Max McDowell is a Jungian analyst who has been in private practice in New York for the past 24 years. Here he analyzes a fairy tale from Norway.
Tatterhood suggests how the feminine may be narcissistically injured around libido. The tale is unusually articulate about the repeated, cyclical processes by which the personality transforms itself when healing occurs.
Female figurine with pannier headdress from Harappa.. Baked clay. Harappa, Indus civilization, western south asia: 2600 to 1700 BCE.
Photograph: J. Mark Kenoyer. Copyright Harappa 1995-2001.
The tale in brief
A queen bewails that she has no children to scold and praise. She and the king take a foster-daughter who then meets a beggar girl: the two girls toss a golden apple back and forth. The queen tries to drive away the beggar girl, but the beggar girl's mother, given alcohol, tells the queen how to conceive.
The queen washes herself with two pails and throws the dirty water under her bed. One fair and one foul flower grow there and the queen eats them both (though told to eat only the pretty one).
The queen conceives twin girls. Tatterhood is born ugly, grasping a wooden spoon and riding on a goat. The younger twin is beautiful. The queen tries to shut Tatterhood away but the twins are inseparable.
On christmas witches and trolls celebrate noisily in the house but Tatterhood routs them with her wooden spoon. Meanwhile, against instructions, the queen leaves a door ajar. When her pretty daughter puts out her head, a witch whips it off and sticks on a calf's head.
Tatterhood makes the king give her a ship. She and her twin sail off without a crew to the witch's land. Tatterhood rides her goat to the witch's castle and seizes her sister's head. Tatterhood and her goat beat and butt the witches away and Tatterhood puts her sister's head back on her neck.
They sail to a distant kingdom. In the harbor Tatterhood thunders around the deck on her goat and makes the king come down to the ship. The king wants to marry the beautiful twin but Tatterhood demands that his son marry her, Tatterhood, at the same time.
The woeful prince is wordless as he rides beside her to the double wedding. When Tatterhood asks why, he says he knows not what to say. She tells him to ask why she rides an ugly goat, carries an ugly spoon, wears an ugly hood and has an ugly face. Each time he asks, the thing changes. He sees that she rides the finest horse, carries a dazzling silver wand, wears the brightest golden crown, and is the loveliest woman in all the world.
The prince finds his tongue and the two couples celebrate their wedding by feasting and drinking.
The full tale with interpretations
The queen is narcissitically injured
Once on a time there was a king and a queen who had no children, and that gave the queen much grief; she scarce had one happy hour. She was always bewailing and bemoaning herself, and saying how dull and lonesome it was in the palace.
'If we had children there'd be life enough,' she said.
Wherever she went in all her realm she found God's blessing in children, even in the vilest hut; and wherever she came she heard the Goodies scolding the bairns, and saying how they had done that and that wrong. All this the queen heard, and thought it would be so nice to do as other women did. At last the king and queen took into their palace a stranger lassie to rear up, that they might have her always with them, to love her if she did well, and scold her if she did wrong, like their own child.
In this story the kingdom is sterile. Since we understand fairytales as symbolic of psychological development, the kingdom suggests the overall personality. The story then functions like a dream, telling us why the personality is sterile and suggesting how it may heal.
The tale begins with the queen and we are tempted to assume that she represents a woman. But fairytales are about archetypes rather than people, so the queen represents the feminine archetype and the same is true for all the other feminine figures. The story is about developments within the feminine. Women are more likely to identify with the feminine than men but the feminine belongs to both sexes. For men and women the archetypal feminine is an unconscious potential which may develop as we mature. To interpret the tale as about women's issues would be to project universal issues onto women.
The queen is 'always bewailing and bemoaning herself and saying how lonesome and dull it was'.
Queen Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England, seated and holding a charter, 1380.
Matilda (1102-1169) was a benefactor of St Albans Abbey. From the Golden Book of St Albans by Thomas Walsingham and William de Wylum, St Albans, 1380. Reproduction artist: Alan Strayler.
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This suggests that the queen's self-absorbed attitude may be the problem: she is sad because she cannot 'scold the bairns … and do as other women did.' She is focussed on her own opportunities, her own posessions, rather than on the child whom she might love. A narcissistically injured mother is unable to love herself fully: she may compensate with self-gratification. Because her self-love is injured, her love of her child may also be injured. So the queen seems to have a narcissistic injury and this may the theme of the tale.
When the king and queen adopt a stranger lassie they 'love her if she did well and scold her if she did wrong'. This repeats and thus confirms the theme of narcissistic injury. The couple's love is conditional, that is, they only love her when she does things which gratify them. Such love will not help the girl to love herself fully; only some aspects of her are accepted while other aspects are punished and rejected. She will love parts of herself and despise the parts which her parents reject. She will not feel whole. Nor will her personality grow freely and spontaneously. In order to thrive she needs to be loved for all parts of herself, 'bad' as well as 'good', that is, she needs to be loved unconditionally.
So one day the little lassie whom they had taken as their own, ran down into the palace-yard, and was playing with a gold apple. Just then an old beggar wife came by, who had a little girl with her, and it wasn't long before the little lassie and the beggar's bairn were great friends, and began to play together, and to toss the gold apple about between them.
When the queen saw this, as she sat at a window in the palace, she tapped on the pane for her foster-daughter to come up. She went at once, but the beggar girl went up too; and as they went into the queen's bower, each held the other by the hand. Then the queen began to scold the little lady, and to say, 'You ought to be above running about and playing with a tattered beggar's brat.' And so she wanted to drive the lassie downstairs.
When narcissism is injured, self-love or self-esteem is split into grandiose and depressed poles. Grandiose self-esteem is unrealistically high, having no real limit. It includes fantasies of being emperor of the universe, or superman, or of winning the lottery. Depressed self-esteem is unrealistically, limitlessly low. A person feels like the worst person there ever was, like a worm or shit or garbage. The queen projects her own split self-esteem onto the two girls and wants to separate them, to keep her priviledged lassie and drive the beggar girl away. Thus she tries to identify with the grandiose pole and deny the depressed pole. But she cannot get rid of the beggar girl. Because the grandiose pole of self esteem is unrealistic it stimulates the depressed pole to make the overall picture more realistic; each unlimited extreme evokes its opposite.
The golden apple
The two girls (who represent the queen's split) are playing with a golden apple. Gold is the indestructible, 'perfect' metal of highest value, the goal of alchemical transformation. It suggests what Jung called the Self, that is, the irreducible core or center of the person which contains all potentials, all extremes, and which represents the possibility of the 'golden' mean, the middle way which integrates opposites.
An apple in this context recalls Eve's apple and hints that the queen's self esteem may be split over sexuality (this will be confirmed by later repetitions).
Eve and the Apple: after 1479.
Hugo van der Goes, 1436-1482. Vienna Diptych, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
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The single, golden apple suggests that the queen's self-esteem may become unified. That they toss the ball back and forth is an internal repetition which helps to confirm this: a split in self-esteem begins to heal when a person becomes conscious of the oscillation between the two extremes.
The beggar girl and her mother
'If the queen only knew my mother's power, she'd not drive me out,' said the little lassie; and when the queen asked what she meant more plainly, she told her how her mother could get her children if she chose. The queen wouldn't believe it, but the lassie held her own, and said every word of it was true, and bade the queen only to try and make her mother do it. So the queen sent the lassie down to fetch up her mother.
'Do you know what your daughter says?' asked the queen of the old woman, as soon as ever she came into the room.
No; the beggar wife knew nothing about it.
'Well, she says you can get me children if you will,' answered the queen.
'Queens shouldn't listen to beggar lassies' silly stories,' said the old wife, and strode out of the room.
Then the queen got angry, and wanted again to drive out the little lassie; but she declared it was true every word that she had said.
The beggar girl offers her own mother's cure for the queen's infertility, which means that the beggar girl posseses the key to the whole kingdom's problem.
When self-esteem is injured we devote much energy to defending ourselves, perhaps by repressing the negative self images, that is, by repeatedly pushing them out of awareness. In that case we are haunted by negative thoughts or images which come unbidden, making us wince until we suppress them again.
Or perhaps we use the more primitive defence of denial in which we split self-esteem, identify with the positive pole and dissociate from the negative pole so that it does not trouble us. We then project the negative esteem onto other people. This defence is more absolute than repression and it makes the personality more rigid. It makes us oblivious to our own or though it may be obvious to others.
Each of these defences distorts the personality, consumes psychic energy, and makes us unproductive. For each, growth may begin when we become conscious of the negative self-esteem we are defending against. That is why the despised beggar girl holds the key.
That she holds the key is another internal repetition which helps to confirm that this tale is about narcissistic injury. But note also that the beggar girl points to fertility.
'Let the queen only give my mother a drop to drink,' said the lassie. 'When she gets merry she'll soon find out a way to help you.'
The queen was ready to try this; so the beggar wife was fetched up again once more, and treated both with wine and mead as much as she chose; and so it was not long before her tongue began to wag. Then the queen came out again with the same question she had asked before.
Why does the beggar woman have to be bribed with alcohol before she will tell the queen what to do? Since she is member of a despised class, her wisdom is despised by the dominant culture as are 'old wives' tales' or fairytales. Wisdom exists in the realm of spirit; here the spiritual potential for healing is repressed or split off from the queen's consciousness. When Christianity became dominant in Europe, pagan gods were repressed until they became fairies and trolls and witches, that is, spirits not to be honored. Here alcohol diminishes consciousness and weakens repression thereby releasing pagan wisdom about fertility.
In the context of Christian Europe in which the feminine was devalued and repressed, this tale subverts dominant values and asserts a different psychological order.
'One way to help you perhaps I know,' said the beggar wife. 'Your Majesty must make them bring in two pails of water some evening before you go to bed. In each of them you must wash yourself, and afterwards throw away the water under the bed. When you look under the bed next morning, two flowers will have sprung up, one fair and one ugly. The fair one you must eat, the ugly one you must let stand; but mind you don't forget the last.'
That was what the beggar wife said.
Yes; the queen did what the beggar wife advised her to do. She had the water brought up in two pails, washed herself in them, and emptied them under the bed; and lo! when she looked under the bed next morning, there stood two flowers. One was ugly and foul, and had black leaves; but the other was so bright and fair, and lovely, she had never seen its like; so she ate it up at once. But the pretty flower tasted so sweet, that she couldn't help herself. She ate the other up too, for, she thought, 'It can't hurt or help one much either way, I'll be bound.'
Well, sure enough, after a while the queen was brought to bed. First of all, she had a girl who had a wooden spoon in her hand, and rode upon a goat; loathly and ugly she was, and the very moment she came into the world she bawled out 'Mamma.'
'If I'm your mamma,' said the queen, 'God give me grace to mend my ways.'
'Oh, don't be sorry,' said the girl, who rode on the goat, 'for one will soon come after me who is better looking.'
So, after a while, the queen had another girl, who was so fair and sweet, no one had ever set eyes on such a lovely child, and with her you may fancy the queen was very pleased.
The elder twin they called 'Tatterhood,' because she was always so ugly and ragged, and because she had a hood which hung about her ears in tatters. The queen could scarce bear to look at her, and the nurses tried to shut her up in a room by herself, but it was all no good; where the younger twin was, there she must also be, and no one could ever keep them apart.
The beggar woman tells the queen to wash herself with two pails of water and throw the washings under her bed. A bed is a place for sleep and for sex. In this image bodily 'dirt' (natural but commonly rejected psychological expressions of the body) is mingled with the ground under sleep (the unconscious images, feelings, and ideas which emerge as dreams during sleep) and the under sexuality (the unconscious psychological component of sex). Sleep and sex are imagined as a compost heap where formerly repressed psychological energy is transformed into new life.
Psychoanalysis understands sleep and sex in the same way. In dreaming a person delves deeper into the unconscious to develop a better relationship with his- or herself, while in sex a couple delve deeper together into the unconscious to develop a better relationship with themselves and with each other.
To dissolve her bodily dirt is to begin to discriminate or analyze her unconscious bodily issues. The two pails of water produce a 'fair' and an 'ugly' flower which suggests that the queen is bringing her split into consciousness.
The queen's hunger (another instinct) guided her to eat the ugly flower as well as the fair one, that is, to assimilate into consciousness aspects of herself which are normally rejected and repressed. Her split is then transformed to a new level of awareness in the form of Tatterhood and her beautiful sister whom no-one can separate. Because the split has been made more conscious it is beginning to heal.
Tatterhood's goat, the animal of Pan and Dionysius, suggests abandon and libido. Tatterhood is carried forward by goatish instincts. Tatterhood balances the pretty feminine by expessing the libidinous feminine.
Many cultures tend to infantilize the feminine as delicate and pretty - in our culture women are expected to shave their legs and underarms; we are more accustomed to think of men as goatish. In truth the goat represents libido in both men and women.
Photo: source unknown
Sex itself is yin rather than yang because it functions mostly in the unconscious rather than in consciousness, because it entangles people rather than enabling them to discriminate, and because it serves indiscriminate fertility rather than death.
Trolls and witches
Well, one Christmas eve, when they were half grown up, there rose such a frightful noise and clatter in the gallery outside the queen's bower. So Tatterhood asked what it was that dashed and crashed so out in the passage.
'Oh!' said the queen, 'it isn't worth asking about.'
But Tatterhood wouldn't give over till she found out all about it; and so the queen told her it was a pack of Trolls and witches who had come there to keep Christmas. So Tatterhood said she'd just go out and drive them away, and in spite of all they could say, and however much they begged and prayed her to let the Trolls alone, she must and would go out to drive the witches off; but she begged the queen to mind and keep all the doors close shut, so that not one of them came so much as the least bit ajar. Having said this, off she went with her wooden spoon, and began to hunt and sweep away the hags; and all this while there was such a pother out in the gallery, the like of it was never heard. The whole palace creaked and groaned as if every joint and beam were going to be torn out of its place.
Now, how it was, I'm sure I can't tell; but somehow or other one door did get the least bit ajar. Then her twin sister just peeped out to see how things were going with Tatterhood, and put her head a tiny bit through the opening. But, POP! up came and old witch, and whipped off her head, and stuck a calf's head on her shoulders instead; and so the princess ran back into the room on all fours, and began to 'moo' like a calf. When Tatterhood came back and saw her sister, she scolded them all round, and was very angry because they hadn't kept better watch, and asked them what they thought of their heedlessness now, when her sister was turned into a calf.
'But still I'll see if I can't set her free,' she said.
Le champion des dames (detail), 1451.
Martin Le France (1410-1461), Public domain. From: W. Schild: Die Maleficia der Hexenleut, 1997.
Trolls and witches represent the repressed or split-off feminine, in this context probably unconscious libido (witches fly through the air with a hairy broomstick between their legs). They have come to the house to celebrate christmas. Jung has shown, for example in Aion, that Christ can be understood as a symbol of the Self and the birth of Christ as the birth of the Self, that is, as a new manifestation of the psyche's potential unity. This is another internal repetition, an image of healing a split by integrating that which is unconscious.
Tatterhood discriminates the unconscious (by fighting the trolls and witches) and thus reclaims it for consciousness. Her wooden spoon which later becomes a beautiful wand is both feminine (cup shaped) and phallic and she wields it as a potent club. The feminine is thus portrayed not only as receptive but also about assertion and dominance.
This helps to explain why the feminine and sexuality tends to be devalued in a male-dominated society. It also helps to explain the meaning of a dominatrix: she expresses an aspect of women's psychological wholeness which tends to be denied by the collective.
Notice that, though her spoon is phallic, it is not cutting and death-dealing like a sword or knife. This power in the hands of the feminine is life-affirming.
The theme of the story may seem to have shifted from narcissistic injury. But the tale is more unified than it may seem. It follows an analytic path by beginning with the queen's narcissistic or and then going into depth to find its cause. The story suggests that the denial of the our libidinous nature is a narcissistic injury.
Because she is not allowed to embrace her own goatish self a woman's self-love may be displaced into a narcissistic preoccupation with her own beauty.
Because Tatterhood's family (the collective) is not conscious enough to safeguard the pretty daughter, she loses her head to the trolls. So it is when we confront the unconscious; there are many confusions before it can be integrated.
Then she asked the king for a ship in full trim, and well fitted with stores; but captain and sailors she wouldn't have. No, she would sail away with her sister all alone; and as there was no holding her back, at last they let her have her own way.
Then Tatterhood sailed off, and steered her ship right under the land where the witches dwelt, and when she came to the landing place, she told her sister to stay quite still on board the ship; but she herself rode on her goat up to the witch's castle.
When she got there, one of the windows in the gallery was open, and there she saw her sister's head hung up on the window frame; she she leapt her goat through the window into the gallery, snapped up the head, and set off with it. After her came the witches to try to get the head again, and they flocked about her as thick as a swarm of bees or a nest of ants; but the goat snorted and puffed, and butted with his horns, and Tatterhood beat and banged them about with her wooden spoon; and so the pack of witches had to give it up.
So Tatterhood got back to her ship, took the calf's head off her sister, and put her own on again, and then she became a girl as she had been before. After that she sailed a long, long way, to a strange king's realm.
Tatterhood demands a ship and crews it with her sister. In sailing, Jung pointed out, natural spirit (the wind) is both respected and harnessed by human-made ego strengths (sail, keel, rudder) as an individual traverses feelings (water) and the collective unconscious (the ocean) on a path which includes many reversals. Sailing is a vivid metaphor for the individuation journey, the process by which an individual develops a more constructive relationship with the unconscious and its potentials. Tatterhood's ship shows that her story is a feminine version of the Odyssey. This in turn highlights the differences: how does a feminine individuation journey differ from a masculine journey? Part of the answer lies with the goat.
Tatterhood rescues her sister by riding her goat and thunders around the deck of her ship on her galloping goat which suggests that her individuation journey is driven by libido. Other fairy stories of a feminine journey tend to include the development of libido (see How hinauri found her second husband and Rona long-teeth on this web site).
If the split in libido causes an injury to self-esteem, then it makes sense that a person might heal in part by claiming his or her libido.
The double wedding
Now the king of that land was a widower, and had an only son. So when he saw the strange sail, he sent messengers down to the strand to find out whence it came, and who owned it; but when the king's men came down there, they saw never a living soul on board but Tatterhood, and there she was, riding round and round the deck on her goat at full speed, till her elf locks streamed again in the wind. The folk from the palace were all amazed at this sight, and asked were there not more on board. Yes, there were; she had a sister with her, said Tatterhood. Her, too, they wanted to see, but Tatterhood said 'No.'
'No one shall see her, unless the king comes himself,' she said, and so she began to gallop about on her goat till the deck thundered again.
So when the servant got back to the palace, and told what they had seen and heard down at the ship, the king was for setting out at once, that he might see the lassie that rode on the goat. When he got down, Tatterhood led out her sister, and she was so fair and gentle, the king fell over head and ears in love with her as he stood. He brought them both back with him to the palace, and wanted to have the sister for his queen; but Tatterhood said 'No': the king couldn't have her in any way, unless the king's son chose to have Tatterhood.
That you may fancy the prince was very loath to do, such an ugly hussy as Tatterhood was; but at last the king and all the others in the palace talked him over, and he yielded, giving his word to take her for his queen; but it went sore against the grain, and he was a doleful man.
Now they set about the wedding, both with brewing and baking, and when all was ready they were to go to church; but the prince thought it the weariest churching he had ever had in all his life. First, the king drove off with his bride, and she was so lovely and so grand, all the people stopped to look after her all along the road, and they stared at her till she was out of sight. After them came the prince on horseback by the side of Tatterhood, who trotted along on her goat with her wooden spoon in her fist, and to look at him, it was more like going to a burial than a wedding, and that his own; so sorrowful he seemed, and with never a word to say.
Tatterhood insists that the king and his son must accept both the fair and the ugly sides of the feminine if they are to marry.
Making the prince use words; Intersubjectivity
'Why don't you talk?' asked Tatterhood, when they had ridden a bit.
'Why, what should I talk about?' answered the prince.
'Well, you might at least ask me why I ride upon this ugly goat,' said Tatterhood.
'Why do you ride on that ugly goat?' asked the prince.
'Is it an ugly goat? why, it's the grandest horse a bride ever rode on,' answered Tatterhood; and in a trice the goat became a horse, and that the finest the prince had ever set eyes on.
Then they rode on again a bit, but the prince was just as woeful as before, and couldn't get a word out. So Tatterhood asked him again why he didn't talk, and when the prince answered, he didn't know what to talk about, she said, 'You can at least ask me why I ride with this ugly spoon in my fist.'
'Why do you ride with that ugly spoon?' asked the prince.
'Is it an ugly spoon? why, it's the loveliest silver wand a bride ever bore,' said Tatterhood; and in a trice it became a silver wand, so dazzling bright, the sunbeams glistened from it.
So they rode on another bit, but the prince was just as sorrowful, and said never a word. In a little while Tatterhood asked him again why he didn't talk, and she bade him ask why she wore that ugly grey hood on her head.
'Why do you wear that ugly grey hood on your head?' asked the prince.
'Is it an ugly hood? why, it's the brightest golden crown a bride ever wore, answered Tatterhood, and it became a crown on the spot.
Now they rode on a long while again, and the prince was so woeful that he sat without sound or speech, just as before. So his bride asked him again why he didn't talk and bade him ask now why her face was so ugly and ashen-grey?
'Ah!' asked the prince, 'why is your face so ugly and ashen-grey?'
'I ugly?' said the bride. 'You think my sister pretty, but I am ten times prettier'; and lo! when the prince looked at her, she was so lovely he thought there never was so lovely a woman in all the world. After that, I shouldn't wonder if the prince found his tongue, and no longer rode along hanging down his head.
Still riding her goat, Tatterhood makes the king's son name her "ugly" features.
Here the tale focuses on psychology and shows how therapy heals. The language emphasizes the prince's feelings ("loath to do... sore against the grain... sorrowful... he thought it the weariest... a funeral and that his own... doleful... woeful") and perceptions ("ugly"). Tatterhood repeatedly asks about his interior state and goads him to express how he sees her. Each time he does so, she helps him to see her differently.
Intersubjectivity represents a new recognition in psychoanalysis, that we co-create our psychological world in dialogue with others. In therapy an intersubjective field is created which, we hope, is more flexible, accepting, and enlivening than intersubjective fields in the patient's past. This medieval tale says explicitly that Tatterhood and the prince co-create new perceptions within an intersubjective field.
We can also understand this dialogue as a woman's interior development (perhaps catalyzed by an intersubjective analysis). To use Jung's language, consciousness is yang and the prince, a new generation of yang, suggests new consciousness. Consciousness has seen sexuality as ugly. Tatterhood helps it to own that perception and put it into words. Then Tatterhood (who represents the assertive, discriminating aspect of the feminine) helps consciousness to see the beauty of libido. Tatterhood and the prince can marry joyfully.
Illumination: source unknown.
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So they drank the bridal cup both deep and long, and, after that, both prince and king set out with their brides to the princess's father's palace, and there they had another bridal feast, and drank anew, both deep and long.
There was no end to the fun; and, if you make haste and run to the king's palace, I dare say you'll find there's still a drop of the bridal ale left for you.
The tale ends with the king and his son marrying the two sisters, which forms a quaternity, a symbol of completion and unity (another internal repetition). Consciousness and the feminine embrace as equals and the personality is fertile.