The version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales I grew up with was published in 1945, my mom’s old book from her own childhood. In this version of Cinderella, the stepsisters (called false sisters) cut off parts of their feet to fit into the gold (not glass) slipper, and are rejected by the prince because of the blood streaming from their feet. At Cinderella’s wedding, white doves peck out the sisters’ eyes, blinding them both. In Snow White, the Queen eats a boiled boar’s heart she believes to be from the stepdaughter she ordered killed by her huntsman. In The Goose Girl, the exploitive maid is punished by being put stark naked into a barrel stuck with nails and dragged along by two white horses from street to street until she is dead.
None of these details made it into the Disney versions of the tales.
Mothers in these stories die in the first sentence or are already dead, often replaced by stepmothers. The matriarchal line is cut, and although the fathers survive, the female children lose their power and identity, and become orphans.
This is where the garden comes in. Cinderella requests as a gift from her father not clothes or jewelry when he offers, but the first twig he brushes past when he sets out on his journey. He brings her a piece of hazel wood, and she sticks it into the ground on her mother’s grave. This twig grows into a tree (fertilized by her tears) on which doves and other birds thrive. The birds fulfill all Cinderella’s requests, bring her anything she needs, and of course go all King Lear on the sisters. They are sort of her own personal pigeon mafia. She ends the abuse in her home and assumes a position of power, having secretly grown strong in the graveyard garden.
The Goddess is buried quite deep in these stories, with their princes who rescue maidens and all the women attacking each other. The Goddess is hidden in the stories, going unnamed, part of the world of nature, consigned to a bardo between living things and dead things. In Cinderella she is the tree; in Snow White she is a branch that trips the pallbearer and wakes the heroine up from her poisoned sleep; and in The Goose Girl she is the severed head of the horse Falada speaking the truth out loud and commanding the wind to blow.
The Goddess is dead, and she certainly had been buried for a long time in 1945 when my mother was given this book. Merlin Stone describes the Goddess religions of the ancient world (and there were many) being systematically destroyed by the Hebrews in her book When God Was a Woman. When the Queen of Heaven was worshipped as creatress of the universe, women governed, prophesied, and handed their own names down to their children. Women’s bodies were not considered property, and reproductive rights were sacred rather than subject to legislation. Deliberate military action and widespread propaganda changed all that. Stone sums up the obliteration of our memory of the Goddess in the statement, “There is no word for Goddess in the Old Testament.” Without a word to name it, a thing elanguesences into the subconscious, becomes part of the underworld, and remains only partially glimpsed in dreams and intuition. How can we find Ashtoreth if we don’t even know her name?
Fortunately gods and Goddesses never die, because they are the eternal archetypes of our own DNA. We can hear them, see them, and feel them in the world, even when we do not know their proper names. Work in the garden seems to unearth the Goddess. Her beauty is disinterred in the blooming of a lilac or a rose. Her voice shakes the rattling seed heads in the fall. She’s in the dirt, the weeds, the glorious old trees, the life and death that’s out there every day.
Anthropologists who are not radical feminists like Stone seem to agree that women invented agriculture as an adjunct to their food-gathering tasks. Our old fairy tales just barely hint at the idea that the garden is a source of power. Any human, male or female, who works in the garden or walks in the woods or mountains, feels an intuitive strength in these places. Even a tiny yard in the suburbs outside of Detroit can be a temple where the Goddess may be invited to dwell. She is hidden this time of year in the darkness and the snow, but I look forward to her holy striptease in the spring.
Written on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade