The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Clever Grethel

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2019]

There was once a cook named Grethel, who wore shoes with red rosettes, and when she walked out with them on, she turned herself this way and that, and thought, “You certainly are a pretty girl!” And when she came home she drank, in her gladness of heart, a draught of wine, and as wine excites a desire to eat, she tasted the best of whatever she was cooking until she was satisfied, and said, “The cook must know what the food is like.”

It came to pass that the master one day said to her, “Grethel, there is a guest coming this evening; prepare me two fowls very daintily.” “I will see to it, master,” answered Grethel. She killed two fowls, scalded them, plucked them, put them on the spit, and towards evening set them before the fire, that they might roast. The fowls began to turn brown, and were nearly ready, but the guest had not yet arrived. Then Grethel called out to her master, “If the guest does not come, I must take the fowls away from the fire, but it will be a sin and a shame if they are not eaten directly, when they are juiciest.” The master said, “I will run myself, and fetch the guest.” When the master had turned his back, Grethel laid the spit with the fowls on one side, and thought, “Standing so long by the fire there, makes one hot and thirsty; who knows when they will come? Meanwhile, I will run into the cellar, and take a drink.” She ran down, set a jug, said, “God bless it to thy use, Grethel,” and took a good drink, and took yet another hearty draught.

Then she went and put the fowls down again to the fire, basted them, and drove the spit merrily round. But as the roast meat smelt so good, Grethel thought, “Something might be wrong, it ought to be tasted!” She touched it with her finger, and said, “Ah! How good fowls are! It certainly is a sin and a shame that they are not eaten directly!” She ran to the window, to see if the master was not coming with his guest, but she saw no one, and went back to the fowls and thought, “One of the wings is burning! I had better take it off and eat it.” So she cut it off, ate it, and enjoyed it, and when she had done, she thought, “The other must go down too, or else master will observe that something is missing.” When the two wings were eaten, she went and looked for her master, and did not see him. It suddenly occurred to her, “Who knows? They are perhaps not coming at all, and have turned in somewhere.” Then she said, “Hallo, Grethel, enjoy yourself, one fowl has been cut into, take another drink, and eat it up entirely; when it is eaten you will have some peace, why should God’s good gifts be spoilt?” So she ran into the cellar again, took an enormous drink and ate up the one chicken in great glee. When one of the chickens was swallowed down, and still her master did not come, Grethel looked at the other and said, “Where one is, the other should be likewise, the two go together; what’s right for the one is right for the other; I think if I were to take another draught it would do me no harm.” So she took another hearty drink, and let the second chicken rejoin the first.

When she was just in the best of the eating, her master came and cried, “Haste thee, Grethel, the guest is coming directly after me!” “Yes, sir, I will soon serve up,” answered Grethel. Meantime the master looked to see that the table was properly laid, and took the great knife, wherewith he was going to carve the chickens, and sharpened it on the steps. Presently the guest came, and knocked politely and courteously at the house-door. Grethel ran, and looked to see who was there, and when she saw the guest, she put her finger to her lips and said, “Hush! Hush! Get away as quickly as you can, if my master catches you it will be the worse for you; he certainly did ask you to supper, but his intention is to cut off your two ears. Just listen how he is sharpening the knife for it!” The guest heard the sharpening, and hurried down the steps again as fast as he could. Grethel was not idle; she ran screaming to her master, and cried, “You have invited a fine guest!” “Eh, why, Grethel? What do you mean by that?” “Yes,” said she, “he has taken the chickens which I was just going to serve up, off the dish, and has run away with them!” “That’s a nice trick!” said her master, and lamented the fine chickens. “If he had but left me one, so that some- thing remained for me to eat.” He called to him to stop, but the guest pretended not to hear. Then he ran after him with the knife still in his hand, crying, “Just one, just one,” meaning that the guest should leave him just one chicken, and not take both. The guest, however, thought no otherwise than that he was to give up one of his ears, and ran as if fire were burning under him, in order to take them both home with him.

We certainly do not have to explain the nature of Clever Grethel in detail here; everyone probably knows that about himself. You could call it “the insatiable desire” that thinks after every fulfilled wish: “This one more, and then I’ll have peace!”. This goes on and on and at some point every means is okay, and so we call it nowadays even intelligence or “being clever” if we lie, cheat and play off other people for each other, and we are still proud of it. It is certainly good for our children to get to know the nature of desire in such a satirical form without raising the threatening finger. At some point, when they are so developed that they want to be master of their body and senses, then perhaps they try not to be deceived by this cook in her red shoes of passion. Such a selfish desire that quickly becomes an addiction has nothing to do with true beauty and will destroy friendship and sincere love over time.

This fairy tale is also a wonderful indicator that we can use to test ourselves. If we take Grethel’s side and praise and perhaps even envy her ‘hardened peasant’s cunning’, then we are probably on the wrong side of life. Because let’s be honest, she cannot control herself, is at risk of addiction, lies and cheats and creates fear and quarrel. These are of course very questionable ideals in life, but they are not entirely alien to us either.

With this, we already suspect that the whole story could also have a deeper message if we project the plot into our inner being, where at old age reason should be lord and king. The cook could mean our thoughts, which should ensure that the food that our senses have picked up is well prepared and digestible. When this cook, i.e. our thinking, gets lost in passion and lies to the point of addiction, our reason is lost. Because if a king cannot rely on his servants, since they betray and lie to him, then he soon loses his rule and the whole kingdom is in danger. Then it happens to reason, which should distinguish us as human beings, as to the master in this fairy tale. It is betrayed and lied to by the senses and thoughts and sinks into illusion on the level of sensual desire. We find something similar already in the ancient Indian Mahabharata in the description of the body city: “It is thinking that first connects amicably with passion and ignorance (or lies). But once stronger, they take the whole city, reason and senses, like a corrupt minister first weakens the king and then the people. Eventually, passion and ignorance take control of the whole body. [MHB 12.254]”

How could happiness or prosperity come into such a house as an honoured guest? It will run away in panic, like the guest in the fairy tale, and even with all the effort, we cannot stop it. This brings us to the question of what the strange guest actually means. Happiness and prosperity are probably a good interpretation at the intermediate level. You want them as a guest, and if they don’t appear, then you look for them out in the world until they finally knock on your door. However, it is doubtful whether you can attract them with two tasty fried chickens.

What role do these two chickens play, which reason desires from thoughts ‘finely dressed’ - like the master from the cook? Nowadays we usually see them only as useful as tasty food for us. Then of course, they must be dead, plucked, gutted, seasoned and fried. Nevertheless, there were also living beings that had their place in the world and could soar into the air. If we greedily reduce them only to the aspect of “my full stomach”, then we see them already as dead when they actually can still fly. Strangely enough, we fill our lives with many dead things that are supposed to make our life comfortable and beautiful. We race through the world with dead, terribly noisy and smelly machines; we even take to the skies and enjoy what we call freedom. Is that really life, lively action and something that makes us happy in the long term?

So the whole story reminds us of the great task of reason, namely to achieve true knowledge about nature and life. It’s about the big question: What is life and who am I? Therefore, knowledge and wisdom could also be meant with the guest on a deeper level, with which our reason should connect in old age. Then the knife would be a symbol of the famous sword of knowledge, with which we can cut off the tree of illusion at the root. Unfortunately, in our fairy tale, reason is not the real master of the house. It is ruled by desire and tries to grasp real life with sensual pleasure and insatiable desire. But in doing so reason only grasps dead opposites, which the two slaughtered roasted chickens can also symbolize. Accordingly, the knife or sword of knowledge is not used to cut off the root of the illusion, but to split and slaughter in order to generate ever-new opposites, such as greed and hate, good and bad, beautiful and ugly or mine and yours. Sure, that is not the way to recognize the One, and so the higher recognition of unity or self-awareness quickly runs away from us and flees, even if it has already knocked on our door. For such a greedy knowledge is not based on truth but on the blazing fire of passion.

In this regard, our fairy tale could also be an interpretation of the mystical Lord’s Supper stories from the Bible. Here, too, guests are invited who do not want to come. Here, too, it is about worldly attachment and the lust of the senses, which prevent the Lord’s Supper as the great knowledge of divine unity. Here, too, we find the sword, which cut off the servant’s ear after the Lord’s Supper when Jesus was captured. Moreover, the roasting chickens are reminiscent of the Easter lamb, where it says: “Where do you want us to prepare the Easter lamb for you to eat? ” [Bible, Matthew 26.17]. Only that in our fairy tale it is not Christ who invites us to the last supper of the worldly day, but a man who has not yet recognized the traitor in his own house, who is described here as an insatiable desire that cheats on him and sips away the wine of truth in the cellar. That’s why the whole thing was doomed to failure.

The symbolism of the Christian Lord’s Supper is difficult to understand these days, and we may think of the last meal or of depressed and suicidal people. However, apparently there were times when many people wished for this great liberation from worldly constraints. For them that first meal in life that one no longer eats for oneself was most desirable. It is, so to speak, the first food that does not change into a physical “mine”, but rather the “mine” changes into food, the mystical body of God, our true self. Or as it says in [Meister Eckhart, page 247]:

Saint Augustine dreaded this food; then a voice spoke to him in spirit: “I am the food of the great; grow and rise and eat me! (But,) you do not transform me into you, you are transformed into me.”

In this sense it is really a last meal, namely for the greedy and insatiable ego. In relation to this, people wondered intensely why this great supper or wedding meal was not accessible to ordinary people. And this question probably also gave rise to many symbolic stories, like our fairy tale here.

In a similar way, [Meister Eckhart, page 249] also dealt with this question, why it is so difficult for us to come to the Lord’s Supper, to which all people are invited:

That is why he says: “Everything is ready now.” But they do not come, those who are invited. The first says, “I have bought a hamlet, I can’t come.” The hamlet means everything that is earthly. As long as the soul has something in it that is earthly, it does not come to this feast. The second said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen; I can’t come, I have to look at them.” The five yoke oxen are the five senses. Every sense is divided into two parts, there are (therefore) five yokes. As long as the soul follows the five senses, it will never come to this feast. The third said, “I have taken a wife, I cannot come.” I have already said it many times: the man in the soul, that is reason. If the soul has turned straight up to God with reason, then the soul is “man” and is one and is not two; but when the soul turns down, it is a woman. With one thought and with a downward glance the soul puts on women’s clothes; neither do they come to this feast. Now our Lord speaks a grave word: “I truly say to you: none of these will ever enjoy my feast”.


... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...
The Fisherman and his Wife - (topic: ego madness)
The Golden Bird - (topic: reason)
The Twelve Brothers - (topic: spirit, passion and nature)
The Seven Ravens - (topic: The seven principles of nature)
Little Snow-White and the seven dwarfs - (topic: Ego and passion)
The Six Servants - (topic: Supernatural abilities)
The Poor Man and the Rich Man - (topic: the curse of wealth)
Gambling Hansel - (topic: Delicate game with the world and nature)
Clever Grethel (topic: Uncontrollable passion)
The Wolf and The Seven Little Kids - (topic: desire)
The Valiant Little Tailor - (topic: a healing way)

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[Bible] Luther Bibel, 1912
[Meister Eckhart] Meister Eckhart, Deutsche Predigten und Traktate, Diogenes 1979
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014, www.mahabharata.pushpak.de
[2019] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens / www.pushpak.de