There is a story recently, and a long time ago, told of an Enchanted Princess.
A story in which a Good Man, with the blessing of his Father, leaves his home for the first time, destined one assumes, for his Great Adventure.
In his pocket he carries the small fortune bequeathed him by his family. As he walks out along the dusty road to ramble far from what is known and familiar to him, he finds, lying in the middle of his path, a Dead Man.
Well, thinks the Good Man to himself, I surely cannot simply leave him here like this.
He picks the Dead Man up, for the Good Man is also a Strong Man, and he carries him on his back. The Good Man carries the Dead Man until he might find someone who knows the Dead Man or who can help him. It’s a long way to carry a weight that is not attached to you in any way. The Good Man has no obligation to this Dead Man, he doesn’t know this Dead Man, but he feels a sense of duty towards him because he is after all, a Good Man. The Good Man takes the Dead Man to a village, and he asks
does anybody know this dead man? This man that I have found?
Every single person in that villages denies all knowledge of the Dead Man simply because they don’t want to have to make an effort, they don’t want to pay the money that it will cost to give this Dead Man a funeral. The Good Man feels the heaviness, not of the Dead Man he carries, but the heaviness of his own goodness and sense of duty. Well, what is he to do? What he does is give away all that he has, all his fortune, his own personal inheritance, his own personal ancestry, all this he gives to these strangers in a village, these strangers who don’t care. All so that this Dead Man that he has carried on his back, that he has no affiliation to, can be given a Good Burial. Well, the Dead Man probably does get buried, but he probably doesn’t get a Good Burial, for the villagers spend all the Good Man’s money on fine wines, fine foods, and fine merriment. They drain his Good Inheritance dry.
And so, the next day the Good Man staggers further along the dusty road from home, but no longer with a bequeathed fortune in his pockets. Instead, he has the spirit of the Dead Man walking alongside him, whispering to him. The Good Man cannot shake him off, by picking him up in the first place, he has indebted himself to this deadness. A well-known mythologist sees this as coming into alignment with an ancestral heritage, this may be so, but I do not believe that is always a good thing. By taking on this obligation, the Good Man forfeits his own ancestor’s gifts to him in exchange for carrying a lineage that is not his own. Being of Good Intentions does not always mean that the actions to follow are the right actions in the long run.
The Good Man does not turn back however, he continues on his road into the unknown with the Dead Man the constant invisible companion.
Soon, they both come to hear of a Princess held under a terrible spell, enchanted and helpless. Because we are sadly, in some circles at least, still peddling that trope of the woman who cannot think for herself.
But all is not lost!
Herald the proclamations.
Still, she can be saved!
Whosoever can answer her three questions will release her from this spell and win her hand in marriage!
Why three questions? Why do we see often see trios of tasks in stories? Because one is just lip service, an easy flippant thing without much thought. Two begins to focus our attention and opens the pathway, whereas three is to state our intention with clarity, with purpose of will, a promise made not undone.
As the Good Man nears the Palace, curious and encouraged by the Dead Man, he hears tell of all those Questers who have gone before him. All those Questers who died in the trying to defeat her, to answer her questions three and make her his bride (because this story is still stuck in hetero-normativity too).
The challenge was quite simple.
Answer the questions or die.
And all went willingly, unblinkered to their fates.
In Pre-patriarchal society, in sacred temples, a rite was often enacted, woman as goddess, as fertile land would mate until her appetite sated then kill her lover. To be the sacrifice, to submit to her in all ways, was not a burden but a great honour.
How many other stories have been corrupted from this perhaps original instruction?
I think of the Minotaur and the young men sent to slake its thirst, navigating the maze. Was Minotaur always a he? The Dark Feminine long buried, the red thread the wisdom of the menstrual blood later betrayed? The Minotaur is perhaps the story of a society on the cusp of change, just like this of the Enchanted Princess.
Each night, when another Quester had given his life, the ‘Enchanted Princess’ would gather up their spilled blood, the men slain I fancy with probably a ritual sword, and take it with her to the Mountain. The Mountain long seen in mythology and indigenous teachings as the place of great and holy wisdom. But not here, not in our mythologist’s telling at least. Here it is said she takes the blood to an Evil Mountain Spirit that on filling his belly with it goes on to greedily sexually devour the ‘Enchanted Princess’.
Or so we are told to think.
The ‘Enchanted Princess’ is said to fly up to the Evil Mountain Spirit in her sleep, therefore the implication is she does this unwillingly and without consenting, seduced under a cloud of dreaming, she is not culpable for her actions. Why would it be so difficult to see this in another way? What if, and hence my inverted commas when writing ‘Enchanted Princess’, she is not under a spell at all but a willing participant? What if she wants to be devoured sexually, what if she is intentionally choosing to engage in this ritual?
Why place a sense of primitive savagery and blanket assumptions of evil doings upon what may be a sacred act of communion between human and spirit?
But there is more!
The Dead Man now firmly attached to the Good Man, is able to grant the gift of wings upon the Good Man so he may secretly follow the ‘Enchanted Princess’ each night. There is no way to dress this up, the Good Man spies on the ‘Enchanted Princess’ and the ‘Evil’ Mountain Spirit. He follows her in her (shamanic) flight to the place of Spirit, hides himself away and watches all that transpires. And we are supposed to be okay with this because he is the ‘hero’ of the story after all. He is the Good Man let us not forget. And he is, I have no doubt that he believes himself to be doing good, there is no question of the potential purity of his motivations, but that does not in any way mean he is necessarily doing the right thing.
It is the Mountain Spirit who gives the Princess the questions to ask of each Questor.
Let me pause for a moment.
In many shamanic cultures the main underpinning of ritual life is the relationship between the shamanic practitioner and the spirits. This is thought by many to be the defining point of the practice. If the human is not in relationship with these other world beings (exactly what the spirit world is, is a long debate. I would recommend training in shamanic techniques with a reputable and experienced human teacher then ask the Spirits themselves), then they are not practicing shamanism but some other form of ceremonial and spiritual work.
As my human teacher Jonathan Horwitz often tells us “No Spirits, no Shaman.”
The shaman often journeys, or travels to the realm of the Spirits in an altered state of consciousness, there the shaman will ask for help, guidance, healings and teachings to take back to their community. The shaman will in turn take gifts to the Spirits, perform tasks for the Spirits. I hope you can see the connection between the role of the shaman and the actions of the ‘Enchanted Princess’ here. In an altered state (sleep) she travels to the Mountain Spirit. He gives her questions to take back to her community. Intimate relationships between human and spirit are not uncommon, inter-being marriages are often in place, these aspects of shamanic practice are simply not spoken about.
With this understanding, the sacrifice (interestingly the root meaning of this word is to make sacred) of the Questers, the giving of their blood to the Mountain Spirit shifts the underlying narrative from one of bloodthirsty evil doings to one of a complex exchange we can never fully know the true meaning of from the outside looking in.
Back to the story.
The very next day, the Good Man takes his turn as Quester and is of course able to answer all three of the questions posed by the Princess because of his spying on her and the Mountain Spirit. Thus, outwitting them, he wins the hand of the Princess, and promptly goes and kills the Mountain Spirit. All of this he does under the tutelage of the Dead Man. It is deemed that the Princess is thus rescued from her enchantment, the spell broken, and they can live happily ever after. Her connection with the Mountain Spirit is indeed severed but she is not rescued from an enchantment because she was never under one in the first place. The more I look at this story, the more I currently read it as a corrupted history and not a fairy tale. The missionaries taking their Good Word and Good Intentions to hidden Tribes People, the Explorers encountering old civilizations. But this is simply my thoughts around this story, you must of course make up your own mind.
There is more!
Before the Good Man and the Princess can have there happily ever after, the Dead Man tells him there is just one more thing he must do.
He must bathe her.
Or is that dunk her in water – witch trials anyone?
The Good Man must dunk the Princess in a bath of water until she turns into a Raven.
Continue to dunk her as she turns into a Dove, do not let her up even then.
When she is finally a woman once more, the Good Man may release her, safe in the knowledge that the Good Qualities of these two birds are now firmly held in the human form.
Or is he unwittingly trapping her in her Human Form? Removing all remaining vestiges of her shamanic self, her ability to shapeshift, to navigate between realms. He is a mortal man let’s not forget, who is he to bestow gifts of the Other upon her?
More likely, even with his Good Intentions, he is unwittingly removing these gifts from her. Just like that, the happy ending is forever lost from sight. The happiness was at the beginning of the story for both of them. Before the Good Man took up the burden of the Dead Man and gave away his birth right, when the Princess was in relation with the Spirits.
This is the thing, that jars, scratches, like a splinter that irritates your finger every time you try to do anything, the arrogance and the assumption that this is right.
I have another telling of this story yet.
We have established that maybe she is not enchanted, not under any spell but actually a shaman, travelling each night to the Spirit of the Mountain, an old, old spirit. And maybe it does demand blood, but she doesn’t do this unwittingly, she is servant, she is trying to repair the damage, to give back what has been taken. The Mountain Spirit becomes symbolic of a ravaged land. The blood is the blood we must shed for our continuing ignorance and desecration of sacredness. By spying on her, the Good Man is not committing a Good Act. He is perpetuating the cycle of dominance, of power over. The appropriating, colonising, ‘ancestor’ Dead Man continuing to whisper in his ear - the patriarchal continuing to whisper in his ear. This is a feminine who must be brought under his control, it tells us. She is not bewitched; she is a Priestess of the Sacred Mountain.
Make of that what you will.
She has done this her whole life, as has her mother before her and her mother before her. This is a tradition of trying to make right what has been set wrong. The Mountain Spirit does give her a question, but it is not because of trickery, this is not because of enchantment.
We could also say that none of this story is about the Princess and her needing rescuing.
It could be about the Good Man and his need of rescue. By not declaring himself, by not standing in front of the Mountain Spirit and saying here I am, by using false wings given to him by a false ancestor, he is sneaky.
There is no boldness, no courage here, it is subterfuge and dishonesty.
Maybe she likes the blood, maybe she likes the naughty, dirty sex with the Mountain Spirit. Maybe that is the true communion, the true marriage – woman and spirit. The deep receptivity of the feminine with the raw power of proper wildness, of the wild. Why can we not allow that? Why does that make us uncomfortable and nervous?
But there is one more thing that this story asks right now, of me at least - the question itself.
What if we are mishearing the idea of the questions, what if the aspects of the Quest are being misrepresented, like a story mistold?
What if there is a different, deeper teaching in these images that the Mountain Spirit places in her mind?
My apologies, I realise, I completely forgot to tell you!
The three questions!
The Quester is asked to guess what the Princess is thinking of and there are three tries at it. To return to the idea that she is a shaman practitioner bringing the wisdom of the Spirits to her Community, it could be she is asking if the Quester is able to fully receive, to see and understand that which she carries from the Spirit Realm. The whole thing then becomes initiatory.
Or even a school of shamanism admissions tests.
It could also be how the Good Man might be rescued. How the Good Man can drop away the false ancestry of the Dead Man and simply say I do not know, please help me to know. What if that is the right answer to the question? I do not know. Please help me to know. What kind of happy ever after would we have then?
Maybe I will leave it here with this idea.
When we place ourselves in the story as the Good Man wanting to save the ‘Enchanted Princess’, it is perhaps the Princess who is there to save us. When we stop, when we open to listen, how will the old old Mountain Spirit respond? What are we unlocking in ourselves and in the greater world when we as Good Man/Woman answer the three questions of what I am thinking with
I do not know.
Please help me to know.