Friday, 24 October 2008

The Thirteenth Fairy

Sleeping Beauty by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
(died 1898) from the 'Briar Rose' series
The story of Sleeping Beauty "La belle au Bois dormant" The Beauty asleep in the woods. First published by Charles Perrault in 1697.

This story has always fascinated me - there are many versions so I have decided to use the one from my memory of childhood stories: Once upon a time .........

There was a king and queen who, overjoyed at the birth a long awaited baby daughter, held a feast to celebrate the baby's christening. They invited twelve good fairies to the banquet but forgot to invite the oldest thirteenth fairy. The thirteenth fairy arrived as an uninvited guest and burst in on the banquet in great agitation and anger at being overlooked; for she had once been the wisest and fairest of all. Eleven of the fairies had already bestowed their gifts to the baby girl - beauty, grace, wisdom, sweetness of nature - when the thirteenth fairy cast her malevolent spell, that at the age of fifteen the princess would prick her figure on a poisoned spindle and die. The twelfth fairy had not yet given her gift and though did not have the power to undo this dreadful prophecy she changed it so the baby princess would not die but sleep behind a forest of briars for a 100 years until she was woken by the kiss of a prince.

I'm not really intrigued by the prince's kiss - far more interesting is where the idea of the wicked thirteenth fairy came from and why 13 is considered unlucky. Is it a metaphor for the thirteenth ogham (or lunar) month which is represented by the magical elder tree and is symbolic of the dying of the old year? This would of course also be symbolic of the old pagan ways that preceded the coming of Christianity. To this day wiccans meet in covens of thirteen. Superstition has always been used as a weapon against old wisdoms.
The ancient Egyptians considered 13 to bring good luck. They believed there were 12 steps on the ladder of eternal life. To take the 13th step meant going through death into immortality or everlasting life.
Rather than being unlucky therefore - consider 13 a beneficial and significant number, perhaps the reason why in times gone by the 'baker's dozen' was always thirteen loaves.