By Jesper Toad
The figure of the witch as handed down to us in these old yarns appears as a person around whom power gathers, and that power lashes out, amplifying the kindness of some, emphasizing the unkindness of others. To Christianity, which attempted to erase the earlier paganisms of Europe, the figure of the witch represented only evil. But as a pagan symbol the witch is richly ambiguous, a greater than human elemental force, simultaneously representing and embodying fundamental contradictions (Roper, 2012, p. 57-58). In the stories handed down through time she deals in fertility and destruction, life and death, energy and entropy, all of which further connects and allies the witch to the Fates (p. 58).
An excellent example of this occurs in the story of Frau Holle, recorded in the early nineteenth century by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). In short, the story goes something like this:
Once there was a widow that had both a daughter and a stepdaughter. While she spoiled the daughter of her blood, she was unkind to her dead husband’s daughter, and resented being saddled with the extra mouth to feed as she suffered in her widowhood. The favored daughter did little work, and lounged idle all day, while the stepdaughter did all the work about the cottage, along with the spinning and weaving. Each day, she would take her spinning out to the old well, and sit beneath the tree there as the spindle spun round and the roving lengthened into thread.
One day the stepdaughter pricked her sp0indle upon the sharp haft of the spindle. Not wanting to stain her work, she washed her hand in the cool water of the well. Leaning over, she lost her grip upon the spindle and it fell, splash, into the water and quickly sank from sight. Terrified at how angry her stepmother would become over the loss of the spindle, the stepdaughter, with no thought other than reclaiming what was lost, leapt over the lip of the well and dived into the water.
Strangely (for that is how things happen in such stories) the stepdaughter found herself in a great green meadow, lush with wildflowers and abuzz with bees. She follow a winding path, and came upon a great oven, from which issued the smell of baking bread. She heard small, soft voices crying out in the oven. It was the bread, now baked to perfection, crying out to be removed from the oven lest they begin to burn. The stepdaughter snatched up the bread peel, threw open the oven, and removed the brown loaves before following the path further.
Soon she came to a great gnarled apple tree, its boughs so full they bent to the ground. The apples, ripe and shiny called out to the stepdaughter, pleading to be harvested. The stepdaughter snatched up the bushel basket from beneath the tree and gathered the ripe apples before following the path further.
Finally, the stepdaughter came to a cottage, neat as a pin. An old woman stood at the gate, and offered the stepdaughter a place to stay in return for assistance around the cottage. The stepdaughter consented, for where was she to go in this strange world in which she found herself?
The woman introduced herself a Frau Holle, and the stepdaughter helped her as she churned the butter, spun the flax, and shook out the feather bed pillow and coverlet. Frau Holle joked that when they were shaking out the pillow and coverlet that it would make it snow in the world the stepdaughter was from. The shook the coverlets until feathers flew and drifted, like snowflakes, all about the yard.
But the stepdaughter became homesick after a time, which shows that there is no place like home, even if the people there treat you poorly. Frau Holle had been pleased with the stepdaughter’s hard work, and her kindness and industriousness at the oven and to the apple tree. As Frau Holle walked the stepdaughter to the garden gate there was a sparkling in the air, a shower of gold that fell upon the girl. Frau Holle presented the stepdaughter with the lost spindle, and when the gate was closed the stepdaughter found she was transported back to her stepmother’s house.
The stepdaughter ran into the house, overjoyed to be home. She told the stepmother all that had befallen her, but as she spoke jewels slipped from her lips with the words. Pearls and rubies, peridot and topaz scattered across the floor. Astounded, the stepmother listened to her stepdaughter’s story, and then thought of her own daughter, and how she was much more deserving of such a blessing.
So the stepmother set her daughter next to the well and made her spin. The thread was broken and uneven, and in disgust the daughter threw the spindle into the well and watched it sink from sight. The stepmother boxed her ears, and tipped her into the well, yelling at her not to return until she had won a blessing such as the undeserving stepdaughter had received.
The daughter found herself in the meadow, and follow the path as her mother had bade her. Coming to the oven she heard the bread calling out to be removed from the oven, but she told herself she hadn’t time for that, and left the bread to burn. Likewise, she had not time for the laden apple tree, and left the apples to break the boughs. When she came to the cottage the woman at the gate offered her room and board in exchange for assistance.
But it wasn’t long before Frau Holle dismissed her, disgusted with her laziness and selfishness. Frau Holle walked the daughter to the gate, where a kettle of pitch appeared, and upended, spilling the hot pitch down over the ungrateful girl. She bolted out the gate, only to find herself standing before her own homely cot.
The Stepmother, alarmed at her daughter’s state, asked her what had happened. The poor girl began to speak, but with each word a snake or toad would spring from her mouth, and go wriggling and hopping off in all directions.
Here is Frau Holle, an archetypal figure of the witch, granting blessings to the deserving, and dishing curses to those who are ill-tempered, selfish, or don’t pull their own weight. The witch in the real world, in my mind, is quite similar: I suppose I hold the opinion that the witch figure, walking on the margin between the civilized and wild, acts as a point of causality for doling out the so called Rule of Three. The figure of the witch reflects back upon the people she comes into contact with. Kindness is returned with kindness, and thoughtlessness encounters thoughtlessness.
There are those that live their lives in a kind and helpful manner. I make an effort to speak words of blessing to them, even if it is only for today. Those that are needlessly cruel, excessively self-absorbed, and wrapped up in their own egotism are not so. Cross the Witch. See what happens.
Grimm, J & Grimm, W. (1897). Spindel, weberschiffchen und nadel, Kinder- und hausmärchen (Children’s and household tales — Grimms’ fairy tales), 7th ed. Berlin: DE.
Roper, L. L. (2012). The witch in western imagination. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.