One thing I’ve begun to notice as I look more closely at fairy tales is that there are many more “witches” in them than previously believed, and that many of the beloved characters that are portrayed as helpless damsels in distress actually employ quite a bit of agency.
Quick note: I put the word “witches” in quotations above due to the varied connotations the word has. Historically, not all magical practitioners were called witches; the term typically denoted a practitioner of baneful magic (blighting crops, sinking ships, causing illness in people and animals, stealing butter and milk, etc.) There were other words for magical practitioners who performed healing, protective magic — cunning folk, spae wives, wise men and women, fairy doctors, etc. However, after the witch hysteria swept across Europe and the U.S. and the passage of time wore away much of Western Europe’s memory of its magic, the word “witch” was applied to any and all magical practitioners — all magical work, regardless of nature or purpose, was viewed as inherently sinister, superstitious, and therefore forbidden. Since the turn of the 20th century, pop culture has steadily filed down the teeth of witchcraft (think “Bewitched,” “Bell, Book and Candle,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Craft,” “Practical Magic,” etc.), returning to magical practice some of its more mild, beneficial aspects in the popular mindset while still clinging to the words “witch” and “witchcraft” as umbrella terminology. In this post, I largely operate from this morally neutral connotation of “witchcraft” and “witches,” although I will point out a more sinister aspect of Aschenputtel that is as overlooked as her potent magical skills.
So let’s talk about Aschenputtel’s power. For centuries, Cinderella and her variations have been treated as helpess victims of domestic violence, as she is in the French version. While this is certainly part of Aschenputtel’s story — she experiences a lot of abuse, from the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of her stepmother and stepsisters to the trauma of her father’s neglect — there is much, much more to her character. In the Grimms’ version of the story, Aschenputtel (roughly translating to “ash-rummager” or “picker of ashes”) employs magic not only to cope with the abuse but also to give herself agency for social advancement and even revenge.
When Aschenputtel’s father goes to the fair, he asks his stepdaughters and daughter what they would like for him to bring back.
“Beautiful dresses,” said one, “Pearls and jewels,” said the second.
“And you, Cinderella,” said he, “what will you have?”
“Father break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.”
This scene is often interpreted as an illustration of Aschenputtel’s humility and simplicity — rather than material wealth, she only wants a simple token from nature — but I view it another way. Hazel is regarded throughout Europe as a tree of wisdom and protection. In another Grimm tale, titled “The Hazel Branch,” it’s said that the Virgin Mary blessed hazel bushes with the powers of protection:
as she set out on her way home [the Virgin Mary] said, “As the hazel-bush has been my protection this time, it shall in future protect others also.” Therefore, from the most remote times, a green hazel-branch has been the safest protection against adders, snakes, and everything else which creeps on the earth.
Considering Aschenputtel’s poor home life, it’s no wonder that she would want to employ some magic to protect herself from the horrible cunning of her stepmother.
How does Aschenputtel do this? She plants the branch on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears (arguably, a form of offering), and it grows into a tree. She prays to this tree every day, and whenever she expresses a wish, a white bird alights on the tree and grants her wish. I’ve written before about the connection between sticks and spirit familiars, and it’s clear that the two are connected in “Aschenputtel.” The hazel tree functions as a channel for Aschenputtel to communicate with her familiar spirit, the white bird, which may in fact be her fylgia, considering its proximity to her mother’s grave and the ancestral and fortune-oriented nature of fylgjur.
Magic Songs and Animal Familiars
When Aschenputtel bargains with her stepmother to go to the king’s festival and her stepmother levies the condition that she must first pick lentils from the ashes on the hearth in two hours’ time, Aschenputtel calls on birds to help her:
“You tame pigeons, you turtle-doves, and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick
the good into the pot,
the bad into the crop.”
Then two white pigeons came in by the kitchen window, and afterwards the turtle-doves, and at last all the birds beneath the sky, came whirring and crowding in, and alighted amongst the ashes. And the pigeons nodded with their heads and began pick, pick, pick, pick, and the rest began also pick, pick, pick, pick, and gathered all the good grains into the dish. Hardly had one hour passed before they had finished, and all flew out again.
Aschenputtel’s ability to command “all the birds beneath the sky,” led again by white birds, to do her bidding is undeniably magical. In addition, her call bears a striking resemblance to galdralag, the Norse magical poetic meter, with its alliteration (“tame…turtle,” “birds beneath”) and the echoing rhyme of the last two lines. Galdralag was employed in galdr, a type of magic that involved singing or chanting incantations. Galdr is attested in sagas and eddas as a method of preventing fires, hastening childbirth, raising the dead, and countless other boons. It could certainly be used to call on animals for aid in accomplishing tasks, such as the ones set before Aschenputtel.
When her stepmother and stepsisters go to the festival without her, she goes again to the hazel and appeals to the white bird for help:
“Shiver and quiver, my little tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me.”
Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver. She put on the dress with all speed, and went to the wedding.
Once again, she uses magic to acquire what she cannot by other means, and she does so with metered and rhymed couplets and through the aid of a familiar — all traditional methods of witchcraft.
The two white pigeons that arrived to help her pick out the lentils remain in her service throughout the story, later perching on the hazel tree (like the first white bird, and perhaps being a variation of it) and acting as truth-tellers for the prince:
[The prince and the first stepsister] were obliged, however, to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried,
“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
there’s blood within the shoe,
the shoe it is too small for her,
the true bride waits for you.”
Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was trickling from it.
The same happens with the second stepsister. When Aschenputtel rides in the carriage with the prince, the pigeons alter their tune accordingly:
“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
no blood is in the shoe,
the shoe is not too small for her,
the true bride rides with you.”
And when they had cried that, the two came flying down and placed themselves on Cinderella’s shoulders, one on the right, the other on the left, and remained sitting there.
It should be clear by this point that these birds, like the first white bird, are not ordinary birds but familiar spirits. They sing in human language and are strongly associated with the hazel branch-turned-tree, which (as I’ve mentioned) acts as a kind of spiritual channel in much the same the way that witches’ staves, brooms, and wands traditionally do. The pigeons serve as spiritual emissaries to protect Aschenputtel and carry out her wishes.
Illusion and Revelation
Another of Aschenputtel’s powers that is often overlooked is her ability to disguise herself from her stepmother and sisters at the festival.
Her step-sisters and the step-mother however did not know her, and thought she must be a foreign princess, for she looked so beautiful in the golden dress. They never once thought of Cinderella, and believed that she was sitting at home in the dirt, picking lentils out of the ashes.
While this is usually attributed to their vanity and low opinion of Aschenputtel, this seems a weak explanation to me. Certainly, her stepmother and stepsisters had seen her clean and in fine clothes when their families first joined together; why wouldn’t they recognize her now? What’s even more astounding is that they assume her to be “a foreign princess,” which is quite a departure from her actual appearance — not only does she not look like herself, but she looks foreign.
Aschenputtel’s ability to delude her enemies is contrasted by the prince’s recognition of her when he visits her house and bids her to try on the slipper:
And when she rose up and the king’s son looked at her face he recognized the beautiful maiden who had danced with him and cried, “That is the true bride.”
The only believable explanation for this selective delusion is the use of magic to mask or reveal her identity at will. Seidr practitioners were renowned for their ability to confuse minds and deceive sight. As the Viking Answer Lady writes:
The use of seiðr to affect the mind, with forgetfulness, delusion, illusion, or fear, a sudden mental or even a physical fog is the hallmark of this type of magic. This is called sjónhverfing, the magical delusion or “deceiving of the sight” where the seið-witch affects the minds of others so that they cannot see things as they truly are (Jochens, Old Norse Magic and Gender, 313).
She goes on to explain that these powers are well-attested in various sagas, such as the Eyrbyggja saga:
As the men approached the house, Katla told Odd to sit beside her without moving, while she sat spinning yarn. Arnkell and his men searched the house, but saw nothing beside Katla but a distaff. They returned a second time, to find Katla in the porch; she was combing Odd’s hair, but it seemed to them that she was grooming her goat. The third time Odd was lying in a heap of ashes, and they thought it was Katla’s boar sleeping there.
Similarly, Aschenputtel makes herself appear as a foreign princess at the festival in the eyes of her stepmother and stepsisters, but the prince sees her as she truly is, and he recognizes her as soon as he places the lost slipper on her foot.
Aschenputtel the Witch
Finally, let’s return to the role of the pigeons as emissaries carrying out Aschenputtel’s wishes. After picking out lentils from the ashes and revealing the truth to the prince, the birds also perform another service on Aschenputtel’s behalf:
When the wedding with the king’s son was to be celebrated, the two false sisters came and wanted to get into favor with Cinderella and share her good fortune. When the betrothed couple went to church, the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards as they came back the elder was at the left, and the younger at the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness all their days.
Far from being the selfless, forgiving soul that other versions of the tale present her to be, Aschenputtel exacts revenge for her years of abuse. This is certainly an instance where the term “witchcraft” is 100% applicable — Aschenputtel reveals herself to be capable of doing harm as well as other, more beneficent forms of magic previously shown, placing her well within the historical context of powerful, ethically and morally ambiguous magical practitioners.
Far from the helpless victim rescued from poverty and mistreatment by a prince, Aschenputtel shows cunning, agency, magical knowledge, and even a desire to exact revenge on those who hurt her. She wins her prince through her own subversive magical efforts, rather than by luck and beauty alone. She casts illusions as well as reveals truths. Her helping spirits and the wild birds that come to her aid do so not because of her innocence but because she has the knowledge and power to call them. Aschenputtel, rather than a damsel in distress, is a powerful figure — a wise woman, a witch — and should be honored as one.
Chickens are humble animals. They’re heavy, mostly earthbound birds, spending their days pecking at the ground, clucking or crowing (not exactly musical), bobbing their heads as they strut around the farmyard. In media, they’re often depicted as fussy and silly — think Foghorn Leghorn and Prissy in Looney Tunes cartoons, or Lady Cluck in Robin Hood. They don’t exactly radiate mysterious elegance in the way that cats and rabbits do. However, when we look closely at European folk tales and medieval lore, we see that chickens very much had a significant place in European folk magic.
Mounts and Spirit Doubles
In his hugely important (and under-read) work Northern Mythology, folklorist Benjamin Thorpe sets down into writing a wealth of legends and lore from Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands. Many of these stories include the use of certain animals by witches and other magical practitioners, and in many cases, these are chickens. A typical story in the collection is as follows:
“One night, when the peasant was gone to bed, but the wife was alone in the kitchen, in came Hans, as usual, and saw how she was anointing first her grey he-cat and then her own feet with some ointment or salve. ‘What art thou doing here?’ said he… ‘I am going to the Blocksberg,’ answered she, ‘and if thou canst keep from babbling, thou mayest go with me, and be my servant.’ Thereupon she desired him to fetch the black cock, and when both animals had been smeared with the ointment, there in one instant stood before them a grey horse and black stallion.” (81-82)
Thorpe also notes a belief that the enchanted emperor Frederic Barbarossa (in effect, the German King Arthur) lies entombed in a sleep-like enchantment in the Kyffhauser, guarded (and possibly enchanted) by a mysterious man riding either a horse or a cock (101).
The correlation between the cock and the horse is interesting. Horses are spiritually potent animals in many Indo-European indigenous beliefs, related to fae, elves, goddesses, and other powerful beings. In the excerpt above, a cock is used in spirit flight after being transformed into a horse. In the latter bit of lore, they are interchangeable as mounts for spirits. Thus, like other birds (such as geese and hawks), they seem to be strongly associated with the powers of spirit travel.
Substitutes in Sacrifice
In lore about the river-dwelling Nickelman, or Nixie, Thorpe notes that “in Thale they were formerly obliged annually to throw a black cock into the Bode [River]; for if they omitted to do so, someone would certainly die within the year” (87). Lecouteux makes note of this kind of sacrifice several times in his examination of household spirits in The Tradition of Household Spirits, one example being:
“An old woman holding a black chicken in her hand entered the first room; once she passed over the doorsill, she secured the bird between her legs and slit its throat with the blade of a knife. She poured its blood in front of the house and when the animal was on the verge of expiring, she spilled the last drops on the threshold. The dead bird would then be roasted and served at the meal following the sacrifice.
The witness questioned the old woman, who answered him as follows.
‘It is to avoid one of the inhabitants of this house dying during the next year. I do the same thing for all new construction…'” (29).
Lecouteux explains that when a new house was constructed, the nature spirit dwelling on the land would be compelled to become the spirit of the home. In order to appease this spirit, who would be offended that its home was being violated and occupied, a sacrifice would have to be made — human or animal. There are ancient accounts and archaeological evidence of humans being walled up in the home or laid in the foundation, but as time passed, animal sacrifice superceded that of humans.
I’ll take this time to note the recurrence of the color black, which we’ve seen above and will recur as we go on. Lecouteux explains that “among the Votes of Joenpera [in Finland]…before building, the ground would be worked while holding a black rooster by the wings, because it was said evil spirits feared the color black.” Therefore, black was a protective, warding color, meant to repel evil and protect the living.
Chickens also feature as sacrificial substitutes in folk tales, namely “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Seven Ravens.” In “The Seven Ravens,” a girl who is looking for her long-lost brothers (turned into ravens) comes to the stars for help:
“When the morning star arose, it gave her a chicken bone, and said, ‘Without that chicken bone you cannot open the glass mountain, and your brothers are inside the glass mountain.'”
However, she loses the chicken bone before reaching the glass mountain and sacrifices one of her fingers to use as a key in its place. It’s important to note the soul-retrieval theme in “The Seven Ravens” — the girl enters into the Otherworld to reclaim her brothers, receives help from other spirits, frees and heals her brothers of their ailments (their transformation into ravens), and brings them home again.
“Hansel and Gretel” flips the scenario: the witch wants to touch Hansel’s finger to test its fatness, but Hansel holds out “a little bone” to the poor-sighted witch instead, which convinces her that he’s still too thin for eating. While the story doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a chicken’s bone, it’s reasonable to assume as much because a) he is a child, and the size of the bone must be roughly equivalent to the size of his actual finger, and b) chickens were such essential fixtures in (especially rural) households in the past. It is interesting that folklorists Iona and Peter Opie consider this tale to belong to “a group of European tales especially popular in the Baltic regions, about children outwitting ogres into whose hands they have involuntarily fallen.” With “ogre” being a word of French origin (possibly derived from a word in the Etruscan language), it is more likely that the beings mentioned were more akin to giants (jotnar) or other semi-divine figures.
Each story shows the use of chicken bones as sacrificial objects to supernatural beings, either to escape death or gain entry into other realms, as decoys for human sacrifice, very much echoing Thorpe’s and Lecouteux’s research findings.
Roosters, or cocks, often serve as harbingers of light, both in a literal sense (crowing at dawn) and metaphorical sense. Dawn, the first light of day, is (forgive the pun) illuminating. People have long feared the night for its ability to limit our visibility — we can hear, smell, taste, and touch in darkness, but we cannot see, and this allows all sorts of frightening notions to take hold. Darkness is the unknown and uncontrollable. Distinctions are lost, and everything melds into a blank wholeness. In lore, this is when devils reign, preying on our blindness, fear, and uncertainty. Daylight limits darkness to shadows and reveals things as they are, thus forcing the devils into hiding until night comes again. With roosters traditionally being the first signal that dawn is approaching, they often figure in folklore as animals that ward off devils with their crowing.
Thorpe mentions several similar stories of a devil or other malevolent spirit offering to build something for a man in exchange for his life or soul. In each, the man (usually a farmer, builder, or smith) or his wife crows at night, causing the cock to crow in response well before dawn, which in turn frightens off the devil before he can demand payment for the work done.
Thorpe also briefly records an interesting belief that when a rooster turns either seven or twenty years old, “it lays an egg, out of which comes an animal, which is the basilisk” (29). Perhaps, then, the rooster is also a harbinger of danger, being the forebear of the deadly mythic King of Serpents.
Roosters are also reputed to be seers and/or truth-tellers, which is related to the “harbinger of light” theme in that truth is often associated with light. One example of this is in “Frau Holle,” in which two sisters descend into Frau Holle’s realm through a well. When they return, each with their well-earned reward or punishment, the cock at their household cries out to their mother: “Cock-a-doodle-do! Your golden/dirty girl’s come back to you!” (135-136). The rooster crowing at each of the girl’s return echoes its crowing at dawn, in that it serves as the harbinger of the reveal of each girl’s true nature and value.
In “The Bremen Town Musicians,” the rooster tells the other animals that “I just prophesied good weather…because it is Our Dear Lady’s Day, when she washes the Christ Child’s shirts and wants to dry them.” Here, the rooster is explicitly associated with weather prophecy — something not taken lightly by our agrarian ancestors. For them, good weather meant a good season, which meant a good harvest, which was good fortune. The implication in the story is that roosters were believed to provide an accurate weather prophecy. This joins nicely with the theme of the rooster-as-harbinger and truth-teller.
Chickens overall can also be considered harbingers of good luck or wish fulfillment. Many of us are familiar with the tradition of pulling on a “wishbone” (the furcula of a turkey or, originally, a chicken) with another person until it breaks, the act of which confers luck to the winner of the largest piece. This could be considered an act of divination (connecting even the bones with prophetic powers), but it could also be understood as an apotropaic act that drives away bad luck, leaving only the good.
Henwives and Wisdom
The rooster’s prophetic abilities and chickens’ overall association with spirit flight and other magical acts help to explain the role of the henwife in folk tales. These women often have small but crucial roles in plot development by way of their soothsaying abilities and occult wisdom. The fact that they are intentionally and specifically associated with hens, or chickens, (keeping in mind that nearly every household kept chickens, and yet not all women were called henwives) suggests that their abilities, at least in part, were linked to magical work with chickens in some form. Henwives are most notable in folk tales of the British Isles such as “Kate Crackernuts,” “Catskin,” and “Childe Rowland,” which I will discuss here.
In “Kate Crackernuts,” Kate’s jealous mother enlists the help of a henwife in order to ruin Kate’s step-sister’s beauty. After some failed attempts, the henwife magically replaces the sister’s head with that of a sheep, satisfying the queen. This event sets honest, devoted Kate off on a long, heroic journey with her beloved sister in tow that eventually leads to their happy ending — the return of the sister’s original head, along with wealth and marriage to princes for both of them.
In the English version of “Catskin,” the eponymous protagonist seeks out the counsel of a henwife, an act that ultimately leads to the girl leaving home in a catskin coat. The henwife’s role in this story is more mundane — she provides the girl with advice on how to waylay an undesired marriage and, eventually, escape the situation altogether. This, as in “Kate Crackernuts,” leads Catskin on a long journey that tries her cunning as well as virtue before leading to a happy ending.
In the above stories, the henwife’s knowledge is the key plot catalyst, which could not move forward without her, and this knowledge is be both occult and mundane. She provides practical advice as well as spell-work, and women seek her out to remedy all kinds of problems. In many ways, she is a subversive character, defying the desires of the king, who is the ultimate symbol of patriarchy (in “Kate,” the henwife acts against the king’s daughter; in “Catskin,” she helps the king’s daughter escape a marriage that he has pushed on her). She is the character who provides other women in the stories with free agency. And much of this is due — either explicitly or implied — to her supernatural powers in association with chickens.
“Childe Rowland” is unique from the above tales in many ways, one being that it features a fairy henwife, who while supernatural provides much the same service as her human counterparts. When Rowland enters Faerie through a mound and asks a fairy horse-herd where to find the king’s castle, the horse-herd says uncertainly, “I cannot tell thee…but go on a little further and thou wilt come to the cow-herd, and he, maybe, can tell thee.” The cow-herd’s reply to the same question begins similarly: “I can’t tell thee.” However, his advice to seek out yet another individual differs from the horse-herd’s in its certainty: “but go on a little further, and thou wilt come to the hen-wife, and she is sure to know.” Compare the italicized phrases — while the horse-herd says that the cow-herd might know, the cow-herd is certain that the hen-wife knows.
Sure enough, the henwife tells him where to go:
“‘Go on a little further,’ said the hen-wife, ’till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times ‘widershins’, and each time say:
‘Open, door! open, door!
And let me come in.’
and the third time the door will open, and you may go in.'”
Clearly, the henwife occupies a significant, if subtle, position in lore. As writer Terri Windling points out:
“The Hen Wife [is] related to the witch, the seer, and the herbalist, but different from them too: a distinct and potent archetype of her own, an enchanted figure beneath a humble white apron. We find her dispensing wisdom and magic in the folk tales of the British Isles and far beyond (all the way to Russia and China): a woman who is part of the community, not separate from it like the classic ‘witch in the woods’; a woman who is married, domesticated like her animal familiars, and yet conversant with women’s mysteries, sexuality, and magic.”
So often, we envision magical practitioners as being separate from society, living on its outskirts, and indeed this was the case for many practitioners. But here we see that this was not always true. Like the hen, the henwife was a regular fixture of humble, everyday life — one that clearly included an element of mysticism and folk magic.
So yes, chickens are fussy, rotund, and humble. But why should that deny them power? If we magical practitioners allow them to, they can take us on journeys to other realms, provide spiritual protection against malevolent forces, unlock forbidden doors, reveal truth, and more. By reconnecting with them, we can perhaps regain a little of what was lost — that earthy, messy magic that still runs deep in some of us.