Thursday, January 6, 2011

3 in Folklore and Fairytales

Excerpted from The Trinity Secret by Marie Jones and Larry Flaxman

In Stores January 15th

Mystical and esoteric traditions often adopt the wisdom teachings of many ancient cultures, recognizing commonalities in symbols, archetypes, and images. Religions, major and minor, new and old, are often built upon the pagan beliefs that existed far before them. No matter where we turn we are greeted with the number 3 in some form or another, to the point that it has actually become a part of our language, and the way we understand wisdom and learn the lessons of our human-ness. We often do that through story, and nowhere is this more present—this power of the three—than in fairytales and folklore.

Why on earth were there three little pigs, and not four? Why were there three billy goats gruff crossing the troll bridge, and not two? Was there a reason that there were only three blind mice and not a whole slew of them?

It begins: Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. The first pig built a house of straw, the second a house of sticks, the third a house of bricks. Along comes the big bad wolf, who is hungry for some tasty pork. He blows down the first house and eats the first pig. He is still hungry, and blows down the second house, feasting upon the second pig. Still not satiated, the wolf goes to the third house, the house of bricks.

“Little pig, little pig, let me come in!”

“Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin!”

“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.”

Only the brick house won’t be moved, no matter how hard the wolf blows and huffs and puffs. He tries to trick the third pig out of his fortress, but the third pig eludes him each time. Eventually, the wolf decides to go down the chimney, determined to have pork for dessert, and instead, he ends up dropping into a pot of boiling water and becomes wolf stew for a very hungry pig.

This fairytale, which allegedly dates back to the 1840s in a book called Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Tales by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, has other variations where the first two pigs end up running out of their homes and to the third pig’s home for safety, although critics suggest this was a blatant later attempt to avoid the violence of the original version. Why such a violent and horrific story, and one labeled a “nursery rhyme” at that? Well, we can start with the common theme of a young one leaving home for the first time, and entering the big, bad world of danger, in order to become an adult.

An example of this comes from the pre-Christian Mithraism, a Roman mystery religion that was popular in every corner of the Roman Empire between the late second century BC to approximately 400 AD. This was the last pagan religion in Europe before Christianity took over, and many scholars equate the story of Mithras with many of the legends surrounding Christ. The spiritual and philosophical tenets of Mithraism closely parallel early Christian teachings, including the virgin birth of Mithras in a cave on December 25th, the same date later attached to the birth of Christ.

In one of the Mithrac fairlytales, called “Simorgh,” the hero, the young Prince Khorshid (Mithra), has no mother, but is the bravest of his three brothers, and beloved by the king. The story follows the prince as he encounters many challenges, and closely mirrors other Indo-European tripartite ideology found in many stories of heroes, Gods, Goddesses, demons, princes, and princesses—always in threes. They may be the three Brahman classes of priest, warrior, and producer; the three segments of Celtic society of Druid priests, Flaith warriors, and Boarig herders; or, as in the “Simorgh,” with a hero who will fight three demons or a beast with three heads or take on three challenges. Some scholars suggest this ideology has survived today in the use of three colors in the flags of many Indo-European nations, including France, Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Syria, Armenia, the UK, the United States, Lithuania, Afghanistan, and others.

But the use of the number 3 signifies something beyond just another “hero’s journey,” this time with pigs instead of science fiction heroes (a la Luke Skywalker). How about the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff? This Norwegian fairytale was included in a collection of stories called Norske Fokeeventyr, translated to English; Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe wrote the original version. The story starts out with three goats: a young, small goat; a medium-sized adult goat; and an older, bigger, and wiser goat. Often these goats are described as brothers, other times as child, father, and grandfather. The gist of the story is this: the first goat attempts to cross a bridge to find new grass to eat and get nice and fat. First goat crosses the bridge, but is stopped by the sound of a mean troll, who says “Click, clack, click, clack, who is that crossing my bridge?”

The first goat introduces himself, but the troll threatens in return to “gobble him up.” Cleverly, the first goat convinces the troll to hold off, for his bigger, meatier “brother” goat is coming. The troll, being greedy, agrees and lets the first goat cross. Along comes the second goat. He’s bigger, but the troll still throws out the same threat. The second goat talks the troll into waiting for the third goat, because he will be the meatiest yet. The troll lets him on by. Now comes the third goat—big, meaty, and tough. Up to the bridge he goes, and the troll once again threatens to gobble him up. The third goat will have none of it and tosses the little, ugly troll into the water, allowing all three goats to cross the bridge. The goats find a lush field of grass to feed upon, and the troll is taken downriver.

If you recall from your childhood, Jack climbs the beanstalk three times, the wicked stepmother pays a visit to the lovely Snow White three times before she causes her death, and Rumpelstiltskin spins three times for the beautiful princess and lets her guess his name three times, and Cinderella goes to the ball three times before striking gold with the prince.


And who can forget the three bears and Goldilocks? It’s the story of a small baby bear, a middle-sized mama bear, and a big daddy bear who go for a walk one day, only to come back to find some chick named Goldilocks has committed a home invasion and tried all of their chairs, beds, and oatmeal before being chased outside by three pissed-off bears. In the story, Goldilocks is never satisfied with the first two things she tries, and always settles on the third, whether it be the chair, the bed, or the oatmeal.

These stories don’t just resonate as lessons to be learned, but also as a means of pattern recognition whereby they become ingrained in our brains and our psyches. For maximum impact, whether in story, speech, or language, you absolutely must do it three times. Folk and fairytales often include a task or action the hero or heroine must do three times in order to achieve a particular goal. Not once, not twice, three times a lady—oh wait, sorry….


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