Once upon a time, the princesses danced. Every night, they traveled below ground and danced and danced and danced. Though their father the King locked them away, when he opened the doors in the morning, there they lay, exhausted, their shoes in shreds. Desperate to solve the mystery, the King offered the hand of one of his daughters in marriage (and even his crown) to whoever could stop their endless dancing ….
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, as a recognizable tale whole unto itself, is not particularly old. It was recorded by the Brothers Grimm as “Die zertanzten Schuhe” in 1815. Alexander Afanasyev has two different Russian versions in his Narodnye russkie skazki from the mid-1800s, but the French version, “Contes du Roi Cambrinus,” doesn’t appear until 1874 (and that even references the Grimm brothers).
Depending on the version, the number of princesses and their relationship to one another changes. Sometimes it’s twelve sisters, or six sisters, or three sisters. Sometimes they are twelve princesses from different kingdoms.
Who they dance with — and most importantly, why — also changes. The men below ground might be evil spirits, or giants, or enchanted princes. And the princesses join them because they are bored at court and want only to party; or because they have been enchanted, even cursed.
Sad to say, most versions do not present the princesses in a particularly good light. The eldest is usually cold, while the youngest is an idiot. They are most often frivolous good-time girls who need men (such as their father or the man who uncovers their secret) to keep them in line. They need to be tamed with marriage and motherhood, not be allowed to remain single, sexually available, and running around without male (sexual, financial, political) supervision.
Perhaps not surprisingly, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” was among my least favorite fairy tales as a child. I wanted princesses who were brave and adventurous, not shallow and self-interested. While the many picture book versions were beautiful to look at, the stories they told were ugly. Even Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre episode was a letdown.
Only with Robin McKinley’s short story in her collection, The Door in the Hedge, did I find a version that I could love, and see the endless possibilities in the tale. Here were the brave and intelligent princesses, the noble soldier, the King worrying himself into an early grave because he knows that something is terribly, terribly wrong and there is nothing he can do to save his daughters. Oh, and magic and curses and a mysterious old woman who is more than she appears. McKinley’s work inspired me to find other, newer, better iterations and to begin crafting my own Pagan-friendly versions.
So how does one go about crafting Pagan- and polytheist-friendly retellings of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”? Which elements make it expressly Pagan, as opposed to just another fairy tale or fantasy short story? Perhaps your story is set in a real-world polytheist society, such as Ming Dynasty China or Romano-Celtic Britannia. Or maybe it’s set during Prohibition, and your protagonist is a secret witch/moonshiner called to aid a wealthy family whose daughters have gone missing amidst problems with unionizers and striking workers. Or maybe your story includes nature spirits who are the focus of mortal devotion. Perhaps there are warring clans of witches, or maybe this is a science fiction tale centered around a prophecy of planetary/stellar alignment. Maybe this is a creation myth chronicling the birth of a new species, or even a murder mystery featuring a devotee of the Deity of Dance and Music.
Consider these three examples:
One) A tale of conquest, religious oppression, rebellion, and reawakening. Begin in a land of nature worship, where the people live (mostly) in harmony with the spirits of tree and river and mountain. Sacred rites (including dancing) are held every solstice and equinox. Then the land is invaded, the people are enslaved, nature spirits of killed or driven into hiding, and the priests and priestesses are slaughtered; only one priestess is spared, and she is forced to marry the invading King. The people are forbidden from practicing their traditional rites, which results in extensive famine and drought, but the former priestess/now Queen teaches them in secret to her daughters. After her death, they carry on as best they can. When the King discovers what they are doing, he orders one of his spies to investigate, uncover the brewing rebellion, and return his daughters in chains. The spy, however, is won over by the princesses. He sides with them, tricks the King, and helps them overthrow the tyrant. The princesses cast aside their titles and spread out across the land to teach people to the old ways. The spy, still feeling guilty for all the terrible things he did in service to the King, goes off into the world to do right and help who he can. With time, the nature spirits come out of hiding, the land heals, and the famine and drought end as the people return to their traditional practices.
Two) A creation myth. The Creator Deity (neither male nor female, but both and neither at the same time) births and sculpt the sun and moon and earth. The Creator also births divine daughters and divine sons and divine children who are both and neither, and fills the world with animals and plants. Twelve of the Creator’s divine daughters love to dance. They wander the world, dancing and taking different forms as they go; as they travel and dance, they mate with different animals, producing sapient species such as mermaids, centaurs, dragons, minotaurs, and others. The youngest of the twelve, however, cannot find a mate. She dances and dances, and eventually retreats to a cave to birth a new species: humanity. Humans continue to dance in her honor, especially under the full moon, but the most sacred dances happen in the depths of caves.
Three) A murder mystery. Imagine a polytheistic land that highly prizes beauty and creativity. Our protagonist is a priest of the Deity of Dance and Music. The biggest religious festival of the year is coming up, and he and the troupe he leads will be at the center of it all. Then someone murders one his dancers. And another. The priests of Law in this land have little experience investigating murder, which is almost unheard-of; the protagonist consults with his beloved Deity, who tells him to seek the aid of an outsider: a mercenary who once worked as a spy in a distant kingdom. Their working relationship blooms into friendship and then a tentative romance. Together, they uncover a plot to sabotage the festival. The plot is foiled, the conspirators are arrested, and the Deities are pleased. The mercenary/spy decides that his services might be needed by others, and opts to remain, and they live happily ever after.
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is a relatively new fairy tale, but it is one wide open to (re)interpretation and retelling. As a tale filled with magic, witches, curses, old women, sexually-available younger women, and underground spaces, it is especially open to Pagan reimaginings.
So what’s your version?
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]