I often talk about the importance of understanding stories, culture and history as a key to understanding art and films. It gives you a firm grounding to use applied knowledge and link subjects together that are comparable. Folk/fairy stories serve a purpose to deliver a moral and to entertain. Many of the tales we tell today are really just stories that have been rewritten or vocally passed around over hundreds of years.
As a kid, I loved the Brothers Grimm, but not the “everything ends happily ever after” versions, but the gory and twisted tales; so, as lockdown is hampering my usual trips which strike inspiration, I thought I would visit these stories again, breaking down the moral and background. As we know film makers love to get their hands on these stories and always seem to lose their way in either trying to make them scarier (like they needed to) or people like Disney grab hold of them and put their stock story making skills over the top so we see the usual format of girl meets boy, they don’t get on, then they do get on, something horrible happens and boy saves girls and they all live a long and seemingly happy life.
I am not really sure why I picked Rapunzel first, it is certainly not my favourite, but there is a true story that lays behind this children’s tale which is led to Rapunzel (or Barbara) being made a saint.
Way before the Brothers Grimm wrote down this story in 1857, it was documented by Giambattista Basile in the 1600s, but the story can be traced back to the 12th century. Before I get into the story of Barbara, let’s go through the dark tale of Rapunzel.
A couple had been trying for a child for some time, so when they found they had conceived they were overjoyed. As the pregnancy went on the wife got a great craving for rampion (this is a plant whose leaves are eaten much like spinach, and a root a bit like parsnip). The husband tried to get this everywhere, but the only place he could find it was in his neighbours garden. He took to harvesting from his neighbours garden at night, because she was a bitter and twisted old hag, who was thought to be a witch.
The witch noticed that her rampion was diminishing, so one evening took to watching her garden, only to find her neighbour creeping over the wall to collect it. Confronting him, the witch questioned what he was doing. The husband explained about the pregnancy and his wife’s craving, and the witch said – you can take as much rampion as you like, but I will have your child once it is born as it has been fed from my garden (goodness knows why he agreed to this).
On the day the child was born, the witch came to collect the child, and took her to a high tower far away from the village where she had been born. The witch named the child Rapunzel. The tower had no doors and only one window, so Rapunzel could never leave (luckily the witch could magic herself into the tower). As the girl grew up, the witch and Rapunzel had a fairly loving relationship. Rapunzel’s hair grew and grew and was like golden flax, which the witch would brush for her. As her hair grew, the witch took to climbing up her hair to get in to the tower rather than using her magic.
While the witch proved some form of company for Rapunzel, she had never seen or spoken to another living soul. She would watch the land around her tower but felt ultimate loneliness and isolation.
One day she saw someone riding by on a horse. Seeing the tower he came over to investigate it. As he stood below the window, Rapunzel threw down her hair, and he climbed up it. He told Rapunzel that he was a prince. They sat and talked, as the prince left he promised he would be back the next day.
The prince visited regularly, each time he visited calling out to her “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair”. Eventually the prince managed to seduce Rapunzel, and she fell pregnant.
One day while the witch was visiting, Rapunzel asked her why it took her so long to climb her hair, when the prince can climb it so quickly. The witch flew into a rage, realising that Rapunzel had been letting the prince into see her. The witch cut off Rapunzel’s hair and cast her out into the wastelands.
The witch then fixed Rapunzel’s hair to hooks by the window and waited for the prince. When he called out for Rapunzel to let down her hair, the witch threw it down, waiting at the window. When he reached the top, the witch pushed him off of the tower, and the prince fell into the thorny brambles which surrounded the tower. While he survived the fall, both eyes had been damaged by thorns leaving him blind.
The prince wandered the woods for years, crying and lamenting, living on berries and roots. Meanwhile, Rapunzel had set up home in the wastelands and delivered twins.
One day, she heard something shuffling outside her home, looking out she saw her prince from years earlier, and she rushed out to help him. As she got to him, she hugged him, crying, two of her tears fell into his eyes, which made him regain his sight. The couple lived in the little home in the wastelands with their children forever more.
I mean, this is really a story of kidnapping coupled with Stockholm syndrome. While we are led to believe the prince is a saviour in this, he actually sounds like a bit of a creep, taking advantage of a woman who has never seen a man before, let alone know what a prince is or if he just happened to be the local pizza delivery guy.
So…how does this compare to the story of Barbara who became a saint? The picture I chose for this article is one that is now housed in the Sheffield Museum, it shows a woman holding a tower with three windows, and a length of hair out of the window.
Barbara was a beautiful but outspoken young woman. She had queues of suitors lining up to meet her, which worried her father, so much so that he said that no suitor could meet her without an interview. Barbara was having none of this. She argued with her father that she had free will and should be able to marry who she pleased. With her continual disobedience, the father had no choice but to commission people to build a tower that his daughter would be kept in while he travelled for work.
As the tower was built, Barbara was kept on varying levels, and people would bring her essentials of food and get the to her via a basket that she would lower out of the tower. Barbara had been bought up pagan, but one day someone popped a book in with her food delivery which explained what Christianity was. Considering how bored and isolated Barbara was, it was hardly surprising that she was impressed by the thought of a higher being and took to Christian worship.
The tower that Barbara was being kept in required some renovations, and the work men took pity on her, allowing her out of the tower to walk around her father’s gardens and talk with them. She managed to convince the men to build three windows into the tower rather than two, to represent the father, the son and the holy ghost. They did this despite knowing that it would infuriate her father (one can only think she used her feminine charms to get her way). She also managed to convince one of the work men to sneak in a priest to the tower to christen her, under the guise of a doctor. She was now a fully fledged Christian. While this doesn’t sound like a big to do, this was the equivalent of a teenage rebellion for the time. This broke all the laws within her area and probably did it just to spite her father for locking her in a tower.
On one of her visits to her father’s garden, Barbara smashed all of his pagan statues in an act of defiance, and word spread around about her new found belief.
Her father, eventually returning home, expecting to see his beautiful daughter in her tower, found his gardens destroyed and the tower not built to his specification. On finding out that his daughter had turned to Christianity, he promptly handed her over to the authorities.
Barbara was heavily tortured, she was tied to a stake and her flesh sliced open and then salt poured on to her. She refused to renounce christianity and this shocking display ended with her father cutting her head off.
The torture of Saint Barbara – Wilhelm Kalteysen
Now, you can’t just become a saint just by defending the faith, so it was said that Saint Babs performed the miracle of flight as her father tried to attack her in her tower, and she was later handed back to him by a shepherd. One does wonder, why if she could fly, she didn’t escape the tower earlier.
Barbara was then attributed with 12 other miracles, one of which was producing lightening on her death, which struck and instantly killed her father. She is the patron of miners, tunnellers, armourers, military engineers, gunsmiths, and anyone else who worked with cannon and explosives, She is invoked against thunder and lightning and all accidents arising from explosions of gunpowder. She became the patron saint of artillerymen.
I can hear you asking… What about the hair? There is no mention of it in this story. Well…this seems to have links to a Persian story of two lovers from rival families (a bit like Romeo and Juliet) who would use a tower to meet. She would let down her hair to indicate she was in the tower and waiting. Ultimately she falls pregnant out of wedlock, and the parents are obviously not too happy with this, but a fortune teller reveals if the families let them have the child he is destined to achieve amazing things and even conquer the planet. Their baby ended up being so large, that the women is in tremendous pain during labour. According to the legend, the father was given a magic feather that he could pass over the woman’s stomach and perform and cesarean section without using a knife. They gave birth to a legendary son who ruled for some 300 years and fought demons on epic quests.
The stories are crazy, but so much more interesting that Disney will have you believing.
What do you think of the stories about Rapunzel? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?