Dark Origins – Hansel and GretelPosted: February 24, 2021
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.
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):
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
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