This season has brought two new TV shows based on fairy tales--ABC's Once Upon a Time and NBC's Grimm. Both shows are very popular. What might lie behind this sudden explosion of interest in fairy tales? What I want to flesh out in this piece is the way in which a remnant of shamanic consciousness is held by both these shows.
First a little background of the plot for each show. Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
Once Upon a Time is a contemporary retelling of classic fairytales like Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood.* There's a twist. In this version, the Evil Queen (Regina) has cast a dark spell, banishing all of these characters from their magical world to our ours. In the process our fairytale heroes and heroines have forgotten their true identities. They now live in Storybrooke, Maine. Regina is the mayor, ruling the small town with an iron grip. Regina--along with the magician Rumpelstiltskin (aka Mr. Gold)--are the only ones who remember their true identities.
The Mayor's adopted son Henry knows who everyone is. He has a magic book, detailing the stories of these characters' lives. Henry attempts to convince these characters of their true identities in order to overthrow his mother. The fabled characters become rather ordinary figures in small town life. Snow White is a teacher in the local elementary school. Jimney Cricket is the town psychologist.
In the pilot of the show, Henry escapes from his home to find his birthmother, Emma Swan. Emma ends up moving to Storybrooke, as she is emotionally drawn to connect with her estranged biological son. While she remains unconvinced of Henry's fantastical story of evil spells and forgotten magical identities, Emma comes to loathe the Mayor and seeks to undermine her authority.
While Once Upon a Time is a more psychological character study, Grimm is a decidedly darker, more macabre show. It follows Dt. Nick Burkhardt. Nick learns in the first episode that he's one of the last of the line of Grimms. The Grimms are humans who have a special capacity to detect the existence of all manner of dastardly creatures living among us. This short video gives a good feel for the show.
The idea is that the Brothers Grimm were not simply storytellers but ancient monster hunters. Their stories are not tall tales but rather accounts of their detection and hunting of creaturely beings. Each episode begins with a quotation from one of the Grimm Brothers stories. Nick creates a strange friendship/alliance with a Blutboten (i.e. a Werewolf) named Monroe, who has renounced his destructive ways and aids Nick in the location and understanding of the monster world. The show is set in Portland. The rain, the clouds, and old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest work as a perfect eerie backdrop. Monroe helps Nick learn there's an ecology of wesen (creatures)--some get along with each other, some hate each other. Some are the playboys of the creature world, others the errand runners, some loners, others social. Burkhardt fights creature versions of bees, bears, goats, vultures, and spiders among others.
These shows have drawn comparisons to each other for drawing their inspiration from fairytales (Disney vs. Grimm Bros.). But I want to focus on a neglected aspect of their commonality--the way in which both shows harken back to the ancient spirituality of shamanism.
Shamanism is the most primal of human spiritualities. It's the first great form of mysticism to appear in humanity. A number of classic shamanism themes appear in both these shows. We'll examine each in turn.
The Three Worlds
Shamanism, the world over, whether of the Siberian tundra or the South American Rainforest described three realms of existence: the lower world, the middle world, and the upper world.
The central practice of shamanism is journeying. One journeys through an ecstatic state to these worlds. The great religious scholar Mircea Eliade subtitled his magisterial book on Shamanism, Archaic Techniques for Ecstasy (ecstasy meaning literally "out of oneself"). Shamans employ various technologies to make ecstatic journeys: chanting, drumming, dance, fasting, all night vigils, or the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants. Shamanic practice can be done individually or communally.
Shamans may journey for various reasons: e.g. to learn the nature of an illness or a negative spirit harming a person, to meet one's spirit guide, to learn the esoteric wisdom of various plants.
Each of the three worlds has certain characteristics and this is where our connection with the shows begins to come into play.
In shamanism the lower world is a world of healing, restoration, and peace. In many ways it is the antithesis of the hell realm described in Judeo-Christian traditions. A shaman learns to travel to this world and here meets his/her animal guide, as well as protective spirits.
The world of fairytales, like in Once Upon a Time, is what the shamans call the lower world. There are talking creatures, magical lands, princes and princesses, justice in the land, and so on. There are certainly adversaries and so on, but by and large it is a healing place.
"Once upon a time in a far away land." That faraway land isn't literally far away but rather requires a shamanic journey. It is only accessible, as the shamanic scholar and practicioner Dr. Michael Harner says, through entrance into the non-ordinary state of consciousness.
The upper world of shamanism accords to what we would call heaven. It consists of multiple layers: starting with the realm of the minerals, the plants, and the animals, leading to the souls of holy beings, angelic-like entities, and ultimately the Source itself, The Light.
The world we live in is the middle world. Shamans generally (though not always) travel to either the lower or the upper world. Intriguingly, shamanism considers the middle world the most fraught, ambiguous, and dangerous.
The middle world is our first direct shamanic link to Once Upon a Time and Grimm. The characters in Once Upon a Time have been banished from the lower fairytale world to our middle world. In so doing they've lost their connection to their power (the power animal/guiding spirit is found in the lower world).
One of primary journeys that occurs in the middle world is psychopomp. Psychopomp are journeys in which the shaman helps a lost soul to move on to the next world. Perhaps the soul experienced a very traumatic death and has refused to accept that death. The shaman journeys in the middle world to locate the soul and encourage/guide the soul to cross over to the great beyond.
In Once Upon a Time, young Henry is attempting a communal form of psychopomp. The characters in the show are in the wrong world (i.e. the middle world). Henry spends his time trying to convince everyone who will listen--most particularly Emma--of their true identities so they can cross back over to their real world (i.e. the lower world).
The characters lost in Storybrooke are in a sense dead. David Nolan (aka Prince Charming) begins the show in a comatose state, identified as a John Doe. David/Prince Charming awakes only to discover he has amnesia. Though David finds himself strangely attracted to Mary Margaret Blanchard (aka Snow White, his beloved in their true world). Nolan is the perfect embodiment of the deadened state of the rest of the characters lost in the middle world of Storybrooke. Nevertheless the mutual attraction of David and Mary Margaret points to an echo, a calling from the other world, which the shamans say is always available to all people, however faint it may be. The other world is always calling to us in the midst of this world and leaves her signs. The shaman's role is to be able to perceive and correctly interpret these signs from the other world.
As Michael Harner states, one must undertake a certain practice in order to enter the non-ordinary shamanic state of consciousness. Within that non-ordinary state, different phenomena appear which are not visible or experienceable within the ordinary state of consciousness of our daily lives. The rest of the characters in Once Upon a Time haven't taken up the practice of young Henry--reading the magical book. It's the act of reading the book and entering imaginatively into the world of its creation that allows Henry to enter the shamanic state of consciousness which reveals to him the true identities of our characters. That is, he enters the faraway place and sees the character's true realities in that seeing. As of this writing (midway through Season 1), only one other character has read the book--the mysterious August Booth. Also, Emma appears on the verge of beginning to open herself to the shamanic journey.
Grimm similarly plays upon the notion of the middle world in Shamanism, particularly its dark, foreboding, terrifying dimensions. A shaman travels to the middle world to attune with the local environment: e.g. the forests, a mountain, the seas or a river. Nick Burkhardt, journeys through the middle world of Portland--in its shadows and environments, both urban and forest. In the process he meet creatures--local spirits of the place. As in the shamanic tradition, some of these spirits are friendly, some keep to themselves, and others are quite deadly.
Tutelary Spirits, Shapeshifting, and Animal-Human Connection
If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages
Think of all the things we could discuss
If we could walk with the animals, talk with the animals,
Grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals,
And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to us.
--Dr, Doolittle, Master Shaman
Another great theme of shamanism is the tutelary spirit. The tutelary spirit goes by various names: e.g. power animal or the guiding spirit. In the Roman Catholicism of my upbringing I was taught that every person, especially children, has a guardian angel--another name for the tutelary spirit.
The tutelary spirit is the guardian or guide of one's being. In the Divine Comedy, Dante follows Virgil, his tutelary spirit, through Hell and Purgatory. The tutelary spirit guides the shaman the world through which the shaman journeys. The spirit protects and guides but also leaves the shaman alone to find his or her way.
Throughout many of the shamanic traditions, the tutelary spirit is encountered in the form of an animal. This tradition is strong in the martial arts of the East, where various movements mimic and are named after those of specific animals. The same thing occurs in physical yogic traditions: e.g. locust, cat, fish poses.
As Dr. Doolittle said, in so doing the shaman learns the languages of these sentient beings and learns their wisdom in adapting to their environments. The same process occurs via plants. The shamans would say that they learned the healing medicinal properties of various plants because they heard the plants talking (or singing) to them.
This animal-human connection is where the stories of shapeshifting occur: when shamans (or others) change from from human to animal or animal to human.
In Grimm, the creatures normally appear as regular human beings. Only when they become agitated, enraged, aroused, or fearful do they involuntarily shift to their creaturely form. Only then is Burkhardt able to surmise their creaturely identity. It is interesting that it is only in those moments that they expose their creaturely identity. Fear, anger, and alert speak to the first, second, and third chakras (the root, the genitals, and the gut). As humans these charkas are our link with the animal world. They speak to our inheritance from the reptiles, the amphibians, and our mammalian relations.
The clearest example of this occurs in Episode 2, "Bears Will Be Bears." Burkhardt is called to the investigation of a breaking and entering. One of the robbers is missing--his girlfriend/accomplice goes to the police after hearing him scream while he's trying to escape. The family collect and restore indigenous symbols, particularly related to bears: totem poles, ceremonial dress, and bear claws. The whole family turns out to be bear creatures. Burkhardt discovers that the son is undertaking a rite of entrance into manhood (or bearhood) which consists of a sacred hunting of a human--the inverse of the sacred hunting rites of indigenous traditions.
In Once Upon a Time Sheriff Graham (aka The Huntsman from Snow White) encounters his power animal. See the scene here. His animal is the wolf, a powerful spirit in the shamanic world. The wolf leads Sheriff Graham to remember his identity as The Huntsman from the Enchanted Forest. The moment of his revelation occurs when he kisses Emma. He is the first character in the show to remember his identity. The tutelary spirit, his power animal, acts as his guide, calling him back to the lower world. The Evil Queen holds The Huntsman's heart--for he had refused to kill Snow White and gave The Queen a boar's heart instead. The wolf lead Sheriff Graham to the precise place where The Evil Queen has hidden his heart. If he can but find the heart he will be saved. Sadly he turns away, failing to read the shamanic signs all around him. It costs him dearly.
Also, we must consider the heroine of Once Upon a Time, Emma Swan. Emma is the child of Snow White and Prince Charming, both of whom know that The Evil Queen is coming to get them. Emma is hid in a magical wardrobe which transports her to our middle world. Intriguingly, she's brought into the middle world through the loving sacrifice of her parents rather than the curse of The Evil Queen. She is the inverse of all the other characters as she had never learned of her origins in the Fairytale world. She must learn for the first time of her origin in the fairytale world, while the rest must forget their middle world illusory identities and remember their real selves. Emma's last name is Swan. In shamanism, the swan is a tutelary power animal that points to "the awakening of the self". This is Emma's sacred task--when she awakens to her identity, then she must help all the others awaken to their identities.
Shamanic Calling and Initiation
In Shamanism: Ancient Techniques for Ecstasy, Eliade spends a great deal of time discussing the ways in which a shaman comes to gain his/her powers. He looks at the question: How does one become initiated into shamanism? There are many different ways that shamans receive callings. Two common ways that a shaman gains his/her calling is 1. through a traumatic event and 2. through bloodline. This trauma represents a death of one way of life and the entrance into another. This theme of traumatic initiation is evident in both shows.
In Grimm, Nick Burkhardt is an orphan. He believes his parents to have died in a car crash when he was 12 years old. We later learn that the crash was no accident. Burkhardt is raised by his Aunt Marie. Marie is a Grimm--she has the ability to see the creatures. The show's pilot begins with a seriously ill Marie contacting Nick. He's beginning to see things. The Grimm shamanic power is passed on when one member of the Grimm clan becomes seriously ill or dies (whether of natural causes or through battle with a creature). Nick's Aunt Marie is then attacked by a Grimm Reaper. She manages to kill the Reaper but herself dies in the process, leaving Nick alone yet again and now with strange new (and frightening) powers. His trauma is his entrance into his familial destiny as a Grimm.
Like Burkhardt, Emma Swan is also an orphan. Coincidentally, in our world of Storybrooke, Emma befriends and ends up as roommates with Mary Margaret, who happens to be Snow White and her mother--though by the fact that the characters are under a curse, they do not age in our world, so Mary Margaret and Emma appear to be the same age. When Emma came through the magical wardrobe from the Enchanted World to our own, she was left on the side of the road. She ends up in the foster care system and experiences a painful childhood. Like Nick Burkhardt, Emma's powers of perception are used in this world to read people--Burkhardt as a detective and Emma as a bails bondwoman. Both characters possess acute psychological insight into the motivations (positive or negative) of other characters. Emma's perceptual capacities are passed onto her biological son Henry, the young shaman in training of Once Upon a Time.
WHY THIS REVIVAL NOW?
The great Sigmund Freud talked about "the return of the repressed." While there are of course many possible explanations for why fairy tales have become so popular recently, one reason I think is that they give room to repressed elements to return. In the Western world, shamanism was largely suppressed. Native shamanism in the European context is what is known as paganism. When European Christians then traveled to The Americas and encountered similar shamanic traditions, they went about again suppressing them.
This was a particularly egregious set of acts because, among other reasons, Jesus himself practiced shamanism. The Gospels very clearly lay out story after story that talk about Jesus' shamanic practice: healings, exorcisms, praying alone in the desert on a vision quest, and apocalyptic denunciations of his society ("reading the signs of his time"). Interestingly, these are precisely the elements of Jesus' life that make rational-liberal Christians the most uncomfortable.
My contention is that since the official forms of Christianity banished shamanic religious influences, it was left to fairytales to become the inheritors of the shamanic tradition. Since they were seen to be make believe stories, the storytellers got away with promoting an alternate religious symbolism. Unfortunately with this relegation to the realm of storytelling, the society lost contact with the actual practices of shamanism. Again as Eliade's book makes so clear, it is the techniques that allow for one to truly take up the shamanic way. The reintroduction of shamanic practices in the West since the 1960s has largely been relegated to the New Age Counterculture, and been mostly seen in light of psychedelic drug use. It's the fairytales that remain the Western world's primary vehicle for shamanic teachings to enter the mainstream. The popularity of these shows is I think, in part, because they resonate with this intrinsic dimension of our being. The shows are helpful in beginning to reconnect with this forgotten part of ourselves but a fuller immersion requires undertaking the practices of the shamanic way.
Afterword: Perhaps the clearest example of the shamanic in fairy tales is Alice in her journey to Wonderland. In the shamanic tradition, the lower world is typically accessed by journeying (in the shamanic trance) through a ditch or following roots into the ground. Alice travels down the rabbit hole, following her animal spirit (the white rabbit), and ends up in the lower world of Wonderland. In the lower of world of Wonderland she ingests magic mushrooms and smokes with the caterpillar. The caterpillar asks her who she is and wise Alice says, "I hardly know sir. I've changed so many times since this morning."
* ABC is owned by Disney, so all of the characters are ones we think of from Disney animated cartoons.