Many fairy tales are remnants of older folk and peasant religions, fairy faiths which effectively remained the beliefs of the peasants right up into the modern Era. Yet even where beliefs in spirits of the fields remained they changed over time, so people often forgot the original meaning of many characters and events in fairy tales.
Although the ancient folk religions are complex a few of the more interesting aspects of them with regards to fairy tales include.
Building a relationship
Folk religion is about building a relationship with the spirit world. Thus in folk tales people often found success by being polite to supernatural beings, by acting in a moral way. For example, in "The Three Little Men in the Woods" a young girl shares her bread with three fairies "little men" who in return give her magical gifts. In the Russian Fairy Tale "Grandfather Frost" a young girl doesn't complain even as the Frost Spirit is making her colder and colder and so is given great wealthy.
In Japan there were numerous fairy tales about the importance of building and maintaining a relationship with everything from old tools, which were believed to have souls, to animals.
Forest Spirits and Fairy Soul Bargains
Fairies and similar spirits around the world desired human servants to help them as nannies, as black smiths, as servants, etc. Often such spirits would make deals with people, offering them wealth if they would agree to work for the spirit later. Thus most tales in which a person bargains with a devil are really remnants of older tales in which a person sells their soul to a forest spirit or fairy. After all the notion of selling ones soul to the devil isn't present in early Christianity or Judaism, in Christianity, for example, the devil gets the soul of the unbaptized or of sinners, so his goal would be to make people sin, not to get a nanny or servant.
In "The Soldiers and the Devil" for example, a dragon (which the fairy tale calls a devil) appears to some starving soldiers and promises to make them rich if they'll work for him at the end of seven years. At first they are happy to make the deal but as the end of the seven years draws closer they start looking for a way out of their deal.
This notion of tricking the spirit after getting wealth from it was common. In France it was believed that many wealthy people had become wealthy by making a bargain with with fairies, in which the fairies would provide them with wealth for seven years, at the end of which the fairy would own the person. However, when the fateful date was coming up the person would run out to the priest and get blessed so that the fairy couldn't take them.
Shamanism and Witch Familiars
Often in fairy tales a persons encounter with strange creatures was based on the witches encounter with familiar spirits. For example in stories with the The Frog Prince motif, the frog was very much like a witches familiar, demanding and controlling, until the witch took control through violence.
Entering the Realm of the Dead or Sky
The characters of many stories enter the spirit world. For example, I would argue that in their tale Hansel and Gretel entered the world of the dead, as newly dead spirits were often lead into the world of the dead which resembled the forest by a white bird. The realm of the dead was often guarded by an evil witch who would seek to eat the spirits of the dead. and in order to escape this realm you had to ride a duck or boat across a body of water.
Fairy tales are filled with hidden witchcraft. For example, in the Russian and German versions of Cinderella the heroine creates her own fairy godmother by growing a tree on her mothers grave and gets help from familiar spirits (mice were the most common familiar spirits in these lands.)
Fairy Tales are often filled with tales of how to keep oneself safe from evil influences. Not going out at night, not going near certain rivers, staying on the reindeer path, putting iron under ones bed, getting a baby baptized as soon as possible, etc.
Feminism (Read the Full Article)
Ultimately when interpreting fairy tales it often helps to interpret them through the lens of the ancient female perspective. This is because although people would share stories in bars, hospices, and on the road, fairy tales tended to be passed down from mothers and nannies to children. Indeed the Grimm Brothers collected most of their tales from women. Because of this the voice in fairy tales is very often female. Yet the society these women lived in didn't empower them, and so while there are many stories in which men are treated as an object, a prize to be won by heroines, women aren't necessarily empowered by these tales. Instead fairy tales with female protagonists tend to be lessons which teach young girls how to survive in a world which is very often against them.
One of the key things to remember is that at one time young women would be sent away to marry by their fathers to a man they might not know, in a village where the young women would be treated as outsiders. What's more their new husbands might be abusive and cruel. Further, the women were expected to work themselves practically to death. In Japan there is one women who would be scolded if she spent too long going to the bathroom, while in Russia women were the first ones awake in the morning and the last ones to bed at night.
There are four key motifs we see in fairy tales that deal with this.
The overworked women, such as in the tales of Rumpelstiltskin in which a women is locked away and required to do an impossible amount of work.
Women who must take control of their situation with violence or blackmail. There are many stories in which a women finds herself married to a monster, and manages to succeed by reveling what they are.
Winning the affections of a "Beast" through love.
In the wilderness. From Japan to Ireland there are tales of people encountering 'wild women' in the forests. Women who don't fit into society. Among the Selkup wild women were specifically women who had sought the wilderness to escape abusive husbands. In Japan one wild women tells how she used to live in the village but had to flee it. While less specifically stated in Europe it's likely that there were many women who chose to flee into the wilderness when possible, rather than stay in an abusive home. The wilderness in this case represents both freedom and fear, for it is an unknown place, a place away from society, where those who've suffered must flee.
These are peasants tales, which means they are both lessons about how to survive as a peasant and dreams of success. For the most part this can be understood in the context of the hero archetypes which exist within fairy tales. There are a few things to keep in mind, however.
Cunning is moral
To the peasants cunning is a form of morality, because in many situations only the cunning could survive.
Success through luck
Often people in fairy tales were successful primarily for luck, because peasants thought that success came from luck or supernatural forces. A person who had suddenly become wealthy was believed to have found fairy gold for example. (Which given that every once in a while people find
Rob the rich
Peasants often viewed it as acceptable to rob from the rich.
Success in fairy tales tends to come from hard work, because that's how peasants succeeded.
When you are powerless your survival often depends on being kind and listening to the advice of others.
Many Lands and Many Times
Fairy tales belong to not one, but many times and lands. "Hansel and Gretel" for example, came out of a famine in the 1300's in Western Europe. Yet at the same time the idea of using a chicken bone to trick a blind witch into thinking the protagonists were skinny came out of Ugric lands in Eastern Europe and Asia. Further the story itself was collected in the 1800's. So the story of "Hansel and Gretel" belongs not only to Germany but also Eastern Europe, and to many time periods as well. This makes it very difficult to interpret fairy tales through the lens of history as they can often mean so many different things.
Dreams of Childhood
Most fairy tales were collected during an era when people began having a romanticized view of childhood. This is in contrast to most of the eras in which they were told when childhood was in essence ignored and forgotten by the adults telling the stories.
There are two ways to view the psychology of fairy tales. One is from the modern perspective, that is to try to understand how these stories are seen by readers today. The other is to try to understand how they might have been seen by people who heard them "once upon a time." This later use of psychology while interesting is extremely difficult, as with no one to interview, we don't have an exact understanding of past cultures.
Unfortunately, most fairy tale books are primarily filled with B.S. which mostly comes from the ideas of Freud and Jung. For although Jung and Freud are popular bases for trying to interpret mythology and fairy tales, their ideas have largely been debunked and their understanding of ancient or even international cultures was limited to say the least. For example, Carl Jung claimed that the similarity between many fairy tales and myths represented deep seated psychology which was present in all people. Apparently Jung forgot to take into account the fact that he was primarily only looking at European tales which for the most part have common linguistic and even Genetic Roots. He for example, failed to take into account Yupik Tales, Japanese Tales, South East Asian stories, and tales from a plethora of other cultures. Indeed even in Europe the meaning of tales has largely changed. Originally European Heroes were by and large selfish, only caring about themselves. They did the things they did merely for their own glory, to build their own fame. This is far different from the current Western idea of what makes a hero.
Yes it's fun to say that this or that figure represents something to all humans, or that the fact that Hansel and Gretel have to ride on duck represents their budding sexuality, but the truth is that none of these notions make any real sense.