Dark Origins – Hansel and Gretel

Most people are familiar with the story of Hansel and Gretel, a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in their Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1812.

In summary, the story goes as follows:

Hansel and Gretel are a brother and sister whose starving parents decide to abandon them in the forest. Hansel overhears his parents plotting and drops pebbles on the path so that he and Gretel can find their way home later. The family’s plight does not improve and a short while later the mother [or stepmother depending on the version] persuades the father to take the children into the forest again and leave them there. This time, Hansel drops a trail of breadcrumbs but the birds eat them and the two children become lost in the forest.

The starving children come across a gingerbread house and they begin to break off bits and eat it. The house, however, is a trap set by a wicked witch who captures the children, enslaves Gretel and locks Hansel in a cage. She sets about fattening Hansel up so that she can eat him.

Gretel saves Hansel by shoving the witch into the oven which she has heated up in order to cook Hansel. The pair escape and manage to find their way home with the witch’s treasure. In the meantime, their mother [or stepmother] has died and their father is a broken man having abandoned his beloved children. The family live happily ever after.

Hansel and Gretel - Wikipedia
Picture from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hansel_and_Gretel

The real history behind this already rather grim story, is even more grim.

The true story of Hansel and Gretel may have its roots in the great flood and great famine of 1314. 1314 was a year of continuous rain and this continued throughout 1315 and 1316. The wet conditions resulted in crops rotting in the ground, harvests failing and livestock drowning or starving. Food prices increased dramatically as a result of severe food shortages.

The great famine is estimated to have effected 400,000 square miles of Europe, 30 million people and to have resulted in the deaths of up to 25 percent of the population in certain areas.

The famine was so bad that during the winter of 1315/1316, the peasants resorted to eating the seed grain they had stored for planting in the spring. People resorted to begging, stealing and even murder in their quest for food. Parents abandoned their children to fend for themselves and their were rumours of cannibalism. An Irish chronicler wrote that people “were so destroyed by hunger that they extracted bodies of the dead from cemeteries and dug out the flesh from the skulls and ate it, and women ate their children out of hunger.”

In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the pair are taken into the forest by their father and abandoned. They are taken in by an old woman living in a cottage. When the old woman starts to heat the oven, the children realise she is planning to roast and eat them. Gretel tricks the woman into opening the oven and pushes her inside.

It is interesting to note that this time of famine coincided with the end of the medieval warm weather period and the beginning of the little ice age. The changing climate with its cooler and wetter summers and earlier autumn storms damaged the harvests. Given the strange wet and cool summer South African is experiencing, coupled with severe cold in the northern hemisphere, this really is food for thought.

Another grim early tale along the lines of Hansel and Gretel is a Romanian story called The Little Boy and the Wicked Stepmother. You can read this story here: http://www.planetofbirds.com/the-story-of-the-little-boy-and-the-wicked-step-mother

The story of Hansel and Gretel was the inspiration for my recent twisted fairy tale Covid-19 cake which featured a gingerbread house and a witch who is trying to keep children out after they are declared to be vectors for the virus.

About Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Roberta Eaton Cheadle has published nine children’s books under the name of Robbie Cheadle. She has branched into writing for adults and young adults and, in order to clearly separate her children’s books from her adult books, is writing for older readers under the name Roberta Eaton Cheadle.

Her supernatural stories combine fabulous paranormal elements with fascinating historical facts.

Supernatural fantasy YA novel:
Through the Nethergate

Horror Anthologies (edited by Dan Alatorre):
Dark Visions

Paranormal Anthologies (edited by Kaye Lynne Booth):
Spirits of the West
Whispers of the Past

Murder mystery Anthology (edited by Stephen Bentley)
Death Among Us

Find Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Blog: https://wordpress.com/view/robertawrites235681907.wordpress.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobertaEaton17

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robertawrites

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Roberta-Eaton-Cheadle/e/B08RSNJQZ5


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33 Comments on “Dark Origins – Hansel and Gretel”

  1. Teri Polen says:

    When I was younger I didn’t think much about Hansel and Gretel – it was just a story. As an adult, it’s seriously disturbing and should give children nightmares, lol.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Teri, I agree that Hansel and Gretel is a very scary story. The idea of cannibalism even if it is a witch doing the eating. It really is totally horrifying.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I agree, Teri. I think children view fairy tales as fiction, and horrendous things can happen, but they know it’s just a story, so they don’t give it a second thought. I did the same thing when I had children. When reading fairy tales to them, I found I had a different perspective on them, making me wonder what we are thinking reading these things to kids. But they know wolves don’t dress up like Grandma, and hopefully, they know that parents don’t abandon their children in the forest. It’s not until they are older that they are able to ponder the underlying truths.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:

    My Dark Origins article today features the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Hansel and Gretel. This tale is already dark and scary but its underlying origins are really quite horrifying.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was interesting, Robbie–the background. I didn’t know about the 1314 famine.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t know about this link either, Jacqui, until I looked it up. BBC History is a fabulous place to learn all sorts of interesting bits of history and information. The British are masters at preserving information and historical facts. I find researching British and European history much easier than anywhere else in the world. Thanks for your interest.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A great post Robbie. The origins of many fairy tales are very grim, and it’s interesting to discover them. Some fairy tales which are seemingly benign, have some pretty gruesome beginnings.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Boy oh boy, that 14th century was one hideous century. It was pretty much ALL like 2020, but for about a hundred years. Because as soon as they emerged from starving from bad weather, they moved directly into Black Plague. Mind you, that wasn’t the first round of plague. There had been two previous hits during Roman years — Justinian and I forget the other on, but they killed millions of people.

    Climate change has always been with it. We’ve just juiced it up and made it far more international and potentially permanent and lethal. What nature did to us is nothing compared to what we can do to ourselves.

    I always thought Grimm’s Fairy Tales were rightly names. They were never my favorites. Actually, fairy tales weren’t favorites. I think I mostly wanted to read about horses and dogs.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Marilyn, thank you for your interesting observations. You are spot on about the 14th century being awful and I do know about the black death in Europe. To horrible for words. I also agree with your views on climate change and mankind’s interventions. I hope things are improving now in the USA. I saw some lovely pictures of Jill Biden and think it is fabulous that she is a working woman. She’s very attractive too. I have always had a fascination with nursery rhymes and fairy tales and have read them all many times.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. For some “grim” reason Hansel and Gretel is my favorite Grimm’s Fairy tale. I loved this!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. JT Twissel says:

    Interesting back story. Most fairytales have some basis in the reality of their time.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Staci Troilo says:

    I’ll be releasing a thriller based on fairy tales soon, and one of them touches on a version of Hansel and Gretel. It was a twisted story. A lot of the original tales were. They make for great inspiration for horror stories today.

    Great post, Robbie.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I believe fairy tales must have been adults’ ways of releasing their fears…

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Jim Borden says:

    it’s frightening to think that such a story could be based on some real0life scenarios. I guess desperate people do desperate things…

    Liked by 2 people

    • When I was 12, Jim, I read a Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. That was the first time I came to realise that sometimes peoples circumstances become so desperate, all sense of wrong or right disappears. I have never known starvation, but I imagine it is a terrible way to day and could make you quite mad and capable of terrible things.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. petespringerauthor says:

    I had the same thought about Hansel and Gretel as some others have written. How this story makes it into children’s fairy tale books is beyond me. If the goal is to scare the hell out of kids, mission accomplished, but it doesn’t belong in a book for kids if that’s the goal.

    An interesting historical perspective, though, Robbie.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Pete, I suppose one has to consider the time when the Grimm brothers wrote their stories [Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Carl Grimm (1786–1859)]. This was a time when human life was frail and life expectancy short and human suffering was great. With no medications and a total reliance on good weather for food supplies, people were much closer to death and hard times than we are. This has also showed clearly during this current pandemic. I often reflect on people who think that living in the past would be glamorous and romantic, and wonder if they know that the Victorians were obsessed with death, the average life expectancy in the area where the Bronte sisters grew up was 25 years old and the streets of London were literally littered with the bodies of dead infants. We are very fortunate to have moved on into much better and ‘softer’ times. I agree that for our children, these stories are better remodeled by Disney.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. I had no idea of the horrific historical origins of “Hansel and Gretel.” The unexpurgated Grimms’ fairy tales were my favorite when I was a kid, the more gruesome, the better. I can’t for the life of me think why.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Liz, I have had an extraordinary interest and fascination with the true horrors of human existence all my life. This has been demonstrated by my book choices. As a girl I read The diary of Anne Frank; Child of Satan, Child of God; A Modern Proposal (Jonathan Swift); and Charles Dickens. I also read all the Grimms fairy tales and those written by Hans Christian Anderson too. I don’t think it denotes a morbid turn of mind, but rather a great empathy and compassion for mankind.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. CarolCooks2 says:

    I still have my Grimms Fairy tales book and read it to Lily as I have done to all the grandkids but as someone said children seem to able to distinguish between fact and fiction from a very early age’s… as we get older we see how horrific some of the supposed fairy tales really are …

    Liked by 2 people

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