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In a reworking of the Rumplestiltskin folktale, novelist Elizabeth Bunce notes the following:

The anti-Semitic overtones of the Grimm version are deeply disturbing to

me—and should be to any modern audience—and I have tried to steer well clear from them.

A Curse As Dark As Gold

There certainly are anti-Semitic Grimm tales, such as "The Jew in the Thorns." The only thing I can think of that’s possibly relevant in "Rumplestiltskin," though, is the following portion:

She first asked, “Is your name Kunz?”

“No.”

“Is your name Heinz?”

“Rumplestiltskin”

E.g., perhaps these are stereotypically Jewish names (or Rumplestiltskin itself is?)

On the other hand, there are many other possible ways it could invoke stereotypes of Jews, some of which might only be obvious in the original.

Is Rumplestiltskin supposed to be an anti-Semitic caricature?

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  • If the phrasing of this question (e.g., asking about intent) is not appropriate for this SE, please tell me so I can change it.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 8:43
  • This one is in the realm of semiotics. You're going to have a tough time finding a place where this isn't opinion-based. But it might fit here, or Literature SE (or possibly over at Skeptics SE, since you're trying to refute some modern person's statement). Here, you seem to be seeking anti-Semitic kennings hidden in the story. Why don't you search the text for one or two more suspects and edit them into the question?
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 9:49
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    @Spencer - Well, the way she talked about it, it sounded pretty settled. I’m certain there’s been some scholarly work on this. I can’t find anything else obvious (but there might be something non-obvious, which is why I am asking).
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 9:56
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    I don't think it is a good idea to first assume some tales have antisemitic overtones and then go looking from them. Confirmation bias almost ensures you will find something that can be interpreted as antisemitic. I think the only way for clarity here is to ask the one that claims antisemitism to explain, unless this is clearly visible. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 18:07
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    Nearly all analysis of art is partially opinion based--it's about having insights and building a case for them. The humanities are not hard sciences, nor are they intended to be. It's strictly interpretive and this is a valid inquiry. (Obie is clearly not the only person thinking about this: The Dark Side of the Grimm Fairy Tales
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 19:26

5 Answers 5

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Heinz is short for Heinrich and Kunz is a (now rare) abbreviation of Konrad, all typically Germanic names. There is nothing Jewish about them, and certainly not about Rumplestiltskin. It is very difficult to see what is supposed to be anti-Semitic about this story.

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  • My experience is that many Germanic surnames we think of as Jewish in the US are not exclusively Jewish. However, many Jews converted to avoid oppression, and that history is sometimes lost. This answer needs some support. (Apologies for the downvote--I will amend if you provide some research.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 19:35
  • May I add that I am talking about given names, not surnames. @DukeZhou
    – fdb
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 18:38
  • Edit that in and I'll remove my downvote. (I was confused confusion b/c both also serve as surnames.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 20:41
  • @DukeZhou: I didn't know that Kunz is a 'rare abbreviation of Konrad'; that seems like good enough research to me. Jews also converted for reasons other than oppression and many were secular - does one 'convert' to secularism? Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 19:51
  • @MoziburUllah that's a much more complicated question, but you should definitely research the condition of Jews in Europe during the diaspora until present day. re: secularism, specifically in regards to German policy under "national socialism", the question of "jewishness" was based on geneology, not religious belief.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 20:12
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Was Rumplestiltzchen intended as a Jewish Character?

Short answer

I would say, no, he was not. The Encyclopäpie des Märchens entry for Rumpelstiltzchen directs to “Name des Unholdes” (name of the fiend/enemy). Entry 5 on pg. 1170-1171 discusses the name Rumpelstiltzchen. It states that the Grimms knew of the name from Johann Fischarts Geschichklitterung (1582). “Rumpele stilt oder der Poppart.” It was a game. What kind of game it was is unknown.

Long answer and comment

Also, look at what the Grimms wrote about the text in the Appendix they wrote to the KHM. I consider the Appendix (Anhang) to be a gold mine of information. Most translators ignore it thinking that people like yourself will have no interest in it. Only Margaret Hunt and myself have translated it completely. From my translation:

Already Fischart, can testify as to the age of this tale in Gargantug where the games are listed, is under No. 363 a game: "Rumpele stilt or Poppart." One also says Rumpenstinzchen. The story itself is also started in the following manner differently: a little girl was given a Kaute flax, out of this it should spin flax, but what it spun, was always gold thread and not a single thread of flax could come out of her wheel. Since it was sad, sat on the roof and spun and spun for three days, but still nothing but of gold. Thereon a small man-ling came walking: I will save you from all your need, a young king's son shall pass here, and marry you, but you must promise me your first child, etc. Also the man-ling is discovered differently. A maid of the Queen goes out at night into the forest there she sees it on a cooking spoon and riding around a large fire, etc. At last the man-ling also flies on the wooden spoon out of the window.

In many German Märchen Millers and Miller’s daughters come up (see No. 31.), the current recalls very particularly to the Nordic Fenia and Menia, that all, that one wanted to have were able to grind, and who the king Frode let grind peace and gold. - The calling of the children grabs into many myths.

The spinning of the gold can also be understood in a different way, namely through the hard difficult, sorrowful work of making gold wire, which was left to poor maidens (virgins) to do. So it is called in an old Danish song:

nu er mim sorg saa mangefold,

fom Jomfruer, de spinde guld.

In English:

now my sorrow so many times,

as virgins, they spin gold.

Notes:

Kaute = an old German expression for “a depression.”?

Handwritten notes:

“After a different telling is begun in this way: the wife goes by a garden, wherein beautiful cherries are, gets strong desire for them and eats of them; a black man comes out of the earth and she must promise him her child. When is it born, he pushed through all watches [guards], who the husband has set out, and will only leave the woman the child, if when she knows his name. Now the man follows him, sees, how he climbs into a cave that is from all sides surrounded by hanging bone spoons[?] and hears how he calls himself Fleder Filtz.”

I can not see anything anti-semitic in what the Grimms say here. To them, the text is about the difficult work of spinning.

I am working on translating the 2nd Volume of the First Edition of the KHM into English. I would caution against using modern cultural norms to interpret, identify or ascribe meaning the tales. Things that are abhorrent to us today were common place a long time ago. Would anyone today take a young child to see an execution today? No. Way back it was common. While some today may us a phrase such as: “He should be hung, drawn and quartered,” most probably have no idea exactly how gruesome that actually was. The cutting off of horses heads and hanging them on a wall may seem “barbaric” to us today, but when one understands that horses in Norse mythology were sacred animals often raised and uses specifically for sacrifices, to ward off evil, enemies, etc., it puts the whole question more into perspective. I would say that before people such as Bunce make such statements as you wrote, that they understand the mythology and history behind the tales first. Statements like that are easy to say if one does not know the facts.

Regarding the Jew in Thorns – it is a text I have worked on. I would say that it was not the Grimms that first created the Jewish character in the text. The text has a rich history. The Jew was first added in a Czech version from 1604. Johannes Bolte states that the German poem was brought into Čzech in 1604 by Tobias Mouřenin from Leitmischul: “Historia kratochvilná o jednom sedlském pacholku, kterak u sedláka za tři groše sloužil, a o poběhlým židu” (Entertaining History of a Fram-servant, who served a farmer for three Groscehn, and a lost Jew). It is in this Čzech version that the character of the monk is first changed into a Jew. Before that, in other versions, the hated character is a monk. For this I would consider Henry the VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Monks were not well liked in the past. Why has the monk's bad reputation mostly, if not entirely, been ignored?

I have looked at the origins of the text. I have looked at where, when and by whom the character of the Jew was added into different texts. I have not looked at the question as to why the figure of the Jew was added. The Grimm version, as Bolte stated, was also based on an oral version from Hessen.

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    This is intriguing, but a little hard to follow. You can use a > at the beginning of a paragraph to produce nice-looking quotes. Also, some evidence of your credentials would be ideal (though not required). Are you Oliver Loo?
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 19:04
  • Also, the Jewish element of the Jew in the Thorns being added later (possibly in response to anti-Jewish sentiment), and the fact that the target was originally a different hated minority, seems to strengthen, not weaken, the already strong evidence for anti-Semitism in the text.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 19:08
  • Welcome to Mythology and thanks for contributing! (Always nice to have an expert chiming in.) This is an excellent answer on many levels. Due to the length, you might consider some formatting to highlight the major points.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 20:21
  • Thanks. Yes, I am he. Can you give me some pointers on formatting? I will fix it as I can. Anti-semitism is a large question. Why do some people always concentrate on this text as the example? Why not also ook at KHM #115 where the wife of a man who killed a Jew tells her friend/godmother of the murder. She then tells the whole city of the murder. The man is then brought to a court of law, convicted and executed? In this text, an entire town and justice system can be said to "disapprove" of the murder. Order matters too. This was only 3/5 texts after KHM 110. Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:05
  • Were there texts in the KHM that we today in America consider anti-Jewish? Yes. Did Jacob and Wilhelm use language in their personal correspondence that can be considered anti-Jewish today? Yes. Does this mean they (one or both) were anti-Jewish? Don't we need more evidence? Were they actually anti-Jewish? I don't know. I do know that Jacob was very knowledgeable in the Hebrew language, Jewish religion, customs, writings and beliefs. The KHM does contain several references to Jewish texts. Should this not also be considered when answering the question? Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:20
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Look up the elements of the name Rumpelstiltskin in Old English/ Norse: Rumpel/ Stilt/ Skin. Rumpel = to wrinkle or fold back Stilt = stick, slang for penis Skin = skin Rumpelstiltskin is a man who, as the maid reports, has the foreskin of his penis wrinkled/ folded back. How did the maid observe this? Perhaps "riding the spoon" is a metaphor for sexual activity. Even now, when a man is positioned behind the woman, it may be called spoons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoons_sex_position

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  • Good story, bro. But no. 1. The tale is German, not English. 2. The name in German is Rumpelstilzchen. 3. This breaks down into Rumpel — rumble, clatter — stilz — stilts, legs — and the diminutive chen. IOW, it basically means clattering dwarf. Commented Jan 10 at 9:20
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He's a short, money-grubbing rich dude getting honorable, regular people stuck in debt to steal their children, I mean ... This is all the antisemitic conspiracies in one. C'mon guys.

From the ADL (https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounder/jewish-control-federal-reserve-classic-antisemitic-myth)

For centuries, antisemitic propaganda has demonized the Jew as a conspiratorial, manipulative outsider.

In 1962, Omni Publications, a distributor of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, reprinted an early attack on the Federal Reserve called The Truth About the Slump (1931), in which author A.N. Field asserted:

"The Money Power that rules the world today is centered in the hands of individuals of a particular race and creed." Field labeled the founding of America’s Federal Reserve as that point when "the United States was enslaved under this German-Jew engine of control."

From the United States Holocaust Museum:

"Historically, blood libels often took place close to Passover, when Jews were charged with using the blood of Christian children to bake matzahs."

Jewish Virtual library:

In contrast to the honest German farmer or worker, the Jew is depicted as someone who lives off the sweat of others by his swindling activities as a lawyer, a merchant, or a banker, whose god is money. The Jew as a swindler is shown in the following picture by a twelve-year-old girl.[5] In the drawing, the Jewish livestock dealer's attention appears focused on the bag of money; his clothes are tattered and he is ill-kempt. The German farmer, by contrast, although giving the appearance of being exhausted, is adequately groomed.

Just because the text doesn't explicitly use a Jewish name doesn't mean this isn't obviously antisemitic. Lots of bigoted stuff doesn't come out and say "By the way, the bad guy is a Jew!!!!!"

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    I do not find this persuasive evidence. Rumplestiltskin is not a "rich man", but rather an entity that can transmute substances into gold; he does not have a bunch of coins lying around somewhere. Unlike, say, a leprechaun, or Norse dwarves, which I don't think many people consider Jewish caricatures. He is not "money-grubbing": in the first two deals, he gives highly valuable gold in exchange for much less valuable items. Rather, in trying to get someone to be tempted into giving up something more valuable than money, he seems to be offering something more like a "deal with the Devil."
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 22:01
  • 2
    As reinforced when he claims that a living being is more valuable than all the wealth in the realm, and refuses the latter offer. Finally, fairy tales hardly hesitated to simply explicitly make their villains Jews when the need arose, like "The Jew in the Thorns." They didn't see any need for subtle anti-Semitism that needed to excuse and justify itself and was susceptible to nice interpretations: that came later, when anti-Semitism had already fallen in some disrepute.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 22:04
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    There is also some research suggesting that "Rumplestiltskin" is older than the widespread presence of Jews in Europe, so if there are anti-Semitic elements, they would probably have been added later. That raises the standard of evidence considerably, if the basic ideas were already there well in the past.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 22:17
  • Yeah, this reading is extremely anachronistic. I agree, Obie, there's no merit to these assumptions (at least not as they are presented here).
    – cmw
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 2:51
  • Please link your answer to the tale, with evidence if possible, if not this answer is nonsense. Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 14:00
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Merchant of Venice meets blood libel — of course it is.

Rumpelstiltskin is physically strange, has a convoluted name, shows up at a time of need, to put the miller's daughter in his debt, and comes back to exact his 'pound of flesh' when she is married into nobility.

His name is not typically Jewish, but that it is uncommon is emphasised by the guessing game, and the queen mentioning Heinz and Kunz, common German names, which he's not.

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    I do not find that convincing. Rumplestiltskin substantially predates The Merchant of Venice, so any inspiration there would have to go the other way around. The motif of a physically strange supernatural helper with a strange name that likes to eat people is hardly limited to Europe: 大工と鬼六 has the same themes, and I doubt anyone thinks that the oni of that tale is meant to represent Jews.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 9 at 18:42
  • @Obie2.0: Of course I'm not implying Rumpelstiltskin is based on Merchant of Venice; if anything, works of literature are based on folk tales, not the other way around. And of course in different parts of the world, the roles played by Jews in Europe were played by other peoples. But this is a German folk tale, so the strange foreigner who advances money now to demand a "pound of flesh" later is a Jew, not an oni. Commented Jan 10 at 9:00
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    I am not convinced. If we accept your assertion that Rumplestiltskin must represent a real-life foreigner or outsider (dubious, unless you can suggest which group the oni in the similsr folktale should represent?), then he could represent a Romani person, a Turkish person, or any of the many other peoples demonized in Germany—or indeed a Jew. But you merely assert that he must be a Jew, which isn't strong evidence.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 10 at 9:04
  • In a comment on another answer, I noted that the basic structure of the folktale seems to be older than the widespread presence of Jews in Europe, which the existence of analogous folktales in other places bolsters. Since that would place any anti-Semitism as a later innovation, I am looking for a bit more than arguments based on the gross features of the story.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 10 at 9:07
  • Why should Rumpelstiltskin "represent a real-life foreigner"? That's a very narrow reading of folktales. The characters in myths and folktales represent archetypes, not real people, and there is very little doubt Rumpelstiltskin matches the antisemitic archetype for Jews: foreign, strange, miraculous with money, but deceitful and manipulative through debt, through which scheming to usurp aristocratic power, and eerily keen on taking other people's children. Commented Jan 10 at 9:35

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