Willfulness and Greed vs Mother Nature

Guess who’s going to win? It’s Mother Nature every time. Two traditional stories—“fairy tales,” Märchen (in German) – tell the fate of human greed and willfulness. One, Frau Holle, I will discuss this month. I will take up the other, The Fisherman and his Wife, in August. Both tales teach the same lesson: given half a chance and a little help, Mother Nature always wins in the end, and the greedy, willful person loses.

We can read some of these traditional stories literally. Other traditional stories don’t make any sense at all from a literal point of view. Up to a certain point, the Frau Holle story could describe a family triangle: widowed mother, daughter, and step-daughter. But after a certain point in the narrative, literally makes no sense. We have to move to allegory. But I’m getting ahead of the story. First, the story, originally recorded in the 19th Century by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their Kinder und Hausmaerchen.

Once upon a time, there was a widow who had two daughters; one of them was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. The mother, however, loved the ugly and lazy one best, because she was her own daughter, and so the other, who was only her stepdaughter, was made to do all the work of the house and was quite the Cinderella of the family. Her stepmother sent her out every day to sit by the well in the high road, there to spin until she made her fingers bleed. Now it chanced one day that some blood fell on to the spindle, and as the girl stooped over the well to wash it off, the spindle suddenly sprang out of her hand and fell into the well. She ran home crying to tell of her misfortune, but her stepmother spoke harshly to her, and after giving her a violent scolding, said unkindly, ‘As you have let the spindle fall into the well you may go yourself and fetch it out.’

The girl went back to the well not knowing what to do, and at last in her distress, she jumped into the water after the spindle.

She remembered nothing more until she awoke and found herself in a beautiful meadow, full of sunshine, and with countless flowers blooming in every direction.

She walked over the meadow, and presently she came upon a baker’s oven full of bread, and the loaves cried out to her, ‘Take us out, take us out, or alas! we shall be burnt to a cinder; we were baked through long ago.’ So she took the bread-shovel and drew them all out.

She went on a little farther, till she came to a tree full of apples. ‘Shake me, shake me, I pray,’ cried the tree; ‘my apples, one and all, are ripe.’ So she shook the tree, and the apples came falling down upon her like rain, but she continued shaking until there was not a single apple left upon it. Then she carefully gathered the apples together in a heap and walked on again.

The next thing she came to was a little house, and there she saw an old woman looking out, with such large teeth, that she was terrified, and turned to run away. But the old woman called after her, ‘What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do the work of my house properly for me, I will make you very happy. You must be very careful, however, to make my bed in the right way, for I wish you always to shake it thoroughly so that the feathers fly about; then they say, down there in the world, that it is snowing; for I am Mother Holle.’ The old woman spoke so kindly, that the girl summoned up courage and agreed to enter into her service.

She took care to do everything according to the old woman’s bidding and every time she made the bed she shook it with all her might so that the feathers flew about like so many snowflakes. The old woman was as good as her word: she never spoke angrily to her and gave her roast and boiled meats every day.

So she stayed on with Mother Holle for some time, and then she began to grow unhappy. She could not at first tell why she felt sad, but she became conscious at last of great longing to go home; then she knew she was homesick, although she was a thousand times better off with Mother Holle than with her mother and sister. After waiting awhile, she went to Mother Holle and said, ‘I am so homesick, that I cannot stay with you any longer, for although I am so happy here, I must return to my own people.’

Then Mother Holle said, ‘I am pleased that you should want to go back to your own people, and as you have served me so well and faithfully, I will take you home myself.’

Thereupon she led the girl by the hand up to a broad gateway. The gate was opened, and as the girl passed through, a shower of gold fell upon her, and the gold clung to her so that she was covered with it from head to foot.

‘That is a reward for your industry,’ said Mother Holle, and as she spoke she handed her the spindle which she had dropped into the well.

The gate was then closed, and the girl found herself back in the old world close to her mother’s house. As she entered the courtyard, the cock who was perched on the well, called out:


Your golden daughter’s come back to you.’

Then she went into her mother and sister, and as she was so richly covered with gold, they gave her a warm welcome. She related to them all that had happened, and when the mother heard how she had come by her great riches, she thought she should like her ugly, lazy daughter to go and try her fortune. So she made the sister go and sit by the well and spin, and the girl thrust her hand into a thorn-bush so that she might drop some blood on to the spindle; then she threw it into the well and jumped in herself.

Like her sister she awoke in the beautiful meadow and walked over it till she came to the oven. ‘Take us out, take us out, or alas! we shall be burnt to a cinder; we were baked through long ago,’ cried the loaves as before. But the lazy girl answered, ‘Do you think I am going to dirty my hands for you?’ and walked on.

Presently she came to the apple-tree. ‘Shake me, shake me, I pray; my apples, one and all, are ripe,’ it cried. But she only answered, ‘A nice thing to ask me to do, one of the apples might fall on my head,’ and passed on.

At last she came to Mother Holle’s house, and as she had heard all about the large teeth from her sister, she was not afraid of them, and engaged herself without delay to the old woman.

The first day she was very obedient and industrious, and exerted herself to please Mother Holle, for she thought of the gold she should get in return. The next day, however, she began to dawdle over her work, and the third day she was idler still; then she began to lie in bed in the mornings and refused to get up. Worse still, she neglected to make the old woman’s bed properly and forgot to shake it so that the feathers might fly about. So Mother Holle very soon got tired of her and told her she might go. The lazy girl was delighted at this, and thought to herself, ‘The gold will soon be mine.’ Mother Holle led her, as she had led her sister, to the broad gateway; but as she was passing through, instead of the shower of gold, a great bucketful of pitch came pouring over her.

‘That is in return for your services,’ said the old woman, and she shut the gate.

So the lazy girl had to go home covered with pitch, and the cock on the well called out as she saw her:


Your dirty daughter’s come back to you.’

But, try what she would, she could not get the pitch off and it stuck to her as long as she lived.

This tale of the Dirty Daughter gives me a lot of satisfaction: I haven’t succeeded at greed and willfulness like a lot of people, and I’m always gratified when they get their just desserts, fall from grace, or otherwise run out of what they call their “luck.” There’s a part of me that wants what it wants when it wants it: now. My unsatisfied greed shadow is “happier” when someone else’s greed shadow loses out.

We can read this story in several ways. We can take it as a family drama: a widowed mother, daughter, and step-daughter. Unfortunately, stepchildren sometimes get stepchild treatment. Some parents treat their biological children far better than their stepchildren. In some families, one child works overtime trying to please the parent(s), but without success. Unfortunately in waking life such a family drama usually doesn’t have the “fairy tale ending” of this story. We can also read the story from the viewpoint of either daughter. And in principle we could take the stepmother’s stance as our point-of-reference, or – more challengingly – look at the events in the story through Frau Holle’s eyes. However, the story told in Frau Holle makes the most sense when we look beyond the literal reading and take the setting and the actors in terms of allegory and symbol.

First, what do I mean by “allegory” and “symbol”?

I mean a story (or poem or picture, etc.) in which the characters and events express or reveal a pattern that informs/structures the narrative of different characters in different circumstances. Usually, an allegory represents particular moral, ethical, religious, or political ideas. And I would add psychological insights.

A symbol, 1) means more than it (literally) is, and 2) seems to convey endless meanings. Said otherwise: we can legitimately understand a symbol in many ways. An authentic symbol continues to fascinate us. If only we had more words, we could better say what it means.

Back to Frau Holle via a detour. Many years ago I had a young man client who came because his uncle thought it would be good for him. We didn’t have many sessions because a dream alerted me to his lack of interest in anything outside of his consciousness. Here’s his dream:

I enter an underground room. It’s very large. There are all sorts of things there on tables and shelves. In one corner there is a little old woman sitting. I walk around, looking at all the stuff, and then walk out.

When he told me this dream, I immediately thought of the Frau Holle story: he wasn’t interested in all the “stuff” underground, nor in the old woman. Here’s why this is important.

We, humans, live above ground. For us, what’s underground is hidden; we are “unaware” if it, that is, “unconscious” of its existence. In the Frau Holle tale, the girl finds the bread ready to be taken from the oven and the apples ready to be picked, and then Frau Holle herself, whom, as the girl leaves for “home”, showers her with gold coins as a reward for her service. In his dream, my client saw nothing of value in the underground room. Only the above-ground world meant anything to him, so I concluded that he wouldn’t be able to do anything useful in therapy with me. As I said, we humans are unconscious of whatever may be “underground,” i.e., outside of our conscious awareness. However, both the story and the dream tell us that there is much of value “underground,” below our threshold of awareness.

Let’s think about both the “good” daughter and her “ugly” sister, and the different conscious attitudes they portray.

In the story, the good daughter cooperates with the oven, the apple tree, and Frau Holle. Translated into conscious terms, she pays attention to “messages” that emerge into her awareness of “the unconscious.” In terms of the story, these messages are the baked bread, the ripe apples, and Frau Holle herself. The good daughter has the correct relationship to those real needs, possibilities, hunches that enter her consciousness unbidden. Because she has a right relationship to the unconscious (Frau Holle’s underworld realm), she prospers.

Willfulness and greed characterize the ugly daughter’s conscious attitude. She – and her mother appear to operate on the basis of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  She and her mother want the “gold,” but the only way to get the gold comes through honoring and workings with the natural growth and fulfillment processes of the unconscious dimension of the psyche; or in terms of the story, taking the bread out of the oven when it is baked, picking the apples when they are ripe, and fulfilling to Frau Holle’s – i.e., Mother Nature’s – requirements. For her part, Frau Holle – Mother Nature – can and does respect the good girl’s need to relate to her conscious world, her home, crappy though it may be.

Now what about the “stepmother”? We all know that “stepmother” neither necessarily, nor always, refers to a woman who is not the biological mother. Similarly, feeling treated like a stepchild characterizes a second-class (or worse) status in a family. The stepmother and Frau Holle reveal two aspects of mother: mother as a conscious, waking-life experience — the stepmother – and mother as an “inner” or “in-born” capacity to nurture and provide guidance.

Maybe this is a little difficult to get our heads around. We’ve all heard the admonition, “Be good to yourself.” But some people really do not know how to be good to themselves. Sure, they may indulge in food, drink, shopping, or something else, but indulgence doesn’t work. “Be good to yourself” means open to your innate, inner good mother, or as in the story, open to Frau Holle and her realm. Following the story, we could say that people who do not know how to be good to themselves have, in effect, a cruel stepmother, just as does the girl.

Early childhood experience influences whether a person – man or woman – has, in effect, a stepmother or a Frau Holle, an abuser or a nurturer, dominating their conscious life. Early relationships establish patterns of expectation and behavior that can and all-too-often do endure for life unless a person realizes that change is possible. Then with courage and perseverance, a person can gradually replace old patterns of relating to others and to oneself with less-punitive and more nurturing patterns.

We can easily extend this story from individual to mass psychology. The blessings of industrialization on our little planet no longer look quite so inviting as they did over the last seventy years following the Second World War – if you are old enough to remember the advertisements and the promises of “better things through chemistry.” Monsanto, anyone?  Chernoble? Deepwater Horizon? Dakota Access Pipeline? And yet we also know that, given half a chance and a little help, Mother Nature rebounds: Bison again “gradually roam much of the 3,500-acre Nachusa Grasslands — the key part of an ambitious prairie restoration 95 miles west of Chicago.” And this is only one example of many.

Nevertheless, the struggle between Frau Holle and the evil stepmother – personal and collective – is far from over.

What I have written here only begins to discuss the richness in this “fairy tale.” If this story touches your compassion or your wounds, think on it. Note down what comes to mind: emotions, memories, thoughts. As you live with Frau Holle, chances are you will deepen your understanding of this powerful and paradigmatic tale. And maybe it will begin to change your life, if only a little bit . . . at a time.

  1. Text from http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-21.html. “This eBook of “Fairy Tales” by the Grimm Brothers (based on translations from the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen by Edgar Taylor and Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes) belongs to the public domain.”
  2. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-bison-return-illinois-met-20141006-story.html

July, 2018 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW