Cannibalism in Story

Danny: “Don't worry, Mom, I know everything about cannibalism. I saw a program on it on TV.”
Jack: “See? It's OK. He saw it on the television.”
–From the movie The Shining

Eat me.”
– Popular Lingo

Cannibalistic Paper Recipe

Cannibalism is one of the few remaining taboos in our society. A subject that many see as vile in the extreme occurs in many stories from all sides of the world, from the aboriginal fable “The Cannibal Woman” (Reed 18) and the Grimm brother’s “Hansel and Gretel,” to modern America, with movies like Ravenous, Alive, American Psycho , and Silence of the Lambs . Through our movies and fiction deal with these issues (even humorously -- Ravenous is a comedy), we are always astounded and horrified to hear tales like Jeffery Dahmer, other serial killers, and the rare but real cannibalistic societies that do exist1.

This work will examine some varieties of the “Hansel and Gretel” type of story from Mexico and Spain, delve into some issues that these stories bring up, such as materialism and child abandonment, and attempt to examine cannibalism in our stories2 using “Hansel and Gretel” as a center.

Themes in Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel.”

Of all the differences between thousands of cultures in the world, all have something in common: they have all dealt with poverty in some fashion. All cultures have had times where the materials needed for survival, be that money, animals, or other goods, are simply unavailable. In “Hansel and Gretel,” according to the Grimm version, this is the reason for the child abandonment. After the father tells his wife about why he doesn’t think he can leave the children (Grimm, 148), his wife tells him: “‘What a fool you are!’ she said. ‘Then we must all four die of hunger. You may as well plane the boards for our coffins at once.’” (Grimm 149). This continual state of poverty, to almost an unbelievable extent, is more acceptable and open to empathy than it would be now simply because of the agrarian as opposed to industrial setting. It is understandable when a farmer suffers from a drought; it’s an “act of God;” however when a factory worker loses his job and his family begins to starve, he should get another job. This is, of course, not simply a personal problem, but a social one as well. In “Hansel and Gretel”, the father makes his living from the land as well, because he is a woodcutter. (Grimm 148)

While poverty may seem like the primary reason for abandoning Hansel and Gretel, it may not be the only one. The Wife in the story does not seem particularly interested in the well being of the children, indeed, it is the father that laments leaving them in the woods. She, in fact, is the one that suggests abandonment in the first place. (Grimm 148) One can read into this as a commentary by the teller of the story that women are emotional and selfish, often looking to their own needs before the needs of their children and the male as emotionally interested in his children. In what becomes a sort of retroactive abortion, they leave the children out in the woods, but the children leave a trail of pebbles back to their house. Allowing the children to return to the home reinforces some of the issues the story takes up with the parents, that being child abandonment and the, once again, selfish nature of the Wife; also the repetition is a storytelling tool used to help make a story memorable. When the children come back, the father is delighted (because he felt guilty), and the Wife is confused and attempts to make the children feel guilty by blaming the incident on the children. “You bad children, why did you sleep so long in the wood? We thought you did not mean to come back any more.” (Grimm 152)

Later, after following a bird and finding a house, Hansel and Gretel find “the little house was made of bread, and it was roofed with cake; the windows were a transparent sugar.” (Grimm 155) They eat some of the house, and then an old woman comes out, invites them in and feeds them a large dinner with a variety of foods, and then sends them to bed. The description of the old woman, then referred to as a witch, is interpretable to an extreme degree. For example, the witch has red eyes, which are most defiantly not human-like, and then it is said, “they witches have keen scent like animals,” (Grimm 156). These animal features serve to animalize the witch, but she still remains quite human and cannibalistic. It is as though being a cannibal has separated her irrevocably from humanity.

After the witch is killed (in, ironically, the same oven she was to cook the children in), Hansel and Gretel find treasure in the witch’s house, which, of course, would alleviate the poverty they suffered from, and they head back home, helped by a kind duck, and they find their old house, where their father was but his wife was dead. So, the bad person at home is rooted out, and they give all the jewels to their father and proceed to live as happily as possible.

It should be noted that the woman who is married to the father is never referred to as the children’s mother. So, like many other stories, this could be an evil-stepmother story tale as well like “Cinderella” or Snow White, a Tale of Terror, and the message, however controversial, rings clear: remarriage is generally not a good idea.

Iterations on a Theme, “Garganta la Olla”

There is much discussion about the actual origins of “Hansel and Gretel” derivatives. It was thought that Mexican Indians primarily tell European stories; however others feel that while the stories might have originated with Europeans, they are mixtures of European and indigenous motifs. (Taggart 435) Even so, the stories vary from one storyteller to storyteller and one storytelling to another, so we may examine the mark that these people have put upon “Hansel and Gretel.” It should be noted that there are a large collection of “Hansel and Gretel” variants, some with opposing themes, in both Spain and Mexico. The full versions of the stories found in Taggart’s “‘Hansel and Gretel’ in Spain and Mexico,” will be the primary focus of discussion, this, of course, does not eliminate other variants or categorize them in any way.

One Spanish version3, called “Garganta la Olla” by Florencia Herrero, varies in several important points. First, the poverty is pushed to the background; second, there is not witch, it’s simply an old woman, third the children falter in their deception; fourthly, the father comes and looks for his children, and fifthly, the stepmother did not die, but after they returned home with lots of money, “their stepmother loved them a lot.” (Taggart 439)

The removal of focus from poverty seems to be a severe shift from the Grimm version. While we may understand the poverty-stricken motives of such a stepmother, this is irrelevant because the stepmother says nothing to the effect of “You must get rid of the children or we’ll starve.” She does say, “Look, your children are bothering me. You have to kill them or take them into the forest to be eaten by the wolves.” (Taggart 438) This impresses upon the receiver of the story that the woman is greedy and suppressing her maternal “instincts,” which makes the reader or audience despise the woman even further than we would if she were just hungry. In addition, there is some societal context here. “The people of Garganta generally practice bilateral-partible inheritance whereby they divide all their property (land, houses, and domesticated animals) equally among their children.” (Taggart 444)

The lack of a witch, but instead an old crone, is a small but vital change. When changed from a witch to simply an older woman, many of the issues of cannibalism are introduced. This will be discussed in detail later in this paper.

The change from a hungry witch, “When four weeks had passed, and Hansel got steadily thinner, she became impatient and could wait no longer,” (Grimm 157) to patient woman in the Spanish version, where “the girl told her brother, ‘Just show her your little finger,’” (Taggart 439) is interesting because, in the Spanish variant, the child does exactly what one might expect a child to do, that is to mess up. “But one day she asked the boy to show her his middle finger and that was just what he did.” (Taggart 439) While it may be amusing to some which finger the child did show her, the minor foible almost costs the boy his life. This act of stupidity is childish, where Hansel’s fasting is not. In Grimm, the child’s fortitude is immense, as he decides to lose weight.

In “Garganta la Olla,” after the woman had been roasted, the children remain at her home and eventually the father comes back looking for them. In Grimm’s story, this does not happen, and the children return to the father. This is strange, because the children, living on their own, are independent, and them living on their own seems to say that children can live on their own without their parents. Perhaps this is a theme to help encourage children to leave home early.

Finally, we have the stepmother remaining alive and growing (or suddenly beginning) to love the children. (Taggart 439) Depending upon how this section is read and other versions of the story that are known, a great deal of what may be insight or confusion might be gained. It is easy to see that, perhaps, remarriage might work in this context if the woman’s materialistic desires are met. However, in another Spanish version of the story by Julio Lopez (Taggart 440), the stepmother is not only dead, but the father has killed her. After confirming that the visitors to his house were indeed his children, “The father embraced her, and for the woman, well he snatched a tool and cut off her head and hung her head above his bed. He slapped her three times when he went to bed and three more times when he got up.” (Taggart 441) One story tells us that the needs of a spouse and children may be balanced; the other one tells us that this balance cannot happen. (Taggart 445)

While the story remains retains many elements from version to version, there are slight changes from country to country, which flavors the story accordingly. This will also be represented in the versions of the story from Mexico.

Iterations on a Theme, a Nahuat version from Mexico

Opposed to the Spanish versions of “Hansel and Gretel,” Mexican variants tend to place less importance on the gender of the narrator in family loyalty issues. (Taggart 447) “Only slightly more woman than men drew their stories to a close with a harmonious blend of conjugal and filial loyalties.” (Taggart 447)

Mariano Isidro’s version contains even more variety from the Grimm’s version than “Garganta la Olla” had. It barely represents a similar tale to Grimm or to the other Spanish variant. This is a Nahuat Indian variant.

First off, there is no mention of poverty; the reason the father gets rid of the children is so that he may marry his chosen second wife. “‘Those two children of yours, lie them find the road and be off, eh. Then you can take me (as your wife).’” (Taggart 448) An elimination of the poverty movement completely and totally may exist to let the reader see the wife as the cause of the problem in a totality.

Secondly, it is a man who wants to eat the children, first the girl, but the girl betrays her brother. Not only that, but the brother abandons her after that. “‘You stay here. You told him to eat me. I’m good with you and you’re bad with me. You told him to eat me. You stay here. If you try to go with me, I’ll put a bullet into you.’” After this, he leaves his sister, and the remainder of the story has absolutely nothing in common with either Grimm or “Garganta la Olla.” However, it is still considered a version of the “Hansel and Gretel” story because of the events that take place up to this point.

Some brief differences between the many of the Spanish stories and the Nahuat stories include: the stepmother figure does not convince the children to persuade the father to marry her, the sister betrays her brother, the brother and sister are separated, the brother finds a benevolent Earth Mother, the complete disintegration of the nuclear family. (Taggart 453-456)

Women in Nahuat culture do not have the same place in their society as Spanish women, so the elimination of the stepmother persuading the marriage fits the place they are supposed to have. (Taggart 453) Often woman are portrayed as betrayers in Nahuat stories, so the sister betraying her brother works within the society’s rules. (Taggart 454) Also, the brother and sister separation fits the gender segregation of the storyteller’s culture. (Taggart 455) The Earth mother could be a symbolic new natural, nurturing mother. (Taggart 455)

Views of Cannibalism in Modern Story and Real Life

While modern man usually thinks itself above such things as cannibalism, we cannot get around it. It is here: in our culture, in our movies, in our stories. Through movies like Ravenous and Silence of the Lambs, we see the consumption of human flesh. We see stews made by soldiers in Ravenous. We see raw flesh eaten in The Silence of the Lambs; we have songs written about it in Cannibal! The Musical ! These are all entertainment. We are able to look these abominations in the face through our knowledge that what is happening on screen is not real.

But what about when it is? What about when we think something is real?

Albert Fish, Jeffery Dahmer, these men have been immortalized in contemporary American society. Albert Fish has had a rock star (Ginger Fish in the rock band Marilyn Manson) take his name. Jeffery Dahmer’s cold face as he walked into courtrooms across America on the six o’clock news keeps our attention even after his own death in November 1994 after being beaten by a fellow inmate. (Tannahill 257)

It is not as if this is a Western problem, or even a modern one. Cannibalism does exist, and those who claim that it is the rare territory of a depressed mind are simply wrong. Cannibals are in our rituals and stories.

Take, for instance, Holy Communion. The bread and wine into body and blood was taken symbolically, until 1215, when Pope Innocent III called together the Fourth Lateran Council, who decreed that the phrase “hoc est corpeum meum” (“this is my body”) is said during mass, the faithful must believe that the bread and wine were actually changed into the body and blood of Christ. (Tannahill 77) The transubstantiation ritual is an act of pure cannibalism, an eating of god, per se. (Tannahill 82)

Who can ignore Dracula? The vampire tales are not relegated strictly to Western Europeans; there have been versions of bloodsuckers all over the world. Even now, campy horror tales live on as we see Dracula films remade with the newest actors. David Bowie and Tom Cruise both portrayed vampires. Anne Rice has recreated vampire myths with her “Vampire Chronicles” series of books.

Blood is seen as medicine or magic to some and evil to others. Rumored as a cure for leprosy, “it remains a mystery why intelligent and observant men like Michael Scot should have held to the view that leprosy could ‘undoubtedly’ be cured by bathing in hot water topped up with the blood of dogs or two-year-old infants.” (Tannahill 87)

However, blood is not the only medicine to come from the death of others. We use in our medical procedures even now with heart transplants and so on. While it is most definitely not an act of consumption, the use of a dead body’s parts to prolong life or improve it is nothing new. A folk remedy for blindness comes to us like this:

While the tailor sits under the gallows, on the head of each the men hanging above him is a crow, and the two crows begin to talk. The first once says that the dew which this night has fallen over them from the gallows will restore the eyesight of anyone who washes in it. If the blind knew that, many who do not think it possible could have their sight restored. (Franz 42-43)
Of course, there are the real events that involve the consumption of eating people, not just using their bodies. After a plane crash in the Andes Mountains in 1972, an adventure story took place, later to be released to the public as the movie Alive. The story goes something like this: an airplane containing fifteen rugby players (team name: “Old Christians”) and twenty-five of their friends went off course and crashed into the peaks of the Andes. Most of the people were killed in the crash, an avalanche, or hunger. Eventually they resulted to cannibalism when the small bit of supplies they had ran out. The ones who did not participate died. Later, while being rescued, one survivor was helping to identify what remained of the bodies, tossed a skull to another and said cheerfully, “You should know who this guy is; you ate his brains.” (Tannahill 236-237)

Cannibalism extends from myth to reality in all cultures, and sometimes it is acceptable, but mostly it is not.

Cannibalism in the “Hansel and Gretel”

We have gone over some bare basics of cannibalism in our society, which, while no means even nearly complete, should help us to see why cannibalism is treated exactly how it is in “Hansel and Gretel.”

When dealing with witches, it is easy to forget that they are human, especially when one is consistently reminded of their differences. The old woman who cannot see quite well, and whose eyes are red, and whose sense of smell is far better (like a dog). However, she remains a human being, who eats children whenever she gets a chance and finds them to be quite delicious. (Grimm 156)

To be cooked alive would seem to be unpleasant. I, myself, cannot even look at the lobsters in a grocery store because I know they are steamed alive. The witch tests the children for plumpness, which seems strange because generally one does not want fatty foods. However, because of the origin of the tale, one could suppose that maybe fatty foods were once looked upon with great esteem, and every effort could be made to fatten up the pig, cow, small boy, or whatever to achieve the proper texture and leanness.

Gretel had to go out and fill a kettle. (Grimm 159) This might lead the reader to believe that the witch had intended to cook the children in a stew, not a steak or hamburger-like format. This is common in cannibal stories. In the film Ravenous, when the people are not being eaten raw, they are put into a stew. In Silence of the Lambs , mostly the victims are eaten raw or rare, and the Hannibal Lector character is commenting about the wine that would be proper to eat someone with.

Then, ironically, the witch is thrown into the same stove she intended to cook Gretel in. (Grimm 159) The children, of course, do not eat her because, while she might be a witch, they are not cannibals. Instead, they ransack her place and take the possessions that the witch no longer needs. The cannibal has been killed by burning (similar to one of “the” ways to kill a vampire.)

Thus ends the cannibalism debacle in “Hansel and Gretel.” Of course, in the other iterations of the story, there are other details, like a change of gender of the cannibal and so on.

Other Folk Tales’ Treatment

Cannibalism is not always treated so directly as in “Hansel and Gretel,” and Western folk-tales have no monopoly of cannibalism tales. In “Red Riding Hood” (Grimm 172), it is easy to see the wolf as not a real wolf, but as a symbol of dangerous people (men, usually) who want to ravage and defile a young woman.

In the Aboriginal tale, “The Cannibal Woman” (Reed 18), the cannibal is seen as almost identical to the cannibal in “Hansel and Gretel,” except the Aboriginal tale has the cannibal stealing babies, much like the witch prefers children; she is also blind, like the witch. However, the Aboriginal cannibal steals babies, who do not fight back, or push their potential consumers into ovens. Someone else must save them. Eventually both are afforded a grisly death. The witch is in an oven and the Aboriginal cannibal is stuck at the bottom of a pit impaled on spikes. (Reed 20)

Now, Desert, but Not So Sweet

While this paper has attempted to address cannibalism in story, we have examined “Hansel and Gretel” and some variants in detail. The iterations of the story coming from Spain and Mexico are really quite different stories, while all being classified as essentially the same story. However, some issues tied them all together and makes this classification seem more logical. All the stories had abandoned children forced out by a stepmother figure, and then they dealt with a cannibal.

While it is impossible to know exactly why these features were chosen as main points in the stories, and if they are all descendents of a central story somewhere, all the stories still relate subtle intricacies of each culture portrayed.

Our culture has its own cannibals, Dahmer, Fish, and those who are fictionally depicted in our films and modern literature. The cannibals will continue to gnaw at our minds as we search for answers to why we sometimes eat other human beings.

Works Cited

Franz, Marie-Louise von. Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Zürich, Switz.: Spring Publications, 1974.
Grimm, Jacob Ludwig Karl. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Trans. Mrs. Edgar Lucas. London: Butler & Tanner Ltd. 1907?.
Reed, A.W, comp. Aboriginal Fable and Legendary Tales. Adelaide, Austral.: Griffin Paperbacks, 1965.
Taggart, James M. “‘Hansel and Gretel’ in Spain and Mexico.” Journal of American Folklore 99 (1986): 435-460.
Tannahill, Reay. Flesh & Blood: A History of the Cannibal Complex. London: Abacus, 1996.


1 At least relatively recently. In New Guinea, there is a newly (1990?) reformed tribe of cannibals (Tannahill 234), and in Kenya during the 50s is a society existed called the Mau Mau. And in China during the 1960’s, “hundreds of ‘class enemies’ in Guangxi were killed and their livers publicly eaten in the name of revolutionary purity.” (Tannahill 234) Of course, this is not only a foreign issue. In the 1990’s, a group called the Vampire Research Center identified 36 bloodsuckers in Los Angeles. (Tannahill 266)
2The word “story” will, in this paper, be a general term that includes movies, folklore, fiction, and so on.
3 The full text of these versions of the stories may be found in Taggart’s “‘Hansel and Gretel’ in Spain and Mexico.” There are also synopses of other versions of the stories.

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