The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Hansel and Grethel

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Grethel. He had little to bite and to break, and once when great scarcity fell on the land, he could no longer procure daily bread. Now when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned and said to his wife, “What is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?” “I’ll tell you what, husband,” answered the woman, “Early to-morrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest, there we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one piece of bread more, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.” “No, wife,” said the man, “I will not do that; how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest? The wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.” “O, thou fool!” said she, “Then we must all four die of hunger, thou mayest as well plane the planks for our coffins.” and she left him no peace until he consented. “But I feel very sorry for the poor children, all the same,” said the man.

How can we understand the words of the mother? They do not fit in our current and certainly not in the former world view. Every normal mother loves her children, protects her like a lioness, and rather starves herself than treating her children as cruelly as here in the fairy tale. So, let’s take a deeper look.

The worldly things seem to be well distinguishable: in good and evil, light and dark, male and female etc. The masculine stands in many philosophies for the spiritual in the world and the feminine stands for nature. The mind pervades all matter and is united with it. So the mind can guide us. If it is separated from matter, it can have no effect. Nature, in turn, needs guidance through the mind, otherwise there might be movement, but no development, neither to the higher nor to the lower. The two - often symbolically as father and mother or man and woman – depend on each other, can be found in all beings, add to each other and are not actually separated. From the interaction of mind and matter, and also man and woman, we are born into the world. The first things we learn are hunger and thirst. Who does not know this great dissatisfaction that usually drives us through our live? Spiritually speaking, hunger is only seeing the opposites: this is bad and this is good, this is what I want and this not... And we always want something, right? Therefore we are always hungry. Of course we need a certain distinction in our daily life in useful or dangerous, for or against, nature or spirit. That is the job of the mother. But if we are completely caught up in this picture of opposites, totally emerged in the mother, we are also trapped in hunger. The big goal is to realize that distinction is useful but not ultimate truth. Things are, what they are, neither good nor bad. Only our desires need a distinction in good or bad. It is the task of the Father to lead us to realize. If we experience this in the deepest heart, our spiritual hunger is satisfied and the worldly dissatisfaction disappears. Therefore, we have to go into the world, have to suffer and learn and gradually recognize. It is nature’s job to drive us to inner growth.

Therefore, the mother speaks in the fairy tale: we want to send our children into the world, so that they may recognize, satisfy hunger and thirst and return to us, to their origin. The dark forest is the symbol of the world. Ignorance blocks the sight in every direction. The world is a wilderness of fear in the struggle for survival. Yes, Mother Nature is so hard. She gives birth to us, leaves us alone and separates us from the true Father. Then we sit alone in the forest with the fire of life. And yet it is pure kindness and maternal love. When the children are mature, they should no longer cling to the mother. Mother Nature speaks: I can only appease your hunger for a short time. I cannot give you eternal happiness. I cannot make you happy forever. Do not cling to me! Stand on your own feet, act, recognize and then return to the Father.

The two children had also not been able to sleep for hunger, and had heard what their mother had said to their father. Grethel wept bitter tears, and said to Hansel, “Now all is over with us.” “Be quiet, Grethel,” said Hansel, “do not distress thyself, I will soon find a way to help us.” And when the old folks had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his little coat, opened the door below, and crept outside. The moon shone brightly, and the white pebbles which lay in front of the house glittered like real silver pennies. Hansel stooped and put as many of them in the little pocket of his coat as he could possibly get in. Then he went back and said to Grethel, “Be comforted, dear little sister, and sleep in peace, God will not forsake us.” and he lay down again in his bed.

Brother and sister can also be considered here as the principle “male and female, spirit and nature”. This does not mean in a narrow and misunderstood sense that Hansel thinks and Grethel only does what he says. As already mentioned, mind and nature are inseparable. Here they ideally always act in loving unison, which is the foundation of human development.

White pebbles in the moonlight are something pure and immortal, something the mind can find with confidence in God, meaning a pure life.

When day dawned, but before the sun had risen, the woman came and awoke the two children, saying, “Get up, you sluggards! We are going into the forest to fetch wood.” She gave each a little piece of bread, and said, “There is something for your dinner, but do not eat it up before then, for you will get nothing else.” Grethel took the bread under her apron, as Hansel had the stones in his pocket.

The day breaks also means: life begins, everyone gets something along the way into the world. The children, who are still depending on the mother, are sent into self-reliance for the first time.

Then they all set out together on the way to the forest. When they had walked a short time, Hansel stood still and peeped back at the house, and did so again and again. His father said, “Hansel, what art thou looking at there and staying behind for? Mind what thou art about, and do not forget how to use thy legs.” “Ah, father,” said Hansel, “I am looking at my little white cat, which is sitting up on the roof, and wants to say good-bye to me.” The wife said, “Fool, that is not thy little cat, that is the morning sun which is shining on the chimneys.” Hansel, however, had not been looking back at the cat, but had been constantly throwing one of the white pebble-stones out of his pocket on the road.

White animals stand in general for purity. The symbol could mean the pure, childlike nature of Hansel, which will soon change on the difficult path. But it could also mean that Hansel feels bound to his home, his friends and pets and does not want to leave them. Because normally you do not have to look back or stop to drop the pebbles. It befits Mother Nature to urge him to see the light of the morning sun, to open to knowledge.

When they had reached the middle of the forest, the father said, “Now, children, pile up some wood, and I will light a fire that you may not be cold.” Hansel and Grethel gathered brushwood together, as high as a little hill. The brushwood was lighted, and when the flames were burning very high the woman said, “Now, children, lay yourselves down by the fire and rest, we will go into the forest and cut some wood. When we have done, we will come back and fetch you away.” Hansel and Grethel sat by the fire, and when noon came, each ate a little piece of bread, and as they heard the strokes of the wood-axe they believed that their father was near. It was, however, not the axe, it was a branch which he had fastened to a withered tree which the wind was blowing backwards and forwards. And as they had been sitting such a long time, their eyes shut with fatigue, and they fell fast asleep. When at last they awoke, it was already dark night. Grethel began to cry and said, “How are we to get out of the forest now?” But Hansel comforted her and said, “Just wait a little, until the moon has risen, and then we will soon find the way.” And when the full moon had risen, Hansel took his little sister by the hand, and followed the pebbles which shone like newly-coined silver pieces, and showed them the way. They walked the whole night long, and by break of day came once more to their father’s house. They knocked at the door, and when the woman opened it and saw that it was Hansel and Grethel, she said, “You naughty children, why have you slept so long in the forest? We thought you were never coming back at all!” The father, however, rejoiced, for it had cut him to the heart to leave them behind alone.

This is a typical fairy tale text. On closer inspection, the actions themselves make little sense, but a lot of symbols can be seen. The fire warms us in life. The illusion makes us fall asleep in the forest of the world. The awakening happens in the dark. The moon unfolds his cool light of reason, and the white pebbles show the way home. So the pebbles and the moonlight make sure that brother and sister can return home.

This could be the end of the tale, but something is missing. The father is happy, but the mother is not. Because the real problem is not solved: The big hunger is still not satisfied. There are often several attempts or apparent repetitions in the fairy tale, because we have to go step by step and learn. Only very few people are granted the miracle to solve a big problem right at the first attempt...

Not long afterwards, there was once more great scarcity in all parts, and the children heard their mother saying at night to their father, “Everything is eaten again, we have one half loaf left, and after that there is an end. The children must go, we will take them farther into the wood, so that they will not find their way out again; there is no other means of saving ourselves!” The man’s heart was heavy, and he thought “It would be better for thee to share the last mouthful with thy children.” The woman, however, would listen to nothing that he had to say, but scolded and reproached him. He who says A must say B, likewise, and as he had yielded the first time, he had to do so a second time also.

The children were, however, still awake and had heard the conversation. When the old folks were asleep, Hansel again got up, and wanted to go out and pick up pebbles, but the woman had locked the door, and Hansel could not get out. Nevertheless he comforted his little sister, and said, “Do not cry, Grethel, go to sleep quietly, the good God will help us.”

Early in the morning came the woman, and took the children out of their beds. Their bit of bread was given to them, but it was still smaller than the time before. On the way into the forest Hansel crumbled his in his pocket, and often stood still and threw a morsel on the ground. “Hansel, why dost thou stop and look round?” said the father, “Go on.” “I am looking back at my little pigeon which is sitting on the roof, and wants to say good-bye to me.” answered Hansel. “Simpleton!” said the woman, “That is not thy little pigeon, that is the morning sun that is shining on the chimney.” Hansel, however, little by little, threw all the crumbs on the path.

And again the same farewell. A last look back at the father’s house, where the morning sun greets, with the desire in the heart, which we all hold within us, to return from our long journey and to be happy again at home. Here, too, we meet the illusion of ‘my dove’. Outside, things are reflected in the light of the sun, and inside in the light of consciousness. Mother Nature herself explains it here to the child.

Maybe the chimney has something to do with it. At least there usually appears smoke, which can take on all sorts of forms in the sunlight, that are as fading as any other thing in the world. And what does illusion have to do with hunger? Well, hunger comes from perishable food, and what is more perishable than illusion? We already know that the bread crumbs do not have the effect that Hansel hopes for, because how should transient things lead the way to the Father, to realization? The transitory belongs in the world, in becoming and passing away, and it is precisely out of this cycle that we need to liberate our mind, even if our body remains clinged to the world.

The woman led the children still deeper into the forest, where they had never in their lives been before. Then a great fire was again made, and the mother said, “Just sit there, you children, and when you are tired you may sleep a little; we are going into the forest to cut wood, and in the evening when we are done, we will come and fetch you away.” When it was noon, Grethel shared her piece of bread with Hansel, who had scattered his by the way. Then they fell asleep and evening came and went, but no one came to the poor children. They did not awake until it was dark night, and Hansel comforted his little sister and said, “Just wait, Grethel, until the moon rises, and then we shall see the crumbs of bread which I have strewn about, they will show us our way home again.” When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs, for the many thousands of birds which fly about in the woods and fields, had picked them all up. Hansel said to Grethel, “We shall soon find the way,” but they did not find it. They walked the whole night and all the next day too from morning till evening, but they did not get out of the forest, and were very hungry, for they had nothing to eat but two or three berries, which grew on the ground. And as they were so weary that their legs would carry them no longer, they lay down beneath a tree and fell asleep.

Before help can take effect, we usually have to suffer, whether pain, fatigue, hunger ... These austerities purify the rubbish-strewn mind and can open what was previously hidden. Shamans also use asceticism and purification so that they can reach and help people spiritually.

It was now three mornings since they had left their father’s house. They began to walk again, but they always got deeper into the forest, and if help did not come soon, they must die of hunger and weariness. When it was mid-day, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it.

And when it had finished its song, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted; and when they came quite up to little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar. “We will set to work on that,” said Hansel, “and have a good meal. I will eat a bit of the roof, and thou, Grethel, canst eat some of the window, it will taste sweet.” Hansel reached up above, and broke off a little of the roof to try how it tasted, and Grethel leant against the window and nibbled at the panes.

Birds are symbols of the mind or thoughts. And the white, pure bird can rise in the purified soul. It is the good idea that follows destiny and makes the children take the next step on their journey. Just in time, before they starve. Anyone who trusts will be helped.

But why should Grethel eat from the window and Hansel from the roof? Maybe that reminds us of the symbolism of mind and nature. The windows could point to the food for the senses, which are our windows into the world. And the roof could point to the mind building a house out of abstract terms.

Then a soft voice cried from the room,
“Nibble, nibble, gnaw,
Who is nibbling at my little house?”

The children answered,
“The wind, the wind,
The heaven-born wind.”

and went on eating without disturbing themselves. Hansel, who thought the roof tasted very nice, tore down a great piece of it, and Grethel pushed out the whole of one round window-pane, sat down, and enjoyed herself with it.

This is symbolism at its best! Who lives in a house made of food and yet has an insatiable hunger? The greedy ego that is portrayed here as an old and ugly witch that brings us much suffering but also irresistible charms. And who blows around the house? It is the wind as a pure and heavenly spirit. When the doors and windows are closed, it cannot enter and exert its healing effect. Grethel already breaks a window and Hansel tears a hole in the roof, that really bothers the ego, and the witch comes out and goes to attack. Of course, in a deceitful way...

Suddenly the door opened, and a very, very old woman, who supported herself on crutches, came creeping out. Hansel and Grethel were so terribly frightened that they let fall what they had in their hands. The old woman, however, nodded her head, and said, “Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.” She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Then good food was set before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Grethel lay down in them, and thought they were in heaven.

The old woman had only pretended to be so kind; she was in reality a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little bread house in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it, and that was a feast day with her. Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beings draw near. When Hansel and Grethel came into her neighbourhood, she laughed maliciously, and said mockingly, “I have them, they shall not escape me again!” Early in the morning before the children were awake, she was already up, and when she saw both of them sleeping and looking so pretty, with their plump red cheeks, she muttered to herself, “That will be a dainty mouthful!” Then she seized Hansel with her shrivelled hand, carried him into a little stable, and shut him in with a grated door. He might scream as he liked, that was of no use. Then she went to Grethel, shook her till she awoke, and cried, “Get up, lazy thing, fetch some water, and cook something good for thy brother, he is in the stable outside, and is to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.” Grethel began to weep bitterly, but it was all in vain, she was forced to do what the wicked witch ordered her.

The children’s soul is an ancient symbol of the pure spirit who knows nothing about the sins of the world. And who seizes these pure souls to feed on their spirit? Again the greedy ego in the form of the witch. Killing, cooking and eating are the typical ways how living beings turn into food.

And why does the ego have red eyes? That could point to the fire of passion and desire. Short-sightedness probably means that a selfish person does not think beyond one’s own interests. The witch goes on crutches, because the selfish ego certainly has no reliable basis. And the animal-like sense of smell urges to compulsive actions that bind every selfish person. The whole thing culminates again in the basic theme of this fairy tale, the insatiable hunger. Because that’s the kind of greed: it imprisons the mind, fattens it until it becomes passive and manipulable (or ‘cookable’), and enslaves nature so that they both serve pleasure only.

And now the best food was cooked for poor Hansel, but Grethel got nothing but crab-shells. Every morning the woman crept to the little stable, and cried, “Hansel, stretch out thy finger that I may feel if thou wilt soon be fat.” Hansel, however, stretched out a little bone to her, and the old woman, who had dim eyes, could not see it, and thought it was Hansel’s finger, and was astonished that there was no way of fattening him. When four weeks had gone by, and Hansel still continued thin, she was seized with impatience and would not wait any longer, “Hola, Grethel,” she cried to the girl, “be active, and bring some water. Let Hansel be fat or lean, to-morrow I will kill him, and cook him.” Ah, how the poor little sister did lament when she had to fetch the water, and how her tears did flow down over her cheeks! “Dear God, do help us!” she cried. “If the wild beasts in the forest had but devoured us, we should at any rate have died together.” “Just keep thy noise to thyself,” said the old woman, “all that won’t help thee at all.”

This description reminds us of the typical fattening of a goose. This is the problem of the old fairy tales that many of their symbols came from the rural life and were taken for granted. And as these symbols disappeared from our lives, so did the fairy tales lose their power. That’s why it’s so hard for us today to understand what has been normal life over hundreds, if not thousands of years. We read in an old farmers book, “If you want to fatten young geese, you have to lock them up when they are one month old, so they’ll be made plump if there’s one more month left ...”

But our Hansel has common sense, and tries a trick. Many people have already thought about the symbolism of the finger. The finger is probably the last part of the body to test a fattening’s success. For this reason, this place was often interpreted as the boy’s sexual development, although replacement with the ‘bonelet’ makes little sense in this respect. However, the finger is also part of the hand, and the hand is the symbol of action. Maybe the witch is actually checking to what extent the mind has already become idle and manipulable and has lost its power and toughness in the cage, so that the greedy ego can take over unhindered rule. Will he resist when the cage is opened?

Another interpretation would be that in reality the greedy ego cannot touch anything living. It always takes only something dead, like this little bone. It is also interesting how the witch uses nature in the form of Grethel to fatten and defeat the mind. And finally, it becomes clear again how mind and nature stick together, how Grethel wishes to have the common death rather than being separated, and in her great need even asks God for help. How ‘God’ intervenes in this fairy tale is a good question. An external intervention is actually not visible. So we must probably take on an inner work, because in those days God was never called in vain.

Early in the morning, Grethel had to go out and hang up the cauldron with the water, and light the fire. “We will bake first,” said the old woman, “I have already heated the oven, and kneaded the dough.” She pushed poor Grethel out to the oven, from which flames of fire were already darting. “Creep in,” said the witch, “and see if it is properly heated, so that we can shut the bread in.” And when once Grethel was inside, she intended to shut the oven and let her bake in it, and then she would eat her, too. But Grethel saw what she had in her mind, and said, “I do not know how I am to do it; how do you get in?” “Silly goose,” said the old woman. “The door is big enough; just look, I can get in myself!” and she crept up and thrust her head into the oven. Then Grethel gave her a push that drove her far into it, and shut the iron door, and fastened the bolt. Oh! then she began to howl quite horribly, but Grethel ran away, and the godless witch was miserably burnt to death.

Please notice another exquisite symbol: either one burns the desire in its own fire, or one is burned by the desire. This struggle usually lasts a long time, and while reason is locked up, we often do not know who is burning, the witch or we. Grethel seemed to have taken little initiative so far, but just like Hansel, she can use a trick, apply the right means and act decisively. This is again an indication that nature and spirit cannot really be separated. As they are harmoniously united, they can do great things.

Grethel, however, ran like lightning to Hansel, opened his little stable, and cried, “Hansel, we are saved! The old witch is dead!” Then Hansel sprang out like a bird from its cage when the door is opened for it. How they did rejoice and embrace each other, and dance about and kiss each other! And as they had no longer any need to fear her, they went into the witch’s house, and in every corner there stood chests full of pearls and jewels.

The fear of every loss ends, as soon as the greedy ego is defeated. Then you can enter the witch’s house without being enslaved. And if you no longer run after the things of the world, then nature gives abundantly and of its own accord.

“These are far better than pebbles!” said Hansel, and thrust into his pockets whatever could be got in, and Grethel said, “I, too, will take something home with me.” and filled her pinafore full. “But now we will go away,” said Hansel, “that we may get out of the witch’s forest.”

That too is wonderful: in this house of food, our body, there is not only the greedy witch, but also a treasure of jewels that can solve the original problem and put an end to the great hunger. When the witch is defeated, we can raise this treasure, the unparalleled wealth that never makes poor again. These jewels are better than the pebbles from the first attempt to solve the hunger problem. Now, there is only one more task, the return home to the Father.

When they had walked for two hours, they came to a great piece of water. “We cannot get over.” said Hansel, “I see no foot-plank, and no bridge.” “And no boat crosses either,” answered Grethel, “but a white duck is swimming there; if I ask her, she will help us over.”

Then she cried,
“Little duck, little duck, dost thou see,
Hansel and Grethel are waiting for thee?
There’s never a plank, or bridge in sight,
Take us across on thy back so white.”

The duck came to them, and Hansel seated himself on its back, and told his sister to sit by him. “No,” replied Grethel, “that will be too heavy for the little duck; she shall take us across, one after the other.”

Here again shows the magic of old fairy tales. They have many levels, and even small children can understand the simple story. But when the mind matures, contradictions suddenly show themselves, and one begins to think more deeply. So here is the question, where is the big water coming from? There was no mention of it on the way into the forest. It is probably a river that often divides different countries as a border, and here symbolically even different worlds. It’s about leaving the witch’s forest and not returning to the same world you came from.

Once again a white bird helps, the symbol of a pure mind. The pure mind can carry us over the ocean of the world, with its devouring waves of lust and greed, grief and enthusiasm, profit and loss. But we have to travel “al(l)one”, we have to be one with us and everything, on the way to the one without a second. Why? It is said that the path to knowledge is so narrow that one cannot go there in pairs (opposites like good and bad, black and white). In our fairy tale, it is not the narrow path, but the duckling, which can carry no great burden. For with great burdens a person sinks into the world, only an easy one can ascend. This also shows that the pearls and gems were certainly not heavy, worldly treasures, as one might suspect at first.

The good little duck did so, and when they were once safely across and had walked for a short time, the forest seemed to be more and more familiar to them, and at length they saw from afar their father’s house. Then they began to run, rushed into the parlour, and threw themselves into their father’s arms. The man had not known one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest; the woman, however, was dead. Grethel emptied her pinafore until pearls and precious stones ran about the room, and Hansel threw one handful after another out of his pocket to add to them. Then all anxiety was at an end, and they lived together in perfect happiness.

The return to the Father is the end of all spiritual worries, represented here by the pearls and gems, the precious treasure hidden in nature. The mother had died, that sounds hard at first. But what dies here is the illusion and not true nature. Life and knowledge move from nature to spirit, from mother to father. The separation is dead, the union lives. And the fairy tale is over ...

My tale is done, there runs a mouse, whosoever catches it, may make himself a big fur cap out of it.

Jorinda and Joringel - (topic: power of true love)
Iron John - (topic: making nature an enemy)
The Old Woman in the Wood - (topic: change in nature)
Hansel and Grethel (topic: defeating ego and desire)
Rumpelstiltskin - (topic: essence of nature and its spirit)
Mother Holle - (topic: essence of nature)
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was - (topic: essence of fear)
Little Red-Cap - (topic: essence of desire)
Hans in Luck - (topic: way to true happiness)
Godfather Death - (topic: essence of death and reality)
... 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
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /