Summer is over. Autumn is here. It is almost time for Halloween, Samhain, and Day of the Dead--the time when the barrier between the worlds grows thin and the dead can return. Myths and fairy tales are full of souls crossing back from the other side, or even the living going to the other side for one reason or another. Many of the dead have unfinished business on earth, which often involves benefiting those they have left behind. For instance, the head of the Goose Girl’s murdered horse, Falada, is still able to speak to his mistress and bear witness to the crimes committed against her by her handmaid. The king overhears Falada and investigates, and in the end, the Goose Girl takes her rightful place as the prince’s wife, and her scheming handmaid is punished. In "The Three Pennies" (which is included in Beyond the Glass Slipper, found HERE) a soldier pays a dead man’s debts to stop the man’s creditors from digging up his body. To acknowledge his gratitude, the dead man accompanies the soldier on his travels, only able to go to his eternal rest when he has brought about the soldier’s happily ever after of marrying a princess and settling down in a comfortable castle.
Sometimes though, the dead desire justice, possibly even revenge. In the English tale Binnorie, when a dead princess’s breast bone and hair are made into a harp, the harp sings the terrible story of the princess’s death in the presence of her sister—the murderer. This tale is similar to "The Singing Bone," in which the murdered younger brother’s bone becomes the mouthpiece to a shepherd’s horn and sings the story of the older brother’s treachery.
While some characters temporarily return from the dead through their own otherworldly magic, others experience a complete resurrection at the hands of the living. Snow White returns from the dead with a kiss from a prince, or the removal of the poisoned apple from her windpipe. The murdered brother in "The Juniper Tree" is able to come back to life after his sister properly buries his bones under the tree and he punishes his killer. While not officially declared dead, Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny likely did not survive being eaten by the wolf, so their reclamation from his belly by the woodsman is a resurrection of sorts. The heroine in "Fitcher’s Bird," on finding the body parts of her husband’s previous wives, puts them back together and returns them to life. Similarly, the Egyptian goddess Isis seeks out the scattered pieces of her husband Osiris, bringing him back to life so they can conceive an heir to take the throne.
Perhaps less common are the tales when the living visit the land of the dead. In Greek mythology, widowed Orpheus descends to the Underworld to beg that his beloved wife Eurydice be allowed to return with him to the surface. His request is conditionally granted; Eurydice can follow her husband to the surface if he does not look behind him until she is out of the underworld. Sadly, he looks back too soon, and he must return to the world of the living without her. In The Devil’s Sooty Brother, an out-of-work soldier agrees to serve the Devil in Hell for seven years. When the time is up, he returns to the world of the living to claim his rewards.
While most characters make a brief return from the dead, or come back for good, Persephone is an exception. Kidnapped to become the wife of Hades, Persephone spends half of every year as Queen of the Underworld, and half in the world of the living with her mother Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest. This story is one of my favorite expressions of the very human longing for the return of our beloved dead. Perhaps this is why myth and fairy tale characters have so many encounters with the dead. It’s just another way that fairy tales can satisfy our deepest wishes, even the ones that can never come true.
What are your favorite fairy tales featuring the dead? Join the Enchanted Conversation in the comments!
Illustration from "The Singing Bone."
Lissa Sloan's poems and short stories are published in Enchanted Conversation, Niteblade Magazine, Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus, and Frozen Fairy Tales. “Death in Winter,” Lissa's contribution to Frozen Fairy Tales, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit her online at her website, lissasloan.com, or on twitter: @LissaSloan.