Part of the definition often given for fairy tales is that they aren’t religious in nature, but how true is this? For while it’s certain that many of them exist purely for entertainment can any fairy tale of Jesus be completely non-religious in nature? How about folktales with characters which used to be religious? No matter how non-religious fairy tales may same they can still show what people believed and what they used to believe.
There was a belief that at least once upon a time fairies walked the fields more openly, that animals talked to men, that there was a much freer and more wondrous world. We must then look at fairy tales within the context of how they would impact people not simply as stories, as moral lessons, but also what impact they would have on people who actually believed the stories they were hearing. These tales to those listening to them once upon a time were to some extent historical stories. Further given the nature of some of these stories, especially those known specifically as fairy tales or wonder tales one must accept that there is to some extent a certain amount of religious idea’s within the fairy tales themselves. Finally along fairy tales can be used as a means of understanding what people once believed. After all many fairy tales owe their existence to the mythological and religious beliefs that a people once held. This is certainly not to say that everyone believed folktales, but it seems likely that the vast majority of the population did. One must understand that nearly all European and Asian societies had two groups of people; the upper and the lower castes. That these people’s beliefs about the world in general would have been very different as the worlds they lived in were clearly extremely different. Imagine if you well an entire society of people stretching across the Eurasian landmass who are not allowed to have education, who in some cases can’t even speak the language of their religious services, who don’t know anyone who can read. Imagine also that their concerns or very different from those of the upper class. For them the mystical and philosophical world debated by the other caste didn’t matter so much as did the natural world. When one is struggling to eat, to plant crops, when one is worried about wolves in the forest, or an illness that can wipe out the crops, one doesn’t necessarily care about heroic deeds or philosophy except as an interesting story. For such people what matters is their immediate needs, which are many and which are not always fulfilled by the religion or mythology of the upper classes. This is why long after most people stopped believing in fairies people still offered these creatures bread, or tied pieces of cloth around trees for them, or would try to chase away the bad natural spirits with brooms and bits of iron.
People tended to have a negative view of these “peasants tales,” and “old wives tales,” for many years. One critic stated that such tales should be “regulated to the very simplest taverns and pothouses. Any imaginative peasant can think of ten similar ones without difficulty, which, were they all to be put to press, would be a waste of paper, pens, ink, and typographic letters, not to mention the labors of the gentlemen writers”
The differences between these two classes is so extreme that at times they used different forms of currency which had to be exchanged for the other as if they were from different countries. This is why penning down the beliefs of ancient people can be so difficult, because the there was not one set of beliefs among a people their were two different traditions. Further each individual group of people had their own traditions and beliefs and any individual person might have their own unique ideas. Thus it was easy for the same province or region to have many ideas which contradicted each other at times or which at the very least didn’t seem to go together. Thus putting together the beliefs of any ancient people is like trying to put together a puzzle in which many pieces don’t fit together and many more pieces are missing all together. One can’t be surprised then if all the pieces don’t fit together.
For further discussion on fairy tales as tales of fairies and religious tales please see fairies and In search of Europe’s first religion