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Trying to determine which creatures in the stories are based on German myth (i.e. things people actually believed in), and which were characters in cautionary tales or stories made up for entertainment (i.e. not believed in). I figured it would be a shorter list to include the ones that are rather than the ones that aren't.

I am looking for examples of creatures that exist in the Grimm tales that are based on German myth.

A good example of such a creature would be a dwarf, because dwarfs exist both in Grimm tales and in German myth.

An example of a creature that exists in Grimms' tales but does not exist in German myth is Hans from Hans my Hedgehog. As far as I know, weird, half-hedgehog creatures did not exist in German myth.

Again, I'm only asking for the former.

  • Elves and the shoemaker? – bleh Mar 10 '16 at 22:06
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    Four points. (1) The Grimm brothers fabricated or otherwise modified several of their stories: this question seems to be assuming that the Grimms are accurate accounts of German folklore. (2) Your definition of myth is different from the definition used by folklorists. This makes the question harder to answer: a folklorist may have gone through the Grimm stories to see if they are myths, but because your definition is different from their definition you won't be able to use their work. – user62 Mar 10 '16 at 23:58
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    (3) this question is going to take a lot of work to answer. Someone might be willing to go through all of the Grimms stories and see if they are "myths", but this question would have a higher likelihood of being answered if you simplified it somehow. (4) you're argument about Snow White isn't a very good one: just because Germans believe in dwarfs doesn't mean that they believe in dwarfs as portrayed in Snow White. – user62 Mar 10 '16 at 23:59
  • For clarity, this is the defintion of myth I am using. If the definition used by folklorist/mythologists is significantly different from that of Merriam Webster, please provide a link to it. – user Mar 14 '16 at 18:06
  • @user Which of those three definitions are you using? And what would make you believe that no hedgehogs exist in "German myth"? These should be grouped with my other questions for you. – C. M. Weimer Mar 14 '16 at 18:57
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As pointed out by @Hamlet in their comments to your question, your definition of "myth" is not the one used by folklorists and other scholars. Your meaning would better fit the term "superstition".

If you read German, there is a ten volume dictionary of German superstitions, a scholarly work of many thousands of pages, which collects the superstitions held by German people in the first half of the 20th century, many of them of course of older origin and in tune with the superstitions featured in the Grimms' tales. The superstitions in this book are often of a medical kind (e.g. certain plants heal certain illnesses) or ritualistic (e.g. harvesting – or not – at full moon or catching the bride's flower bouquet).

The belief in dwarves predates the existence of a German nation and is Germanic in origin. Many of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm are known to other peoples as well, and are not exclusively German at all. Taking your example, there are versions of the tale that the Grimms published under the name of Snow White from all over the world. This website lists many of these stories, some of them from Africa. The page gives a book as source that collects these tales, if you are interested. Similarly, dwarves (of the Germanic kind) can be found in tales from all over Middle and Northern Europe, and are not exclusive to the tales of the Brothers Grimm. And most certainly, the majority of the German people no longer believed in dwarves at the time the Grimms collected their tales. They are not part of German superstition, but part of Germanic myth (in the folklorist meaning of the word).

So, after all this rumination, what I think you are asking is which of the Grimms' tales contain references to Germanic myths. My answer would be: probably none of them, or only vaguely. Fairy tales are a different type of folktale than myths. Fairy tales are not tales about literal truths, but contain a moral in symbolized form. No one believed that there ever was a princess Snow White, but everyone (even today) believes in the underlying truth that diligence (exemplified in Snow White's service to the dwarves) and Snow White's other virtues will overcome evil in the end.


If this is not what you are asking, please edit your question to clarify.

  • Not exactly what I'm asking. I'm looking for which creatures exist both in Grimm's Tales and in German myth. I may edit my question to better reflect that. Asking for a list of Grimm tales containing creatures from German myth would be tedious, if not unanswerable, though of course examples from the story are welcome. – user Mar 14 '16 at 18:08
  • @user Yes, I think a clarification is called for. What, for example, do you mean by German myth? Grimm's Tales aren't made up, but rather collected from actual people. – C. M. Weimer Mar 14 '16 at 18:56
  • @C.M.Weimer just to clarify: while Grimms' tales are collected from actual people, the Grimms would frequently embellish/combine/modify the original oral accounts before they published them. So they aren't "genuine" folklore, which complicates this question significantly. – user62 Mar 15 '16 at 2:12
  • @user I'm a little bit confused by your second to last paragraph, but I don't think that's your fault: the question could benefit from a clearer definition of myth. – user62 Mar 15 '16 at 2:16
  • @Hamlet And a clearer definition of "German". I think OP confuses "German" with "Germanic". – user1324 Mar 15 '16 at 8:02
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I just finished translating the 1812/15 first edition of the Grimms “Kinder und Hausmärchen” (KHM) so I have a few ideas.

Here are some of my thoughts (and in no particular order).

The Grimms differentiated between “Märchen” and “Sagen” (legends). Their “Deutsche Sagen” (DS) were published after the KHM and contain short texts of German legends – i.e. things that supposedly really happened at some time and at a particular place. These were different from Märchen because they took place in actual real word locations and at specific times. Märchen on the other hand, are not linked to any particular time or place. Donald Ward translated the DS into English many years ago.

Jacob Grimm also published books titled “Deutsche Mythologie.” Fortunately James Stallybrass translated these 4 books into English in the 19th century. English language readers can read the English translation of Jacob’s Deutsche Mythologie in the translation “Teutonic Mythology” by James Stallybrass -Vol I, Vol II, Vol III, Vol IV.

If a “creature” can also be a character, then one should look at 1815 #4, 5, 6, 7

The order of the texts in the KHM is not haphazard or random. The four texts - #4 Regarding a Young Giant, #5 Dat Erdmanniken, #6 The King From the Golden Mountain and #7 The Raveness (Raven Girl) - were also placed together by the Grimms because they were of the opinion that all of the texts related to the Siegfreid Saga. The young boy in #4 is Siegfried. The boy, like Siegfried, hits clumsily when working for the smith (Reign). In #5, they say that: “The earthmanlet is Euglin and Alberich, whom the hero also makes through force predisposed to him.” In #6 they note that: “The agreement with Sigfried first starts, where the youngster like he is driven away upon the water. The king’s daughter, that he frees, is after the German Saga Chrimhild upon the Drachenstein, but otherwise, especially after the Nordic Saga, Brunhild, because for Gudrun (that is Grimhild) he does there, as in the Niebelung Lied, nothing. The dragon, who holds her captive, appears in the way, that she herself is transformed into a snake.” They also note the similarity of the becoming invisible with the “Tarnkappe” [cloaking-cap] in the Nibelungenlied. “In his relationship to the queen also shines that of Brunhild through, she knows, as in the Nordic Saga, that he will become un-happy, when he goes away from her, and her connection to him has something secret.” In #7, they note that: “The golden palace on the Glasberg is the Flame-hall [of] the Nordic saga almost concurring with the old Danish song of Elskovsviser … where Bryniel sits upon the Glasberg; which only a special horse (Grani) is able to climb. The relation and the switching of the flame and the shimmering Glasberg lies very close. – The sleeping-potion, from which she warns him and which overpowers him, is the forgetting-potion [of] the Nordic Grimhild.” All of this is more completely described in the Anhang, the one that most American and English translators (apart from myself and Margaret Hunt) do not deem important enough to translate completely. #50, #51, #52, and #53 were also placed together because they were all Low German Dialect texts. Other texts such as #61 and #62 were also placed together because they dealt with God, Jesus and imitation. Hunt’s translation is available at: http://www.archive.org/stream/grimmshouseholdt2grim#page/n7/mode/2up. It is in the Anhang that the Grimms discuss the origins of the texts, etc.

KHM 1815 # 8, “The Clever Farm-Daughter” contains a trace of the sage of Aslaug, daughter of Brynhild and Sigurd.

Here an excerpt of my translation of the Anhang entry to the 1815 #22. “Hans my Igel”

“ 22. Hans my Igel. (From Zwehrn.] Is king Porc from Straparola (ii.1.) but here better, [more] fantastical and original, only Hans should have told a king the way and [was] deceived, in that he first, as by Straparola, in the third time is released. Igel [hedgehog] Stachelschwein [thorn-pig] und Schwein [pig] are mythically one, as Porc and Porcaris; below in another also good depiction it is a donkey (no. 58.). These two Märchen make with No. 1. and 68. in the first volume and No. 2 13 41 in this [one] a row [of] related [tales], upon which still others not so related attach, compare the there found Anmerkungen. Regarding the basic idea see an Anmerkung to the altdän. Liedern. P. 528. 529. People, which impetuously implore God for child-blessings, are often punished in Märchen with such fail-births, that they hereafter, when the parents are humiliated, still transform into humans. – The return of the child into the paternal house is as in the Young Giant in No. 4. Notes: Igel = hedgehog.

Wilhelm adds a note: “the Finkenritter rides as Hans upon a rooster.” Rölleke states that this refers to “Der Finkenritter, ein Volksbuch, Straßburg around 1560.””

Other creatures? Talking frogs, cats, horses, the devil, wights, elves, lions, birds, donkey, lamb, fish, the fox of course, crows, giants, etc., etc. All are probably also found in German mythology. Ands we can't forget about dragons and conversations with them. Consider the dragon Fafnir, the eating of the heart and understanding the speech of birds. Tolkien's "conversation with Smaug" also reminds much on Sigurd's conversation with the dragon Fafnir. Knowing someones name also give one power over them - think of Rumplestiltskin, etc.

All in all, the Appendix to the KHM and Jacob’s “Deutsche Mythologie” will probably explain much of it.

Lastly, I would not limit the question to creatures only. Much of what is found in the KHM can also be found in myth. For example (and in no particular order) - the cutting off of horses heads (Falada) -horse heads were considered to protect from enemies. Some houses today still have horse heads on their gables. That speech continues to live in Falada's head is as with Odin and Mimir who councils him after his head is cut off. The arguing of giants regarding the division of treasure, etc., etc. Characters often go over or into water to reach the "other realm," the "other world." This might go back to the idea that the realm of the dead was underwater at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and oceans. Frau Holle can only be reached when the girl falls down into the well. The Undying Lands, home of Tolkien's elves is also reached by going "over water" as I recall.

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