Kate Crackernuts: The Hen-Wife and her Cauldron of Wisdom

Kate Crackernuts: The Hen-Wife and her Cauldron of Wisdom
by Colleen Szabo

Illustration from English Fairy Tales, 1890.This tale is a wisdom tale featuring the old symbol of creativity and wisdom, the nut. We still use the term “nut” to denote the head, one location commonly assigned for wisdom; in fact, nuts are sort of like brains in a skull (shell). I suppose in the days when trees were worshipped in Europe, a great power of creativity was known to be held within the nut, an ethereal power akin to that which we think of as soul, when speaking of humans. Though trees bestow tremendous and seemingly endless gifts on humankind, their fruits are one of the more symbolic. Nuts differ from most fruits in a few ways. One is that the seed itself is eaten. The seed is a little package of mysterious creative power, containing an unmanifested being, a tree, hidden within. Just so are we; our full creative potential lies, deep and mysterious, in our souls. Though my culture and its language tend to separate wisdom and creative power, the ancestral wisdom knows they cannot be separated. That is the reason creative expression such as singing, writing, and drawing aid personal development and healing; creative expression, healing, and wisdom are all interwoven in human destinies. We are healed by wisdom. Indeed, we can envision our wounds, our need for healing, as spurs to further self-knowledge, to creating the life we were meant to inhabit.

Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen, as there would have been in many lands. The king had a daughter, Anne, and the queen had one named Kate, but Anne was far bonnier than the queen’s daughter, though they loved one another like real sisters. The queen was jealous of the king’s daughter being bonnier than her own, and cast about to spoil her beauty. So she took counsel of the hen-wife, who told her to send the lassie to her next morning fasting.

So next morning early, the queen said to Anne, “Go, my dear, to the hen-wife in the glen, and ask her for some eggs.” So Anne set out, but as she passed through the kitchen she saw a crust, and she took and munched it as she went along.

When she came to the hen-wife’s, she asked for eggs, as she had been told to do; the hen-wife said to her, “Lift the lid off that pot there and see.” The lassie did so, but nothing happened. “Go home to your minnie and tell her to keep her larder door better locked,” said the hen-wife. So she went home to the queen and told her what the hen-wife had said. The queen knew from this that the lassie had had something to eat, so she watched the next morning and sent her away fasting; but the princess saw some country-folk picking peas by the roadside, and being very kind, she spoke to them and took a handful of the peas, which she ate by the way.

When she came to the hen-wife’s, the hen-wife said, “Lift the lid off the pot and you’ll see.” So Anne lifted the lid, but nothing happened. Then the hen-wife was angry and she said to Anne, “Tell your minnie the pot won’t boil if the fire’s away.” So Anne went home and told the queen.

The third day the queen goes along with the girl herself to the hen-wife. Now, this time, when Anne lifted the lid off the pot, off falls her own pretty head, and up jumps a sheep’s head. So the queen was now quite satisfied, and went back home.

Her own daughter, Kate, however, took a fine linen cloth and wrapped it round her sister’s head and took her by the hand and they both went out to seek their fortune. They went on, and they went on, and they went on, till they came to a castle. Kate knocked at the door and asked for a night’s lodging for herself and a sick sister. They went in and found out it was the king’s castle, who had two sons, and one of them was sickening away to death and no one could find out what ailed him. And the curious thing was that whoever watched him at night was never seen any more. So the king had offered a peck of silver to anyone who would stop up with him. Now Kate was a very brave girl, so she offered to sit up with him.

Till midnight all went well. As twelve o’clock rang, however, the sick prince rose, dressed himself, and slipped downstairs. Kate followed, but he didn’t seem to notice her. The prince went to the stable, saddled his horse, called his hound, jumped into the saddle, and Kate leaped lightly up behind him. Away rode the prince and Kate through the greenwood, Kate, as they pass, plucking nuts from the trees and filling her apron with them. They rode on and on till they came to a green hill. The prince here drew bridle and spoke, “Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in with his horse and his hound,” and Kate added, “and his lady behind him.”

Immediately the green hill opened, and they passed in. The prince entered a magnificent hall, brightly lighted up, and many beautiful fairies surrounded the prince and led him off to the dance. Meanwhile, Kate, without being noticed, hid herself behind the door. There she saw the prince dancing, and dancing, and dancing, till he could dance no longer and fell upon a couch. Then the fairies would fan him till he could rise again and go on dancing.

At last the cock crew, and the prince made all haste to get on horseback; Kate jumped up behind and home they rode. When the morning sun rose, they came in and found Kate sitting by the fire and cracking her nuts. Kate said the prince had a good night; but she would not sit up another night unless she was to get a peck of gold. The second night passed as the first had done. The prince got up at midnight and rode away to the green hill and the fairy ball, and Kate went with him, gathering nuts as they rode through the forest. This time she did not watch the prince, for she knew he would dance, and dance, and dance. But she saw a fairy baby playing with a wand, and overhead one of the fairies say: “Three strokes of that wand will make Kate’s sister as bonnie as ever she was.” So Kate rolled nuts to the fairy baby, and rolled nuts till the baby toddled after the nuts and let fall the wand, and Kate took it up and put it in her apron. And at cockcrow, they rode home as before, and the moment Kate got to her room she rushed and touched Anne three times with the wand, and the nasty sheep’s head fell off and she was her own pretty self again. The third night Kate consented to watch, only if she could marry the sick prince. All went on as on the first two nights. This time the fairy baby was playing with a birdie; Kate heard one of the fairies say, “Three bites of that birdie would make the sick prince as well as ever he was.” Kate rolled all the nuts she had to the fairy baby till the birdie was dropped, and Kate put it in her apron.

At cockcrow they set off again, but instead of cracking her nuts as she used to do, this time Kate plucked the feathers off and cooked the birdie. Soon there arose a very savory smell. “Oh!” said the sick prince, “I wish I had a bite of that birdie,” so Kate gave him a bite of the birdie, and he rose up on his elbow. By and by he cried out again: “Oh! If I had another bite of that birdie!” so Kate gave him another bite, and he sat up on his bed. Then he said again: “Oh! If I had but a third bite of that birdie!” So Kate gave him a third bite, and he rose hale and strong, dressed himself, and sat down by the fire, and when folk came in next morning they found Kate and the young prince cracking nuts together. Meanwhile his brother had seen Anne and fallen in love with her, as everybody did who saw her sweet face. So the sick son married the well sister, and the well son married the sick sister, and they all lived happy and died happy, and never drank out of a dry cappy.

My interpretation here is in the archetypal style, gleaned from Jungian theory. Therefore, all characters represent inner figures we are all prone to interacting with in the psyche, though the characters often manifest in our external lives as well. Kate and Anne represent our double-sidedness; we all have the potential to become both sheep-like, and bold seekers after healing. This wisdom tale features, as many do, wounding and illness. One prince is sick; one princess is wounded, dismembered. Indeed, the wounding (or sickness) is the setup, or spur, as above. Just as is the case for many of us, Anne’s wound is inflicted by the previous generation somehow. That is our Fate, as the ancients knew; we come to this place to overcome circumstance, to, as Kate does, find the deeper meaning , to crack the nuts of our conditioning and find that “aha!” of compassionate wisdom within. And this story begins with a common enough wound, especially in my culture; the wound of envy, result of competition. The parent, in this case the mother, transmits her competitive pride as she lives vicariously through her beautiful child, though Kate (and Anne) could just as well have been an accomplished, well-behaved, or gifted child. The parent can also represent dominant culture; were Kate/Anne an orphan, she could still pick up, with no problem whatsoever, the habit of behaving in response to competitive conditioning patterns. Like many European fairy tales, the most envy-rousing attribute for females is physical beauty, reflecting a bald fact about human experience which feminists often raise hue and cry about, that fact being: humans almost always prize physical beauty. Using beauty as a metaphor for gifts in general also has the advantage of referring to Fate, to something that was given us at birth, which we must then figure out, puzzle over, as Kate does. We are meant to take both our gifts and our wounds as grist for the mill of transformation.

The story is asking us as audience to admit, not only to our very human, innate love of beauty, but also to our competitive envy, what it does to us, and how to go beyond that, where its hold does not determine our life experience. Getting beyond it is wisdom. By the time we are of marriageable age, most of us have internalized this archetype of the competitive mother queen (who can also be expressed in one’s family by the father), and she rules some aspect of our lives. Anne, the most beautiful, takes the brunt of the queen’s envy; likewise, folks who are obviously gifted, who shine most brightly, are often set up to experience this dynamic of competition, of trying to maintain the high seat of perfection, most strongly. However, this is all good; the queen’s jealousy, once internalized, will drive us to enter initiation, will drive our transformation. In order to develop, to mature, we need something to push against, some nut-puzzle to crack.

The sacred nature of Anne’s wound (symbolized by the loss of her head) is explicated by its occurring during an alchemical process (cooking), and using the sacred number of three tries. I love the hen-wife in this tale, a combination of the old bird goddesses and the figure we now call “witch”; a crone or wise woman who knows of the inner life, of natural processes and developments, of all their alchemical magic. She is also a keeper of knowledge about a woman’s sexuality; the old tradition of a “hen’s night” is currently being revived. In that tradition, the night before a wedding, older and wiser hen-wives teach the wife-to-be about sexuality, including pregnancy, all of which falls within the overall category of creative power, of course. Whatever our creative genres might be, their products can always be symbolized by the metaphor of the child, including our creative efforts to renew and transform ourselves. The eggs which the queen sends Anne after represent the same, and are a universal symbol of creative power, birth, and renewal. Indeed, in the Jungian sense of interpretation, this hen-wife is, in a sense, one and the same with the instigating queen, just as the two sisters are collaborators.

The hen-wife asks for Anne to be sent on her errand fasting, meaning that she is to be in a state wherein she is not focused on, not fed by, the mundane, physical world, by egoic concerns. But Anne is not yet ready to follow the instruction of the queen/hen-wife. This undoubtedly is as it ought to be, for what she eats is bread, and a more thoroughly sacrilized food world-wide cannot be imagined. Bread’s rising is associated with pregnancy. The cyclical life and sacrificial death of grains was the domain of goddesses like the Greek Demeter, and her famous initiation mysteries at Eleusis. Specifically, Anne eats a crust, the outer layer of the bread; she is not ready for the inner journey that will unfold in the tale. In the hen-wife’s kitchen, Anne is told to “lift the pot and see”. The pot, or cauldron, is a ubiquitous tool of magical inner transformation. Symbolically, the fire of emotional passion (in this case, the desire to compete? Its resulting envy? Anger at serving as an extension of Mother?) is applied to Anne/Kate’s inner contents, and we will see what results. “Lifting the lid off the pot”, is a metaphor for self-examination and self-contemplation.

Since they cannot see anything happening in the pot, the hen-wife/queen orders Anne to repeat the process of searching for creative eggs while fasting. This time, Anne is distracted by “peas from the country-folk”. The pea as sexual symbol is widespread in Eastern Europe; I suppose the pea, like other seeds, and indeed hen’s eggs, is like a little zygote, a fertilized human egg. I visualize here the green pea, but in fact there are many kinds of peas. The story adds a crucial detail, though; the peas are from the country-folk. That would point to a specific poetry of peas and beans as the food of humble folk, who cannot afford to eat meat much, if at all. Anne is eating “humble-pie”, as it were, which is quite appropriate in a story that is telling us how to evolve from being tortured by the fires of competition. Eating the humble peas could represent a humbling experience, or the need for her to become more humble to get to the state where she can see truthfully into her “pot”. Certainly the coming loss of her beauty would be one such humbling experience, and one which will eventually come to every beautiful woman who lives beyond the bloom of youth.

Anne and the hen-wife look into her process again and still, nothing has changed. The hen-wife suggests more passion, more desire, more emotion is needed next; she says, “tell your minnie (momma) the pot won’t boil if the fire’s away.” That this instruction is directed to the mother implies that the emotion needed, the fire needed, is indeed supplied by the mother, and/or by the emotions instigated by relationship with the inner/outer mother. That the hen-wife is herself angry at this point emphasizes that particular emotion. Often, envy is experienced as anger. And in fact, the envious queen comes to the kitchen the next time, having accompanied Anne. As they all look into the pot of Anne’s inner process, they make a crucial discovery; in her head, in her thoughts, at least, she is like a sheep. The queen/hen-wife is satisfied; her work is done.

The next stage of the journey is up to Anne, or rather, another aspect of Anne, Kate. In alchemy, in Jungian psychology, healing, transcendence, and wisdom, is accomplished through the joining of opposites, and every human experience has its opposite. Humans are potentially whole, but, due to time and space constraints, can only manifest one side of any dualistic coin (such as competitiveness/humility) at a time; the “other side” of our experience becomes unconscious, going into shadow. Healing occurs when we can let go of always identifying with the one side (the “perfectly beautiful Anne” in this case), and embrace its opposite as well (the wiser Kate, who seeks to know herself, rather than accepting stereotypical roles). The sheep’s head clues us in to one specific way in which “beautiful Anne” is fated to manifest her wounding. She is easily led, and does not think for herself. She has lost her will power, too busy thinking about what other people think about her, perhaps, too focused on being pleasing to others, a common enough trap for women. She is the opposite of the resourceful Kate and all her brave initiative.

Kate knows what to do. She wraps a veil around Anne’s head; in olden times, this was a symbol of initiation, the gauze being like the cocoon within which the moth transforms, a kind of hiding from the world that is necessary to deep transformative processes. It is the fasting, the withdrawal from the world the hen-wife needed. Kate takes her now blinded sister’s hand, and they venture forth on their initiatory journey, as many siblings in myth and lore have done; Hansel and Gretel, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Castor and Pollux. Anne’s inner, previously unmanifested self will now take the lead.

They come to the castle of the inner Self, the archetypal world where lives their animus aspects, the inner male twin to each of their female selves. For most women, much of the various masculine animus aspects are naturally latent, or “shadow” material as Jung named it, in the psyche, and their masculine skills and love are not available in waking consciousness. Mirroring the girls, one of the animus brothers is said to be mysteriously sick. The father-animus, the king (who balances out the queen at the story’s beginning) offers silver (the precious alchemical metal of the Divine Feminine, of the moon, ruler of feeling/emotion) to anyone who can figure out what ails his son. Technically, it is for anyone who can manage to stay with him through the night, for the strange thing is that anyone who tries to stay with the prince through the night disappears. Within the psyche, the archetypally masculine ability to stay alert and judging is priceless to self-examination. Since it will turn out that Kate/Anne’s inner animus prince has a compulsion, or perhaps an addiction in modern terms, she must first figure out how to stay awake enough to observe her own behavior and its consequences. Observation is crucial, but tough, because compulsions serve to keep consciousness at bay, to keep us from feeling or knowing something about ourselves. Thus the situation in the castle when Anne and Kate arrive is one where the witness consciousness (the previous sitters/watchers) has always disappeared when the prince begins his compulsive nighttime behavior.

It turns out the king has found the right customer, for Kate stays up with the prince. Soon we find out that the prince is going to enter another world, where his other observers were lost. He leaves on the stroke of midnight, which is the “witching hour”, a time ruled by the silver moon, by the Otherworld, where it is easier to slip “beyond the veil”, where Anne, in fact, is. With the power to travel which the horse gives him, and the hound’s instinct for tracking, they take off through the forest. It may be worth noting that there is strong sexuality in this horse riding, presaging the inner, sacred marriage that almost always concludes such women’s tales.

As Kate speeds along behind, she’s observing, noticing; she plucks nuts from the trees and gathers them. She is finding kernels of truth about this prince’s dark, heretofore unknown world; what is the path to his compulsion like? They enter a magic green hill, a place, like a pregnant belly of Mother Earth or the cocooning veil which swathes Anne’s head, that can symbolize hope, freshness, renewal. Within is the prince’s “happy place”, where all is captivating beauty, as is the case in Anne/Kate’s topside world, where beauty is of utmost importance and magnificence. Kate observes, looks into this pot, seeing beautiful fairies lead the prince to a compulsive dance which goes on to the point of punishment.

This activity of the prince’s seems a clear depiction of addiction. Addiction is often described in fairy tales, such as the story of the red shoes that dances the wearer uncontrollably. This compulsion is the sad result of Anne’s lack of will power. The “sick” siblings are addicted to beauty; they are airy-fairy, escapist, superior, hurting themselves in the effort to remain “high”, lacking the grounding of the country-folk’s peas. In fact, whenever we strive to hang on desperately to any sort of ideal, we are in that fairy castle, and most of Euro-Western culture, the White culture surely, is dancing this envy-filled, perfectionistic dance of more and better, to the detriment of our health and the health of the kingdom. Eating disorders are an example.

Kate spends some time back at the castle cracking nuts, puzzling over the prince’s behavior, trying to find the truth and wisdom in it all. Next offer from the king is for gold, the masculine alchemical metal. And Kate does, indeed, earn or prove her mettle, a variation on the word “metal”. For, after another midnight, nut-gathering ride to the fairy hill, she doesn’t even watch, for she has already learned all she can about it, most importantly, that he cannot stop, and a few things about why that is, from all her nut-cracking. She has will power, another archetypally masculine power, and she’s about to get a tool that embodies that masculine will power, in the form of a wand.

Wands, in a manner like penises, are tools for making things happen in the world, for extending one’s inner will outside oneself into form, the masculine power aspect needed for creative manifestation. Kate already did lots of gathering and contemplating, going deep within, which are more archetypally feminine skills. Now she uses her feminine skill of listening to discover something from, of all things, a fairy baby. The baby represents something new in the psyche, the product of inner alchemical coniunctio, or marriage of the opposites. So the future product of this story’s inner marriage, the baby, is revealing how to effect its birth, creating a circle. The baby toddles after Kate’s nuts, releasing the wand. Here, the baby may also be a metaphor for the “Wise Fool”, the humble, non-egotistical one who has become so wise, that they reclaim the soul of innocence. The Wise Fool baby is a seeker of wisdom, preferring the nuts to the powerful wand. Also, the circle, or 0, is a symbol of the Fool.

The masculine wand and, assumedly, its quality of willpower, transforms Anne from a sheep to a woman again; her head returns and, not surprisingly, she speaks of marrying the prince when her feminine self is touched by this masculine energy. Another important masculine power is that of discrimination, a form of judgement, which can be obscured by just going along with what feels good. Certainly being praised, as Anne was for her beauty, feels good. But is it good for us in the long run to abstain from looking at the roots of such feelings, the “why” and the “how”, and the ultimate results of our behaviors and that of others? Does praise, for example, require us to follow others dumbly along, hoping for more? Or will we lift the lid of the pot, seek to find what lies beneath the grassy hill, thus developing wisdom in place of a conditioned relationship with beauty and competition, or with any other sicknesses we carry, are touched by in the world around us? The exploration of such questions informs our discrimination, our choice-making, a self-creative use for willpower.

The next night, Kate needs no reward; like the third time Anne went to see the hen-wife, she does this one without attachment to the physical, for this one’s going to be “the charm”. This time, she gives up all her nuts, for she will not need them any more. As happened the third time the pot lid was raised, the puzzle is solved, no more “tough nuts to crack”; the “goose” will soon be cooked. The bird goddess enters again, as the baby promises that a birdie, when consumed by the prince, will heal his illness.

This “birdie” is a bit perplexing. It is undoubtedly feminine, as the prince is going to have to be administered some sort of feminine “pill”, just as Anne needed to be healed by masculine acts, masculine energies, masculine knowing. Anne and the sick prince are both out of balance because they are lacking their opposites. The mere act of absorbing, as the prince does the birdie, is feminine in and of itself, taking something into the body. I wonder, was the birdie an old euphemism for female genitalia? Certainly English still carries a sexual reference in the raised middle finger gesture still called a “birdie.” Will the prince embody the egg which Anne was to fetch, once he holds a birdie within? Or is it Kate/Anne herself who is the birdie here, being stripped of her glorious feathers and transformed by the fire of initiation, while the animus prince absorbs her transformation with gusto? It is always good to leave some mystery in our interpretations, in order to welcome further experiences on the matter.

At any rate, the prince does seem to now be happily involved in the search for wisdom, as he joins his future wife, Kate, in cracking nuts by the alchemical fire, the same element which revealed Anne’s imbalance to her early on in the story. The marriages signal that this bit of transformation is over, initiated by the bird goddess/queen, and bird god/king (each return to the castle was at cockcrow) and their wisdom, symbolized by the nuts. The queen’s envy is transformed; the envious one is she who would prefer another’s fate, another’s life, to her own. The prince, who once languished in bed all day, only rising to escape his life into fairy land, is now happily engaged in the search for wisdom which his own life offers. The powers of the feminine moon and the masculine archetype of the sun have wedded in the form of the four young people, who are joined together in a new creative endeavor. When this happens within, the way in which we experience our lives is enriched; renewal brightens our path. We expand our embrace to include some new love and appreciation for self (within) and others (without) through understanding our motives, conditioning, history, ability to change and grow. And, like the prince, once we get a taste of this wisdom-weaving process, we will only want more, till we don’t cling to escapist, perfectionistic occupations, though they have their place in the balance. Instead, we want to stay close to the fire of transformation, cracking nuts of creative wisdom and consciousness with our animus- or with our anima, from a man’s perspective.

Colleen Szabo returned to school after raising kids in the boonies of northern New Mexico, finishing with an MA in transpersonal psychology. Retreating to the ancestral lands lakeside in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she is working on a manuscript for young adults, “the course I would teach at Hogwart’s”, and a book on spiritual emergency. Visit her website at colleenszabo.com

Kate Crackernuts version from The Annotated Classic Fairytales, edited by Maria Tatar.