chapter
Step Relatives
Motif P280
ByD.L. Ashliman
Pages 6

"Stepmothers hate their husband's children." This proverbial statement from the Iraqi folktale "The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold" expresses a sentiment found in thousands of tales around the world. There are many reasons why fairy-tale villains are so often cast as stepmothers. Whether or not the evil stepmothers of folklore reflect a past or present reality, they serve a number of important psychological functions, as pointed out by Bruno Bettelheim and others. In addition to providing graphic fantasies of revenge on authority figures, tales about wicked stepmothers also assist children in addressing their ambivalent feelings toward their closest parent, who is at once both nurturer and disciplinarian. A curious detail in many folktales about wicked stepmothers is the matchmaking role of the father's daughter, thus laying part of the guilt for future abuse on the victim herself. Stepfathers play a much smaller role in traditional folktales than do stepmothers.