Dark Lessons: Cannibalism in Classic Fairy Tales

Gustave Doré's engraving of the scene: "She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked"
Gustave Doré's engraving of the scene: "She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked" | Source

The popular modern children’s fairy tale has evolved through a multitude of cultures over multiple centuries. In his essay “The Struggle for Meaning”, Bruno Bettelheim argues that the fairy-tale provides the child with information about death, aging, and poverty and many other issues that the typical “safe” story would never even attempt to conquer. While such may be true, the case can be made that much of the power behind the “punch” of these stories has been reduced over the centuries as the sensitivity towards children in society has increased and in turn reduced its tolerance of the gruesome. Originally more universally applicable, the dark fairy tales of the past have become the fluffy delights of children’s bedtimes and family outings to the theater. Notably altered in some the most popular and beloved fairy tales today is the incidence of cannibalism. Taboo in nearly all cultures, cannibalism, which at one time played an integral part in but was almost completely removed from some of today’s most cherished fairy tales. Over the centuries children’s fairy tales have evolved from darkly symbolic expositions to more palatable and sanitized tales of morality that reflect current social standard. Three stories that illustrate this process and are ubiquitous with children today through out the world are Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White.

Many, if not all, tales have undergone a revising process. Revisions, however, are instructive as they show, in this case, the evolution of meaning and importance of the cannibal figure. That is to say that the oral or manuscript versions of the tales still fall necessarily under the sway of the socio-cultural ideas of their day. Thus, each revision in its own way has been significantly reliant on the comprehension and reception of the topics in the tales, here most importantly the idea and use of cannibalism.

These tales were conceived, passed down through generations, and published at a time when children were thought of as no more than small adults without any special needs above grown people. Fairy tales are more than suspense-filled adventures that excite the imagination, and more than mere entertainment. Long before it was even considered that the experience of these morbid tales could have harmful effects on a child’s psyche these stories were incorporating violence and gore and incest to represent the needs, fears and desires of humankind during the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, life was hard for peasants. Repeated famines exacerbated the poor living conditions of the peasants, often forcing them to sell any meager possessions for food. Sometimes they would eat grass and bark and be forced into cannibalism[2]. During this time period, both boys and girls needed to be instructed in survival skills. The way to survival was to become self-reliant and to live by one's wits. Every member of the family had to be responsible and work hard in order for the family unit to survive. The earliest versions of many fairy tales reflect these qualities, showing the protagonist as surviving by the use of his/her wits[2].

1865 illustration of Tom Thumb and the Giant. Tom is swallowed by a cow, a giant, a fish, and in some extensions, by a miller and a salmon.
1865 illustration of Tom Thumb and the Giant. Tom is swallowed by a cow, a giant, a fish, and in some extensions, by a miller and a salmon. | Source

Charles Perrault's Contes du temps passe (1697) offered one of the earliest collections of "tales" to the reading public, and facilitated the spread of this type of literature through Europe [4]. These tales were arguably the first really exclusive "children's literature." Prior to the seventeenth century, most literature for children revolved around biblical lessons, and any tales told took the form of an oral tradition. However, the first editions of the Grimm's Kinder-und Hausmarchen, were published in 1812 and 1815 and concentrated on sculpting these tales to include morality lessons and religious references. Translated into English in 1823, they have become known as the most popular and permanent tales. However, even with moral additions and subtractions, the tales were not always well received by the scholarly community. The philosophers Kant, Locke, and Rousseau all judged fairy tales unsuitable for children. Fairy tales impede the proper development of reason, according to Kant; they provide undesirable, confusing examples, according to Locke; their superstitious content distorts children's sense of reality, according to Rousseau[5]. Although it is clear that the literary tale is a social, historical and cultural construction, vulnerable to manipulation and reformulation, the aim here is not to explore the historical, cultural or social aspects of tale construction, but rather to focus on the interaction and presentation of cannibalism and its implications.[4]

If it such a widely abhorred subject, why is it that children's literature so often contains anthropophagic themes? No act more aptly demonstrates human beastliness than cannibalism, the subject of the fifth essay, 'Cannibal Tales – The Hunger For Conquest' by Marina Warner. From the Ogre in the fairytale Jack the Giant-Killer who dines on the flesh of Englishmen, to Dante's Inferno, where the damned eat their own and each other's flesh, cannibalism is tied to fears of swallowing and being swallowed; hence, the loss of personal identity[13]. The cannibal character serves many purposes in fairy and folk tales, but usually signifies danger and impending death for the children who happen upon one. We instill the fear of cannibalism in our children with tales of Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel and that fear in turn serves other functions as well. The Seneca of western New YorkState warned their children not to misbehave--or Hagondes, a long-nosed cannibal clown, would steal them away in his basket. The Southern Utes terrified their children with stories of the Siats, cannibals that kidnap children. Female Siats, called bapets, are large and stout, with huge breasts filled with poison milk. Kidnapped children who nurse from these breasts die instantly. This is similar to the Hindu myth, Rakshahsa, in which Putana tried to kill Krishna when he was a baby. When she offered to nurse him at her toxic breasts, however, she was sucked to death by his voracious appetite[9].

Cannibalism, however, is not always connected with barbarousness or monstrousness. Warner cites lovers biting. Or, as she humorously notes, a mother squeezing her child: 'Mmm, you're so good I'm going to eat you'. These images of transgressive acts of intimacy, she informs us, are clearly cannibalistic metaphors. Active social patterns combine with myth, 'defining the forbidden, and the alluring, the sacred and the profane, conjuring demons and heroes, saying who we are and what we want'. In the recent publication of Cannibalism and the Colonial World, participants focused on the cannibal figure's importance in popular culture, finance, and anthropology as well as "postcolonial discussions"[13]. Warner also contributes a chapter on cannibalism in fairy tales that center on "male appetite for babies" discusses the prevalence of cannibalism in tales:

Hop o' my Thumb, one of Perrault's original Mother Goose stories, contains a scene that is reminiscent of our better-known Jack and the Beanstalk. The tiny hero is in the home of an ogre, just as Jack was in the castle of the giant. In both stories, their presence is revealed by their scent--in one case by "the smell of human flesh," in the other by smelling "the blood of an Englishman." This story element, reminiscent of Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops, appears in children's stories from totally unrelated cultures.

Only four stories by Perrault do not feature cannibalism as such (Cinderella, Donkeyskin, The Fairies, and Bluebeard). In the Grimm Brothers' later, seminal anthology, the tally can't be made, as stories of ogres and flesh eating witches are so numerous, and many of them overlap. Yet these collections are the foundation stones of nursery literature in the West [2].

Hansel and Gretel Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909
Hansel and Gretel Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909 | Source

Hansel and Gretel is a story known through out the world by children and adults alike. The story addresses many of the same themes and infantile needs and shares a similar structure with the other stories presented, and is therefore a good starting point of discussion.

Here we have the "real" mother plotting to abandon her children and the father as complicit. The boy takes pebbles with him the next morning, having overheard the plot, and the two are able to follow the stones back to the house, once left in the forest. When they return home, "The father was glad, for he had not done it willingly; but the mother was angry"[12]. Soon the parents attempt to leave the children again in the wood, and the brother tries his pebble trick with bread instead. Birds eat the crumbs and thus the children are left. They wander the forest until finding the hut of a "small old woman." The hut, made of bread and sugar is a welcome sight and the children nibble away. The old woman comes out and asks them in, feeds them and puts them to bed. The next morning, showing her true colors, the woman puts the boy in a stable and prepares to fatten and then cook him. When the oven is hot the old woman asks the girl to crawl in to see if it is ready. The girl feigns stupidity and asks the old woman to show her how it is done. Once the witch is in the oven, the girl slams the door and the woman is roasted. The children then find "the house full of jewels," and gather them to take back home. In this version, the father "becomes a rich man, but the mother was dead.”[12]

Much less criticism exists on Hansel and Gretel as a tale. Perhaps this is because its origins are not so diverse. Perhaps it is because the tale has not been as intensely edited for content as other tales. Nonetheless we find cannibalism as the pivot on which the story turns. The use of terms such as “bad” and “sinful” to describe different foods – and different eating patterns – not only reflects the emotional connotation of food but shows how deeply attitudes about are embedded in the self[4]. The lack of and desire for food ravage every character in the story and gives some insight into the desperation and turmoil with in the peasant communities where the tale was derived.

Hansel and Gretel has not, however, escaped the revision process performed by the Grimm brothers on all their tales during the editions they produced. The major change effected by the Grimms during the revision process from the 1810 manuscript edition to the final product lies in the reshaping of the parental figures and the old woman. In an early version of the tale, both (natural) parents can be seen as "evil" in that they each contribute to the abandonment of their children actively. In subsequent editions, the roles begin to subtly shift so that the father slowly emerges as reluctant victim to the step -mother's evil designs. In this edition, the "old woman" of the manuscript edition becomes "a wicked witch" who "lay in wait for children and had built her little house of bread to tempt them, and whenever one of them got into her power, she killed it, cooked it, and ate it, and that was for her a day to celebrate".[12]

In both cases the children attack the witch's house with apparent greed, and relish their feast. It is clear the house stands for the body on a more symbolic level but it is the witch herself who exhibits the uncontrollable aggressive (cannibalistic) eating patterns. According to Max Luthi, "the witch in Hansel and Gretel is not a person, but a mere figure, a personification of evil." Here the cannibalism of the older woman is amplified. She traps and eats children and celebrates their demise. In both stories cannibalism acts to implant a sense of fear in reader/listener. The children are threatened with being eaten because they indulged in gluttonous temptation, and cannibalism is portrayed as a punishment for their sins.

Little Red Riding Hood - Painting by François Richard Fleury
Little Red Riding Hood - Painting by François Richard Fleury | Source

The origins of the famous folktale, Little Red Riding Hood, can be traced to an oral tradition during the witch persecutions of France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Robert Darnton, a historian of early modern France, argues that the tale provides a window into French society. In the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, as in Hansel and Gretel, food is the root cause of the dangers that must be conquered. While in Hansel and Gretel lack of food (and temptation to eat) causes their problems, in Little Red Riding Hood the story revolves around the sharing of food and the fact that little Red was directed with it to the grandmother's home.

As a story that is unappetizing and perverse it is ultimately a comment on the shadowy side of Christianity. The first published version of the story that was adapted by Perrault from an oral variant. The tale begins with a woman who has a daughter, and one day told her daughter to take some bread and milk to her grandmother’s. The girl complied and along the way she met a wolf. The wolf asked her where she was going and what path she was taking. The girl told him and he said he would take a different path. While the little girl amused herself on her walk, the wolf went to the grandmother’s house, killed her, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed. "Knock, knock." "Come in, my dear." "Hello, grandmother. I've brought you some bread and milk." "Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry." So the little girl ate what was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, "Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!"[12] Then the wolf told her to get undressed and crawl into bed with him. The girl complied and upon his command threw each article of her clothing into the fire as it was removed. She then got into bed with him, acknowledged each of his strange un-grandmotherly features from head to toe, and was devoured.

This is obviously a drastically different story than the one popularized today, and those differences again provide at least some insight into the lower class society of its time. "Perrault's audience still identified the wolf with the bloody werewolf, the devil, the insatiable lust, and chaotic nature, if not with a witch. The wolf as witch may strike readers today as far-fetched, but it was not far from the minds of seventeenth -and eighteenth-century readers."[5] Red Riding Hood engages in anti-Christian acts including the mockery of the mass, cannibalism of a family member, and sexual immorality. Meanwhile, the wolf (alleged witch) engages in a demonic transformation into an animal form, the murder of the grandmother, the wearing of female clothing, and the incitement of a child to acts of cannibalism, followed by descriptions associated with prostitution.

Initially, the girl tries to bring bodily nourishment to her grandmother. Then the inclusion of cannibalism makes arguably the boldest statement in the story. It continues with the very prevalent religious symbolism in a double inversion, as the girl brings bread and milk and is offered meat and wine. This simple act is inverted into a false version of the spiritual nourishment that early modern French society found in the mass. Just as the sacrament involved the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, so the meat and wine offered by the wolf is actually the flesh and blood of the girl's grandmother. Such cannibalism blatantly mocks the mass.[9]

The introduction of a cat that calls the girl a slut because she has engaged in cannibalism provides another central element of tale's meaning. The cat suggests that the girl is engaged in witchcraft. The cat informs the girl that her promiscuous behavior is linked to cannibalism and witchcraft.

Snow White illustration from german children's book entitled Märchenbuch, c1919.
Snow White illustration from german children's book entitled Märchenbuch, c1919. | Source

While Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel revolve around eating concerns, in the next tale the same conflict exists but does not necessarily take "center stage." Right after Snow White is born, her mother dies. The King (another absent father) remarries and Snow White gains a step-mother. In this tale, the Queen is filled with narcissistic pride and will not allow anyone to rival her beauty. The Queen fears Snow White is more beautiful than she, and orders a huntsman to kill the little girl, bringing her Snow White's lungs and liver as proof that she is dead. The huntsman takes pity on the girl and delivers a boar's organs in her stead. The Queen, not knowing this, then orders the cook to "boil them in salt, and the wicked woman ate them and thought she had eaten Snow White's lungs and liver".[10]

The driving impulse behind the cannibalistic moment is not hunger as it is in Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, for the Wicked Queen and Snow White herself are not of a lower class; they are royalty. In this sense, the Queen's desire to eat the child enters a more horrific realm. She does not eat to sustain life, she eats to obliterate Snow White and to, in some way, possess her characteristics. When the Queen returns to her mirror later in the tale, she does so feeling "totally convinced that she was again the most beautiful woman in the realm" because she "believed she had eaten Snow White's liver and lungs".[12]

The danger present for Snow White is exclusively the rage of her mother, and it is not necessarily a rage connected with food retaliation, or a denial of nourishment. Here the cannibalism stands not for the mother's retaliation in terms of feeding, but rather in terms of a sexual jealousy. The cannibal and cannibalism can come to serve many aims. There is no constant here except that we find a primary connection in that it is almost exclusively mother/child oriented. This stands to reflect the stages of conflict between a mother and her children. The cannibalism in these tales also deals with outsider/insider status and the goal of achieving a separate existence for the child apart from the mother ,who in some way threatens to destroy the individual and make it a part of herself once again.[10]

Jonathan Cott, in his study of children's literature, observed that:

"Cannibalism is an obsessive theme in the fairy tale, and we cannot understand the form without solving the mystery. Some scholars have argued that it represents simply a vestigial memory of a time when human beings did in fact eat each other both ritually and in combat; or perhaps rather the vestiges of an attempt to exorcise that primordial hunger and the guilt it occasions..."

Apparently the message to children, in these stories, is that they can succeed in suppressing their ancient fears of being eaten--that is, escape the cannibal within--only through the use of creative rational thought. The children's story is a review, in miniature, of the history of humankind. The children's stories that they tell themselves are the oral survivors of pre-literate societies. Myths and legends preserve significant details of events that have themselves completely vanished.[8]

Children need fairy tales, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to let them know that things will turn out happily for them, that they need not fear monsters, not even the monster they see in themselves. In the end, things turn out fine for the heroes of the tales: Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Brave Little Tailor, Snow White.

Fairy tales are not scientific hypotheses, nor are they practical guides to living. Even though the modern fairy tale no longer expresses as directly the darkness and intensely Macabre shadow side of the human soul, they do still reaffirm the deepest qualities of our humanity and our relationships to others. They enable us to envision a world in which there are rules and limits; a world in which freedom respects moral law or else pays a heavy price. As fairy tales have developed over the centuries they have become less gruesome and less centered on darkly symbolic acts and issues. Instead, they have been deliberately fashioned into lighter tales of morality that not only tantalize the imagination but teach children that ingenuity and principled values will ultimately be their saving grace no matter what obstacle they may encounter. And they do it in a way that entertains, thrills, and is satisfyingly terrifying for children through out the world.

Which versions of classic fairy tales do you prefer?

  • The original gruesome but meaningful tales
  • Today's light-hearted moral tales
  • Everything Disney
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[1] Allen, Gary, “How to Serve Man” presented at the joint annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, June 15, 2002.
[2] Barker, Frances and Peter Hulme eds. Cannibalism and the Colonial World. New York: Cambridge, 1998.
[3] Bettleheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage, 1975.
[4] Cashdan, Sheldon. The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
[5] Cullinan, Bernice and Lee Galda. Literature and the Child, 4th ed. New York: HarcourtBraceCollege, 1998.
[6] Dundes, Alan. "Interpreting Little Red Riding hood Psychoanalytically." The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. James M. McGlathery, ed. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1991.
[7] Fenner, Phillis, The Proof of Pudding: What Children Read,  The John Day Company,  New York, 1957. 
[8] Fromm, Erich. The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding Of Dreams, Fairy tales and Myths. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1951.
[9] Gill, Sam D. and Irene F. Sullivan. Dictionary of Native American Mythology, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1992.
[10] Zipes, Jack , "'Little Red Riding Hood' as Male Creation and Projection," in Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989
[11] Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
[12] ---, ed. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, New York: Bantam, 1988.
[13] Warner, Marina, Six Myths of our Time, New York: Vintage Books, 1995

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