A House Full of Ginger

Gingerbread houses are a well-known Christmas tradition, not that I’ve ever seen anyone actually make one. They’re a pretty cool idea, though. The idea of objects made of foodstuffs is an old one in legends throughout the world, especially when geared toward kids. The gingerbread house is associated with the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, in which a cannibalistic witch lives in one. The thing is, nobody seems to be sure whether the tale was describing a larger version of something that was already traditional, or the story inspired people to try gingerbread architecture for real. It’s difficult to find out exactly when gingerbread houses became a thing. Two pages that came up in a quick search give very different estimates, the nineteenth century according to Wikipedia, and the sixteenth according to PBS, although I suspect the latter might be a typo. And it’s always difficult, if not impossible, to tell how a fairy tale originated, although the most famous version is the one first recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The purpose of the gingerbread house in the tale is to lure children so the witch can eat them.

There’s a general theme of food throughout: Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods because their family can’t afford to eat, the breadcrumbs Hansel scatters to mark the path back home are eaten by birds, and the witch who wants to eat kids ends up cooked to death. The Wikipedia entry on the story cites a supposition that the tale started in the Great Famine of the early thirteenth century, but I don’t know the research behind this. It’s worth noting that, in later editions of the tale, the Grimms changed the children’s mother to a stepmother, presumably to explain why she didn’t have any maternal feelings toward them, a recurring theme in fairy tales. The woodcutter who puts the needs of his wife above those of his kids, even if reluctantly, isn’t all that sympathetic either, though. That the mother/stepmother dies when the witch does suggests a link between them, although they’re presumably not physically the same character, because why stay with a poor woodcutter when you could hang out in your other home that’s literally made of food and filled with gems?

But that’s me being literal about the whole thing. For that matter, the house would presumably be destroyed by the rain and/or become stale and moldy, but what’s the point of being a witch if you can’t manipulate the laws of nature?

I’m reminded of Ugu the Shoemaker‘s wicker castle in The Lost Princess of Oz, about which the Wizard of Oz says, “With magic to protect it, even a paper castle might be as strong as if made of stone.” Gingerbread is also used as a description of latticework popular on houses in the Victorian era.

Gingerbread of some sort might possibly date back millennia, although the recipes probably weren’t typically what we’d recognize as gingerbread. The tradition of making it into shapes is commonly attributed to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, where guests were sometimes served gingerbread people made to look like them. I suppose a gingerbread man could live in a gingerbread house, but would that be like a person living in a house made of flesh?

Gingerbread people also relate to fairy tales, with the story of the gingerbread man who somehow came to life an ran away from people who wanted to eat him, only to be devoured by a sly fox in the end.

This has predecessors in other folk tales about living foodstuffs, like the Slavic Kolobok ones about an escaped fried round bread, and German versions where it’s a pancake that gets away.

The gingerbread man story in particular first appeared in print in 1875, and I suspect the sort-of-human shape made it easier for the runaway to maneuver than it was for the other pastries. L. Frank Baum uses the general theme in John Dough and the Cherub, in which John is a giant gingerbread man accidentally brought to life with a magic elixir, who proceeds to run from people who want to eat him first in the United States, then on various enchanted islands, before finally becoming a king.

Around the same time, there was a stage musical about a gingerbread man also called John Dough, with music by A. Baldwin Sloane, a composer who had also worked on the stage version of The Wizard of Oz. Baum appeared to have some resentment about this, although it’s not clear whether there was any actual imitation, since both were inspired by the earlier fairy tale, and apparently neither one made up the name John Dough for a gingerbread man.

Also worthy of note are Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Johnny Gingerbread from one of her advertising pamphlets, and the serial killer Gingerbreadman in Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series.

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4 Responses to A House Full of Ginger

  1. Fun essay! It’s interesting that a witch powerful enough to create a house made of food, and preserve it from a) animal/insect predation, b) the elements, and c) natural decay, isn’t satisfied, or indeed sated! She wants human flesh. Of course, the house itself might merely have been painted to *look* like candy or food for the sole purpose of luring hungry passersby. More on this concept below.

    The Hansel and Gretel story can be traced back to the Romanian myth of Muma Păduriii (“Mother of the Forest”), who kidnaps and imprisons children, including one girl she tries to boil alive for soup, but who escapes when her brother pushes her in the pot.

    This is akin to the ogress fairytale and the Baba Yaga stories (which you did a good essay on) of a woman (or women) who live in a hut made of chicken legs and surrounded by a fence made of the human bones of her victims.

    These ideas can be traced back even further to the earlier traditions of giants who see humans as delicacy, not only Polyphemus and the Laestrogonians, but the older Titans of Greek mythology, and their equivalents in Brythonic and Gaelic mythology, Babylonian/Assyrian mythology, the native Americas, and, of course, the Nephilim of the Old Testament, 1 Enoch, and Jubilees.

    Creepily, we need not even look that far back for. There’s the recent Russian couple, the Baksheevas. The husband used a dating site to lure young women back to their home, where they were killed and made into human meat pies (some of which they sold to unsuspecting people), leaving the leftover body parts strewn about their home. There is Klara Mauerova, a woman from the Czech Republic, who (as part of the Grail Movement cult) had been torturing and eating her two sons, locked in the basement. There’s the lovely Italian woman Leonarda Cianciulli, who thought human sacrifice would preserve her remaining son, and made tea cakes and soap from the women she lured into her shop; and the Zambian witch Filita Mashilipa, who murdered and ate seven of her nine sons, believing it gave her powers.

    This is just a short smattering of cases. The list goes on and on and on… indicating that the monsters of fairytales and legends are not far-fetched, but all too real!

    • Nathan says:

      There are occasional hints that witches like Baba Yaga and the Hansel and Gretel antagonist aren’t human, or at least not fully so. I believe the former is sometimes identified as an ogre of sorts, and this translation of the Grimms’ story says, “Witches have red eyes and cannot see very far, but they have a sense of smell like animals, and know when humans are approaching,” almost as if they’re genetic traits for a type of being rather than just an indication of a woman who practices magic. The Nephilim were the children of humans and angels, and the Greek Gigantes born directly from the Earth, so I guess their eating human flesh might not strictly count as eating their own kind. They’re certainly still humanoid, though, so maybe it’s close enough.

      • Good point! There’s a common factor here, which is this idea of superiority. These entities (and I believe the ancient Greek and Mesopotamian iterations are imperfect versions that derive from the same event recounted of the Nephilim in 1 Enoch) believe they’re elites. They see themselves as a higher form of life, as evidenced by their bloodlines and by the fact that they’re taller and stronger, which allows them to exploit, subjugate, and even eat us, in much the same way that most humans believe that because they’re a higher form of life than the animals, that that gives humans the right to exploit, subjugate and eat them. Their sentience doesn’t have value.

        It’s really all about power and hegemony and this false notion of superiority coupled with a gross lack of empathy. One of things I like about the Christian narrative (the actual one, not the one promulgated by those on the far right) is that it upends this notion of superiority completely. Although a king and God, Jesus comes to serve, not be served, to the point of dying for us. His followers are meant to follow this example by using whatever power they have to show compassion-in-action for others. The kingdom itself is given not to the giants of the world, the rich and powerful, who continue to “devour” people through their wars and deceptions, but to the outsiders, the poor and afflicted, widows, orphans, the disenfranchised, and depressed. Thus, the ancient cycle is broken for all time.

      • Nathan says:

        The idea that leaders are servants of the people is a pretty common one, but one that a lot of leaders don’t want to accept.

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