Faith and Fairy Tales: Three Witches

Rapunzel by Arthur Rackham

The witch is a common figure in fairy tales all over the world. By and large, the figure is almost universally evil — or at least morally grey. Good magic users tend to be fairies or the odd sorceress, or a woman who is given no title but who wields obviously magical tools.

A discussion of the witch in fairy tales is far beyond the scope of this series. (Really, it’s a big topic.) As such, we’ll limit ourselves right now to focusing in three well-known fairy tale witches, and how their stories might be adapted for a Pagan/polytheist audience: the witches of Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and The Little Mermaid.

Rapunzel’s Witch
While there are several variations on the “maiden in the tower” theme — including the French Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force — the most well-known version is Rapunzel, which was recorded by the Brothers Grimmin 1812. (If you are unfamiliar with the story, go here or here.) Interestingly enough, the Grimm version identifies the woman as a sorceress, but most adaptations since call her a witch. (Perhaps in a future column we’ll look at the difference between “sorceress” and “witch.”)

There are all sorts of questions one could ask at this point, not only about the original version, but about a possible Pagan/polythesit adaptation. Why was the witch living in a high-walled garden? Why did the couple feel that they had to steal the food? Why did the witch demand their child as payment? Was she a good mother, indifferent, or bad? Why did she hide Rapunzel away in a tower, leaving only the single window for access? Why did she exile Rapunzel when the pregnancy was discovered, and why did she try to kill the Prince? And just what sort of witch was she, exactly?

In the original tale, the witch exhibits no overt magical abilities. She doesn’t even have any magical tool such as a mirror or flying carpet. It seems likely to me, then, that she is not so much a magical practitioner as an herbwoman or wisewoman; hence the walled garden. That’s a good place to start for a Pagan/polytheist retelling; so ….

a wisewoman skilled in growing and using herbs, who maintains her own garden in service to her community. When her trust is violated, she takes the child of those who injured and stole from her — after all, what sort of home life can the child expect? The witch raises Rapunzel as her own daughter and teaches her the ways of herbs and green growing things. But Rapunzel is truly gifted in the ways of magic, and the plants grow for her in unexpected ways and produce unexpected results. Aware of the danger that they will be in if people should discover the truth, the witch hides Rapunzel away in the ruins of an old castle in the woods. The witch visits frequently, though, and eventually discovers that her daughter has had a second visitor: the Prince who recently became King. Unable to resist his pleas for help, Rapunzel gave him a variety of magical aids and cures, fell in love, and now is pregnant. Rapunzel is convinced that the King loves her, too, and that they will be married, but the witch fears that her daughter is only being used. She sends Rapunzel far away, somewhere she will be safe, and then waits. And the witch was right. When the King returns, he confesses that he was using the girl, and that she unknowingly aided his rise to the throne. Understanding that her daughter will never be truly safe while the King lives, the witch knocks him from the tower, leaving him crippled and blind and unable to rule; he wanders, an unloved beggar who is thought mad for claiming that he is King. The witch follows Rapunzel into exile, to a place where they can raise her twins in safety and teach them the ways of herbs and green growing things.

Hansel and Gretel Meet the Witch by Alexander Zick

Hansel and Gretel’s Witch
Variations on what would eventually become Hansel and Gretel first appeared in Germany in the late 1200s. In 1809, one version was told to the Brothers Grimm by Dortchen Wild, mixed with elements picked up elsewhere, and then published in 1813. If you need a quick refresher, you can read the story here and here.

This particular witch is one of the least sympathetic characters in all of fairy tale-dom. She’s a cannibal who baits children, fattens them up (or enslaves them), and then eats them. Like the witch in Rapunzel, she exhibits little in the way of overt magical abilities. Her house is constructed of gingerbread, but her eyesight is failing and she can only keep Hansel prisoner by locking him in a mundane iron cage. Ultimately, she is fooled by the two children (who are usually depicted as quite young) and is roasted to death in her own oven. An ignominious, if poetic, ending.

How could one possibly transform this character into one worthy of a Pagan/polytheist retelling? Well, the answer might be — don’t. A witch can be evil, after all.

So, let’s suppose that this particular witch had fallen away from a path of wisdom and protection; instead, she became a tyrant, one who ruled through cruelty and malefic magic. She stripped the land of its life force to fuel her ever-growing magical ambitions. After years of fear and oppression, the people rose up in revolt and eventually succeeded in overthrowing her. They thought her dead. She was not. She fled in a much diminished form, an old woman of poor eyesight and endless hunger. Taking refuge in the woods, she used the last of her magic to create a glamour: she hid a ruin beneath an illusion of whatever a person most desired. She spent years luring unsuspecting travelers into her trap. Children were easiest and best because they had the most life force for her to steal. Little by little, she got stronger. Little by little, she healed. But her eyes remained damaged. And then one day two children came wandering into her trap. Children raised on stories of the old tyrant-witch and the paranoia of a father convinced that she wasn’t really dead — after all, the land still suffered from famine and drought. The children realized what she was, and bided their time. And when the time came, they acted: they blinded the witch and knocked her into the fire and they watched her burn. They watched to make sure that she was really, truly dead, that not even ashes remained. And then they returned to their father to tell him the news, as the woods came slowly to life around them.

“I know what you want,” said the sea witch by Harry Clarke

The Little Mermaid’s Witch
Of the three stories profiled here, only The Little Mermaid is the original creation of a single author. Hans Christian Andersen published the tale as part of a collection in 1837, and it has since become one of the most popular and recognized in the world. It has been adapted in countless picture books, short stories, novels, plays, and films, and has been the subject of a great deal of literary, psychological, and religious analysis. (You can read a full translation of the original tale here.)

Now, there is a lot going on in this story. We could easily get distracted, but let’s try to stay focused on the subject at hand: the Sea Witch. In the story, the Sea Witch demands two forms of payment in exchange for two gifts. She demands the Little Mermaid’s voice in exchange for a potion that makes her human (legs and lungs), and from the Little Mermaid’s sisters she demands their beautiful hair in exchange for a knife; if the Little Mermaid kills the prince with the knife and allows the blood to drip on her feet, she will become one of the merpeople again.

One is left to wonder at the Sea Witch’s motivations, why she demanded those particular forms of payment, and why her “gifts” had such awful side effects or requirements to work. Why did she agree to help? Why did she live so far from mer society? Why the mermaids’ voice and hair as trade? Why did it have to hurt the Little Mermaid to walk? Why did she have to kill the prince, and not someone else such as his new bride?

So many questions, all of which help us create our own Pagan/polytheist version of the story. Let’s suppose that this particular witch is truly neutral, a being of balance. Things of equal value must be exchanged. Let’s make the witch nonbinary, too, and polymorphous, able to assume a fully aquatic form, a mer form, and a human form. They live apart from mer society, on the fringes between civilization and wilderness. They do not judge those who come to them, only requiring equal payment. Thus, when the Little Mermaid comes to them, they require her voice, which she values as much as she wishes to walk as a human and meet the Prince again. It is the same with the sisters, who love their beautiful hair as much as they want their sister safely returned. It does not matter to the witch if they succeed or fail; all that matters is that creation not be tipped into chaos or into order. When they learn of the Little Mermaid’s ultimate fate — that she never won the Prince’s heart, and became a spirit of air rather than kill him — they see it not as a tragedy, but as a suitable ending to this portion of the Little Mermaid’s tale. Perhaps, when the King of the Mer comes to them, desperate to get back his youngest daughter, the witch says as much. Whether or not the King takes solace in their words … well, we cannot say.

So, there you have them: three examples of how the classic witches of fairy tales can be re-imagined for a Pagan/polytheist audience. But what about you? Which witches would you choose, and why, and how would you re-imagine them?

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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