Female initiation rites in fairytales - or, why the good mother has to die

Jo Austen

Gustav Klimt,  The Three   Ages of  Woman , 1905

Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of  Woman, 1905

From Cinderella to Baba Yaga, folk and fairy tales are full of young girls with dead mothers. And, as if this fate wasn’t punishing enough, a step-mother - with her own less than adorable daughter in tow – typically soon arrives. How did this become such an engrained motif? Why does the mother-daughter relationship need to experience such disruption?

These stories generally begin with the good mother dying. This encounter with death represents the daughter’s first initiation into darkness, resulting in her recognition of mortality. It is the start of puberty and adolescence. Girls discover that they cannot live in a protective cocoon forever, and the time has come to begin to develop their own ego identity, an identity fully separate from that of their mothers. It is time to learn the skills that will enable them to become fully rounded adults.

Although this is a traumatic time, the daughters in these stories are not left to fully fend for themselves. For example, in Cinderella, the mother, before dying, instructs the daughter to plant a tree on her grave (its uses becoming apparent later in the tale) and in Vasilisa the Beautiful, the dying mother gives her daughter a helpful doll. In other words, the good mother has not simply abandoned her daughter, but has considered ways to provide guidance at a distance.

 After some time, the step-mother arrives in the story. Morally, this woman is the opposite of the good-mother, with “beautiful features but proud, nasty and wicked hearts”, we are told (Grimm, first edition). Where the good-mother shows kindness and a nurturing spirit, this woman expects the daughter to work and be subjected to a time of drudgery. It is not too great a leap to see this as the teenage years deemed as ‘so unfair’ to the young protagonist. This period includes tasks that are seemingly impossible, or involve journeys from which the step (or shadow) mother clearly hopes the child will not return.

In Cinderella, Vasilisa and Mother Holle, the daughter endures a descent of some form. Cinderella is sent to the kitchen, which, we are led to understand, is dirty and separate from family life. Here, she must separate peas and lentils from the ashes in the fire. Meanwhile, Vasilisa is sent into the dark forest to fetch light from the fearsome Baba Yaga’s hut; and the daughter in Mother Holle must go to the well and collect water in a sieve (promptly, she falls in).

Marc Chagall,  Maternité , 1954

Marc Chagall, Maternité, 1954

Baba Yaga and Mother Holle become replacement mothers at this point, and give the girls yet more tasks. This can be seen as a change in their relationships with their original mother. The trials for the girls in all three stories contain a metaphorical mixture of learning to separate the good from the bad, as well as developing an understanding of the world through activities disguised as domestic house-keeping jobs (in Mother Holle, for example, airing a duvet and making the feathers fly, causes snow to fall in the land above).

On successful completion of the seemingly impossible tasks, there is a reward. Cinderella shakes the tree on her mother’s grave, and receives a dress enabling her to go to the ball. This is her ascent from darkness, her initiation into the world of adults.

Vasilisa is given the light, and thereby the resources she needs to find her way safely out of the dark forest. The daughter in Mother Holle is covered in gold and jewels and sent back up the well.

It is not until the end of these stories that we fully understand why these daughters are subjected to such suffering. The hapless step-sisters are there to demonstrate the consequences of a failed separation from the mother. These step-sisters have not lost their mothers; they are not expected to carry out menial or difficult chores. Rather, they remain pampered and spoiled, as small children. Once the good daughters have received their rewards, the step-mother looks to bypass the process and force similar riches on their own, woefully ill-prepared offspring. This, however, is met with dire consequences. The step-sisters in Cinderella have their feet disfigured in an attempt to force them into Cinderella’s lost shoe. Vasilisa’s sisters and mother, who have been living in darkness since she left, are burnt to ashes by Baba Yaga’s light - and the sister in Mother Holle, who refuses to carry out any work when arriving in the land at the bottom of the well, is covered in sticky coal on her return.

The good daughters are, ultimately, unscarred by their ordeals (any repressed trauma is presumably left for therapy sessions with the local wise woman). Sometimes they marry princes or wealthy merchants, but this is always a relatively marginal aspect of the stories; it's never the guiding focus of the plot. Cinderella doesn’t want to meet and marry a handsome prince - she merely wants to go to the ball.

In ‘dying’, the good mother has enabled a healthy separation between herself and her daughter, so that her daughter may progress. In the tales discussed here, the stepmother cannot do this for her own children. In this context, the stepmothers (and mother/stepmother in Snow White) can be read as cautionary tales for mothers who do not put their own daughter’s needs first, but instead find ways to prevent their maturation.


- J. Austen is an artist, writer, and vegan chef.