Witches play complex, crucial roles in fairy tales. They are the villains of countless tales: they kill, kidnap, maim, raise havoc, behave maliciously, and last but very much not least, entrap and eat children. Witches are demonized in fairy tales: “happy endings” often include torturing and killing witches.
Witches are also the heroines of countless fairy tales. They rescue, heal, revive, provide guidance, instruction, and magical tools. Witches are often the sole sources of salvation in desperate circumstances, although, quite often, when witches play a positive role, they are labeled something other than “witch.”
Sometimes the very same witch plays both roles (villain and heroine) in the very same story. Sometimes, although a story might officially and explicitly label a witch as a villain, undercurrents within the story suggest a more complex role instead. This is particularly true among Jewish fairy tales starring Lilith and Russian fairy tales starring Baba Yaga.
Fairy tales helped perpetuate the worst stereotyping of witches, but fairy tales also helped preserve and transmit witchcraft and shamanic traditions.
When most English-speakers consider fairy tales, they generally think of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Ironically, both are fairly fairy-free; there are virtually no fairies in Hans Christian Andersen and even fewer in the Brothers Grimm.
In comparison, Irish fairy tales include a high proportion of stories about fairies (sidhe) or featuring fairies in prominent roles. Tales from the Balkans, France, Hungary, and Italy are also packed with fairies. As a classic example, Charles Perrault’s French version of Sleeping Beauty features thirteen fairies; the Brothers Grimm version of that tale, Briar Rose, features thirteen “wise women” instead.
Wise women is a euphemism for a single, less polite word rooted in identical etymology, although that certain less polite word is fraught with nuance and loaded down with baggage.
Significantly, twelve of the “wise women” in Briar Rose are “good” and bless the baby; the thirteenth is angry and curses her. That certain word cognate with “wise woman” is, of course, “witch”: had it been used instead, the Brothers Grimm would have had to acknowledge that twelve out of the thirteen were not wicked.
The borderline dividing witches, wise women, and fairies can be very nebulous. When I asked my primary Hungarian source to confirm the English translation of boszorkány (See ), she automatically replied, “witch.” When I requested further details, the finer nuances of the boszorkány, she immediately responded, “an ugly, mean, wicked witch.” But, I inquired, is the boszorkány “wicked” by definition or could she also be a beautiful, benevolent witch? The response was a blank stare. I pressed on, “Well, what would you call such a witch? What do you call a beautiful, powerful, essentially good, female practitioner of magic?” The light of recognition dawned: “That’s a fairy!” she instantly responded.
Sometimes “fairies” refers to different species of spirits but sometimes it doesn’t. “Fairy” is often a euphemism or stand-in word for “witch,” often with the added implied nuance of “beautiful witch” although not always. (And, of course, not all fairies are uniformly benevolent or beautiful, not even in Hungarian fairy tales.)
During Europe’s Burning Times, in some regions, notably France and Italy, consorting with fairies was included among charges of witchcraft. Fairies were not officially considered sweet, harmless, and suitable for children’s tales; instead they were dangerous relics of Paganism. Consorting with fairies and telling tales glorifying them was a criminal act. (See FAIRIES: , .)
The existence of Balkan fairy societies (See FAIRIES: ) and assorted fragments of witch-trial testimony suggest that the Inquisition was not entirely fantasizing about devotion to fairies. When witchcraft became diabolized (i.e. witchcraft was defined as a Satanic cult) some of the accused witches protested that they did not worship Satan but were devotees of the beautiful, generous, benevolent Fairy Queen.
If “Fairy Queen” is a euphemism for the Goddess, then fairies are her devotees, those who remember old, forbidden, suppressed knowledge. They are the “ones who know”—the definition at the heart of the word “witch.” Fairy tales thus might just as easily be called witch tales.
In the Grimms’ fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (also called The Dancing Shoes and The Shoes Worn to Pieces), twelve beautiful sisters each mysteriously wear out a pair of shoes nightly. They refuse to reveal where they’ve been or what they’ve done. Those who investigate are foiled. In order to prevent their mysterious escapades, the princesses are locked into the bedroom they share every night but to no avail: every morning their shoes are still worn through. Eventually it is revealed that the princesses journey to a magical subterranean grotto to join other nocturnal revelers in dancing the night away.
Although not explicitly stated, these revels may be understood as witch-balls or, in the Inquisition’s term, sabbats (See ). The description of their magical dance-realm corresponds to witch-trial testimony in which Italian and Hungarian women described visits to their Fairy Queens—visits the Inquisition labeled diabolical witchcraft, punishable by death, a crucial reason why the princesses keep their destination secret and why they maintain silence as the young men who try but fail to discover their secret are doomed to die.
The princesses are not necessarily as cold and heartless as the story implies (but this may be understood as another clue to their secret identity; their talent for concocting sleeping potions is another). The sisters’ escapades are dangerous and forbidden—hence their dire need for secrecy. The youngest sister notably is terrified of being discovered.
The story contains mixed messages and is ambivalent toward the princesses: its hero is the man who discovers their secret. By the end of the story, the princesses’ dancing has (presumably) been curtailed, but they are not punished, they are not presented as grotesque, and they are not called “witches” even though they have been faithfully attending those nocturnal balls.
The concept of “fairy tales” as a distinct literary genre (as opposed to a vital oral folk tradition) was born in the nineteenth century; in the context of that time, the name “fairy tale” was innocuous but implicitly dismissive and condescending. Even now, describing something as a “fairy story” often implies that it is untrue or only believed by the gullible.
By the nineteenth century, most educated people didn’t believe in the existence of “fairies” and assumed others didn’t either. (Many had doubts about witches, too.) By this time belief in fairies was socially acceptable only for very young children. Suspension of reality is often considered part and parcel of fairy tales. Many assume “fairy tale” to be synonymous with “fantasy tale,” and so fairy tales are stories to be enjoyed but not believed.
And yet other compilations of ancient stories, also former oral traditions, are widely held sacred:
• The Bible is a sacred text incorporating a series of stories including fantastic occurrences, heroic adventures, and even a witch. Although many publications of these stories are oriented toward children, they are understood as being more than “children’s tales.” Many, adults as well as children, understand these tales to be literally true, while others perceive them as founts of spiritual wisdom and metaphor.
• “Mythology” literally means “sacred stories”; while most modern Western people may not accept ancient Greek, Egyptian or Norse myths as literally true, most believe they contain ethical lessons and allegories as well as being entertaining at the same time.
• Patakis are the sacred stories of Yoruban spiritual traditions including Santeria. These often very entertaining legends of the orishas simultaneously transmit sacred information. (See DICTIONARY: , .)
In addition to possessing spiritual truths, all of the above are acknowledged to contain traces of history.
What if some fairy tales could be considered in the same way?
What if some fairy tales weren’t entirely fantasy or nonsense tales?
What if instead, secretly imbedded in a substantial percentage, there are hidden magical, mystical, spiritual, and shamanic secrets as well as lingering vestiges of history?
The way fairy tales are most often experienced today is not the way they were originally experienced, or intended to be experienced. In the late seventeenth century, at the tail end of the witch-hunts, men began to collect and publish fairy tales, culminating in the nineteenthcentury publication of massive collections by the Brothers Grimm in Germany, Aleksandr Afanas’ev in Russia, and others elsewhere.
Although virtually all national collections of fairy tales compiled in the nineteenth century were compiled by men, their sources were largely female. Despite the fact that fairy tales are now usually read from books, fairy tales were originally part of a vast, and largely female, oral tradition.
Although both men and women are story-tellers, many scholars consider the more magical, “supernatural” fairy tales to be almost exclusively female in origin. In essence these stories could be classified as “Women’s Mysteries.”
The goals of the nineteenth-century story-collectors did not necessarily parallel those of their sources: Jakob Grimm, for instance, wished to create a unified Teutonic folklore that expressed the German “folk-soul.” Many collectors had nationalist goals. Others wished to preserve what they perceived as an inevitably vanishing treasure—this world of stories, this formerly oral tradition. Women’s world of magic tales was expected to disappear in the face of science, industry, and rationalism; men would save and preserve whatever was worthwhile for posterity, and fix it up a bit in the process.
Fairy tales, once the province of adults, were transformed into nursery tales for “nice” middle-class children, and so were tailored toward what was considered suitable for that market: explicit references to bodily functions and sex were deleted, including sexual double entendres. Many magical double entendres remain however—maybe because the compilers didn’t fully understand or recognize them. (And in all fairness, many of their sources probably no longer recognized them either.) Thus references to “wearing out iron shoes” and “spinning in the moonlight” merely sounded magical in a nonsensical, charming kind of way.
For centuries, the intended audience for these stories had not been only or even mainly children; the stories were told by women to other women. Young children heard them because of their constant proximity to women. Tales were told wherever women congregated together, particularly without men, particularly in spinning circles.
Fairy tales are sometimes accused of encouraging female passivity. With all due respect, this opinion usually reveals someone who hasn’t delved deeply into fairy lore, which is just packed with brave, clever, inventive, powerful women. For those only familiar with the Disneyfied versions of fairy tales, this may be news. Yes, in fairy tales brave princes do rescue catatonic beauties, but more often women must rescue men, often by developing previously untapped magical, shamanic powers.
Pagan elements survive in many of these stories, although in general these are oblique. The elements must be recognized by the listener; they are rarely spelled out and for a critical reason—the stories that reach us today survived the witch-hunts. Many contain material that if told explicitly would have earned the teller (and most likely the listeners, too!) devastating punishment and even death.
In Russia, telling stories was condemned by church officials, including St Kirill of Turov (c.1130–April 28, 1182), who described the punishments awaiting story-tellers in the next world.
Fairy tales served different needs: they simultaneously entertain and instruct. They were told by different people with different and complex motivations. Some fairy tales may be seen to counter other fairy tales. Some caution against witches and witchcraft; others preserve and transmit witchcraft traditions.
Fairy tales often sound fantastic to those unfamiliar with magical and shamanic themes. Stories are funny, thrilling and entertaining but nothing more. For those seeking shamanic, magical, and spiritual instruction, however, information may be transmitted in relative safely in the context of public story-telling.
Hidden clues lurk encoded in stories that no one was officially expected to take seriously. They were told to people—women and young children—that no one officially took seriously either. Those fairy-tale clues include the following.
• Spinning: more than just a household chore. See WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: .
• Old fertility symbols: pots, cauldrons, ovens, stoves, mortars and pestles, particularly if they’re iron or earthen. Any reference to iron is worth a second look. References to chopping, grinding or winnowing, particularly if what is being processed is a human body, recall the Corn Mother. (See .)
• The color red: particularly in reference to shoes and particularly when the red item is extremely significant, magically powerful, and/or controversial. Some, though not all, references to red refer to menstrual power and old spiritual traditions. Should a hero be advised to bypass shiny new swords in favor of a red rusty one, that’s usually a good indication.
• Limping, hobbling, crutches: pay attention to people who limp, hobble, use crutches or a prosthetic leg or who are identified as having one “different” or vulnerable leg or foot. Sometimes the person wears their shoes on the wrong feet or is missing or loses a shoe. For reasons not now entirely clear, that limp or shuffle is often indicative of shamanic power and capacity. This ancient motif appears in myths (Achilles, Jason, Oedipus, Odysseus) and the Bible (Jacob/Israel). Shamans performed their shuffling dance (perhaps in imitation of bears?) throughout Asia and North America. Trickster spirits (such as Africa’s Elegba), and crossroads spirits who “open doors” also often limp—as does the Christian devil. (See ANIMALS: ; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: ; DIVINE WITCH: , ; HORNED ONE: , .)
• Speaking animals: sometimes having humans and animals communicate is merely a story-teller’s device but sometimes not. If one begins to read fairy tales, it is amazing just how many characters are able to communicate with animals, particularly female characters. This is not merely literary license: acquiring the power to communicate (to varying degrees) with animals is traditionally among the first shamanic or witchcraft skills acquired.
• Shamanic resurrections: here’s a standard motif: someone, the hero or sometimes an animal, is killed and dismembered. Not to worry, this is a fairy tale: someone else will gather up all their bones and wrap them in a magic cloth or an animal hide. From this point, details vary. Sometimes magic words are said, sometimes the “water of life” is sprinkled, sometimes it’s sufficient to point or wave a magic wand and hey presto! The person returns to life, all in one piece, better than ever. This motif is at least as old as Inanna-Ishtar’s descent to the Realm of the Dead and her subsequent resurrection (See CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: ) and may be understood as pure fantasy, but amazingly this motif occurs all over the world.
A Native American variation from the Pacific Northwest insists that, once salmon is consumed, all bones be carefully preserved and ritually disposed so that the salmon can resurrect and return the following year. In a Norse myth, two goats pull Thor’s chariot. When there is no food, he slaughters and eats them then ritually gathers and prepares their bones, so that they repeatedly return to life.
Standard steps involved in this resurrection mimic those of shamanic initiations. Shamans from all over the world have described initiations in similar terms: they are “killed,” chopped up, cooked, and consumed by spirits who, if all goes right, will then resurrect them. Once reborn, the shaman has powers previously unpossessed; once resurrection is complete, a story’s hero can accomplish tasks he was unable to before.
Tales of Baba Yaga eating people may be understood in this context. (Without context or explanation, it just sounds like cannibalism.) A classic example occurs in the Russian fairytale Koschei the Deathless (See ). (See also DIVINE WITCH: , .)
• Shamanic battling: details of the initiation process of European shamans, from Hungary’s táltos to Italy’s ciaurauli, feature some consistent details. The person is destined to be a shaman; it is not a matter of choice: one way or another, they are “called.” No need to seek initiation; the initiator finds them. When the shaman-to-be reaches a specific age, usually seven, an older member of the shamanic society appears and begins their training. Then at a later age, usually fourteen, in order to complete initiation, another shaman or a psychic apparition must be battled and defeated.
This is magical battling: it’s not a boxing match. In fairy tales this type of story often involves an oven: someone, either the witch or the initiate, must be cooked within it. This motif is popular in Russian Baba Yaga stories: Baba Yaga gets roasted a lot but never dies. By getting Baba Yaga into the oven, however, the initiate effectively becomes the witch.
Because burning was the Church’s method of eradicating witches, and because stories were told during the Burning Times by narrators with varying orientations, these stories must be read closely: is the story an anti-witchcraft story or a tale of initiation? (See DICTIONARY: , , , , .)
• The motif of two sisters: frequently half- or stepsisters; one is “good” but unappreciated, abused, neglected, and exploited. Notably she does not complain about her abuse but submits and endures. She journeys to the goddess from desperation or other sincere reasons, behaves kindly, honorably, and respectfully, works hard and is rewarded.
The other girl is selfish, lazy, and indulged. Her mother pretends she is “good” although the story inevitably makes it clear that she’s really a mean brat. This girl journeys to the goddess for selfish, acquisitive reasons, but her true character is exposed by the goddess and she is punished.
Pagan symbolism lurks very close to the surface in these stories: sometimes the goddess, wearing the mask of a witch, is even named. (See Grimms’ Fairy Tales: ; Russian Fairy Tales: .)
Fairy tales may be interpreted in various ways and understood on many levels. Beyond the Freudian, Jungian, and moralistic interpretations frequently given this motif of the sisters, two other additional levels may be considered:
• The story is instructional: should you, dear listener or reader, ever be forced to journey to Baba Yaga’s hut, the story demonstrates which behavior enables survival and success versus the behavior guaranteed to result in your destruction.
• Within this story motif may also be heard silent howls of protest from “wise women.” The daughters of the goddess (notably the “good” sister, with whom the narrator identifies, inevitably lacks a human mother) are persecuted, beaten, starved, dressed in rags, and made to labor for others—their once-sacred tasks turned into enslavement and drudgery. They are denied their birthright while others who pretend to be good, pious, and lady-like (and are afforded the opportunity to be so) contribute to their persecution. But ultimately the goddess knows and in the end will reveal all…
Some of the difficulty in understanding these tales involves modern perceptions of traditional “women’s work.” Spinning and weaving were once sacred arts, not chores, in the manner that fertility was once a sacred power, not an obligation. In fairy tales, heroines aren’t darning socks at home; instead they spin outside in the moonlight, seated at crossroads, by sacred wells or in trees and caves. See WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: .
What follows is a brief overview of witches in fairy tales and folklore. This is an endless topic and so emphasis is placed on the Western canon (Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose) as well as tales from cultures with interesting perspectives on witchcraft or where witches play a particularly significant role. Hidden, oblique magical, shamanic and Pagan elements are subtle and often unfamiliar and thus are emphasized here.
Fairy tales focusing on millers, their daughters, sons, and cats are discussed in MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Millers.
Warning! Spoiler alert! It is not always possible to discuss stories without revealing crucial plot twists. For those who care, please read the story first. All stories mentioned here are in print.