The twelve wild ducks: interpreted to illustrate Jung’s approach to story
Collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in Norske Folkeeventyr.
Once on a time there was a queen who was out driving, when there had been a new fall of snow in the winter ….
Early Harappan female figurine with painted features from Harappa. Photograph by Richard H. Meadow. Copyright Harappa 1995-2001.
In the beginning there is a queen who is alone in the snow with no husband in sight; we will learn soon that she has no daughter but she has twelve sons. These facts are likely to represent the theme of the whole story so we have to analyze them carefully.
The queen suggests not woman but the feminine principle, or yin, which is an archetypal potential in all people. The story is probably about the development of the feminine, a development which is more familiar to us in women but which also occurs in men. A woman more often than a man tends to identify with the feminine and this helps her to organize herself for a socially expected role.
Identification is a problem if a person believes that he or she is identical with the feminine. The person is then denying that he or she is mixture of contradictory qualities, yang, for example as well as yin.
Water suggests both feelings and creative life (water is a fluid product which we create out of our Self — Mozart said “I write music like cows piss”). Snow therefore suggests that feelings and creativity are frozen or arrested in their development.
Feelings involve both emotion which is yin and discrimination which is yang. Feelings are the means by which we value things: if I were to take this this action would it be worthwhile or would it be destructive?
Feelings are critical in relatedness because relatedness requires awareness both of my own feelings and the feelings of the the person I am relating to. Because they enable discrimination feelings are also central to creativity. In the story three reasons are given for the arrest of feelings and creativity .
First there is no king, suggesting that the feminine is not sufficiently balanced by the masculine principle. For example, when an only son was raised exclusively by his mother he was not able to express negative feelings to her because she seemed to him too needy and vulnerable. In part because he had no father he could not oppose the maternal principle or separate from it.
Second, the queen has twelve sons. The excessive number suggests that she is overwhelmed by motherhood, as though she were a sow suckling 12 piglets at the same time. This emphasizes the elemental aspect of the feminine: fertility and nurturing. The feminine alone creates new life but it is like the soil, elemental, indiscriminate and therefore unconscious. This 12-sons image repeats and thus confirms our interpretation of the no-husband image: that the system is overwhelmed by elemental yin so that feeling cannot develop. (In time, if a woman had twelve sons, she might be overwhelmed by yang!)
Third, the queen has no daughter. A daughter suggests newness, beauty and affiliation, the possibility of new friends and a new mate, that is, the entangling aspect of the feminine. She also suggests creative play, the feminine which can play because it is not burdened with the labor of fertility. These are qualities of the archetypal anima as opposed to the archetypal mother. (Note that sometimes we use the term anima to include, at its elemental pole, the mother.) This story begins with the anima undeveloped.
Feelings are mostly about interactions with other people and are most easily explored in play. Thus the no-daughter image (no interactions, no play) repeats and confirms yet again the idea that feelings are frozen because the situation is overwhelmed by elemental, undifferentiated yin.
The anima functions as the creative muse for a male artist because beauty and play (feminine) draw the conscious discriminating ego (masculine) into engagement. The resultant dance between play and discrimination leads to evolved creative products, for example, when a writer edits and reworks his or her first draft using learned skills. Feelings are critical – does that word feel right, or does this one feel better?
All this suggests that the tale is about the development of the feminine (anima) out of its elemental form into a more differentiated form which would support feeling, relatedness, and creativity.
… but when she had gone a little way, she began to bleed at the nose, and had to get out of her sledge.
And so, as she stood there, leaning against the fence, and saw the red blood on the white snow, she fell a-thinking how she had twelve sons and no daughter, and she said to herself–
‘If I only had a daughter as white as snow and as red as blood, I shouldn’ t care what became of all my sons.’
But the words were scarce out of her mouth before an old witch of the Trolls came up to her.
‘A daughter you shall have,’ she said, ‘and she shall be as white as snow, and as red as blood; and your sons shall be mine, but you may keep them till the babe is christened.’
As she prays for a daughter the queen offers to sacrifice her blood and her sons. In part, the queen’s sacrifice of her sons reinforces the idea that the maternal principle is impersonal and uncaring, like Kali, as likely to slaughter as it is to generate. This implies a primitive state, that the feminine needs to evolve if it is to become more humane.
In part the queen’s sacrifice suggests that she is willing to pay a price. Parenting requires continual sacrifice and so does all inner growth. Often a person remains stuck in adolescent psychology, avoiding parenting or avoiding inner growth, because he or she is not willing to pay the price. In the course of an analysis, for example, a person has to accept cost and inconvenience and perhaps much doubt, frustration, anxiety, anger, hurt, shame and grief.
Sacrifice is ususally incremental, an attitude of letting life flow without trying to hold onto things. For example, if you are trying to write you may have to get up in the early morning. Can you sacrifice your warm bed to let a new paragraph be born? Many writers have to struggle with a regressive tendency (reluctance to sacrifice) which holds them back. A baby cries loud to get its parents out of bed but a new piece of writing is silent and often dies of neglect.
The old witch who claims the queen’s sons expresses the ‘negative’ or ‘destructive’ aspect of the unconscious, the side which imposes the sacrifice. When you begin a new piece of creative work you may first suffer a depression as the unconscious draws your energy down into itself to prepare for the new development.
So when the time came the queen had a daughter, and she was as white as snow, and as red as blood, just as the Troll had promised, and so they called her ‘Sno-white and Rosy-red.’ Well, there was great joy at the king’s court, and the queen was as glad as glad could be; but when what she had promised to the old witch came into her mind, she sent for a silversmith, and bade him make twelve silver spoons, one for each prince, and after that she bade him make one more, and that she gave to Snow-white and Rosy-red….
The daughter is white as snow and red as blood. White is an illuminating, ethereal, sky color which suggests spirit while red suggests blood or passion, so the daughter is a passionate spirit. These colors repeat and confirm that she represents the anima. Fairy tales often depict the anima as the daughter of a spirit father, confirming again that she is about possibility and inspiration since these are aspects of spirit.
Fairy tales also show that the anima arouses spiritual passion in a man, the longing for relatedness, beauty, or for any principle of value — romantic love, or literature or the grail. The anima is not about material (mother-like) posessions.
For a women’s psychological development the daughter/anima has a similar meaning: if a woman is unconsciously identified with the mother she may be preoccupied with the impersonal, material needs of her children, or with material possessions or power. If she is unconsciously identified with the anima then she may be compulsively, impersonally entangling or siren-like. If she relates more consciously to the anima she will be more concerned with spiritual values like beauty, creativity, and personal relatedness.
You may object that I am making too much of ‘white as snow and red as blood’, but the queen’s next act functions as another repetition which supports my interpretation. She has a silversmith make silver spoons for each of her sons and her daughter. Because a spoon is feminine in shape and is for nourishment, it represents the elemental mother who feeds everyone. But a silver spoon also includes a new dimension: it marks a child’s individual value and is an expression of beauty and creativity. Silver is also the color of moonlight or reflection, so it suggests inner consciousness. So the spoons show that the mother wants her children to develop their own personal identities, to grow beyond the mother into a more conscious individual relationship with the feminine.
… But as soon as ever the princess was christened, the princes were turned into twelve wild ducks, and flew away. They never saw them again–away they went, and away they stayed.
So the princess grew up, and she was both tall and fair, but she was often so strange and sorrowful, and no one could understand what it was that ailed her…
The sons fly away, never, we are told, to be seen again although in fact the sons do reappear at the end of the story. Why is the complete disappearance of all twelve sons emphasized here? They revert to natural spirits which implies that this was their true level of development all along: though they had the physical form of human males they were no more conscious than ducks. Here the story comments on something complex, that psychological consciousness is not the norm, that the collective state is to be unconscious, and that the individuation journey represented by Snow White and Rosy Red is not a part of normal maturation. She is a minority, one of thirteen, who functions as a leader for her brother’s later development.
A leader is not the best version of the norm but rather an individual who contradicts the norms: internal growth requires that established conventions be violated. This is what dreams and fairy tales do; they contradict established beliefs in order to promote consciousness. The collective dismisses them as childish or meaningless because the collective is threatened by the subversive nature of consciousness.
Notice that both here and in subsequent paragraphs I am thinking of Snow white as a person rather than the anima. Snow white has both meanings. A person can go through a process of individuation. The archetype itself is an eternal fact which cannot change, but the image of the anima evolves to represent a person’s evolving consciousness of the feminine.
That individuation is unusual is repeated by an image in the next paragraph: Snow-white and Rosy-red is ‘so strange and sorrowful, and no-one could understand her,’ that is, she is not contained within conventional understanding. When her mother tells her about her brothers Snow white and Rosy-red thinks it is her fault and sets out to find them. It is unusual for a fairy tale to spell out a psychological issue in this way: her individuation journey is driven in part by neurotic, unrealistic guilt. Jung argued that neurosis is purposeful, that it tends towards self-realization. It is the person at cross purposes with his- or herself, or with conventional beliefs, who is driven by inner conflict to seek individuality.
… But one evening the queen was also sorrowful, for she had many strange thoughts when she thought of her sons. She said to Snow-white and Rosy-red, ‘Why are you so sorrowful, my daughter? Is there anything you want? If so, only say the word, and you shall have it.’
‘Oh, it seems so dull and lonely here,’ said Snow-white and Rosy-red; ‘everyone else has brothers and sisters, but I am all alone; I have none; and that’ s why I’ m so sorrowful.’
‘But you had brothers, my daughter,’ said the queen; ‘I had twelve sons who were your brothers, but I gave them all away to get you’ ; and so she told her the whole story.
So when the princess heard that, she had no rest; for, in spite of all the queen could say or do, and all she wept and prayed, the lassie would set off to seek her brothers, for she thought it was all her fault; and at last she got leave to go away from the palace. On and on she walked into the wide world, so far, you would never have thought a young lady could have strength to walk so far.
So, once, when she was walking through a great, great wood, one day she felt tired, and sat down on a mossy tuft and fell asleep. Then she dreamt that she went deeper and deeper into the wood, till she came to a little wooden hut, and there she found her brothers…
Now the tale spells out another psychological process. Snow-white and Rosy-red is tired, sleeps, and has a guiding dream. This means that her conscious ego strengths are exhausted and her individuation needs to be guided by the unconscious.
… Just then she woke, and straight before her she saw a worn path in the green moss, and this path went deeper into the wood; so she followed it, and after a long time she came to just such a little wooden house as that she had seen in her dream.
Now, when she went into the room there was no one at home, but there stood twelve beds, and twelve chairs, and twelve spoons, a dozen of everything, in short. So when she saw that she was so glad, she hadn’ t been so glad for many a long year, for she could guess at once that her brothers lived here, and that they owned the beds, and chairs and spoons. So she began to make up the fire, and sweep the room, and make the beds, and cook the dinner, and to make the house as tidy as she could; and when she had done all the cooking and work, she ate her own dinner, and crept under her youngest brother’ s bed, and lay down there, but she forgot her spoon upon the table.
She tidies and ‘humanizes’ their house which prefigures her later work to restore them to full humanity. This emphasizes the paradox that the anima, which is an archetype of the collective unconscious, catalyzes the development of consciousness. A similar idea is conveyed by the Christian image of the crucifixion: God gave part of his own self to be incarnated into human form, which means again that consciousness was the purpose of the ancestral unconscious.
So she had scarcely laid herself down before she heard something flapping and whirring in the air, and so all the twelve wild ducks came sweeping in; but as soon as ever they crossed the threshold they became princes.
Her brothers only take human form when they are within their ‘wooden house’ buried in the middle of a ‘great great wood’. Thus their human form, that is, their consciousness is only a germ, a possibility within their natural unconscious state. So this image repeats and confirms my earlier interpretation of their transformation into ducks, that deep unconsciousness is the natural state of the majority.
‘Oh, how nice and warm it is in here,’ they said. ‘Heaven bless him who made up the fire, and cooked such a good dinner for us.’
And so each took up his silver spoon and was going to eat. But when each had taken his own, there was one still left lying on the table, and it was so like the rest that they couldn’ t tell it from them.
‘This is our sister’ s spoon,’ they said, ‘and if her spoon be here, she can’ t be very far off herself.’
The mother’s silver spoons convey the princess’s identity to her brothers (make them conscious of her) which again confirms that consciousness is the mother’s purpose. To use more precise language, consciousness is a potential of the unconscious and such potentials tend to unfold spontaneously.
‘If this be our sister’ s spoon, and she be here,’ said the eldest, ‘she shall be killed, for she is to blame for all the ill we suffer.’
And this she lay under the bed and listened to.
‘No,’ said the youngest, ” twere a shame to kill her for that. She has nothing to do with our suffering ill; for if anyone’ s to blame, it’ s our own mother.’
So they set to work hunting for her both high and low, and at last they looked under all the beds, and so when they came to the youngest prince’ s bed, they found her, and dragged her out. Then the eldest prince wished again to have her killed, but she begged and prayed so prettily for herself.
‘Oh! gracious goodness! don’ t kill me, for I’ ve gone about seeking you these three years, and if I could only set you free, I’ d willingly lose my life.’
‘Well!’ said they, ‘if you will set us free, you may keep your life; for you can if you choose.’
‘Yes; only tell me,’ said the princess, ‘how it can be done, and I’ ll do it, whatever it be.’
‘You must pick thistledown,’ said the princes, ‘and you must card it, and spin it and weave it; and after you have done that, you must cut out and make twelve coats, and twelve shirts and twelve neckerchiefs, one for each of us, and while you do that, you must neither talk, nor laugh nor weep. If you can do that, we are free.’
‘But where shall I ever get thistledown enough for so many neckerchiefs, and shirts, and coats?’ asked Snow-white and Rosy-red.
‘We’ ll soon show you,’ said the princes; and so they took her with them to a great wide moor, where there stood such a crop of thistles, all nodding and nodding in the breeze, and the down all floating and glistening like gossamers through the air in the sunbeams. The princess had never seen such a quantity of thistledown in her life, and she began to pluck and gather it as fast and as well as she could; and when she got home at night she set to work carding and spinning yarn from the down. So she went on a long long time, picking, and carding and spinning, and all the while keeping the princes’ house, cooking, and making their beds. At evening home they came, flapping and whirring like wild ducks, and all night they were princes, but in the morning off they flew again, and were wild ducks the whole day.
Snow-white and Rose-red’s next task is to sew her brothers clothing out of thistledown. Thistledown is ethereal, airborn stuff which transports seeds. Like the ducks it represents natural, spiritual potential which is incarnated by her craft into human form. So her task is a repetition of the image of spiritual potential being realized as human consciousness.
Why must she ‘neither talk, nor laugh, nor weep’ until she has made the garments and restored her brothers to human form? She can only perform feminine labor: picking down, carding it, spinning it, weaving it, cutting out the cloth and sewing the garments and continuing with all the housework for her duck-brothers. Timing is emphasized here: talk, laughter and weeping must come later. Even when her babies are stolen and her mouth smeared with blood, she does not weep or talk.
When we interpret a symbolic image we must be attentive to its specific details lest we roll over it with an intellectualized generality. Notice, for example, that Snow white and Rosy-red is not forbidden to see or listen. In fact her or suggests that active listening which is required of a therapist: as though she were taking in everything she sees and hears, not being reactive but suffering its impact and weaving it into new psychological stucture.
Spinning and weaving thistledown resemble the tasks which were imposed upon Psyche by Cupid’s jealous mother, Venus. In that myth Psyche had to sort a huge pile of mixed grains but, while she slept, the work was done by ants. The ants had to make innumerable tiny distinctions. A conscious viewpoint is woven through such patient, incremental discriminations which accumulate, like a tapestry. This is inner work. Snow white and Rosy-red is forbidden to speak, laugh or cry because her energy must be focussed inwardly. Extraversion would confuse her inner sorting.
The first queen is impersonal and uncaring, willing to sacrifice her first 12 children. Like mother nature itself, the first queen is as engaged as much in destruction as in creating new life. The conscious personality, which is constructed out of delicate, psychological experience, is easily injured; here it has been injured by the tooth-and-claw aspect of the first queen. Snow white has to heal the injury with her patient inner work. In therapy, when a deep injury has to be repaired, there must be slow weaving of new experience within the therapeutic container. Focus needs to be on the fine details of the intersubjective field in order to build up security and trust.
When a woman has been raised by an unconscious and destructive mother she may be unable to bond with a constructive man. She may only be attracted to men who are like her mother in that they do not relate to her at a personal level. Men who have more personal feeling for her seem boring and unattractive. Then therapy consists of slowly weaving a personal relationship.
But now it happened once, when she was out on the moor to pick thistledown–and if I don’ t mistake, it was the very last time she was to go thither–it happened that the young king who ruled that land was out hunting, and came riding across the moor, and saw her. So he stopped there and wondered who the lovely lady could be that walked along the moor picking thistledown, and he asked her her name, and when he could get no answer he was still more astonished; and at last he liked her so much, that nothing would do but he must take her home to his castle and marry her. So he ordered his servants to take her and put her up on his horse. Snow-white and Rosy-red wrung her hands, and made signs to them, and pointed to the bags in which her work was, and when the king saw she wished to have them with her, he told his men to take up the bags behind them. When they had done that the princess came to herself, little by little, for the king was both a wise man and a handsome man too, and he was as soft and kind to her as a doctor…
Snow white’s patient labor now permits relationship with the masculine: a handsome king appears and marries her. This is like the tradition that a woman prepares a bridal chest of linen before marriage. By her handiwork a young woman demonstrates her capacity for the emotional weaving of family life.
… But when they got home to the palace, and the old queen, who was his stepmother, set eyes on Snow-white and Rosy-red, she got so cross and jealous of her because she was so lovely, that she said to the king, ‘Can’ t you see now, that this thing whom you have picked up, and whom you are going to marry, is a witch? Why, she can’ t either talk, or laugh or weep!’
Snow white’s constructive feminine power arouses devouring envy. The king’s stepmother – another version of the first queen – projects her own envy onto Snow white by smearing her mouth with blood. The forward movement of individuation stimulates a regressive countermovement which would annihilate consciousness. Consciousness is always temporary, always threatened by unconsciousness which is the natural default position. This forces a further development: consciousness must recognize its own value and defend itself against the devouring unconscious. In the story Snow white keeps on sewing her shirts: she continues weaving her spiritual potential for consciousness into the incarnated fabric of her relationship with her brothers. This is like group therapy in which psychological potentialities are incarnated into actual relationships with peers in the room. In group therapy there is a continual struggle to wrest consciousness out of the regressive tendency which a group stimulates.
But the king didn’ t care a pin for what she said, but held on with the wedding, and married Snow-white and Rosy-red, and they lived in great joy and glory; but she didn’ t forget to go on sewing her shirts.
So when the year was almost out, Snow-white and Rosy-red brought a prince into the world, and then the old queen was more spiteful and jealous than ever. At dead of night she stole in to Snow-white and Rosy-red, while she slept, and took away her babe, and threw it into a pit full of snakes. After that she cut Snow-white and Rosy-red in her finger, and smeared the blood over her mouth, and went straight to the king.
‘Now come and see,’ she said, ‘what sort of thing you have taken for your queen; here she has eaten up her own babe.’
Then the king was so downcast, he almost burst into tears, and said, ‘Yes, it must be true, since I see it with my own eyes; but she’ ll not do it again, I’ m sure, and so this time I’ ll spare her life.’
So before the next year was out she had another son, and the same thing happened. The king’ s stepmother got more and more jealous and spiteful. She stole in to the young queen at night while she slept, took away the babe, and threw it into a pit full of snakes, cut the young queen’ s finger, and smeared the blood over her mouth, and then went and told the king she had eaten up her own child. Then the king was so sorrowful, you can’ t think how sorry he was, and he said, ‘Yes, it must be true, since I see it with my own eyes, but she’ ll not do it again, I’ m sure, and so this time too I’ ll spare her life.’
Well, before the next year was out, Snow-white and Rosy-red brought a daughter into the world, and her, too, the old queen took and threw into the pit full of snakes, while the young queen slept. Then she cut her finger, smeared the blood over her mouth, and went again to the king and said, ‘Now you may come and see if it isn’ t as I say; she’ s a wicked, wicked witch, for here she has gone and eaten up her third babe too.’
Then the king was so sad, there was no end to it, for now he couldn’ t spare her any longer but had to order her to be burnt alive on a pile of wood…
At first the king’s response to the loss of his children is inadequate; he is passive and does not engage. But, faced with the continuing challenge of the devouring unconscious, he eventually sees his responsibility and decides to confront the destructive energy by burning (transforming) the princess. Again this is a realistic portrayal of the course of therapy: new potentials – which often appear in dreams as babies – are repeatedly birthed and then repeatedly imprisoned by the old unconscious organization, until the patient gets wise to his or her own responsibility for these set-backs. As the tale shows, these cycles may take years before the patient is ready to make a decisive break with self-destructive patterns.
… But just when the pile was all ablaze, and they were going to put her on it, she made signs to them to take twelve boards and lay them round the pile, and on these she laid the neckerchiefs, and the shirts and the coats for her brothers, but the youngest brother’ s shirt wanted its left arm, for she hadn’ t had time to finish it. And as soon as ever she had done that, they heard such a flapping and whirring in the air, and down came twelve wild ducks flying over the forest, and each of them snapped up his clothes in his bill and flew off with them.
‘See now! said the old queen to the king, ‘wasn’ t I right when I told you she was a witch; but make haste and burn her before the pile burns low.’
‘Oh!’ said the king, ‘we’ ve wood enough and to spare, and so I’ ll wait a bit, for I have a mind to see what the end of all this will be.’
As he spoke, up came the twelve princes riding along as handsome well-grown lads as you’ d wish to see; but the youngest prince had a wild duck’ s wing instead of his left arm.
‘What’ s all this about?’ asked the princes.
‘My queen is to be burnt,’ said the king, ‘because she’ s a witch, and because she has eaten up her own babes.’
‘She hasn’ t eaten them at all,’ said the princes. ‘Speak now, sister; you have set us free and saved us, now save yourself.’
Then Snow-white and Rosy-red spoke, and told the whole story; how every time she was brought to bed, the old queen, the king’ s stepmother, had stolen in to her at night, had taken her babes away, and cut her little finger, and smeared the blood over her mouth; and then the princes took the king, and showed him the snake-pit where three babes lay playing with adders and toads, and lovelier children you never saw.
So the king had them taken out at once, and went to his stepmother, and asked her what punishment she thought that woman deserved who could find it in her heart to betray a guiltless queen and three such blessed little babes.
‘She deserves to be fast bound between twelve unbroken steeds, so that each may take his share of her,’ said the old queen.
‘You have spoken your own doom,’ said the king, ‘and you shall suffer it at once.’
So the wicked old queen was fast bound between twelve unbroken steeds, and each got his share of her….
When the princess has finished her sewing her brothers return and she can speak. Consciousness is now strong enough for the verbal dialogue which permits insight. The king, who represents ruling consciousness, can now discriminate between the constructive and destructive tendencies within the feminine. The devouring unconscious has had power in deception and unawareness; now its power is overcome and the witch is torn apart by wild horses, that is, the destructive enactment or complex is consciously analyzed into its component parts.
… But the king took Snow-white and Rosy-red, and their three children, and the twelve princes, and so they all went home to their father and mother and told all that had befallen them, and there was joy and gladness over the whole kingdom, because the princess was saved and set free, and because she had set free her twelve brothers.
As a consequence the kingdom (personality) becomes free, whole and joyful and the tale ends. Symbolically this means that individuation has succeeded. In life new challenges to consciousness appear soon enough and require more psychological work. Individuation has no end.