November 21, 2017

A Consideration of Fairy Tales in Context of Memento Mori by Kiyomi A. Gaines

Memento mori were objects common in Medieval Europe, through the Victorian era, designed to remind one of death, and perhaps, relieve anxiety or guilt over good fortune, since many were luxury items. Although we now talk about stories being sweetened with bloodless conflict and happily-ever-afters, in the early-modern era virtue might be added to otherwise frivolous entertainment by invoking Death.

The shape of memento mori changed over time; however, whether painting, performance, or ornament, their function remained static. They were intended to remind individuals of the fleeting nature of life, of physical decay and anonymity, and the importance of living a good life. Depictions were intentionally general, designed such that anyone should be able to put themselves into the position of the dead and dying. In the Danse Macabre, we see everyone from pope and prince, to humble pauper and children, following Death. Memento mori objects typically feature one side representing the fullness of life, and the other, a grinning skull; or skeletal remains hidden within opulent jewelry. In memento mori poetry, there is a reflection on joy, the reminder and fear of death, and ultimate reassurance that all will be well, so long as one has lived rightly according to the Church.

Fairy tales contain information about how to live; many traditional fairy tales center on the themes of women's lives, making hearth and home, old women's wisdom, spinning and weaving, picking a husband. As much as they convey about how to manage life, they also convey the harsher realities of illness and privation, hunger, cold, abuse, and death.

Though it's not likely that death was added after the fact to "clean up" a story, the presence of death would have made these stories more palatable forms of entertainment. Particularly since so many of these stories center around young women who, while good, modest, and obedient, are also courageous, strong, and independent. Young women are reminded at their mother's side as they learn women's work, of the consequences of straying beyond a woman's place. Like memento mori, fairy tale heroes are unspecific, inviting personal identification.

Although we can't date these stories in their origins, the earliest written version of Sleeping Beauty is from the 1300s. Memento mori were common throughout Europe from about the 14th century as well; both swelling in popularity during the Victorian era, before dropping off.

I consider two tales in the context of memento mori, as concurrent systems of transmission on how to live a good life: Snow White (ATU 709) and Sleeping Beauty(ATU 410).

Both stories begin with a young woman longing to be a mother. She prays for a child and her prayer is answered in the form of a beautiful daughter. This child grows in beauty and grace, and the mother dies, or is otherwise removed from the story. A malevolent female force envies the young woman, and using the tools of women's life, causes her to fall into a deep sleep that resembles death.

While the young woman never undergoes decay, her apparent death brings about a significant pause in the action taking place amidst circumstances of relative privilege, and the young woman's faithful pursuit of those traditionally prescribed womanly duties. Notably, death does not come only to the wicked or old, but the young and pure of heart. The young woman is then awoken by a kiss (or her nursing children) and takes on her prescribed role in society as wife and mother.

Memento mori combine the freshness of youthful life with the ravages of death in a shared transmission, enjoining one to right living, much as these tales do. In this context, fairy tales can be seen as continuing and supporting similar themes and reinforcing these structures. Perault often explicitly assigned such motives to his stories, and the very morbidity of certain tales may have served as their redeeming grace. Thus, fairy tales may also be understood, in the context of memento mori, to serve for early-modern listeners as reminders of the fleetingness of life, and the importance of holding to prescribed social mores and expectations in order to live a good life, and to assure a good afterlife.

These old stories have often been retold in many ways, reshaped and reinterpreted by their tellers, and listeners, and the times in which they are told. Rather than making any telling "wrong," that growth and evolution give each story life, lending us a living canon of old wisdom and wonder.

Kiyomi Appleton Gaines loves folklore and fairy tales for what they teach us about what it means to be human.  Her writing can be found at  She lives in New Orleans with her husband, and two fish.

1 comment:

Guy S. Ricketts said...

I never realized there was such deep meaning in stories like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. What I thought was mere plot twist in those stories turns out to be prime examples of an age old philosophy designed to aid in enjoying the finite gift of life - the Memento Mori. How much more productive and active a person is when one understands how finite life is. How it strikes the young and old alike. How life and death are tied together. How much more one relishes the time allowed. Thank you for sharing this wisdom and ideal behind Memento Mori, Kyomi. Very interesting!