The relations between fairytales and myths. Heracles and Jack and the Beanstalk

Essay, 2015

7 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


Myths in general

Characteristics of myths and fairy tales

Heracles and Jack and the Beanstalk – A Comparison




Fairy tales and ancient myths are traditional narratives that consist of literary and oral descent. Both genres are dealing with supernatural/magic aspects in their content. The following essay examines the characteristics of fairy tales and myths by giving an explanation of the term “myth” in order to summarize shortly the current state of research regarding similarities and differences between myths and fairy tales. Following those aspects shall be used to answer the question if it is possible to put myths and fairy tales in a direct context to each other, by a comparison of the myth of Heracles and the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. (Röhrich 2000: 13; Rooth 2000: 20)

Myths in general

Myths were a constitutive factor in the ancient Greek and Roman culture and played an important role in both societies. The first myths can be traced back until the early Bronze Age. Two of the most famous examples are Homer´s Ilias and the Cosmonogy and Theogony by Hesiod. The question about how a myth can be defined was answered by several scientists trough the last centuries. According to Tonio Hölscher´s “Einführung in die Klassische Archäologie” myths are traditional stories that tell something about prehistoric times and are dealing with fundamental questions and values like the origin of the earth, the several generations of the ancient gods, but also the different heroes and heroines. (Hölscher 2006: 325)

In his opinion the ancient myth was a product of the earliest Greek cultures and was later adopted by the Romans. The myths were seen as stories that really took place in the past and therefore the protagonists of these stories were integrated as formative aspects of the society. Myths were considered as the documentation about the past and were hence a form of historiography. The whole system of the ancient myths bases on a genealogical system with the four generations of the gods and the corresponding three to four generations of heroes. (Hölscher 2006: 326)

The characters in these stories served as ideals for a good living but also as warnings. A first intellectual critic of the myths started 500 B.C., since then they were interpreted primary as allegories about natural processes or were changed to form more plausible and coherent narratives. The genre of the ancient Greek and Roman myths is full of diversity. They were developed and changed throughout the times and were present in several aspects of life like in religion and cults, as founding stories of sanctuaries, in politics, as legitimization through ancestry or in monarchic self-representation, like Alexander the Great who chose Heracles as his paragon. Among the myths dealing with heroes, the 12 tasks of the Heracles are by far the most known. They form a canonical cycle describing the actions and struggles of Heracles like the victory over the hydra shall be analyzed and compared later in this essay. (Hölscher 2006: 329; Röhrich 2000; 12)

Characteristics of myths and fairy tales

Fairy tales and myths both have characteristics that differentiate them from each other. Those aspects were elaborated through research in literary and archaeology studies and shall be summarized here. As stated above the myth takes place in ancient times and includes historical aspects e.g. the history of ancient Greece or the history of a certain sanctuary. The environment of the myth can be defined as known to the ancient listener or reader of those myths. But not only the locations are given, also the aspect of genealogy plays an important role. Many ancient myths include explanations about the origin of the known world, the universe, the gods and humans etc. Based on this the myth was seen as historiography, as former happened mandatory past. Additional to this local and temporal fixation myths are including named and known characters, like the Greek gods or heroes like Heracles. According to the indication of concrete locations, personalities and dates it is nearly impossible for a myth to be received and transferred in any other society or culture than the original one. (Röhrich 2000: 18; Rooth 2000: 20)

Fairy tales on the other side are stated to be more anonymous. Often the hero in a fairy tale has a common name like Hans or Jack and information about concrete location or point in time is not given and when only rudimentary like “Once upon a time”. This differentiation between the unique myth and the common fairy tale is also mentioned by Bruno Bettelheim in his book “The Uses of Enchantment”. But Bettelheim is going further into the differences between both genres and defines that the fairy tale can be considered as an optimistic story in contrast to the pessimistic meaning of a myth. To explain this argument he uses the example of Oedipus and the oedipal conflict. The Oedipal conflict is a great part of the development of a child. The myth on the one hand deals with unconscious material directly so that if it would lead to depression and anxieties when told to a child. This phenomenon would be emphasized through the missing of a happy ending in the myth. The child as the main audience proclaimed by Bettelheim needs at least a story that activates this inner conflict even more or leads to increased anxiety. It needs more symbolic images that reassure him that there is a happy ending and that he can work out of his inner struggles on his own. The tale assures this with the use of these symbolic images and also with a happy ending. According to Bettelheim the fairy tale prevents a listener from acting in ways that are damaging. (Bettelheim 1976: 38)

Another aspect Bettelheim emphasizes is the figure of the hero. In his formulations the mythical heroes discourages the child. They are half gods and have been confronted with various struggles and battles. In contrast the hero in a fairy tale is more like the child symbolized by his anonymous identity and his common name. He has to deal with more ordinary problems and does not need to e.g. slay a hydra. Whatever struggle the fairy tale hero has to overcome, in the end he remains a human being and is able to resolve the struggle only with his “humanity”.

Mythical heroes in contrast are of superhuman dimensions, so they have specific names that the child is not overwhelmed by them. If the mythical heroes should be explicit examples for the child it would be overpowered in trying to act like the hero and become him. Bettelheim refers in his argumentation to the Freudian aspect of the super ego. Myths are useful to help building up the super ego so that the child can emulate the hero (“I want to be like this”). The name of the mythical hero helps that the child is conscious about the remaining and unavoidable difference between him and the hero, so that he is not feeling inferior and discouraged by the sheer contrast. The fairy tale hero on the other side allows in the end satisfaction with the own desires and existence. The child can identify himself directly with the hero of the fairy tale (“I am that, I can become like that, that’s me”). To sum up the myth sets itself apart from the fairy tale through local, temporal, personal fixation; a pessimistic meaning with less symbolic significance and at least a central hero figure characterized more by its withdrawal from the listener/reader that it´s mutuality. In the next paragraph these concepts shall be applied to the myth of Heracles and the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. (Bettelheim 1976: 41)

Heracles and Jack and the Beanstalk – A Comparison

Heracles and Jack and the Beanstalk are both one of the most known representatives regarding to their genre. At the beginning of the Heracles myth many different persons and figures are introduced, like that Zeus went to Alkmene, when her husband was away and begets a child, Heracles, with her. The first part of the myth also includes information about the location of events in this case it is Theben, an area located in Greece. The myth includes the aspect of creation and origin of the world, too. It is written that Alkmene the mother of Heracles was afraid of the wrath of Hera and left her baby in the wild. Hera found him, but was not able to recognize him and took care of the baby. During the breastfeeding, some of the milk was spilled and so the Milky Way was created. It turns out that already the first part of the myth includes the concept of the personal, temporal and local fixation. (Nagy 2013: 40)

The next greater aspect in the myth is Heracles himself and his tasks. It is told that Heracles was thought in several subjects like archery, sword fighting, wrestling, singing, even before he went out to fulfill his famous 12 tasks. During the tasks Heracles slayed various beasts like the hydra, the nemeian lion, solved various riddles e.g. getting the golden apples of the Hesperides and also went to the Underworld to bring up Cerberus. These actions, one greater than the other, document the super-human dimensions of a mythical hero. (Nagy 2013: 40)

In the end also the concept of the pessimistic nature of a myth can be found in the motif of the infamous “Nessoshemd”. This garment was given to Heracles by his wife Deianeira, who had poisoned it. Deianeira sought revenge because Heracles fell in love with the beautiful Iole. Trying to get out of the garment Heracles burned himself with fire and died with horrible pain. Even he was later given immortality and joined the other gods. In the Heracles myth not only optimistic motives like of the true love are neglected, Herakles had three different wives, not really an indication for the one and only true love, but also the describing of Heracles pain and suffering in the end can be stated as proof for the pessimistic nature of the myth. (Nagy 2013: 41)

In contrast to the myth of Heracles stands the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. Here the family of the hero is not namely introduced and the hero itself has a common name like “Jack”. Already the name of the hero “jack” indicates the anonymous nature of the tale. Furthermore not a single information is given about a concrete location or point in time, where the actions takes place. Also other aspects are in contrast to the myth. In the fairy tale an optimistic nature is recognizable. This optimism is e.g. symbolized at the end when Jack defeats the giant ogre through cutting down the beanstalk and he and his mother are able to live “happily ever after”. (Floyd um 1900: 2)

The fairy tale also includes many symbolic pictures like, according to Bettelheim, the symbol of the cow “Milky White” for the infantile paradise and the expulsion from it when the cow stopped giving milk. This high amount of symbolism can be found throughout the whole tale. When you compare Jack to Heracles under the concept of super-humanity, Jack remains more common because of this is more adequate for identification for a child. Even if his task seems insurmountable, it fades towards the tasks in the Heracles myth. This is underlined by the common background of Jack. (Floyd um 1900: 3)

Despite of all the differences between both narrations, illustrated by this three concepts, one important point of relation must be exposed, namely the aspect of similarity of the motives. Both texts are including similar motives to tell their story e.g. the motive of the Otherworld illustrated through the ogre in his castle above the clouds and Cerberus and the Underworld. Another example is the general motive of the Quest, Heracles and Jack have to fulfill. In consideration of all the differences between both genres a total distinction between the myth and the fairy tale seems not to be possible anyway.


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The relations between fairytales and myths. Heracles and Jack and the Beanstalk
University of Cologne
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Fairytales, Myth, Heracles, Jack and the Beanstalk
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B.A. Fabian Lukas (Author), 2015, The relations between fairytales and myths. Heracles and Jack and the Beanstalk, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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