The Wild Swans - Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

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

The Wild Swans
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

A wicked stepmother-witch queen curses her eleven stepsons, transforming them into wild swans. Her one stepdaughter, Eliza, is left untouched but is sent away to be raised outside the castle. When she returns in the prime of adolescence, beautiful and good, the witch stepmother desires to transform her.

She offers Eliza an enchanted bath in her own beautiful, luxurious bathtub. While the bath is drawn, the witch kisses three toads, directing one to sit on Eliza’s head in the bath so that she’ll become stupid as a toad, the second to sit on her forehead so that she’ll become ugly as a toad, and the last to sit on her heart so that she will become evil-tempered like a toad. When the toads are placed in the clear water, it turns green.

Toads, ancient symbols of prosperity, immortality, and female reproductive power are transformed into emblems of stupidity, ugliness, and evil.

The witch’s plot is foiled because Eliza’s innate goodness and “purity” antidote the spell. When Eliza enters the bath, the toads are transformed into scarlet poppies—the story informs us that they would have become roses (the Virgin Mary’s flowers) except for the toads’ venom and the witch’s kiss.

Magic won’t work on Eliza and so the witch takes a different approach. She rubs Eliza with walnut juice, staining her skin brown, and disarranges her formerly neat hair so that it hangs in wild disarray. She transforms Eliza into the stereotype of a witch (although notably the witch-queen herself is elegant and conventionally beautiful); however in Andersen’s Denmark this description would also have had recognizable ethnic connotations. Eliza has been made to resemble the stereotype of a Romany girl.

Her father is blinded by her superficial appearance. He is unable to recognize his daughter. He denies her; she creeps out of the castle, wandering through fields and meadows until she reaches the forest. Eliza enters the forest and discovers her inner-witch. Bathing in a forest lake fit for Artemis and her nymphs, Eliza becomes more beautiful than ever. Andersen emphasizes that her skin is now white again.

Eliza meets a “forest woman” who leads her to her brothers. She determines to free them from their curse. The swans carry Eliza to a magical land, where she moves into a mountain cave. Her youngest brother encourages her to incubate dreams.

Eliza prays to God but it is Fata Morgana who responds, offers solutions and instructions.

Fata Morgana explains that Eliza can remove the spell only by weaving eleven long-sleeved nettle shirts for her brothers. These can’t be cultivated nettles but only wild ones growing near caves or in graveyards. Eliza must pick them by hand, crush the nettles underfoot, then plait and weave them. Furthermore, from the moment she embarks on her quest until it is complete, no matter how many years it takes, she must maintain utter silence, not only because speaking will counteract the spell but because the first word she utters will pierce her brothers’ hearts like a deadly dagger.

Fata Morgana emphasizes that their lives hang on Eliza’s tongue. Andersen highlights the physical suffering involved in the process: Eliza’s hands blister and bleed and are no longer white and lady-like.

Eliza accepts the quest, living in a cave surrounded by nettles. A king discovers and falls in love with her. He brings her home to his kingdom, where the archbishop is convinced that Eliza is a powerful forest witch who has enchanted the king.

The king wants to make Eliza happy; he recreates an artificial forest-room for her, hung with green tapestries, to resemble the cave where she was found. Her supply of nettles is brought to her; by the seventh shirt, she is out of nettles.

Eliza creeps into the churchyard to gather more. There she discovers a circle of hideous, grotesque witches who undress as if they were about to bathe but instead open up fresh graves with their bare hands and devour corpse flesh. This scene ranks amongst the worst stereotyping of witches..

The archbishop, who has been spying on Eliza, witnesses her journey. He tells the king who doesn’t believe him. Eliza miscalculated, gathering only enough nettles to last until the last shirt. She must gather more for the very last one. This time, the king is alerted; he follows her from a distance. When he gets to the graveyard and witnesses the hideous witches sitting on gravestones he imagines Eliza among them and is repulsed. He doesn’t stop to observe further but allows Eliza to be charged with witchcraft and condemned to be burned.

Eliza is thrown into jail; her velvet and finery are taken away and she is given her nettles, as befitting a witch; ironically there is nothing she wants more. Andersen describes Eliza’s journey to the pyre in harrowing detail. She’s transported in an old wagon while crowds jeer her. She continues her attempt to complete the last shirt; the crowd notes that she carries no hymnal, only her “ugly sorcery,” which they attempt to wrest away from her.

The wild swans, who’ve located her at this very last moment, arrive and beat back the crowds with their wings. Just as the executioner seizes her, she throws the shirts over the swans and they instantly transform back into handsome princes—all except the youngest one, who still retains one swan wing because the final sleeve of the final shirt was incomplete. Eliza can now speak and explain herself. She and the husband who had been ready to burn her, live together happily ever after.

See ANIMALS: Frogs and Toads; BOTANICALS: Nettles, Opium Poppy; DIVINE WITCH: Morgan le Fay.