The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Gambling Hansel

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

Once upon a time there was a man who did nothing but gamble, and for that reason people never called him anything but Gambling Hansel, and as he never ceased to gamble, he played away his house and all that he had. Now the very day before his creditors were to take his house from him, came the Lord and St. Peter, and asked him to give them shelter for the night. Then Gambling Hansel said, “For my part, you may stay the night, but I cannot give you a bed or anything to eat.”

After reading the last fairy tale of the poor and the rich about virtue and merit, where the fronts appeared relatively clear, we would now like to examine this fairy tale of a gambler a little more closely, which treats the same topic from a different perspective and appears initially as a parody of the usual ideals of God and virtue. We certainly already know from our own life that the question of true virtue is not so simple in practice, for our human virtues quickly freeze into external ideals and the deeper meaning gets lost. The tale speaks of a notorious gambler who reminds us of a vicious life in which all reason disappears, and people usually fall into sin and addiction. However, when our Gambling Hansel had lost everything, even his house, which could also mean his body, God came to him with St. Peter. According to the usual understanding, one would have assumed that the devil would now move in with him and not God. Therefore, we have to suppose that he was an honest person who played without any cheating. Moreover, if you look at it more deeply, a great truth is already hidden here: because whoever plays really honestly in this world loses all personal possessions as far as his egoism disappears and the divine is winning. That is the blessing of truthfulness.

But what does gambling have to do with truthfulness? A lot, because basically we play for a lifetime, only grown-ups no longer want to see their painstakingly concreted sandcastles of their own home, car, career, etc. as a game. Personal property becomes truth and we lose ourselves in illusion. Yet it’s just a game that nature plays with us. Because in the end even our own body goes back into the cycle of nature and the last shirt is known to have no pockets. One can become aware of this true poverty, as it probably also happened to our Gambling Hansel, and so it makes sense that God came to him, knocked on his door, and he did not refuse entry. With this, he let the divine light into his inner night, so to speak.

A similar symbolism of three persons or principles is found in many ancient cultures and religions. The three-way relationship used here between God, Peter and Gambling Hansel can also be understood as playing field, play and player, as father, spirit and son, or as sun, moon and earth. And what used to be explained relatively popularly with these symbolic means is nowadays described in a scientific way in physical systems, such as field, wave and particle, or in mathematical formulas such as E = ½v²m or E = c²m. In this fairy tale, too, natural principles are expressed which man has apparently observed for a long time, and not only in material nature, but also in spiritual nature. As far as one regards the energy or the field as something fundamental and determining today, God used to be referred to as the Father or Lord of everything in former times.

So the Lord said he was just to take them in, and they themselves would buy something to eat, to which Gambling Hansel made no objection. Thereupon St. Peter gave him three groschen, and said he was to go to the baker’s and fetch some bread. So Gambling Hansel went, but when he reached the house where the other gambling vagabonds were gathered together, they, although they had won all that he had, greeted him clamorously, and said, “Hansel, do come in.” “Oh,” said he, “do you want to win the three groschen too?” On this they would not let him go. So he went in, and played away the three groschen also.

Whoever is deeply aware of this true poverty receives everything in life as a gift, even daily bread. But we must strive for it and respect what is given and not embezzle it. But how about the three pennies that belong to God? If someone comes and tells us, “Give it to me!”, should we say, “Please take, it’s not mine,” or should we refuse the gift? Our Hansel accepted the invitation and gave everything, although he already knew that he would lose everything. We find a similar story as a framework in the old Indian epic Mahabharata [MHB 2.59]. Here Yudhishthira is challenged by a notorious cardsharp to play dice and loses everything, wealth, kingdom, brothers, himself and even his wife. He played knowing he was going to lose everything. One occasionally reads interpretations that claim that Yudhishthira became addicted to gambling, although in this epic he embodied the divine Dharma of virtue and justice. Our Gambling Hansel could be suspected in a similar way.

Meanwhile St. Peter and the Lord were waiting, and as he was so long in coming, they set out to meet him. When Gambling Hansel came, however, he pretended that the money had fallen into the gutter, and kept raking about in it all the while to find it, but our Lord already knew that he had lost it in play. St. Peter again gave him three groschen, and now he did not allow himself to be led away once more, but fetched them the loaf.

Well, Hansel was obviously not quite so sinful; otherwise, God would not have gone to meet him as well. He probably even smiled when Gambling Hansel played as if the three pennies had fallen into the murky puddle of this world, where we like to poke around to find great riches. So the game was repeated once more, and this time he fetched bread with the three pennies of St. Peter. In view of the wine that is discussed next, this bread reminds us of the mystical body of Christ. To receive this body from God in the Lord’s Supper is, according to Christian symbolism, the great way to heaven, and it is not for nothing that Saint Peter is also considered the guardian of the heavenly door, presumably in the form of the three pennies, which again remind of the Holy Trinity who gives the key.

Our Lord then inquired if he had no wine, and he said, “Alack, sir, the casks are all empty!” But the Lord said he was to go down into the cellar, for the best wine was still there. For a long time he would not believe this, but at length he said, “Well, I will go down, but I know that there is none there.” When he turned the tap, however, lo and behold, the best of wine ran out! So he took it to them, and the two passed the night there.

In Christian symbolism, wine stands for the blood of Christ, and we find this nectar of eternal life deep inside us, even if we usually do not want to believe it and look for it somewhere outside.

Early next day our Lord told Gambling Hansel that he might beg three favours. The Lord expected that he would ask to go to Heaven; but Gambling Hansel asked for a pack of cards with which he could win everything, for dice with which he would win everything, and for a tree whereon every kind of fruit would grow, and from which no one who had climbed up, could descend until he bade him do so. The Lord gave him all that he had asked, and departed with St. Peter.

Whoever reaches this inner profoundness and drinks the nectar, of course, gets the famous three wishes fulfilled. And what does our Gambling Hansel want? Eternal life and imperishable fruits, only not on a spiritual level as eternal bliss, but on a worldly level, so that he never has to lose again in the world and no one can steal the fruits from his tree. Of course, we all like to have fulfilled such a wish. Actually, there is nothing to be said against it, because our external world is basically only a spiritual world. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like a good way to go, and so we will read in the following how our Hansel is developing:

And now Gambling Hansel at once set about gambling in real earnest, and before long he had gained half the world. Upon this St. Peter said to the Lord, “Lord, this thing must not go on, he will win, and thou lose, the whole world. We must send Death to him.” When Death appeared, Gambling Hansel had just seated himself at the gaming-table, and Death said, “Hansel, come out a while.” But Gambling Hansel said, “Just wait a little until the game is done, and in the meantime get up into that tree out there, and gather a little fruit that we may have something to munch on our way.” Thereupon Death climbed up, but when he wanted to come down again, he could not, and Gambling Hansel left him up there for seven years, during which time no one died.

People have been thinking for a long time about this difficult topic of how to live forever in this world and win everything. And to this day, this topic haunts not only the heads of the great company bosses and state politicians. Even leading medical professionals are seriously researching an immortality pill that will prevent our bodies from aging and dying. St. Peter, however, says in our fairy tale as the guardian of heaven: “This is not going well!” People knew this before, and there are many ancient traditions all over the world, which say that the cosmic order, which we live in, is not a stupid coincidence, but has a certain ingenuity or intelligence. It is even said that this order is God himself. In practice, we can experience the whole universe as a large and intelligent organism, which, like our own body, maintains, organizes, regulates and optimizes itself. And of course there are many forces fighting against each other to keep the system stable. These forces were previously imagined as living, subtle beings who were called, for example, angels and devils, fairies and witches, or gods and demons. Every force has its place in this organism, and so death fulfils its task as a balance to birth. It is certainly not easy to understand this large organism that has formed and optimized over unimaginable periods of time. But humans have always tried hard at it and found profound insights that were previously expressed in symbolic stories. Today we have systematic models, definitions and formulas of our science. The more profoundly you understand this organism, the better you can integrate yourself as a human being and work for the better. The fact that we are wreaking havoc in nature these days is certainly an indication that we still have a lot to learn on our scientific paths. Therefore, we now read how Hansel fared on his way:

So St. Peter said to the Lord, “Lord, this thing must not go on. People no longer die; we must go ourselves.” And they went themselves, and the Lord commanded Hansel to let Death come down. So Hansel went at once to Death and said to him, “Come down,” and Death took him directly and put an end to him. They went away together and came to the next world, and then Gambling Hansel made straight for the door of Heaven, and knocked at it. “Who is there?” “Gambling Hansel.” “Ah, we will have nothing to do with him! Begone!” So he went to the door of Purgatory, and knocked once more. “Who is there?” “Gambling Hansel.” “Ah, there is quite enough weeping and wailing here without him. We do not want to gamble, just go away again.”

How would an ambitious scientist who plays with atomic energy, genetic engineering, toxic chemicals and the like react today when he hears the voice inside: “Don’t do that, it will not work well!” Our Hansel obeyed the command and even endured death without protest. This obedience still expresses a certain purity that even leads him to the gate of heaven. At that time, the soul was still imagined to rise after death through the purifying purgatory or directly to heaven in accordance with its deeds, or sink down into hell. Our Hansel actually wanted to continue playing in the world and even got the blessing for it. So what should Heaven do with him? Or purgatory, where it really isn’t fun? The interesting question is here: “Who is there?” This means that his soul is still in the ‘outer world’, and he even keeps his name. With this, he goes to hell:

Then he went to the door of Hell, and there they let him in. There was, however, no one at home but old Lucifer and a few crooked devils, since the straight devils were busy with their evil work in the world. And no sooner was Hansel there than he sat down to gamble again. Lucifer, however, had nothing to lose, but his mis-shapen devils, and Gambling Hansel won them from him, as with his cards he could not fail to do. And now he was off again with his crooked devils, and they went to Hohenfuert and pulled up a hop-pole, and with it went to Heaven and began to thrust the pole against it, and Heaven began to crack.

Well, at least in hell or underworld the old devil was ready to play, because hell is probably closest related to our normal world. The straight and crooked devils could allude to the fact that we like to employ the beautiful devils in our world and banish the ugly ones to hell. Gambling Hansel wins the ugly devils and continues to play in the world. The hop stalks in Hohenfuert (or Hohenfurth) could point to a male monastery in southern Bohemia that was founded in 1259 and grew many hops for brewing beer. That fits at least with the German-Bohemian dialect in which this fairy tale was originally told. The symbolism is reminiscent of the strange fact that a lot of beer was often brewed in the monasteries and that people liked to drink it, so that the alcohol devil was probably at home here too. Chroniclers report up to 4 litres a day. Similar to the beer, the won devils are supposed to bring the gambler to heaven. They use the hop sticks to lever out heaven, that is, probably to change the conceptual idea we usually have of heaven and the life there.

So again St. Peter said, “Lord, this thing cannot go on, we must let him in, or he will throw us down from Heaven.” And they let him in. But Gambling Hansel instantly began to play again, and there was such a noise and confusion that there was no hearing what they themselves were saying.

It seems to be working so far, Hansel goes to heaven and transforms it into a pub with lots of beer, games and fun. Why not? Because if we are honest, for many people this is the epitome of heaven. Who wants to rest peacefully on a cloud and be endlessly bored there?

Therefore St. Peter once more said, “Lord, this cannot go on, we must throw him down, or he will make all Heaven rebellious.” So they went to him at once, and threw him down, and his soul broke into fragments, and went into the gambling vagabonds who are living this very day.

But that does not go well for long either and is a typical wish of us humans that is not particularly farsighted. It may be good to have such experiences in youth, but looking for heaven and even the meaning of life in alcohol and noisy company is certainly not a sign of growing reason and wisdom, which should be our greatest wealth.

Well, here our fairy tale ends abruptly, so that we can say to our children: “You see, that’s what you get from overdoing your game and not doing anything decent with your life!” This may also be the message of this fairy tale, that one should preserve the higher order in this world and not seek the eternal and imperishable in material things of the external world. Because in the material world the spiritual unity is divided into the natural diversity, the illusion prevails and with it desire and hatred. These are certainly the best conditions that should drive us to search for eternal life, but to find it we also need the spiritual dimension of life. Therefore, it is surely a good thing if someone offers us the famous three wishes we do not only think about our material world.

With this, our Hansel is thrown out of heaven and his soul, which was already so close to the one, is divided again and given to the world to learn. This symbolism is very reminiscent of the Bible, where Adam was first separated into man and woman, ate from the tree of knowledge and, overwhelmed by the hissing of illusion, was thrown out of paradise with his Eve in order to spread himself out as humanity over the whole earth: “And the Lord God said, behold, Adam has become as one of us, and knows what is good and what is bad. Now, let him not stretch out his hand and break from the tree of life and eat and live forever! Then the Lord God showed him out of the Garden of Eden to build the field from which he was taken, and drove Adam out and camped the cherubim in front of the Garden of Eden with the bare sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. [Bible 1. Moses 3.22]”

This symbolism also tells us clearly that the tree of eternal life stands in a higher world to which one should seek the way and rise so that one can be admitted. The field of this world and our ephemeral body with all its happiness and suffering help us to do this. This happens in practically the same way as our children learn in play and gain important experiences for their future life.

Granted, such views are difficult to fit into our modern worldview. Nevertheless, there were obviously times when people lived much more in a spiritual world and had completely different goals in life than we have today. Our old fairy tales, the Bible and many other ancient scriptures all over the world indicate that there was once a worldview where the spiritual dimension still dominated life. The material nature was an effect of the spirit, its embodiment, so to speak. That is why one could also imagine a life after death and a wandering of the soul independently from the material body. With our technical revolution, this worldview has practically reversed and the age of dead machines began. The supremacy was given to material nature, so that the living spirit was degraded to an effect of matter or even disappeared completely from the worldview. Because of this, today we can no longer imagine a spirit that could live without a material body, and such fairy tales are considered completely unscientific and often even an expression of the great stupidity of our ancestors. But obviously they weren’t quite that stupid, because fairy tales like this confirm that people were already aware of this development towards the material side. Accordingly, today we are like the Gambling Hansel who only wants to play in the material world and win everything, levering out heaven and conquering hell. This is probably a necessary and logical phase in human development. It would be important that we never lose our honesty in this game with matter and sink into gambling addiction, vice and illusion. Because with this, even the brightest scientist could go blind and end up in arrogance as the Christian clergy once lost its credibility. There is certainly nothing wrong with playing with nature as long as we play honestly and are willing to learn from it.

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)
The Wise Servant - (topic: Search for wisdom, Reformation)
Fundevogel - (topic: path to liberation, spiritual values)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[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
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014,
[2019] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /