The Symbolism of Sorting


“Lentil Sorting” by Michelle Anglin,

In the fairytales, Cinderella and Vasilisa the Beautiful, and in the myth of Psyche and Eros, young women are set to sorting; a task found in fairy tales in which the protagonist must sort a mix of similar-seeming disparate objects into its component parts.

In Cinderella, the hateful stepmother throws a patch of lentils into the cold hearth and makes her stepdaughter separate the lentils from the cinders in the grate.  Cinderella has no hope of finishing the task in time to attend the Prince’s ball.  However, a flock of white doves flies in the window and begin separating lentils from cinders.

In Vasilisa the Beautiful, Baba Yaga orders Vasilisa to separate rotten kernels of grain from the good ones.  She completes the task with the aid of a magic doll inhabited by the spirit of her mother.  However, Baba Yaga sets her sorting again.  This time she must separate poppy seeds from peas.  Again the magic doll completes the girl’s task by calling on field mice to come help.

In Psyche and Eros, Aphrodite, angry that her son Eros has fallen in love with a mortal, separates the lovers.  Psyche is forced to perform a series of seemingly hopeless tasks. At one point Aphrodite throws down a mess of mixed wheat, barley, poppy seeds, chickpeas, lentils and beans, and orders Psyche to separate them. A kind ant, hearing her cry, takes pity and calls for his swarm, which makes short work of the task.

The impossible task of sorting, in these and other tales, generally falls to young women who must accomplish the job before morning.  Sorting is usually one of a series of three trials, presented late in the evening of a trying day, which must be accomplished by dawn.  So this task speaks directly to the work a woman must do to become an adult.  She must at all costs learn how to differentiate one thing from another.  And not just any other thing, other similar things.

Already these maidens have been unexpectedly thrown out of warm comfortable childhoods into a larger, harsher reality.  They must learn quickly in order to survive.  Consider the speed at which adolescence overtakes young women, especially these days, when we begin to sexualize girls even before they reach puberty with, pre-teen make-ups, training bras, hair styles and provocative clothing.  Sadly, many men are predators, and it takes a great deal of discernment to judge the genuine from the false, the wholesome from the poisonous.

But, there is more than danger to consider.  Women are tasked with a multiplicity of roles and demands.  Just juggling motherhood, marriage and work is hard enough, but each of these is rife with sub-categories of differing claims for her time and attention.  Learning to choose, to sort and prioritize is absolutely necessary to survive and thrive.

In the stories the young women survive with the help of animals.  Unlike other stories where the heroine/hero has showed some creature a kindness which is now being repaid, the small humble animals – mice, pigeons, ants, which help, do so out of the kindness of their own hearts.  In fairy tales animals often symbolize instincts and innate wisdom.  In other words help comes from within one’s self.

The girls in these stories originated in happy families with good and loving mothers.  In both Cinderella and Vasilisa the Beautiful, the spirits of the girls’ dead mothers return to guide and help them.  This teaches help can come to one in the form of passed down memories and experiences of one’s ancestors.  Their strength and perseverance in surviving is something one can lean on and gather for one’s own use.

Help can also come from the kindness of strangers.  Small acts of help or comfort can nourish and sustain.  One should never disdain help or be ashamed of needing it.  People are more willing to help than one can imagine.  Never be afraid to ask.

All these lessons are embodied in the fairy tales.  Passed on and on through centuries of retelling, encoded in story, they reach and teach each new generation.  Story lasts, story survives, where strictures and sermons fall quickly by the wayside.  In times of trouble, pictures often flash through our brains.  The images we created in imagination or the illustrations we poured over as children can come flooding back in times of crisis to guide us, point us to a course of action that may save our lives.

It’s fun to unpack the stories, interesting to speculate on their meaning and very useful in prompting us to pass the stories on.  However, whether or not we understand consciously and intellectually, something inside us, some instinctual guide, knows exactly what it all means.  Not everyone who’s told the stories remembers or incorporates their wisdom.  But those who do find life and other people a little more comprehensible, a little less confusing.  They go into the world a little more prepared for what they will find, or what will find them.

This entry was posted in Consciousness, Fairy Tales, Girls, Meaning, Myth, Psychology, wisdom, Women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Symbolism of Sorting

  1. Anonymous says:

    I very much like what you wrote. I haven’t been doing much writing lately. I miss our collaboration. Thinking of you.

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