Gender and Fairy Tales

Chaos Reigns – Women as Witches in Contemporary Film and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

By Annette Schimmelpfennig, University of Cologne, Germany

1An obscure hut in sinister woods, secluded from the outside world, inhabited by an old and wicked, often deformed woman. The image of the witch is etched on the memory from childhood on, characterised by her portrayal in fairy tales and shaped by popular culture, especially contemporary film. Although of pre-Christian origin, and exploited during the peak of the witch-hunts from the late 15th to the middle of the 18th century, the belief in witches has barely forfeited its sometimes dubious popularity. While the commercialisation of other magical and monstrous creatures such as vampires, elves and werewolves follows the trend of Hollywood marketing experts and the development of youth culture, the witch appears to be a constant fictive companion in bed-, children’s and living rooms. Be it as animalistic grandmother-gone-bad in the Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel or as narcissistic queen in the form of Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman, the depiction of female witches [1] The term witch is not exclusive to the female sex but it is less common to use it for a male, who would more rather be described as sorcerer, wizard or warlock. However, in this paper I will use it exclusively for female characters is versatile, as can be seen by comparing diverse cinematic witch characters with their literary ancestors by the Brothers Grimm.

2Like every legendary figure, real or imagined, the witch is attributed a certain set of characteristics which distinguishes her from others and makes her identifiable. First of all, it is curious that while there is no consistent definition of witchcraft (Kiekhefer 7), many resources are able to draw a clear picture of it. Jacob Grimm in his work about German mythologies for example described witches as old women, who have become unable to love and work (cf. Grimm 599). He considered women in general to be predestined for clandestine magic because they, as opposed to the hard working and war conducting men, have enough time to dedicate themselves to the preparation of healing ointments and from there on it is only a small step to the practice of witchcraft (cf. 599). Their high powers of imagination make them receptive for superstition of any kind. Further it was believed that witches are women who had been seduced by the devil [2]It is important here to remark that it was general belief that the women let themselves be seduced by Satan and were not forced by him to do so. This is crucial because it denies these women the role of the victim, since they deliberately chose to turn away from God, a popular argument used for example by the Church in the famous witch trials and “achieve their malevolent, destructive effects only with the aid of Satan and demons” (Easlea 7). The use of “malevolent” here clearly shows a value judgement. The witch’s magic is equated with black magic that is used to harm others, for example by bringing them illness, turning them into animals or objects or influencing their love lives. This is opposed to the so-called white magic, which for example was believed to restore health with herbal medicine among others. The witch’s magic however is a “tapping into the forces of nature” (Berger 19) which changes its order, as often believed to the worse.

3The witch’s outer appearance may not be further described by sources, but her supposed behaviour and disposition all the more. From a sociological perspective, the witch was the opposite of the woman’s image as propagandized by the church, “the repentant woman who spent her life cloistered or serving men in order to do penance for her original sin” (van Vuuren 72). She was used to point out difference (Sempruch 2), namely between the good, virtuous woman and the foul one. Especially sexuality plays a crucial role here, because witches were believed to fornicate with the devil and precipitate the demoralization of society. While the ordinary woman was chaste, the witch was characterized as knowing no sexual boundaries and seducing helpless men whenever she got the chance to do so. But it was not only men who were threatened by witches. It was common belief that witches engage in infanticide and cannibalism (cf. Levack 20), which not only changed but also perverted the idea of the woman as nurturing mother. The witch-hunts hence functioned as a necessary means to secure society’s “moral boundaries” (Ben-Yehuda 14). In times reigned by poor survival conditions, witches became scapegoats that were held responsible for moral decline and epidemics and led to the so-called witch craze.

4A popular instrument which played an important part in the witch-hunts, and also focussed heavily on women’s sexuality, was the so-called Malleus Maleficarum, the “Hammer of the Witches”, a tract composed in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, which was supposed to serve as evidence for witchcraft and the evilness of women. Unlike the fairy tales, this is not a work of fiction, which is why it serves well to offer valuable insight into the historical understanding of the witch and why she was feared. Divided into three parts, their work argues that “the fragile feminine sex” (Kramer and Sprenger 99) is “chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions” (ibid), an opinion similar to the one of Jakob Grimm, as mentioned earlier. They reinforce their implementations with quotes from Roman thinkers such as Cicero and Seneca and, more importantly, the Holy Bible, a policy stroke in this regard because by doing so they could count on the church for support of their theses. Kramer and Sprenger conclude that “since [women] are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft” (101). Particularly the mention of “secret manner” is remarkable here because it emphasizes the devious character of the witch, yet this is not the strongest point they try to make. If one accords credibility to their ideas the most crucial reason for woman’s fascination with witchcraft lies in her degenerate sexuality, or as they put it, “the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear in her many carnal abominations” (102), with its origin in the biblical Fall of man. [3]The fall is caused by Eve who is tempted by the serpent to taste a fruit from the forbidden tree and then shares it with Adam. According to the <i>Malleus Maleficarum</i> this scene repeats itself whenever a woman seduces a man Were it not for the sexually tainted woman, man would not have to fear the horror of defenceless seduction. Ultimately it appears only logical for them to declare that the woman “is an imperfect animal, she always deceives” (ibid). It is remarkable how throughout the text the terms “woman” and “witch” become synonyms. What begins as a treatise on the witch turns more and more into a polemic pamphlet on the evil nature of women in general. The Malleus Maleficarium proclaims in summary that women are credulous, deceptive and sex-driven creatures who are bound to fall for the temptations of evil, or more exaggerated: there is the potential of a witch in every woman.

5How is the historical image of the witch now translated into the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm? [4]The fairy tales the analysis is based on were chosen on how often the witch appears and how explicitly her actions are described Initially, the typical witch appears in the tales either as old woman or as a stepmother without further age statement. As already mentioned, descriptions of physical appearance are rare in their tales. The Riddle is one of the few tales by the Brothers Grimm which offers a minimal description, where the old woman is described as having “red eyes” (Grimm 22) and consequently established as a more animalistic rather than human creature. Apart from that, characters are often either labelled young and beautiful or old and ugly without further explanation. This procedure may serve several purposes. On the one hand it may train the reader’s or listener’s [5] It shall be kept in mind that during the time of the first publication of <i>Grimm’s Fairy Tales</i> in 1812, fairy tales were still a strong part of the oral tradition and not, as often assumed today, exclusively for children power of imagination and give him or her the freedom to create his or her own image of the characters presented. On the other hand it may not have been necessary to further describe the differences between the appearance of a princess and a witch because of the social propaganda burnt into the mind of the collective society. Good in a multitude of tales is personified by either already wealthy royalty, as in The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich where a princess later marries a prince who was turned into a frog by a witch, or poor but beautiful peasants who marry into the noble rank towards the end, as the poor maiden in The Old Woman in the Forest. Evil by contrast is always ugly and often moves in the opposite direction, namely by either losing their rank and/or wealth, as for example the old woman in The Blue Light, or not owning anything to begin with. Using the model of the witch in this way reveals a lot about the thinking of the estate-based society. She cannot win because her rotten character is already displayed in her outer appearance and vice versa.

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