Historically, the family has provided a rich ground for the telling of stories. Stories about perfectly happy, perfectly normal families teach few lessons, however, and would provide little information, and would, in fact, be boring. Two sources, the Bible and Greek mythology, are at the root of much of Western literature and cultural thought about families. Actually reading about families in these two sources is often hair-raising. In the Bible one finds examples of polygamous marriage, half-siblings, patriarchal families (wherein grown sons and their families live under the authority of their father), and other nontraditional families (such as Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, or Mordechai and his foster daughter, Esther). Greek mythology abounds with tales of nontraditional families wherein parents, siblings, and cousins are related in intricate marriages, and stepparents and stepchildren do not get along. The male gods engender many children out of wedlock, a situation that often makes the mortal women outcast—along with their children—despite the women’s helplessness to prevent their rapes.
Fairy tales, another mainstay of literature, often involve step-relatives, who are usually cruel. Snow White is threatened repeatedly by her stepmother, Hansel’s and Gretel’s stepmother convinces their father to abandon them in the woods, and Cinderella is a slave to her stepmother and stepsisters, having only a godmother to care about her. The loving sister in “The Seven Swans” must sacrifice herself to save her brothers from their stepmother’s curse. In short, the nontraditional family, including many family problems, is as old as Western literature.