Kari Woodenskirt, the growth of the feminine spirit

There is a Norwegian variant of the Cinderella fairy tale where the heroine wears a wooden skirt. Kari is a princess who escapes from her vicious stepmother by going to be with the cattle in the meadow. There she makes friends with a blue bull who talks to her in human speech. Out of his ear a magic cloth could be drawn which provided rich dishes of food on which Kari nourished herself. Kari, bull, and foodWhen the Queen discovers Kari’s secret and decides to have the bull slaughtered, the princess decides to escape on the bull’s back. These two enter three forests with leaves of copper, silver, and gold respectively. Although warned not to touch the leaves, Kari does so and the bull must fight with trolls. He defeats the three, six, and nine headed trolls with great difficulty. When they come to the border of another kingdom the bull makes a request.
Kari and bull“In the royal castle you must put on a wooden skirt and live in the pigsty and always say that you are Kari Woodenskirt and you have work there. But now you must cut off my head, pull off my hide, and roll up in it the two leaves and the golden apple and lay it at the foot of the cliff wall here. Against that wall leans a stick. Whenever you want something from me, rap on the wall with it.”
Kari does as the bull requests, and goes to the pigsty in the castle, where the cook gives her work. The prince treats her badly when she brings wash water to his bed chamber. She clatters in her wooden skirt and the prince pours the water over her head. She then goes to the cliff wall and knocks on it with the stick. A man comes out and she asks for a dress so that she can go to church. Kari Wooden dressHe gives her a dress as radiant as the copper forest and a horse with a saddle to ride. The story continues with the prince falling in love with the mysterious and beautiful young woman, who appears in silver and gold on subsequent meetings. When asked where she came from, she responds with “From Washwater Land”, and she recites a magical verse:
Light before me
Behind me, darkness,
That the prince may not see
Whither I ride.
She leaves behind a golden shoe stuck in the tar on the last time she vanishes. With this shoe the prince finds his princess is actually Kari Woodenskirt.Kari on horseback
Marie-Louise von Franz explains this tale in a chapter on self-affirmation in Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche (1997).  This is an illustrative fairy tale.  It shows us how the feminine principle develops the ability to affirm itself.  Von Franz says,
“The initial situation shows us a king who is absent, entangled in war, and at home it is his evil second wife who rules. This corresponds psychologically to a situation of the collective consciousness in which the masculine principle, spirit, is exhausting itself in a conflict situation while the feminine principle of eros, the principle of the culture of heart and feeling, has degenerated and is now only concerned about prestige and power. The masculine and feminine natures are separated and not in a state of relationship. Kari, the daughter, symbolizes a possibility of renewal of the feminine nature, which must find a way to prevail in the face of these difficulties. To begin with, she escapes in a typical feminine fashion—disappears into the realm of Mother Nature, to beasts of the field, that is, the realm of unconscious fantasy. There she meets a blue bull who provides her with nourishment and help.
The bull, in most religions and myths, is a symbol of the spirit of the earth, a chthonic fertility power of great violence, wild affectivity, and strength. For the woman, he embodies a kind of dark, passionate, realistic, affect-laden conviction, the roots of which are religious in nature—something like an unconscious, nature-related divine image and still undifferentiated instinctive spirituality. (Blue is the color of the spirit.) From this animus figure, Kari draws her strength and spiritual nourishment, but at the same time it also cuts her off from all contact with her fellow human beings. The bull carries her further away from the perilous source of perverted outlook (the queen), and they go through forests whose trees bear metal leaves. From a mythological point of view, such a thing happens only in paradise; thus one can only conclude that Kari has been transported to the realm of primordial fantasy pre-existing the most ancient times, into the center of the collective unconscious, to a realm of innocence, nature, and nearness to God. But as Eve once tasted of the apple, she too, in a forbidden way, picks leaves from the metal trees and lays a sin on herself that forces her to leave paradise. The germinating ego consciousness of her personality egotistically wants a piece of life for itself. Here we have a bit of self-affirmation, this time not vis-à-vis other people, but vis-à-vis the unconscious. It is as though she were saying, “True, when I flee to the realm of fantasy all conflicts are resolved; but I do also want to live myself and have something real in my hands.” Three times, her unintentional theft brings about a savage mortal conflict between a troll and the bull. In Nordic mythology, trolls represent the chaotic, unformed primal unconscious, which here turns against the bull, who embodies a higher, goal-directed spirituality. The chaos of untamed affects and emotions breaks loose, but it can be overcome by the strength of the blue bull. The trolls’ many heads signify the undirected dissociative force of the emotions. And with this, the paradisaical state of the dream is over—Kari must go back to the human world, and at this threshold of her own salvation, she has to sacrifice that which is of greatest value to her, the bull. It occurs again and again in many fairy tales that a helpful animal demands to be sacrificed in this way by the hero or heroine. This points to a deep-seated psychological mystery.
The ultimate religious attitude toward life and the most profound urge in human nature, which Jung called the impulse toward individuation, that is, self-realization, is initially simply an unconscious instinct, an irrational “can’t-help-it.” This profound and wholesome instinct in a human being often saves him or her in the face of all perils. It is a kind of human genuineness or sincerity that cannot be twisted out of shape. But in the long run, that is not enough. A person must by nature also know why he or she is doing something. He must—and this is apparently a destiny imposed on him by nature—become conscious and comprehend the meaning of this “dark urge.” Therefore he must only sacrifice this instinct in its animal form, and it is the instinct itself that demands its own sacrifice. This is a tragic and frightful moment in the life of every human being. The “dark night of the soul” takes over, and he is now abandoned by everything, even the helpful voices and vital supportive forces within him. But Kari pluckily heeds the bull’s demands and performs the ritual killing. She buries four parts of the bull, and this indicates the significance of the sacrifice; for in nearly all myths and religions of man, four signifies the making conscious of a content, and through this endeavor to recognize the “bull” in its deeper nature, she discovers that hidden within him was the spirit of a man, who now manifests and from then on remains her invisible helper and advisor. This masculine spirit is the animus of the woman, mentioned earlier, which now, however, no longer manifests purely as affect, impulse, and vital force, but has become human, can express itself in words and deeds on a human level.
But in her return to the human world, Kari at first finds herself in an extremely humiliating position. She becomes a Cinderella at the court of a kingdom in which a young, still unmarried prince is the ruler. This prince is a figure representing the renewal of the collective-consciousness principle, a new spiritual and philosophical attitude, which in contrast to the king at the beginning of the tale is not caught up in war. In other words, it offers a new possibility for life which leaves the old conflicts behind. However, the masculine and feminine are not yet harmoniously unified. The two principles are separated from one another—Kari goes crashing about in a wooden dress, and the prince behaves in a coarse and uncourtly fashion.
Kari Wooden dressKari’s wooden skirt symbolizes a “wooden” and unfeminine way of manifesting an awkward and contrary manner that makes her erotically unapproachable. This is a gesture of self-protection by which she is protecting her own inner process of maturation from premature contact.
The prince’s uncourtly coarseness can be interpreted in two ways. The prince can be looked at as an animus figure within the woman, and in this case it would mean that when a woman makes an effort to develop the masculine side of herself, she inevitably passes through a temporary phase in which she behaves arrogantly and unskillfully by way of compensation for her otherwise yielding feminine nature. (History shows this, for example, in the behavior of the first feminists before the First World War.) But one can also look at the prince as the woman’s outer male partner, and in that case, his behavior clearly shows how willfully the man reacts, and even must react, when the woman relates to him in such a “wooden” and contrary fashion. His manhood reacts with a corresponding affect, and that is probably basically for the best, because he forces Kari to develop herself further.
Kari on horsebackFrom the invisible spiritual advisor, the bull-spirit-man, she now receives the beautiful dresses in which she appears in church, that is, very literally, her psychic beauty and higher consciousness begin to shine through, and the prince begins by moments to glimpse her true higher nature behind her contrariness. In true feminine fashion, however, she compels him to find her rather than pushing herself on him. Indeed, judging by the verse she speaks, she remains turned only toward the inner light of her own growth to consciousness, fleeing before the darkness of unconsciousness and the animus affects, until the prince finds her true nature. Through this she reaches her due position of queen, that is, of an individuated, fully developed woman. She gives the prince to understand in a few biting and haughty remarks how discourteously he has behaved, but she takes no revenge, for where real love and genuine relationship of feeling prevails, no further competitive self-affirmation is necessary. One can reach an understanding in a human and completely ordinary fashion through words or often just little innuendoes. Humor, that single divine quality of humanity, as Schopenhauer once called it, is the bridge of genuinely human and friendly “self-affirmation” between partners. (pp. 160-165)”

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About Michael J. Melville

People describe me as a Spiritual Catalyst because their spiritual evolution speeds up when they share their process with me. Discussing dreams, addictions, sacred medicines, family histories, or personal relationships moves one closer to the core, where the inner child dwells. Once contact with her/him is made, growth resumes.
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