Thoughts on “Mother Holle”
“Mother Holle,” like Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads,” is a tale about a kind girl and an unkind girl, and the consequences of their vastly different behavior. The kind girl in this tale is akin to Cinderella, in that she’s treated unkindly by her stepmother, but comes into good fortune. But her story is more similar, in fact, to the Russian tale of Vasilisa and the witch Baba Yaga. As in “Vasilisa the Beautiful” (or “Vasilisa the Brave,” depending), the girl is sent from her home to complete a task for her stepmother, and ends up crossing paths with a frightening, but ultimately benevolent, witch. When the girl returns home, laden with gold for her good behavior and domestic skills, the stepmother sends her own ugly daughter to find Mother Holle and be rewarded as well. But the ugly daughter is unkind and lazy, and instead of a shower of gold, she is showered in pitch.
Maria Tatar makes some comparisons in The Annotated Grimms’ Fairy Tales between “Mother Holle” and the Greek myth of Persephone, but with a layer of domestic didacticism: the girl finds Mother Holle after falling down a well after a lost spindle, and waking up in a mysterious meadow. She has, in a sense, journeyed to an underworld. One of the domestic tasks that she must perform in order to gain Mother Holle’s good graces is to shake the witch’s featherbed, so that snow will fall on Earth–a uncommonly mythological jump for a European fairy tale. What is decidedly European about “Mother Holle,” however, is its focus on domestic instruction. After all, beauty cannot be a woman’s only virtue.