The Lessons of Rapunzel: On Reciprocity, Honesty, and Honor in Expanding Our Magical Practices

(Author’s Note: I am referencing the version of Rapunzel which can be accessed at The Internet Sacred Texts Archive, an invaluable resource for thrifty witches and Pagans. If you haven’t already, please consider supporting them.)

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the white, Western drive to use hallucinatory plants lately as party drugs, rather than as the sacred vehicles for spiritual expansion they are used for in native cultures. A twin discussion in the “mundane” world centers on how we’re at risk of overharvesting and wiping out wild-growing plants that are either too difficult or not cost effective enough to grow, such as with the American ramp. Not only is it being harvested to the point of endangerment in the wild, but those who do manage to grow the herb in their fields often wake up to find their entire crop stolen in the night. Strangely, it was this second discussion that got me started on researching the old fairy tale “Rapunzel”.

Rapunzel, also known as “rover bellflower”, “rampion bellflower”, or even just “ramps”, are of course the source for the title character’s name. The ramps that grow wild in my American woodlands (Allium tricoccum) are not the same ramps that feature in the Brothers Grimm story (Campanula rapunculus), but they are just as coveted and just as likely to be stolen from your field. In many ways the plants are similar in terms of how you would cook and eat them, and one particularly tasty recipe (which can use either American or European ramps) is found here.

Rampion, or Rapunzel, was once widely grown across most of Europe (excepting Ireland and Norway) for its leaves, which taste of spinach, and its sweet root, which tastes of walnut. The plant lives only about two years or so and is edible straight away in its first year, making it a wonderfully tasty and versatile crop. In the story, of course, Rapunzel’s birth mother has a strong craving for the plant which sets the course of the whole story in motion. She and her husband “had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world.” This witch was something of a green thumb, and I can only imagine how delicious her garden must have been. Not so delicious as to break in and steal her nibbles, but then, I was raised with manners.

Rapunzel’s mother may have coveted the plant because it was one of the first green things to grow after a long, cold season. She would have passed the winter existing on pickled things and salted meat, and I imagine a bit of green would have cheered her immensely. It’s also likely that because the enchantress, even feared as she was, was viewed as an outsider to society, that Rapunzel’s parents felt they were justified in stealing from the woman, rather than seeking her permission honestly and entering into a trade with her for the food. Theft was a Big Deal in old times, even more so than in a modern-day Walmart during Black Friday, and stealing from the wrong person could easily cost you your life.

But, steal they did, and inevitably the husband got caught. He begged for mercy and explained that the food was for his wife. “Then the enchantress allowed her anger to be softened, and said to him, ‘If the case be as thou sayest, I will allow thee to take away with thee as much rampion as thou wilt, only I make one condition, thou must give me the child which thy wife will bring into the world; it shall be well treated, and I will care for it like a mother.’ The man in his terror consented to everything, and when the woman was brought to bed, the enchantress appeared at once, gave the child the name of Rapunzel, and took it away with her.”

The price was steep here, but I wonder if it would have been quite so steep if the husband had been honest with the enchantress and bargained fairly with her, rather than resorting to thievery. I suspect not, given how sympathetic she was to a woman’s pregnancy cravings.

Now, this story may be referencing the old practices of ancient wise women, wedded to the sun, who would sit in towers and on high places, ingest certain greens, and then share the knowledge of the gods with the world below. Details are sketchy and not easily verifiable, but we know enough of how things went down when conquerors came in to know that any knowledge, riches, or goods of any worth were plundered, raped, and stolen away. Rapunzel could be a reference to the loss of priestesses and these sacred practices, and how these old ways were taken away from the people and hidden away.

“When she was twelve years old, the enchantress shut her into a tower, which lay in a forest, and had neither stairs nor door, but quite at the top was a little window.” Much like in the tale of Rapunzel, magical knowledge can seem to exist in an inaccessible tower, quite out of our reach.

Most of us know what happened next. A wandering prince (they always seem to wander around, unescorted, in the fairy tales. Are entourages a modern concept?) happened by, decided a woman in a tower would do in absence of a nunnery, and helped himself to the girl inside.

“’If that is the ladder by which one mounts, I will for once try my

fortune,’ said he, and the next day when it began to grow dark, he went to the

tower and cried

‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel,

Let down thy hair.’

Immediately the hair fell down and the King’s son climbed up.

At first Rapunzel was terribly frightened when a man such as her eyes had

never yet beheld, came to her; but the King’s son began to talk to her quite

like a friend, and told her that his heart had been so stirred that it had let him have no rest, and he had been forced to see her. Then Rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, “He will love me more than old Dame Gothel does;” and she said yes, and laid her hand in his. She said, “I will willingly go away with thee, but I do not know how to get down. Bring with thee a skein of silk every time that thou comest, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and thou wilt take me on thy horse.” They agreed that until that time he should come to her every evening, for the old woman came by day.”

There’s a lot to unpack there about older men taking advantage of inexperienced girls, getting children pregnant, and how (royalty being what they are) Rapunzel was almost certainly not going to be a princess once the prince decided to wander back home. For the purpose of magical research, however, we’ll stick with plants. This can be taken to be a sort of commentary on the use of plants and plant spirits to unlock knowledge for us. The crucial lesson we should take from this story is that if we try to steal the knowledge for ourselves, or to take it under deception, we harm ourselves are and “blinded” to what we might have otherwise learned if we had approached with openness and honesty.

In a similar way, though most of us never have to worry about Mother Gothel swooping down on us from the rafters, we should be careful to approach plants and their associated magical practices with good intentions and careful research. Not all of us have a kingdom and riches to fall back on if we get in over our heads.

[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]

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