The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Poor Boy in the Grave

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2020]

There was once a poor shepherd-boy whose father and mother were dead, and he was placed by the authorities in the house of a rich man, who was to feed him and bring him up. The man and his wife had, however, bad hearts, and were greedy and anxious about their riches, and vexed whenever any one put a morsel of their bread in his mouth. The poor young fellow might do what he liked, he got little to eat, but only so many blows the more.

We would first like to try to look at this fairy tale from a psychological and social point of view and then in the second part go into the deeper mental or spiritual level. The fairy tale begins with the problem of the stepparents, which is found in many fairy tales. If it is not the biological parents, many biological mechanisms cannot develop here that otherwise work automatically. Such mechanisms are necessary in nature and programmed in the genes, so to speak, otherwise no animal would take care of children in need of care. Just think of the birds, how devotionally they hatch their eggs and feed the young. This natural bond does not initially exist with stepparents, so that the general problems of bringing up children become particularly clear here and are probably also used for instructive stories. Even in the animal kingdom, not every mother takes on strange children. Now one would think that this shouldn’t be a problem for reasonable people, but even today there is demonstrably more psychological, physical and sexual violence in stepfamilies than in children who grow up with their birth parents. Interestingly, nowadays the stepfather seems to be a bigger problem than the stepmother, which is usually the subject of fairy tales. Accordingly, the present story could belong to the more recent fairy tales.

One day he had to watch a hen and her chickens, but she ran through a hedge fence with them, and a hawk darted down instantly, and carried her off through the air. The boy called, “Thief! thief! rascal!” with all the strength of his body. But what good did that do? The hawk did not bring its prey back again. The man heard the noise, and ran to the spot, and as soon as he saw that his hen was gone, he fell in a rage, and gave the boy such a beating that he could not stir for two days. Then he had to take care of the chickens without the hen, but now his difficulty was greater, for one ran here and the other there. He thought he was doing a very wise thing when he tied them all together with a string, because then the hawk would not be able to steal any of them away from him. But he was very much mistaken. After two days, worn out with running about and hunger, he fell asleep; the bird of prey came, and seized one of the chickens, and as the others were tied fast to it, it carried them all off together, perched itself on a tree, and devoured them. The farmer was just coming home, and when he saw the misfortune, he got angry and beat the boy so unmercifully that he was forced to lie in bed for several days.

Well, the farmers life used to be, in principle, a very hard and laborious life, even if the farmer had gained some wealth. There was little time for lengthy explanations in the upbringing, and a certain amount of physical hardship was certainly needed to prepare the children for their farm life. Strict training with the rod is a sensitive issue nowadays, but in the past it was said:

“He who spares the rod disregards his child.”

Conversely, this means that those who respect their children should also raise them strictly. It was certainly not meant, that the parents should vent their anger on the child with physical or mental violence. But it was important that the child was brought up in such a way that it respects its parents and elders and submits to them, because with their strength and experience they ensure the survival of the whole family. If children who have not yet been able to develop reason feel superior to their parents, then they become small or even big tyrants whose rule is hostile to the whole family. And on the other hand - as the saying goes - it was just as important to respect the child, i.e. to arrange care, praise and punishment appropriately, out of love for the child and for the whole family, otherwise the parents become tyrants. This probably also applies to the farmer in our fairy tale, because there is apparently a lack of paternal respect for the child. And for the same reason motherly love seems to be lacking because the child does not get enough to eat and drink.

Why education? In the past, one often heard, “What a bad child!” This usually meant a child who couldn’t fit into society and didn’t know how to behave appropriately. That is probably also the meaning and purpose of education, so that the child can live and survive reasonably in the family and society. It is practically the same with all plants and animals - they have to adapt to their environment and are guided accordingly by nature and their parents. But nowadays one often hears that children should be raised anti-authoritarian or better not at all. Individuality takes precedence over everything, and then family and society have to adapt to the child. This rarely works out well, because unbridled children quickly become unbridled egos, which then have a correspondingly difficult time in life. And it can happen that they later reproach their parents: “Why didn’t you bring me up to be a sensible person?” - This raises the question: do children have the right to an upbringing and do the parents have the obligation to do so?

Hardly anyone wants to live such a hard life as a farmer these days, let alone endure a hard upbringing. But our parents can still report something similar from their childhood, such as Undine’s father:

I was the seventh of ten children on a farm with fields, cows, pigs and poultry. The family was one of the poorest in the village. The parents worked from morning to night, the mother on the farm and in the house with her kith and kin, the father morning and evening in the stable and on the weekends in the field, and during the day he had a job because he had to earn some money, you can’t produce everything yourself. You can imagine how this had to work hand in hand so that the family could be fed and provided with the basic necessities. Without a washing machine or dishwasher, everything in the field and garden was grown, harvested, processed and - of course without a freezer - preserved for the winter. Any clothing that could be knitted was made in-house. There was no vacation or weekend, just Sunday was a little more relaxed and only the cattle were taken care of and food was cooked. The older children worked diligently and looked after the younger ones, and even the younger ones had to do what they could from an early age, especially when their father and older brothers were drafted into the war.

After the end of World War II, there were even a few days when I was alone on the farm with my younger sister, we were about 10 and 8 years old. The older ones had been imprisoned in Hungary either during the war or afterwards as Germans, including the mother. And so we two children had to take care of the remaining animals: mowing the grass, cutting potatoes and turnips for fodder, clearing out the stable, drawing water from the well and watering the animals... And actually there would have been a lot to do in the field and garden... We’ve never had done it alone, and I remember very difficult days. On the one hand, it was physically very demanding, but the fear of doing something wrong weighed even more. Because if the animals got sick or died, then the family would have to starve.

Despite everything, there was generally time for school and play - only with a few strict requirements, which were traced very consistently. For example, the mother was very afraid when we children got our shoes and socks wet in the cold season and there was a threat of catching a cold. When I first came home as a boy with wet socks because I didn’t want to stop playing and go home, I was warned and scolded. But at the second time there was beating. Neither mother nor father had the time or nerve to have long discussions with their children. And since the boys often went too far, there were also quite a few beatings. The slaps weren’t that bad, but sometimes it really hurt and there were tears. But when the beating was over, the mother took the child in her arms, comforted it that now the punishment was over, and briefly admonished it once again to learn from it and stop the nonsense from now on. Then everything was forgotten and loved again, where there had just been fear and anger.

Today I can say, that most of the time I knew what I was being hit or scolded for, but sometimes I learned the lesson afterwards, at the second or third time. I didn’t hate my parents, I had a lot of respect for them. Above all, I admired my mother, what she had achieved and how she had overcome all the blows of fate in an already difficult life. Nevertheless, I have decided to raise my own children with consistency, but not with beatings...

Well, a tough life obviously calls for a tough upbringing. It is similar in our fairy tale, where unfortunately the necessary love and, above all, reason were missing. The upbringing method outlined in the fairy tale wasn’t so bad, because farm life has a number of advantages, such as being close to the animals. It was certainly a very instructive task for the children not only to look after inanimate toys, but also to look after living animals. On the one hand they were able to get to know the nature of the animals early on, and on the other hand they had to assert themselves as shepherds against the animals, train their mindfulness and learn to concentrate on an activity without getting distracted or falling asleep. At the same time, one also learns respect for life and nature, one of the most important things in education. And even here the responsibility of the children was relatively high, because the animals were of course part of the livelihood of the entire farming family. But our boy had little luck with it from the start, and nature seemed to be working against him. First his parents died, and then fate led him to such stingy and selfish stepparents, where he starved and could not develop his mental and physical abilities.

Who to blame for this? The farmer, who hits the child because he was raised in a similarly violent manner? The farmer’s wife, because she doesn’t give the child enough food and drink because she was brought up to be stingy? The authorities, who placed the child in the care of these childless parents? The state, that obliges the farmers to work hard? Or the child, who couldn’t win the love of the stepparents?

When he was on his legs again, the farmer said to him, “Thou art too stupid for me, I cannot make a herdsman of thee, thou must go as errand-boy.” Then he sent him to the judge, to whom he was to carry a basketful of grapes, and he gave him a letter as well. On the way hunger and thirst tormented the unhappy boy so violently that he ate two of the bunches of grapes. He took the basket to the judge, but when the judge had read the letter, and counted bunches he said, “Two clusters are wanting.” The boy confessed quite honestly that, driven by hunger and thirst, he had devoured the two which were wanting. The judge wrote a letter to the farmer, and asked for the same number of grapes again. These also the boy had to take to him with a letter. As he again was so extremely hungry and thirsty, he could not help it, and again ate two bunches. But first he took the letter out of the basket, put it under a stone and seated himself thereon in order that the letter might not see and betray him. The judge, however, again made him give an explanation about the missing bunches. “Ah,” said the boy, “how have you learnt that? The letter could not know about it, for I put it under a stone before I did it.” The judge could not help laughing at the boy’s simplicity, and sent the man a letter wherein he cautioned him to keep the poor boy better, and not let him want for meat and drink, and also that he was to teach him what was right and what was wrong.

Another step in raising children is to take on various tasks outside of the family. This teaches service, self-control, and increasing responsibility as parents gradually assess how much they can depend on their child. In this way the respect for society and its social laws also develops like the respect for life and nature. To do this, the boy is sent as a messenger with a basket of tempting grapes to a judge who is supposed to control the errand. The judge was certainly not chosen by chance in the fairy tale, because he is responsible in the state for imposing the appropriate punishments when social laws are violated, and here, too, physical and mental violence is of course used, and the fear of corresponding punishment is a normal means of demanding respectful observance of state laws.

But here, too, hunger and thirst make the boy fail in his task, although the farmer gives him a second chance. Of course, one has to ask which child does not get hungry and thirsty in the face of a basket full of juicy and sweet grapes. He also honestly admits what he has done, and the text still describes a pure and thought-uncorrupted child’s mind, which has not yet reached for lies to assert and justify his ego. Accordingly, the boy still lives in a wonderfully natural world where everything is animated, even the letters. And certainly the judge doesn’t laugh at him. He knows that the boy doesn’t deserve punishment with this spirit, smiles like a kind father and admonishes the farmer to teach the boy better how to control himself and what to do and not to do, and indirectly also the farmer’s wife to feed him better, lest he does not reach hungrily and thirstily for things he should not reach for. The farmer is now trying to do this in his own way, in the way he was probably raised himself:

“I will soon show thee the difference,” said the hard man, “if thou wilt eat, thou must work, and if thou dost anything wrong, thou shalt be quite sufficiently taught by blows.”

The next day he set him a hard task. He was to chop two bundles of straw for food for the horses, and then the man threatened: “In five hours,” said he, “I shall be back again, and if the straw is not cut to chaff by that time, I will beat thee until thou canst not move a limb.” The farmer went with his wife, the man-servant and the girl, to the yearly fair, and left nothing behind for the boy but a small bit of bread. The boy seated himself on the bench, and began to work with all his might. As he got warm over it he put his little coat off and threw it on the straw. In his terror lest he should not get done in time he kept constantly cutting, and in his haste, without noticing it, he chopped his little coat as well as the straw. He became aware of the misfortune too late; there was no repairing it. “Ah,” cried he, “now all is over with me! The wicked man did not threaten me for nothing; if he comes back and sees what I have done, he will kill me. Rather than that I will take my own life.”

A further step in development consists in introducing the child more and more to the heavier work of the farmers. In this way one learns to respect the hard work. Obedience, service, and diligence were the foundations of the ancient virtues. And the boy really tries his best to accomplish the task, but exaggerates his ambition, just as the farmer exaggerates his violent upbringing. In addition, there is the psychological violence caused by being excluded from the family, which is now having fun at the fair. The exclusion is probably the worst mental punishment for a child. In this way, of course, there is enormous pressure and fear.

Fear is a wide subject and certainly plays an important role in natural development. It occurs in the most diverse forms, such as caution, fear, flight, stress, restlessness or dissatisfaction, but also as aggression, hatred, desire and envy. It even stands as the urge behind ordinary love and appreciation to the extent that one is afraid of losing it and no longer being loved or approved. This natural fear cannot be avoided when raising children. On the contrary, overprotected children in particular are very afraid: “In an overprotected home, a child is denied any painful experience. In this way it does not learn to deal with such experiences and to cope with them positively. Parents’ fears are mostly the basis for the overprotection of children. These parents have often also experienced an anxious upbringing. In this way, their fears are transmitted to their children. (medizinfo.de)”

What is the role of fear? Fear is one of the basic human feelings and has the evolutionary task of protecting life. A healthy fear keeps us from putting ourselves in danger lightly, critically assessing situations, and allowing us to respond sensibly. Fear controls man until he has learned to control himself. Fear is a medicine that is supposed to restrain us mentally and physically and keep us healthy. But as with any medicine, the right dosage is important. Too little doesn’t help, and too much is harmful. Fear can also become poisonous, cause terrible illnesses and, as in the fairy tale, even lead to death.

“Self-murder for Fear of Death” The term “self-murder” is actually misleading. You don’t die by yourself here, like in natural death. This is where the ego or I acts, which at some point decides that it has to kill its body because it has become an unbearable enemy, so that it actively brings about death. With the thought construct “I am the victim” the ego feels threatened, loses all reasonable measure and becomes violent out of fear of a mental enemy image - against itself or others. Such intellectual enemies are also called ghosts that haunt us in our heads. This performance seems in high contrast to the pure and unspoiled childish spirit of the final scene with the judge. Suddenly there is a strong ego, which apparently has nourished and solidified in a very short time from the fear of violence and being excluded from the family. The sentence in the fairy tale is formulated accordingly: “If he comes back and sees what I have done, he will kill me.” Where is the respect for life, the child and the father? The reconciliation between father and son seems impossible to the “I”, it no longer sees any meaning in life and death is inevitable. The only question is: In what way?

The boy had once heard the farmer’s wife say, “I have a pot with poison in it under my bed.” She, however, had only said that to keep away greedy people, for there was honey in it. The boy crept under the bed, brought out the pot, and ate all that was in it. “I do not know,” said he, “folks say death is bitter, but it tastes very sweet to me. It is no wonder that the farmer’s wife has so often longed for death.”

Children and the craving for sweets is a well-known challenge in parenting. The farmer’s wife got by with a lie, and the media is still propagating: “Sugar is poison for the body!” Here, too, the dosage is certainly decisive, and the poison lies above all in the mental addiction associated with it, when man does not learn to control his desires. Sure, a lie can help here, and the resulting fear of illness and death can dominate desire for a while. Of course, it would be better if reason took over this task through insight, because every lie can burst unexpectedly and turn into the opposite. This is what happens here, and the boy now believes in a sweet death. You see: like fear, lying cannot solve a problem at its root. Lies are like those medicines that quell the effects for a while without curing the causes. And by the way, the farmer’s wife was probably not particularly happy in her miserly life when she wished for death so often...

He seated himself in a little chair, and was prepared to die. But instead of becoming weaker he felt himself strengthened by the nourishing food. “It cannot have been poison,” thought he, “but the farmer once said there was a small bottle of poison for flies in the box in which he keeps his clothes; that, no doubt, will be the true poison, and bring death to me.” It was, however, no poison for flies, but Hungarian wine. The boy got out the bottle, and emptied it. “This death tastes sweet too,” said he, but shortly after when the wine began to mount into his brain and stupefy him, he thought his end was drawing near. “I feel that I must die,” said he, “I will go away to the churchyard, and seek a grave.” He staggered out, reached the churchyard, and laid himself in a newly dug grave. He lost his senses more and more. In the neighbourhood was an inn where a wedding was being kept; when he heard the music, he fancied he was already in Paradise, until at length he lost all consciousness. The poor boy never awoke again; the heat of the strong wine and the cold night-dew deprived him of life, and he remained in the grave in which he had laid himself.

Once again the boy is hit by his parents’ lie, and this time it is clearly described how the medicine turns into a deadly poison. He voluntarily lies down in his grave, sinks into a frenzy in the hope of paradise and freezes to death in the night. The excessive fear drove him insane and killed him. Here lies the danger when fear takes over without the necessary reason being developed. Because life is of course not about developing fear, but reason.

When the farmer heard the news of the boy’s death he was terrified, and afraid of being brought to justice indeed, his distress took such a powerful hold of him that he fell fainting to the ground. His wife, who was standing on the hearth with a pan of hot fat, ran to him to help him. But the flames darted against the pan, the whole house caught fire, in a few hours it lay in ashes, and the rest of the years they had to live they passed in poverty and misery, tormented by the pangs of conscience.

Well, whoever sows fear will reap fear! From a social point of view one has to say: the system of the peasant family collapsed and burst like a soap bubble, because of course there was a lack of truthfulness and the necessary reason. So the fear finally erupts into a destructive fire that burns everything first inside and then outside. The “fat life” in rich prosperity, which is symbolized by the fat pan, does not go well either physically or socially for long, because it promotes the ego and thus fear and lies. Just as fear and lies belong together as a couple, reason and truth also belong together. And just as truth ends lies, so can reason end fear. A happy ending? Yes, if one could learn from this fairy tale.

We are currently experiencing something similar in our society, as even the public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk says in a short article: “The dictate of fear - a crucial test for society” We too are currently committing a social suicide out of fear of death and the prosperity bubble is threatening to burst. Where is this supposed to lead? Already in January of this year (2020) the singer-songwriter Heinz-Rudolf Kunze published the prophetic song “Die Zeit ist reif” - “Time is ripe” and announces “a huge awakening”:

I never said it’s easy, that it happens without effort
No medicine, no panacea will help where fear reigns,
Deep inside of us, and we know where this leads...

The time has come for a huge awakening,
And a silver lining should give people hope,
Don’t ever get involved with ghosts again! - It must be different! ...

It just doesn’t go on like this, that’s a human right and duty,
Your children look at you, wondering, strive to match,
what you leave them, a world to live in...

You really have to say, this fairy tale is tough, a bone to chew on for a long time. We have done it, and so now we want to try to interpret the whole story again from a symbolic point of view on a spiritual level.

The The Poor Boy in the Grave

There was once a poor shepherd-boy whose father and mother were dead, and he was placed by the authorities in the house of a rich man, who was to feed him and bring him up. The man and his wife had, however, bad hearts, and were greedy and anxious about their riches, and vexed whenever any one put a morsel of their bread in his mouth. The poor young fellow might do what he liked, he got little to eat, but only so many blows the more.

A poor shepherd boy: The shepherd is probably one of the oldest spiritual symbols that can be found in the Old Testament, and Jesus also says in the New Testament: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep... [Joh 10.12]” Already in the ancient Indian stories one finds Krishna as a poor shepherd boy and embodiment of God on earth. And here, too, the questions are asked: “Why did the deity, who turns the wheel of birth and death for all creatures and holds the infallible discus, want to become a human being? Why does Vishnu, who protects all the mighty in the world, come down to earth as a shepherd boy? Why was Vishnu, who is one with the subtle elements and gives birth to the gross elements, conceived by a mortal woman? [Harivamsha Purana 1.40]” Well, the shepherd uses his staff to tame the animals lest they go astray and lose themselves in the world. And symbolically it is of course about the inner animal, like the “lost sheep” as a symbol for ignorance or the “poisonous snake” as a symbol for egoism. “For this I took this birth as a shepherd boy, and live among the shepherds to curb the wicked who go astray. For this I should climb this tree (of knowledge or life) like a child, jump into the lake (the sea of the world) and defeat the snake king (the ego). [Harivamsha Purana 2.11]” The child itself can be regarded as a symbol of the soul in relation to its physical origin and spiritual development. And because this is a boy, it’s more about spiritual development towards reason.

Father and mother had died: Do we know our true origins? There is probably nothing that man seeks so much in this world as his own origin. Even the hardest materialists invest a great deal of energy and money to dig up the earth and search for all traces of their past. Others search hard in the genes and ask themselves from which molecules the human being originated. Some passionately research their family trees and eventually realize in desperation that theoretically after 30 generations you have more than a billion ancestors. Before the materialistic picture of the world arose, one did not look so much for the origins in matter, but rather in a spiritual world, in a soul or in a God from which everything descends. But today we are mostly children of mortal parents, born by chance into a particular family. This coincidence was formerly considered fate, which was determined by an order, or as it is called in the fairy tale, by an “authority” through the laws of cause and effect, which primarily referred to a spiritual world.

The rich man or farmer, from a spiritual point of view, is the one who sows the seeds in the field of consciousness and reaps the fruits. This is a common symbol of the ego-consciousness grasping at the fruits of one’s deeds, accumulating a life story of personal wealth and knowledge, what is called ‘karma’ in India. From a Christian point of view one would speak here of merit and sin, which can even be inherited from generation to generation.

A bad heart: Many people today would wish to be born into a materially wealthy family. But where there is a lot of light, there is also a lot of shadow, and money doesn’t buy happiness. The “heart” is the living core or inner being, and the term “bad” also derives from “proud and pompous” according to the dictionary. So the bad heart has a close connection to the above-mentioned self-awareness in the form of the farmer, i.e. an egoistic spirit that mentally separates itself from the whole, “perceives” itself as an independent being and acts accordingly in a partial way, just as the Christian devil separated from the heavenly angels and became correspondingly angry. From this form of ignorance arise envy, avarice, hatred, lust and of course a lot of anger. These are also the usual downsides of a rich family. It is not for nothing that the Bible says: Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But somehow our mental “I” can’t or doesn’t want to understand that. It probably takes this whole world to learn practically from this experience. Or to put it more strictly: If you don’t want to hear, you have to feel:

One day he had to watch a hen and her chickens, but she ran through a hedge fence with them, and a hawk darted down instantly, and carried her off through the air. The boy called, “Thief! thief! rascal!” with all the strength of his body. But what good did that do? The hawk did not bring its prey back again. The man heard the noise, and ran to the spot, and as soon as he saw that his hen was gone, he fell in a rage, and gave the boy such a beating that he could not stir for two days. Then he had to take care of the chickens without the hen, but now his difficulty was greater, for one ran here and the other there. He thought he was doing a very wise thing when he tied them all together with a string, because then the hawk would not be able to steal any of them away from him. But he was very much mistaken. After two days, worn out with running about and hunger, he fell asleep; the bird of prey came, and seized one of the chickens, and as the others were tied fast to it, it carried them all off together, perched itself on a tree, and devoured them. The farmer was just coming home, and when he saw the misfortune, he got angry and beat the boy so unmercifully that he was forced to lie in bed for several days.

Well, raising children is a never-ending argument. However, there is a saying that goes: “There is little point in trying to educate children, since they copy everything we do.” Of course, the best thing is to be a good role model. But just as the parents usually still struggle with themselves to control their desires and passions, the ego also awakens in the child and needs restraint, which is seldom possible without violence. A strict upbringing was the norm, especially in wealthy noble families. Because if you don’t learn to control yourself in childhood, you will not learn it when you’re old either. Without self-control, one may still be able to live meaningfully in a natural environment where nature imposes narrow boundaries and tight controls. But in an environment where material wealth transcends all natural limits, it’s easy to get lost.

Does it have to be the rod? One can certainly debate the extent to which psychological violence can be substituted for physical violence, and what will bring greater benefit or cause greater harm in the long run. You can tell a child a thousand times not to reach for the hot stove, but a short painful physical experience usually resolves the problem on its own. Both types of violence can help or harm the child. In any case, it becomes harmful when the parents begin to take out their personal anger on the child, like the farmer in our fairy tale. This happens especially when the parents didn’t learn to control themselves in their childhood either. A deficit in education can be passed on over many generations, because the parents were brought up by their parents and are only responsible for half of their character, so to speak.

Fear? A big topic is the role of fear as a special form of violence in upbringing or relationships. From the point of view of spiritual development one could say: Fear is the natural guide of the mind until reason is developed. Fear sets the necessary limits until reason sets us free. Fear reins in the dominant ego-consciousness until reason takes over. We know what terrible deeds an unbridled ego is capable of. And by reason we don’t mean modern, thought-based reason, but the classic reason of a holistic intelligence, or as the dictionary says: “A mental ability of humans to gain insights, to form an opinion, to understand the connections and the order of the recognized and to act accordingly.” But we will come back to that later.

What is the path to reason? A fairy tale would not be worth much if it only addressed the external problems without suggesting the solution on a deeper level. In the following we will try to use the symbolism of the fairy tale to reflect on the development of reason in the form of the boy. In the first step on the path to reason we find the symbolism of the shepherd and how he should practice knowing and mastering animal nature. In the cackling hen and the chicks tied together, we can see the child beginning to master the tools of the body, senses and mind and to see the connections. Death appears as the hawk, threatening everything that is alive, or as transience, which attacks everything that has come into being. Hunger symbolizes the natural force that drives humans and animals to take action in the world. The necessary mindfulness is also addressed and, last but not least, pain as a teacher. This shows how nature challenges man to a long learning process, which in this case is not constructively supported by the child’s parents. Because of the selfishness of their hardened hearts, they do not give the child the necessary space to learn. This often happens with parents who are late in having a child, when their minds are already settled in narrow channels.

From a spiritual point of view, it is the ego-consciousness that does not give reason any room to develop and prefers to kill it because it does not work according to its ideas. Why? The fairy tale speaks of avarice, i.e. desire and hate, which creates an ego bubble. We call this mental construct a “person”, derived from the Latin “persona”, which means an actor’s mask. This ego bubble, which we find here symbolically in the farmer, thinks: “If I protect myself, I can survive!” So this bubble also tries to defend itself with violence, and not only against other ego bubbles, but also against the higher reason.

This is a typical ego effect that we can clearly observe in society at the moment. In addition to the usual garden fences and walls, there are now mask and distance requirements, with which the ego wants to protect itself and thinks that it can survive through this separation. At the same time one also sees how any reasonable voice that evokes a holistic view is declared an enemy, seen as an idiot and preferably beaten to death. Because clearly, reason as a guardian is useless for the ego. What else could you use it for? Maybe you could make a business with reason…

When he was on his legs again, the farmer said to him, “Thou art too stupid for me, I cannot make a herdsman of thee, thou must go as errand-boy.” Then he sent him to the judge, to whom he was to carry a basketful of grapes, and he gave him a letter as well. On the way hunger and thirst tormented the unhappy boy so violently that he ate two of the bunches of grapes. He took the basket to the judge, but when the judge had read the letter, and counted bunches he said, “Two clusters are wanting.” The boy confessed quite honestly that, driven by hunger and thirst, he had devoured the two which were wanting. The judge wrote a letter to the farmer, and asked for the same number of grapes again. These also the boy had to take to him with a letter. As he again was so extremely hungry and thirsty, he could not help it, and again ate two bunches. But first he took the letter out of the basket, put it under a stone and seated himself thereon in order that the letter might not see and betray him. The judge, however, again made him give an explanation about the missing bunches. “Ah,” said the boy, “how have you learnt that? The letter could not know about it, for I put it under a stone before I did it.”

The basket of grapes with the letter as a whole is a memorable symbol of the union of three principles. The basket is a network of twigs. Twigs can branch and divide, and so they evoke the web of opposing thoughts reaching for the fruits in the form of grapes and connecting to the knowledge in the form of the letter. Thus, out of the network of thoughts and the ego-consciousness, together with the life story and the accumulated fruits or karma, a human being embodies himself, who, like the basket, appears to exist as a separate object. Only on the level of self-awareness with reason this self-centred separation disappears and the holistic soul becomes conscious.

So now the next step on the way to reason is outlined with ingenious symbolism. Grapes are the sweet fruits that we love to reach for with our thoughts. But just grasping and clinging to the fruits of action is considered a major obstacle to the development of free reason and is an essential quality of the ego. Therefore, the fruits were symbolically sacrificed in the past in a god’s temple in order to give up personal attachment to the fruits of deeds and to dedicate all fruits to the deity. In this way, a holistic consciousness can arise in action, and that is the way to reason and the end of envy, greed, desire and hatred. This is how you could look at the symbolism with the grapes being brought to the judge.

The judge is an excellent symbol of higher reason. Let’s remember the pyramid that we presented from the point of view of a holistically inspired worldview in the “The Ditmarsch tale of wonders”:

If you look at the emergence of human consciousness according to this pyramid, you can speak of the following four or five levels of consciousness:

1) Reason: self-awareness - wisdom & insight - judge
2) Thinking: ego-consciousness - arguments - lawyers
3) Senses: sense-consciousness - perception - witnesses
4) Living matter: body-consciousness - actions - bailiffs
5) Dead matter: machine-consciousness - mechanization - punishment

In this way, the human consciousness symbolically resembles a court case, which can go as far as a punishment in prison, where consciousness has to submit completely to dead matter in the form of e.g. machines and becomes a machine-consciousness, as is increasingly happening in our mechanized world. In addition, the bailiffs carry out the orders of the lawyers and judges and represent, so to speak, the body-consciousness with our deeds in the world. The witnesses base their perception on the sense-consciousness, which creates our so-called “facts”, i.e. subjectively perceived facts or events, even if today we like to speak of objective facts. The lawyers represent the personal interests of the ego-consciousness with their thoughts and usually argue without finding a final solution. Only the judges can end this dispute of lawyers, decide with self-awareness through independent reason, and render a true verdict. So: The judges “decide”, the lawyers “distinguish”, the witnesses “perceive”, the bailiffs “act” and the penal system “executes the painful imprisonment” with the great goal of developing or returning to reason as seen in the pyramid above. The suffering in our world works accordingly, the senses and servants are not very reliable, and thoughts like to quarrel. But the judges should be independent, understand the context and background and be able to make a decision in a holistic sense with wisdom or holistic knowledge in order to end the dispute of ideas.

Another important aspect becomes clear with this symbolism, because the jailers, bailiffs, witnesses, lawyers and judges are basically all people with the same abilities, who just play different roles in the world and identify with them. The same is true of the different types of consciousness, which are basically just pure consciousness taking on different qualities in the world. Consciousness is therefore capable of changing in the process of formation and development and taking on different names and forms.

Of particular interest here is the difference between ego-consciousness and self-consciousness, which has been almost completely lost or consciously erased in the development of the German language. The same applies to the concepts of intellect and reason. We still speak of unshakable self-confidence, but we usually mean an unshakable ego that no longer lets in any anxious feelings. But the ego can never really be free from fear because of the illusory separation of opposing thoughts like “mine” and “yours”. This freedom can only be granted by the self- consciousness with the higher reason, when one becomes aware of the holistic self or the holistic soul. So there is an essential difference whether something is made by the “I” or arises from “oneself”.

The holistic soul that lives in all beings is also addressed in the fairy tale with ingenious symbolism, namely in the childish idea that the letter in the basket is not just a dead carrier of information, but a living being that acts as a witness and “reports” something to the judge. And insofar as this judge is not tied to the separating ego-consciousness, self-consciousness also knows no limits and becomes a holistic consciousness that one can call pure soul, pure spirit or also deity. This is how far the development of higher reason can go, by gradually dissolving attachment and dependence on body-consciousness, sense-consciousness and ego-consciousness, until pure self-consciousness remains and true reason takes over. In yoga, one also speaks of self-realization, self-discovery or self-control. With the materialistic world view, these terms were also more and more related to the ego, because with this world view there can be neither a holistic self nor a holistic reason or intelligence.

One could write endlessly on this subject, but that has already been done sufficiently in the traditions of the ancient religions and philosophers. It’s worth learning from. However, what does the judge or reason recommend?

The judge could not help laughing at the boy’s simplicity, and sent the man a letter wherein he cautioned him to keep the poor boy better, and not let him want for meat and drink, and also that he was to teach him what was right and what was wrong.

Certainly no arrogant or proud laughter is meant here, but the smile of a kind father at the simplicity of the child, this simplicity of which Jesus also spoke: “Truly I say to you: Unless you turn around and become like the children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)” However, He is not saying that we should remain like children and not develop. There is a task to be fulfilled in life, and the judge admonishes the farmer to do so. This admonition by the judge or reason is important, because one should never forget that raising children is above all self-education. With that, raising children becomes an essential part of human development and should not fall victim to a secular career or be delegated to any institutions or other people. Anyone who deals with the development of his own children gets to know himself and processes his own childhood in a much more conscious way than he was ever able to do as a child. This also belongs to the development of higher reason.

And what does the judge admonish? There should not be a lack of food and drink. You can see this physically at first, but in a deeper sense it is also about spiritual nourishment, which is extremely important for development: first science for the mind and then the digestion of knowledge into holistic knowledge, “wisdom” or reason. And of course this includes “learning what is right and wrong”. First you learn to distinguish the opposites with your thoughts, and later you learn to decide about them with reason and to recognize their true holistic nature, because plus and minus just belong together and are basically a unit.

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, You shall eat of every tree in the garden; but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for on the day you eat of it you will surely die. [1. Moses 2:16]” Well, man has not listened to God or reason, but has grasped and eaten the fruit of that tree of opposite knowledge while listening at the hissing serpent of ego-consciousness. What is probably meant here are the differentiating thoughts which, from the point of view of the personal interests of the ego-consciousness, distinguish the sensory perceptions into good and bad or pleasant and unpleasant. And with that, paradise was over, holistic perfection disappeared and suddenly there was mine and yours, happiness and sorrow, life and death, and the serious side of life began:

“I will soon show thee the difference,” said the hard man, “if thou wilt eat, thou must work, and if thou dost anything wrong, thou shalt be quite sufficiently taught by blows.”

In principle, this is not wrong. No pain no gain! This is how God spoke to Adam when he was banished from paradise: “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread... (Genesis 3.19)” And it is also true that wholesome and unwholesome actions can practically be distinguished by their effects. One brings happiness and joy and the other sorrow and painful blows. These are the hard laws that work in nature and guide and instruct beings on their way. For this reason, too, Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” But no senseless suffering, because every suffering is also a lesson, as far as one is willing to learn from it.

However, these harsh laws of nature are only half the truth, even though many modern scientists today see them as the whole truth and believe that man is completely governed by the laws of nature. From a spiritual point of view, these laws prevail primarily at the level of ego-consciousness and are represented in our fairy tale by a “hard man” who has a “bad heart”, as explained above. That means he lives on the level of ego-consciousness, and so there is a lack of reason and thus also of love for the child, which obviously does not correspond to his ideas and does not bring the expected benefit for the ego. And that brings us to the next step on the road to reason, and that is the ability for proportionality, to avoid unreasonable exaggeration, which manifests itself in extremism, fanaticism, exploitation and violence when the means used are no longer proportionate to the benefit:

The next day he set him a hard task. He was to chop two bundles of straw for food for the horses, and then the man threatened: “In five hours,” said he, “I shall be back again, and if the straw is not cut to chaff by that time, I will beat thee until thou canst not move a limb.” The farmer went with his wife, the man-servant and the girl, to the yearly fair, and left nothing behind for the boy but a small bit of bread. The boy seated himself on the bench, and began to work with all his might. As he got warm over it he put his little coat off and threw it on the straw. In his terror lest he should not get done in time he kept constantly cutting, and in his haste, without noticing it, he chopped his little coat as well as the straw. He became aware of the misfortune too late; there was no repairing it. “Ah,” cried he, “now all is over with me! The wicked man did not threaten me for nothing; if he comes back and sees what I have done, he will kill me. Rather than that I will take my own life.”

The horse as a draft and working animal is similar to the ox that we have already described in other fairy tales. From a symbolic point of view, it is the will that pulls and drives us in life. The straw is the peasants’ gold and, so to speak, the supposed possession of the ego-consciousness, which, however, is hollow on the inside and hardly suitable for nourishment. The little skirt is reminiscent of the physical shell that we wear and which is damaged here by exaggeration. The farmer with his wife, servant and maid is reminiscent of the ego-consciousness, which as a male spirit wants to have fun with the female nature and the senses and organs of action in this world, like at a fair. Left behind is reason in the form of the boy, repressed, starved, and even hated because it doesn’t seem to serve ego-awareness.

A particularly severe form of psychological violence is described, with which the child is excluded from the family and traumatized by violence and fear. But the boy also indulges in exaggeration and harms himself in his exaggerated zeal, so that he despairs in the end and again misses the big goal, namely the reason to be able to decide between right and wrong or between wholesome and unwholesome action. Therefore, the meaning of life is practically lost. The fear becomes overwhelming, the ego and the body become mortal enemies, the ego feels deadly threatened by the body and sees no other way out than to kill the body, which has become a source of unbearable suffering.

Self-murder for Fear of Death? As already said, mental problems can never be fundamentally solved on the level of ego-awareness, where fear reigns. Every apparently solved problem gives rise to new problems. Therefore self-murder is not a fundamental solution either, insofar as the ego becomes the perpetrator here and one should actually speak of a body-murder. From a spiritual point of view this is clear, because the body with the senses with which the ego-consciousness identifies itself is not the source of the suffering but the ego-consciousness itself. So the murder of the body does not lead to the solution but to the strengthening of the ego-consciousness and with it also fear. Accordingly, suicide was not considered salvation in the past but a great sin and a way to hell. Because what burns and suffers in the fire of hell is above all the ego-consciousness in its essential connection with fear. Or as the old saying goes: “Wilfulness burns in hell!” - From a materialistic point of view one can of course say: Without a body there can be no consciousness, therefore also no self-awareness. That would be the end of all suffering. From this point of view, it also seems natural that one tries to solve all problems by physically killing other living beings with weapons, poison and violence. But for some reason even materialists want to live and somehow feel that the death of one’s own body is not the solution to all problems.

Exaggeration? It is certainly no coincidence that exaggeration is one of the biggest problems in our materialistically oriented society and the motto applies: a lot helps a lot! If food is good, more food must be better. If money is useful, more money must be even more useful. If hygiene is healthy, more hygiene must prevent every disease. If drugs heal, more drugs must heal everything. If technology helps, more technology must solve all problems. If violence is effective, any goal can be achieved with more violence. In this superego madness, we have dangerously upset the balance of nature and are even now working to destroy our own society. And the only means that politicians and scientists can counter this madness is apparently the rule of fear: shock forecasts, panic propaganda, psycho-terror, virus hysteria, bullying, fines, fear of contact, existential fear, fear of illness and death, but hardly anyone speaks of reason, at least not in the higher sense. For many years, reasonable hygiene was preached, and too many household disinfectants were harmful. But now fear rules, everything is mercilessly disinfected, and many hundreds of tons of disinfectant are sprayed into the environment in panic, which of course ends up somewhere in the groundwater. You see: where fear rules, there can be no reasonable decisions. This underpins our thesis that a materialistic world view is in principle incapable of developing a holistic reason so that people can control themselves, make reasonable decisions and act in a salutary manner.

The boy had once heard the farmer’s wife say, “I have a pot with poison in it under my bed.” She, however, had only said that to keep away greedy people, for there was honey in it. The boy crept under the bed, brought out the pot, and ate all that was in it. “I do not know,” said he, “folks say death is bitter, but it tastes very sweet to me. It is no wonder that the farmer’s wife has so often longed for death.”

Well, three steps on the way to reason have already been outlined in the symbolism of the fairy tale: mastery of thought, non-attachment to the fruits of action, and proportionality without exaggerating to any extreme. The Buddha also spoke of a “middle way” to avoid all extremes, but also of a further step, namely the realization of the true nature of all things. As the boy is described in this fairy tale, he has an exceedingly firm belief in the truth of his parents. He doesn’t doubt what they do and say. But we know that the supposedly rich farmers are not his real parents, and because they have not developed reason themselves, they cannot lead the child on the path to reason either. It is probably the same with our “rich” politicians and scientists, who are bound by materialism and cannot develop true reason because materialism is based on an objective world made of matter. And that’s no small problem, because without reason we certainly won’t be able to solve the growing problems of the environment and society. It is not only the old religions that assert that the objectivity of matter is an illusion. Modern quantum physics also speaks of the fact that matter increasingly evaporates into waves, forces and energy the deeper one examines it, and that its appearance ultimately depends on the observer. So things are not what they appear on the outside. But even these scientifically proven findings could not stop the madness of materialism and were summarily pushed into a back corner of physics, where they are taught theoretically, but are not allowed to have any practical influence on our philosophical understanding of the world.

Well, there’s still a chance. Have you noticed that our boy has always had two chances to master his tasks? Only when, in his fear of exaggeration, he had chosen death, no second came. Another chance even appears on the way to the grave:

He seated himself in a little chair, and was prepared to die. But instead of becoming weaker he felt himself strengthened by the nourishing food. “It cannot have been poison,” thought he, “but the farmer once said there was a small bottle of poison for flies in the box in which he keeps his clothes; that, no doubt, will be the true poison, and bring death to me.” It was, however, no poison for flies, but Hungarian wine. The boy got out the bottle, and emptied it. “This death tastes sweet too,” said he, but shortly after when the wine began to mount into his brain and stupefy him, he thought his end was drawing near. “I feel that I must die,” said he, “I will go away to the churchyard, and seek a grave.” He staggered out, reached the churchyard, and laid himself in a newly dug grave. He lost his senses more and more. In the neighbourhood was an inn where a wedding was being kept; when he heard the music, he fancied he was already in Paradise, until at length he lost all consciousness.

Now one reads how medicine becomes poison and even leads to death. Wine has always been a powerful symbol. On the one hand, it is obtained from the sweet fruits that we talked about above, on the other hand, it has an intense effect on the mind, can calm fears, expand consciousness, but can also be intoxicating, numbing and addictive through overdoing it. Also known is the wine of the gods, the nectar of immortality, or the blood of Jesus, as the essence of eternal life. If we take wine as a symbol of life, then one can say with regard to the lie of the farmers: As long as illusion and lies or ignorance are connected with life, worldly opposites such as happiness and suffering, pleasure and pain or life and death prevail. The consciousness is bound with illusion through these opposites, beautifully expressed in the phrase, “This death also tastes sweet.” For when death becomes sweet and life becomes bitter, so that death seems better than life, then one is surely fallen deep in illusion.

Death is a strange concept. Wikipedia speaks of the “end of life” and also says: “The exact boundary between life and death is difficult to define. The further you are from the border zone between the two, the clearer the difference between life and death seems, the closer you are to the border, the more blurred it becomes.” Intuitively, people have always been looking for a way to overcome death and to find eternal life. In the past, a solution was primarily sought on a spiritual level, today it is on a physical or material level. Well, if there’s no clear line between life and death, and it’s all just a matter of definition, why don’t we define everything as life? Then this whole universe would be one giant living organism. Is eternal life just a question of consciousness?

Well, the boy faints and lies down in a grave. Next to him there is an inn where a wedding is celebrated. The grave reminds of the fall of consciousness into the material world, where it becomes ever more restricted and mental mobility dwindles. The inn is reminiscent of our world, which nourishes us and in which we want to have fun. The great marriage between worldly opposites such as male and female, soul and body or spirit and nature is the great happy ending in many old fairy tales, but here it is more reminiscent of the intoxication with wine in the tavern, and paradise will probably remain just a dream that way.

Paradise plays an important role in many ancient religions. Some imagine it in heaven, others on earth. Conceptually, it is the afterlife of the world where “I” live in. So that means: Paradise is not where the “I” works and becomes active. Similarly, in the stories of the ancient Indian Puranas, paradisiacal gardens are described on earth around Mount Meru, as well as many countries with at least paradisiacal conditions (see e.g. Vayu-Purana 1.42). Only where the Indians lived, there was no paradise. But that was the great challenge and opportunity in life. So it says:

India is the land of deeds whereby people can attain heaven or even salvation. Verily, in this land one can attain heaven or the liberation from the bonds of existence so difficult to attain, while others sink into the animal kingdom or even hell. From here people make their way to liberation or to the regions of heaven, air, earth or the underworld. Because for human beings there is no better place for action in the universe... And India is the best country because it is the country of action, while the other places are mostly for pleasure. It is only after many thousands of births and the accumulation of great merit that a being is ever born as a human in India. (Vishnu Purana 2.3)

And at that time hardly any Indian had thought of physically leaving the country and simply hiking into paradise. For they knew that where the “I” goes, paradise disappears. So the “I” never comes to paradise, and the symbol of the angel in the biblical story, who guards the way to paradise and the tree of eternal life with the flaming sword, presumably also stands for this barrier.

The poor boy never awoke again; the heat of the strong wine and the cold night-dew deprived him of life, and he remained in the grave in which he had laid himself.

A sad ending! From a spiritual point of view, we remember to see the boy as a symbol for the living soul and above all for the living reason, which should actually develop to the higher, but falls here in the grave of earth or matter intoxicated by the worldly wine and even freezes to death. This is how living spirit becomes dead matter. Consciousness hardens from self-consciousness through ego-consciousness and sense-consciousness to body-consciousness. This is how people used to imagine the emergence of the material world from pure spirit. And so the Bible says “In the beginning was the Word”, and something similar can be found much more extensively in the ancient Indian Puranas, such as Vayu-Purana 1.4. From this perspective, the spirit lays itself in its grave, loses its living freedom, and freezes in death. Modern science also describes the development of the universe in a process of materializing pure energy out of nothing or the unformed. Some scientists also speak of information as a basis to avoid the “esoteric” term “spirit”. But information means nothing other than forming and shaping certain forms through knowledge.

When the farmer heard the news of the boy’s death he was terrified, and afraid of being brought to justice indeed, his distress took such a powerful hold of him that he fell fainting to the ground. His wife, who was standing on the hearth with a pan of hot fat, ran to him to help him. But the flames darted against the pan, the whole house caught fire, in a few hours it lay in ashes, and the rest of the years they had to live they passed in poverty and misery, tormented by the pangs of conscience.

Well, what you sow, you must reap. This is the ancient Indian law of karma. And whoever sows fear must also reap fear. Accordingly, the fairy tale ends with a very profound symbolism, which we can only sketch roughly here: From a spiritual point of view, ego-consciousness begins to awaken and slowly becomes aware of the killed reason and all the sin it has accumulated. At the same time, it becomes clear that the laws of cause and effect are inevitable and everything comes before the great judge, the universal intelligence, which is witnessed by conscience or shared knowledge, i.e. universal consciousness in the sense of: God sees everything! This is, so to speak, the final step on the path to reason when ego-consciousness develops into self-consciousness. And “develop” here does not mean any kind of accumulation, but a dissolving, in which nature comes to the rescue with fire. This symbolism is also found in Christian purgatory, as a fire of purification. The lard in the pan is reminiscent of the accumulated karma and the house of the material body being burned. No sage seriously claims that the process of ego-dissolution is a pleasurable experience. Here, the I dies and the Self is born or realized. Depending on the level of development, this is a long inner struggle that can last a lifetime and demands the greatest sacrifices imaginable. Because the ego-addiction is many times greater than any other addiction to sensual desires, alcohol or drugs. To this end, the fairy tale outlines six steps to reason:

1) Mastery of thoughts, self-control
2) Action without attachment to the fruits, selflessness
4) Proportionate action without exaggeration, self-restraint
5) Truthfulness without lies, self-knowledge
6) Change from ego-awareness to self-awareness, self-realization

The monks and yogis used to take such great paths through poverty and misery to the great happy ending in paradise. Here human reason blossoms into holistic love and eternal life. These are the fruits of the famous tree of life, which is really worth living for. And the fairy tales that have been handed down testify in a wonderful way that this knowledge was not only known to an intellectual elite but was also alive among the common people.


... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...
The Pea Trial / The Princess and the Pea - (topic: Natural sensitivity)
The Seven Swabians - (topic: Corona Hysteria, the essence of fear)
Thumbling - (topic: What is the soul? Is our worldview correct?)
The Crystal Ball / Castle of the Golden Sun - (topic: Egoism, defeating the inner beast)
The emperor's new clothes - (topic: MONEY-MAKES-BLIND - Memorial 2020)
Rat King Birlibi - (topic: Money, Enmity, Addiction, Poverty)
The Ditmarsh Tale of Wonders - (topic: Lies, Thoughts and Reason)
The Robber Bridegroom - (topic: dead soul, spiritual murder)
The Poor Boy in the Grave (topic: Education, Ego, Fear and Reason)
Simeli Mountain - (topic: material and spiritual world)
Strong Hans - (topic: Ego, robbers and ultimate gain)

[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
[Bibel] Luther Bibel, 1912
[2020] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens / www.pushpak.de