The Threefold Law in Folktales

Author: Nukiuk

Three is a magickal number. It is the number of forms of the Goddess – Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Likewise, it is the form of the God as Father, Sage, and Son. It symbolises the Druidic elements of Land, Sea, and Sky. It is the number of times you chant a charm, the number of times you walk around a circle… and it is the basis for the three-fold law.

We all know the Wiccan Rede, or some variation of it. My favorite version is one I read long ago, although I cannot remember the author who so cleverly put it into rhyme:

“Three times three, what you put forth comes back to thee.”

Simply put, the threefold law speaks of karma. The energy you put out is the energy you get back, three times over. It is the basis for yet another popular Pagan tenet: “An ye harm none, do they will.” Putting forward negative energy will bring you nothing but negativity in return.

Old folktales are full of this concept, although they may never state it directly. Whether the tale is from Western or Eastern Europe, whether it is written about magical creatures or just about lucky noblemen, the importance of both karma and the number three are readily apparent. In most fairy tales, people get what they deserve for their efforts. My favorite example of this is from The Girl in the Well. In this story, a girl drops her spindle down a well. Her stepmother forbids her to return home without the spindle, so the girl dives into the well.

At the bottom of the well, the girl finds an alternate world. There she meets three groups of people, who each ask her a favor: a group of shepherds who need help cleaning their sheep, a group of cattle herders who need a similar favor, and a rich couple who ask her to work for them for one year. She aids each group, and is rewarded.

When she returns home, her stepmother grows jealous and sends her own daughter into the well. However, the stepdaughter refuses to aid the shepherd and the cattle herders and when she gets to the elderly couple, she is so lazy that after three days they send her home. She bears no rewards, but arrives home covered in bugs and filth. The moral of this story is obvious: put forth good effort, and you will be rewarded; act lazy and mean, and you will be punished. The energy you put out is what you get back.

In this tale, the number three is easily visible. The girl meets three groups of people seeking her aid, and is rewarded when she passes their tests. The stepsister fails all three – in fact, she is sent back home after three days.

Another tale, The Three Feathers tells us of three princes who are in dispute over who should rule the kingdom. His siblings consider the youngest brother a simpleton. The king decides that he shall give them a quest to determine who shall inherit; he sends them out to see who can bring him the most beautiful rug in the land. To settle any dispute, he throws three feathers into the wind, so that each brother can follow one in the direction it went.

One of the feathers goes straight up and down again, so the simpleton remains behind while his two brothers set off, one to the east and one to the west. However, he happens to notice a trap door beneath his feather, and follows it to find a court of toads. He asks the queen of these toads for the finest carpet she has, and it is delivered. Meanwhile, his brothers figure that he won’t be able to find a rug from anywhere, so they decide not to waste their money and each bring back a handkerchief.

When they return, the king declares the simpleton to be the inheritor. The brothers protest, and manage to talk the king into two more challenges – for a beautiful ring, and for a beautiful woman. The feathers do the same thing, and both times the youngest brother wins the challenge in the same manner, and so is crowned king, with his beautiful bride (who was once a young toad maiden) . The two elder brothers put forth no effort in their quests, and thus received nothing. Meanwhile, the supposed “simpleton”, instead of trying to outwit his father, simply does as he is told, and through this wins the crown. This tale has three brothers, sent to find objects three times, who are guided by three feathers. Once again, the number three shapes the way the story turns out.

Finally, the third example of this is in a strange little story call The Three Spinners. A girl refuses to spin flax, so her mother beats her. The queen is passing by and hears the girl’s cries. When she comes into the hut to investigate, the mother is so embarrassed by her daughter’s lack of spinning ability that she instead brags and claims the inverse – that she is beating the girl because she will not stop spinning, even though there woman can afford no more flax. The queen is impressed by this lie, and has the daughter brought to her castle to spin. She says if the girl can spin three roomfuls of flax, she will be able to marry the prince.

Of course, the girl cannot spin. So she cries for three days. After this period, three old women appear who offer to spin the flax for her, if only they can attend the wedding and be treated as the girl’s aunts. They each have a different deformity: a large, flat foot. a massive hanging lip, and an oversized thumb.

The girl agrees, and the rooms of flax are spun quickly. When the wedding comes around, the prince asks the old women how they got their deformities; they respond that they are through treading the pedal, licking the thread, and pinning it down with their thumb, respectively. The prince is alarmed and says that his beautiful bride shall never be allowed to spin again. And so the girl gets everything she wanted from life. The girl in this tale is by no means a paragon of goodness; she is rather lazy and disobedient. However, she made a promise to the three old women, kept it, and was rewarded almost three times as much as was worth such a favor.

This story has three women – specifically crones, the third incarnation of the Goddess. There are three rooms of flax to be spun, and the girl cries for three days. Three three’s – a powerful number, which potentially aided the magic that helped her out of her predicament.

The rule of three is written in many old fairy tales, if you just know where to look. In these stories, the rewards for basic kindnesses are often overdone; but then again, energy does tend to return threefold as much. These three stories are but a small example of the multitude of such tales that fill the body of European folklore. All throughout these tales, the number three is woven into stories of karma that have been told for generations.

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