The fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel” was first recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 around the south western corner of Germany. The tale features a brother and sister who while lost in the forest, encounter a cannibalistic witch, but 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, hiding the true nature and origin of the story. 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.
|"Hansel and Gretel". Arthur Rackham, 1909|
The story tells that Hansel and Gretel were the children of a very poor woodcutter that 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 leading to the house as they are abandoned into the forest so they can find their way back home. The siblings follow through the plan and come back home after being deserted. The stepmother orders his husband to desert his children in the middle of the forest once more, so they can die. This time, the siblings form a trail out of bread crumbs, but when they decide to follow them 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, but 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 Gretel how to check if the oven fire if hot enough to cook them in, she pushes her in, burning her to death. They later return home to their father with the witches’ precious jewels, and find out their stepmother 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 shaman 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. Them coming back home 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 made 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 wondering 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 initiations 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 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 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 witches’ attempt to cook them up 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 the it. Given the natural association of the Moon to 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 to their 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 in 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 other ones as the same wicked witch, or sometimes as a benevolent wise woman, giving life-saving advice to heroines. Her death is transformation, just like how shamanic initiates rise from the dead being able to call themselves wise, shamans, or healers.
|Baba Yaga - Ivan Bilibin (1902)|
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 Vanisila 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, just in a more subtle version.
In “Hansel and Gretel”, notice how the snow white bird that the children trusted on 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 victorious and find out that, coincidentally enough, their stepmother has died. The synchronicity and parallels of the death of both of the antagonists have lead many to speculate that the stepmother and the witch are in fact the same person; this would mean that it was the witch herself who initiated the children by convincing their father to abandon them. She, hypothetically speaking, knew what she was doing, and with her death 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 destroy 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 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, but 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 be emerge a new 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.
 Judical Illes, The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, (London: Harpers Element, 2005) p 466.
 ^Judical Illes, 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). P
 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 tal. Politicizing magic: an anthology of Russian and Soviet fairy tales ( Evanton: Northwestern University Press, 2005) p 34-41
 Laura Strong, "Baba Yaga's Hut: Initatorry Entrance to the Underworld", Mythicart.com, accessed May 29, 2011, http://www.mythicarts.com/writing/Baba_Yaga.html
 ^Laura Strong, "Baba Yaga,s Hut: Initiatory Entrance to the Underworld".
 Lady Sabrina, Exploring Wicca: the beliefs, rites, and rituals of the Wiccan religion, (Franklin Lakes: Career Press, 2006) p 83.
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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.
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Illes, Judical. The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. London: Harpers Element, 2005.
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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
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