Breaking the Mother Goose Code: How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years by Jeri Studebaker (Moon Books 2015), trade paperback, 319 pages. Also available as an e-book.
Breaking the Mother Goose Code is written with a scholarly approach, yet in a style and language that is easy to understand. The book seemed to me to be, in parts, like a mystery novel as Jeri Studebaker tracks down the connection between goddesses and Mother Goose traditions, tales, and poems and songs, as well as, in the second part of the book, other fairy tales.
In the Introduction she poses several questions that people have asked about Mother Goose and then writes,
“The answer to all these questions is, we don’t know for certain. Mother Goose is an enigma lost in the mists of time. But she did leave a few telltale clues to her identity. . . .”
Studebaker goes on to summarize the best know of these “telltale clues.” Then, in chapter 1, “Beginning My Search for Mother Goose,” she adds to them some of her exciting research whose results surprised even her. The beginning phase of the research climaxed on a day in 2012 on which she was able to bring together information from items she found on eBay with material from her previous readings. This led her to conclude that Mother Goose represented a melding of several different goddesses from different cultures. Yet, she writes, questions remained:
“How was the knowledge of the connection lost? Was it simply the result of a loss of interest through time? Was the creation of Mother Goose an intentional plot to disguise and best serve this goddess during a time when it was dangerous – and frequently lethal – even to mention her name? Did Mother Goose fairy tales carry coded messages left for us by our pre-Christian ancestors during a time when non-Christians were routinely rounded up, roped to stakes, and roasted alive? If so, what exactly were our ancestors trying to tell us?. . . If Mother Goose was code, what was the point of dressing her as a witch?”
In the next chapters of Part I, she explores a number of these clues including the only nursery rhyme about Mother Goose; goddesses Mother Goose resembles; the connections among Harlequinn, Hellequinn, Helle, and Holda; representation of Mother Goose in art; other evidence that Mother Goose was a goddess; whether Mother Goose was a pre-patriarchal goddess; and secrets hidden in nursery rhymes.
Studebaker has a rare gift for turning complex concepts into colloquial and entertaining explanations. She uses this gift sparingly, yet effectively, in this book. For example, in chapter 4 when explaining the relationship between Aphrodite and Mother Goose, she writes:
“… some writers think Aphrodite began as a powerful goddess who was gradually besmirched by the Greeks and Romans. … we’ve been told Aphrodite was a somewhat empty-headed physical knockout. Also though, according to the Greeks, she was a vamp. Her vampiness might have been the result of Zeus forcing her to marry the god Hephaistos, who was lame, misshapen and mean. Since she had nothing in common with Hephaistos, and also didn’t take kindly to being forced to marry anyone, Aphrodite began going out with other guys….”
In a more scholarly tone, she writes that
“Jane Harrison thinks that before the Greeks demoted her into a sex goddess, Aphrodite was a goddess who just never married, a parthenogenetic deity who could create life without mating… – which of course suggests that originally she was a great goddess, the uncreated source that created everything.…”
She goes on to discuss the goddesses Holda and Perchta, which in relation to Mother Goose she calls Holda-Perchta, and explains that they both had many other names depending on the time and location. She describes how these goddesses were “degraded” by those who were trying to stop Europeans from worshiping them, and then goes on to discuss the Grimms’ Fairytale, “Mother Holla,” giving Heide Gottner-Abendroth’s opinion of the tale and Marija Gimbutas’ opinion about Holda. Her exploration of the connections among Harlequinn, Hellequinn, Helle, and Holda are focused on “early modern” theater productions which show relationship among these and among Holda and what was called “The Wild Hunt, a supernatural group of mostly dead people that roamed the medieval medieval countryside in the dead of night.”
Her investigation of “Mother Goose and the Graphic Arts” is an extraordinary example of scholarship that includes primary research. In the section on American portrayals of Mother Goose, in which she takes a close look at 18 Mother Goose images, she tells of trying to find the answer to the question of how Mother Goose came to be portrayed as “witch-like.” She finds the answer to this in a description of an 1806 theater production of a play by Thomas Dibdin and tries to figure out how to get a copy of the script. She discovers that such a copy is in the Harvard University library where “Harvard librarians weren’t letting it out of their hands.” She describes the way she finally got a copy of the document as a “miracle of miracles” and how, through it, she found even more information than the reason for the “witch-like” representation.
Part Two of the book includes a close look at Mother Goose fairy tales including a list “of 12 characteristics that, taken together, set the fairytales apart from other fiction”; a look at the implications of “Cinderella” and other fairy tales and codes within them; and other fairy tales about “creation, cosmology and theology” as well as those about “magic spells and incantations.” In “Fairy Tales About Right and Wrong” she looks into the question of why there seems to be no portrayal of war in fairy tales and whether the violence that does exist in them “might be the result of patriarchal revisioning.” The last chapter of the book is titled “Questions, Questions and more Questions.”
The back matter of the book includes appendices with “Frequently Used Terms and Time Periods,” “Mother Goose Timeline,” the text of “ Grimms Fairy Tale N0. 24, Mother Holle,” “Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose: A Synopsis of Each Tale,” “Fairy Tale Code Words and Their Meanings (From Heide Gottner-Abendroth’s The Goddess and Her Heroes),” “Discussion Questions”; and a 16.5-page bibliography and 19-page index. The front matter of the book includes acknowledgments and notes about illustrations, including an explanation of why they aren’t included in this book, along with information about a book and websites that can provides the reader with such illustrations.
Breaking the Mother Goose Code is an important book, not only for its subject matter about Mother Goose, fairy tales, and Goddess mythology, but also for the examples it sets of ways to trace the history of Goddess suppression and of how to present this type of material in a scholarly yet very accessible way. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.
Jeri Studebaker has worked on several archaeological sites and has advanced degrees in anthropology, archaeology, and education. She is also author of Switching to Goddess.