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Mythical Man-eaters from European Fairy Tales

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

Fairy tales have existed in their current written format for hundreds of years, with the original stories stretching back many years more in the form of oral tales. As a popular medium, there are certain elements that one might come to expect from a classic fairy tale; a plucky protagonist, a charming prince or beautiful princess, and a wicked witch or stepmother. But there is something that many early fairy tales had in common that you might not expect – cannibalism.

Most of us are familiar with Hansel and Gretel’s near miss with the child-eating witch from the gingerbread house, and with Jack’s narrow escape from the boy-hungry giant. But did you know that in earlier version of Snow White, the evil queen requested the Huntsman bring her Snow White’s lungs and liver (though he replaced these with the organs of an animal) which she then proceeded to eat? Or that in a much darker version of Little Red Riding Hood the wolf tricked the poor girl into eating a dinner made of her own grandmother’s flesh and blood? And these aren’t the only stories where cannibalism plays a disturbing trend…

The Juniper Tree

A Brothers Grimm fairy tale, ‘The Juniper Tree’ tells the story of a young boy, cooked and eaten by his stepmother.

It begins with a wealthy couple praying for a child. The wife cuts herself while peeling an apple and – much like Snow White’s mother – wished for a child with skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood after seeing her own blood fall on the snow. She conceives and gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, only to soon after succumb to sickness and die. Her husband buries her beneath the juniper Tree.

The boy’s father eventually marries again and he and his new wife soon have their own child, a young daughter named (in some versions) Marlene. The stepmother grows to hate her stepson, as without him his half-sister would stand to inherit her father’s wealth. One day she sees her stepson leaning over a trunk and slams the lid down, decapitating him. Realising that she would soon be caught, she propped the boy’s head back onto his body and bound it in place with a scarf. She then tricked Marlene into hitting her brother around the head, knocking his head off. Marlene screamed and wept, believing that she had killed her brother. Her mother, under the guise of ‘helping’ Marlene, said that they had no choice but to cook the boy in the pot and serve him for dinner. Though her father ate heartily, Marlene and her mother ate none of the stew, Marlene crying all the way through dinner.

Marlene took her brother’s bones and buried them beneath the juniper tree, where her brother was reborn as a beautiful bird. The bird flew about the town, singing of his stepmother’s crimes. He later returned home, carrying a millstone which he dropped on his stepmother’s head, killing her.

Sun, Moon, and Talia

A far darker version of the Sleeping Beauty story that you may be familiar with, this fairy tale doesn’t end with true love’s kiss. Trapped in eternal sleep after getting a splinter of fax embedded in her finger, Talia was discovered by a king. The king raped Talia in her sleep, and then continued on his journey. Still sleeping, Talia conceived and gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. One child managed to suck the flax from their mother’s finger – though whether this was the son or the daughter changes in the telling. Talia awoke to find herself a mother, naming the children Sun and Moon.

The king returned and, finding Talia awake, reveals himself to be the father of her children, beginning a relationship with her. However, the king was already married, and one night his wife heard him calling for Talia and his children in his sleep. The queen learns the truth of the king’s secret family from a servant and grows bitter with rage, ordering the children and their mother be brought to her. First, she gives the children to the cook, ordering him to cook the children and serve them to the king. The cook instead hides the children, and cooks two lambs.

While the king eats, the queen mocks him, asking how well he likes the taste. She then attempts to have Talia burnt alive. The king hears Talia’s screams and appears before she can be thrown on the fire. The queen reveals that the king has eaten his own children. Angered, the king orders the queen, the cook, and the servant who had revealed Talia’s existence to be burnt instead. The cook narrowly manages to escape the flames by revealing that the twins are alive. Now free of his murderous wife, the king marries Talia.

The Robber Bridegroom

A miller with a beautiful daughter was one day approached by a very rich man who wished to marry her. Seeing no reason to refuse, the miller agreed. His daughter was less happy with the engagement, not trusting her strange fiancé. Though her fiancé invited her to visit his home many times, the young woman refused to go. Finally, though, she ran out of excuses and agreed to visit that Sunday. Her fiancé was delighted, telling her that he would leave a trail of ashes through the woods so that she could find her way.

That Sunday, the young bride followed the trail. Still untrusting, she took a pocketful of peas, dropping them as she walked through the woods and making her own trail. When she arrived at the house she found it empty but for an old woman who looked on her with pity. The old woman told her that her fiancé and his band of thieves were cannibals. The night of her wedding he planned to bring her back to this house where he and his friends would eat her. While they were talking, the fiancé and his friends came home. Terrified, the bride hid and watched the robbers drag in a young weeping girl. As she watched, the robbers killed the girl and began butchering her, one noticed a beautiful gold ring on the girl’s finger and chopped it off. The finger flew through the air, landing on the floor near the bride’s hiding spot. The thieves began to search for it, but the old woman called them away, telling them that the finger would not run away, so they could search after dinner. The old woman then drugged their food and smuggled the bride out of the house. The bride took the finger with her.

Though the rain had washed away the ashes, the peas had sprouted into small plants, showing the bride the way home. On the day of the wedding, the bride gave a speech, talking about a strange dream she had had, where she went for a walk in the woods. She then described the exact details of what she had seen in the house. Though her husband kept trying to interrupt, she kept assuring him it was only a dream. Finally, she drew the finger from her pocket. The robber attempted to escape but he and his troupe were all caught and punished for their crimes.

Hop o’ my Thumb

Hop o’ my Thumb (no relation to Tom Thumb) was one of many brothers, their story containing elements of both Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk. With parents too poor to feed all of them, the brothers are abandoned in the woods. Hop o’ my Thumb, however, had overheard his parents plans. He marked a path with white stones and led his brothers home to a mother overjoyed to see her sons return. Their father was less pleased and set out to abandon the boys again. This time, Hop o’ my Thumb left a trail of breadcrumbs, which the birds ate.

Lost in the woods, Hop o’ my Thumb climbed a tree and saw a house in the distance which he led his brothers too. When they knocked, the door was answered by a woman who warned them that her husband was an ogre with a taste for human flesh. Night was fast approaching and, fearing wolves in the woods, Hop o’ my Thumb thought it was worth the risk. When the ogre returns and attempts to kill the brothers, Hop o’ my Thumb tricks him into instead killing his own daughters.

The brothers escape and flee, hunted by the ogre whose seven-league boots allowing him to travel far faster than the boys. Hop o’ my Thumb convinces his brothers to hide in a cave and, when the ogre stops for a rest, he steals the boots from the ogre.

Having escaped the ogre, his brothers return home, while Hop o’ my Thumb sets off into the world to make his fortune.

So why is it the Cannibalism appears so often in fairy tales? Some believe that this is because the fairy tales often reflected genuine fears and happenings at the time. ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ for example, is thought to stretch back to the Great Famine of the early 1300s. Harvests were so bad during this time that food prices rose to extortionate levels and peasants were forced to eat the seeds they had set aside for spring – only exacerbating the problem in the next year. Rumours of cannibalism were rife, with people accused of digging up graveyards for meat, or turning on their own children. Many are thought to have committed infanticide during this time, or abandoned young children in the countryside because they had no way to feed them. The parallels between this and Hansel and Gretel abandoned in the woods by their poor and starving family are clear, though not all fairy tales bear such a striking resemblance to this tale.

Others believe that this is not the case at all, and that cannibalism is instead simply used as a narrative device. In many cultures, cannibalism is seen as one of the worst taboos. Those that do consume human flesh and blood are usually depicted as bestial or savage in nature, such as vampires, ghouls and werewolves. The use of cannibalism may therefore be used as a literary short-hand, to signify that a character is the ultimate evil. As these stories also often end with the cannibalistic character being killed, this may also be used as a way to exonerate the hero for their actions. Jack’s actions in the giant’s house – theft, betrayal of hospitality, and murder – are justified because the giant is an evil man-eater.

Whichever reason made cannibalism so prevalent in fairy tales, it is clearly one lost to time, with the majority of such tales no longer including such gory moments, instead sanitised to be more palatable to a child audience.


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