Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Use of Sound and Music in Fairy Tales

Illustration by Hannah Baek Wha

I was much struck by the mention of sound and music in some of the fairy tales I worked with in my upcoming book ‘The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales’. This book came about when Murshid Nawab, many years ago, told us an ancient Chinese Han Fairy Tale, as an allegory for Service, at our Summer School. I was so taken with the idea that even ancient stories from other faraway lands and cultures, contained an understanding of mysticism and spirituality, even though this was hidden. So, I begged Nawab to send me the full story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram: and I then interpreted it using a Jungian understanding of the symbols but from a Sufi perspective. This was published in Toward the One Journal of Unity in 2007. Following this Nawab sent me four other stories to work with, each one containing an increasing focus on the hero’s quest for the Beloved or Soul. These five stories became the core of my book. When I decided to write a prologue, this expanded into, what became the main part of the book – the Weaving – a weaving of the elements or strands of these five fairy tales, into our modern lives.  They are just as relevant now as they were when they were told hundreds and perhaps thousands of years ago.  At the same time, I was able to work through some mysteries of my own in relation to the character of the Witch. It was mentioned to me that some of the wonderful Sufi Saints would disguise themselves as magicians or witches, in Sufi teaching tales. When I heard this, I suddenly understood the role of the witch as a Teacher in fairy tales.

Another strand of meaning which I found in the stories, was that of Sound and Music – in fact I quote extensively from Murshid’s book, The Mysticism of Sound and Music.  We work with music and sound in our Sufi practices: The Chromatic Zikar especially opens and resonates the various centres or chakras by use of particular sounds, Like a sounding of the chakras.

In Zikar we move and chant to a special rag – a most powerful practice. And of course, we have a practice of hearing the inner sound.

The first story to specifically mention sound, that I came across was The Little Humpbacked Horse. In this, Ivan, the hero, is initially portrayed as singing a merry song to a dark-haired beauty. This dark-haired beauty is the only mention of the feminine, until much later in the tale. Ivan ‘wins’ his little humpbacked horse in a massive battle with a ‘demon’ mare. This little horse became his steed and his guide.

Ivan also sings as he feeds and cares for his magical horses. Our reluctant hero is tricked and forced into catching and bringing the fabled Firebird to the Tsar. Ivan’s little humpbacked horse is, for him a voice of guidance, which always helps and advises him. In a beautiful glade in the forest, the Firebirds come, every dawn, to drink water from the stream. Ivan puts out special food for the Firebirds and waits, but his little horse tells him to ignore the chatter of the birds and seize the nearest one. This he does. In our inner life, one of the first things we must learn is to ignore the chatter of our mind, so that we can focus on the ‘work’ at hand. To catch the Light of the Firebird is our first task in the inner life.

Ivan is again tricked and forced into going on his next quest to find the glorious Tsar Maid for the Tsar. She it is who later in the story becomes the Tsar in her own right, with Ivan as her consort. A female Tsar (not a wife or consort)! She represents the Soul / Beloved in all her Wisdom and Beauty. Ivan, after finding the Tsar Maid on the sea shore, lures her with sweetmeats, laid on a golden service, within a golden tent. He is warned by his little horse that when the Tsar Maid takes up her musical instrument and plays on it, he is on no account to fall asleep, otherwise he will fail to catch her. When we are on our inner spiritual journey (in meditation, or contemplation), we must not be lulled into sleep, by the wonderful music or song of the Soul. But of course, Ivan does drift off to sleep (we all do) and is woken by his horse furiously neighing – yet another sound – a warning! This time Ivan has one more chance and he manages to overcome his sleepiness by becoming angry with the Tsar Maid for trying to cheat him. The energy of anger does have its uses, even on a spiritual quest.

Sound is again used in this story, right at the climax of this great tale: where Ivan is forced to accomplish his final feat of transformation, on behalf of the Tsar. His little horse whistles loud and long three times. This piercing sound has a profound effect on the psyche, directed towards the crown chakra – it becomes the sacred sound of Hu. At this point in time, Ivan plunges in and out of the three cauldrons (one boiling, one icy cold and one just right): he emerges completely transformed, beautiful and handsome. On seeing Ivan’s transformation, the Tsar himself dives into the cauldrons and is boiled on the spot.  Ivan had done the inner work, transformed, and thus became the consort of the Tsar Maid.

In the story of the Fairy of the Dawn, Petru, our hero, is on a quest from consciousness, through various realms, towards the Centre, where the Fairy of the Dawn guards the sacred spring, from which Petru must take the water of life and bring it back to his father the Emperor, so that his ‘sight’ will be cured. In the process Petru too has gained a horse – a magnificent brown horse, which now guides him. After many battles he arrives at the copper woods, the silver woods, and the golden woods. In each of the woods his horse guide tells him, that he must not pick the flowers on either side of his path. Each time he cannot resist and must fight a monster – a Welwa, in a fearsome battle. Each time he overcomes the Welwa by gaining mastery over it, and each time the Welwa turns into a beautiful horse – another voice of guidance. Towards the end of his battle with the Welwa of the golden woods, the Welwa ‘uttered a sound so loud that Petru thought he would be deaf for life.’ This loud sound which the Welwa made is one which accompanies a great moment of transformation. It is very real and very loud.

Petru now journeys through the realms of the three great and fearsome goddesses. First through the realm of the female aspect of Mercury – a freezing cold realm, related to communication and intuition. Then through the super-hot realm of the goddess of Thunder, where the sound of thunder and of drumming is so powerful on the inner journey. Finally Petru comes to the realm of Venus / Freya – a place which is neither too cold or too hot, like the three bears story. Here the great and glorious Goddess Venus or Freya, is in the aspect of an old hag; she has been relegated to the depths of our unconscious, when the patriarchy took over. Freya was a powerful pre-Olympian Goddess. When something is repressed, it erupts in a distorted fashion. However, Petru treats her with great respect, as he sees in her the beautiful Venus /Freya that is really is and was. She gives him a tiny flute: whoever listens to this flute goes to sleep and nothing can wake them. He is instructed to play this flute while he is in the land of the Fairy of the Dawn. Here is the final part of the tale where sound is most important. He has control of the great Beings in that most inner realm, by use of sound. As Petru played his tiny flute everything in the domain of the Fairy of the Dawn was asleep – not only the giants, lions, tigers, and dragons, but the fairies themselves who lay among the flowers. At one stage, Petru needed to stop playing the flute, so that a giant would awaken, long enough to be of help to Petru, in getting across the river, and into the magical castle of the Fairy.

Petru finally enters the castle and finds the Fairy of the Dawn in the forty ninth room (7 x 7) – a powerful magical number, deep in the heart of the castle. In the centre of this most sacred space is the Well, and by the Well slept the fairy of the dawn herself. As Petru looked at her, the magic flute dropped by his side and he held his breath. He had been warned not to look at the Fairy as she was terrible to behold. As Petru gazed at her, a mist came over his senses and the Fairy opened her eyes slowly and looked at him. At this stage he completely lost his mind and his sense of himself, but he did remember his flute, and playing a few notes on it, the Fairy went to sleep again. So it is that when we are deep on our own inner journey, it is vital that we have mastery over our self, and of the sacred inner sound. As we are a drop in the ocean of consciousness it is easy to lose our sense of who we are / our sense of dropness and thus become lost for ever. Working with sound, as in the singing Zikar, Wazifas, and the Chromatic Zikar, we learn mastery, so that we too can discover the sacred ‘water of life’.

But the story does not end there. On his way back through the realms of the goddesses, Petru is warned to trust no one. But he cannot believe that his own brothers could betray him and try to kill him, for this sacred water. They wanted their father’s power for themselves. Just as Petru was about to be pushed into a lake and drown, his horse neighs – Petru knows what this means and saves himself, returns home to his father the Emperor, and cures his blindness, so that He and the whole land is healed and in harmony. So at the very end it is the warning sound of his beautiful brown horse, his beloved guide, which saves him. In the same way, we can take the story of this as journey into our own lives and learn from it. To remember the sound of silence and to listen to the inner voice.


The Witch Baba Yaga in the Frog Princess

The Baba Yaga's House

The Baba Yaga’s House on its chicken leg.

When I was pondering on the witch Baba Yaga in the Frog Princess, I realised that she was really an amazing Teacher and helpful to those who know how to approach her. She would be very ‘tricky’ and even scary to those who would not know how to handle such an encounter.

Great Sufi teachers are humble and usually stay hidden and would disguise themselves in their teaching tales.  Thus in Sufi stories, the Teacher might well be in the guise of a magician or witch. This made a lot of sense and put the Baba Yaga into perspective for me. She is the archetypal witch and teacher. The Prince (our hero) only encounters her late in the tale when he is in the depth of the inner realm – at the edge of the forest and very close to the end of his quest.

In my book, The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, the in-between place, such as the edge of the forest, is much discussed. Such in-between places are where the outer and inner realms meet. In Ireland these were called the Thin Place, but in therapy could be called an edge space.

The hero (Prince Ivan) is on a quest to find his wife (the Frog Princess) after he has burned her frog-skin and she has flown away to the realm of Kashchey the deathless.  After many adventures, he comes to the Baba Yaga’s hut at the edge of the forest. It is turning around on its ‘chicken leg’. This turning around on its own centre is very symbolic. Everything in the universe turns around something else, the electrons around the nucleus of an atom, the planets around their star. There are Sufi practices which have us turning around our own centre – such as the whirling dervishes, or by circumambulating a sacred place. The sacred is dynamic. In ancient times pilgrims, would walk around a great oak tree in a ritualistic way.

There is also no apparent way into the hut even were it to stand still. I think that if a child were to do a stick drawing of a tree trunk it would look much like a chicken leg, so that the hut could be a analogy for a great and sacred oak tree. Prince Ivan has been taught well – he knows the incantation which he must say, to make the witch’s hut turn its back to the forest and its face to him. This is his way of finding his entry into the deep dark forest; the realm of old, mysterious beliefs. He is then able to enter the hut and see the Baba Yaga, who is lying on the top of a stove with her nose pressed up against the ceiling. The stove represents the heart: if you look at a picture or diagram of a Russian stove, you will see that there are channels, vents, and ducts just like a heart. They would take up most of the space within a home. In the small space between the top of the stove and the ceiling is the Baba Yaga. What an amazing image. She asks him why he has come. ‘Are you seeking your fortune or running away from it?’ This is a profound question! But the Prince tells her she is an old scold and asks for food, drink, and a hot bath. This is according to the laws of civility, and she complies. The prince understands the ritual and goes by the book. Perhaps she is testing him. It is only after this that he can tell her that he was seeking his wife. Of course the old witch knows exactly what has happened and tells him how to find the heart of Kashchey the deathless, to kill him. The prince spends the night with the Baba Yaga, I suspect in teaching and meditation, so that he can accomplish his great task and free his beautiful wife, the Princess Vassilisa.

Image result for russian stove plans

The Witch as a Spiritual Teacher in Fairy Tales

The Baba Yaga's House

The Baba Yaga’s house. (Illustration by Hannah Baek Wha)

 Sufi teachers are very humble and retiring and have a tendency to disguise themselves when telling stories. Often they appear as a magician or a witch, and so remain hidden. It is the teaching in the story that is important, not the person of the teacher. I only really grasped this when I was attempting to weave the strands of the five stories, which Nawab had given me, into a narrative which could be understood in our present time and place.

I finally understood that the witch in many fairy tales could be seen as a spiritual teacher. Teaching tales of old were passed on orally – there was a great oral tradition which has survived into the early 20th century in Ireland.

When examining the role of the witch in these tales, especially the Baba Yaga in the Frog Princess, it all came together for me. It was like the pieces of a puzzle had fallen into place. I could understand at last. The fairy in ancient times, was also considered powerful and wise, much like the witch, and like her, could also be very tricky and often scary. It is only recently that fairies are considered as delicate, beautiful, and magical beings. At one stage my book was to be called ‘The Witch and the Fairy as Teacher in Fairy Tales’, but this misunderstanding of the character of the ‘Fairy’ made me change it.

The Baba Yaga is a powerful and wise teacher for those who know who she is and how to deal with her. One of the first things we learn on the spiritual path is how to behave towards our teacher. There is a story told by Kabir Helminsky, of a Sufi Shaikh or teacher who asked one of his students (Mureeds), to take the role of teacher in the group, so that he could demonstrate for them how they should behave towards their Shaikh. One must first learn how to be a student on the path. When I first became a member of a Sufi group, our leader used to tell us stories about our Shaikh who lived in another city. One of the things she used to say was that we should listen for the ‘hint of the Shaikh’. The Shaikh will never tell a student what to do, but if we listen carefully we will know what it is that he or she is suggesting. This happened to me just after I was initiated. My teacher at the time, started to call me Nuria, but I didn’t notice until I was nudged by the leader and told ‘—just called you Nuria, that is your new name’. Therefore it is better to be silent and listen and watch, ,rather than to ask questions.

On finding my Voice


As a young girl, I spent most of my time in the inner realm of my Creative Imagination – it was wonderful and I was never lonely. It was a happy enough childhood although I didn’t really have friends until I was in my teens in High School. That is apart from Tom, the boy next door, who I adored.

At High School I gathered up a few other misfits and these became my ‘gang’. The truth is that I was never comfortable in my body and felt somehow alien. Not surprising as I was brought up and dressed as a Viennese girl, speaking German, living in a Catholic street, and being brought up as a Presbyterian, in sectarian Northern Ireland. My Jewish parents had escaped Vienna in early 1939 and amazingly found a home in N. Ireland. Their life was in Vienna, whereas mine was in Ireland. My first day at school brought this confusion into focus as my teacher did not understand me (I was speaking German) and so I just spoke louder thinking she could not hear me. I suppose I just learned to say nothing, but I understood all. On top of that, at home, I had to finish all my meals and was left sitting at table until my plate was clean. This was torture. My mother, who had starved as a child during the 1st WW, wanted to make sure I never went hungry. I was stuffed like the Christmas goose and became an awkward chubby child!

My playmate and friend (apart from Tom) was Peter – a year younger than me, and born of another refugee family. According to my mother, Peter’s mother, on seeing me as a baby, just had to have a baby of her own, so Peter arrived a year later. Until High School, I had no other friends, no voice, but a fabulous inner life.

Near our small terraced house was a great and magical forest (to my mind), where I spent most of my time. It was called the Plantin’ (probably Plantation).  It was the backdrop to my inner world. I spent my time swinging from my rope amongst the trees having adventures. I could lasso a branch no problem, and still can! I think.

Story telling is much used in Sufism as a teaching tool – so much can be learned from them. When Nawab (our Sufi Teacher) used an old Chinese Han story to illustrate the concept of Service at a Summer School some years ago, I was completely captivated. It encapsulated ancient mystical ideas which were common to Sufism and this blew me away; I saw the truth that the spiritually behind all belief systems or religions was the same. So began my life’s work. I wrote what was really a Jungian interpretation of five Fairy Tales (given to me by Nawab) from a Sufi perspective. While writing a prologue to these tales, I found myself weaving the stories into a story which uses the truths found in the fairy tales, into a story, which is still totally relevant to our modern lives.

Now that my book is in the process of being published, I just wanted to hide away and work on my next one, but Nawab said, ‘your book will stand for what it is, but it is not separate from you.  In the early days, a book (usually) benefits from the parental presence of the author in the public eye.  Seeing an author’s picture and hearing her voice can make it easier for people to pick up a book and look in to it.’ Oh dear! He wanted me to set up a Blog and find my Voice.  This is hard for me but this is a beginning.