Mother Holle belongs to more worlds than the world of the Grimms brothers. Mother Holle is referenced outside of the Grimms collection and is considered something of a fairy in some circles. She makes an appearance in my Encyclopedia of Fairies.
This most likely means that the idea of Mother Holle has been around for much longer than the Grimms collection has existed. The idea of Mother Holle most likely will predate the Grimms collection by at least a hundred years, if not more. You have to think about how many times this story has been told and the other mythologies that have risen up around this story. There are plenty concerning Mother Holle, so she has had some time to circulate.
Once upon a time there was a woman who had two daughters. One daughter was her own and the other was her step-daughter. She, of course, loved her own daughter more. She tasked her step-daughter with doing the spinning by a well in the middle of the road. She had to do this all the time, until her fingers bled from spinning. When this story talks about spinning, we’re not talking about a spinning wheel. We’re talking about hand spinning, with a shuttle. I can imagine it was a time-intensive process. This is another indicator that this story precedes the Grimms collection by some time.
One day the girl dropped her shuttle in the well. She told her cold-hearted step-mother, who told her that she must get it out and offered no help. The girl was so distraught that she jumped in the well. To her surprise she was not drowning, but she was in a meadow. It was a strange place.
She came to an oven where loaves of bread were baking and they could talk. They were calling to her asking her to take them out of the oven before they were burned. The girl complied. Then she came to an apple tree full of apples. The apples called to her and asked her to shake the tree because they were ripe. The girl did this. Then she came to an old woman and her cottage. The old woman had very large teeth. She told the girl that she could come and keep her house and she would be kept very well. It was very important that she make the bed properly. She told the girl that she must shake the bed until feathers fly because then it snows on Earth. The girl lived with Mother Holle for a while and was content, but she was sad. She missed her family.
One day she told Mother Holle that she must go home to see her family. Mother Holle was very kind and glad that the girl wanted to see her family. Before she left, she showered the girl with gold. The girl went home and was glad to see her family and they were glad to see the gold on her.
The step-mother wished that her own daughter could get some of this good fortune, so she sent her to spin by the well. The girl didn’t want to spin until her fingers bled so she pricked her finger on a thorn and rubbed her blood on the shuttle, which she then threw down the well. She jumped down after it to find herself in the same meadow. She came upon the loaves of bread asking to be taken out of the oven, the girl didn’t take the loaves of bread out for fear of getting dirty. The girl came to the apple tree, but didn’t shake it. Then she came to Mother Holle. The girl tried really hard on the first day to be diligent and do all the housework. On the second day, she became lazy. On the third day, she became even lazier. On the fourth day, she didn’t get out of bed at all.
She decided it was time to go home and told Mother Holle. The girl expected to get gold like her step-sister, but was surprised when Mother Holle rained down pitch upon the girl instead of gold. The girl went home and no one could get the pitch off of her as long as she lived.
I have already mentioned that Mother Holle is a folklore figure that has been around. She did not come into being when the Grimms gathered up their collection. She existed for much longer. How much longer I cannot say.
The deal with the well reminded me of the movie Enchanted. It’s a cute movie by the way. In that movie people are also transported to a different world when they fall down the well. One place is Earth and the other is not. I don’t know how much of a part the idea of a well plays in this tale. It does serve as the portal between two worlds. As long as there have been wells, there have been people falling down wells. Perhaps the wells weren’t very deep and others could see that the unfortunate soul who had fallen in was dead, but perhaps the well was so deep no one could see. You would have to use your imagination about what happened to that person’s body, especially if you were not around during the well’s creation. People have had interesting ideas about holes in the Earth throughout history. You have to take that into consideration when reading a story about something as common-place as a well. I know that if you live in the city, you probably don’t have much of an idea about the importance of a well, but trust me, it’s important.
Mother Holle transcends the idea of simply being a good soul. With the idea that she can make it snow on Earth, that elevates her to some other sort of supernatural being. Whether Mother Holle is intended as a goddess or what, I do not know. I am really going to have to look into the idea of Mother Holle more if I ever get the chance. Mother Holle has power over the elements, at least over the element of snow. That’s significant. Even though we’ve had people who cast spells and curses in the Grimms collection so far, we haven’t really had any being that has power over the weather. That’s a big deal. We don’t control the weather. Controlling the weather puts you on par with gods and goddesses. We haven’t discussed the idea of gods and goddesses in the Grimms series so far. You can really tell that this story is from a different time than many of the other tales.
We’re back to our good old number three. The girls have three challenges. Each of them must take the bread out of the oven, shake the apples from the tree, and take care of Mother Holle’s house. We also have three days in which the bad sister works before she doesn’t get out of bed.
Again, we have this idea that obedience is rewarded. That is important. I grew up in a sub-culture where obedience is a big deal. I was constantly told that obedience is this huge quality that you should always posses. It’s like a skill you can list on your resume. Likewise, in the times when the Grimms brothers were around, obedience was an important quality in children and essentially everyone. You were supposed to be obedient to your parents. You were supposed to be obedient to your husband. You were supposed to be obedient to your rulers. It was a pretty big deal. It makes sense that a story would be told concerning the idea of being obedient.
Those of us who are parents, want children to be obedient, at least it’s this dream people have. I am sure there were some exasperated parents who wanted their children to behave so they told them stories about good children getting rewarded and bad children being punished. The bad child in this story was stuck with pitch upon her for the rest of her life. That’s kind of like how you tell a kid that if they keep making funny faces, their face will stick like that forever.
In real life, we aren’t really rewarded per se for being obedient. We might be rewarded in a sense of karma, but we don’t get called down to the local police station to receive a plaque for not running stop signs. We are generally not actively rewarded for being obedient. If we follow traffic laws things don’t immediately go our way. In fact, you can follow all the traffic laws you want, but still end up in a car accident because someone else isn’t following the traffic laws. With all of this said, I’m kind of on the line about this story. Sure, you could tell this story to your kids, but are they immediately going to expect to be rewarded for listening to you when you tell them to clean their room? Maybe you have a secret stash of tootsie pops, but we all know, you are not going to reward your kid every time they decided to do the things you tell them. Obedience does not have an immediate reward. It’s a long-term investment.
You can be punished in a fairly timely manner when you choose not to be obedient though. Obedience and disobedience work on different scales. Yes, people who are disobedient do get more attention, which totally sucks. We all had one of those siblings who was constantly getting into trouble and thus getting all the attention from mom and dad while we were sitting at the table eating our peas. We know what it’s like to be the obedient person looked over for the disobedient person. We continue being obedient because we do believe at one point we will be rewarded.
Why do I mention all of this? I mention all of this because the idea of Mother Holle rewarding the good sister seemingly right away from her good deeds is unrealistic. Look, I know it’s a fairy tale and by definition it cannot be realistic, but you have to hang with me here, fairy tales have many elements of real life; you just have to look past all the fairy. This isn’t the way the world works. You do not get rewarded for following traffic laws, at best, your reward for being a good driver is maybe not getting your car smashed in. You can get punished rather speedily on the other hand for disobeying traffic laws. That part of the story is more realistic.
I really need to look into the idea of Mother Holle more. I would like to know what other facets she covers and what else she does. This story is pretty clean, so really no worries about anything too scary for the kids.
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Grimm’s Fairy Tales