We grow up on them.
Fantasy stories told to us as children
with a moral or a lesson made clear at the end.
But those fairytales weren’t always
as innocent as we know them to be today.
They were actually very dark, violent allegories
that scared children and adults alike.
Take the cannibal witch from Hansel and Gretel.
The trope of the evil old lady in a creepy hut
in the woods lying in wait for victims
is something we see often even outside of the fairy tale genre
The gingerbread house, baking children in ovens,
the desire for human flesh, a secluded location in the woods,
while witches have been associated with these characteristics before,
it wasn’t until brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote it all down together
that this legendary monster was made
They collected their stories from oral folklore accounts,
so in order to truly understand the origins
of one of the most recognizable tales today,
we need to look further in history
– into the witch trials of Germany and the famines
that led people to make some very desperate decisions.
It’s a complex history.
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The original story of Hansel and Gretel
was first published in Germany in 1812,
with the first English translation in 1884.
It tells the tale of two siblings, a boy and a girl
whose family has nothing left to eat.
Their father, a poor woodcutter, is convinced by the mother
to abandon the children in the deepest part of the forest
to starve to death.
Her philosophy is that it would be better
to have them killed by wild animals than to watch them starve.
The first attempt goes poorly.
Hearing their parents’ plans for them,
Hansel sneaks out of the house to collect white stones.
The next morning when the parents lead the siblings deep into the woods,
Hansel secretly leaves a trail of
these white pebbles back to their house.
Hansel and Gretel are told to build a fire
and that their parents will come back with more wood.
But when darkness falls, the parents had yet to return.
Luckily, the moon shines bright
and the siblings follow the pebble trail home,
to the happiness of their father and disappointment of their mother.
Again food runs out,
and again the mother insists the children should be abandoned.
This time, Hansel uses a small amount of bread
to make another trail through the woods
as their parents walk them deeper into the dense forest for the second time.
The parents leave and night falls again,
but to their dismay, the children realize that
birds have eaten their breadcrumb trail.
After three days of wandering in the woods,
they stumble upon a small house
built entirely of breads and cakes.
The whole thing is covered with sweets, the windows made of fine sugar.
The starving Hansel and Gretel begin eating chunks of the house
when they are startled by a little old woman
who takes them inside
and serves them milk, fruit, and sweets.
They fall asleep with full bellies.
The old woman, it turns out, is a “wicked witch”
who built her house to lure children in
so she could kill and eat them.
When the children wake
she throws Hansel into a small chicken coop
and she forces Gretel to do chores,
including feeding her brother to fatten him up for slaughter.
Hansel manages to prolong his demise
by poking out a chicken bone for the witch to feel
when she checks his fatness.
After four weeks, the witch tells Gretel
to check the bread baking in the oven,
secretly intending to push the child in and bake her.
But Gretel manages to outsmart the witch
by tricking her into looking into the oven herself.
As soon as the old woman steps inside, Gretel quickly locks her in.
Gretel frees Hansel as the witch screams.
Before they flee,
they steal her precious stones and pearls.
The children manage to find their way home
and make their father a rich man.
Their mother has died.
Abandoning children and baking an old lady in an oven.
What a pleasant story.
What could possibly have prompted the creation of this twisted tale?
Well, for one thing the 1810 manuscript written by Jacob and Wilhelm,
一个原因是 1810年 Jacob和Wilhelm
constructed a version of the Hansel and Gretel story
from one told by Dortchen Wild,
who would eventually become Wilhelm’s wife.
Although Dortchen grew up in Germany,
she had French ancestry.
Which might explain why the story bears quite a few similarities
to the 17th century French fairytale
“Le Petit Poucet” by Charles Perrault.
The story includes a poor woodcutter who cannot feed his children,
so he and his wife abandon them, despite her protests.
The smallest of the children saves himself and his siblings
from the woods once with pebbles
and tries to again with breadcrumbs.
An evil cannibal ogre tries to eat them
before accidentally killing his own daughters instead.
What I’m really interested in is where the stories diverge.
The change of a male ogre into a female witch for one.
And why do the Grimm Brothers add in
the house made from bread?
Why would they have presented the mother
as the murderous parent?
I have some theories,
but first we need to address the element of the story
that starts the whole thing off—the willing abandonment of one’s own children.
In the 18th century and early 19th century,
Germany suffered from multiple famines.
It was estimated there was a 40% population
loss to starvation and disease between 1708-1711.
Another famine hit in 1771-72.
The Grimm brothers were born
in 1785 and 1786
so they might have felt or seen
the lingering effects of these losses,
or at the very least, encountered older people in their folklore interviews
who lived through these events.
One of the realities of famine at this time
was that children might be abandoned or even killed
because there was not enough food to go around.
Some tried to justify these deaths,
believing they helped ensure
the survival of the family as a whole.
It can be argued the Hansel and Gretel story
served as a way to rationalize
such dramatic, horrific measures.
During the second half of the 18th century in Germany,
it was illegal for mothers not to report their pregnancies.
All other individuals were obligated
to report any suspected pregnancies.
Some women believed hiding pregnancy was necessary
for their economic, social, and even personal survival.
Court records from infanticide trials
during this time support that, naming “poverty”,
fear of punishment, and fear of social shame as the primary given motives.
Interestingly, even though both fathers and mothers
could be accused of murdering their children,
it was only mothers who were charged with infanticide.
All of this historical context might explain
why it is the mother in the 1812 Grimm story
who insists on abandoning the children.
So what about the wicked witch?
Germany had its own unique interpretation of an evil cannibal monster.
The “Kinderlfresser” or “child-devourer” served as
both a fairy tale and warning to children.
These ghoulish creatures were usually described as
large, hairy men with a sack full of children
it would greedily stuff into its mouth
—a surefire way to keep kids obedient.
The female version of this monster, [Butzen-Bercht],
resembled the stereotypical witch:
an old hunchback with a hooked nose and messy hair.
一个身形佝偻 有着鹰钩鼻 头发凌乱的老妇人
So perhaps because of this,
when people in Germany were prosecuted for witchcraft
they were often also accused of kidnapping and eating children.
The whole “baking the kids in the oven” aspect of Hansel and Gretel
may even have its own explanation.
In my research, I stumbled across
a series of German witch trials in the 16th century
[Nördlingen trials] where 35 supposed witches were sentenced.
Under torture, some of them confessed to child cannibalism
and “cooking infant fresh in copper pots.”
They also even claimed
“to process the dead children’s bodies and bake themn in ovens.”
So we’ve talked about the witch,
but what about the house made from bread and sweets?
The words gingerbread house are an English translation of the German word
From what I could find,
the Brothers Grimm were the first people
to write this into a story with a witch.
They made the real-world gingerbread house popular.
Or rather, an opera about Hansel and Gretel did.
Overtime the house evolved, becoming an icon
largely because of Engelbert Humperdinck’s operatic interpretation of the fairy tale,
first performed in December 1893.
The house is described made of cake and referred to as the gingerbread house.
The set design for the opera reinforced the image;
it made something that had only existed in the imagination more concrete.
In addition to being made from cake,
the house was surrounded by a wall of gingerbread children,
the victims of the wicked witch.
In other words, he toned down the overt cannibalism
and upped the aesthetic factor.
The Brothers Grimm took oral tradition
and hundreds of years of German folklore
and made it into one of the most popular stories of all time,
that continues to frighten children to this day.
So when you’re constructing a house from cookies and frosting
and watching questionable decisions by great actors,
remember that some things have a deeper and darker meaning.