The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Mother Holle

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

THERE was once a widow who had two daughters one of whom was pretty and industrious, whilst the other was ugly and idle. But she was much fonder of the ugly and idle one, because she was her own daughter; and the other, who was a step-daughter, was obliged to do all the work, and be the Cinderella of the house. Every day the poor girl had to sit by a well, in the highway, and spin and spin till her fingers bled.

Now it happened that one day the shuttle (original: the spindle) was marked with her blood, so she dipped it in the well, to wash the mark off; but it dropped out of her hand and fell to the bottom. She began to weep, and ran to her step-mother and told her of the mishap. But she scolded her sharply, and was so merciless as to say, “Since you have let the shuttle fall in, you must fetch it out again.” So the girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do; and in the sorrow of her heart she jumped into the well to get the shuttle.

Lets have a look first at the often used drama of the stepmother, which prefers her biological daughter rather than her husband’s daughter. Do we sometimes have the feeling that nature does not treat us like a loving mother, but like a stepmother? Nature tortures and drives us constantly to laborious work, and seems to give all the happiness to others. Like the weeds, which obviously grow much easier in the garden than our crops, which require a lot of effort. There is no speaking about a father in this fairy tale. Maybe he is dead, at least he does not fulfil his role as a spiritual compensation to the nature of the mother. The external nature rules alone, and the balance seems disturbed.

The spindle, on which the life thread of fate winds, is bloody from suffering and falls into the well so that its water can purify it. We humans must follow this thread, which now disappears in the well. At first, Mother Nature seems to be ruthless and sends the maiden directly to her death. The fountain, the womb of nature, leads from the surface of the human society into the depth, into the dark essence of nature. And above all, it is the fear in our hearts that drives us on this fateful journey to follow our life thread.

She lost her senses; and when she awoke and came to herself again, she was in a lovely meadow where the sun was shining and many thousands of flowers were growing. Along this meadow she went, and at last came to a baker’s oven full of bread, and the bread cried out, “Oh, take me out! Take me out or I shall burn; I have been baked a long time!” So she went up to it, and took out all the loaves one after another with the bread-shovel. After that she went on till she came to a tree covered with apples, which called out to her, “Oh, shake me! Shake me! We apples are all ripe!” So she shook the tree till the apples fell like rain, and went on shaking till they were all down, and when she had gathered them into a heap, she went on her way.

The soul loses its ordinary worldly consciousness and awakens on another level. The girl comes to herself in a blissful world where the eternal sun shines and the everlasting flowers bloom. Whether this world is down or up does not seem to matter here anymore. You fall downwards and arrive upwards. Wonderful, here ends the rational intellect! And what does she find here in the deep essence of nature? That’s amazing. She finds the oven, which actually belongs to our house, and the apple tree, which stands in our fenced garden. But here she finds these things directly in the essence of nature. And she even hears the voices of nature asking her to act.

There’s a lot of truth in it, because basically it’s the nature that gives the grain and all the other ingredients and bakes the bread that humans live on. And basically it is nature that makes all the fruits grow and ripen. Not only those in the trees, but all the other fruits we reach for in life, all successes, riches and all happiness, but also suffering, illness, loss and failure. Anyone who recognizes this essence of nature could comfortably sit back and let nature do everything. And indeed, there is the danger that on this path of knowledge one will slip into lethargy and praise oneself to the skies, without paying attention to this earthly world. One may forget that man himself is part of nature and has to fulfil his task here, as well as the sun, the earth, the water, the plants and all other creatures.

And what is our job? Nature says it herself, for we can hear her voice as the creatures speak to us, as the oven asks us, and the apple tree calls us to serve diligently. Do we still hear this call of nature? Or is it drowned in the permanent call of our own desires? Nature calls us to action, so that we may reap the fruits of our deeds from the tree of life. But how? This is a big issue, which can be seen here in the fairy tale in excellent symbols. The oven, in which the breads are baked like bodies, reminds us of the birth of young children. After all, our bodies consist of food and serve food in the widest sense. Offspring is an important task in our world, and nowadays it is often put far behind. First comes the ego with the professional career, home and car, and then someday a family. The children are possibly just a “purchase” like many other things in life. Of course you can see it that way. Another possibility is to listen to the call of nature that there are many souls waiting to be born into this world. It is about more than a personal purchase, it is about life itself. Here one can serve nature in the deeper sense of a devotional sacrifice, despite all the efforts and hardships that are associated with it.

And what do the ripe apples tell us? You should pick the ripe fruits, but do not cling to them. The fruits are not yours personally. They belong to nature, and they should be left there. Leave them behind and go on! Attachment is not good. Let the whole be a whole, and do not try to separate it into ‘my’ and ‘your’. That’s a great message!

A similar message can be found in the biblical apple that Adam and Eve took in paradise. It is the grasping for the fruit that produces sin and suffering. This grasping and keeping was the reason, why the humans were thrown out of paradise and now have to fight hard for their existence. And when we sacrifice fruits or flowers in a temple or church, it is meant that the fruits of all deeds should not be personally taken, but belong to the whole, the deity. Then the whole world could be a paradise.

At last she came to a little house, out of which an old woman peeped; but she had such large teeth that the girl was frightened, and was about to run away.

But the old woman called out to her, “What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do all the work in the house properly, you shall be the better for it. Only you must take care to make my bed well, and shake it thoroughly till the feathers fly for then there is snow on the earth. I am Mother Holle.” As the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took courage and agreed to enter her service. She attended to everything to the satisfaction of her mistress, and always shook her bed so vigorously that the feathers flew about like snow-flakes. So she had a pleasant life with her; never an angry word; and boiled or roast meat every day.

The soul continues on its way and comes to the house of an old woman. That may seem very unusual to us, but there were times when everything was alive. Nature was full of spirit, imagined as living beings. They were called ghosts, elves, dwarves, gods and goddesses. And that was nothing extraordinary, but quite natural and completely normal. We can hardly imagine that today because our worldview has changed significantly in the last few centuries. That has brought us a technical revolution, but at the same time a lot of liveliness has been lost.

And so, here in the fairy tale, the soul meets the essence of nature in the form of an ancient female being, which often appears terribly to us outwardly, but is inwardly full of goodness. She asks us to be diligent and to help her fulfil her mission in the world. And we hear the wonderful message: As long as this harmony in action exists, as long as we reasonably listen to the voice of nature, we will have a good and peaceful life. We will not miss anything.

Much has been speculated about the name “Holle”. Certainly there will have been goddesses someday and somewhere, worshipped as the living essence of nature with similar or even the same name. But as always you do not know anything specific. What matters here is what role she plays in this fairy tale. And that’s reason enough to worship her as a goddess.

On a middle level of the fairy tale one can also discover the annual cycle. The girl awakens on a spring meadow, the bread is baked from summer grain, the apples are picked in autumn and in winter it is snowing when Mother Holle shakes the beds. Here, too, you can see how closely divine beings were connected to ordinary life. And you can also see that the bustling service to nature goes on all year round, in the meadows and fields, in the gardens and in the house.

She stayed some time with Mother Holle, and then she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but found at length that it was home-sickness: although she was many thousand times better off here than at home, still she had a longing to be there. At last she said to the old woman, “I have a longing for home; and however well off I am down here, I cannot stay any longer; I must go up again to my own people.” Mother Holle said, “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and as you have served me so truly, I myself will take you up again.”

Now the question is: if the soul has found such a harmonious and painless life, why does she not stay there? This is another big topic that is symbolically described here with homesickness. Why does it draw the soul back to a world where she has to suffer from her stepmother, external nature and earthly worries? Well, in the Indian tradition, one speaks of karma, a guilt we carry with us from past actions. In the Christian context, it is probably the original sin.

Here in the fairy tale an exquisite symbol is used, namely the spindle, on which our life was wound like a thread, which then inevitably has to unwind again. The woven thread of life arises from bodily and mental actions, and the winding up is the personal identification with it, this strange imagination of “I” and “my”, from which a person is formed. Behind it stands the law of cause and effect. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. In classical physics one speaks of the law of energy conservation and in modern physics even of information preservation, which means that nothing can be lost in this universe, but only changed. For this reason, in our fairy tale, Mother Nature herself proclaims that it is good to return to the world. Because only there we can unwind the life thread of our karma spindle, which was previously wound up. This is the ‘homesickness’ that drives us through many years and lives harvesting our fruits until they are finally exhausted. So nature leads us on the path that is destined for us.

Thereupon she took her by the hand, and led her to a large door. The door was opened, and just as the maiden was standing beneath the doorway, a heavy shower of golden rain fell, and all the gold remained sticking to her, so that she was completely covered over with it.

“You shall have that because you have been so industrious.” said Mother Holle; and at the same time she gave her back the shuttle which she had let fall into the well. Thereupon the door closed, and the maiden found herself up above upon the earth, not far from her mother’s house.

And as she went into the yard the cock was standing by the well-side, and cried:
“Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your golden girl’s come back to you!”

It is spoken here of a gate, the gateway to this world. It is usually the birth from the womb that brings us into this world with a certain potential or karma. Accordingly, we experience a happy and golden life or a painful and unlucky one. The whole thing does not have to be considered too mystical. In practical terms, it is both the environment in which we are inevitably born and the backpack we bring along, which essentially shape our future lives. In this we usually have no choice, and it is called accumulated karma that determines our lives. We only have a certain choice of what kind of new fruits we put into our backpack.

In addition to physical birth, one often speaks of a second, spiritual birth in the sense of a higher knowledge or enlightenment. Such a thing could be meant here, even if the gate to the healing world is locked again, because truly, life is always progressing and still many challenges await us here. The girl is back where she came from but blessed with gold, the potential for a truly happy life.

One could also imagine that the girl actually died, spent some “time” in an ancestral world, and then was reborn with her good karma. It is important that she has developed further and now returns gilded. The rooster could mean our colourful world, loudly proclaiming its deeper nature everywhere. Therefore, he sits on the outer edge of the well, which is probably nothing more than the gate through which our girl returned to this world as a symbol of the connection with the deeper nature. Or as Goethe said: “As long as you do not have it, this die and become, you are only a gloomy guest on a dark earth.”

So she went in to her mother, and as she arrived thus covered with gold, she was well received, both by her and her sister.

The girl told all that had happened to her; and as soon as the mother heard how she had come by so much wealth, she was very anxious to obtain the same good luck for the ugly and lazy daughter. She had to seat herself by the well and spin; and in order that her shuttle might be stained with blood, she stuck her hand into a thorn bush and pricked her finger. Then she threw her shuttle into the well, and jumped in after it.

She came, like the other, to the beautiful meadow and walked along the very same path. When she got to the oven the bread again cried, “Oh, take me out! Take me out!or I shall burn; I have been baked a long time!” But the lazy thing answered, “As if I had any wish to make myself dirty?” and on she went. Soon she came to the apple-tree, which cried, “Oh, shake me! Shake me! We apples are all ripe!” But she answered, “I like that! One of you might fall on my head.” and so went on.

When she came to Mother Holle’s house she was not afraid, for she had already heard of her big teeth, and she hired herself to her immediately. The first day she forced herself to work diligently, and obeyed Mother Holle when she told her to do anything, for she was thinking of all the gold that she would give her. But on the second day she began to be lazy, and on the third day still more so, and then she would not get up in the morning at all. Neither did she make Mother Holle’s bed as she ought, and did not shake it so as to make the feathers fly up. Mother Holle was soon tired of this, and gave her notice to leave. The lazy girl was willing enough to go, and thought that now the golden rain would come. Mother Holle led her too to the great door; but while she was standing beneath it, instead of the gold a big kettleful of pitch was emptied over her. “That is the reward for your service.” said Mother Holle, and shut the door.

So the lazy girl went home; but she was quite covered with pitch, and the cock by the well-side, as soon as he saw her, cried out:
“Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your pitchy girl’s come back to you!”

But the pitch stuck fast to her, and could not be got off as long as she lived.

Now comes the second part of the fairy tale. When we see that other people have become happy in some way, we quickly tend to imitate their path. Here, the soul listens to the voice of desire, to personally reach a particular goal, and to call the happiness that it sees in others it’s own. Even if such a soul goes outwardly the same way, it does not reach the same goal. Why? The girl does not have the same karma. She was not hardworking enough. Out of laziness she does not act where it would be necessary, and out of fear she does not reap the ripe fruits, though she hears the voice of nature. But another voice is much louder and drives her on the way to her selfish goal. She does not show any reverence for Mother Nature because she is intellectually predetermined. She does not serve the real mother, because she is intoxicated with pride and only thinks of her own interests. Does this sound familiar to us? In the end, instead of the hoped-for golden rain, she will end up with a pitchy rain that clings to her body a lifetime.

In German “having pitch – Pech haben” is a common expression for misfortune in life. This is obviously about the stickiness and attachment. Pitch was supposedly used in the Middle Ages to catch birds, which created the jinx or unlucky fellow – in German “the pitch bird – der Pechvogel”. Those who look deeper into themselves will realize that physical attachment and selfishness are closely related. This attachment to the illusion of “I” and “mine” and thus to the fruits of one’s own deeds becomes a major cause of personal suffering in the world, because the purity of the soul is lost by the stickiness of the mind.

Dear readers, let us therefore listen to the voice of nature as earth, forests, water, air and all other creatures speak to us and ask us to serve diligently and without greed, where it is necessary, to preserve a healthy natural balance. So every person can find his purpose in life and his place in this world.

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)
One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes - (topic: normality)
... 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 /