If you dig into the past, you can herd the flocks of the sea, or spin straw into gold.
The second is the easiest to demonstrate in the modern era. Gather some fresh nettles, ret them in water just as you would linen, and spin the resulting fibers. Nettle fiber retted in dew tends to come out silver; in running water, golden. Which should help you clear up not just the whole “spinning straw into gold” element of fairytales, but also the “gathering nettles to make shirts” in the Seven Swans.
(Check out Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber for more details.)
Gathering nettles isn’t nearly as painful as fairytales might have you believe, by the way. The fine needle-hairs only discharge their nasty load of histamines and other chemicals if you brush against them. Grasp them firmly, the needles can’t take the pressure, and you’re good.
Or you could just use gloves. Take the easy way out.
I haven’t retted nettles myself, but I have taken them apart to see the fiber, and gathered them – either bare-handed or gloved. Sometimes to clear ground for gardening, and sometimes to eat them. Though you only want to eat the young ones or tender tips, and only after they’re boiled. Personally I prefer goosefoot, but nettles are decent on the plate. And they indicate good garden soil, in case you’re wondering why the pesky things keep coming back.
“Mermaid fleece” (chiao-hsiao in ancient Chinese records) is harder to come by these days. As of 1992 the Mediterranean fan shell Pinna nobilis is a protected species. Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that it’s been harvested not only for food but for its byssus – fine protein fibers secreted to anchor it in sandy seabeds – since the Bronze Age. Called sea silk, they come in colors from dark green to golden brown, made brighter and more golden by a wash of acid. Archaeologists haven’t come up with any known sea silk remnants that date to earlier than about the 14th century AD, but there are references in the historical literature, including documents of Hittite-Aegean gift exchanges, and digs in Chalkis on the coast of Aetolia between 1995-2001 seem to have uncovered a specialized weaving workshop that may have added purple-dyed and gold-threaded borders to already finished cloth. And recently Anne Sicken published the microscopic characteristics of sea silk that distinguish it from mulberry silk (an elliptical cross-section, instead of a rounded triangular one) so hopefully researchers will now be able to poke samples with nondestructive tests to see if there’s sea silk hiding in the artifacts.
There are a few people who still know the craft of preparing and working sea silk, but they can only use what fishermen have brought up as bycatch. Given the pinna species produce not only sea silk but nacre that can be used for inlay, and sometimes golden pearls, I think this would be a great candidate for someone to try growing by aquaculture.
To me, this doesn’t make fairytales any less magical. It makes them even more awesome, knowing fragments of the past have been gifted to us in disguise, if we only know where to look.
Pick up a folktale, Think of what might have inspired part of the story. How could you translate that into fantastic reality – or even another planet?