Shamanic Initiations: A hidden Theme within the Fairy Tale of Hansel and Gretel
by Franco Bejarano
The fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” was first recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 around the southwestern corner of Germany. The tale features a brother and sister who, while lost in the forest, encounter a cannibalistic witch. At the end, Hansel and Gretel rise victorious. The tale actually belongs to a group of European tales popular in the Baltic regions about children outwitting ogres after they have fallen into their hands. While the story is often regarded as symbolizing a rite of passage, there are underlying elements that mimic the universal concept of shamanic initiations. To say that by defeating the witch one becomes a witch would be a paradox, especially in the genre of fairy tales that often demonizes witches. However, given the ambiguity attributed to folk tales and their controversial pagan origins (often suppressed by the Abrahamic religions), it is no surprise such elements are present.
The story tells that Hansel and Gretel were the children of a very poor woodcutter who could not afford much to eat. After an immense famine settles over the land, the woodcutter’s second wife, a cruel woman, convinces his husband to abandon the children in the middle of the woods in order to have fewer mouths to feed. Hansel and Gretel overhear their plans, and say God will help them. Next morning, they start collecting small white pebbles in order to form a trail that will lead them back home after they are abandoned in the forest. The siblings follow through with the plan and return home after being deserted. The stepmother orders her husband to desert his children in the middle of the forest once more so they will die. This time, the siblings form a trail out of bread crumbs, but when they decide to follow the trail back they find out the crumbs have been eaten by birds. After days of traveling, they follow a beautiful snow white bird and discover a cottage built of gingerbread and cakes with window panes of clear sugar. As they start eating the rooftop, the witch comes out and lures them inside. The next morning, Hansel is locked inside an iron cage and is fed regularly so he can become fat and be ready to be eaten. Meanwhile, Gretel is made a slave. This goes on for weeks, until the witch decides to eat both of them. As the witch demonstrates to Gretel how to check if the oven fire is hot enough to cook them in, Gretel pushes her in, burning her to death. Hansel and Gretel later return home to their father with the witch’s precious jewels, and find out their stepmother has died of an unknown illness. 
A shaman is an anthropological term for a trained and very often spiritually selected individual that is in touch with the spiritual and magical world, thus witches fall within the shamanic realm. In most shamanism-practicing cultures, before a person becomes a shaman he/she must be initiated, such as the Native American practice of vision quest, or the Aboriginal walkabout, where the adolescent must venture into the wild and into a spiritual journey. Joan Halifax, an American anthropologist who has researched spiritual experiences, describes these elements:
“In collecting and analyzing first-person narratives of shamans’ initiatory experiences, I have delineated some broad stages of the archetypal journey: (1) an experience of separation or isolation from society and culture; (2) an encounter with extreme mental and physical suffering, including experiences of being eaten or dismembered by local wildlife, or being burned, cooked, or afflicted with disease; (3) an encounter with death; (4) an experience of nature-transmission with creature, ancestor, spirit, god, or element; (5) a return to life, sometimes by way of the celestial realm with the World Tree or bird flight being featured; and (6) a return to society as healer.”
Note should be taken that some of these aspects take place on the astral level – a subconscious and spiritual plane of existence.
The experience of isolation happens when the shaman-to-be “reaches a specific age, usually seven or older, and an older member of the shamanic society appears and begins their training;” this is clearly illustrated in Hansel and Gretel’s abandonment in the forest, the place where wicked witches lurk. Their returning home by following the white pebbles after the first night might represent their desire to not continue with their initiation. It is only after the birds eat the second trail that they are forced to continue. It is said that a person destined to be a shaman does not need to seek to be initiated; the initiator will find them and they will be called. This is depicted in the beautiful snow white bird that the children follow after wandering the woods, because “following an animal in a forest and being led to a confrontation with an evil being occurs in other tales. [Since] the bird represents salvation, joy, and peace through its color, […] the children are supposed to meet the witch with positive results. The encounter is for their good.”
Then the psychic battle begins. With hallucinations created by exhaustion, a deep sense of enlightenment, or in the case of Peruvian Amazonian Shamans, the psychoactive effects of the Ayahuasca plant, the initiate must fight another shaman or psychic entity. As stated earlier, Joan Halifax described one of the stages of shamanic initiation as experiencing physical pain, often being chopped and cooked up. In the fairy tale, the witch fattens Hansel in order to eat him, while Gretel is made a slave, but then the witch decides to eat them both. Psychic experiences of initiates being cooked up by magical entities have been reported worldwide, from the Australian Aboriginals, to the Inuit people of the North Pole, and Siberia. Documentation of such experiences in Europe appears among the Sicilian shamanic healers known as Ciarauli, the tales of the Hungarian Táltos, and the Kresnik of Istria and Slavonia, and in Inquisition records made during 1575 to 1647 about the Benandanti, a shamanic society in northern Italy. This traumatizing experience allegedly occurs in order “to teach [the initiate] the art of shamanism”.
In the fairy tale, the witch is simply trying to cook and eat the children. She is a cannibal, and probably depicted as so in order to demonize witches, but one must look at the underlying references. The witch’s attempt to cook the children is her attempt to initiate them into the craft, just like in shamanic initiation narratives, where one emerges as a shaman after being killed and cooked. Additionally, Gretel is fed nothing but crawfish and crab shells. Originating in ancient Mesopotamia, and working its way through Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the image of the shellfish has always been associated with the Moon, which is why the astrological sign of Caner is ruled by it. Given the natural association of the Moon with witchcraft, Gretel’s shellfish diet is preparing her to fulfill the initiation. However, the siblings refuse. They refused first when they found their way back home the first night they were abandoned, when they refused to be eaten, and when Gretel pushed the witch into the fire; they refuse to be initiated, and become a witch just like her. They kill the witch, and she is the one that experiences death, not them. Note that an experience with death is another stage of the shamanic initiatory practices mentioned earlier.
The wicked witch of “Hansel and Gretel” is in many ways similar to the Russian fairy tale figure of Baba Yaga. Being featured in countless folk stories, she is perhaps the most famous figure in Slavic folklore; she’s a hag/witch who just like the witch in “Hansel and Gretel”, lives in the middle of the forests in a very strange house, this time described as standing on chicken legs, having a fence made of human skulls, and containing all sort of witchy items. Many of her stories, in fact, resemble that of the Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel”:
“The lovely maiden looked at the witch and her heart failed her. Before her stood Bába Yagá the Bony-Legged, her nose hitting the ceiling . . . . Then the witch brought wood, oak and maple, and made a fire; the flame blazed forth from the stove. Bába Yagá took a broad shovel and began to urge her guest: ‘Now, my beauty, sit on the shovel.’ The beauty sat on it. Bába Yagá shoved her toward the mouth of the stove, but the maiden put one leg into the stove and the other on top of it. ‘You do not know how to sit, maiden. Now sit the right way.’ The maiden changed her posture, sat the right way; the witch tried to shove her in, but she put one leg into the stove and the other under it.
Bába Yagá grew angry and pulled her out again. ‘You are playing tricks, young woman!’ she cried. ‘Sit quietly, this way-just see how I do it.’ She plumped herself on the shovel and stretched out her legs. The maiden quickly shoved her into the stove, slammed the door, plastered and tarred the opening and ran away.”
The witch in the Grimm’s tale is just a subtle version of Baba Yaga, who has achieved goddess status as the ruler of the underworld in Slavic folklore. Baba Yaga is burned alive just like the witch in “Hansel and Gretel”, however, no matter how many times she dies in these tales, Baba Yaga reappears in countless others as the same wicked witch, or sometimes as a benevolent wise woman, giving life-saving advice to heroines. Her death is transformation, just as shamanic initiates rise from the dead being able to call themselves wise, shamans, or healers.
Gretel, in particular, seems to be the witch’s main apprentice; this is observed in the fact that she isn’t locked up like her brother, but she’s made a slave. In the epic saga of “Vasilisa the Wise” (also known as “the Beautiful” or “Brave”), Vasilisa, a beautiful maiden, is purposely sent by her evil stepmother to Baba Yaga’s house to get a lantern. Once inside, she must perform the witches’ impossible tasks in order to come back home. Although she accomplishes the tasks with the help of a magical doll, Vasilisa passes the witch’s test and completes her initiation. Just like Vasilisa, Gretel must perform every command the witch asks her to do. Additionally, in the Russian story, Vasilisa asks Baba Yaga about the three dark riders outside her house, and she responds by saying they are the day, the Sun, and the night. But we are missing another being – the Moon. Baba Yaga is obviously the Moon, after all, she’s a witch/folk-goddess, and this is connected to Gretel being fed shellfish – lunar food.
When Vasilisa comes back home, the lantern she brings back from Baba Yaga burns the evil stepmother and stepsisters to ashes, which frees Vasilisa from their torture. It seems that whether the witch dies or not, the protagonist always emerges victorious. As Dr. Laura Strong, a mythology scholar, writes, the Baba Yaga archetype represents the shamanic journey that Vasilisa and Hansel and Gretel go through:
“[Baba Yaga] dwells in a magical hut that is surrounded by a fence made from the leftover bleached-white bones of her victims […][,which] is a clear signal to anyone who would dare to pass through its gate that they must be prepared for an initiatory underworld experience.[…] ‘Baba Yaga’s hut is the place where transmutation occurs; it is the dark heart of the Underworld, the dwelling place of the dead ancestors who are symbolized by the grinning skulls around her house’. From such bones, she also brews new life and her home is a great source of abundance.”
Coincidentally enough, Baba Yaga is also depicted as the guardian of the Waters of Life and Death. The Water of Death kills, but is also often part of a healing process. In many Slavic folktales, the “Water of death heals the wounds of a corpse or knots together a body that has been chopped up. The second, the Water of Life, restores life”. Because the witch of “Hansel and Gretel” steams out of Baba Yaga’s figure, just like her, she is also a figure of enlightening resurrections, a part of shamanic initiatory rituals, but in a more subtle version.
In “Hansel and Gretel”, notice how the snow white bird that the children trusted to follow, is the same type of animal that ate their bread crumb trail, making them lost and thus sealing the initiation. It’s obvious the birds wanted them to go into the house, and be initiated; the birds in the story have done nothing but to seal the children’s fate towards the wicked witch. Nevertheless, after the children kill the witch, they take her precious stones and talk to a big white swan that helps them cross an enormous lake. The white swan, although it has another from, it’s the just a reappearance of the snow white bird that they followed earlier. Also notice how traveling by bird when returning home is a stage in the narratives of shamanic initiations mentioned earlier. They were meant to kill the witch, it was destiny, just like one is destined to be a shaman, and by killing her, they assume the witch’s role. At the end, the children come home and are victorious. They find out their stepmother has died, and so they end the last stage of the shamanic initiation; they emerge from the wild, and into society with an amazing experience. They completed all the stages, and Hansel and Gretel are now witches, not literally, but symbolically. Notice should given that the siblings were not depicted as being able to talk to animals before killing the witch, yet Gretel is able to talk to a swan, and both of them were able to miraculously – considering how lost they were before – find their way home. These are the results of completing the magic journey. Additionally, since the siblings do mention trusting in God in the tale, it can also be said that the story is a Christian version of pagan shamanic initiations, with Hansel and Gretel being able to achieve the same results of magical enlightenment (without having to give in to the thought-to-be evil pagan practices of the past) by actually destroying it (killing the witch), and that’s the twist of the story.
The tales of Baba Yaga, the more detailed version of the witch in the Grimm’s story, expresses the deep shamanic roots within the story. Hansel and Gretel’s theme of shamanic initiatory rituals had to be deeply hidden within the story in order to sneak through the serious religious laws of pre-modern times. Yes, the story is about a rite of passage – not just of physical maturity, but a spiritual one as well, a ritual that is unquestionably of pagan origins. With the oven (or cauldron) being a symbol for death, birth and renewal, it does not matter if the shaman initiate gets cooked by a psychic monster, because he/she will emerge a shaman. And just like Baba Yaga’s many reappearances in folk tales despite her many deaths in the oven, it can be assumed that the witch of “Hansel and Gretel” still lives as well.
 Iona Archibald, Classic Fairy Tales, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) p119.
 Katherine M. Faull, Anthropology and the German enlightenment: Perspective on Humanity, (Bucknell: Bucknell University Press, 1995) p82.
 Jacob Grimm, and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993) p101-107.
 Joan Halifax, “The Shaman’s Initiation”, ReVision 13 (1990): p53.
 Judical Illes, The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, (London: Harpers Element, 2005) p 466.
 —. The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. p466.
 “Annotations for Hansel and Gretel”, SurLaLune.com, accessed May 28, 2011, http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/hanselgretel/notes.html
 Luis Eduardo Luna, Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1991) p30.
 Judical Illes, The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. p466.
 Mariko Namba Walter, Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, Shamanism: an Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, Vol 2 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004). p154.
 Judical Illes, The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. p466.
 Mariko Namba Walter, Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, Shamanism: an Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, Vol 2 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004).
 Jules Cashford, The Moon: myth and image, (London: Cassel Illustrated, 2002), p112.
 Aleksandr Afanasiev, Russian Fairy Tales. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1945) p 432.
 Marina Balina et al. Politicizing Magic: an Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales ( Evanton: Northwestern University Press, 2005) p 34-41.
 Laura Strong, “Baba Yaga’s Hut: Initiatory Entrance to the Underworld”, Mythicarts.com, accessed May 29, 2011.
 —. “Baba Yaga’s Hut: Initiatory Entrance to the Underworld”.
Afanasiev, Aleksandr. Russian Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1945.
Archibald, Iona. Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Balina, Marina et al. Politicizing Magic: an Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales. Evanton: Northwestern University Press, 2005.
Cashford, Jules. The Moon: Myth and Image. London: Cassel Illustrated, 2002.
Faull, Katherine M.. Anthropology and the German Enlightenment: Perspective on Humanity. Bucknell: Bucknell University Press, 1995.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.
Halifax, Joan. “The Shaman’s Initiation”. ReVision 13 (1990): p53.
Illes, Judical. The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. London: Harpers Element, 2005.
Luna, Luis Eduardo. Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1991.
Strong, Laura. “Baba Yaga’s Hut: Initiatory Entrance the Underworld”. Mythicarts.com. Accessed May 29, 2011. http://www.mythicarts.com/writing/Baba_Yaga.html
SurLaLune.com. “Annotations for Hansel and Gretel”. Last accessed May 28, 2011. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/hanselgretel/notes.html
Walter, Mariko Namba, and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman. Shamanism: an encyclopedia of world beliefs, practices, and culture. Vol 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Franco Bejarano was raised in Peru, but has been living in Georgia since the age of 13. He’s currently a 21 year old college student who studies folklore as a hobby (www.culturepotion.blogspot.com). He is deeply involved with the online academic community, and his goal is to one day become an independent scholar on the field of folklore. He is also an artist.