Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005

Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

Witches play complex, crucial roles in fairy tales. They are the villains of countless tales: they kill, kidnap, maim, raise havoc, behave maliciously, and last but very much not least, entrap and eat children. Witches are demonized in fairy tales: “happy endings” often include torturing and killing witches.

Witches are also the heroines of countless fairy tales. They rescue, heal, revive, provide guidance, instruction, and magical tools. Witches are often the sole sources of salvation in desperate circumstances, although, quite often, when witches play a positive role, they are labeled something other than “witch.”

Sometimes the very same witch plays both roles (villain and heroine) in the very same story. Sometimes, although a story might officially and explicitly label a witch as a villain, undercurrents within the story suggest a more complex role instead. This is particularly true among Jewish fairy tales starring Lilith and Russian fairy tales starring Baba Yaga.

Fairy tales helped perpetuate the worst stereotyping of witches, but fairy tales also helped preserve and transmit witchcraft and shamanic traditions.

When most English-speakers consider fairy tales, they generally think of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Ironically, both are fairly fairy-free; there are virtually no fairies in Hans Christian Andersen and even fewer in the Brothers Grimm.

In comparison, Irish fairy tales include a high proportion of stories about fairies (sidhe) or featuring fairies in prominent roles. Tales from the Balkans, France, Hungary, and Italy are also packed with fairies. As a classic example, Charles Perrault’s French version of Sleeping Beauty features thirteen fairies; the Brothers Grimm version of that tale, Briar Rose, features thirteen “wise women” instead.

Wise women is a euphemism for a single, less polite word rooted in identical etymology, although that certain less polite word is fraught with nuance and loaded down with baggage.

Significantly, twelve of the “wise women” in Briar Rose are “good” and bless the baby; the thirteenth is angry and curses her. That certain word cognate with “wise woman” is, of course, “witch”: had it been used instead, the Brothers Grimm would have had to acknowledge that twelve out of the thirteen were not wicked.

The borderline dividing witches, wise women, and fairies can be very nebulous. When I asked my primary Hungarian source to confirm the English translation of boszorkány (see DICTIONARY), she automatically replied, “witch.” When I requested further details, the finer nuances of the boszorkány, she immediately responded, “an ugly, mean, wicked witch.” But, I inquired, is the boszorkány “wicked” by definition or could she also be a beautiful, benevolent witch? The response was a blank stare. I pressed on, “Well, what would you call such a witch? What do you call a beautiful, powerful, essentially good, female practitioner of magic?” The light of recognition dawned: “That’s a fairy!” she instantly responded.

Sometimes “fairies” refers to different species of spirits but sometimes it doesn’t. “Fairy” is often a euphemism or stand-in word for “witch,” often with the added implied nuance of “beautiful witch” although not always. (And, of course, not all fairies are uniformly benevolent or beautiful, not even in Hungarian fairy tales.)

During Europe’s Burning Times, in some regions, notably France and Italy, consorting with fairies was included among charges of witchcraft. Fairies were not officially considered sweet, harmless, and suitable for children’s tales; instead they were dangerous relics of Paganism. Consorting with fairies and telling tales glorifying them was a criminal act. (See FAIRIES: Sicilian Fairy Cult, Witchcraft Trials.)

The existence of Balkan fairy societies (see FAIRIES: Fairy Magicians) and assorted fragments of witch-trial testimony suggest that the Inquisition was not entirely fantasizing about devotion to fairies. When witchcraft became diabolized (i.e. witchcraft was defined as a Satanic cult) some of the accused witches protested that they did not worship Satan but were devotees of the beautiful, generous, benevolent Fairy Queen.

If “Fairy Queen” is a euphemism for the Goddess, then fairies are her devotees, those who remember old, forbidden, suppressed knowledge. They are the “ones who know”—the definition at the heart of the word “witch.” Fairy tales thus might just as easily be called witch tales.

In the Grimms’ fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (also called The Dancing Shoes and The Shoes Worn to Pieces), twelve beautiful sisters each mysteriously wear out a pair of shoes nightly. They refuse to reveal where they’ve been or what they’ve done. Those who investigate are foiled. In order to prevent their mysterious escapades, the princesses are locked into the bedroom they share every night but to no avail: every morning their shoes are still worn through. Eventually it is revealed that the princesses journey to a magical subterranean grotto to join other nocturnal revelers in dancing the night away.

Although not explicitly stated, these revels may be understood as witch-balls or, in the Inquisition’s term, sabbats (see DICTIONARY). The description of their magical dance-realm corresponds to witch-trial testimony in which Italian and Hungarian women described visits to their Fairy Queens—visits the Inquisition labeled diabolical witchcraft, punishable by death, a crucial reason why the princesses keep their destination secret and why they maintain silence as the young men who try but fail to discover their secret are doomed to die.

The princesses are not necessarily as cold and heartless as the story implies (but this may be understood as another clue to their secret identity; their talent for concocting sleeping potions is another). The sisters’ escapades are dangerous and forbidden—hence their dire need for secrecy. The youngest sister notably is terrified of being discovered.

The story contains mixed messages and is ambivalent toward the princesses: its hero is the man who discovers their secret. By the end of the story, the princesses’ dancing has (presumably) been curtailed, but they are not punished, they are not presented as grotesque, and they are not called “witches” even though they have been faithfully attending those nocturnal balls.

The concept of “fairy tales” as a distinct literary genre (as opposed to a vital oral folk tradition) was born in the nineteenth century; in the context of that time, the name “fairy tale” was innocuous but implicitly dismissive and condescending. Even now, describing something as a “fairy story” often implies that it is untrue or only believed by the gullible.

By the nineteenth century, most educated people didn’t believe in the existence of “fairies” and assumed others didn’t either. (Many had doubts about witches, too.) By this time belief in fairies was socially acceptable only for very young children. Suspension of reality is often considered part and parcel of fairy tales. Many assume “fairy tale” to be synonymous with “fantasy tale,” and so fairy tales are stories to be enjoyed but not believed.

And yet other compilations of ancient stories, also former oral traditions, are widely held sacred:

Image The Bible is a sacred text incorporating a series of stories including fantastic occurrences, heroic adventures, and even a witch. Although many publications of these stories are oriented toward children, they are understood as being more than “children’s tales.” Many, adults as well as children, understand these tales to be literally true, while others perceive them as founts of spiritual wisdom and metaphor.

Image “Mythology” literally means “sacred stories”; while most modern Western people may not accept ancient Greek, Egyptian or Norse myths as literally true, most believe they contain ethical lessons and allegories as well as being entertaining at the same time.

Image Patakis are the sacred stories of Yoruban spiritual traditions including Santeria. These often very entertaining legends of the orishas simultaneously transmit sacred information. (See DICTIONARY: Orisha, Santeria.)

In addition to possessing spiritual truths, all of the above are acknowledged to contain traces of history.

What if some fairy tales could be considered in the same way?

What if some fairy tales weren’t entirely fantasy or nonsense tales?

What if instead, secretly imbedded in a substantial percentage, there are hidden magical, mystical, spiritual, and shamanic secrets as well as lingering vestiges of history?

The way fairy tales are most often experienced today is not the way they were originally experienced, or intended to be experienced. In the late seventeenth century, at the tail end of the witch-hunts, men began to collect and publish fairy tales, culminating in the nineteenthcentury publication of massive collections by the Brothers Grimm in Germany, Aleksandr Afanas’ev in Russia, and others elsewhere.

Although virtually all national collections of fairy tales compiled in the nineteenth century were compiled by men, their sources were largely female. Despite the fact that fairy tales are now usually read from books, fairy tales were originally part of a vast, and largely female, oral tradition.

Although both men and women are story-tellers, many scholars consider the more magical, “supernatural” fairy tales to be almost exclusively female in origin. In essence these stories could be classified as “Women’s Mysteries.”

The goals of the nineteenth-century story-collectors did not necessarily parallel those of their sources: Jakob Grimm, for instance, wished to create a unified Teutonic folklore that expressed the German “folk-soul.” Many collectors had nationalist goals. Others wished to preserve what they perceived as an inevitably vanishing treasure—this world of stories, this formerly oral tradition. Women’s world of magic tales was expected to disappear in the face of science, industry, and rationalism; men would save and preserve whatever was worthwhile for posterity, and fix it up a bit in the process.

Fairy tales, once the province of adults, were transformed into nursery tales for “nice” middle-class children, and so were tailored toward what was considered suitable for that market: explicit references to bodily functions and sex were deleted, including sexual double entendres. Many magical double entendres remain however—maybe because the compilers didn’t fully understand or recognize them. (And in all fairness, many of their sources probably no longer recognized them either.) Thus references to “wearing out iron shoes” and “spinning in the moonlight” merely sounded magical in a nonsensical, charming kind of way.

For centuries, the intended audience for these stories had not been only or even mainly children; the stories were told by women to other women. Young children heard them because of their constant proximity to women. Tales were told wherever women congregated together, particularly without men, particularly in spinning circles.

Fairy tales are sometimes accused of encouraging female passivity. With all due respect, this opinion usually reveals someone who hasn’t delved deeply into fairy lore, which is just packed with brave, clever, inventive, powerful women. For those only familiar with the Disneyfied versions of fairy tales, this may be news. Yes, in fairy tales brave princes do rescue catatonic beauties, but more often women must rescue men, often by developing previously untapped magical, shamanic powers.

Pagan elements survive in many of these stories, although in general these are oblique. The elements must be recognized by the listener; they are rarely spelled out and for a critical reason—the stories that reach us today survived the witch-hunts. Many contain material that if told explicitly would have earned the teller (and most likely the listeners, too!) devastating punishment and even death.

In Russia, telling stories was condemned by church officials, including St Kirill of Turov (c.1130—April 28, 1182), who described the punishments awaiting story-tellers in the next world.

Fairy tales served different needs: they simultaneously entertain and instruct. They were told by different people with different and complex motivations. Some fairy tales may be seen to counter other fairy tales. Some caution against witches and witchcraft; others preserve and transmit witchcraft traditions.

Fairy tales often sound fantastic to those unfamiliar with magical and shamanic themes. Stories are funny, thrilling and entertaining but nothing more. For those seeking shamanic, magical, and spiritual instruction, however, information may be transmitted in relative safely in the context of public story-telling.

Hidden clues lurk encoded in stories that no one was officially expected to take seriously. They were told to people—women and young children—that no one officially took seriously either. Those fairy-tale clues include the following.

Image Spinning: more than just a household chore. See WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.

Image Old fertility symbols: pots, cauldrons, ovens, stoves, mortars and pestles, particularly if they’re iron or earthen. Any reference to iron is worth a second look. References to chopping, grinding or winnowing, particularly if what is being processed is a human body, recall the Corn Mother. (See ERGOT.)

Image The color red: particularly in reference to shoes and particularly when the red item is extremely significant, magically powerful, and/or controversial. Some, though not all, references to red refer to menstrual power and old spiritual traditions. Should a hero be advised to bypass shiny new swords in favor of a red rusty one, that’s usually a good indication.

Image Limping, hobbling, crutches: pay attention to people who limp, hobble, use crutches or a prosthetic leg or who are identified as having one “different” or vulnerable leg or foot. Sometimes the person wears their shoes on the wrong feet or is missing or loses a shoe. For reasons not now entirely clear, that limp or shuffle is often indicative of shamanic power and capacity. This ancient motif appears in myths (Achilles, Jason, Oedipus, Odysseus) and the Bible (Jacob/Israel). Shamans performed their shuffling dance (perhaps in imitation of bears?) throughout Asia and North America. Trickster spirits (such as Africa’s Elegba), and crossroads spirits who “open doors” also often limp—as does the Christian devil. (See ANIMALS: Bears; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: The Step of Wu; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga, Hecate; HORNED ONE: The Devil, Krampus.)

Image Speaking animals: sometimes having humans and animals communicate is merely a story-teller’s device but sometimes not. If one begins to read fairy tales, it is amazing just how many characters are able to communicate with animals, particularly female characters. This is not merely literary license: acquiring the power to communicate (to varying degrees) with animals is traditionally among the first shamanic or witchcraft skills acquired.

Image Shamanic resurrections: here’s a standard motif: someone, the hero or sometimes an animal, is killed and dismembered. Not to worry, this is a fairy tale: someone else will gather up all their bones and wrap them in a magic cloth or an animal hide. From this point, details vary. Sometimes magic words are said, sometimes the “water of life” is sprinkled, sometimes it’s sufficient to point or wave a magic wand and hey presto! The person returns to life, all in one piece, better than ever. This motif is at least as old as Inanna-Ishtar’s descent to the Realm of the Dead and her subsequent resurrection (see CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Dance of the Seven Veils) and may be understood as pure fantasy, but amazingly this motif occurs all over the world.

A Native American variation from the Pacific Northwest insists that, once salmon is consumed, all bones be carefully preserved and ritually disposed so that the salmon can resurrect and return the following year. In a Norse myth, two goats pull Thor’s chariot. When there is no food, he slaughters and eats them then ritually gathers and prepares their bones, so that they repeatedly return to life.

Standard steps involved in this resurrection mimic those of shamanic initiations. Shamans from all over the world have described initiations in similar terms: they are “killed,” chopped up, cooked, and consumed by spirits who, if all goes right, will then resurrect them. Once reborn, the shaman has powers previously unpossessed; once resurrection is complete, a story’s hero can accomplish tasks he was unable to before.

Tales of Baba Yaga eating people may be understood in this context. (Without context or explanation, it just sounds like cannibalism.) A classic example occurs in the Russian fairytale Koschei the Deathless (see page 496). (See also DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga, Cerridwen.)

Image Shamanic battling: details of the initiation process of European shamans, from Hungary’s táltos to Italy’s ciaurauli, feature some consistent details. The person is destined to be a shaman; it is not a matter of choice: one way or another, they are “called.” No need to seek initiation; the initiator finds them. When the shaman-to-be reaches a specific age, usually seven, an older member of the shamanic society appears and begins their training. Then at a later age, usually fourteen, in order to complete initiation, another shaman or a psychic apparition must be battled and defeated.

This is magical battling: it’s not a boxing match. In fairy tales this type of story often involves an oven: someone, either the witch or the initiate, must be cooked within it. This motif is popular in Russian Baba Yaga stories: Baba Yaga gets roasted a lot but never dies. By getting Baba Yaga into the oven, however, the initiate effectively becomes the witch.

Because burning was the Church’s method of eradicating witches, and because stories were told during the Burning Times by narrators with varying orientations, these stories must be read closely: is the story an anti-witchcraft story or a tale of initiation? (See DICTIONARY: Benandanti, Ciaraulo, Kresnik, Táltos, Vucodlak.)

Image The motif of two sisters: frequently half- or stepsisters; one is “good” but unappreciated, abused, neglected, and exploited. Notably she does not complain about her abuse but submits and endures. She journeys to the goddess from desperation or other sincere reasons, behaves kindly, honorably, and respectfully, works hard and is rewarded.

The other girl is selfish, lazy, and indulged. Her mother pretends she is “good” although the story inevitably makes it clear that she’s really a mean brat. This girl journeys to the goddess for selfish, acquisitive reasons, but her true character is exposed by the goddess and she is punished.

Pagan symbolism lurks very close to the surface in these stories: sometimes the goddess, wearing the mask of a witch, is even named. (See page 469, Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Mother Holle; Russian Fairy Tales: Baba Yaga.)

Fairy tales may be interpreted in various ways and understood on many levels. Beyond the Freudian, Jungian, and moralistic interpretations frequently given this motif of the sisters, two other additional levels may be considered:

Image The story is instructional: should you, dear listener or reader, ever be forced to journey to Baba Yaga’s hut, the story demonstrates which behavior enables survival and success versus the behavior guaranteed to result in your destruction.

Image Within this story motif may also be heard silent howls of protest from “wise women.” The daughters of the goddess (notably the “good” sister, with whom the narrator identifies, inevitably lacks a human mother) are persecuted, beaten, starved, dressed in rags, and made to labor for others—their once-sacred tasks turned into enslavement and drudgery. They are denied their birthright while others who pretend to be good, pious, and lady-like (and are afforded the opportunity to be so) contribute to their persecution. But ultimately the goddess knows and in the end will reveal all…

Some of the difficulty in understanding these tales involves modern perceptions of traditional “women’s work.” Spinning and weaving were once sacred arts, not chores, in the manner that fertility was once a sacred power, not an obligation. In fairy tales, heroines aren’t darning socks at home; instead they spin outside in the moonlight, seated at crossroads, by sacred wells or in trees and caves. See WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.

What follows is a brief overview of witches in fairy tales and folklore. This is an endless topic and so emphasis is placed on the Western canon (Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose) as well as tales from cultures with interesting perspectives on witchcraft or where witches play a particularly significant role. Hidden, oblique magical, shamanic and Pagan elements are subtle and often unfamiliar and thus are emphasized here.

Fairy tales focusing on millers, their daughters, sons, and cats are discussed in MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Millers.

Warning! Spoiler alert! It is not always possible to discuss stories without revealing crucial plot twists. For those who care, please read the story first. All stories mentioned here are in print.

African-American Conjure Tales

Conjure tales first emerged among the African-American population of the pre-Civil War United States. Conjure tales, as their name suggests, focus on conjurers. (See DICTIONARY: Conjure, Conjurer, Hoodoo.)

What is fascinating about this genre from a witchcraft perspective is its lack of sensationalism and moralizing: conjurers are presented as a fact of life.

Image Both conjure women and men appear.

Image Conjurers are heroes and villains of this genre. Some behave malevolently and selfishly and abuse their power; others however are heroic, righteous, and valiant and serve justice.

Image Some conjurers are enslaved; others are explicitly identified as free black people.

Image Conjurers serve both an African-American clientele and a white one.

Magical practices are described matter-of-factly with little hocus-pocus. Conjurers are paid professionals: stories tell exactly what was bartered or how much the conjurer earned. (Important information for those seeking these services.) If a job is strenuous, the conjurer may reject the first offer of payment to request more. Conjurers are skilled practitioners with a sense of their own worth. Significantly, conjurers are shown serving their community, often providing the only venue for justice or safety.

Conjure tales were originally part of an oral tradition. In their written form, they are now most associated with lawyer and educator, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858—November 15, 1932), who collected and embellished them and, like Hans Christian Andersen, also created original stories within the genre. His first published story, The Goophered Grapevine, appeared in Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1887.

Goopher, now most frequently spelled goofer, derives from a Kikongo word indicating “killing curse.”

A collection of conjure stories, The Conjure Woman, followed in 1899. Chesnutt retells the stories via the interplay of two narrators, Uncle Julius, a former slave on the McAdoo plantation and John, the Northern man who purchases the old estate, ultimately employing Julius as his coachman. (See MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Coachmen.) Julius relates his conjure tales to John and John’s ailing wife; his speech is rendered in the African-American dialect of North Carolina.

Chesnutt treats conjurers and their clients with respect, not mockery or condescension. Conjurers are mentioned by name, especially Aunt Peggy, described as a “witch” as well as a conjure woman. His stories are set on the pre-Civil War plantations of North Carolina. Unlike other writers of his time or later, he does not gloss over the bitter realities of slavery.

In The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt (Haunt), Dan, a slave, loves his wife profoundly. Another man makes unwelcome advances toward her; she complains to her husband. Dan approaches the other man and a fight ensues. Without warning, the other man draws a knife; Dan, a large, strong man, hits him before the knife can be used but he hits him too hard, inadvertently killing him. There are no witnesses and, as the narrative points out, because the victim is a free black man, the local white authorities—the only legal authority—have no interest in prosecuting his murder or discovering his murderer. (The point of prosecution wouldn’t have been justice but economic compensation for a slave-owner, the equivalent of loss of property-value. Since the victim is free, this isn’t an issue. No one in a position to provide legal justice cares.)

It would seem that Dan could safely and secretly walk away from this crime, except for one thing: the dead man is the son of a local conjurer whose only course of justice for his son is magical. The stories make clear that when conjurers work their roots, all is revealed and so Dan, well aware of his victim’s identity, has no doubt that he will be the target of vengeance.

Terrified, Dan goes to a competing conjurer, Aunt Peggy, and begs for help. Unable to directly counteract the other more experienced conjurer she offers Dan a “life charm” for protection, crafting it from Dan’s hair, roots, herbs, and red flannel and receiving a piglet as payment for her efforts.

The victim’s father does uncover Dan’s identity but, realizing a counter-charm has been worked, he sends his animal allies to uncover it. In this epic tragedy, the conjure man gets his revenge by tricking Dan into killing his own beloved wife, the innocent woman whose beauty sparked the initial quarrel. Dan in turn kills the conjure man: both have avenged the respective deaths of their loved ones. Aunt Peggy alone survives to appear in other tales.

Conjuring is depicted as pre-Christian or as something forbidden by Christianity. However in Chesnutt’s renditions, conjuring is not intrinsically bad or evil. In Poor Sandy, Tenie is a conjure woman who hasn’t practiced in 15 years since she became Christian. When she reveals her identity and skills to her new husband, he is impressed, not horrified.

Charles W. Chesnutt’s stories are reprinted in their original form in The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales (Duke University Press, 1993). Conjure Tales (E.P. Dutton, 1973) features the stories revised as thrillers for children. Narrators and the sub-plots attached to them are deleted, as are the dialect and loop-holes allowing readers the option of not believing the tales. However, the harsh realities of slavery (forced separation of families is a major theme) are retained.

In Chesnutt’s tales, conjuring is not reserved for slaves, the uneducated or African-Americans. You don’t have to “believe” in it for it to work. Although white people are depicted professing not to believe in conjure, Chesnutt makes clear that many of them do and that their slaves are well aware of this. White people, including plantation owners, hire conjurers too. Sometimes conjurers cast spells for these owners that do not benefit their own community. In The Goophered Grapevine, Aunt Peggy is hired (and paid ten dollars cash, a significant sum) by a slavemaster to goopher or fatally curse his scuppernong grapevines so that his slaves can’t nibble on the harvest.

See ANIMALS: Allies; BOTANICALS: Roots; DICTIONARY: Root Doctor.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales

The Brothers Grimm, Jakob (January 4, 1785-September 20, 1863) and Wilhelm (February 24, 1786-December 16, 1859), first began collecting these stories in 1806 largely from female sources. Two hundred and ten stories would be published although not all in the same edition. Their original intent was to preserve the folk tradition that they perceived as the expression of the German soul. (Ironically many of the stories derive from French-Huguenot sources.)

Jakob Grimm was also the author of the massive four-volume Teutonic Mythology (1835). He himself drew parallels between folktales and mythology, especially the Song of the Nibelungs.

The massive popularity of Grimms’ fairy tales sparked the modern field of folkloric studies. Unlike Hans Christian Andersen or Oscar Wilde, the Brothers Grimm didn’t create their own stories but relied entirely on sources. Yet, at the same time, they didn’t merely transcribe the narrator’s voice as today an anthropologist theoretically would, but selectively edited, polished, and revised these stories. The brothers admitted deleting phrases and topics they considered unsuitable for children but insisted that they preserved the “spirit” of the tales.

The Brothers Grimm, Jakob in particular, did not initially perceive that they were writing for a children’s market but envisioned a readership of other scholars and folklorists. “Folklore” however had not yet emerged as a respected academic subject; the topic confused many people. In the rational, industrialized nineteenth century, the stories seemed like they should be intended for children, yet the subject matter of many of these tales (sex, pregnancy, child abuse, incest) was not exactly conventional middleclass bedtime-story material. Grimms’ fairy tales were initially criticized as inappropriate for children.

Their publisher—and Wilhelm—realized the commercial potential of their work (although the Grimms themselves never made much money from their tales). Subsequent editions were revised to be more appealing to middleclass parents:

Image While in some cases stories became more violent, sexual references were deleted.

Image Evil but formerly biological mothers transformed into wicked stepmothers.

Image Christian references were inserted and emphasized. Greater emphasis was placed on rites of marriage and church attendance. (In early versions of The Frog Prince, for instance, once the frog has transformed back into a handsome prince, he and the princess hurry to bed; in later versions, they hurry off to church to be married first.)

The first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published in 1819. Eventually seven editions featuring substantial revisions would be published.

While there are witches, elves, goblins, millers, and devils aplenty in Grimms’ fairy tales, there are almost no “fairies.” The original German title does not actually refer to fairies, or to any other type of supernatural creature for that matter. The title is more accurately translated as Children’s and Household Tales or Nursery and Household Tales and frequently as Grimms’ Tales for Young and Old.

Witches appear in many of the tales, including the following.

Briar Rose

This German version of Sleeping Beauty has one significant difference: lack of fairies. The king is so delighted by the birth of his long-awaited daughter that he invites not only his relatives, friends, and acquaintances to a feast but also twelve Wise Women. Significantly, although there are thirteen Wise Women in his kingdom he only has twelve golden plates for them, and so one must stay home.

No specific reason is given as to why the thirteenth Wise Woman isn’t invited; it is the number thirteen itself that seems to be the problem.

Image Thirteen is associated with the traditional number of witches in covens

Image Thirteen is traditionally identified as an anti-Christian number, hence the superstition against thirteen at table and the perception of thirteen as an unlucky number

Coincidentally or not, when the disgruntled thirteenth Wise Woman gatecrashes the party, her curse is that at the age of fifteen, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle, ancient emblem of Women’s Mysteries, and die.

In response, all spindles in the kingdom are destroyed except for one. The princess is kept ignorant of her history and is not forewarned. She can’t even recognize a spindle when she finally sees one nor does she know enough to be wary. In essence, she is not rooted in women’s spirituality and thus lacks its protection. (The story could also be interpreted in the opposite way, read as a warning suggesting that these forbidden women’s traditions, which persist right under authority’s nose despite vigorous attempts at their extirpation, are dangerous to young women.)

The day she turns fifteen, her parents are away and the unsupervised princess spends her birthday exploring the castle. She discovers one room with a rusty key in its lock. (Red rust is a traditional substitute for menstrual blood in many spells and rituals.) Using the key to open the door, she discovers an old woman spinning. Ignorance is what really “kills” the princess. She doesn’t know not to handle (or how to handle) what is dangerous or taboo for her.

Of course she doesn’t die but merely falls into a faint. A hedge, symbol of shamanic witchcraft, grows protectively around the castle to serve as a test: the only one capable of breaking the Wise Woman’s curse, the prince who is worthy of Briar Rose, proves himself by his ability to navigate this hedge.


The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs

In this Teutonic equivalent of a táltos tale, a poor woman bears a son born with a caul, indicating his special destiny. A fortune-teller is called in: she prophesies that at age fourteen the boy will marry the king’s daughter.

Image The reference to the fortune-teller is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental

Image Fourteen is the age when táltos and similar shamans traditionally undergo initiations involving battling.

The king learns of the prophecy and, appalled by the idea that his daughter could marry a peasant, arranges to kill the child. The baby is placed in a box and thrown into the river but is rescued by a miller.

When the boy turns fourteen, the king discovers that he’s not dead and again attempts to kill him. The boy consistently survives and outwits all attempts on his life until finally the king announces that the boy can marry his daughter if he journeys to Hell and brings back three gold hairs from the devil’s head. This is the shamanic journey, the journey to the other realm, and confrontation or negotiation with the spirits.

Upon reaching Hell, the boy finds the devil away but the devil’s grandmother at home. (According to legend, the devil’s grandmother taught the devil everything he knows.) She is sympathetic to the boy, offers her help, and protects him by allowing him to crawl into the folds of her skirt where it is safe.

Significantly she doesn’t perform the boy’s task for him. She instructs him to listen closely to her conversation with the devil; if he has the ears, skill, and talent, he will accomplish his task, survive, and vanquish his opponent. If not, he loses all.

See DICTIONARY: Caul, Táltos; HAG: The Devil’s Grandmother; HORNED ONE: The Devil; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Millers.

Fitcher’s Bird (sometimes called Fowler’s Fowl)

A wizard misuses his powers in this Bluebeardtype tale to become a serial killer of women. Having already murdered many women, he kidnaps three sisters, one after the other. The first two fall prey to his wiles; the third has shamanic skills and is able to resurrect her sisters by reassembling their dismembered parts. The wizard is ultimately burned alive.

The wizard is clearly a villain and so there’s little sympathy for him (his is a flat character, nothing is revealed about him other than he’s an evil wizard/serial killer); however he is also the only person explicitly identified as a magical practitioner. The third sister has her skills too, although this is not made explicit: for those unfamiliar with shamanic ritual, it may seem completely coincidental that she just happens to know how to resurrect her sisters. What is perhaps not coincidental is that the one figure clearly identified as a magical practitioner, the wizard, is burned.

Frau Trude

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:

Image “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.

Image 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.

Image “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.

Image 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:

Image Children should obey their parents who know best.

Image Witches are evil child-killers who should be avoided at all costs.

Image 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:

Image 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.

Image 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.

Image 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.

Hansel and Gretel

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.

Jorinda and Joringel

This story could be subtitled “In Praise of Menstrual Magic.” It combines a magic-friendly narrative with a wicked witch who lives in an old enchanted castle inside a great, dense forest. During the day the witch transforms into a cat or owl but at night she takes human form. Her crimes are listed as follows:

Image She catches birds and game, kills them, and then boils or roasts them, although why it is a crime for her to do what any hunter does is unexplained.

Image She has cast a spell so that anyone coming within a hundred steps of her castle is frozen in their tracks until she chooses to release them with another spell.

Image Should one of those frozen souls be an “innocent girl,” rather than releasing her the witch transforms the girl into a bird and shuts her in a wicker cage. Why she does this or what she is planning to do with these girls is unclear but the story advises that she has seven thousand of these rare birds, all locked up.

Jorinda and Joringel, a young betrothed couple seeking some privacy, wander into the wood. Joringel warns Jorinda not to get too near the castle. However, they get lost and discover themselves near the castle walls. Joringel is frozen; Jorinda is transformed into a nightingale. The witch appears as both an owl and as a woman: as a woman she has big, red eyes and a crooked nose, so long that the end touches her chin.

Joringel eventually saves his beloved, not by force but through magical means. The solution appears in his dreams: a blood-red flower with a large pearl within. In his dream, whatever he touches with this flower is freed from enchantment. Joringel doesn’t dismiss his dream but searches tirelessly through the forest for the flower, finding it only on the ninth day.

His dream come true, the flower antidotes spells and serves as his key to the enchanted castle, where he discovers the witch feeding her seven thousand birds. She is unable to get near him because of the flower. All the women are rescued and nothing violent befalls the witch: Joringel touches her with his blood-red flower and the worst that happens is that she loses her power to work magic.

See ANIMALS: Cats, Owls; BOTANICALS: Opium Poppy; WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Menstrual Power.

Mother Holle

The Goddess lives; she’s underground, can be reached via a sacred well, and can still dole out punishment and reward just as she did in her heyday.

Unusually, in the story Mother Holle the witch is named. That name isn’t random but very specific: amongst all Grimms’ fairy tales, this one’s Pagan references are most explicit:

Image Some would recognize the ancient Germanic goddess Hulda

Image Some would recognize Frau Holle the Witch Queen, Storm Goddess, Elven Queen, Wild Hunter, alleged child-stealer, and bogie-woman

A widow has two daughters, one identified in the story as beautiful and hard-working, the other ugly and lazy. In the earliest version the widow is the biological mother of both girls; later renditions make her the heroine’s stepmother. She prefers and favors the ugly, lazy girl although the narrator clearly identifies with the other.

The beautiful girl plays the Cinderella role, laboring for the family as household drudge. Among her daily chores she sits beside a well near a roadside and spins until her fingers bleed. One day, when the spindle is covered with her blood, she dips it into the well to wash it off, but it slips from her hands and falls into the depths. She runs home weeping to her mother, who unsympathetically tells her that since she dropped it, she can just go retrieve it. The girl goes back but doesn’t know what to do; she finally jumps into the well after the spindle.

In one version, although the girl still spins by the well, the scenario with the blood is deleted; instead she simply falls or jumps into the well, implying depression and suicide.

The girl loses consciousness and awakens in a beautiful meadow filled with flowers. She begins to walk, encountering various strange situations. In all cases, she is respectful, helpful, and kind. She finally reaches a little house where an old woman looking out the window sees her. The old woman’s teeth are so huge that the girl is afraid and starts to run away.

The toothy old woman calls out to her, invites her to stay in her house, reassuring her that if she does her chores properly, she won’t regret it. The woman identifies herself as Mother Holle: she is the only character in the story with a name.

The girl does her job well; Mother Holle is kind to her, never speaks a harsh word, and gives her meat to eat every day. Eventually, however, the girl becomes homesick, saying “I know how well off I am down here but I must go back to my family.” Mother Holle expresses approval: she is pleased that the girl wishes to go home.

Because her service has been faithful, Mother Holle personally guides the girl back. No trip up the well this time—she takes the girl’s hand and leads her through a door. As the girl passes through, she is showered with gold so that she is entirely gilded. Mother Holle also returns the spindle that began her quest.

The girl discovers herself back home. Mother and sister are impressed that she is covered with gold. She tells them her adventures; the mother determines that the same good fortune should befall her favored daughter.

The sister is sent to sit by the well. She doesn’t spin but pricks her fingers and hands with brambles until they bleed and then throws the spindle down the well, jumping in after. She discovers herself in the same beautiful meadow. She too begins to walk, encountering the same odd situations: she is not helpful but mean-spirited, selfish, and rude. She has heard about Mother Holle (or so she thinks) and so is not afraid or filled with awe. Mother Holle recruits her; the sister works hard for one day but then slopes off. Mother Holle dismisses her, telling her to go home. The girl anticipates being showered with gold: instead as she passes through the gate, she is showered with irremovable pitch. (Other versions suggest excrement.)

See also Frau Trude; DIVINE WITCH: Hulda; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning; WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Menstrual Power.

The Old Woman in the Forest

A party riding through the forest is set upon by robbers; everyone is murdered except for one servant girl who jumped out of the carriage and hid. She wanders alone, hopeless and hungry through the vast forest until a white dove appears with a golden key in its beak.

The dove speaks to her, advising that the key opens a lock found on a large tree. The girl opens it and finds bread and milk inside the tree. The dove gives her another key, which opens another tree: this one contains a bed. A third key opens another tree; this one is filled with beautiful clothes, gold, and gemstones. The girl lives happily in the forest with the dove’s protection.

Eventually the dove, asking for a favor in turn, leads the girl to a hut (shades of Hansel and Gretel). Before she enters, the dove offers instructions: inside the hut will be an old woman seated by her stove. Even though the woman will greet her politely, the girl is advised not to answer or even pay attention but to quickly enter another room where she will find a table laden with rings, many with magnificent sparkling stones. The girl must bring back only the plainest ring.

The girl follows these directions although the old woman tries to prevent her. She searches through the rings but no plain one can be found, until the girl notices the old woman slinking away with a birdcage. She runs to see; the bird within the cage holds the ring in its beak. She grabs the ring, runs back to the tree and awaits her dove, who does not arrive. Instead, suddenly the tree’s branches twine around her. The branches transform into the arms of a handsome young man. He had been bewitched by the old woman (now identified as “a wicked witch”), who transformed him into a tree but allowed him to fly around as a dove for several hours a day.

See page 474, Hansel and Gretel; BOTANICALS: Trees.


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.

Snow White

The most familiar version of this story is now Disney’s animated film. The “witch” is the star of both versions. (The fairy tale is devoted to her attempts to kill Snow White.) But is she, in fact, really a “witch”?

In the Disney version, she’s explicitly identified as one; Grimms’ version is slightly more ambiguous. Whether she’s a witch or just viciously evil depends upon perceptions; she is never explicitly called a witch but is initially introduced as the woman who weds Snow White’s recently widowed father. She is described as a beautiful lady, but proud and unable to tolerate the thought that anyone might be more beautiful. Why she feels so passionately is never made clear: is this just vanity or does perhaps her status, marriage or even life depend upon her being the fairest in the land?

The queen does have a magic mirror. Is possession of a magic mirror sufficient to be identified as a witch? Interaction with the magic mirror is the single magical action performed by the queen. It is a pivotal action: the queen’s attempts to kill Snow White are all predicated on the mirror’s responses to her famous question:

Mirror, mirror on the wall Who is the fairest of them all?

Although she can communicate with the magic mirror, the queen is never observed casting a spell. Her attempts on Snow White’s life rely entirely on violence and poison. If the queen is a witch, then she corresponds to the classical Greek definition that doesn’t distinguish between witches, herbalists, and poisoners.

In Disney’s version, Snow White is under a spell, finally broken by the prince’s kiss. In Grimms’ version, Snow White is the victim of sophisticated poison: she appears to be dead but isn’t, somewhat like a zombi. Because she still looks so beautiful and lifelike, the seven nameless dwarfs can’t bear to bury her underground but craft a glass coffin for her. Snow White lies in that coffin, the story says, “a long, long time,” but her body, like that of a miracle saint, does not decay.

When the handsome prince stumbles upon her gravesite, he falls in love with the beautiful corpse and begs the dwarfs for the body. They acquiesce and the prince, who has no expectations of her resurrection, has his servants carry the dead woman home. During the journey, however, the coffin is jostled. The jolt dislodges the poison apple caught in Snow White’s throat and she awakens. Nuptials are planned for Snow White and the prince.

When the wicked queen hears of the wedding, she cannot stay away but feels compelled to witness it herself. Who’s casting spells now? Coincidentally perhaps, the wedding party is anticipating her arrival: iron shoes have been heated over burning coals. The queen is forced to don what the story calls “red-hot” shoes and dance until she dies.

See BOTANICALS: Apples; CREATIVE ARTS: Film: Disney Witches; DICTIONARY: Pharmakon, Zombi.

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805-August 4, 1875) did not collect folktales like the Brothers Grimm. He learned them at home from his mother.

Most famous for his 124 fairy tales, Andersen would have preferred renown for his novels and poetry. Many of the fairy tales are his own creations; all were embellished though some are based on ancient folktales. The shamanic quality of many of these stories emerges, perhaps despite Andersen’s intentions.

Andersen grew up in Denmark amidst terrible poverty. His father died when he was eleven. His mother, Anne Marie Andersen (c.1774-December 1833), is usually described as an “alcoholic” and intensely “superstitious.” She may indeed have been an alcoholic but she was also a devoted, protective mother who made it a condition at the first school Andersen attended that he was never to be beaten.

Descriptions of Anne Marie as “superstitious” may be understood to imply “rooted in pagan tradition.” She practiced divination with Saint John’s wort and consulted fortune-tellers, sending her son to them in times of crisis. In April 1816, when Hans was eleven, his father was deathly ill. His mother did not send Hans for a doctor but instead sent him to a wise woman, Mette Mogensdatter, who performed what one of Andersen’s biographers describes as “magic tricks.”

Anne Marie’s own mother, Anne Sorensdatter (born c.1745), bore three daughters out of wedlock. Although at the time this was associated with ignorance and promiscuity (as indeed it was by her deeply embarrassed grandson), it was also associated with Paganism or, conversely, with lack of devotion to Christian piety and ritual. Sorensdatter spent a week in prison in 1783 because her daughters were born out of wedlock.

Andersen, a devout Christian, was embarrassed, ashamed, and disapproving of his maternal background, yet he also drew on the wealth of tales learned at his mother’s knee to create his own fairy tales. Andersen’s fairy tales reveal his conflicting emotions towards Pagan spiritual traditions and female sexuality and power.

His stories often shock modern readers. Female characters suffer tremendous physical pain in his tales; some suffering physical mutilation. Intensely tragic, sad stories, few possess anything remotely like happy endings. The little match girl freezes to death; the girl in The Red Shoes is “saved” by having her feet amputated.

Among Andersen’s stories with themes related to witchcraft are the following.

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is most familiar to modern audiences via Disney’s animated version. Tremendous liberties were taken with Andersen’s story in order to make it a “feel-good” children’s movie, not least providing a happy ending, conspicuously lacking in the original.

Andersen’s The Little Mermaid tells the tale of the unnamed daughter of the Sea King, the youngest of six sea-princesses. The point is early made and continually emphasized that only humans have immortal souls; sea-spirits do not. Good deeds aren’t sufficient: the only way for our little sea-princess to win an immortal soul is if a human man falls completely in love with her, marries her in a church ceremony, and is faithful throughout eternity. (Thankfully these aren’t requirements for human women!) If this happens, the man’s soul will flow into the sea-spirit: his soul is large enough for both of them.

In Andersen’s story, this immortal soul is as attractive to the sea-princess as the handsome prince she saves from a shipwreck. She decides to try to win him and an immortal soul. To do so, she journeys to the sea-witch, who resembles an underwater Baba Yaga.

The nameless witch knows what the nameless sea-princess wants without being informed. She describes her desire as “stupid” and explicitly informs the little mermaid that it will bring misfortune. The price of the potion that creates legs is the little mermaid’s beautiful voice, not because (as in Disney’s version) the witch craves it for herself but because the mermaid must pay the best thing she owns in exchange for this valuable potion containing the witch’s own blood. (The sea-witch is depicted drawing drops of “black blood” from her breast, lest anyone suspect any other kind of blood was used.) The plan, as the witch foresaw, does not succeed.

The sea-witch makes one final appearance, albeit offstage. When the little mermaid’s plan fails, her five sisters trade their hair with the sea-witch in return for a magical knife. If the little mermaid will use this knife to stab her beloved prince, who’s now married another, in the heart, allowing his blood to drip on her feet, her tail will reappear and she may resume existence as a mermaid. The mermaid considers this briefly, but throws herself and the knife overboard instead.

The Little Mermaid derives from Andersen’s imagination, not ancient folk-tradition. Rusalka and Nixies notably sprout mermaid’s tales in the water, effortlessly and painlessly developing legs whenever they wish to walk on land. Rusalka and Nixies are notoriously athletic; they enjoy dancing, and nimbly climb trees—as opposed to the Little Mermaid whose legs are described as feeling as if they’re being run through with a sharp sword.

Commentators typically interpret this as the little mermaid’s ultimate rejection of “black magic” and thus as the act that earns her ultimate “reward”: she does not dissolve into sea foam as feared but is gathered up among the “daughters of the air.” Like sea-spirits, they lack souls but, unlike them, they are able to earn souls by doing good deeds for three hundred years.

The Little Mermaid concludes as a morality tale: children’s good behavior shortens the time required for these daughters of the air to acquire souls. Bad, disobedient children lengthen this probationary period. The moral of the story thus is that next time, dear child, you consider not obeying your parents remember that you are personally lengthening the little mermaid’s purgatory.

See also Russian Fairy Tales; ANIMALS: Frogs, Snakes; CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Disney Witches; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Nixie, Rusalka; WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Menstrual Power.

The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen is not a witch but a frost goddess. The story recounts the shamanic journey of its heroine, Gerda, to redeem her beloved playmate Kay frozen in the Snow Queen’s realm. Gerda and Kay are both depicted as children. When Kay mysteriously disappears, Gerda searches for him.

Her first step is to make a pagan-style offering of her precious red shoes to the river so that, in exchange, it will return Kay. The river responds: when Gerda climbs into a boat, it simply floats away with her, taking her on a journey that ultimately leads to Kay.

How does Gerda know how to do this? Her grandmother is described as speaking the language of crows, i.e. she is a shaman.

Gerda’s first stop downriver is a little house with toy soldiers standing guard. It is a witch’s house: she is described as an old, old woman leaning on a crutch. Although the woman can work magic, we are advised that she is not a “wicked witch,” only a dabbler. She adores Gerda and would like to keep her but intends to care for her, not harm or eat her, although she is obstructing Gerda’s path. She enchants Gerda so that she temporarily forgets her quest. From a shamanic-journey perspective, the old woman is a test: will Gerda become so comfortable that she gives up?

Image Gerda is able to speak to plants, and so eventually recalls her mission.

Image She is able to speak to crows, and so is given information bringing her closer to Kay.

In the process of rescuing Kay, Gerda must visit the houses of two more wise-women: one identified as a Saami woman, the other as a Finnmark woman, both identified with Pagan traditions and Finno-Ugric shamanism.

These three women serve as Gerda’s shamanic initiators. Gerda passes all tests, behaves with purity of heart and single-minded focus, and is able to rescue Kay from permanent frost (coma?). In true shamanic style, the journey is retraced step-by-step until Kay and Gerda are safely home with her proud, welcoming grandmother.

See ANIMALS: Corvids; HAG: Gerda, Skadi.

The Wild Swans

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.

Jewish Fairy Tales

As elsewhere, Jewish magical and “supernatural” tales are considered the province of women. In Yiddish, these stories are called Bubbe meises, literally “Granny tales.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that “bubbe” derives from the same roots as the Russian “baba” (see DICTIONARY: Baba). As elsewhere, some, though not all, fairy tales contain elements of ancient and now subversive spiritual traditions.

The heroines and heroes of Jewish fairy tales are midwives and miracle-working rabbis or ba’al-shems, respectively. The tradition of heroic midwives dates back to the biblical midwives of the Book of Exodus who outwitted Pharaoh. They are among the very few women named in the Bible. However the midwife as fairy-tale heroine is unusual because in European Christian folklore, midwives are stock villains, often in league with or equated with wicked witches. In Jewish folklore, midwives play a shamanic role, battling spirits (or specifically Lilith, see page 487) to rescue vulnerable women and newborns.

In Celtic tradition, fairies frequently steal midwives. The same theme occurs in Jewish folklore but with Djinn, “demons” or vague “spirits,” rather than fairies; however Jewish tales are told from the perspective of the midwife upon her successful return. These stories usually end happily for all including the demons, who are treated matter-of-factly as part of life. Lying beneath the surface of these fairy tales are instructions for safe, positive interaction with spirits.

Although the term “rabbi” is now almost exclusively identified with “clergy,” technically it is a term of respect indicating “teacher.” The rabbis of fairy tales play the roles of shamans, mediating with demons, exorcising vengeful ghosts and, especially, counteracting the effects of vicious witches and salacious wizards. These rabbis cast spells and create powerful amulets and counter-charms.

In the cosmology of Jewish folklore, there is no concept of Satan as the Creator’s evil adversary. “Demons” are not Satan’s servant but instead are volatile, dangerous spirits, best to avoid although, once in a while, they prove helpful. “Demon” may be understood as synonymous with “Djinn.”

Many of these stories are ambivalent: they celebrate what may technically (or officially) be forbidden and so are ambiguous. Narrators are ambivalent about the roles played by these rabbis: the spell-casting rabbi who performs the miracle is often humbled at the end of the story, frequently by his adversary the witch. (Never by male wizards, however, who are always vanquished.)

Although there are also plenty of Jewish stories featuring wicked, evil, grotesque witches, witches not infrequently get the last laugh or final triumph, perhaps indicating something about the sympathies of the narrator.

In one story, travelers have been mysteriously disappearing. A miracle-rabbi is hired to play detective. All missing parties were last seen at a certain roadhouse. The rabbi, investigating, realizes that the inn’s owner is a witch who transforms her guests into donkeys who labor for her. The rabbi rescues the bewitched travelers, transforming them back. He then transforms the witch into a donkey and rides her back home. Unbeknownst to him, however, this witch has a sister-witch living in his very own home-town. Looking out her window, she sees the rabbi riding home and immediately recognizes that his donkey is her sister, whom she instantly transforms back into her true shape so that the formerly highly respectable rabbi suddenly finds himself publicly seated on a woman’s back, highly compromising behavior in a sexually conservative community.

Lilith, Queen of Witches, dominates Jewish fairy tales. She is omnipresent, playing various roles from forest witch to Queen of Demons.

As Queen of Demons, she is sometimes married to the fallen angel Samael. They travel together in the guise of huge black dogs. Sometimes Lilith is married to the demon Asmodeus instead. Sometimes she has no male partner but preys on mortal men as the prototype of the succubus or vampire-witch.

Sometimes she leads a host of demons; sometimes she is the mother of a race of demons (the Lilin) who are conceived via men’s nocturnal emissions. Her daughters are beautiful, seductive, vampiric succubi who prey on men, tempt and possess women, and hide inside mirrors waiting to cause mischief. Not all Lilith’s daughters are spirits: she also serves as prototype for Jewish witches, sometimes called “Lilith’s daughters.”

Lilith is not always named: she is such an immediately recognizable figure that clues to her identity are frequently sufficient for identification. The foremost clue is her long, beautiful, wild, and disheveled hair: in the story The Hair in the Milk, Lilith leaves one single black hair as her calling-card, sufficient evidence for a heroic midwife to recognize her formidable opponent’s true identity.

In fairy tales, Lilith is sometimes hag-like and grotesque but sometimes seductively beautiful. (And sometimes both, in the same story.) Although she preys on men and enjoys exposing them as lustful fools, her primary victims are women and newborn children.

These stories are ambivalent however: although she is feared, women in these stories also constantly interact with Lilith. It is dangerous to ignore her; stories reveal details on proper methods of appeasement and negotiation, indicating that she is more than just some baby-stealing bogie-woman.

In fairy tales, Lilith often gets the better of men; her nefarious plots against babies and brides, however, are usually foiled by clever, intrepid midwives. Once in a while, the story ends happily for all.

In one variation of a popular tale, The Demon in the Tree, a young boy, a rabbi’s son, playing hiding-and-seek with a friend, sees a finger emanating from a tree in front of his house. Assuming the finger belongs to his friend, he plays a joke, sticking his ring on it and reciting the Jewish wedding vows three times—all that is required by Jewish law to be legally wed. Suddenly a strange woman with long disheveled hair appears from the tree and looks in his eyes. The boy faints. When he awakes he is alone but his ring is missing…He convinces himself not to believe what happened and tells no one.

Years later, a marriage is arranged for him. He is the rabbi’s son, handsome, educated, and so considered a great catch. He is betrothed to an extremely wealthy, beautiful girl. Just as he is about to lead his new bride into his home, a tree branch from that tree slams into the bride’s head, killing her. A new marriage is arranged, and then another. None of the marriages is ever consummated. None of the brides even gets into the house. Instead, each time, she is felled by the tree.

No one else ever actually witnesses the deaths; the boy’s explanations about the branch sound suspicious, and people begin to wonder about him. After several brides have died, offers of marriage are no longer so forthcoming. Finally the only potential bride is an incredibly poor girl with no dowry; normally the rabbi’s son would be out of her league. The girl decides to take her chances, although even she is told that she doesn’t have to marry him.

Having heard the story of what happened to her predecessors, the girl ducks as she approaches her new home and avoids the tree branch. Inside, rather than consummating the marriage, she insists that her groom tell her everything he can about the tree. He finally, reluctantly, reveals his childhood prank.

This girl has heard a bubbe meise or two: she immediately goes straight to the tree with a plate of jam, favorite food of Jewish demons. Speaking respectfully and honestly, she explains that she now knows the story but didn’t when she married the groom. She says she knows that the “demon” is Lilith who believes herself to be the true bride. Here they both are, married to the same man. The bride proposes a compromise: if Lilith agrees not to kill her or any of her future children, she will leave a plate of jam by the tree daily and send the groom to the tree once a week to fulfill his “marital obligations.”

Suddenly the wild woman in the tree emerges; she says nothing but briefly looks the woman in the eye before disappearing. The next morning the plate of jam is empty except for a gold coin. The deal is on.

Every night the woman leaves the demon some jam. Every morning Lilith leaves her a gold coin. Once a week, the husband performs his marital obligations, whether he likes it or not. The “demon,” posted in her tree, emerges as a somewhat reluctant family guardian.

This continues for seven years until one morning instead of the gold coin, the woman discovers her husband’s old ring on the plate. He has been released from his vow. Although the deal has been honorably concluded, the story advises that Lilith continues to guard the woman and her children.

Further Reading: Lilith is so ever-present that it is virtually impossible to find a book of Jewish folklore without at least one Lilith story. Howard Schwartz’s Lilith’s Cave (Oxford University Press, 1988) is replete with tales of Lilith, as well as appearances by ba’al shems and shamanic midwives.

See ANIMALS: Cats, Dogs, Donkeys, Owls, Snakes; BOTANICALS: Trees; DICTIONARY: Ba’al, Djinn; DIVINE WITCH: Lilith; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Midwives.

Mother Goose

Silly old goose! That’s the phrase most associated with geese today but it wasn’t always the case. Fabulously territorial and aggressive, geese served as watchdogs in Europe: they were considered the guardians of ancient Rome.

Don’t laugh. Geese are big birds. They hiss, honk, flap their wings aggressively, and they can peck hard. Observe small children at a pond tossing bits of bread to ducks versus geese. The smaller ducks usually wait for bread to be tossed; geese, on the other hand, often mob children as if they were trying to mug them of their bread.

Geese were kept as “guard dogs” in the Middle Ages. In Eastern Europe, they served as watchdogs for individual homes and families. Geese were the Celtic symbol of alertness, self-defensive aggression, and protection.

Geese were also considered sacred birds:

Image According to one of the many Egyptian creation myths, a cosmic egg was laid by the Nile Goose, known as the Great Cackler.

Image Various female deities including Aphrodite, Juno, and Sequana are associated with geese or swans who, in artistic renderings at least, are not always easily distinguishable.

Image In Greek terracottas of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Aphrodite is depicted standing, sitting or flying through the air on a goose like Mother Goose, or sometimes just accompanied by a trio of geese.

Image A first-century BCE bronze statue of an unidentified Breton goddess sports a goose-crested helmet.

Image Lilith is sometimes depicted with a goose’s foot, as is the Queen of Sheba—sometimes considered among Lilith’s avatars. (See DIVINE WITCH: Lilith.)

Image Among the swan- or goose-footed goddesses is Herta, thus Mother Goose could be construed as Mother Earth. See DIVINE WITCH: Herta.

In English-speaking countries, “Mother Goose” refers to a vast series of rhymes ostensibly told by Mother Goose to children. Sometimes Mother Goose is portrayed as a cozy old lady surrounded by children, but other depictions of Mother Goose feature her dressed in witch’s garb, flying through the air on a goose or even on a broomstick with a goose occupying the spot at the back usually reserved for an animal familiar.

Who was Mother Goose?

The first references to Mother Goose seem to derive from France, where she is not associated with nursery rhymes but with fairy tales. In France, Mother Goose is the teller of tales, not rhymes.

The first known literary reference to Mother Goose as a teller of tales occurred in 1650 in Loret’s La Muse Historique, which contains the line “Comme un conte de la Mère Oye,” meaning “like a Mother Goose tale.” In 1697, Charles Perrault (January 12, 1628-May 16, 1703) published a collection of fairy tales called Les Contes de la Mère l’Oye or Tales of Mother Goose. This collection of eight stories included versions of Blue Beard, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots. The frontispiece of the first edition had an illustration of an old woman at a spinning wheel, surrounded by a girl, a man, a small boy, and a cat.

His collection included what are essentially French folktales. Perrault’s primary source seems to have been his son’s nursemaid. He rewrote these stories for a jaded audience of members of Louis XIV’s court and so began the fashion for fairy tales.

Perrault described his “Mother Goose tales” as “old wives’ tales,” told by governesses and grandmothers. In France, however, Mother Goose was traditionally associated with old Queen Bertha. In French, tall tales are described as told “when good Queen Bertha spun…” In France and Italy, the phrase “when Queen Bertha was spinning” is synonymous with “once upon a time.” Another name for “Queen Bertha” is “Goose Foot Bertha,” traditionally depicted spinning and telling endless tales to hordes of attentive, listening children.

There are two possible historical Queen Bertha’s, both of whom have associations with geese.

Image Queen Bertha (d.783), wife of Pepin, King of the Franks (and Charlemagne’s mother), allegedly had “goose feet,” perhaps meaning that her toes were webbed. She was known as “Goose-foot Bertha” and is believed to be the mysterious La Reine Pédauque or “Goose-foot Queen.”

Image Bertha (c.962), wife of Robert II of France (Robert the Pious), is another possibility. King Robert fell in love with the widowed Bertha. Unfortunately she was his cousin and he was already her son’s godfather; the Church felt that this relationship precluded marriage. When Robert married Bertha anyway, he was excommunicated and given seven years’ penance. Rumors circulated that their forbidden marriage resulted in the birth of a goose-headed baby.

The first English translation of Perrault’s Mother Goose Tales appeared in 1729. In English, however, Mother Goose is intrinsically connected to rhymes and verse. Many of these rhymes were ages-old; some had political or satirical roots, others were grounded in weather rituals, love spells and, some suspect, perhaps even old Druidic traditions.

Mother Goose’s Melody, published in London by John Newberry in 1760, contained both rhymes and adult commentary. No known complete copy of this book exists today, however it did travel to Britain’s North American colonies, where printer Isaiah Thomas recalled his childhood adoration of the book. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he took advantage of the situation, smuggling several copies of the book into the colonies and printing his own pirated versions.

There is also an American claim to Mother Goose: some believe that “Mother Goose” is really Elizabeth Foster Goose (also possibly Vergoose or Vertigoose, meaning “green goose”).

Elizabeth Foster (April 5, 1665-c.1756) of Charleston married Isaac Goose of Boston and bore him six children. One daughter, also named Elizabeth Goose, married an English printer, Thomas Fleet, in 1715. Reverend Cotton Mather, a famed witch-hunter, officiated at their wedding. Elizabeth and Thomas had seven little Fleets whom Grandma Goose entertained with apparently endless stories. Thomas Fleet eventually published these stories, supposedly, as rumor had it, to embarrass his mother-in-law.

Allegedly the book, published in 1719, was entitled Songs for the Nursery or Mother Goose’s Melodies. “Mother Goose” died around 1756 and was allegedly buried in the Old Granary Burial Ground, however no headstone exists. “Allegedly” is used so frequently because no such book or broadside has ever been discovered. Collectors continue to search for it like the Holy Grail. No record apparently exists; many now believe the book doesn’t exist either!

An English tradition suggests that some Mother Goose counting rhymes may be relics of Druidic formulas for selecting sacrificial victims.

Among the less well-known Mother Goose rhymes are charms against witchcraft. Here are three of them:

St Francis and St Benedict Bless this house from wicked wight From nightmares and the goblin That is old Goodfellow Robin Keep it all from evil spirits, Fairies, weasels, rats and ferrets From curfew time to the next prime

Rowan tree and red thread Bind the witches all in dread

Vervain and dill Hinder witches of their will

Mother Goose rhymes also serve as spells. This one, which attempts to incubate prophetic dreams, is best performed at the New Moon.

1. Place a prayer book on your bed on the spot where you normally place your pillow.

2. Place the following atop the prayer book: a key, a ring, a flower blossom, a willow sprig, a heart-shaped cookie, a bread crust, and four playing cards: the Ace of Spades, the Ace of Diamonds, the Nine of Hearts and the Ten of Clubs.

3. Before going to sleep chant the following rhyme:

Luna, every woman’s friend To me your goodness please do send Let this night in visions see Emblems of my destiny

See ANIMALS: Ferrets (Polecats) and Weasels; BOTANICALS: Rowan, Vervain; DIVINE WITCH: Tante Arie.

Russian Fairy Tales

Russian folktales were not written down until the nineteenth century when many were collected by the pioneering ethnographer Aleksandr Afanas’ev (1826-1871), who published his versions between 1855 and 1864.

There was almost total illiteracy among Russian peasants (serfs) and so these stories truly encompass an oral tradition. Because of the Russian tradition of “double-faith,” ancient Pagan elements in these stories remain fairly close to the surface.

Double-faith is the name given the tenuous but simultaneous practice of Christianity and ancient Pagan traditions prevalent throughout rural Russia, despite opposition from the Church.

Baba Yaga casts a dominant shadow over Russian folklore (see DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga).

With the arrival of Christianity, Baba Yaga moved deep into the birch forest where she awaits visitors and inspired countless stories. In some, she is a wicked cannibal witch, in others she serves as spiritual guide and savior. She is always grouchy and unpredictable and must be handled with care.

Like Lilith in Jewish fairy tales (see page 487) Baba Yaga is so familiar and so intrinsically part of folk culture that she doesn’t have to be named: references to the old woman in the birch forest are sufficient to identify her.

Baba Yaga, like Hulda, evolved into a bogiewoman, a tool used by parents to scare children into good 'margin-bottom:13.5pt;text-indent:24.0pt;line-height: 14.4pt;text-autospace:none'>There are two typical Baba Yaga story themes:

Image Someone, usually a young girl, is sent to Baba Yaga, usually by a wicked stepmother, who anticipates that this will be a one-way trip as Baba Yaga is expected to eat the child.

Image Someone, a young man or woman, in the midst of some impossible quest travels to Baba Yaga’s hut for assistance that only she can provide. Baba Yaga insists they serve her. Some meet Baba Yaga’s high standards and are rewarded; others are killed and consumed.

There are literally endless Baba Yaga stories, many simply titled Baba Yaga; one could spend an entire night telling nothing but Baba Yaga stories. These are merely a few.

Baba Yaga (1)

In a Russian variation of Grimms’ Mother Holle (see page 477), two stepsisters take turns serving Baba Yaga. As befitting the respective deities, Baba Yaga is a harsher tale: one sister emerges empowered, transformed into a “fine lady”; the other’s bones are carried home in a box.

Baba Yaga (2)

A stepmother wishes to be rid of her stepdaughter and so sends her to Baba Yaga on the pretext of borrowing a needle and thread but really because she expects the girl never to return. The stepmother doesn’t explicitly say “Baba Yaga”; she tells the girl to get the needle and thread from “Auntie in the woods.”

The young girl is aware of Auntie’s identity and understands her stepmother’s true motivation quite well. Before embarking on her errand, she makes a pit-stop at her beloved real aunt’s home to say goodbye forever. The aunt tells her not to be afraid. She then proceeds to give the girl such exceptionally detailed instructions that one suspects that the aunt herself has survived this journey:

Image A birch will lash her face. She gives the girl a ribbon, advising her to tie up its branches. (This is reminiscent of the ribbons girls tie on the Rusalka’s birch trees; see FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Rusalka.)

Image Baba Yaga’s gates will creak and refuse to open; she gives the girl oil for the hinges.

Image Baba Yaga’s dog will try to eat the girl. The aunt gives her bread to propitiate the dog.

Image Baba Yaga’s cat will try to claw out her eyes. The aunt gives her meat to give the cat.

Notably the true aunt gives her everything but the needle and thread. She could give her a needle and thread and tell her not to go to Baba Yaga’s hut but it is apparently crucial that the girl goes and that she passes this initiation. Everything the aunt advises comes to pass. By following her advice, the girl is able to make important spiritual alliances that, together with her own bravery, sharp wits, and honorable behavior, enable her to survive and return.

Most fairy-tale characters who survive Baba Yaga’s initiations do so with the assistance of an older female relative or of animal allies.

Prince Danila Govorila

A witch, who is not Baba Yaga, dislikes a princess and prince (sister and brother), although no reason is given. She plans a longterm trick intended to destroy them. The witch gives the children’s mother a ring for her son the prince, advising that it will make him healthy and wealthy provided he never takes it off. When it’s time for him to marry, he must only marry a girl whose finger fits the ring.

The ring works as promised and there are no problems—until he’s old enough to marry. The ring won’t fit anyone until, on a whim, his sister tries it on and it fits her perfectly.

The boy determines to marry her. She protests, begging him to “think of the sin.” He doesn’t care and, furthermore, he’s in charge. The prince prepares the wedding. The sister grieves and mourns to no avail until just before the wedding some “old women” pass by. In the midst of her grief, she invites them in, offering hospitality which they accept. They ask why she’s been weeping and she tells all. They tell her not to worry and offer a course of action. She must make four dolls, placing one in each corner of the honeymoon chamber. When the brother calls her to the wedding, she should go. When he calls her to the honeymoon chamber, she shouldn’t hurry.

When the impatient brother demands that his sister enter the honeymoon chamber, the dolls suddenly begin to chant incantations. Earth opens up: the princess falls inside and is covered up. Finding herself in a subterranean realm, she begins to walk. Soon she sees a little hut on chicken legs…Luckily (and eventually it is!) she knows the proper charm to get inside the house: “Little hut, Little hut, stand with your back to the forest and your front to me!

She enters and finds a beautiful girl embroidering towels with silver and gold thread. She is Baba Yaga’s daughter; the two young women form an alliance. Baba Yaga’s daughter teaches the girl how to embroider; when Mom is due home, Baba Yaga’s daughter turns the princess into a needle and thrusts her into a birch broom in the corner to stay safe.

The towels and napkins cited in Russian fairy tales are no mere household goods but ritual objects. Women once wove beautiful fabrics, painstakingly embroidered with age-old Pagan and goddess symbols. These served various functions:

Image As magical power objects

Image As sacred offerings to deities like Bereginia or the Rusalka

Image Incorporated into private ritual

In Prince Danila Govorila, Baba Yaga’s daughter teaches the princess how to craft these towels; in other Baba Yaga stories, these towels are tickets to safety.

Eventually the princess completes her shamanic journey and departs safely in the company of Baba Yaga’s daughter. They go home together where, amazingly, Prince Danila’s ring fits the finger of Baba Yaga’s daughter and all live happily ever after.

Vasilisa the Wise (Also called Vasilisa the Beautiful or Vasilisa the Brave)

Not every question has a good answer; if you know too much, you will grow old too fast” warns Baba Yaga in this epic saga. It is the best known and most fully realized of the Baba Yaga tales.

The story begins like Cinderella: Vasilisa’s mother has died and her father has remarried a woman with two daughters of her own. Eventually the father dies, too. The stepmother inherits his money and property and Vasilisa is left to her stepmother’s mercy.

The stepmother is cruel and abusive to her, treating her like the household drudge. Vasilisa is good, kind, hard working, and exceptionally beautiful. She is not unaware of her situation but feels hopeless: she would run away if only she had somewhere to go.

Vasilisa does have a secret weapon. Before her mother died, she gave Vasilisa a small handcrafted doll, advising her to keep it with her always as it will bring comfort and protection in time of need. The doll embodies Vasilisa’s mother’s love and blessings: it is a living doll. Although very plain (the story makes it clear that the stepsisters who possess fancy store-bought dolls would scorn the little doll), when Vasilisa is alone, the doll talks with her, offering comfort, encouragement, and advice. Vasilisa is wise as well as beautiful: she tells no one of her miraculous doll.

As the girls reach marriageable age, the stepmother becomes more anxious about Vasilisa, whose charm and beauty, she fears, threatens her own daughters’ prospects. She decides to be rid of Vasilisa and hatches a plan. One night, she seats the three girls at a table lit by a single candle and gives them tasks. Vasilisa darns and mends while the stepsisters craft fine lace. Near midnight, the flame goes out and the house is plunged into darkness. The girls rush to light more candles but all attempts to light them fail. The story now reveals that the stepmother is a witch: she has cast a spell over the house so that no light can be lit within.

In Vasilisa the Wise, the heroine’s dying mother gives her a miraculous doll that speaks, does household chores, and saves her from the witch Baba Yaga. Although the doll is usually interpreted as a fantasy device, it may, in fact, stem from the practice of the alraune. See BOTANICALS: Mandrake.

Instead she demands that Vasilisa journey across the forest to Baba Yaga’s house and fetch them a light. Vasilisa goes to her room to prepare; the doll sensing her despair asks what’s wrong. Vasilisa says she’s been sent to Baba Yaga and is sure that she will never return. The doll tells her not to be afraid, to do as her stepmother says but to take the doll with her.

It’s after midnight when Vasilisa begins her journey on foot across the forest, the doll safely and secretly in her pocket. She walks all night. As the night fades, a mysterious pale horseman on a white stallion rides directly across Vasilisa’s path and disappears. She continues to walk.

At noon, suddenly a sunburnt horseman in scarlet armor riding a red stallion crosses her path and disappears. She continues to walk. Finally, as darkness falls, Vasilisa reaches Baba Yaga’s little hut standing on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of bleached human bones, a human skull with glowing eyes atop each fencepost. As Vasilisa hesitates, a black rider on a jet-black stallion crosses her path and disappears. She hears a rustling in the trees and Baba Yaga appears, riding in her mortar, a pestle in one hand, and a broom in the other.

Baba Yaga twitches her nose and announces that she knows someone is there. Whoever it is should step forward or else she’ll come and get them. Vasilisa takes a deep breath and approaches, courteously greeting Baba Yaga, explaining that her stepmother sent her to fetch a light. Baba Yaga snorts, exclaiming that she’s quite familiar with this stepmother and that Vasilisa is very welcome to a light—providing she earns it. Vasilisa is ordered to go inside the hut and work for Baba Yaga.

The house is full of mysterious things: disembodied hands, for instance, that materialize out of thin air and perform tasks. Baba Yaga sets Vasilisa to various household chores, warning her that if she fails, she’s dinner.

For the next three days, Baba Yaga sets impossible tasks for Vasilisa to accomplish before leaving home riding in her mortar. As soon as Baba departs, the doll pops out of Vasilisa’s pocket: it can do more than just talk. The doll performs miracles, literally finding needles lost in haystacks. All Vasilisa must do is cook. She labors in Baba’s kitchen creating meals fit for a goddess. Meanwhile, like clockwork, the three riders continue to be seen outside.

Baba Yaga expects Vasilisa to fail but grudgingly acknowledges that all tasks are completed to perfection. Vasilisa is always gracious, respectful, and polite, never complaining, cringing or showing fear.

Finally, Baba issues a complaint: Vasilisa’s cooking is wonderful but her conversation is dull. Ask me something, Baba demands. Vasilisa says there is one thing she is curious about: who are the three mysterious riders? Baba Yaga identifies them as her faithful knights, Dawn, Day, and Night.

Baba Yaga urges Vasilisa to ask more but Vasilisa politely declines. Baba Yaga’s response: “You’re wise to ask only about what you see outside my house, not inside. I do not like to have my dirty linen washed in public and I eat the over-curious. Had you asked about what was in the house, I would have to eat you.”

Baba Yaga then announces that it’s her turn to ask a question, and she asks Vasilisa point-blank how she accomplished the impossible tasks. Vasilisa doesn’t want to expose the doll and so explains that she accomplished her assigned tasks with the help of the blessing of her mother. She says the magic words: Baba Yaga kicks her out the door, saying she wants no blessed ones in her house.

Vasilisa, relieved to be out of the house, begins to run away but Baba calls her back, asking if she isn’t forgetting something. She pulls a skull with glowing eyes off her fence, sticks it on a post and hands it to Vasilisa, telling her to be sure to give it to her stepmother. The skull turns out to be useful: it’s dark and the eyes light Vasilisa’s path. During the day, the lights go out but reappear in darkness.

Five days have now passed since she left home and Vasilisa assumes the light is no longer needed. When she arrives home, she starts to leave the skull outside when suddenly it speaks to her, advising that Baba Yaga would be very angry if Vasilisa didn’t follow her directions and give the light to her stepmother.

Vasilisa enters the house: the stepmother and sisters are sitting in pitch darkness. The stepmother’s spell worked too well; they haven’t had light since Vasilisa left, nor have they been able to leave. They are initially relieved to see Vasilisa when, suddenly, the glowing skull in her hand comes to life. The eyes seek out each steprelative in turn and, like a laser, burns each one to ashes. Then the light goes out.

This is just too much for Vasilisa: she runs out the door, empty-handed but for her doll. Having stayed with Baba Yaga, she is transformed: no longer afraid to run away, she walks until she finds a village where an old woman takes her in. Vasilisa weaves cloth that she gives the old woman to sell, but Vasilisa’s work is so exceptionally fine that the old woman offers it to the Tsar instead. Even in the Tsar’s palace, Vasilisa’s exquisite work stands out: the Tsar’s tailor insists that only the woman who wove the cloth can cut it. Vasilisa is summoned to the palace where the Tsar falls in love with her and all live happily ever after.

See Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Frau Trude.

Further Reading: Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave by Marianna Mayer (Morrow Junior Books, 1994) is a particularly evocative retelling of this story. Ernest Small combined various Baba Yaga themes to create his own Baba Yaga (Houghton Mifflin, 1966), in which Baba’s skills as an herbalist are emphasized.

Baba Yaga’s male counterpart is the sorcerer Koschei the Deathless. He is also a reoccurring character in Russian folklore, although not as frequently as Baba Yaga.

Koschei’s name derives from Old Russian and Turkic tribal sources and literally indicates “Prisoner.” Suave, sardonic, and sinister, but usually foiled, he is Baba Yaga’s adversary in some tales, but her husband or ally in others.

Koschei and Baba Yaga both appear in the epic story of the warrior queen Maria Moreevna. In the opposite of a Bluebeard story, handsome Prince Ivan wins the hand of the beautiful, powerful, rich Maria Moreevna. She leaves him alone in her palace, handing him her keys but warning him not to open one door. Of course, like everyone else in these stories, he can’t resist and discovers Koschei the Deathless hanging in the closet chained with twelve chains. Koschei pleads for a drink of water and good-hearted Ivan takes pity on him. The drink enables Koschei to regain his strength. He shakes his chains and they all snap. “Thanks Prince Ivan,” says Koschei. “You’ll never see Maria Moreevna again!” Koschei disappears into a whirlwind, Moreevna with him.

Prince Ivan, feeling like an idiot, determines to get her back. He does, thrice, but each time is foiled because of Koschei’s magical táltos horse, which comes straight from Baba Yaga’s famed stables. Twice Koschei shows mercy because of Ivan’s gift of water, but the third time he kills and dismembers him. Ivan’s animal allies perform a shamanic resurrection. He comes back to life with the knowledge that there is only one thing now to be done—he has to get a horse from Baba Yaga too.

He finds her house surrounded by twelve stakes, eleven crowned with human heads but one ominously empty. He greets Baba Yaga politely, “Good day, Grandmother!” She responds in kind, knowing his identity immediately. Already a hero, she greets him with respect, “Good day, Prince Ivan! Why are you here? From free will or need?” He explains he’s come to earn a horse. She says he can try. If he can tend her mares for three days, he can have his horse and depart but if he can’t, she warns, “don’t hold it against me Ivan, but your head goes on that last stake.” (Ivan wins his horse, keeps his head and, with the horse, is able to regain the beautiful Maria Moreevna, too!)

Not every Russian witch is Baba Yaga. The Sorceress takes place “in a certain kingdom” ruled by a king whose daughter is the eponymous sorceress. At the same court is a priest with a ten-year-old son who takes lessons from “a certain old woman.”

One day passing by the palace the boy looks in at the window (and although it’s not explicitly stated that he’s snooping or spying, it does just happen to be the sorceress-princess’ bedroom.) He discovers that she has a novel way of preparing her coiffeur: she removes her head, shampoos, rinses, and combs out her hair, plaits it into beautiful braids and then puts her head back in place.

The boy goes home and tells everyone what he’s witnessed. The princess suddenly falls ill and requests her father that, if she dies, he will ensure that the priest’s son reads Psalms over her body for three consecutive nights. She dies and the king orders the priest to send for his son. The next day at his lessons, “the old woman” notices the boy looking glum. He explains that he must go to Church to read over the sorceress’ body that night and he’s sure he’s doomed. The old woman gives him an iron knife and tells him to use it to cast a circle around himself in the Church and that no matter what happens to keep reading and never look around.

Alone in the church at night, he follows her advice. Indeed, at the stroke of midnight, the princess gets out of her coffin saying, “Now I’ll teach you what it means to spy on me and tell people what you saw.” She lunges at him but, because of his spell, is unsuccessful. At daybreak she jumps back into her coffin.

The same thing happens the second night. The next day he goes back to the old woman. She asks what he saw and warns that tonight will be worse. She gives him a hammer and four nails, advising him to drive one nail into each corner of the coffin and hold the hammer before him while reading. The old woman was right: the boy’s experiences that night are truly horrific. In addition to rising from her coffin and attempting to kill him, the sorceress-princess surrounds the boy with terrifying illusions—for instance, the church appears to be on fire. However, the boy faithfully follows the old woman’s instructions and resists the impulse to flee. He does not leave his circle of safety. At daybreak, the princess dives back into her coffin.

The king comes in. Finding the coffin open and the princess lying face down, he demands an explanation from the boy who tells all. The king orders an aspen spike thrust through his daughter’s heart to prevent her from rising. The priest’s son is rewarded with money and land.

This is a particularly subversive story: even though it occurs in Church (perhaps particularly because it occurs in Church) and the hero is a priest’s son, solutions to his dilemma are pagan ones. The boy doesn’t go to his father, the priest (who is oblivious) for assistance but to an old Baba.

What do listeners learn from this story? Methods of surviving a vampire plus the underlying moral of the story: keep your mouth shut about magical people you observe.

See BOTANICALS: Birch; CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Mask of Satan; DICTIONARY: Táltos, Upir, Vampire; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga, Hulda; ERGOT: Corn Mother: Baba Yaga; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Bereginy, Rusalka.

Witch-cats and Similar Transformation Tales

International fairy-tale witches are particularly associated with animal transformation. Although witches are identified with many animals (see ANIMALS), in fairy tales the animal is almost invariably a cat.

Image The cat may be a guise into which the witch transforms

Image The cat may be the witch’s alter ego

Image The cat may be the witch’s fetch (see DICTIONARY) or nahual (see ANIMALS)

Often, in fairy tales, the secret witch’s identity is revealed through the cat’s fate:

Image The cat is killed; simultaneously the witch also dies

Image The cat is killed but its body disappears; the witch’s dead body appears in its place

Image The cat is harmed, often via amputation of a paw; a previously unsuspected witch suddenly and mysteriously sports identical injuries or scars

The classic example combining all the above motifs is The Tale of Kowashi’s Mother, a Japanese story of magical identity-theft. Kowashi and his nice, normal mother live in a small village at the foot of a mountain. One day, all of a sudden, Kowashi notices that Mom’s teeth are exceptionally long, sharp, and pointy. She has also suddenly developed a taste for fish heads and bones.

Their neighbor, a fisherman, comes home very late one night, carrying a basket of fish and is attacked by a pack of wild cats. The fisherman fights them off but the brazen cats refuse to retreat. One shouts, “Get Old Lady Kowashi!

A huge raggedy gray cat appears. The fisherman whacks it on the head. As the sun comes up, the cats disappear. Kowashi wakes up to find Mom in the kitchen, her head all bandaged up, chewing on fish bones. He wonders…

Kowashi goes to school. When he returns home, his neighbor the fisherman is waiting for him and recounts his nocturnal adventure, including the part about “Old Lady Kowashi.”

Kowashi enters his home where his mother, seeing him, arches her back and hisses. Kowashi decides that this cannot be his mother. A witchcat must have killed her and stolen her image or so he reasons. He slices off her head with a sword. At his feet, lies a huge, ragged gray cat.

See ANIMALS: Cats, Transformation.