Witches in Fairy Tales & Shamanic Elements in Bedtime Stories
As a child, I was obsessed with fairy tales and nursery rhymes. They took me out of this world and into a realm of magic and fantasy. Into a world where witches existed…both good and bad. As I grew older, I realized there are witches in fairy tales for a few reasons. One, because they make the story exciting. And two, because they almost always teach the hero or other characters in the story a valuable lesson. In this article, let’s meet the fairy tale witch archetype and explore the shamanic elements in our favorite bedtime stories.
Fairy Tales: True Shamanic Beginnings
Fairy Tales are essentially folk tales passed down through word of mouth over the centuries. For hundreds of years, fairy tales were an oral tradition. However, in more recent centuries, folklorists and writers dedicated these old nursery stories and rhymes to paper. I believe these fairy tales echo ancient myths in many different cultures. We see key examples of comparative mythology in stories like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. If you’re unsure what comparative mythology is, listen to our podcast on the topic here.
The Darker Elements to our Favorite Fairy Tales
First, let’s talk about the true roots to our favorite fairy tales, specifically the darker aspects, shamanic aspects and the lessons within. Interestingly, the fairy tales we tell our children as bedtime stories were once much darker. And remember how I said I believe they echo ancient myths? My reasons lie in the many shamanic elements throughout including: shapeshifters, goddesses turned enchantresses and witches, the act of spinning, curses, spells, talking animals and the color red.
The darker aspects in fairy tales were erased or changed over time to make them tolerable for kids and society overall. A good example is Cinderella. While a seemingly innocent “happily ever after” story, the original includes the stepsisters cutting off their heels to fit into the glass slipper. And in the end, birds peck out their eyes.
Who Recorded Witches in Fairy Tales?
The Grimm Brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, lived in the early nineteenth century. These German folklorists collected regional stories and documented them in a book that would become the famous Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. Jacob, in particular, was inspired by old mythology and spent much of his life researching, studying and writing about German Mythology (i.e. Teutonic Mythology). His writings often included anecdotes on old gods, traditions, folk tales and more. He was one of the first to conceptualize the Comparative Myth of the Wild Hunt.
While the Grimm Brothers were undoubtedly the most famous of fairy tale writers, there have been others. Hans Christian Anderson, Andrew Lang, Charles Perrault, and in more recent times we could add JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis to the list. What I find most fascinating is these writers weren’t just interested in folk tales, they were typically submerged in the occult. And/or were rebels in one way or another. Perrault, for example, was an iconoclast who bucked against the classical education of the seventeenth century.
The Fairy Tale Witch Archetype
To quote author Judika Illes, “Fairy tales helped perpetuate the worst stereotyping of witches, but fairy tales also helped preserve and transmit witchcraft and shamanic traditions.” The witch is an archetype seen throughout fairy tales that often demonstrates the worst in a person – evil, greed, homicide, etc. Yet the witches in fairy tales also play good roles. But when these witches are considered “good” they are labeled something else. For example fairy godmother, goddess, crone, fortune teller, or wise woman. Yet whether they are good or bad, these witches almost always teach a lesson or challenge the hero/heroine in the tale.
Now to the good stuff. The Magic and Witches in Fairy Tales.
Hansel and Gretel and the Candy Witch
The world-famous fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was collected by Jacob Grimm in 1817. This is a tale of two children who are led into the forest and abandoned by their father (a request by their evil stepmother.) The children find a house made of gingerbread and candy, a witch residing inside. They eat the house and the witch finds them. Then leads them inside only to kidnap them. She attempts to feed them to fatten them up, planning to eat them.
The girl tricks the witch and throws her into her own oven. The children take the witch’s jewels, ride on the back of a swan across the lake, and return home to find their father alive. Note – the stepmother has died of unknown causes. Scholars believe this shows a connection between the stepmother and the witch.
The swan (often excluded from modern versions of the tale) and the lake: is this an otherworldly journey, possibly? The swan could be a psychopomp that leads the kids back to the physical plane? Perhaps the woods are in the Otherworld and they’re led there to learn a lesson. Also note, in Norse mythology, the swan is linked to the Valkyrie. Scholars have also linked Hansel and Gretel’s tale to a Proto-Indo-European coming of age ritual. One in which they’re made to go deep in the forest. Could act echo of past shamanic initiations?
Sleeping Beauty / Briar Rose:
Briar Rose is the German version of Sleeping Beauty. Though the stories are the same: a beautiful princess is born. The king invites twelve wise women to the party, forgetting to invite the thirteenth. The thirteenth is offended and crashes the party. And puts a curse on the princess that when she’s fifteen she’ll prick her finger on a spindle and die. Notice the number thirteen used in this fairy tale. This is a number that’s feared by many yet tied to shamanic tradition and mythology. Jesus and the twelve disciples (Judas often being the thirteenth), Loki as the thirteenth Norse god, thirteen witches in a coven, and thirteen moon cycles. Oh, and let’s not forget the obvious witch in this fairy tale – in modern times she’s named Maleficent. Depending on the version, the “witch” is sometimes a fairy.
Mother Holle: Goddess, Fairy Godmother & Witch?
One of my favorites fairy tales is Mother Holle. This story showcases Holle also known as the goddess Holda, who is associated with the goddess Berchta (a goddess dear to my heart). The story goes, there were two daughters. One lazy and one hard working. The hardworking one is spinning near a well, pricks her finger, and goes to wash off the spindle in the well when it falls in, submerged. The mother sends the daughter to the bottom of the well to retrieve it.
The girl wakes up in another world – a beautiful meadow, flowers, birds singing, the whole Otherworldly bit. She meets Mother Holle, an old woman with large teeth, of whom she stays with and helps with the chores. The girl asks to go home one day, and Mother Holle leads her through a door home…showering her in gold on the other side. The lazy sister proceeds to do the same, to acquire the gold for herself, but treats Mother Holle with disrespect. And so Mother Holle sends the lazy girl through the door…showering her in deadly tar on the other side. Interestingly, Mother Holle is the only name provided in the story.
Rapunzel’s story is one we all know and love. A poor couple become pregnant. The woman is starving and asks her husband to get her some of the vegetables (called rapunzel) from the neighbor’s garden. He doesn’t ask for it, buy or barter for it, but instead climbs the wall and steals it. The neighbor is actually a “witch”, “enchantress” or is even called a “fairy” in some versions of the story. This witch is clearly well-off if she has a stocked garden during a time of famine and a wall that protects her garden. The witch catches the man stealing from her, and tells him she’ll give him more in exchange for their unborn child.
The Witch Comes to Collect…
When the child is born, the witch comes to collect and names the girl Rapunzel. She shuts the girl in a tower in the forest and visits by climbing her long hair. A prince eventually comes across the locked-away princess, climbs up, falls in love with her and in earlier versions of the fairy tale impregnates her. The witch finds this out and cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and banishes her from the forest. The prince climbs into the tower and discovers Rapunzel is gone and a witch is in her place. The witch doesn’t push him, as is often the story told, but the prince jumps out of the tower and falls into bramble, blinding himself.
The “witch” may have just been a rich woman accused of witchcraft in Medieval Times as was the case with a single woman with wealth. Or perhaps was indeed a priestess or witch. We surmise that Rapunzel’s hair may be the source of psychic power. So once the girl gives up her virginity, the witch feels Rapunzel is no longer worthy of these an initiation process into witchcraft and banishes her.
The Little Mermaid
Another famous fairy tale featuring the witch archetype is The Little Mermaid By Hans Christian Andersen. A mermaid lives in the ocean with her father (the sea king), grandmother and five sisters. At the age of fifteen, she is permitted to go to the ocean surface. And she does so finding a ship, with a hot prince, who is being thrown a birthday party. She watches from a distance, but when a storm sinks the ship, the little mermaid saves the young man. Then she asks her grandmother about humans and her grandmother tells her humans have an eternal soul and that mermaids do not. Apparently mermaids are destined to turn to sea foam after they die. The little mermaid wants to be a “part of that world” and seeks advice from the local sea witch.
The sea witch warns the little mermaid against using magic and following through, but ends up giving the little mermaid a spell to transform her into a human. Then the witch tells her she must get the prince to fall in love with her and marry her in one day. Else she’ll lose her soul and life. Well, there’s problems in paradise when the prince decides he loves another princess of whom he confuses for his savior on the seashore that day. In the Disney movie, he marries the little mermaid and they live happily ever after. In the real story, the prince marries the other princess, and the little mermaid dies of a broken heart and turns to sea foam the following day.
Let’s focus on the sea witch, of whom I always felt was seriously misunderstood. A. In the original tale, she warns the little mermaid against making these choices. And B. in the Disney movie, she has character…PLUS truly she’s just seeking power. And aren’t we all looking to dominate our slice of the sea? Ursula is hands down one of the most dynamic Disney villains.
Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes
Mother Goose was first documented in France and was originally the keeper of Fairy Tales, rather than the Mother of Rhymes. The first time she’s mentioned is in 1650 and then further detailed by Charles Perrault in 1697 in which he publishes the ‘Tales of Mother Goose’. It was a collection of fairy tales including Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots. Mother Goose is shown on the cover with a cat, children, and a man and she’s sitting at a spinning wheel. Looking at it from a witch’s perspective, we see a witch with her familiar and spinning wheel of fate.
“Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander, Would ride through the air On a very fine gander. Mother Goose had a house, ‘Twas built in a wood. An owl at the door. For a porter stood.”
Interestingly, a porter’s job in Medieval Times was to guard the door of a church. It’s almost like Mother Goose’s house is a sacred sanctuary, of sorts, and she needs a guardian to protect her and her space. And again, an animal is mentioned, an owl. This bird is inextricably linked to the goddesses of ancient times and witchcraft in general.
In addition to Mother Goose “spinning her fairy tales”, the precursors to Mother Goose in France and Italy were figures called “Queen Bertha” and “Goose Foot Bertha”. The name plus the goose foot reference links Mother Goose to the Germanic goddess Berchta, who manifests with one goose-foot. Clearly this is a nod to her shamanic, shapeshifting nature. Mother Goose is also thought to be the goddess Holda or Frau Holle, another folkloric figure in Germany. Another witch goddess who manifests with a goose-foot is Lilith and the infamous Queen of Sheba.
I recommend purchasing a copy of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes and reading through it. Many are spells rather than just mere rhymes or stories. Some folks believe the English nursery rhymes may have been passed down orally from the time of the Druids.