The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose
No Disneyfied version of Frau Trude exists—the harsh, brief story of an unnamed little girl who is stubborn, insolent, and disobeys her parents. While this is explicitly stated in the story, none of her bad behavior is witnessed. What is witnessed is that she is curious and brave (or perhaps reckless).
One day the little girl announces that she intends to visit “Frau Trude” because she’s heard so much about her and is curious about her interesting house containing unusual things. The parents forbid her to go, telling her that Frau Trude is a wicked woman who does “godless things” and that if she disobeys, then she’s not their child any more. The story contains no further identification or information regarding Frau Trude, although notably she is the only character in the story with a name. The girl disobeys and visits Frau Trude.
The story is abrupt and vague; the little girl’s approach or her initial meeting with Frau Trude isn’t retold. Instead it jumps to a dialogue between Frau Trude and the little girl regarding why the little girl has become so exceedingly frightened.
Frau Trude asks what scared her: the little girl says she saw “a black man” on Frau Trude’s steps. Frau Trude identifies him as the charcoal burner. Frau Trude doesn’t ask more questions but the little girl keeps talking: she saw “a green man,” too. Frau Trude identifies him as a hunter. The little girl then volunteers that she saw a “blood-red man”; Frau Trude identifies him as the butcher.
The little girl doesn’t know when to stop; she tells Frau Trude that she looked through the window and didn’t see Frau Trude but saw the devil with a fiery head. Unluckily, she’s said the magic words: Frau Trude reveals that the girl saw “the witch in her true headdress” and that she’s been waiting and asking for this child who will “burn bright” for her. She transforms the girl into a block of wood and throws her on her hearth fire.
There are different ways of interpreting this mysterious and depressing little story.
One way is as an anti-Pagan, anti-witchcraft tale:
“The black man” was a very common witch-hunt era (and later) euphemism for Satan. A high percentage of those who heard this story, especially in the nineteenth century, would assume this reference was to the devil.
The “Green Man” explicitly names the Pagan spirit of male procreative energy, although it sometimes specifically indicates Dionysus, too. In either case, the Green Man is a deity associated with witchcraft; devout Christians might consider the “green man” another euphemism for the devil, too.
“The red man” is another euphemism for Satan, sometimes envisioned as a red devil with horns and forked tail. Krampus, a spirit identified with the devil and popular in southern Germany, is often depicted in this fashion.
The implication of the little girl’s fourth and final vision is that she has witnessed Frau Trude’s true form; Frau Trude is a devil too and will not permit the little girl to live to tell the tale.
If you subscribe to this interpretation then the story contains the following morals:
Children should obey their parents who know best.
Witches are evil child-killers who should be avoided at all costs.
Witches are in league with the devil or may even be the devil.
There is, however, another very different way of interpreting Frau Trude, provided various story elements are recognized:
Blocks of wood were associated with divine female spirits in pre-Christian Europe. The fiery goddess Diana, for instance, was worshipped as a block of wood throughout Europe. The Yule log, identified with Frigga, was burned at Yuletide and its ashes preserved throughout the year for good fortune and protection. The story ends abruptly; if it continued, perhaps the girl would resurrect.
The three different-colored men witnessed by the child don’t have to be interpreted as devils: the Green Man’s popularity, for instance, remains undiminished in the twenty-first century. Neo-Pagans consider him a god or positive sacred force. Although red Krampus was identified by Christians as the devil, he is, in fact, a stubbornly persistent male horned deity, a concept much older than the Christian conception of the devil. Frau Trude specifically identifies the black man as a “charcoal burner.” Before Christianity associated it with Satan, black was the color of fertility and life-everlasting; Europeans masked their devotion to blackened male fertility spirits, like Krampus, by disguising them as charcoal burners and chimneysweeps.
Most importantly perhaps, who exactly is the mysterious and deadly Frau Trude? What does it mean to be “a witch in her fiery headdress?” Is she, as the story implies, the devil or is she, like Mother Holle (see page 477) a disguised goddess and potential initiatrix?
Frau Trude and Mother Holle are the only witches with names in Grimms’ Fairy Tales and so comparison between them is inevitable. Their eponymous stories are somewhat parallel as well; in both cases, young girls visit them.
In Mother Holle, two girls make the journey, the first passes Mother Holle’s tests and is rewarded; the second girl doesn’t. Frau Trude can be understood as recounting disasters that befall failed initiates or what happens to those who lack preparation.
Frau Trude has even more parallels with the Russian Vasilisa the Wise, which features another solitary girl’s visit to a witch with an interesting house containing unusual things, albeit Vasilisa isn’t there by choice.
Vasilisa never volunteers information or voluntarily seeks information. When finally pressed by Baba Yaga to ask questions, she inquires about the white, red, and black riders she witnessed riding in the forest. Baba Yaga identifies them as her servants. Vasilisa accepts her answer without requesting further explanation. When Baba Yaga invites further questions, Vasilisa politely declines. Baba Yaga compliments her on her wisdom, explaining that if she’d asked about anything inside the house, Baba Yaga would have been obligated to kill her.
The little girl in Frau Trude is destroyed only when she asks about what she has seen within the house. Unlike Vasilisa, the little girl in Frau Trude doesn’t have maternal magical guidance and spiritual protection; instead her parents disown her. They offer no instruction or protective blessings and so she is doomed.
See Russian Fairy Tales: Vasilisa the Wise; BOTANICALS: Trees; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga, Diana, Dionysus; HORNED ONE: Chimneysweep, The Devil, Krampus.