Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Adventure Girls: Gretel

This is the FIFTH post of my series in this blog. It's about different girls in well known fairytales and legends. They're girls who've been on exciting adventures, and many of them had to survive or overcome their fears. Tough girls, and always seeking quests. Some have been led down scary sinister paths, or taken to other lands outside of their control, but soon regained their courage to get what they want. Many of these girls are pretty famous favourite characters from fairy stories. Others are not so well known but whose stories of adventure and magic have been around for a long time.

Adventure Girls (part 5) = Gretel

Appears in: "Hansel and Gretel" by the Brothers Grimm.
Companion: Gretel's brother Hansel,
Pets: None, although guided by birds in the story.
Other Info: Solar child.

We're all familiar with the story of "Hansel and Gretel" told by the Brothers Grimm, or the various modern adaptions of it. The story by Grimm includes a little more, such as the appearance of a swan that guides the brother and sister home through the forest near the end of the narrative. At the beginning of the story, two children named Hansel and Gretel live in a cottage in the middle of a forest. They live there with their father and step mother. All of them are with very little food. The step mother is the wicked one who makes her husband abandon the children in the forest. The father is the stupid one for doing as she says and leaves his own children in the forest. But Hansel, the boy, eavesdropped in on the conversation between the adults the night before, listening to his step mothers horrible plan. He sneaked out into the garden and collected small white stones. As the father led the two kids deeper into the forest, Hansel left a trail by dropping the stones on the ground. By morning, Hansel and Gretel woke up in the forest and noticed their father was gone. They followed the white stones back to the cottage. Step mother was fuming mad when they returned. Again the adults talked about leading the children even deeper into the forest. Only this time Hansel couldn't get out of the house to collect stones because the door was locked. He collected some bread crumbs by morning and as he followed his father who took him and Gretel into the forest, in another direction, Hansel dropped the breadcrumbs. By morning, the two children woke up and noticed their father left them again. Birds had eaten all the breadcrumbs and they couldn't find their way home.

I won't retell the rest of the story. If any are not familiar with Hansel and Gretel, you can see the entire narrative here: Grimm's Fairytales, Hansel and Gretel (ENGLISH).

One thing I'll mention here is Gretel. Yes her brother was the one who found a way to get them home the first time and he tricked the nasty witch later on by giving her a bone to touch, as the witch had poor eyesight. He was locked in a cage and the witch wanted to fatten him up by giving him a lot of food. It was the sister Gretel who rescued him and saved everyone from starvation. She destroyed the witch, by pushing her into a large oven.

The story isn't as simple as you may think. The Brothers Grimm retold a story composed of older narratives and based on both myth and historical events. Hansel and Gretel would've lived in the early 14th Century, during the Great Famine. This occured when there was also the terrible bubonic plague. The famine devestated people so much that families were torn apart and millions died. People resorted to cannibalism and abandoning their own children in the wilderness. It explains why the father and step mother of Hansel and Gretel sent their children away to die in the forest. Stories of witches and ogres have a cruel place in the stories, possibly based on truth. There were very dangerous people preying on the vulnerable and during the famine era, looking for someone to eat! People were driven by madness due to hunger and desperation. So much so that it appears in monstrous form. Because of that, Medieval society broke down.    

Gingerbread was a favourite sweet in Medieval times. The gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel is a paradise place for starving lost children. During the famine, bakers and confectioners made as much gingerbread as they could to feed the hungry. Medieval people started decourating and moulding gingerbread into fantastic shapes and artistic designs. But gingerbread is also medicine and has properties in alchemy and herblore, used in magical ingredients to enhance strength and increase love. Gingerbread is a fire symbol, as it comes from the fiery ginger root. Ginger is hot tasting and therefore a spice.

There is a lot of solar symbolism in Hansel and Gretel. The gingerbread house, swan, birds, white stones and the burning oven. The witch being thrown into the oven is a reminder of witch burnings throughout the Middle Ages. And nasty evil characters in fairytales always get killed.

Gretel is a sweet protective heroine that loves her brother and saves him from being eaten by the witch. She is the sister, and Hansel is the brother. Brother and sister pairs occur everywhere in mythology, from Frey and Freya, Isis and Osiris, and Diana and Apollo.


"Hansel and Gretel" by Sainendre

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