Beltane - The Witch in Hansel and Gretel

At last we have arrived at the threshold between winter and summer. It is the threshold between death and life. Suddenly, the lush green and the colorful flowers all around us signalize: A new life has begun! In many places in  Europe this transition is celebrated in rites of spring, sometimes called "Beltane" or "Walpurgisnacht." Whatever the name, fact is that the winter is now left behind and the warm summer days are welcomed. The unleashed joy to be alive is celebrated, fertility and resurrection are in the air. 


Ideally, we realize that the tangible world we live in gets constantly created and recreated by Mother Nature, and we, too, are children of this divine creative force.  In mythology, the goddess of nature was therefore portrayed in three aspects: either as a young maiden, a mother or an old woman. She was the creator of all things, the primordial mother. 


Her home was the otherworld, from where she formed the material world. She was mostly invisible, but her work could be seen in her creations. When the fairy tales talk about her, they often depict her as a grand fairy, who is young and beautiful, or a benevolent and kind mother-type, or as an old and ugly hag.  


It is her who directs the sap back into the roots in fall, covering all with a protective layer of snow, but it is also her who reawakens the sap in the trees around the time of the winter solstice, and melts the snow with the help of the Sun’s warming rays in springtime.


In “Hansel and Gretel,” the famous Grimm tale (read tale here), the children must deal with a hag, the goddess in her death-bringing aspect. Interestingly, the German term “Hexe” comes from the word “hagazussa,” which means somebody who sits on a fence, and with one eye she perceives the material world, and with the other she sees into the otherworld. Therefore, she is positioned right between life and death.


When I tell this story to my audiences, the little ones move closer to their parents and hold their hands tightly. They look at me intently and the storytelling situation must be one of coziness and trust, the happy ending always in sight, to create the necessary safe environment to get in touch with the frightening. And the witch is indeed frightening, so calling her a fairy in the sense of a lovely fairy godmother, as found in many French tales, would not be appropriate. 


First, she feeds Hansel and Gretel with gingerbread, which is very nice of her, because otherwise, these kids would have died from hunger even before they had a chance to live. They were born into a world where their own mother could not nourish them and was disconnected from nature’s horn of plenty. The tale seems to refer to the tough times at the end of winter, when often famine was at its worst. In any case, something is terribly unbalanced here, there seems to be a trauma at the root of the parents’ acting. We don’t know how this situation came about, we just know where it led to. Two children end up alone in the woods, left to starve. They come into the realm of a witch, the hag aspect of the goddess, who administers life and death. First, she lets them have gingerbread and sweets, then she takes them in and feeds them some more and puts them into warm and cozy beds. For the children to survive, they need to be fed first as an immediate survival measure. They are now in the land between life and death. So, as her first action, the goddess—disguised as a white bird—guides the children into her realm, where food is plenty and they can recover. 


Then they are taken captive. This is the threshold-moment. Gretel must learn about the mysteries of life and death by doing service for the goddess, and Hansel is nourished back to strength in a cage. However,  to be in the old hag’s hands, the goddess of death and decay, is growing more dangerous from day-to-day. Eventually she—or death—will consume them, if they do not escape or overcome her pull. In many tales, the old witch is performing a milling action, which means that she is churning the mill of life and death, sucking everything into her renewing cycle of death and rebirth. 


The tale illustrates the children’s fight over life and death after being famished so badly. They enter the realm between this world and the other, the realm of the fence, the hag’s place, and it is up to them to either marshal all their strengths and jump onto the side of life, or to enter the land of death.


By choosing life and overcoming the witch, they found their innate power and accessed the goddess’s horn of plenty. In that moment, life was back in all its abundance   and fertility.  Through their experience, the children have understood the principle of life and death, which is the principle of Mother Nature’s relentless renewing activity. 


It can be concluded that the goddess’ intention was to challenge the children to make a decision. Did they want to live or die? Both options were fine, if they chose to be consumed by death, they would be renewed in the otherworld. However, the witch’s action was kind of a shock therapy to jolt their survival instinct. In the tale, they decided to live and burn the old witch. 



Today, in many a spring rite, a straw doll is getting burnt, which symbolizes the death of the winter hag and celebrates the rebirth of the young spring maiden. Good for us that the times have changed and people in Europe no longer prosecute and burn those who celebrate this threshold in time and nature.


Let me wish you unleashed joy over the victory of life over death - enjoy   this lavish springtime. It is indeed a time of resurrection.   As always, if you like this article, please share it with your friends. Thanks.



 ©Andrea Hofman, 2019

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