Emerging Archetypal Themes: Maleficent:
Reclaiming the 13th Fairy and Our Relationship to the Divine Feminine
I have to begin this essay about the film Maleficent with praise for Linda Woolverton’s storytelling. Her script is a beautiful, imaginative and archetypal re-telling of the mythic sleeping beauty motif. Ms. Woolverton obviously has a deep knowledge of all the variants of this fairy tale and has come up with a splendid version that speaks to our times and is visually enchanting. But the real impact comes from Maleficent’s symbolic layers, which show us the truth about our patriarchal society’s wounding and rejection of feminine spirit, the wounding that caused the original tale to be told.
In fairy tales, we find the most basic, archetypal story patterns that have shaped our human development through the ages. Archetypal patterns show us the shared instincts that make us all human. Just as a King represents a dominant collective belief, a Queen represents the feelings we have about that belief. New feelings and beliefs arise as self-awareness grows among the people, and fairy tales change to reflect the new awareness and how to achieve it. And it’s a storyteller’s prerogative to shape the story to her tribe’s needs. Linda Woolverton has done just that. She tells a story of what was, what is and what might be if we learn to love the things we have been taught to fear.
Patriarchal religions have worked to suppress our relationship to the Earth and any knowledge of our true interconnection, because the ancients worshipped the Earth as a Goddess. Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose, The Sleeping Beauty of the Woods are all tales about feminine values, Earth values, that are rejected and ‘put to sleep’ by a patriarchal society that does not value the Feminine Spirit of Life or our right-brain feminine consciousness that sees through the eyes of the imagination the magic and beauty of the Earth. And even worse, patriarchy creates a female villainess, turning our feeling, intuitive life into something harmful—something we should fear.
So this story of the Sleeping Beauty deals with what happens to our feminine feeling consciousness when it is repressed, ravaged and rejected by both our society and our own ego-consciousness. When we reject this feeling and imaginative aspect of life, it gets twisted and becomes the negative mother—the witch who wants to kill us or curse us. And we are left cursed with our masculine, left-brain thinking that cuts off our feminine wings and power, grounding us in a masculine reality that hates and fears the Divine Feminine’s beauty, freedom and power.
But the negative mother doesn’t just make our lives miserable: she pushes us to become more conscious. Her curse ultimately becomes a blessing, since it makes each of us face our fate and live our purpose. That’s the purpose of archetypal stories—they show us a path to travel that will bring us to greater consciousness.
In the Grimm Brothers’ story of Little Briar Rose, we find a King and Queen who long for a child. This kingdom needs new life. A frog hops out of the water and tells the Queen her wish is about to come true. Frogs were known to bring the rains, to bring fertility. So the fateful time is now. A baby daughter is born and called Briar Rose. This kingdom needs to be infused with new feelings. This princess symbolizes the feeling renewal of the possibilities of love as a healing agent. A briar rose has sharp thorns though, so she’s not all sweetness and light, although those are the gifts the fairies give her.
Although in this tale, the fairies are called Wise Women and there are 13 of them. But the king only has 12 golden plate settings, and so he doesn’t invite the 13th Wise Woman. This 13th fairy symbolizes the ancient Goddess of the Moon (whose power lay in the 13 Moon cycles of the year), the feminine wisdom of change and transformation. Patriarchy is a solar paradigm, and so 12 is the number of masculine completion. Patriarchy only wants Wisdom that serves its purpose.
In other tales, the number of fairies varies from 3 to 7 to 9, but this version makes perfect archetypal sense. Patriarchal thinking has a hard time with the energy of 13, the feminine Moon energy of mystery, reflection and change. We see remnants of this kind of patriarchal thinking in the US Congress today, where ‘conservative’ men are rejecting the truths we must face about our world.
Originally, the allotted time that this princess must sleep is 100 years. Then it is not just the prince’s kiss that wakes Briar Rose—it is also the right time! When this tale was first told, something beautiful and new could not enter collective consciousness because they couldn’t make room for the 13th Fairy. This is a fairy tale that also speaks to our times. Can women bring back the old Moon wisdom? Later versions of the tale made it a more individual task—rather than 100 years, the princess can only be awakened by ‘true love’s kiss’.
Love is now the key, even to Moon wisdom.
As a mythologist and symbologist, I love seeing the symbolism of the 13th Wise Woman mesh with Maleficent, the spirit and protector of her land. As a young fairy, Maleficent is beautiful, kind, funny, courteous, strong, and powerful. She also has an open heart, developing a friendship with Stefan because of his own original kindness to her.
Maleficent is a unique fairy, with strong horns on her head and giant eagle wings to soar. Horns symbolize supernatural powers, the power of the soul arising from the head. Horns are attributed to all Mother Goddesses, often symbolized by the lunar crescent, the power of the eternal change. Maleficent’s horns are magnificent, attesting to her generative power and life force. This connects her to the Moon Goddess as well as the Earth Mother. No other fairy has them. Her wings are another indication of her spiritual origins. And eagle wings are attributes of Wisdom and Spirit.
So we see that Maleficent is a nature spirit who guards and protects her land from the greed and violence of the patriarchal king. Of course, as history has shown us, patriarchy won hands down on that battle. Just look at what our patriarchal culture has done to nature and to our world. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has raped and pillaged the land and the people, all for greed and domination.
Unfortunately, Stefan desires that patriarchal power, just as the king desires to destroy and conquer Maleficent’s land. Despite their loving connection, Stefan is willing to do anything to achieve that power, most hurtfully when he goes against his love and his heart. No wonder he goes crazy! Stefan is the most stereotypical character in the story, seemingly a mouthpiece for the nastiness and craziness of the patriarchal paradigm. But it’s hard to have any sympathy for a mindset that only wants power. Both Stefan and the earlier king have no connection to the feminine--we barely see Briar Rose’s mother, Stefan willingly gives his daughter over to the 3 fairies instead of defending Aurora himself, he disregards the Queen completely in his madness and his fear when she is dying, and when Aurora comes back to him, he locks her in a room instead of welcoming her.
This is a mindset where there are no redeeming feminine feeling values, creating an imbalance that needs to be rectified. Everything is tuned to violence, and perceptions are based on fear and projection because Stefan has stolen Maleficent’s wings and imprisoned them. He has repressed his own feeling life and now it is turned against him and his kingdom. His power cannot last in such a state.
After Stefan’s betrayal, Maleficent is devastated by the loss of her wings, and so takes on Diaval, the Raven, as her companion and her wings. Diaval is a marvelously sympathetic character to both Maleficent and Aurora. Who would have thought that old grouchy cartoon raven would be so wonderful! Ravens are magical birds with the ability to shapeshift—they are birds who are connected to birth and death, magic and mysticism. Two ravens were Odin’s messengers—Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory). Ravens are Moon birds and companions of great magicians, giving them the intuitive information they need to make decisions and create spells. Diaval does this for Maleficent.
The scene where Maleficent arrives at the christening has been modeled on the cartoon version, and it is well done indeed. But when Maleficent curses the baby, she is the one who changes the curse from eternal sleep, giving Aurora the chance to awaken with true love’s kiss. But after Maleficent’s experience with Stefan, she does not believe in such things, and so she feels her revenge will be satisfied.
I love the fact that Maleficent and Diaval find the 3 fairies and Aurora right away instead of on her 16th birthday. These fairies want to help Stefan—an apt symbol of how patriarchy uses feminine gifts for its own purposes. The 3 fairies are dim-witted and self-absorbed and seemingly have very little to do with raising Aurora—another result of suppressing the feminine. Patriarchal women often forgot how to nurture life! That is left to Maleficent and Diaval, an interesting and quite accurate archetypal transformation. This is the beginning of the healing between Aurora, who symbolizes the new feminine feeling life, and Maleficent, who personifies Nature.
Angelina Jolie is a perfect Maleficent, facing Aurora with a cool disdain that masks her wounded love nature. She falls in love with Aurora. And Aurora falls in love with her. Maleficent is afraid to love again but Aurora’s trusting nature sees Maleficent’s beauty and kindness beneath her gruff exterior. And we see the truth of Maleficent’s love when she tries to revoke her own curse. But to her sorrow, it holds.
As the curse takes effect, we see role reversals from the original story—giving us a clue of what is to come. It is Maleficent who must make her way through the iron thorns that Stefan has erected around his castle, braving pains and burns to get inside to the sleeping Aurora. She is the one who brings Prince Phillip to Aurora’s bedside to break the curse. But how can such young ‘love’ be true love? It is not tested yet. It is all projection and expectation. Phillip cannot wake her.
True love’s kiss can only come from a complete knowing and acceptance of a person’s soul. And so it is so satisfying that it is Maleficent’s kiss that awakens Aurora, just as it is so perfect that it is Aurora who frees Maleficent’s wings and brings about Maleficent’s healing. The Divine Feminine can only heal us and be healed through our human feminine nature and consciousness.
Aurora is the vehicle of Maleficent’s transformation and healing. Aurora—the new dawn—brings about a healing in the kingdom as well, uniting both her father’s world and the world of Faerie.
This is a story about reclaiming the 13th, disregarded fairy—the Wise Woman of the Moon. I hope women everywhere reclaim their own 13th Fairy and renew their connection with the Divine Feminine. It will bring healing to all our lives if we do!