The Darker Side of Fairy Tales

I stole the blog title from a thread title on a forum. I’m shameless that way.

That particular thread tied in nicely with some research I’d recently read on baneful herbs. (I really am working on book number three in between tax returns.)

First, you have to remember that the Brothers Grimm didn’t write their tales, they collected them. These stories had been scaring kids for years before the Grimms published their first book in 1812. (Please read the Grimm versions, not the Disney ones. They’re not all happy & skippy, I promise.)

Remember SnowDrop (aka Snow White)? Her evil stepmother disguised herself as a farmer’s wife and delivered a poisoned apple. Snow took a bite of the apple, fell into a stupor & was kept in a glass coffin by the dwarfs, who thought her dead. She wasn’t revived until a prince kissed her.

That apple could very well have been inspired by what was known around Europe as the “Sleeping Apple”. It was “made with Opium, Mandrake, juice of Hemlock, seeds of Henbane; and adding a little musk to gain an easier reception from the smeller; these being made up into a ball, as big as a mans hand can hold, and often smelt to, gently close the eyes, and bind them with a deep sleep.” (Giambattista della Porta, Natural Magick, 1558.)

Such deep sleep could easily have happened handling those ingredients through transdermal intoxication. Imagine what would have happened taking a small bite of it!

And then there’s Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty). She falls into a deep sleep after pricking her finger on a spindle.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and going back to ancient Rome), poisoner was a profession! One of their weapons was the anello della morte (literally, “ring of the death”) or poison ring. These rings had a spike of some kind on them with a groove that held the poison. Clasp someone’s hand or simply manage to scratch the intended victim and the poison was delivered. In the 16th & 17th centuries, it was generally arsenic but Datura, Hemlock, Henbane, Mandrake and Opium were also favored. It’s not too difficult to make the leap from a ring with poisoned spikes to a pointy spindle and the deep sleep engendered by a properly prepared herbal potion.

(I’ve always wondered why Snow and Beauty didn’t die of dehydration or starvation before being awakened. Oh. My bad. It’s magic.)

So, there you have it. A couple of fairy tales possibly inspired by nasty herbs and even nastier people. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.