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Burning of Marzanna as a symbol of winter duri...

Burning of Marzanna as a symbol of winter during the spring equinox is one of remains of pre-Christian beliefs in Polish culture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The term folklore was coined in 1846 by W. J. Thomas to replace the previous notion of popular antiquities. Difficult to define, folklore is now understood as the knowledge, customs, beliefs, rituals and orally transmitted information of a given culture.

According to professor T. Henighan,1 the Freudian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim makes a distinction between folklore and fairy tales. Fairy tales are a type of folk tale in which:

  • The names of heroes and heroines are absent or ordinary
  • Supernatural but not divine beings are mentioned
  • Positive outcomes are the norm
  • Childhood and adolescence figure prominently
  • The actual content (i.e. Oedipal material) is obscured through elaborate symbolism

Some suggest that the definition of folklore must also include the academic study of folkloric data, because by studying folkloric content from of a different set of cultural assumptions (those held by an academic), the original content is necessarily interpreted and altered.

Folklore is often associated with the marginalised or popular dimension of a given culture, in contrast to the written stories of orthodox religious organizations. Some scholars limit folklore to so-called primitive cultures, while others extend the concept to apply to modern social formations—e.g. the destructive folkloric beliefs and practices of the Nazis (i.e. Aryans as the ‘master race’).

The line dividing primitive folklore and contemporary belief is blurred and cannot always be easily discerned. The psychologist C. G. Jung discusses this in connection with the Nazis and their disturbing beliefs and practices. For Jung, this exemplified an entire race engulfed by the destructive power of an archetype, in this case, the Wotan archetype.

¹ The Meanings of Myth (

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Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing via Wikipedia

Faeries are said to be supernatural beings that can appear and disappear at will. Usually smaller than human beings, Faeries may be helpful or malicious.

They are generally portrayed as living underwater (e.g. mermaids), underground (e.g. gnomes), in a magical forest region or in some far away land.

Some faeries enter into physical, enchanted or possibly mystical love and ethereal sex relations with human beings.

Various legends and theories try to account for their origin. Some say that fairies derive from animistic beliefs in which objects are said to contain spirits. Others see fairies as emerging from a belief in spirits of the dead residing in the underworld. The Celts, especially, saw Faeries as beings who fled from invading humans, taking refuge in the underworld.

Fairies have also been suggested to derive from the Furies of Greek and Roman myth.

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen.

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen via Wikipedia

Christians have seen Faeries as the unbaptized. Taking many forms worldwide, the actual term faery – indistinguishable from fairy – comes from  “fay-erie”, originally an enchanted land.

In Victorian England there’s a rich body of faerie art and literature—this unique style of Victorian art is still popular today, cropping up in illustrated books,  relaxation cd’s and many new age and holistic health products. And a more updated Faerie look appears in a good deal of fantasy fiction and movies.

Some scholars say the term “fairy tale” is misleading because the beings involved are often not fairies, per se. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist Carl Jung and Jungians like Marie-Louse Von Franz believe that the mythic structure of these stories reflects the archetypal nature of the individuation process—that is, the quest for ‘wholeness’ as Jung sees it.

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Fallen Angels

fallen angel: Bùi Linh Ngân

fallen angel by Bùi Linh Ngân via Flickr

In the popular sense of the term, the idea of the fallen angel denotes something  gone wrong with a person or with a purely spiritual being who freely chooses to reject and, therefore, oppose God’s will.

Myths, stories and artistic representations about fallen angels abound. John Milton (1608 – 1674)  in Paradise Lost  imagines legions of Satanic angels who rebel against God. Massive wars break out, and St. Michael leads the Lord’s Angels, who must overcome ingenious contraptions built by Satan and his fallen army. While St. Michael is prominent in the battle, the final victory is reserved for Christ. So St. Michael stands aside as Jesus defeats the evil army.

Traditionally, we find the notion of the fallen angel in Jewish and Christian lore, and some  argue that a very similar idea is found in Hinduism. For in Hinduism the asuras are described as benevolent spiritual beings in the Vedas that devolve in subsequent Hindu scripture to become demons.

In Islam the personification of evil is Shaytan. In the Koran God commands Iblis to bow down before Adam and serve mankind but through his pride Iblis refuses. God allows Iblis to tempt mankind until Judgement Day, at which time he will be cast into hell. In Islamic thought Iblis is often seen as the master jinn, the head of demons allowed to torment humanity. But there is no concept of the “fallen angel” in the Islamic tradition.

To this coolguymuslim adds:

There is no such thing as a fallen angel in Islam. No doubt, in Islam, Iblis a.k.a. Satan is a jinn and he is most evil. However at the same time, he never is nor was an angel. Angels in Islam do not have free will and they cannot disobey God. In terms of Iblis, he used to be a rightous slave of God so much so that he was elevated to the level of angels before he refused to bow down, however, he was never an angel. Jinn, on the other hand, do possess free will and there are good and evil jinn just as there are good and evil humans.¹

El Ángel Caído (Ricardo Bellver) photo by Luis García

El Ángel Caído (Ricardo Bellver) photo by Luis García via Flickr

Some believe that the powerful “Sons of Man” mentioned in the Old Testament are Fallen Angels. And some contemporary writers believe that aliens are really fallen angels (while others say they are not).

In the fictional Star Wars films, fallen Jedi – like Darth Vader – could be taken as a rough parallel to the idea of fallen angels, mostly because both good and “dark side” Jedi possess paranormal powers and psychic abilities.


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Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Heinrich Le...

Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Heinrich Leutemann or Carl Offterdinger via Wikipedia

Hansel and Gretel is a Germanic folk tale of unknown age that was put into print and published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

The story is about two children of a poor woodcutter. When a great famine spreads across the land, their wicked stepmother (Carl Jung‘s negative anima figure) urges their father to take them out and abandon them in the forest. But having overheard the disturbed plans, the children secretly slip outside to gather white pebbles for markers.

The next day, while the children are being lead out into the woods, Hansel secretly drops the pebbles on the ground to make a trail which, hopefully, will lead him and his sister back to safety. After walking a few hours, their father stops and tells them to wait while he goes to gather wood for a fire.

The father never returns, so Hansel leads Gretel home by tracing the moonlight reflected from the pebbles. Although their guilt-ridden father is happy to see them, when famine strikes again the wicked the stepmother convinces him to desert the children a second time.

As before, Hansel and Gretel overhear the diabolical plans and, this time, gather and drop behind themselves a trail of breadcrumbs. Abandoned in the forest again, to their dismay they discover that birds have gobbled up the bread.

Meandering through the woods, the children are eventually lead by a bird to a fantastic gingerbread house. A kindly old woman takes them in, feeds them heartily and tucks them into bed.

The next morning, however, she reveals her true nature. She’s a witch.  And she promptly throws Hansel into a cage, demanding that Gretel do all her cooking. The witch feeds Haensel daily, fattening him up like an animal for the slaughter. But Gretel is starved.

Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Carl Offter...

Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Carl Offterdinger via Wikipedia

To check on Hansel’s plumpness, the witch demands that he stick his finger out of the cage every day. One day, Hansel tricks her by sticking out a bone. Enraged at his apparent lack of progress, she orders Gretel to cook him right then and there.

Heating up the oven, Gretel pretends to have difficulty opening the oven door to check the temperature. The witch opens and enters the oven, and Gretel quickly slams and locks the door behind her, sealing her doom.

Gretel then releases Hansel and they trek home through the forest, crossing a river on the back of a duck. With the stepmother now dead, their father is delighted to see them again.

Writer Alison Jones suggests that the story conforms to a mythic cycle in which the ogre is consumed by his or her own technology (in this case, the fire) partly by his or her own stupidity and partly by the quick-wittedness of the hero or heroine. And from a Jungian perspective, the story illustrates how the intelligence of the conscious ego must be used to overcome the sometimes deceptive powers of the collective unconscious.

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Lévi-Strauss, Claude

Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005

Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005 by UNESCO/Michel Ravassard via Wikipedia

Claude Lévi-Strauss  (1908- ) was a Brussels-born French social anthropologist who was influenced by the pioneering sociologist, Emile Durkheim.

Levi-Strauss studied the kinship, ritual and myths of so-called primitive societies from the perspective of structuralism. He observed that the human mind uses language to classify cultural objects. And he believed that it does this in a series of binary classifications (e.g. black vs. white, hot vs. cold, raw vs. cooked, dead vs. alive).

All objects are understood in relation to other objects. For Lévi-Strauss this way of understanding outer reality mirrors fundamental structures within the the human mind.

Lévi-Strauss generalized a theory, one originally based on specific groups, to try to explain universal cultural patterns. This theory suggested that the so-called savage and civilized mind were essentially the same.

During his intellectual development he also asked whether the tendency to structure the environment came from inside (i.e. inherited brain structures) or outside (i.e. arbitrary social and cultural structures).

In contrast to John Locke’s tabula rasa, Lévi-Strauss came to see the external environment as an object classified according to innate mental structures. Lévi-Strauss believed that Freud’s theories contributed to a structuralist perspective because Freud tried to explain human history and psychology according to underlying laws.

In The Raw and the Cooked (1966) Lévi-Strauss suggests that music behaves like a mythology because both “appeal to mental structures that the different listeners have in common.”

His Mythologiques (1964-72) forwards the notion that a systematic order lies behind all forms of cultural expression. He has been critiqued for generalizing his own way of structuring data onto others. Also, contemporary psychiatry notes that individuals brains can differ significantly by the degree of differentiation for a given area or areas of the brain. Einstein, for instance, apparently had an unusually high degree of differentiation in the areas associated with abstract thinking.

So although Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist theories may be attractive to some who wish to simplify our complex world to simple binary oppositions, they’re really yesterday’s news, at best.

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