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.