Rapunzel - Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

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

Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The premise of the story is that Rapunzel’s parents live next door to a witch; their house over-looks her garden. (Although the witch in this tale is usually explicitly identified as a witch, in some translations she is identified as a “fairy.”)

The witch’s garden, according to the story, is surrounded by a high wall. No one dares enter it for fear of the witch. But why should someone “enter” someone else’s garden and take her vegetables? Why don’t they knock on the door politely and ask for some or, better yet, offer to pay or barter for it?

The implication in this story is that the witch with her beautiful walled garden is wealthier or of higher social status than her neighbors, traditionally a vulnerable position for a solitary woman during the Burning Times.

Rapunzel’s mother is pregnant and desperately craves food from the witch’s garden. For whatever reason, she will not ask for it. There is no information about the witch other than she possesses this garden and that people are afraid because she is a witch. The woman languishes dangerously, finally telling her husband that she will die unless she can eat some rapunzel (a type of vegetable) from the witch’s garden. The husband determines to save her, announcing that “cost what it may” he will get her some rapunzel. Despite his announcement, he does not offer to pay any cost whatsoever; instead he steals some.

That it’s plainly theft is clear from the father’s actions: he doesn’t openly go over the wall in daylight; he waits until dark, sneaks over the wall, grabs a handful, and flees.

He gets away with it once; the second time, the witch catches him in the act, looks him in the eye, and names his crime: “How dare you sneak into my garden like a thief and steal my rapunzel!” She threatens justice but the man pleads for mercy, saying that he feared his pregnant wife would die from her food cravings. The witch calms down and strikes a bargain: as much rapunzel as they’d like in exchange for the child. She vows to care for it like a mother. This is ironic because, of course, the child’s biological parents trade her for salad. The husband could refuse the witch’s offer. Although the story specifies that he agrees “in fright,” nothing in the story indicates that the parents bargained, plotted or schemed to prevent giving away their child. As soon as the baby is born, the witch comes to claim her and the parents disappear from the story.

Rapunzel is well treated. She grows up to be the loveliest child in the world, her excessively long hair emblematic of psychic power obtained under the witch’s tutelage.

When Rapunzel is twelve, the witch shuts her up in a tower without stairs or doors in the middle of the forest. No explanations are offered but this is clearly some sort of initiatory ritual. The witch visits her daily by climbing up Rapunzel’s strong braids and climbing in through the window.

In an Italian fairy tale that mingles elements of Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel there is no father. The mother steals from the witch. When caught, she agrees to give up her child as a ploy but without any intention of ever doing so, and later attempts to renege on the bargain.

Eventually a young prince passing through the forest discovers Rapunzel in her lonely tower; he too begins to climb up her braids daily. This goes on for an extended period of time; they enjoy themselves. In the earliest version, Rapunzel’s pregnancy eventually gives them away. The Grimms’ were uncomfortable with sex, and in later versions Rapunzel accidentally reveals her trysts when she foolishly asks the witch why she’s harder to pull up than the eager young prince.

The witch’s response is to cut off Rapunzel’s hair (her psychic power) and banish her from the tower and the forest. Contrary to popular belief, she doesn’t harm or blind the prince. She confronts him in the tower (during this confrontation, she identifies herself with a cat); in despair, he jumps out the window, falling into brambles, which blind him.

See ANIMALS: Cats; FOOD AND DRINK: Rapunzel.