With globalisation, climate change and our current political, social, and economic landscapes, many of us are looking for some sense of relief from any imposed burden on our everyday lives. Whether it be the cost of living, inflation, wages, access to goods and services, unemployment, welfare services or something else, many search for short cuts, quick fixes, alternatives or a way to release the pressure gauge. Before the world became somewhat complex (and before protection of human rights became important, or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was even a ‘thing’), relief could be achieved relatively effortlessly – abandonment.
The fairy tale we know as Hansel and Gretel tells the story of abandonment of children. Whilst the story was first documented by Giambattista Basile (and later The Brothers Grimm), much of the commentary dates the story’s origins to the Great Famine of 1314 to 1321.
Impacted by climate change (yes it was even a ‘thing’ even back then!), crops failed leading to starvation, disease, warfare and political uncertainty. Just prior to the famine, a boom in population growth had occurred. Families now struggled to survive with little food to go round, more mouths to feed and volatility in society; food stores were depleted, with supply and demand driving prices higher and only those with means could afford to feed their families.
Recognising the immediate impacts and uncertainty of when the famine would end, families were forced into survival mode making choices of who would perish or prosper. It is said that elderly sacrificed themselves and starved to death knowing they were reaching the end of their lifespan and children were abandoned knowing the ongoing burden they posed for their parents. There go the first three to four tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy! Children were left abandoned in forests or just left to fend for themselves – in either situation it’s likely many children died. There were also tales of cannibalism as a result of sheer desperation of food.
At the heart of the earliest versions of Hansel and Gretel are family economics and hunger – the parents, Hansel and Gretel, and the old lady in the forest. In versions of the story the wicked stepmother demands the children are sent to her, whilst in others as a way of ensuring two less hungry mouths to feed, the father and stepmother plot to send their children to the woods.
Hansel overhears the plan and takes a pocket full of stones with him to create a trail; upon a successful return home the parents send the children off again, with Hansel this time using breadcrumbs for his trail. However, the trail is lost as a donkey or birds eat the breadcrumbs or oats and the children remain unable to find their way home. The woman in the house is a cannibal, fattening the children up to ensure her own nourishment and famine survival.
In Basile’s version of the story, the impact of famine and lack of wealth are not the issue – it’s the relationship of husband and wife. The father’s second wife (the children’s stepmother) gives her husband an ultimatum. She dislikes the children and tells her husband she will withhold any physical/sexual intimacy unless he gets rid of the children. He takes them to the woods, leaving them with a basket of food and a trail to find their way back home. The father makes the decision (at least twice!) to fulfill his own need for love/belonging and sexual fulfilment ahead of the (external) needs of his family.
So, what do these versions of the fairytale tell us? At the core are our personal values and being torn between decisions, each with pros and cons. The choice to abandon others as a way of ensuring one’s own physiological needs are met (whether that’s nourishment or intimacy). Responding to the power held over us by others as bargaining tools or weapons are used and considering the consequences to others of our actions.
Many morals are extracted from the Grimm Brothers’ version of Hansel and Gretel, including not trusting strangers, being able to have situational awareness and problem solve, something that looks too good to be true often is, or staying close to your sibling and protecting each other.
Whichever version of the fairytale you lean towards there’s no completely positive outcome – a sacrifice is made whether it be the lives of the children or old lady/witch/stepmother, the lack of food for basic physiological needs, or the denial of love/belonging at the cost of your own flesh and blood.
Each version reminds us of the importance of ensuring our needs and those of our loved ones are being met; to take a moment to view the world around us and think about how we may be influencing the sustainability of all our needs and the needs of others so that we may reach or achieve self-actualisation. They remind us of the need to work together and to feel a sense of alignment with our partner, family or community. There’s also an underlying reminder that recovery can take a long time when your needs aren’t being met adequately or at all.