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Sleeping Beauties and Evolving Stories: A Cross-culteral Examination

Lethologica's picture

"The idea of the sleeper, of somebody hidden from mortal eye, waiting until the time shall ripen has always been dear to the folkly mind." This was said by P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, and  she did not say it without just cause. Throughout history, spanning different cultures, there are countless tales, myths and legends that fit comfortably into this model, providing ample example for her claim. There has been Brunhilde trapped, sleeping behind a wall of fire in Germany, King Arthur waiting, asleep on the mystical island of Avalon, the twelve golden knights sleeping in their grand hall in Sweden, and the three Tells in Switzerland, sleeping in their hidden cave, to name only a few. All of these stories share the same model: a powerful 'hero' figure, left in an enchanted sleep until such time as he (or she) is needed again by his (or her) people, or until such a time as he (or she) is freed from the spell. Beyond this model, though, is another particular brand of sleeper, found in children's fairy-tales. Characters such as Briar Rose, and Snow White are incredibly prolific in the fairy-tale genre, sleeping their ways though the climaxes of their stories all over the world. In fact, some of these myriad tales are so similar that it becomes possible to group them together as a single basic plot-line, allowing the curious reader to track a single lineage of story through ages and cultures.

There is one specific sleeping fairy-tale heroine who has managed to find herself resting in the literary traditions of a surprising number of diverse cultures. She is called Sleeping Beauty now in America, although she has also been given the proper name Aurora, and she has long since  traveled throughout the rest of the world. She has been called Sittukhan during the Islamic golden age in the Middle East, Talia in Renaissance Italy, simply ‘the princess’ in Renaissance France, and in 19th century Germany she was called Briar Rose. All of these sleepers, while from different parts of the world and different eras, have something in common, and that something is the backbone of their collective story. All four of these stories feature a beautiful young woman, usually of high standing, falling into a deep, preordained sleep after encountering either flax or the point of a spindle, and later being awoken by her 'one true love.' While all hold true to this basic story-line, the specific details of each story change from culture to culture and era to era, certain elements fading in and fading out of the collective storyline.

Of all of the varying tales, the one that shows the most difference in the details is the story of the delicate Sittukhan, who was so sensitive that even the scent of flax could kill her. Out of all of the sleeping beauties, this early sleeping beauty was the strongest in character and the most proactive, having a hand in her own fate. It is she who begs her mother to allow her to learn to spin flax, knowing the dangers, and it is she who cleverly manages to capture the heart and hand of the prince. While her beauty, which the author expounds upon quite a lot throughout the story, is what initially draws the prince to her, he does not immediately decide to take her home with him, and she has to actively cause him to pursue her with the help of a magical ring.

The next sleeping beauty, the noble Talia, meets her fate in much the same way as her predecessor: by getting a piece of flax stuck under her finger-nail, as had been predicted by a group of astrologers. She, however, is not so strong a character as Sittukhan, only awakening after a passing king rapes her in her sleep and she gives birth to his children. It is one of her twin children suckling on her finger, pulling the flax out from under her finger-nail that manages to wake her. Another great difference between this fairytale and the earlier one is the ending. While Sittukhan’s tale ends when she and her prince marry, Talia’s tale is much longer, encompassing a whole other story arc where the king’s wife (for he is already married) finds out about her husband’s adulterous liaison and for revenge steals Talia’s precious children and feeds them to him, then goes on to attempt to kill Talia. The happy ending comes about when king manages to save his lover, putting his wife to death instead, and they find out that the children had survived, having been saved by the cook.  

It is in the third fairytale in the lineage of the sleeping beauty that the reason for her swoon changes. The princess, unlike her two older incarnations, does not get flax under her finger nail, but rather pricks her finger with the spinning needle and falls into an enchanted sleep that had, like in the last tale, been predicted (this time by fairies). The princess’s reason for waking is also very different, a time limit having been put upon her curse, so that the sleep would only last one-hundred years. It was simply coincidence and good luck that that the brambles protecting her sleep had begun to shrivel and die so that the prince could be at her bedside when she awoke along with the rest of her court (who had all been put to sleep alongside her by a good fairy). Beyond these differences, however, this tale is surprisingly similar to it’s Italian incarnation. The plot-point of the two children reoccurs, as does the theme of cannibalism when the prince’s mother deigns to eat her grandchildren and daughter-in-law, who are once again saved by the palace official meant to kill them.

The fourth sleeping beauty, Briar Rose, preserved in her story the prick of the spinning wheel, and the one-hundred years of sleep, as well as the presence of the fairies. She is once again given many gifts of grace and beauty by these visiting fairies during her naming ceremony, and once again her great sleep is protected by thorns while the rest of her court sleep. The largest difference between this version of the sleeping beauty and the last is that it is significantly shorter, completely neglecting the second half of the tale that takes place after her marriage. Like the eldest of the four tales, the story closes with the simplest of ‘happily ever afters.’

These four stories are but a small sample of the wealth that the sleeping beauty lineage offers. This particular family tree is extensive, including stories from all over the world, some directly related to the four stories mentioned here, and some stories branching off to begin their own lines. These four stories, however, are so similar, and relate to each other in such a way that each tale may as well be a direct reincarnation of each previous tale, changing only a little between each story, but ending with a product that is vastly different from the first in the line. This process of reincarnation is a classical example of literary evolution, Sleeping Beauty's many lifetimes echoing the natural progression of evolution in all of their variations, as well as in all of their similarities.                         


Lethologica's picture


Works Cited

Ashliman, D. L. "Sleeping Hero Legends." Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. University of Pittsburgh. Web. Apr. 2011. <>.

Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, and Maria Tatar. "Briar Rose." The Annotated Brothers Grimm. New York: Norton, 2004. 232-39. Print.

"Sleeping Beauty." Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. Ed. D.L. Ashliman. University of Pittsburgh. Web. Apr. 2011. <>.