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Death Representations in Literature 1





Abstract: According to psychologists, the mature and full

understanding of death during childhood comes from the contribution of
several factors, both cognitive and personal. Following various stages,
children understand that death is irreversible, manifested as a
nonfunctional body, universal and inevitable.
Different cultures though, have different understandings of these
components and, implicitly, children’s understanding of death will be
much more in accord with their community’s representations. Although
they are generally perceived as “entertaining fictional lies”, the analysis
of the Romanian fairy tale offers a good direction for the analysis of how
children are familiarized with the idea of death and the cultural norms
their community adheres to, as opposed to the modern understanding.
Alongside other segments of the system of tradition – games formulae,
calendar and funeral rituals in which children participate both as main
actors and beneficiaries – fairy tales give insight as to the role of death
during life and any possible encounters with it. Through the death of
parents/guardians at the beginning of these stories, the heroes that
children identify with start discovering the world. Moreover, as Sheldon
Cashdan proposes, the death of negative characters solves many of the
psychological growing conflicts of youth. Beside this contribution to
psychological development, fairy tales participate in the introduction to
the cultural norms of the community where the child will develop as an
active member.
This article analyses the different ways fairy tales present death and
their role in a child’s understanding of death, from two perspectives:
psychological and cultural, in relation to ethnographic information.
Keywords: Romanian traditional culture, fairy tales, folklore,
childhood, anthropology of death and dying
2 Death Representations in Literature

Understanding death during childhood:

Cultural and psychological dimensions
Many years ago when I participated in the burial of a close relative in
the city, I couldn’t help noticing the way adults tried to keep the children
away, with an almost anxious fear of them seeing or hearing anything
related to death or the body, no matter how close the relationship between
the child and the deceased had been. For me, having grown up in a
traditional village of Southern Romania, this city situation seemed
awkward, as I was so familiar with the bustle of children when somebody
happened to die and as a child I had myself received various ritual
responsibilities during funerals (carrying the ‘dead’s water’ or sewing the
funeral towels for my grandparents). Moreover, the stories that my mother
used to read from a pocket collection of fairy tales (Immortal Stories), the
games we as village children played in the street, or the late night stories
we shared about revenants (‘strigoi’), meant we knew a lot about death
and the funeral customs of our community long before we even started to
go to school.
Years later when I started my studies in the anthropology of death and
dying, although I wasn’t specifically focused on the way children come to
the representation of death, almost all of the field researches I participated
in brought the children to my attention. The participant observation,
alongside my own recollection and corroborating information gathered in
folklore collections, directed me to the analysis of cultural mechanisms of
early learning about death and its cultural dimensions in Romanian
traditional communities: literary folklore (especially fairy tales); children’s
games formulae; participation of children in funeral rituals both as
beneficiaries and actors; and performers of calendar rituals with funeral

Although changes in attitudes toward death frequently occur in all

societies, at different rates and degrees of manifestation, we tend to think
that they are much more obvious in modern times. Philippe Ariès
highlighted the distinction between a more traditional attitude toward
death – “tamed death” (Ariès 1974, 11) – and the modern one – “shameful
and forbidden” (Ariès 1974, 85). Moreover, Geoffrey Gorer (1955)
pointed to the modern perception of ‘pornography’, talking about the
shifting of taboo from sexuality and copulation in previous centuries to
that of exposing natural death in modern times. Not only the exposition
and participation in the dying process, represented in the past as a “public
ceremony” of “death in bed” (Ariès 1974, 11-12), but also the grief,
Death Representations in Literature 3

mourning and even the fear of death becomes in the modern world
shameful (Kauffman 2010), embarrassing and disgraceful (Gilbert 2006,
XIX). In legal terms, natural death is nowadays ‘illegal’ (Dunn 2000, 13-
14), reflecting the shifting in the perception of death as a natural life event
to that of a medical failure (Dunn 2000, 25). Medicalization of society and
the scientization of medicine bring new criteria for defining the
relationship between life and death, living and dying. This leads to new
beliefs, different attitudes and moral values in a ‘new culture of death –
one that is deeply embedded in a consumer-based culture of longevity’
(McManus 2013, 56). Death becomes a threat to the happiness of a
consumerist society that “is found in Prada bags, Gucci sunglasses, and
Italian sport cars” (Bates 2008, 17), where the earthly paradise, eternal
youth and god-like features, all of them versions of material immortality,
are advertised in tourist, cosmetic, medical, food, drink and funeral
commercials (Douglas, 2014).
But modernity not only “denies” death, in Becker’s terms (1997), by
putting into action various heroic, immortality and “life strategies”
(Bauman 1992) for surpassing it; but it also isolates it from “polite
society”, not showing it “before the children” (Gorer 1955, 52). Children
are forced to live in the “kingdom where nobody dies”, a “fantasy of
grown-ups” not only because “we want our children to be immortal”
(Kastenbaum 2000, 19), but also “because dying now often occurs outside
the home, [and so] death is unknown, or at least not well known, to many
of us.” (Corr & Corr 2013, 38)
Despite our modern fears and “myths” that children do not grieve until
they reach a certain age and consequently don’t understand or are not
affected by death (Corr 2000, 33),

Curious children are unlikely to ignore such events [death related]

completely. … [N]ormal, healthy children do have thoughts and feelings
about death; they are curious about this subject (Corr and Corr 2013, 97;

The interest in children’s understanding of death, began in the 1930’s

and 1940’s with the studies of Paul Schilder and David Wechsler, Sylvia
Anthony, and Maria Nagy, and showed that the psychological concept of
death starts to form during early childhood and develops through several
stages: irreversibility – the understanding of the impossibility of bringing
back to life somebody/something that is already dead; nonfunctionality –
the cessation of biological functions; and universality – the understanding
that every living being is meant to die (Speece and Brent 1984, cited in
Hunter and Smith 2008, 143-144). A forth component, inevitability – the
4 Death Representations in Literature

impossibility of doing anything to avoid death – is added by some authors

for the purpose of explaining the “mature” and “full” understanding of
death (Candy-Gibbs et al. 1984-1985, cited in Hunter and Smith 2008,
144). Age, cognitive ability, personal experiences/encounters with death
and parental communication are the main factors mentioned in the
literature as affecting children’s understanding of death (Hunter and Smith
2008, 144).
The representation of death and, implicitly, the beliefs and attitudes,
differs radically however, from one society to the next and even within the
same society, diachronically or synchronically. Moreover, sometimes the
cultural understanding of death doesn’t follow the stages identified by
psychologists. The differences in children’s understanding of death must
be affected therefore by the various general cultural representations; and
the cultural mechanisms of arriving at the concept of death will be
different as well. In modern society death, dying, grief, mourning and
bereavement are explained and made accessible to children especially
through formal education or specific psychotherapy (numerous literature is
focused on how children should cope with loss and grief through
psychotherapeutic programs); whereas in traditional communities, children
become familiar with death primarily through the cultural products and
performances, in an indirect and implicit way. Some of the most relevant
information about the way children come to the understanding of death in
these kinds of societies is offered by Rita Astuti’s anthropological studies
in the communities of Madagascar (Astuti, 2011).
Although not told specifically for children, fairy tales are one of the
first community cultural contacts that they have and they became, in time,
the primary audience. While fairy tales are considered “fictional and not
factual stories, and hence tales that are told principally to entertain”
(Georges and Jones 1995, 104) classified as a “marvelous” (Thompson,
cited in Georges and Jones 1995, 104) or “fabulous” (Angelescu 1999)
category of storytelling, numerous psychologists, starting with C. G. Jung,
attached a much deeper significance to them. Moreover, fairy tales were
considered a suitable therapy for children because

Fairy tales are the first stories we hear, and though they are meant to
enchant and entertain, they also offer us a means of addressing
psychological conflicts (Cashdan 1999, IX).

Sheldon Cashdan’s book “The Witch Must Die” (1999) shows how
fairy tales can give clarity to children about the conflicts they may face
growing up, particularly by using symbolic mechanisms such as the death
of a negative or evil character.
Death Representations in Literature 5

But fairy tales contain more information, both cultural and

psychological, for the way children can come to an understanding of
death. In Romanian fairy tales, death is presented in many ways: the death
of a parent or guardian, sometimes marked by the absence of them from
the very beginning; travel to other worlds, where death is a constant threat
or it is the under world of the dead (many times called “the other world”,
“the dark world” in opposition to the world of the living, referred to as
“this world”, “the white world”); the violent death of negative characters;
the death and revival of heroes using miraculous substances; the death of
heroes after reaching the “deathless country” and breaking the rule of
going to the “land of longing”; proverbs or cultural concepts used by the
storyteller to express death related information. All of these appearances
of death in Romanian fairy tales familiarize children with the concept of
death, incorporating some of its historical and cultural meanings.

Last words: when parents or guardians die

Many fairy tales start with the death of a parent or guardian, which
‘throws’ the hero into the world and forces him to find ways of surviving.
These deaths at the beginning of a fairy tale could be described in detail:
Prince Charming with Golden Hair (Fundescu 1998); Crincu, Hunter of
the Forest (Pop-Reteganul 1998); just mentioned: John the Poor and
Fairy of the Lake (Botezatu 1998); The Two Abandoned Boys (Sbiera
1998); or implicitly suggested, by using words such as “orphan” or
“widow”: Peter-the-Little-Pepper and Blossomed-Flower-Man (Pop-
Reteganul 1998); Sad-Child and Inia Dinia (Vasiliu 1998); The Story of
Furga-Murga (Cătana 1998). The death could be either the result of
childbirth or illness: John the Poor and Fairy of the Lake; violent death as
a consequence of envy: Fairy of Waters (Pop-Reteganul 1998); Don’t
sing, boy! (Furtună 1998); Strung out, Diamond, with White Golden
Flowers (Stăncescu 1998); or old age: Prince Charming with Golden
Hair; Crincu, Hunter of the Forest (Pop-Reteganul 1998). By mentioning
these deaths, children aren’t only introduced to the possibility of losing a
loved one, but also get indirect information about various causes of death.
In Crincu, Hunter of the Forest (Pop-Reteganul 1998, 65), the mother
of three boys is missing from the beginning. Cashdan relates this with the
historical reality before the nineteenth century, when “…childbirth was
one of the major causes of death, and repeated pregnancies constantly
placed a woman’s life in jeopardy” (Cashdan 1999, 42).
But the death of a parent or guardian also brings information about the
cultural performance of customs related to dying. In Prince Charming with
6 Death Representations in Literature

Golden Hair (Fundescu 1998, 3-14), the old hermit who took care of an
abandoned child that he found on the river, calls the boy to give him
instructions about his forthcoming death:

My son, I feel that I become weaker every day; I am old, as you can
see, and you should understand that I will go to the other world in three
days. I am not your real father, as I just found you on the river. If I will fall
into the eternal sleep, which you will notice by the coldness and stiffness
of all my body, you’ll see a lion coming. Don’t get scared, my dear; the
lion will dig my grave and you will cover me with dirt. As for an
inheritance, I have nothing else to leave you except a horse leash. After
you have remained lonely, go to the loft, take the leash, shake it, and
straight away a horse will come and teach you what to do (Fundescu 1998,

From the psychologists’ point of view, the fragment would contribute

to the understanding of the nonfunctionality component of the death
concept (“the coldness and stiffness of all my body”), but the fragment is
also relevant for other cultural aspects of dying: the hermit knows about
his death, just like the heroes from the Novels of The Round Table
mentioned by Philippe Ariès (1974, 2-3). In Romanian tradition, it is
believed that only saints or people with ‘clean lives’ can know the ‘hour of
their death’. On the other hand, when people feel that ‘death is near’,
family and relatives stay close – including children, regardless of their age
– and the last words of the dying person are often treated as an official
testament (Douglas 2004).
The fragment, although not dwelling on the death of the hermit, offers
other important cultural information related to the representation of death
in Romanian tradition: death is not merely biological, but is also seen as a
journey to the other world or as a long sleep until the last judgment.
The death of a parent or guardian, while not the sole reason, confronts
the hero with the unknown, forcing him to leave the safety of his world in
order to survive or for personal affirmation.

Travel to the other world: monsters, places of wonder and

encounters with death
The most common journey to the heroic adventures of the other world
is usually over a long distance, encountering monsters, devils, characters
with miraculous powers and sometimes God himself. This way of
mapping the Earth, with both natural and supernatural creatures, has a long
history in cultural imagery (Delumeau 1997).
Death Representations in Literature 7

In Romanian mythology, as detailed in the funeral songs, expressions

and rituals, the world of the dead is placed somewhere at the end of the
Earth, connected to the world of the living through “Saturday’s water” –
potentially any river, sometimes carrying various things to prove that the
living have performed the required rituals for the travel of a soul. Almost
at the same place, sometimes represented as under the Earth, live the
Blajini (the “Gentles”) or Rohmani, little humans having, according to
some beliefs, a human body and a mouse head, very pious and devoted to
God (Cosma 1942, 40-41). These beliefs suggest that in the Romanian
traditional mentality, the other world could fuse with the underworld or
the world of the dead, and some fairy tales support this idea.
In the majority of Romanian fairy tales, the hero rides a miraculous
horse to the other world, which guides and advises him throughout his
travels. Of all the psychopomp animals identified by Ion Ghinoiu – horse,
deer, wolf, dog and bird (1999), the horse is the most recurrent, in funeral
songs as well as being painted on the grave crosses in the Oltenia region of
Southern Romania. In funeral songs, the “White Traveler” – the generic
name used for the deceased – is greeted by a grey horse, either ridden by
Jesus Christ, Iovan Iorgovan (a hero from ballads), Death herself, or
ridden by the deceased:

“Gheorghe, wait on the threshold,/ Gheorghe, look at the sunrise/ And see,
Gheorghe, who’s coming for you,/ Iorgovan is coming,/ Riding, Gheorghe,
a horse,/ He is joyful/ For he’s coming to take you, Gheorghe,/ With black
saddle,/ And dark mane,/ To take you …/ On a desert path, …/ Where
you’ve never been before”; “John, someone John,/ [Stays under the apple
tree] With a white horse of flowers./ Is not of flowers, but all in sweat”
(Kahane and Georgescu-Stanculeanu 1988, 578; 600-601).

At other times, the access of the hero to the other world is made by
crossing a river (Fairy of the Water) or descending through a hole or well
(Rocked Linden, Lupescu 1998). Communication between the world of the
living and the dead through a hole is well known, especially from the
Greek and Roman rituals of libation, with literary mention in Vergil’s
Aeneid. This same method of communicating with the underworld through
holes in the ground is paralleled in the belief in the Dog of the Earth, a
mythical creature which bites the dead not buried according to tradition
(Douglas 2004).
In many fairy tales, the other world is reached after riding three days
and nights through deserted places or where no human has been before
(Youth without Aging and Life without Death, Ispirescu 1998, 61).
Although this place is not mentioned specifically on every occasion, the
8 Death Representations in Literature

world of the dead, “the margin of the world”, remains in the Romanian
mentality as having this meaning. In the incantations, the ones causing
illnesses (sometimes personifications of them) are sent to this place, which
by its lack of life signs perpetuates the idea of non-existence and death:

“…[You go] there, afar,/ At deserted places,/ At the margin of the world,/
Where the Earth finishes,/ In the thick forests,/ The cocks don’t sing,/ And
the dogs don’t bark” (Douglas 2004).

In fairy tales, the idea of death is also present as a constant threat. The
hero is in danger of dying not only from participation in extraordinary
adventures and battles with superior forces, but when he simply tries to
survive after the death of his parents (The Three Brothers and the Dragon,
Popescu 1998, 258). The hero and his brothers survive not thanks to his
physical strenght, but using his wisdom, his power of abstinence from
food made with human blood and flesh and his miraculous gift of reading
minds. In other cases, he survives by his generosity, helping an old crow, a
wolf, a mouse and a fish that all in turn assist him later in achieving
impossible tasks (Great Curpan, Vasiliu 1998, 146).
But the most constant presence of death in fairy tales is through that of
negative characters. In his analysis, Sheldon Cashdan talks about the
“witch” as a major character of “psychodrama” that the story puts into

Whether she’s a blackhearted queen, an evil sorceress, or a vindictive

stepmother, she is easily identified by the lethal threat she poses to the hero
or heroine (Cashdan 1999, 17).

The witch in Cashdan’s interpretation represents the dark side of the

child’s psyche, “the shadow” in Jung’s terms, by embodying
“unwholesome aspects of the self that all children struggle against”: envy,
greed, cruelty, lack of generosity, impatience, etc. Moreover, according to
his theory, fairy tales have a greater relevance for the importance of a
mother’s presence in a child’s self-development:

By transforming splits in the self into an adventure that pits the forces of
good against the forces of evil, not only do fairy tales help children deal
with negative tendencies in the self, they pay homage to the pivotal role
that mothers play in the genesis of the self (Cashdan 1999:28).

This theory though, is valid for only some stories. In Romanian fairy
tales the negative characters are not always a feminine presence; the
majority of them are masculine representations of physical forces, acting
Death Representations in Literature 9

blindly as the chief source of potential death. In order to support a

complete and irreversible victory of the good tendencies of the child’s self,
the death of these characters must be final as well.
Death can happen also to positive characters during the confrontation
with evil. Often, this death is reversible by using miraculous substances,
plants or liquids. In Peter-the-Little-Pepper and Blossomed-Flower-Man
(Pop-Reteganul 1998, 98), the dragon, exhausted and hungry, brings back
to life Peter’s two brothers using the water of life. The same motif appears
in numerous other fairy tales (Crincu, Hunter of the Forest; Don’t sing,
boy!; The Stone Man– Filimon 1998).
In The Story of Evening Star and Daystar (Marian 1986, 273-277), the
hero himself, White Dumbra, dies twice: once killed by a gypsy who
claims he killed the dragon so he can marry the princess; the second time
swallowed by a doe. He is resurrected using dead water and water of life
respectively by his dogs and then by his brother, Peter Prince Charming.
This regenerative water archetype, of which water of life is only one of
numerous versions, appears also as the fountain of youth. In Little Pepper
– Popular Story (Marian 1986, 12), one of the hero’s tasks is to bring the
king the water of youth, which will make him as young as a seven year old
child. The motif is much more famous in Romanian tradition from the
popular legends of Alexander the Great, known as “popular books”
(Alexandria 1966, 61). In these tales, the motif of water of life and eternal
youth, ever present in a fabulous realm, perpetuated the myth of a water
that gives immortality, abolishes death, or reverses it, expressing an older
attitude toward death than the modern one of complete and irreversible
deterioration of the body.
Fairy tales could be seen also as an adaptation for youth to familiarize
them with a mythical geography of Earth. The idea of an earthly paradise,
a land of abundance, gold and precious stones, appears many times in fairy
tales when describing the castles of dragons, fairies or kings from the other
world. When entering the room where the Red King’s daughter was kept
by 12 dragons, after killing them, a young hunter is surprised by the

In this room the walls were covered in gold, with mirrors and icons
everywhere; and on the floors rugs and silk covers, fit only for a king’s
daughter. He almost dared not step upon these silks, and when his eyes saw
all the precious stones and objects around, he felt great wonder, like he had
walked into an earthly paradise about which he may have heard, but could
never have seen before (Marian 1986, 62).
10 Death Representations in Literature

Earthly paradise was not viewed only for its material benefits, but
especially for being a realm where death, illness and aging don’t exist. The
longevity of people from the newly discovered lands was considered to be
due to their proximity to earthly paradise and to the unaltered innocence of
these people, similar to that of Adam and Eve before their fall (Delumeau
1997, 101). This representation appears in Romanian tradition with both
qualities, abundance and longevity-immortality, in the aforementioned
beliefs in Blajini, legends of Alexander the Great and fairy tales,
perpetuating the mythical theme of a lost, but reachable earthly paradise.
In Fairy of Waters (Pop-Reteganul 1998) the Christian representations
of heaven and hell are metaphorically suggested in the topography of
travel. One of the tasks that Alexander, a poor, but honest-hearted young
man has, is to bring God to the dinner of a noble man who threatens him
with death, just as he did with his parents. Alexander is advised by his
wife to travel until he finds God and tells Him his request. After crossing a
water without life in it that separates the white world (the world of the
living) from the dark world (the world of the dead), under the promise that
the hero will ask God why the water can’t support life, Alexander is put in
front of contradictory images, similar to one of Jesus’ parables. The
journey brings to the attention of listeners the story’s new criteria of the
world organization: morality and justice. Alexander sees in turn: a lush,
grassy field where a herd of big skinny bulls grazes; a sparse field with
only a few weeds where a herd of small fat bulls grazes; a fruit-laden
forest where birds scream with hunger; a place with almost no trees or
fruit, but where birds sing happily as if full. Finally, Alexander meets God,
who explains each of these wonders: the water can’t support life because
nobody has yet drowned in it – so the hero is advised to give the answer
after crossing back to the world of living; the field with skinny bulls
represents the destiny of the rich after death, who feasted selfishly during
their lives; the fat bulls are the poor people who make feasts and share
with everybody; the hungry birds are the stingy people who don’t give to
others and hunger themselves; and finally, the satiated happy birds are the
workers, who thank God for their work. Alexander goes back to his home
and shortly after his travel, God visits him, announcing the end of serfdom
for all the peasants on earth. The noble man dies suddenly because of his
envy, supporting Cashdan’s theory from fairy tales that “the witch
[negative character] must die” as a result of her own sin.
This fairy tale, with legend implications (how serfdom came to an
end), is different from others because the Christian topography of the other
world: the world of the dead, placed at the margin of the Earth and
separated by water, is a reverse of the world of living. Although the fairy
Death Representations in Literature 11

tale doesn’t provide specific social and economic details, it reflects an

inverted moral status, represented as such in the biblical parable of the rich
man and Lazarus: that material wealth is a sign of spiritual poverty. The
other world is seen in Christian terms of moral worth, following a divine
justice that seems unusual for the ordinary human world. This fairy tale
familiarizes the child not only with the idea of divine justice in the post-
death world, but with the popular Christian representations of this world as
well, offering him a cultural understanding of the notion of right and
wrong. Moreover, the negative character, considered by Cashdan essential
for its psychological effects, dies as a consequence of his own lack of
morality, guiding the child to develop a beautiful personality, under threat
of ‘the death of the inner self.’
Return from the dark world to the world of the living is in fairy tales
usually more difficult than entry and many times requires a self-sacrifice, a
“partial death of self.” After rescuing babies from being eaten by a snake,
Rocked-Linden (Lupescu 1998) finds out that only their mother, a
miraculous eagle, can transport him back to the white world. The hero is
swallowed by the eagle, happy at seeing her children alive, who then
regurgitates him – stronger and more beautiful. This initiating death and
resurrection appears in almost all stories about the travel of shamans to the
other world, in the majority of cases the world of the dead/ancestors
(Eliade 1964). Due to the length of travel from the other world to this
world, the hero has to cook twelve bulls and prepare twelve barrels of
wine, but in the last day he runs out of food and has to feed the eagle with
a part of his own body. The eagle notices the different taste and, upon
discovering that it was human flesh, says that had she known how sweet it
was, she would have eaten him rather than bring him back. Once more, the
threat of death is making the hero’s adventure a more spectacular
achievement against her.

After happily ever after: Death awaits the hero

In Romanian folklore, there is a category of fairy tales in which the
story doesn’t end after the hero achieves happiness. The adventure
continues with the return to the land of mortals, where he shares the same
fate, after trying to avoid it. Mostly known as the land of “youth without
aging and life without death”, the motif covers the universality (including
“one’s own death” in Ariès’ (1974) terms) and inevitability components of
understanding death as identified by psychologists. If children listening to
the fairy tale identify themselves with the hero, this motif offers a clear
12 Death Representations in Literature

psychological understanding that at the end of one’s life journey death

“awaits” everybody.
From this category of fairy tales, Youth without Aging and Life without
Death (Tinereţe fără bătrîneţe şi viaţă fără de moarte, Ispirescu 1998) is
the most known. The fairy tale announces from the outset its unusual
adventure: at his due date, the hero refuses to be born, and only when the
king promises that he will give him “youth without aging and life without
death” he stops crying in his mother’s womb and emerges. When Prince
Charming comes of age, he asks for his promise and, despite the grief of
the royal court and his parents, leaves to find the land he was promised.
After numerous adventures that follow the usual trajectory of any other
fairy tale, the hero reaches the land without age and death and starts a
happy life in the company of three beautiful women, surrounded by riches
that remind of earthly paradise. Although his happiness is complete, death
is suggested through the taboo of not walking to the Valley of Crying. One
day when hunting, Prince Charming wanders by mistake into the valley.
Suddenly, remembering his former life at his father’s court and becoming
homesick, he leaves the land without death. His travel back lacks the
adventure and the formerly fabulous locations are now transformed and
inhabited by ordinary people who laugh at his stories about the past.
Suddenly, he grows old, recovering all of the years suspended in the land
without aging, and upon arriving at his father’s court, finds only a ruin.
Trying to comprehend, the hero searches every room and finally finds an
old coffin. After numerous glorious adventures and reaching a land
without death, “His Death”, old and weak just like him, pops up, striking
him. Prince Charming dies, transforming into dust like any other mortal.
In another version of the same fairy tale, Bee as Bride or The Passions
of Cinderella Theodor – Popular Story (Albina ca mireasă sau Patimile
lui Toader Cenuşeriul – Poveste din gura poporului, Marian 1986), the
hero leaves his home after his sisters-in-law poison his wife. The purpose
of looking for the country without death is what Ariès (1974) calls “thy
death”, the death of a close loved one. Similarly – the loss of a loved one,
Enkidu – makes the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, leave his life of luxury to
seek the secret of immortality that only Utnapishtim knows, the legendary
survivor of the flood. In the abovementioned fairy tale, just as in this epic,
the death of the other is a reminder of the universality of death and,
implicitly, of personal death. Cinderella Theodor travels to the other
world, crossing lands where the time dimension is different: a grass field,
thirty years wide, where a horse grazes only once a day and where death
comes only when all the grass has been eaten; the perspective of death,
regardless of how far in the future, makes the hero persist in his goal.
Death Representations in Literature 13

Next, the hero finds a large monastery with walls full of needles, where a
girl says that death will come only when she finishes removing them all,
one per day. Theodor finally reaches the land without death, where some
shepherds stay with their flocks. He is advised, just as in the foregoing
fairy tales, not to graze his flock in the “mountain of longing” and “the
mountain of crying”; the interdiction is broken and Theodor returns to his
wife’s grave, overwhelmed by homesickness. Upon arrival, he reveals his
intention to remarry, but a bee emerges from the open grave and stings
him, causing his death. Although the fairy tale doesn’t make specific
mention, one of the suggestions for his death could be that once arriving at
an old age, youth (suggested by marriage) is irreversible, hence death
inevitably follows.
A third version of the “land without death” motif is found in the fairy
tale Evening Star and Daystar (Botezatu 1998). A king’s spoiled son is
cursed by an old woman for breaking her water jug, to “walk all of the
walkable Earth, without rest, until you reach the country without death,
and even then to find neither rest, nor peace” (Botezatu 1998, 41).
Although the teller includes real geography in his story elements (Bălţi
and Soroca, localities in the Republic of Moldova), the boy gets to the
fabulous country without death, “crossing” a long distance of personal
development, from the spoiled and naughty boy to a generous young man.
Thus, he helps an acorn to become an oak under the promise that he will
live as long as the oak; he plants a grape seed after eating its fruit and the
vine promises life as long as she lives; and each time the hero goes further,
helping an eagle, a fish, a fox and a mosquito they promise their help
when he will be in need. With the help of those to whom he showed his
generosity, the hero reaches the land without death, marries and lives
“happily ever after” for “waves of time”, until he breaks the rule of not
going outside the gates and becomes mortal again through his earthly
weakness of longing for the past (this idea is frequent in funeral songs).
On his way back, much shorter and unadventurous, he finds a long old
vineyard grown from the seed he planted, as well as an old oak raised from
his acorn, both approaching their deaths. Getting to the places where he
supposed his father’s castle to be, he finds sand and a three hundred year
old man who tells him of an ancient story that there had been a castle
where a king used to live and whose son left to find the country of youth
without aging and life without death, to live as long “as the world and
Earth”. Under the arch where the castle gate used to be, the hero, still
called “young strong man”, finds an old clay pot, housing Death, who
claims him as her right. What is new in this version is that the adventure
against death starts in the second part and the hero, chased by Death, tries
14 Death Representations in Literature

different tricks to evade her until he reaches again the country without
death. Death is magically kept at bay by being given a belt to wear until it
disintegrates; an iron walking stick until it is completely worn down; and
to use a sword until it rusts away. At the gate of the castle without death
though, at the last moment, Death reaches the hero and claims her right.
The hero’s bride tries, in turn, to trick Death by saying that she will
transform her husband into a golden apple, and whoever can catch him
after throwing him into the sky can have him forever. Knowing that she
cannot defeat death of a mortal, his bride transforms him into the Evening
Star, giving him another sort of immortality. Finding out about his son in
law, the king and his daughters transform the hero’s bride into the Daystar.
Angry at her loss, Death kills the king and his daughters (suggesting the
disappearance of the kingdom without death), transforming them into
stone pillars. The fairy tale ends with a cosmogonic explanation: “Since
then there are evening and day stars in the sky and pillars at the house
gates” (Botezatu 1998, 54). Both creations, the asters and the architectural
representation, are a reminder of human mortality and the impossibility of
avoiding death – what psychologists call the inevitability component of
understanding death.

“Blind death”: Death related expressions and funeral

customs mentioned in fairy tales
Although not very numerous, expressions related to the understanding
of death, as well as the mention of funeral customs supports the idea that
children are familiarized through fairy tales not only with the cognitive
concept, but also with its cultural representation and with the funeral
One of the expressions that contribute to the understanding of the
universality of death is “No matter what, I still owe a death” (Pop-
Reteganul 1998, 92). Knowing that one day he will die – as the expression
suggests – a character gets the courage to act heroically; in Becker’s terms
(1997) it is exactly this constant reminder of our inevitable mortality,
generating a real terror, that pushes us to act heroically, in the attempt to
abolish death and reach some sort of immortality through personal
Another expression with the same meaning is found in one of the
fairy tales centered on the motif of the country without death. Death is
called a “monster”, “walking blindly over people” (Botezatu 1998, 52).
The same representation appears numerous times in the funeral songs:
Death Representations in Literature 15

“It’s not possible/ To rescue you/ From the dark death,/ Because Death is
Queen,/ And a great bride,/ Goes to big markets/ And takes maidens,/ Young girls,/
Married [old] women./ She doesn’t choose,/ Takes everything she finds” (Kahane
and Georgescu-Stănculeanu 1988, 543).

Through the expression forementioned in the fairy tale, the child learns
that death can occur at any time, regardless of age. Although it seems
harsh for a child to learn about the reality of death,

„[h]iding death from children, even if we really could do that, will not
prepare them to cope effectively with future losses, a common part of
human life” (Corr and Corr 2013, 11).

In relation to the cultural representations of ‘bad’ death, in Peter the

Little Pepper and Blossomed Flower-Man the mother, overwhelmed with
grief after her lost children, refrains from thinking of suicide because “it is
a capital sin” (in Romanian, the literal translation would be “sin of death”;
Pop-Reteganul 1998, 94). In Romanian traditional populations, suicide is
not only seen as self-harm, but as harming the community as well. By
mentioning this status of suicide in a fairy tale, the child learns early in his
life that harming himself potentially places him outside the community,
giving him the cultural understanding of represented ‘good’ death and the
acceptable way of dying in the community.
The funeral ritual of alms is mentioned in Grey-Eagle (Sur-Vultur,
Stăncescu 1998, 243). Thinking he has already died, after a long time of
absence, Grey-Eagle’s sister makes a funeral feast which she shares with
anybody who happens to come around. Advised to go there, Grey-Eagle’s
companion accepts the offering, answering with “May God forgive him” –
“Bogdaproste” in Romanian, an expression coming from old Bulgarian
used specifically to give thanks for a ritual gift for the dead. The mention
of this custom is important for several aspects related to funeral tradition,
in particular: firstly, the compulsory character of the performance, once
somebody is dead or considered as such. This is reflected in numerous
personal narratives from wartime, especially directed to soldiers who
returned after years of imprisonment in Russia (Douglas and Negulescu
2010). In the absence of this ritual, the soul of the dead can become
restless, disturbing the survivors, sometimes under threat of their own
deaths, until the deceased is ritually integrated in the other world; one of
the causes of transforming into a strigoi is related to the absence of, or
incorrect performance of this ritual (Douglas 2004). Another aspect related
to the mentioning of this ritual in fairy tales is a remembrance of how to
ritually answer, participating implicitly, in the funeral performance and in
16 Death Representations in Literature

the efficacy of it. As children in Romania are, for the most part, the main
receivers of funeral alms, it is important for them – and for the completion
of the ritual – to know the required rules of participation from an early

Generally perceived as happily ending and fabulous stories, that have
nothing to do with harsh reality, fairy tales are in Romanian traditional
communities some of the first ways that children are familiarized with the
understanding and representation of death, both psychologically and
Although the chief motivation is to offer guidelines for right and
wrong behaviours through entertaining storytelling, fairy tales participate
in solving the psychological growing conflicts of youth, through the
portrayal of the death of negative characters and also in the understanding
of each component of the psychological concept of death. Through their
cultural character, they also offer direction to understand death according
to their community, its representations and ritual performances;
transforming the apprehension of this concept into a cultural lesson. When
psychologists identify universal factors that influence the understanding of
death, from an anthropological point of view, this becomes much more
relative and corresponds to community norms and representations with
which children grow up.
The cultural implications of understanding death in childhood, as well
as in adulthood, would constitute a major factor in the effective counseling
of children who are coping with loss and mourning. Moreover, by
corroborating the representations of death from fairy tales with other
cultural segments involving children, including the traditional funeral
elements (games formulae, calendar and funeral rituals performed or
observed by children), we can come to a more robust understanding of
how tradition is internalized during childhood and eventually translated to
well-adjusted adult cultural performance.

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