Sleeping Beauty: The Meaning of Fate, Sleep, and Death

Throughout every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the presence of fate remains constant. Few other fairy tale heroines have their lives so dictated, or spend the majority of their story rendered so helpless. Although the circumstances surrounding her fate differ, Sleeping Beauty is always destined to fall asleep. But that’s not the only thing her future holds, and the line between death and sleep is not always apparent.

Some stories contain fairies or wise women, who bestow desirable qualities upon the princess. As Maria Tatar notes in The Annotated Brothers Grimm‘the gifts given by the Wise Women promise to turn the Grimms’ Briar Rose into an “ideal” woman – virtuous, beautiful, and wealthy. In Perrault’s version, the girl is given beauty, an angelic disposition, grace, the ability to dance perfectly, the voice of a nightingale, and the ability to play instruments.’ Both sets of gifts are trivial things, putting emphasis on physical attraction instead of personality. They also reflect, as Tatar says, society’s notions of ‘ideal’ women during the times they were told. A beautiful woman who could sing, dance, and play music would certainly have been popular in 17th century Versailles.

Sleeping Beauty fairies ballet
National Ballet of the Kiev Opera: Fairies visit Sleeping Beauty’s christening to bestow gifts upon her. Image by Jean-Louis Zimmerman, CC BY 2.0.

However, none of these gifts bear any relevance to the plot. In earlier versions of the story, there is not even any mention of them. In his book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Lüthi observes that in Giambattista Basile’s 1634 story ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ the ‘motif of prophecy’ and ‘threat of an unavoidable fate’ remain strong even without the gifts. The sleep curse is still predicted for Tahlia’s future, despite it not being given to her. The story doesn’t change.

The sleep is always caused by spinning — from pricking a finger on a spindle or a stray piece of flax. This also has a connection to fate, as mythology from several cultures contains beings called ‘Fates.’ These are women who spin the threads of mortal lives, determining lifespans and causes of death. My full discussion of Sleeping Beauty, fate, and mythology can be found in this article which I wrote for the University of Essex’s Centre for Myth Studies.

Greek mythology the Three Fates
The Three Fates of Greek mythology spin the threads of people’s lives. Image in the public domain – source.

Aside from the gifts and the notion of spinning fate, the other irrevocable fate in Sleeping Beauty is death. Both ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ and Charles Perrault’s 1697 ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ do not end when the princess awakens. Instead, they continue to detail her life with the prince (or king in ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’) and their children. Her new mother-in-law has cannibalistic tendencies, and plans to kill and eat the children. They escape, thanks to some assistance from a compassionate servant who hides them. The mother-in-law then prepares a horrific death for the princess, but the king/prince arrives in time to prevent it.

Of this ending, Max Lüthi writes that ‘the theme of the death prophesy and the fortunate deliverance is once again called to mind.’ The princess survives not only the death-like sleep, but also attempted murder. Peril occurs at defining moments in her life. The first is during adolescence, when she is on the cusp of womanhood. The second is when she is a mother seeking to protect her children. These life stages are reminiscent of the Neopagan Triple Goddess, which represents aspects of female life through the phases of the moon. The waxing moon is the maiden, the full moon the mother, and the waning moon the crone.

Wiccan triple goddess symbol
The Wiccan triple goddess moon symbol. Image in the public domain – source

The princess escapes death first as the maiden and again as the mother, which leaves only the crone stage to contend with. Things in fairy tales often happen in threes, with the third time being slightly different. Therefore, it can be assumed that when death comes the third and final time, the princess will not escape. Like for all living things, her ultimate unavoidable fate is death.

However, one Sleeping Beauty-inspired story challenges this fate. In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ by Angela Carter, the girl is already dead — or rather, undead. The main protagonist in this story is a vampiric countess; a simultaneous embodiment of life and death. Carter describes her as ‘both death and the maiden,’ showing that the mother and crone stages are absent. In an attempt to reconcile this, she wears ‘her mother’s wedding dress,’ which gives her the appearance of ‘a child dressing up.’ The countess’s servant is ‘a crone in a black dress,’ and through her the countess can vicariously experience the old age she will never have.

vampire photo shoot Angela Carter The Lady of the House of Love
Vampire Shoot by Charli Avery Make Up. Photography by Charlotte Clarke.

Instead of having her fate decided or predicted for her, the countess reads Tarot cards. But no matter how many times she shuffles them, she is ‘constantly constructing hypotheses about a future which is irreversible’ and they always show ‘the Grim Reaper.’ Her condition makes her biologically and emotionally dormant, so there cannot be any change in her future. She is, in a sense, sleeping. Carter acknowledges that ‘a single kiss woke up the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,’ but the only desire vampires feel is for blood. She longs for a lover to save her, but trapped in her maidenhood she doesn’t know how to respond when one arrives.

At the end of the story, the countess cuts her finger and the sight of her own blood overwhelms her. This could be interpreted as an analogy for menstruation, as some folklorists interpret the blood drawn by Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger. However, instead of a long sleep to process the change and move on to become the mother, spilling her own blood is what kills the Countess. In true death, ‘she looked far older, less beautiful and so, for the first time, fully human.’ Her fate could not provide the remaining life stages, so instead it returned her to nature.

tarot cards
The countess reads her own fate. Image by Sonya Cheney. CC BY 2.0.

Fate in Sleeping Beauty stories goes far beyond the prediction of the sleep. They connect to the perennial cycle of life and death, and how we progress through its stages. The princess is always doomed to sleep and a pivotal moment in her life, and she can never be the same once she awakens. Life’s movement and nature’s processes carry on regardless of curses, spindles, fairies, or vampirism. 


  • Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
  • Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Indiana University Press, 1976.
  • Angela Carter, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ in The Bloody Chamber, Vintage Classics Edition, 1995.
  • Giambattista Basile, ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia‘ in Lo Cunto de li Cunti, 1634.
  • Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood‘ in Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, 1697.
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose‘ in Kinder-und Hausmärchen, 1812.

Fairy Tales: The Symbolism of Spinning Wheels

Spinning wheels are an object commonly associated with fairy tales, even though they only feature in a handful of tales. Aside from being mere objects, they add some degree of symbolic meaning to the stories they are present in.

Firstly though, what actually is a spinning wheel?

We probably know it’s a wooden thing with a big wheel that does something concerning yarn. At least, that’s about all I knew until I visited a friend who owns one. Basically, spinning wheels were (and still are, just not as widely) used to turn animal fleece into yarn, or wool. In order to do this, you have to feed in a thin clump of fleece, and get it hooked around the spindle. Then, as you turn the wheel, the spindle turns as well and coils up the fleece as you feed it in. Some have a foot pedal which you use to keep the wheel going steady, so that the yarn remains a consistent thickness.

This is similar to wheel I used – it doesn’t have a needle, so there’s Sleeping Beauty’s problem solved! Image from Ashford.

I have tried spinning on a couple of wheels and also with a drop spindle (a handheld method of spinning). Suffice to say that it is one of the most tedious activities I have ever done! My yarn always breaks, and to fix this you have to sort of twiddle the broken ends together and spin rapidly to bind them before continuing. And the pedal makes my ankle ache after awhile, plus it is hard to keep it going in time with the wheel. However, if I ever do it for long enough to get semi-good at it then I would probably find it therapeutic. The wheel makes a nice sound, and once you fall into a rhythm it’s quite relaxing.

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the most well-known spinning wheel stories, alongside ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ In the latter, a miller’s daughter is locked away by a king and forced to spin straw into gold. She cannot do it, but a little man (who is later revealed to be Rumpelstiltskin) appears and does it for her, but asks for her first child in return. The only way she can get out of the deal is to guess his name. She does, and in rage Rumpelstiltskin tears himself apart.

Rumpelstiltskin Anne Anderson
Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter by Anne Anderson. Image in the public domain – source

Some lesser known fairy tales also feature spinning wheels, such as the Czech fairy tale called ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel.’ In this, there are two identical sisters. One is kind, and the other malicious. Their mother favours the latter. The kind daughter is left at home to spin, whilst her mother and sister visit the city. One day, a king comes upon her spinning. They fall in love, and he says he will return to marry her once she has spun enough yarn for her wedding shift. She does so, and they wed. However, the mother and malicious sister are outraged. When the king goes away, they kidnap the kind girl and mutilate her, then abandon her in the woods. They then go back to the palace, taking some of her limbs with them, and the malicious sister takes her place. A hermit finds the kind sister’s body, and discovers she is not quite yet dead so he nurses her. He has a helper, who gives a golden spinning wheel, distaff, and spindle to the malicious sister in exchange for her sibling’s limbs. The hermit re-attaches these, and the kind sister is well again. When the king returns, he asks his wife to spin. The malicious sister sits down at the golden spinning wheel, but as she turns the wheel it sings of her’s and her mother’s evil deed. The king immediately goes off into the woods, where he finds the kind sister, his real wife, in the care of the hermit. They rejoice and travel back to the palace together, where they are told by the servants that the devil appeared and carried off the wicked sister and mother.

In the Scottish folktale ‘Habitrot,’ a girl who hates spinning hands her work over to a group of old women to complete instead. She passes their work off as her own, and a Lord sees it and is so impressed by her skill that he wants to marry her because of it. She plays along, but once they are wed she reveals her secret. The old women show her new husband their lips, twisted by years of wetting their fingers to draw thread, and warn him that his pretty young wife will end up like them if she is allowed to spin. The Lord immediately forgives her for deceiving him, and declares that she shall never touch a spinning wheel. There are also some European variants of this tale, where it is called ‘The Lazy Spinner’ or ‘The Three Spinners.’

The Lazy Spinner: The girl sits and watches whilst the old women do her work for her. Image from One-Eleven Books.

Spinning wheels bring varying kinds of symbolism to each of these stories. They have three main connotations in fairy tales, which affect the underlying theme of the story depending on which one is prevalent.

Connotation 1: Social

Spinning wheels are domestic objects. They belong in the home, and so over the centuries have come to be associated with women. So much so that the term ‘spinster’ came about to describe unmarried females, particularly those past the usual age of being wed. Spinning seems to have been a desirable skill for a woman to possess — certainly all the men in ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel.’ and ‘Habitrot’ were keen on it. The implication here is that women needed to know how to spin in order to find a husband, and if they didn’t find one they would end up becoming a spinster.

However, the ending of ‘Habitrot’ humorously counters this by showing the Lord how detrimental to beauty spinning can be. He is so deeply upset that he changes his mind about wanting his wife to spin! He would rather she look good than be useful. This story also shows how spinning is relegated to women who have nothing better to do. The old spinsters have no husbands, homes, children to care for, so they take the task away from the young woman who has the potential for all of those things to occupy her.

The act of spinning in itself also nurtured storytelling. Whilst spinning, people had to amuse themselves somehow. In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar says that ‘the spinning of flax often crossed over from the storytelling context into the story itself,’ which provides a possible explanation as to why spinning wheels feature in fairy tales.

Connotation 2: Sexual

The story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is often regarded as being an analogy for sexual awakening. Tatar notes this as well, saying that ‘the story of Briar Rose has been thought to map female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to a passive, introspective period of latency.’ In any version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the main protagonist pricking her finger on the spindle or flax can be seen as a metaphor for maturation. Her father’s decision to burn all of the spinning wheels fails to prevent this from happening, showing that it is an unavoidable part of growing up. The long sleep afterwards occurs because of the stress maturation can cause, especially as she wasn’t prepared for it. The girl’s isolation from spinning wheels makes her curious when she sees one, and is what draws prematurely draws her to her maturation.

Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, which send her into an enchanted sleep. Image from Pinterest.

For a more detailed analysis of the sexual content of Sleeping Beauty, you can have a read at my previous post about it.

The connection between spinning wheels and sexual awakening also fits in with the social side of things I discussed above. The turning of the wheel is a symbol of the cycles of life, which are often associated with women due to menstruation. In many Pagan religions, the triple goddess symbol is worn to celebrate the Maiden, Mother and Crone. These three stages of a woman’s life are a cycle in themselves, and relate to spinning as it is the young women, the maidens, who spin before they are married. Then, once they have a husband, they can move on to become mothers. Finally, once their years of fertility are over, they become crones, wise from their experiences and with the time to take up spinning once again.

The Maiden, young & pure, symbolised by the waxing moon. Then the Mother, the image of complete feminine power, symbolised by the full moon. Lastly the Crone, old and wise, symbolised by the waning moon. Image by Mickie Mueller.

Indeed, in every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ it is an old woman she finds spinning on the spindle which invokes the curse. This shows a sort of passing of the torch, passing on spinning, and womanhood, from generation to generation. Due to her ignorance of spinning, the girl is unprepared for the move to being a mother. Therefore, her sleep symbolises her preparation for the next stage in her life.

Connotation 3: Spiritual

Spinning isn’t a term exclusive to yarn. In Greek and Roman mythology, there were three goddesses who were know as the Moirai or Parcae respectively, but have come to be known as the Fates. They were said to control the lifespan of every mortal by spinning the threads of their lives, and cutting them when it was time for them to die.

The Three Fates  by the artist Jasmine Becket-Griffith. One goddess spins the thread of life, another measures it, and the third cuts it when it’s long enough. Image from All Posters.

The existence of such goddesses would mean that lives are planned out, and that fate cannot be changed. This act of spinning focuses on the creative element, instead of the social or symbolic. When spinning, yarn is made. Or in this case, lives. It shows the true significance of spinning is in the product, not how it’s done or who by.

Fate is a strong theme in Sleeping Beauty, and despite attempts to alter it the girl’s long sleep is unavoidable. Looking at the tale as a metaphor for maturation, this makes sense as it is inevitable that we should all keep growing until we reach adulthood. We are all at the mercy of this fate, like Sleeping Beauty – whether it is spun for us or not. None of us can prevent time passing and lengthening our ethereal threads.

Today, spinning wheels are regarded as a curiosity. You might see people spinning at country fairs, exhibiting how things were done in the ‘olden days.’ For some die-hard knitters they are still a tool, albeit an archaic one. Given the choice, I’m sure many knitters would rather buy wool than spin it. However, like any antique, their charm is undiminished. Fairy tales help to keep it alive, and keep the legends and origins of the spinning wheel known.


Featured image from Education Scotland