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Witches Incognito: The Goose Girl (and Her Mother, and the Chambermaid)

(Note: I recommend first reading the story here if you haven’t before. It makes this post easier to follow.)

Some stories resonate with a specific kind of magical practice.  For “The Goose Girl,” it’s protective magic. In a culture where magic and witchcraft is often sanitized, limited to candle lighting, meditation, and personal affirmations (all of which have their place but certainly don’t encompass all magical practice), saying “protective magic” probably inspires images of enveloping white light, salt circles, and sage bundles. But traditional magical practice is more than that — more provocative, more mysterious, more visceral. It is physical, often involving the practitioner’s own body parts or parts of animals, just as likely to call up the spirits of the dead as nature spirits. These magical acts are often considered “dark magic,” yet all of these acts are performed in “The Goose Girl” by the characters that we identify as good: the goose girl and her mother.

Witchcraft is historically defined by magical acts that transgress social mores and defy taboos, but mores and taboos are fluid, shifting over time as cultures change. In the past, when this story was primarily in oral circulation, these acts were believed to be natural, if not by the church then by the common folk who preserved their cultural memory through folklore. The use of one’s own blood, horse skulls, and weather manipulation wasn’t reserved for malignant magic — it could protect.

The Drops of Blood

Before the princess leaves her home, her mother gives her a bloodied handkerchief:

“When the hour of departure had come, the old mother went into her bedroom, took a small knife and cut her fingers with it until they bled. Then she held out a small white cloth and let three drops of blood fall into it. She gave them to her daughter, saying, ‘Take good care of these. They will be of service to you on your way.'”

Here, blood magic has a maternal, protective power. Blood is a necessary part of our bodies; blood is life. Moreover, it (like other elements of our bodies) contains our DNA, which we share with our ancestors and descendants. Not only is blood intensely personal and therefore specific, it connects us to our wider network of relations.

The blood contains some of the power of the princess’s mother, the queen, and this power serves as a shield. Sure enough, on the journey, the princess is protected from the brunt of her chambermaid’s envy, who only is able to seize ownership of the horse Falada when the handkerchief is washed away:

“the chambermaid saw what happened, and she rejoiced to think that she now had power over the bride, for by losing the drops of blood, the princess had become weak and powerless.”

This creates a shift in power dynamics that cannot be reversed until the very end. It’s unclear why Falada was inaccessible to the chambermaid before this, or what purpose the horse serves during his life in the story, but everything changes once the drops of blood are lost.

The Talking Horse

Falada is an interesting character. He has the power to speak, and it’s apparent that everyone (not just the princess) can understand his speech, even after he’s been killed, but no more is said about him. It raises quite a few questions: Is he a familiar spirit dwelling in the body of a horse? Is he a horse-formed elfish creature? Or does he have some sort of spell placed on him by the queen that enables him to speak? While today we tend to view fairies and familiar spirits as bodiless, ethereal beings, historical descriptions of them by cunning folk and witches were, to quote Emma Wilby,

“clearly defined, three-dimensional human or animal forms, vivid with colour and animated by movement and sound… [and] ordinariness was the norm…  Even in less detailed confessions than Bessie [Dunlop]’s, there is still a pervading sense of naturalism” (61).

In folklore, witches in their shapeshifted animal forms as well as their familiars were physical beings: they could be injured, and this injury would also manifest on the human body of the witch. Thorpe records a story from northern Germany about an old woman who transformed into a hare:

“But once, when they were going out to mow, one of the men provided himself with a silver button, with which he loaded his piece and shot the hare. On his return in the evening he found the old woman with a wound in her arm which would never heal” (27).

So it is conceivable (although not certain by any means) that the horse is a familiar (or faery) spirit of some kind, who was given to the princess/goose girl by her mother. The fact that he is a horse and not another kind of animal is significant. Horses are often bearers of souls to the afterlife in Germanic lore, and horses are connected to both Freyr and Odin in myth and lore — powerful deities of fertility and royal power (Rowsell 16). Falada is, in multiple ways, a symbol of the princess’s birthright — a gift from her mother, and a symbol of both royal and magical power. When the chambermaid takes him, she is effectively usurping the princess’s power, and her attempt to destroy him is also an attempt to destroy that power. And yet, we see that this power cannot be destroyed, even as it changes form.

After Falada’s death, the princess (now a goose girl) shows that she has some magical knowledge after all and becomes an actor rather than a bystander in her own story:

“she secretly promised to pay the knacker a piece of gold if he would perform a small service for her. In the town there was a large dark gateway, through which she had to pass with the geese each morning and evening. Would he be so good as to nail Falada’s head beneath the gateway, so that she might see him again and again?”

The phrasing of this passage can be read two ways: that the goose girl really did just want to see her beloved horse’s head and had no necromantic designs; or the goose girl had knowledge of this kind of magic (presumably from her mother) and used it as the only way to ensure her safety. The latter seems more likely, given the secrecy she employs and her payment of the knacker for the bribe. The tone of this section is rife with irony, shifting starkly from the straightforward tone of the rest of the story: “if he would perform a small service”; “would he be so good”; etc. It’s as if the goose girl’s true voice breaks through, revealing her hidden cunning.

The knacker performs this task for her, and each day the goose girl visits Falada’s severed head to briefly commune with him day to day. Claude Lecouteux notes that in Germany there was a belief that a horse’s head “nailed to the door of farmhouses will counter all evil spells” (52). It is therefore meaningful that the goose girl asks the knacker to nail Falada’s head to the gate — she is using magical knowledge to protect herself through Falada’s spirit, which is connected to his head, the seat of the soul.

Like blood magic, necromancy is viewed today as one of those things that Bad, Scary Witches do. But, here, it’s the innocent, victimized protagonist, the one for whom the reader is innately drawn to have compassion and support. It turns out that she’s not quite the leaf-in-the-wind she appears to be in the rest of the story, which raises questions about why she doesn’t act sooner to right the wrongs of the chambermaid.

The Chambermaid

The chambermaid is an interesting character. She is never explicitly stated to be a magical practitioner, but it’s the only answer that sufficiently explains why the princess is bound to silence and submission in spite of her status, her magical knowledge, and the protective workings of her mother. My sense is that the chambermaid learned magical practices from the queen, or vice versa, and was a more powerful (or more experienced) witch than the goose girl. This could have been why she was sent with the goose girl to her new home: to protect the goose girl with magic, just as Falada and the drops of blood were. This would explain why the chambermaid was able to so easily take possession of Falada and silence the princess once the drops of blood — the queen’s thread to her daughter — were lost. She could finally use her powers freely.

With this power, the chambermaid is able to compel the princess to swear an oath not to speak of their power shift:

“the princess had to swear under the open heaven that she would not say one word of this to anyone at the royal court. If she had not taken this oath, she would have been killed on the spot.”

In ancient Germanic cultures, honor and truthfulness were highly prized. Dishonesty was a grave flaw, and people took oaths very seriously because it reflected on their character. Gregory L. Laing notes that oath-making had a spiritual as well as legal component, and to break an oath risked not only material consequences but spiritual consequences as well (27-28). Thus, oaths were magical in themselves, and to swear them was to be bound by a power greater than those who engaged in it.

The Magic Refrain

The power of words recurs again and again throughout the story. Like the drops of blood, Falada’s severed head repeats the story’s refrain:

“Alas, young queen, passing by,
If this your mother knew,
Her heart would break in two.”

This refrain seems to invoke the mother (specifically, her knowledge and her heart) and therefore her protective power. While it certainly isn’t a perfect shield from misfortune, it does seem to maintain a certain level of protection, considering the power of the drops of blood and the cost of losing them. These words keep the very worst from happening: perhaps they’re the very thing that keeps the chambermaid from killing the princess, encourages the king to employ her as a goose girl instead of turning her away entirely, and provokes the king to ask questions of Conrad and the goose girl that eventually lead to the story’s resolution. The magic is subtle but crucial.

The goose girl utters the refrain while inside the stove, which, being made of iron, is a barrier against all magic and is the only place where she can confess the truth — perhaps the loophole in the chambermaid’s binding spell. This is where the story reaches its second critical moment. On the surface, the magical refrain seems to be a natural thing to say — a mere expression of frustration — but considering that both the drops of blood and Falada’s head uttered these words and thus provided a shield, this is clearly a magical act. After she states these words in her confession, the king arranges for her return to her position of power. Perhaps these words put luck in her favor.

The Wind

There are other words that the goose girl knows to protect herself. She employs magical couplets to manipulate the wind — a form of weather magic, which has a long tradition of practice by witches. Conrad, the goose-herd, wants to take strands of the goose girl’s hair, and she puts him off by combing her hair and saying:

“Blow, blow, thou gentle wind, I say
Blow Conrad’s little hat away
And make him chase it here and there
Until I have braided all my hair
And bound it up again.”

This, of course, can (and perhaps should) be read as a form of protection from sexual assault. Hair has long been considered sexually powerful and deeply intimate: consider hair-binding and head-covering traditions throughout Europe and elsewhere. Like blood, it is a part of the body and contains DNA — the building blocks of human life. As a goose girl, the princess has no agency to protect herself in other ways, so she employs a magical act and magical words to manipulate the wind. And, because she has power, it works.

The Politics of Magic

It’s interesting to me that the powerfully magical figures in “The Goose Girl” are all women. No men perform magic here, although history and folklore are full of cunning men, priests, and male witches who hold and utilize magical knowledge. Yet in this story, the men are merely pawns manipulated, deterred, and won. Magic — subtle as it is — is how the women in the story protect themselves and those they love, advance themselves socioeconomically, and mask and reveal truths, which makes “The Goose Girl” an unexpectedly feminist story. Perhaps this is why magic came to be viewed by the Church as so threatening, and why people who held this power were either celebrated (if they conformed to societal norms, like the princess/goose girl) or punished (if they did not, like the chambermaid). Magic itself is morally neutral, and how magical practitioners are viewed depends heavily upon cultural mores. Which raises the questions: What is considered witchcraft today? What does that say about our society, about us?

Works Cited

Laing, Gregory L. “Bound by Words: Oath-taking and Oath-breaking in Medieval lceland and Anglo-Saxon England.” Dissertations 382.  Western Michigan University, 2014. Last accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

Rowsell, Thomas. Riding to the Afterlife: The Role of Horses in Early Medieval North-western Europe. University College of London, 2012. Last accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 3. Lumley, 1852. Last accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

Wilby, Emma. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

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