Hansel and Gretel - Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Hansel and Gretel
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

Now among the Grimms’ signature fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel is extremely hostile towards witches and to adult women in general. In the context of fairy tales, its witch is particularly virulent: she’s portrayed as physically grotesque; a cannibal who lusts for children and insidiously lures them to her. The resemblance of witches to animals is pointed out; in nine-teenth-century Europe, this was no compliment.

Nothing ultimately happens to the witches in Frau Trude, Rapunzel, and Jorinda and Joringel: in Hansel and Gretel the witch is graphically killed by incineration in an oven. In the twenty-first century, this evokes thoughts of Auschwitz but ovens were first developed as execution tools in Germanic lands to kill witches during the Burning Times. (See WITCHCRAZE!: Germany.) Hansel and Gretel thus is not entirely a fantasy tale.

Hansel and Gretel was among those stories initially thought unsuitable for children—not because of the violent killing of the witch but because the concept of parents’ abandoning their children was considered too disturbing. The story was periodically revised by Wilhelm Grimm.

Hansel and Gretel’s parents are identified as a woodcutter and “his wife.” In the earliest published versions of this story, the female parent is the biological mother. Wilhelm Grimm did not revise the tale by making her kinder; rather she became increasingly villainous but, by the fourth edition, had become a stepmother. The father, however, was increasingly exonerated in subsequent editions: his wife made him do it.

The family is starving; they have no food. They live on the edge of the forest yet seem unable to reap the forest’s bounties. There is no indication that attempts at hunting or foraging in the forest have been made. In Hansel and Gretel, the forest seems useful only for chopping wood or abandoning children.

The mother convinces the father to abandon the children in the heart of the forest. The children eavesdrop (or overhear) the parents’ private conversation and so are aware of impending doom. Hansel famously scatters a path of white pebbles behind him to lead them home. This works, but the second time the kids are abandoned in the forest, Hansel tries to blaze a trail with bits of stale bread instead. These woodcutter’s children, raised right on the threshold of the woods, are so unfamiliar with nature’s ways that they cannot foresee that inevitably there will be no trail home: of course, birds, insects, and forest animals eat the bread. Hansel and Gretel wander lost in the forest for three days until a lovely snow-white songbird leads them to the witch’s house.

Beautiful white songbirds usually lead fairy-tale heroines to safety; the bird’s presence in Hansel and Gretel indicates that perhaps this story once followed different paths. (See page 479, The Old Woman in the Forest.)

The house is made from bread, the roof from cake, and the windows from sparkling sugar. Faced with this miraculous house, Hansel and Gretel just begin to eat; they eat the witch up, house and home.

A major fairy-tale theme is that witches have food when others do not. The less remarked upon flipside is that, in fairy tales, food (and other valuables) is stolen from witches although the theft aspect is consistently glossed over.

Now one could argue that Hansel and Gretel are too overwhelmed and famished to remember their manners, yet even when the witch inquires from within “Nibble, nibble little mouse, who’s that nibbling at my house” they evade the question. (They reply: “The wind so mild, the Heavenly Child.”)

They do not apologize, introduce themselves, ask permission or seem at all curious or nervous about whose house it is that they are eating. What is wrong with these children? Have they no manners? Have they no sense? They discover a magic house in the woods yet show no awe, respect or caution. Houses made of bread and candy in the middle of the forest cannot be any more common than houses revolving on chicken’s legs but Hansel and Gretel seem to assume that it is theirs for the taking.

The narrator blames the witch: the story states that she deliberately built her edible house to entice children, even though she is in the middle of the forest where, presumably, lone children rarely wander. This is only logical if one assumes, as many do, that the wicked witch and the wicked mother are one and the same and so Hansel and Gretel’s arrival was anticipated.

The witch, on making her first appearance, is identified as a hobbling old woman with a crutch. The witch feeds them a fine meal of “milk and pancakes, sugar, apples, and nuts.” She gives them a beautiful, comfortable bed but by the next morning it’s all revealed as deception: Hansel is imprisoned behind iron bars and Gretel is ordered to work for the witch, like Vasilisa the Wise in Baba Yaga’s hut. (See page 494, Russian Fairy Tales: Vasilisa the Wise.)

Gretel contrasts with Vasilisa:

Image Vasilisa serves Baba Yaga. She is careful to behave like a servant: she’s aware that her life is in the witch’s hands. Baba Yaga is not nicer to Vasilisa than the nameless witch is to Gretel; the threat of death is just as explicit and ever-present in Baba Yaga’s house. Baba Yaga explicitly does not offer Vasilisa food but Vasilisa is just grateful to survive.

Image Gretel is annoyed that she only gets crayfish shells to eat (lunar food; the crayfish, as depicted in the Tarot card, The Moon, was emblematic of the moon in Central Europe). For a child who just days before was starving in the woods, who has been abandoned by her own parents specifically because of lack of food, this is fairly petulant behavior. And these shells, while obviously not ideal fare, are edible if one is starving; Gretel isn’t offered grass or stones. (An opposing interpretation might suggest that Gretel is righteously rejecting the witch’s lunar, magical diet.)

Image Vasilisa has a secret magic weapon (her doll) that allows her to pass Baba’s initiation, but she also behaves with dignity, works hard, has good manners, and faces her fears.

Image Gretel cheats, snivels, and doesn’t pass her initiation. But of course, there’s a significant reason why she doesn’t: Vasilisa’s doll represents her mother’s undying love and devotion, and this maternal relationship is the crucial element Gretel conspicuously lacks.

Image Both Vasilisa and the witch survive in Vasilisa the Wise: when her initiation is complete, Baba Yaga insists that Vasilisa take the gift that ultimately transforms her into a tsarina.

Image In Hansel and Gretel, the witch is burned to death in her own oven—the symbol of what should be a cauldron of regeneration.

According to Hansel and Gretel, witches have red eyes and limited vision but have a keen sense of smell, like animals.

The witch wishes to fatten Hansel, the better to eat him. She stuffs him like a goose, feeling his finger periodically to see if he’s sufficiently fat. Clever Hansel fools her by offering a chicken bone to feel instead. (And if her eyesight is so poor that she can’t even see Hansel right in front of her, why can’t he slip Gretel some of his larder?)

Finally, impatient, she decides to cook him anyway, and bake Gretel in the bargain. The witch asks Gretel to test the oven’s heat: until now Gretel has been the passive child but she sees what’s coming and determines to trick the witch.

This scenario is not uncommon in fairy tales, particularly among Baba Yaga tales. There’s a game aspect to it, and it’s usually accompanied by verbal banter. The witch wants to cook someone who turns the tables on her, effectively assuming the witch’s role: it’s an initiation story. Having gotten the witch in the oven, the person quickly escapes and the witch survives to initiate more visitors. Hansel and Gretel takes this format but distorts it. There’s little verbal banter but graphic violence instead.

Japanese manga artist/author Junko Mizuno re-envisions Hansel and Gretel (Viz, 2003): Gretel Sakazaki, high-school warrior, rescues her entire community from the witch’s enchantment with a little help from her twin, Hansel, and a magic doll. There is no stepmother: both mother and father are nurturing but bewitched. No one is robbed, eaten or killed; all characters including the witch are eventually reconciled. Even the witch’s motivation is explained.

Gretel shoves the witch into the iron oven; the story emphasizes the flames and her shrieks as she dies. Once she’s dead and the children have nothing to fear, they do not run away but rob the dead witch blind. They steal everything in the house including precious jewels. Only then do the children rush home to the parents who have twice abandoned them. Miraculously, considering how lost they were before they now have no trouble finding their way home.

Proximity to the witch has paid off: Gretel is now the leader. She has gained the capacity to speak with ducks, allowing the children to return home where their father is delighted to see his now-wealthy children. The father’s wife “coincidentally” died at the same time as the witch, leading many to interpret that they are one and the same.

See page 494, Russian Fairy Tales: Vasilisa the Wise; CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Blair Witch Project, Manga; PLACES: Forest.