence points to an original composition date of around 1330 (Bryant 24). This places the story a good three centuries prior to Basile and Perrault. However, due to its immense length it remained untranslated and therefore largely inaccessible to English researchers (Bryant 1). It was not until 2011 when Nigel Bryant published a redacted translation that this remarkable story has finally become available.
So let us explore this medieval sleeping beauty story. This is a true romantic story rather than a fairy tale so the narrative is quite complex, but the general synopsis is as follows: there was once a king named Zelland who had a queen. In their kingdom the people primarily worshiped the three goddesses Venus, Lucina, and Themis. It was a custom in this land that when a woman was about to give birth she would have her handmaidens go to the temple of the three goddesses and prepare a table spread with three places set with “all manner of food and drink”, goblets filled with the “finest spiced wine” and knives to eat with. Lucina would have pride of place as the goddess of childbirth. Venus would sit next with “her torch ready to fire the child”, and Themis next, who is described as the “Goddess of destiny, who immediately determines the child’s life and all that will befall it”.
As it happens, when it came time for the queen’s birthing somehow Themis was not given a knife. Taking exception to this slight, she declared upon the birth of the princess that her fate would be “from the first thread of linen that she spins from her distaff a shard will pierce her finger and cast her into a sudden sleep, from which she’ll never wake until it’s sucked out!” (Note: prior to spinning wheels, distaffs and spindles were used to spin wool). Venus, however, intervened and assured the queen that indeed the shard would be sucked out and all made well.
The princess, who is named Zellandine, grows up and falls in love with a Scottish knight named Troylus. While Troylus is absent in his native land, Zellandine’s destiny catches up to her and she falls into a death-like sleep and is placed in a high tower by King Zelland to await the mercy of the gods. When the news reaches Troylus that his love has fallen into a sleep from which she cannot awake, he rushes back with plenty of adventures along the way. Stopping in at the temple of the goddesses, he meets Venus who tells him that “when you pluck from the slit the fruit that holds the cure, the girl will be healed.”
Later Troylus is lifted by the mischievous spirit Zephir into the tower where Zellandine lay. Finding her sleeping in the nude, Troylus rather amusingly implores Venus to guide him to ‘the slit that houses the fruit’ since he could not possibly find it on his own. He tries to wake Zellandine with kisses to no avail. He struggles mightily with Reason and Propriety which tell him that he shouldn’t take advantage of an unconscious girl, but finally Venus arrives and questions his manhood until he is berated into raping his betrothed.
Nine months later, still asleep, Zellandine gives birth to a son who, seeking food, grabs one of his mother’s fingers and begins sucking, removing the thread thus breaking the curse and waking her. Before she is quite able to figure out what is going on, a huge bird with the torso of a woman comes through the window and snatches the baby away to deliver it to the three goddesses who end up raising it. Delighted by his daughter’s awakening, which he attributes to the god Mars, King Zelland looks to marry her off to a local prince. Unable to persuade him otherwise, Zellandine elopes with Troylus.
It is easy to see in this story the seeds of both Basile’s and Perrault’s tales, and it nicely explains some of the differences between the two. Oddly missing is the evil queen and her cannibalism, but we will return to that later.
But before we continue let us consider the question: is it possible that the three Goddesses of Perceforest could be directly linked to the fairies of Sleeping Beauty in the Wood or is it more likely that the Goddesses were simply forgotten along the way and then fairies invented independently? In fact there is certainly recorded precedent for Pagan deities to fade to fey; the Tuatha Dé Danann became the sidhe, after all. Furthermore, Basile’s story seems to demonstrate what happens when the goddesses were forgotten; they were replaced with an anonymous cluster of fortune-tellers, and the perceived slight was forgotten along with them; all that remained was the divination of the princess’ fate. Finally, in both Perceforest and Perrault there appears a being who mitigates the curse; Venus in the former and the seventh fairy in the latter. It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that Perrault’s fairies were the three goddesses rather than an invention added to Basile’s tale, and Themis therefore was the progenitor of Maleficent.
Or was she?
But wait! What the heck were our gods doing in this book anyway? After all, by the time of the composition, France had been Christianized as part of the Roman Empire for at least 800 years! Well, the book was set primarily in the British Isles which, thanks largely to a continual influx of Germanic invaders, remained largely Pagan for quite some time. And after all, a primary theme of the book is the rise of the ‘Sovereign God’ of Christianity. Yet the Pagan gods and goddesses frolic throughout as though they were still in Ovid…. but this is a mystery for another day.
Statue of Themis, 300 BCE, by Chairestratos from the temple at Rhamnous
But let us consider Themis. Who was she? Themis was actually a Titan rather than an Olympian and was the personification of law according to custom and rightness (Smith 46). Smith tells us that she was the second power behind the Delphic oracle, after Gaia and before Apollo, thus demonstrating that she was indeed held as a goddess of divination (47). Still, while not underestimating the importance of the divination aspect, she is primarily known as the keeper of ‘that which is right’ as sanctioned by the gods (49). This refers largely to the divine laws of piety and hospitality, exactly the things that Zellandine’s mother broke by failing to give one of the three goddesses a knife for her birthing feast. So are we safe to say that Maleficent’s origin is as the titan Goddess Themis, offended by a lapse in proper hospitality and thus pronouncing a curse upon her? Well, not quite so fast.
The problem is that while Themis may be the personification of divine law, she does not appear to be the one that enforces it. However, it turns out that she had a friend who did just that, for she shared a temple in Rhamnous with the goddess Nemesis.
Nemesis in marble, 2nd century CE from Egypt
And who was Nemesis? She is often considered a chthonic nature deity (Hornum 7), which is most fitting indeed if her fate was indeed to end up as a fairy. A daughter of Nyx, the goddess of night, Nemesis was the goddess of moral indignation and retribution (Atsma). For our purposes, a particularly intriguing tale of the goddess appears in book 48 of Nonnos’ epic poem Dionysiaca, which tells the life of Dionsyus. A composition date of around 450 CE places this version of the story at least eight centuries prior to Perceforest.
This particular part of the poem begins with “impious words” from the maiden goddess Aura to another maiden goddess, Artemis. Swimming nude together in a river, Aura teases Artemis for being a virgin while having such full and soft round breasts as opposed to her own boy-like figure. Artemis takes great insult at this; she seeks out Nemesis and begs her to turn Aura to stone in retribution. Nemesis balks at this punishment as she shares a Titan ancestry with Aura. However, she does promise revenge of a sort:
“Aura the maid of the hunt has reproached your virginity,
and she shall be a virgin no longer.
You shall see her in the bed of a mountain stream
weeping fountains of tears for her maiden girdle.”
With that, Nemesis tracks down Aura and lays a curse upon her, then enlists the help of Eros to fill Dionysus with lust for the maiden. Struck by the arrows of Eros, Dionysus hunts for Aura but wonders how he could possibly convince the chaste goddess to lie with him. As he wonders, a nymphs appears and tells him:
“Bacchos can never lead Aura to his bed,
unless he binds her first in heavy galling fetters, and
winds the bonds of Cypris round hands and feet ;
or else puts her under the yoke of marriage in sleep,
and steals the girl’s maidenhood without brideprice.”
He resumes the chase and along the way meets the ghost of Ariadne, and here enters the first source for the spinning wheel aspect of the story; she gives him a distaff and suggests that if his ‘bride’ asks for a gift that he present it to her.
After this meeting, Dionysus catches up with Aura. Seeing that she appeared thirsty, the god struck the ground with his staff, causing a fountain of sweet-smelling wine to appear. Eros leads Aura to the fountain where she drinks until she falls into a drunken sleep. Then, egged on by Eros, Dionysus proceeds to rape Aura in her sleep, leaving afterwards.
Waking some time later Aura immediately realizes what has happened to her, but not by who. Driven quite mad in anger, she goes on a murderous spree, killing every man she sees; shepherds, oxherds, goatherds, farmers, hunters, vineyard workers, and herdsmen alike are all slain, til the hills run red with blood.
As time passes she comes to realize that she is pregnant, and then we are told this:
She longed to know her husband,
that she might dish up her own son
to her loathing husband, childslayer and paramour
alike, that men might say — ” Aura, unhappy bride,
has killed her child like another Procne.”
(Procne is known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She was a queen whose husband Tereus raped her sister Philomela. In revenge, she killed and cooked her son and then fed him to Tereus). On a mountaintop, Aura gives birth to twin boys. Still quite mad, she immediately kills and devours one of them. The other is snatched away and saved by Artemis — which may explain the bird with the torso of a woman in Perceforest who steals Zellandine’s baby away. Artemis brings the boy to Dionysus who places him in the care of the Bacchae. Aura ends up throwing herself into a river to drown and is transformed into a fountain, thus concluding Nemesis’ curse.
If one was to simply compare the story in Dionysiaca with Disney’s film Sleeping Beauty, one would be hard pressed to say that they are the same tale. It is only by tracing the story’s history back through Grimm, Perrault, Basile, the anonymous Perceforest, and finally to Nonnos, that it becomes clear that they are all one and the same. And this means that Maleficent is none other than a modern incarnation of the goddess Nemesis.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Can anyone find an even older version of the story?
Nemesis by Gheorghe Tattarescu, 1853
Maleficent as the dragon from the 1959 film
Atsma, Aaron. Nemesis. The Theoi Project. Web. 29 Oct 2014.
Bryant, Nigel. Perceforest: The Prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain. Cambridge: DS Brewer, 2011. Google Books. Web. 24 Oct 2014.
Canepa, Nancy. Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones. Wayne State University Press, 2007. Google Books. Web. 23 Oct 2014.
Hornum, Michael. Nemesis, the Roman State, and the Games. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993. Google Books. Web. 28 Oct 2014.
Lang, Andrew. Perrault’s Popular Tales. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1888. Archive.org. Web. 24 Oct 2014.
Nonnos. Dionysiaca. Trans. W.H.D. Rouse. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940. Archive.org. Web. 29 Oct 2014.
Smith, Amy. Polis and Personfication in Classical Athenian Art. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011. Google Books. Web. 27 Oct 2014.