Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale?
In one of my older posts, about Cupid and Psyche I already presented an old myth which can also be considered as one f the oldest fairy tales. The myth about Cupid and Psyche has been retold in many popular fairy tales and The Beauty and the Beast is most known of all.
But this is not the only myth which could serve as a base to this particular fairy tale and its wider family of tales about animal grooms. I’ll provide graphic material and some common points for five (yes, one for each finger!) well known myths from Greek and roman mythology which could be easily recognized in main points of the tale about the Beauty and the Beast (of course I am talking about ‘original’, Madame LePrince de Beaumont, not the Disney’s version with pretty different point of view).
1. Aphrodite and Hephaestus
Aphrodite is Greek goddess of love, pleasure and beauty (her name is Venus in roman mythology). She is very beautiful and won the infamous apple of discord leading to Trojan war.
Hephaestus (Vulcan in Roman myths) is god of artisans, blacksmiths and volcanoes. He was so ugly as a baby even his own mother rejected him.
Nice start for unusual romance, right?
Hephaestus and Aphrodite inspired hundreds of artist and here are some examples of their work:
Hephaestus in action by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) on the left and by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). He made a lot of impressive products, but most of artists were most fascinated with next scene:
It’s a classic love triangle with three powerful gods in the corners: Hephaestus as cheated husband, Aphrodite as unfaithful wife and Ares as her lover. Drawing by Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872). Of course the ‘in flagrante’ scene is even more attractive…
The left painting above is work of Alexandre Charles Guillemot (1786 – 1831) and the right is signed by Francois Boucher (1703–1770). Please note how artist tried to emphasize the contrast with portraying Aphrodite in very light and Hephaestus in very dark colors. This trend is obvious even in more ‘domestic scenes with the same characters.
Names of the artists from left to right: Pieter Thijs (1624–1677), David Teniers the Elder (1582–1649) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770). All three used the dark against light effect. In last case we can even notice Aphrodite is sitting on white cloud. This trend will be obvious in next myths related with the fairy tale about Beauty and the Beast too.
2. Acis and Galatea
Galatea is a sea-nymph, Acis is a son of Faunus and another sea-nymph. They are both beautiful and in love with each other. If we already have two Beauties, where is the Beast?
Polyphemus, Cyclop, known from encounter with Odyssey enters. Big, ugly, with only one eye, he suits the role of the Beast perfectly.
Polyphemus and Galatea painted by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898).
We have another love triangle, this time with two lovers and one ugly guy who wants the girl for himself. There are several version of this myth available, but Acis doesn’t survive any of them. Polyphemus trows a rock on him and Galatea turns blood from Acis’ body into river which is still called Acis. It is in Sicily, just like volcano called Etna. Polyphemus is very likely personification of this volcano. Big, ugly, with only one eye, remember?
On the left: Johann Carl Loth (1632-1698), on the right: Francois Perrier (1590-1650). And another pair of paintings with Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).
In last two paintings the connection of the Cyclop with the volcano is obvious. All five paintings share light tones of ‘The Beauty’ and dark, sometimes almost camouflage colors for ‘The Beast’.
3. Zeus and Europa
In this story Zeus changes his appearance in bull (Beast) to charm Europa and it worked so well, he made her a queen of Crete…
On the left we can see very special illustration from very special illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931). This is the first example of Beauty being portrayed in darker tones than the Beast. Although the myth clearly say Zeus turned himself in white bull, Frederik De Wit (1630-1706) managed to show him darker than the Beauty. And same stands with next four examples.
You don’t have to know the whole story to show who is the victim and who is the intruder in these paintings by Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714-1789) on the left or Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669) on the right. We can’t continue without Tiziano Vecellio (cca1489–1576), more known as Titian who made the painting on the left and Peter Paul Rubens (1577 –1640) who copied it to make the result on the right:
To be fair, it seems Europa didn’t suffer too much in her role of her victim.
Let’s check the last painting. Work on the left is signed by Guido Reni (1575-1642).
She is still white, but her smile shows a lot too.
Just like in a fairy tale about the Beauty and the Beast.
Maybe she was a victim at first, but later things changed…
4. Apollo and Daphne
The myth about Apollo and Daphne is another interesting twist on the theme about Beauty and the Beast. Apollo insulted Eros who punished him with a lot of creativity. Apollo fell in love with nymph Daphne who couldn’t stand him. So Apollo chased her as we can see on the painting by Francesco Albani (1578–1660):
Artists from left to right: Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) and Robert Lefevre (1755–1830). But the chase is not the main point. This story becomes really charming after Daphne realizes she can’t escape. So she turns into a laurel tree! You may even notice first changes of this famous metamorphoses at her fingers, but these will become much more evident in next series:
Let’s name the painters from left to right: Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702–1789), Carl Christian Klass (1747–1793) and Antonio del Pollaiolo (1431–1498). While she is seeking for help at first two paintings, she looks pretty calm on the last one. She is safe now. Please note: painting by Liotard is actually painting made by famous sculpture made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) who made even more famous sculpture of David.
She became a tree.
Apollo was still in love.
And he was god, remember?
So he made her a very special tree.
Just to celebrate his eternal love.
This is why laurel tree is evergreen!
Leaves of laurel and sad songs are still Apollo’s consolation…
5. Hades and Persephone
Myth about Persephone in the role of Beauty is just another story which echoes through fairy tales. Hades is of course in the role of the Beast, but we can compare this myth with another fairy tale – about Little Red Riding Hood. Well, we can but we will not, because this post is starting to become too long and it is probably the best to see how painters saw the story…
Yes, she was young and beautiful, goddess of fertility, but god of the Underworld (Hades) abducted her. Ulpiano Checa (1860–1916) portrayed this scene in particularly spectacular way:
On the left: Joseph Anton Koch (1768–1839), on the right from up to down: Friedrich Preller the Elder (1804–1878) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). As you may notice there is another person involved. This is her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest who managed to make a deal with Hades (who is probably the second most powerful god after Zeus). Persephone can return on Earth but only for part of the year, another part she has to spend in the Underworld. This is why we have seasons of the year. This is also how mythologists interpret the story about Red Riding Hood.
The return of Persephone is portrayed by Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) and the marriage of Persephone by Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858–1928). Did Persephone love Hades eventually? We’ll never know!
But we do know the Beauty loved the Beast and this, my friends, is fine example of similarities and differences between myths and fairy tales.