Rumpelstiltskin: Reclaiming Our Creative Power

Colleen Szabo
19 min readJun 12, 2022

Rumpelstiltskin is a teaching tale concerning the ways in which we give our creativity away, with some pointers on reclamation. In the story, the miller father and the king are in cahoots to enslave the daughter/queen; thus it’s a teaching on what we call toxic patriarchy. Toxic patriarchy can be most simplistically described as excessive competition and an attendant greedy sense of exploitation and entitlement. Greed is aspiring to and/or taking more than one needs at the expense of others, as in the case of slavery.

Rumpelstiltskin is a story with many versions worldwide. My version is from a Grimm brothers translation.

There was once a miller who was poor, but he had one beautiful daughter. It happened one day that he came to speak with the King, and, to give himself consequence, he told him that he had a daughter who could spin gold out of straw. The King said to the miller, “That is an art that pleases me well; if your daughter is as clever as you say, bring her to my castle tomorrow, that I may put her to the proof.”

There are plenty of millers in the old archetypal teaching tales, for the miller represents the archetype of exploitation, particularly in the case of a water wheel. In that case the miller exploits the feminine in the form of water element. If you know the story, you know it is in some regard a story about exchange, right? You do something for me, I do something for you. However, the miller takes the power of the water and enslaves it, giving back nothing.

Thus millers were often eyed suspiciously back in the day as greedy people. Apparently some of them also built bridges over the river and charged a fee for crossing the bridge. They could charge whatever portion they wanted for their service, of course, and were often in cahoots with some form of government. Thirlage, for example, involved laws forcing tenants of a landholder to use the mill, like it or not. Landowners could confiscate tenants’ hand mills under the law.

Hand mill or quern

So the miller talking to the king refers to this greedy, exploitative aspect of the patriarchy. As children of the patriarchy, we are all affected by this exploitation, mind you. Certainly in the U.S. our economic system reflects the value we were conditioned to; of competing, of gaining, at all costs. Such behavior can even be lauded as heroic. Hitler was a hero to many.

I exercise this exploitative mode of operation when I habitually jack myself up on caffeine and make my body work hard in the absence of proper rest and nutrition, for the sake of more worldly accomplishment. I don’t listen to its complaints, just as the king does not listen to the girl’s weeping. Archetypally, the physical body is feminine earth and water element. Thus, my jacked up ignoring of the body’s needs is exploitation of the feminine. It’s unsustainable, like industrialized farming.

In the tale’s symbolic or inner interpretation, we can characterize the miller’s beautiful daughter simply as the human soul. By soul I mean the inner aspect that is connected to our creative destinies, for one thing. When we encounter a beautiful human in symbolic story, it’s often code for “soul”, because the soul is always created beautiful. The human soul values experiences quite different from that of unbridled worldly power. The soul believes that the more we get together, the happier we’ll be; no slavery in that world. On the other hand, in order to exploit, we decide that we are the one who should get the goods while others suffer in lack. The entitled believe all the world is a resource to which we owe little or nothing. Humans are challenged on a pretty constant basis to balance life’s give and take scales. The more economic opportunity, the more challenge.

Some present day exploitation of water

Exploitation requires the selling of our souls, as we say, and that’s what the story cautions against. Technically, exploitation is an ignoring of our souls or repression of our souls. The soul is classy. It won’t be bought or sold, it’s not up for grabs. Thus it’s silenced in the face of exploitation. Its creative issue can be bought, though, just as the river can be coopted to commercial gain to its detriment and the detriment of other beings.

Who cares if it’s mute, then? Well, the soul knows our creative possibilities. It governs the often hidden potentials for manifesting a life of unique cosmic beauty, of innate meaning, a life based on all the stuff that money can’t buy like joy, love, peace, and satisfaction. And I guess we know there’s not much encouragement or support for that in my Eurowestern society.

That the King speaks of “putting her to the proof” is evidence of his materialistic approach, for he means to put her to the test, to see if she measures up to his greedy more-is-better expectations- to see if she’s worth anything to him. If she does not measure up, then off with her unworthy head:

…he led her into a room that was quite full of straw, and gave her a wheel and spindle, and said, “Now set to work, and if by the early morning you have not spun this straw into gold you shall die.”

We are early trained to this crass evaluation approach, in school. It’s so much a part of the fabric of hypercompetitive society that we don’t question it; that’s conditioning in a nutshell. Those who fail do not literally die, true. However, the story is enlightening us concerning an inner experience of anxiety, the result of inner disconnection from and and devaluation of the soul. If a student, for example, can “make the grade”, can perform, knows how to weave competitive straw into gold, then they may not experience anxiety- at least for a while.

However, watching others “die”, fail to prove themselves, on a daily basis registers on some level. The successful naturally don’t want to slip into the abyss of failure once we’ve been conditioned to care about failure’s consequences. The harder they come, the harder they fall, and the story we internalize as children is that nobody loves a failure. They may put up with them, but nobody praises them or supports them; they prod them to succeed, to be different. And thus, for most people in my society, even those successful at the games the patriarchy plays, a certain level of anxiety commences to haunt us at some point in our youth. The more competitive it gets, the earlier the conditioning and the anxiety sets in.

The anxiety results in abandoning our creative soul connection. That which can be proven, can be tested, is not of the soul. The soul bases its operations on knowing, an intrinsic but indefinable part of the human toolkit. By the time we finish adolescence, we are well aware of the mandate of the patriarchal king; he wants us to figure out how to spin the sort of gold that he values. He doesn’t want soul-gold; he wants material goods, something that lends social status and power.

And so many of us enter the marketplace like branded cattle to the feedlot, having lost connection to the knowledge of our uniquely creative potential, our destinies, even. The soul has been abandoned for the sake of gain, which is different from the soul’s sharing. Though true gain eludes most of us, society’s mode of operation keeps many on a treadmill that ultimately benefits the 1%, as we put it these days. The game favors the king, for he makes the rules. Since our soul development was ignored early on, we are helpless to find our way to another mode of operation.

And so the poor miller’s daughter was left there sitting, and could not think what to do for her life… her distress grew so great that she began to weep. Then all at once the door opened, and in came a little man, who said “Good evening, miller’s daughter; why are you crying?”

The miller’s daughter looks like a victim, doesn’t she? She is betrayed by her father, for one thing, a man who selfishly wants to “give himself consequence.” He wants to elevate his social status, and in that, he is like many parents in a toxic patriarchal society. In a materialistic society, we learn to feel good about ourselves not through our intrinsic ineffable beauty, through our unique created soul, but through a competitive social order and its “proofs”. The story’s nameless, featureless Everyman father betrays his daughter because he himself was betrayed, in his youth. That’s how we end up with a society jam packed with victims; we have all been betrayed by the generations that came before.

illustration Paul. O. Zelinsky, my favorite version

The girl tells the little man that she has to spin the straw into gold and “doesn’t understand the business”. Straw is pretty worthless stuff, used mostly for animal bedding. There’s a subtle riddle here, for something worthless is being made valuable. Is there intrinsic worth in the stuff we learn to value in materialistic society, such as material wealth and other markers of social position? Or is it valuable because as a culture we have made it so, sometimes to the detriment of our souls? Is chasing the competitive dream just so much straw in the end if it requires soul disconnection?

As I said, the soul does not grok the game. Surely if we betray our children to the social order and/or exploit others to obtain socially approved wealth, what looks to us like gold is of little worth from the soul’s perspective. It’s the typical devil’s contract; a soul, or many souls, for worldly riches.

That’s why the soul, represented by the girl, doesn’t understand the business. However, a little man appears, an inner figure, who can help her do what the king demands. He is, indeed, like a little devil; he is our inner aspect that caves in to the selling of our souls for the sake of worldly competence and success. Though he can be created as early as childhood, he is that part of us that drags us to work day after day to a soulless job.

He’s part of survival mode, for one thing; or at least it feels that way. Our anxiety, our fear, helps us believe we have to do it, whatever it is. We can’t all be St. Francis. In order to get through the day, we put our self worth, our dreams, our creative urges, on the back burner, where they may boil away beyond retrieval.

Paul O. Zelinsky

The little man is a persona aspect essential to some people’s success in a hypercompetitive, materialistic society, or at least to our being functional within it. Rumpelstiltskin’s name means “little rattle stilts”, and is a sort of goblin that makes noise by rapping on poles or planks, according to the Wiki entry. It’s related to poltergeists, which disturb household objects. Symbolically both creatures represent a haunting, an inner, unseen disturbance. Indeed, the selling of our creative souls can be chronically disturbing to those who haven’t buried soul connection completely. The stilts are interesting symbolically because, as the word is used in English, they are for making someone tall; higher than they naturally are. That’s a nice metaphor for social climbing, right?

The story wants to inform us that we don’t get this sort of devil’s assistance for free. There’s a price to pay.

“Then the little man said, “What will you give me if I spin it for you?” “My necklace,” said the girl.”

I think it’s fun that we can apply the colloquial term “spin”: A description or the act of describing negative events in an overly favorable way. Often that’s how we manage, isn’t it? “This isn’t so bad; I can handle it. It’s good for me. Things will get better. I will get that promotion if I work hard enough.” And maybe we will. But, little by little, by ignoring our creative soul, we give away our intrinsic worthiness. I would guess there are few citizens of this country who have a healthy sense of self worth.

The little man is going to get his pound of flesh. He takes the girl’s necklace, which I imagine as gold, though that’s not in the version I am using. Necklaces, and the ring he will get next, are circles, just like mill wheels and spinning wheels. They represent commitments, for one thing, especially rings, as in engagement and wedding rings.

The story is saying that, the more we play this game of faking it, the more committed we are to the project. It’s then hard to give it up. The insecure, outer-referencing, material aspect of the personality is getting stronger, while our soul centered self worth is bit by bit giving away its power. After the king finds she has spun the second room of straw through the help of her little goblin, he takes her

…into a still larger room full of straw, and said, “This, too must be spun in one night, and if you accomplish it you will be my wife.” For he thought, “Although she is but a miller’s daughter, I am not likely to find any one richer in the whole world.”

Cha ching! He’s seeing dollar signs. Previously she was unworthy, but now she’s worth something, right? So our theme of soul centered vs. materialist valuation is highlighted again. This time the girl tells the little devil she has nothing left to give.

“Then you must promise me the first child you have after you are Queen,” said the little man.

The girl has no other option, so she promises her possible future child, “…and the miller’s pretty daughter became a Queen.” A year later, she gives birth. Symbolically, babies represent “creative issue”, our creative product, whatever it may be. It could be anything from parenting to writing to running marathons to painting houses; anything that floats our boat, that brings joy and inspiration, that assists us in our personal development, that makes life worth living. That, and more, is what soul connection does for us.

So we could say (and I shall) that the woman has discovered something fulfilling, something soulcentric, that allows her to express her personal creativity. Maybe she writes a manuscript, or starts a new business, or takes up reiki training, or starts a family, builds a garden, whatever. And she’s going along fine, her old anxiety provoking life of only slaving for The Man behind her.

Zelinsky again- seems noone else bothered with illustrating the wedding

But oh-oh, here’s that little devil again. She hits some kind of creative wall; she doubts her abilities, she loses her confidence, she’s depressed, she’s in not-good-enough mode. Time to untangle some conditioning. The little man appears suddenly and says “Now give me what you promised me.” Her old mode of operation (Rumpelstiltskin) is rattling the posts of her confidence.

The queen offers riches, but this goblin wants her soul; “I would rather have something living than all the treasures of the world.” This statement is a big clue to the nature of this little critter. Since he is a collector and generator of creative power, he is ethereal, not a material or materialistic being. Acquired “stuff” that lends socioeconomic power is not what he is after, unlike the king. The soul’s deepest creative power cannot be forced, bought, or sold. It cannot be manufactured or destroyed, the little man knows this. Creativity is aliveness; that’s why we feel so alive when we engage with our creative soul.

“Then the Queen began to lament and to weep, so that the little man had pity upon her. “I will give you three days,” said he, “and if at the end of that time you cannot tell my name, you must give up the child to me.”

So now the queen must self inquire. She has found this devil still haunts her, keeping her from the fullness of soul expression. Though she has found her creative oeuvre and gotten somewhere with exploring it, he still holds power over her. Such restrictive power is usually a matter of our beliefs, which determine our values, and vice versa.

If we believe that others are better than we are, we will prioritize their wants and needs over ours. If we believe that life’s a bitch and then you die, we will get into morose addictions and/or require stimulants to keep our rear end in gear. If we are inclined artistically but believe that art is extraneous, we will lose our creative motivation if we don’t get obvious material reward for the same. The possibilities are endless, and beliefs are significant of the ways we are haunted by our social conditioning.

by Ksenia Kareva on

Our queen has the iconic fairy tale three tries, as happened with the spinning, three implying some sort of trinity; we can insert body, mind, and soul here, for example. For these teaching tales are always about wholism, about healing, same thing. She is being challenged to name the adversary, that aspect of her self that blocks her soul connection.

When the little man comes next day she has a list of names that starts with Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the famous three wise men of Christian tradition. So here’s a clue; she is seeking wisdom. Her wisdom seeking could be the work of many a year, of course. For many of us, the little devil never completely disappears. Which is fine, because he stimulates more self inquiry, right? And that’s the wisdom game of a lifetime- or lifetimes!

Second day, “…the Queen sent to inquire of all the neighbors what the servants were called, and told the little man all the most unusual and singular names, saying, “Perhaps you are Roast-ribs, or Sheepshanks, or Spindleshanks?” But he answered nothing but “That is not my name.”

This is an interesting symbolic riddle, a little more complicated than the last. Riddles were considered a part of wisdom development back in the day, so they are often in the old teaching tales. The queen wants to know what the servants are called, thus we know she is associating the little man with a servant.

That’s actually an important step in our wisdom development; the understanding that it’s all here to serve us, including the adverse. Understanding that everything is here to serve us is an excellent ticket out of subtle forms of victimhood. Under past circumstances, she created and then maintained this inner aspect, and it served her well. Now, she wants to reclaim the creative power that she gave to it back then. In the metaphorical sense, she does find his name, for she finds an understanding of his origins, his nature, and his purpose.

I am a bit lost on the second three names, but they are all bones. Bones are our inner landscape, bones are depth; we speak of bone-deep knowing or understanding. Indeed bones have been used for divination. Bones are also connected to the idea of our ancestors, our forbears. When these are gone from physicality, they haunt us as skeletons, is the bone metaphor. Like our DNA, ancestors are “in our bones”. We tend to associate DNA and bones because scientists use DNA to identify skeletons.

Ghosts without bones are not symbolically designated as ancestors. Maybe the story’s bone lesson is that this haunting has been passed on from generation to generation, through centuries of conditioned acts of soul betrayal. Blood is also made in the bones, so that’s another reason for the ancestor interpretation.

Mexican ancestor skeletons by Angel Ceron

Ribs house the heart, and cooking (fire element) symbolizes transformation. So, perhaps Roast-ribs has this meaning; a major change of heart, or maybe a newly passionate (fire) heart. We have run across a spindle already, for that was used to wind the woven gold thread. As a spindle is basically a pointed stick, it’s a word that is used in the form ‘spindly’, describing a skinny leg, for example. A spindly leg is a weak leg.

Maybe this symbolism says that the little man is actually weak by nature, “without a leg to stand on”, though he has frightened the queen for however many years of her life. That’s because he was created from her conditioned state of fear; when that fear appears, so does he. She believed he, and the attendant fear, had power over her, but actually it was always her power, given over to him in time of necessity. She’s ready to reclaim it.

Sheepshanks could then have a similar meaning, for a sheep is considered to be an easily frightened or shy animal. ‘Sheepish’ is embarrassment from shame or a lack of self confidence. Could the devil be recognized in those behaviors, when the queen experiences them? Is that his name, lack of confidence? For that is when he appears.

Self confidence is surely an issue with the sheep, as is shame. Shame is a socialized experience of feeling less than others, and/or of having made a socially governed mistake. Sheep are very social creatures, herd animals that protect themselves by staying very close together, creating social cohesiveness. They stay alive by not risking bravery and individualism. In order to access our souls, our deepest creative powers, we need some time and space to find out who we are outside of society, beyond the herd.

Illustration Mercer Mayer

The queen sends a messenger out again and he claims to have seen the little man, signifying that the queen has identified her inner goblin on yet a deeper level.

… as I passed through the woods I came to a high hill, and near it was a little house, and before the house burned a little fire, and round the fire danced a comical little man, and he hopped on one leg and cried,

“Today do I bake, tomorrow I brew, /The day after that the Queen’s child comes in;/And oh! I am glad that nobody knew/ That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!”

The Queen is delighted to be able to guess properly this time. And interestingly, when she does so, he shrieks “The devil told you that! The devil told you that!” While technically she heard it from her inner “messenger”, from the perspective of self inquiry, he, the devil, revealed himself, through his actions. We discover our inner aspects through their behaviors; when they show up, what thoughts and feelings accompany their appearance, etc. For one thing, he hops on one leg; he is one-sided. Maybe one leg is weak, as referred to in the word ‘spindle’.

I think this is Edward Gorey

I would guess that the left leg is weak and it’s the right leg, the masculine leg he hops on. He’s too reliant on the masculine, for after he screetches at her about the devil, he “stamped his right foot so hard that he went into the ground above his knee”. Stamping is force, physical aggression, and therefore masculine, as is anger itself (fire element). His leg is stuck now, and that’s the message; this aspect of the queen’s psyche is literally rooted, stuck, in the unbalanced and therefore toxic masculine. It cannot survive anywhere else. It will only appear when she is in toxic masculine mode- like drinking too much coffee and working her butt off!

This one seems to have his foot stuck

Learning the qualities of masculine and feminine is indeed extremely useful in untangling human behavior. Rumpelstiltskin is portrayed as a creative power that’s transforming into something nourishing with the words “Today I bake, tomorrow I brew”. Baking is an “en-lightening”, using the metaphor of rising; we assume it’s a leavened grain product he’s on about. The high hill symbolizes also this movement to “higher ground”. Brewing is the ultimate in grain transformation, as spirits (alcohol) result. Spirits get us high.

Illustration Helen Stratton

Notice again all the circles; Rumpelstiltskin hops in a circle around a fire. Human psychospiritual development is circular. We are very spiritual, soulful, or nonmaterialistic as children, then materialistic in young adulthood, and moving inexorably back towards the more spiritual point of the cycle with death. IF we are inspired to development at all.

The story implies that the toxic masculine behaviors in the tale stem from anger at the feminine, for “he then seized his left foot with both his hands in such a fury that he split in two, and there was an end of him.” Left side is feminine in most systems. Perhaps the fury was one of possession. Rape is often motivated by the fury of thwarted materialistic possession, born of the desire to exploit. The king in our story threatens death to an innocent young woman should she fail to fulfill his desires, after all. Some of these old tales end with the antagonist dying the way they metaphorically lived, as in the stepmother in Snow-White dancing to death in red hot iron shoes. The death itself is a metaphor for the nature of the beast, for in the end our imbalanced behaviors cause our downfall.

Yeah! I am game for caring for the soul of whatever community.

Above find Bill Plotkin’s soulcentric/ecocentric wheel. Bill Plotkin is one of my greatest teachers, though I never met him. There is an egocentric wheel as well, but I can’t find a good image for it. The two wheels describe two very different life trajectories, and surprise surprise, my mainstream society’s is egocentric. His developmental model is found in Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. Bill’s website here

Link to book on Amazon

So that’s a wrap, except that I would like to link a site that is symbolically ignorant for a compare and contrast experience, in case you doubt the story’s teaching purposes I propose. If you’re so inclined, see what makes more sense to you. Different symbolists will vary in their interps, but those who have no clue about symbolism will be hopelessly lost in the metaphor forest. This rationalistic blogger titles her entry The Rumpelstiltskin Problem: Making Sense of a Weird Tale.

Over and out!