Rapunzel As An Expression of The Creative Process

Sarah Shaw

Sarah Shaw

The story of Rapunzel may well date back to a 10th-century story called Rudāba. As with most fairy or folk tales, it has many roots from its original version to today. The modern version I'll be using for reference was written by Friedrich Schulz in 1790 and later popularized by the Brother's Grimm.

If you know the story, please feel free to skip to the pictures and analysis, but if you need to get in the mood....

      There were once a man and a woman who had long, in vain, wished for a child. At length, it appeared that God was about to grant their desire. These people had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world. One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rapunzel, and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it. She quite pined away and began to look pale and miserable. 

Her husband was alarmed, and asked: 'What ails you, dear wife?'

'Ah,' she replied, 'if I can't eat some of the rapunzel, which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die.'

The man, who loved her, thought: 'Sooner than let your wife die, bring her some of the rapunzel yourself, let it cost what it will.'

At twilight, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress, hastily clutched a handful of rapunzel and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it and ate it greedily. It tasted so good to her - so very good, that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before.

If he was to have any rest, her husband knew he must once more descend into the garden. Therefore, in the gloom of evening, he let himself down again; but when he had clambered down the wall, he was terribly afraid, for he saw the enchantress standing before him.

'How can you dare,' said she with an angry look, 'descend into my garden and steal my rapunzel like a thief? You shall suffer for it!'

'Ah,' answered he, 'let mercy take the place of justice, I only made up my mind to do it out of necessity. My wife saw your rapunzel from the window, and felt such a longing for it that she would have died if she had not got some to eat.'

The enchantress allowed her anger to be softened, and said to him: 'If the case be as you say, I will allow you to take away with you as much rapunzel as you will, only I make one condition, you must give me the child which your wife will bring into the world; it shall be well treated, and I will care for it like a mother.' 

The man in his terror consented to everything.

When the woman was brought to bed, the enchantress appeared at once, gave the child the name of Rapunzel, and took it away with her.

Rapunzel grew into the most beautiful child under the sun. When she was twelve years old, the enchantress shut her into a tower in the middle of a forest. The tower had neither stairs nor door, but near the top was a little window. When the enchantress wanted to go in, she placed herself beneath it and cried:

'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair to me.'

Rapunzel had magnificent long hair, fine as spun gold, and when she heard the voice of the enchantress, she unfastened her braided tresses, wound them round one of the hooks of the window above, and then the hair fell twenty ells down, and the enchantress climbed up by it.

After a year or two, it came to pass that the king's son rode through the forest and passed by the tower. Then he heard a song, which was so charming that he stood still and listened. It was Rapunzel, who in her solitude passed her time in letting her sweet voice resound. The king's son wanted to climb up to her, and looked for the door of the tower, but none was to be found. He rode home, but the singing had so deeply touched his heart, that every day he went out into the forest and listened to it. Once when he was thus standing behind a tree, he saw that an enchantress came there, and he heard how she cried:

'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair to me.'

Then Rapunzel let down the braids of her hair, and the enchantress climbed up to her.
'If that is the ladder by which one mounts, I too will try my fortune,' said he, and the next day when it began to grow dark, he went to the tower and cried:

'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair to me.'

Immediately the hair fell down and the king's son climbed up.

At first Rapunzel was terribly frightened when a man, such as her eyes had never yet beheld, came to her; but the king's son began to talk to her quite like a friend, and told her that his heart had been so stirred that it had let him have no rest, and he had been forced to see her. Then Rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought: 'He will love me more than old Dame Gothel does'; and she said yes, and laid her hand in his.

She said: 'I will willingly go away with you, but I do not know how to get down. Bring with you a skein of silk every time that you come, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and you will take me on your horse.'

They agreed that until that time he should come to her every evening, for the old woman came by day. The enchantress remarked nothing of this, until once Rapunzel said to her: 'Tell me, Dame Gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young king's son - he is with me in a moment.'

'Ah! you wicked child,' cried the enchantress. 'What do I hear you say! I thought I had separated you from all the world, and yet you have deceived me!'

In her anger she clutched Rapunzel's beautiful tresses, wrapped them twice round her left hand, seized a pair of scissors with the right, and snip, snap, they were cut off, and the lovely braids lay on the ground. And she was so pitiless that she took poor Rapunzel into a desert where she had to live in great grief and misery.

On the same day that she cast out Rapunzel, however, the enchantress fastened the braids of hair, which she had cut off, to the hook of the window, and when the king's son came and cried:

'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair to me.'

She let the hair down. The king's son ascended, but instead of finding his dearest Rapunzel, he found the enchantress, who gazed at him with wicked and venomous looks.

'Aha!' she cried mockingly, 'you would fetch your dearest, but the beautiful bird sits no longer singing in the nest; the cat has got it, and will scratch out your eyes as well. Rapunzel is lost to you; you will never see her again.'

The king's son was beside himself with pain, and in his despair, he leapt down from the tower. He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell pierced his eyes.

He wandered quite blind about the forest, ate nothing but roots and berries, and did naught but lament and weep over the loss of his dearest wife. Thus he roamed about in misery for some years, and at length came to the desert where Rapunzel, with the twins to which she had given birth, a boy and a girl, lived in wretchedness. He heard a voice, and it seemed so familiar to him that he went towards it, and when he approached, Rapunzel knew him and fell on his neck and wept. Two of her tears wetted his eyes, and they grew clear again, and he could see with them as before. He led her to his kingdom where he was joyfully received, and they lived for a long time afterwards, happy and contented.


Finding Wisdom In The Myth

The story begins with a pregnant woman, hormonal cravings, and an accommodating husband. Symbolically speaking, pregnancy is the gestation of a creation and so it's possible that the story of Rapunzel is an expression of one of the many ways the whole creative process can manifest. What I mean is, there's a description contained within the story of an actual creative process. This does not mean that ALL creative processes follow this same mythic path; it is just one of many possibilities, and IF the story resonates with you, it may be similar to your own story from a psycho-philosophical perspective.

Initially, I saw the witch as a bitch, but then I started to question why the husband didn't just go and ask for the lettuce instead of stealing it. The Enchantress could be seen to be justified in demanding the creation for herself when it was something she had grown that made it possible for the child to exist in the first place. She promised the husband that she would raise the child as her own, that she would be a mother. She didn't want to destroy Rapunzel, but take her as her own. The child is coming of age before the myth gets interesting. It may be worth a mention that an earlier version of the story has a variation on how Rapunzel gets caught out - she doesn't slip up verbally. The Enchantress notices that Rapunzel is pregnant...either way, the Enchantress cuts her hair, and the Prince finds the old woman instead of Rapunzel. It is interesting to note that she says "the beautiful bird sits no longer singing in the nest; the cat has got it, and will scratch out your eyes as well"...the bird is often symbolic of freedom, which is what Rapunzel was when she made the choice to be with the Prince. Cats, more often than not, are the intuitive aspect of our soul self. They represent something wild which does not always respond well to domesticity. In a symbolic sense, this cat who got the bird can be a part of us, a part which doesn't want to be controlled yet doesn't want other aspects of the self to be free either.
 
What this myth could be saying is that when we create something, some of us may have to do battle with our instincts if we want the best possible outcome - which is to share what we have created and live comfortably among others. There is clearly a considerable amount of time which passes between Rapunzel's own creation and her being able to live with her Prince. Long enough for her to give birth and be left to wander in the forest for a few years. All in all, this myth probably refers to a period of twenty years or more. When she comes across him in the forest, she recognizes him, and it's those tears, the expression of genuine emotion, which helps to restore his sight. As the wannabe hero, he had a mission to fulfil, but his blindness says he lost the ability to see where he was going when he came face to face with the 'cat'. Symbolically, the cat is an instinct out of control. A secret hostility we hold towards having to let something we've nurtured mature in its own right. And creations do just that - they take on a life of their own, whether it's a child or a work of art, or a scientific discovery.

As an external player/reminder, the cat may show up in the form of a bitchy distant relative, or a colleague or long term friend. The Enchantress is around Rapunzel before birth, so this is an issue which we were born with, it isn't created by circumstance or anything else. The story of Rapunzel is more likely saying this begins as an aspect of nature, which is then nurtured.

There is a slight demonization of that which sustains the new creation (represented by the witch woman), but does it get demonized because - whilst it helps to bring creation into existence, it also locks it away and doesn't want to share it with the rest of the world? It wants to keep it child-like and isolated. The demonization may be the voice of society that says - If you're not going to share that with the rest of us then you must be evil, and we don't want you in the group because now we're afraid of you because you rejected being a part of us. This could be why some artists feel a sense of being ostracized and have major issues with society and the whole 'fitting in' thing. I'm not saying this is THE reason why people feel rejected by society (because they're secretly holding back their creations), I'm saying this could be a part of the reason in some instances.

Many artists, from painters to philosophers, have reported this very struggle. The intense desire to create, and at the same time, the resistance to sharing that very creation and wanting to hide themselves away. The hair (strength) offers a means to allow others to come close, but it didn't help Rapunzel to escape. She has been cast out and discarded. She is finally free of the inner hostility (represented by the old enchantress), but what allows a resolution to take place is the genuine emotion felt when she was reunited with her beloved. The tears helped the hero to remember the original purpose - which was to be at home with a sense of completion (man and woman living in harmony, the coming together of two complementary forces) and live among our own people.

In the very beginning of the story, we have a man and a woman coming together and creating - this all begins with them. This changes the dynamic ever-so-slightly and what it tells us is that in having created something new, an aspect of our own inner self demands payment. I'm talking about self-sabotage here, and my honesty demands that I tell you it took me a while to figure that one out despite questioning why there was no mention of the biological mother of Rapunzel having a meltdown over the loss of her child.


Emotion doesn't get expressed until very late in the story, and this could give us a clue into how we can resolve this internal battle that we may engage in from time to time. What I'm saying is, if you get caught up in this particular dilemma and you really listen to what the other voices are saying - you'll probably find there isn't a dilemma at all. It's just an aspect of your instinctual self that is being selfish. And what's more - it's entirely natural, although not necessarily emotionally healthy nor financially productive.

The desired food source lay outside of the garden of the couple, and this could be representative of taking inspiration from outside of our own self. Which, of course, is what often happens when we are prompted to create something new. We may indeed get a call from within, but we don't exist in a vacuum, and it can be impossible to switch off from what is going on around us. Although, there could be a hidden message in here that says this whole issue of the witch-as-bitch rearing her head is more likely to occur if we've taken sustenance from outside of our own established boundaries. What I mean is, if we rely on the 'food stuff' of others, at some level we could attack our self for it. Although we may have no choice - we crave what we crave, and if we don't get it, we begin to feel like we're dying just like the original mother in this story. There is also the idea already out there that we only ever create something of value when we do step outside of our existing comfort zone, but it'll always come at a price.

I managed to find a few images which offer various takes on the myth of Rapunzel. I have no way of knowing if the modifications are offering additional insight into the artists who created them, or maybe it's a subconscious observation they've made on people around them. Or, maybe they were well aware of what they were saying without the use of words? Extremely long hair, which is a central theme of Rapunzel, doesn't always come with a tower, and there are a couple of examples further down the page.

Rapunzel In Imagery

 

NinaY

NinaY

I love Nina Y's interpretation and once upon a time I would have identified strongly with this picture. It appears to be a case of 'fuck off I don't want to be saved and would rather stay here on my own than be rescued by you'. I wonder if there's a sense of the man using the woman to climb to the top, a feeling of being put upon, rather than helped. You know, those instances where someone professes to be 'saving' you when in fact you don't need nor want to be saved. Maybe you were just letting your hair down, and someone saw it as a cry for help. Or maybe it's a passer-by just chancing their luck, and they assumed you had sent out an invite? Cutting off the hair could be akin to cutting-off-one's-nose-to-spite-the-face, but then maybe something just isn't right? Like the timing?

 
Diana Dihaze

Diana Dihaze

I'm not so sure about this one, it looks to me like he died because he was too busy making it look like he was trying when in fact he wasn't. The giveaway is the direction the skeleton is facing; there's no way he was going to get up that wall unless he thought the hair was attached to some type of winch and all he had to do was hold on? If you're feeling a connection, then it could be a suggestion that you know someone who desires your attention, but they need to put in considerably more effort. Taking it one step further, it could serve as a warning that they may indeed die trying to reach you. And I mean that in the symbolic sense, not literal. If you know who this picture represents, maybe reach down and offer your hand, or tell them they need to turn and look at you, they're facing the wrong way and will never reach you like that. 

 
Alperen Kahraman

Alperen Kahraman

A beautiful take on hopelessness from Alperen Kahraman. That afro guarantees there's no chance of rescue by traditional methods although there's no knowing if there are stairs in this tower and it's probably best to check before resorting to more creative methods of escape. She looks fed up, but then she might just have climbed into that tower to get a better view of the landscape. If you look closely, her eyes are focusing on something above, so maybe she wants to be up even higher than what she is? Or is her prince up there in the heavens? Is she looking for divine inspiration? Did she initially climb the tower to get some much-needed time-out? There's a youthfulness and vibrancy to this picture which tells me there is plenty of time for contemplation.

 
Kathryn Juarez

Kathryn Juarez

Not hidden away in a tower but the hair is still the big sign screaming to be read. She holds her throat in one hand and the hair as a noose in the other. Is her own vanity going to be the death of her? Or is it something deeper than that? Hair is seen to represent strength by some (think Samson and Delilah), and it could be her willpower and fighting spirit (the hair is red) that is causing her problems. The dress is exceptionally feminine and quite prudish which is often seen as the opposite of a fighting spirit; is a subconscious idea of chastity the underlying problem? Who knows, but the image suggests a one-way ticket to suicide if she doesn't loosen up.

Margo Selski - Defined by Hair

Margo Selski - Defined by Hair

The image above is representing a social truth - that we are indeed, at least partly, 'defined by hair'. You can pick up almost any magazine to see that. From clip-in extensions to weaves, the choices are many, frequently expensive, and damaging to one's natural locks. If you go to any supermarket, you can see that the hair-dye section has as much shelf space as the tea or coffee. Again, it comes at the price of - damage to what is natural. Does this image contain the suggestion that it is harder, although not impossible, to see what's underneath? If the hair is the main attraction, is the dress one wears of less importance? The red dress speaks of a passionate nature, and the birds speak of freedom, but can she move freely within the dress of hair? Could a significant other get close enough to hold her, or does he have to keep his distance? Are social demands limiting her ability to show herself off?

I found this final image by accident when I went for a five-minute breather on Facebook, and it's probably my favorite out of the bunch. This Rapunzel is visibly old, and yet she sits waiting at the window looking fed up. Unlike the afro-rapunzel, there is less hopelessness here. The fact that she still sits despite her hair becoming grey speaks of the divine spark within, that thing that keeps us going when we should have given up long ago. Is this a case of self-sabotage at its finest? It may be worth pointing out that none of the characters in the original story claim to be immortal, this creation is going to die someday, and no one will ever get the benefit if it stays locked up in that tower.

Jorge Pozuelo

Jorge Pozuelo