12 Dancing Princesses: A Meditation on the Gates of Doom

12 Dancing Princesses: A Meditation on the Gates of Doom

Of all the stories that are gifts from our ancestors I find this one particularly useful right now. Why do the Princesses dance every night with doom? How many people will die before the enchantment is fulfilled or ended? The Hero is older, experienced, definitely not a prince; he goes through many Gates In and one Gate Out. Who is the King in our time? Here is much needed wisdom sent down the generations to us.

Photo Credit: Diogo Nunes, Unsplash

As a small child my father would read me a fairy tale each night before I went to sleep, and sometimes we would talk about the story. He particularly liked The Twelve Dancing Princesses, also called The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces. In the version he read me the Hero was an old soldier, as was the Hero in the version Robert Bly worked with us in a Boulder, Colorado workshop in the early 1970s. When looking it up for this Hero/Heroine’s journey blog, I found many parts of the story I remembered were missing from the Grimms Brothers’ version. I went looking for the version I was familiar with and found many interpretations. I don’t recommend either the Disney nor the Barbie versions of the Princesses or the story. My research led me to the marvelous University of Pittsburgh site where multiple versions of many, many stories are collected by D. L. Ashliman. If you like, click here and choose a version or two to read

This year we are traversing the Hero/Heroine’s Journey with a focus at each station on a story I think illustrates a place on the wheel. In this story the Hero goes through multiple Gates over and over again to reach the resolution. Besides the booklet received when signing up for this site, other blogs on the Gate In/Out are found here.

Oh, Sigh, Male Hero Again 

I’ve received a few emails on the Male/Female divide in the “fairy tales”. Complaints range from women saying “too many Male Hero tales” to men saying the opposite. It’s true that some tales were for teaching living, physical men and women how to interact with one another (Dame Ragnell is a favorite example).

But the characters in most stories are archetypes, whether the story is from Africa, Asia, the Americas or a distant island almost untouched by modern conveniences. The archetypes are carrying masculine and feminine energies that in each story have both created an issue and must resolve it by finding balance. The story’s characters are representations of the elements involved in the problem the story is solving. The solution will require a transformation.

A story (including the one we’re working through) often begins “A King…(statement of situation).  If the second sentence tells us the Queen is dead, we know the story is a problem about not having enough feminine energy to create health for the land. If the “Queen” is an “Evil Queen” we are in a very serious situation. If the Queen isn’t mentioned,  the feminine is so forgotten that what happened to the Queen is not important – a different very serious situation. That is the situation in this story; there is no Queen or even mention of her, this mother of twelve.

“In this kingdom there is no Queen, and the land is in a drought.”

“The Fisher King has a wound in his thigh  – the land is dying, like the King.

Like the Fisher King’s world, in ours today the life affirming and caring feminine energy is missing to the extent that the dominant and wounded masculine energies do not care for the abundant planet and all her creatures. Instead there are constant wars over “resources”. The media feeds us the dominant story while the wars line the pockets of the elite who are or work for the military/industrial/pharmaceutical/media empire. In empire language, the feminine is not to be trusted, is to be enclosed, pushed out, suppressed, raped, murdered. Until the feminine energy is in balance with the masculine, there is no solution to the desolate world. 

To give the Jungian position full credit it’s important to realize all archetypes are in all of us and are activated by circumstance. I have both the positive and negative archetypal Princess energies. Since a child sitting beside my father I have loved the soldier’s masculine energy of vast experience applied logically and fearlessly to a complex situation.  

We are both masculine and feminine, probably positioned physically somewhere along a bell curve, and certainly in terms of archetypal energies within our psyches. The goal is to be able to access the energies needed as a situation demands.

Critical Differences in the Stories and What Remains Unchanged

It’s useful to research cultural inflections on the stories; a previous example is the Cinderella tale, found worldwide, where in Europe the further west we move the more helpless the feminine heroine, and the great Russian witch Baba Yaga becomes a fairy godmother singing Bippity-Boppity-Boo while waving a wand of transformation so the Princess can have a pretty dress and a pumpkin coach.

In reading through the various versions of the 12 Dancing Princesses/Shoes Danced to Shreds I was startled by what is different and what remains the same. The differences and similarities provided clues for interpretation.


  • The helper met early on the journey varies:  an old woman, old man, a fairy, a dwarf – each gives either a cloak or cap of invisibility. They give the sleeping potion warning. 
  • The eldest princess who administers the sleeping potion is the same in all tales.

Gates are Unchanged

It’s fascinating that the endless Gates in the many versions are unchanged. The Hero

  • Accepts the Call to take on the challenge
  • Sees the usefulness of a gift of invisibility  (cloak or cap)
  • Passes the Gate tests at the King’s palace (moving up in status – new clothes, rich food, etc.). In a few tales these tests are left out. 
  • Stays awake when the eldest princess administers a sleeping draught.
  • Discovers the hidden Gate to the underworld, usually under a princess’ bed. 
  • Goes down the stairs, but steps on the youngest’s gown. She speaks up, but the eldest shushes her. 
  • Takes a branch from trees of silver, gold and glass/diamond (progressively richer); the youngest hears the breaks, but the eldest pooh-poohs her concerns. 
  • At the lake, gets in the boat for the youngest or eldest princess, with her dancing partner rowing across the gate to the palace. His extra weight is noticed but ignored. 
  • Enters the shimmering palace on the other side of the lake, and observes as all dance through the night. 
  • Takes a token from the palace – usually a golden cup, but also in one story a book of magic. The loss of it inside the cloak of invisibility begins to break the enchantment.
  • Makes it back through the bedroom gate before the princesses and feigns sleep. 
  • Goes through this process three times in the vast number of versions.
  • The Gate Out: telling the story to the King


The Princesses’ number changes (one to twelve). Their natures are proud, even haughty, cold, shallow. Princes who try to solve the riddle of the shoes lose their heads because of the sleeping draught the eldest administers. It seems the older the tale the more they are in collusion with the underworld, and don’t care about the deaths, even laugh at the sleeping victim. In later tales they appear enchanted. It led me to wonder if there is really a difference – if enchanted, you collude with your captors. 

The youngest princess has not been swallowed completely: she is able to notice that they are being followed; the other eleven, steeped in the cultural conserve, are unable to hear her warnings, and mock her for her observations. In the more modern version retold by Andrew Lang the youngest princess actively helps rescue the situation.

In the version I remember the old woman who gifts the invisible cloak has gray eyes, and the eldest Princess does also. Athena, the Strategist Goddess, has gray eyes, and aids the Hero.The implication in that telling is that the Princesses are trapped, and, like their father, are on the watch for the person who has a chance to succeed.  

In a version with one Princess whose name is Harmony there is this interesting exchange: 

She reached the land of giants, and when on passing the first sentinel, he challenged her with “Who’s there?”

“The Princess of Harmony,” she replied.

The sentinel rejoined, “Pass with your suite.”

The princess looked behind her, and not seeing any one following her she said to herself, “The sentinel cannot be in his sound mind; he said ‘pass with your suite.’ I do not see any one.”  

She does this three times – calling three Sentinels crazy. Three gates, three speakers of truth, three denials of the truth told her. But her name is a clue for us, and her denials allow the one cloaked in invisibility to pass. 


The naming of the underworld, who is there, and what happens to it at the end varies. Here are a few examples:

  • Underground passage to enchanted castle full of enchanted princes  End: underworld falls to pieces
  • Hell and devils (they dance on blades of knives and cut their shoes to pieces)
  • Subterranean realm of the Accursed Tsar  End: realm “slated up”
  • Portugal’s story differs in the giants’ have a “book of fates” the Hero steals; the Princess denies all except the book, and when she tells the truth the curse is released. 
  • Down a flight of stairs (usually under the eldest princess’ bed), and across a lake. 
    • End: In the version I remember when the truth is revealed the part of the castle with the bedroom and the staircase tumbles into ruin. I remember Robert Bly saying “Notice in the stories we can’t destroy evil, but we can send it back underground for a couple of generations.”
    • In one version the underworld figure is a Troll  End: Hero goes back, kills the troll, and releases the enchanted ones with the Troll’s blood

What doesn’t vary is that the underworld is rising, using the princesses as agents, and is preparing to emerge in the upper world. They plan to come out of the shadows and rule the sun-lit world. And this plan is almost complete. The masculine energy, represented by the Hero, at the last possible moment, chooses to rescue the feminine and heal the situation.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Bezang, Unsplash


The Hero’s work role changes: soldier, shepherd, cow-herd, farmer, peasant, gardener, Stargazer garden cowboy, in the Russian “a poor nobleman”. What remains unchanged is he is a young man of  “lower class” who has the necessary experience and knowledge to save the kingdom. He is a person with practical experience in surviving, a skilled listener and observer, a man of appropriate and timely action.


When teaching Hierarchy as a leadership choice I begin by asking participants to describe a Good King. Give it a try – think about words, images and actions that describe a Good King. Then, of course, similarly describe a Bad King. (I’ll go on to ask about Good and Bad Queen, but that’s a different archetype than we are exploring.) Put your list in the comment section at the bottom of the blog if you like – let’s see how similar we are.

This exercise is useful for this story, because this King:

  1. Knows something is wrong in his kingdom, he’s got the Big Picture, and  he’s taking it seriously. 
  2. He has noticed that it has to do with his daughters dancing their shoes to shreds every night, and no can figure out why. 
  3. He’s out of ordinary options for a solution and is willing to offer a daughter and half or the whole kingdom to the one who can provide it. 
  4. But idle seekers, after the easy apple, are warned: failing costs your head. How confident all those princes who came and lost their heads. How startling to find out this was serious business and they were unprepared. What just came to mind were people who would come into our martial arts dojo and ask ”How many weeks will it take to get a black belt?” The answer was, of course, your lifetime. You don’t “get” a black belt; you become one. 
  5. By the time the Soldier comes, he’s sick of them losing their lives and warns him off the task. But the Soldier brings his lifetime of experience of service to the King. 
  6. The King sits in judgment, his daughters are present, listens to the evidence, and then takes action. 

In the story I remember (but couldn’t locate) the Soldier’s Call is stated “Now wounded so often, not as quick as he used to be, retired from the field, he thinks he might go and see the King for whom he has fought battles all his life.” He’s going to fight one more battle for this King; he’s already used to risking his life.  

This is the archetypal match in the story: shared between the King and the Soldier are lifetimes of experience, loyalty, bravery. What is different is their cultural class, which makes one a powerful, wealthy elite, and one an invisible soldier. The King thinks cerebrally and abstractly; the soldier bets his life on his experiential knowledge in surviving. The Soldier collects Facts/Evidence: the truth must be told and it must be supported by tangible evidence of different tree branches, objects from the underground. He has an experienced, practical approach which the King has lacked until now. 

Once the story is told, the Soldier is recognized and rewarded for restoring the kingdom and avoiding doom. His reward is to marry a disenchanted princess (the newly recovered feminine), and inherit the kingdom (the land restored). He does not eradicate the underworld; he restores balance. He marries “Harmony”.

Our Own Gates of Doom

In the last blog, Call on Pilgrimage, we explored the seven layers of a story. I’ll take a try at it layer by layer for this one. Comment if you have other thoughts!

  1. Physical – On the physical layer of our story, the land (and the sea) is dying as we’ve known it.
  2. Historical –  The forces of destruction sell arms to the world for billions of dollars while millions of people face SOLVABLE climate disasters. (While all over the world the people are coming up with practical solutions.)
  3. Exegetical (teaching)  – The elite don’t know the answer, the King can’t manage the situation, and the Princesses dance the nights away. Experience, commitment,  truth telling can discover the answer. 
  4. Symbolic – The Descent is marked by ever increasing riches: trees of silver, gold, diamonds… the castle full of gold… wealth is the temptation that leads to enchantment. Those who have gold want power. Those who dance in the palace wear out their shoes over and over, not heeding the call to change how they are, and what they are doing. 
  5. Allegorical – In our time the Forces of the Underworld are rising. Unenchanted people can discover the truth and heal the situation. The soldier’s invisibility enables him to follow the princesses to the underworld and ascertain the truth. The ability to find answers requires discretion. He keeps his counsel to himself until it’s time to tell the truth. 
  6. Metaphorical – We are the story and the characters in it; we are the dying earth, the enchanted, the truth seekers. WE – one living, interconnected, being called to serve.
  7. Anagogical – “There is an ocean of darkness and an ocean of light. Neither has ever overcome the other.” (Kenneth Boulding) Balance is everything. 

Part of the ocean of light is the enormous amount of work being done by the people of the earth for the land where they live. Their governments often choose weapons over water, but people are not. A person from Holland goes to Egypt with the technology to turn the desert back into the grain belt it was in the past. Villages in Africa learn new ways to feed themselves, preserving dwindling sources of water. People in the cities are community gardening, raising chickens, or eating from the hanging gardens between the buildings. Look for positive news and you will find all that is being done under the cloak of invisibility.

Making the Gates Personal

To help bring this story alive for us personally, we can ask ourselves questions like:

  • What is the problem I wish I could solve? 
  • When do I choose “profit” – the making of money – over the rest of my life?
  • When have I given the gift of a cloak of invisibility to someone? 
  • When am I asked to “dress, eat, act” like the elite of my culture?  
  • What is my sleeping draught – what puts me to sleep?
  • When have I offered the sleeping draught to a problem solver? Or mocked them? 
  • How do I keep myself awake and focused on solving the problem? 
  • What is my cloak of invisibility? Do I use it to hide from or to discover truth?
  • When have I let others get their “heads cut off” for seeking an answer? 
  • How do I collect evidence of the truth about what is really happening? 
  • Do I deny the observations of the youngest among us about what is really happening?  
  • When was I the “youngest” and not heard?
  • Do I find myself in this story as the King or missing Queen, kind or cruel princess, the Soldier, a representative of the underworld (ambition and deceit to gain power)? 
  • When have I stood before a judge and told the truth?
  • What other questions does the story ask you?

I opened with “Of all the stories that are gifts from our ancestors I find this one particularly useful right now.” I said that because we are at the Gates of Doom. I believe this story offers us wisdom and some solutions, and I hope you agree. 

Our tasks: Trust our invisibility. Apply experience to determine the truth; gather evidence; speak only when the truth will be heard and understood. Be a light bringer to conversations and situations. 

Trust we are transforming under the cloak of invisibility. Bless all our journeys, and all working to save our earth from going through the Gates of Doom.  

Besides forwarding it to others, it helps to increase the ability of people to find this story when you comment in the box at the end of the blog. Know that I love learning about your experiences, your wisdom, whether there or by email. Next time we look at the Road of Trials as experienced by feminine energy – a Heroine tale called White Bear King Valemon and/or East of the Sun and West of the Moon.


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  1. Susan D Starkey June 1, 2022 at 1:26 am

    Lola, I just love the set of questions you pose here. I plan to take time to reflect and write on them, but they’ll be too personal to share on a blog. I still haven’t gone on to find and then read any of the actual stories, but I’ll be interested in doing so. Thanks so much for your blog!

    • Lola June 2, 2022 at 2:34 am

      I’m grateful you took the time to tell me you’d read the blog and were working through the questions. There are so many questions – you may think of some you want to ask me and others reading along!

  2. M.K. June 3, 2022 at 6:10 pm

    Thank you, Lola, for this tremendously thought-provoking posting. It’s causing me to “go deep”, and offers so many paths to explore!

    As an aside, that 1st image of the glorious ballroom looked familiar so I “Googled” the photographer to determine where it was. I had thought it might be in Schoenbrunn Palace outside of Vienna. I was fortunate enough to visit there a few years ago and was agog at the many grand rooms and stunning chandeliers. This ballroom turned out to be at the Palácio de Queluz in Portugal.

    • Lola June 3, 2022 at 6:22 pm

      Thank you for researching the palace. I have been to Versailles, but didn’t remember that room for sure. Now I know why! Thank you also for reading and posting.

  3. nancy king June 5, 2022 at 5:20 pm

    I see the story a bit differently. The King/ruler knows something is wrong but doesn’t know how to deal with it. The 12 princesses are only able to express themselves in a world in which they are not allowed to express themselves. The King/ruler does not stop the slaughter of men trying to figure out the problem. The old soldier who comes is not highly regarded by those in power. He succeeds because he knows the obstacles are man and being open to new ideas and experiences, as well as staying awake in the fullest sense of the word, is the only way to figure out the problem. He marries the oldest daughter because he is old. Is she given a choice? When the full power of the feminine is kept down, as it is currently with white, mostly men, deciding women should have no agency over their bodies, it will take wise energy and the willingness to be open to what is hidden, for the current imbalance to be resolved.

    • Lola June 15, 2022 at 1:31 am

      We each bring our own experiences and views to a story, which is why discussions are enriching. I liked reading your points. I agree that “being open to new ideas and experiences, as well as staying awake in the fullest sense of the word, is the only way to figure out the problem.” I also loved the phrase “willingness to be open to what is hidden…” I think the old soldier models that for us.

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