Frau Totenkinder and the witches of lore

Right, I know I squeed about Fables a bit already (mostly in relation to the upcoming video game by Telltale Games). But in this case, I figure I can do a bit of gushing again, along with mentioning a list of other witches strewn along the annals of folktales.

I thought about posting this while I read Fables: Witches, the 14th volume of Bill Willingham’s Fables series. I felt, considering the massive filler that volume 13 produced (nonsense with Jack and literals and crossovers, ugh, not worth going through), that Witches was the starting point of another decent story arc after their war against the Empire (and their defeat of the Adversary). I don’t know how long this saga will last, but one thing–well, one person, really–jumped out at me as I read through the stories.

Her name’s Frau Totenkinder, and she’s a witch.

ImageFrom what I’ve gleaned from the Fables world, Frau Totenkinder is the representation of the unnamed witches in fairy tales. She is the gingerbread house witch who tries to eat Hansel and Gretel, she is the vegetable garden witch who traps Rapunzel up a tower, she is the sorceress who curses the Beast, she is the witch who curses the Frog Prince. I can think of a number of other fairy tales out there that mentions a curse or a scorned sorceress without a name, and more than likely–according to Willingham–that witch is a form of Frau Totenkinder. While she has no real name and currently goes by a German derivation of “child killer”, she has been forgiven her crimes through the agreed-upon Amnesty–where every Fable is granted a blank slate and not prosecuted for her past, so long as he or she reforms, of course (Bigby and Bluebeard are prime examples of this…though I’m not sure Bluebeard was ever the reforming type).

Totenkinder is the leader of the 13th floor Fables; that is, the coven of fairy tale witches/warlocks. Her main enemies include Baba Yaga and Mister Dark (who is prominent in the post-Adversary issues), and in some ways, Ozma (the other prominent witch of the 13th floor). Judging from the storylines, it seems to me that Totenkinder is probably the most powerful witch to have escaped the Homeland (which is saying much, because there are some very powerful Fables out there). She is definitely a woman to reckon with. Also, don’t be fooled by her form; she keeps the guise of an old woman so that her friends and enemies underestimate her. Big mistake if you think the frail old lady on her rocking chair can’t handle herself.

A thought, then. Growing up, I’d heard or read about numerous witches with an abominable amount of power, some named, others obscure (much like Totenkinder). All the same, witches are littered in folklore and mythology, and good or bad, their presence in any tale screams danger to the hero, heroine, prince, and princess.

So I’m just going to take a look at a few of my favorites:

babayagaBaba Yaga – Always the first witch I can think of in any mythology, Baba Yaga is most known for where she lives. Baba Yaga is never far from her small hut, which stands on chicken legs. When she isn’t migrating long distances, she travels on a mortar, with the pestle as her weapon (sometimes it’s a broom or mop, but it’s so much cooler imagining her sitting atop a mortar, to be honest). While often used as a figure to scare children into behaving, Baba Yaga shouldn’t be characterized outright as a villain (sometimes she is, other times she’s not). Often, like many of the witches in folklore, she gives just as much benefit as a hero’s sacrifice will allow. A most well-known example of this the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful, who was given board in exchange for servitude.

morganlefayMorgan le Fay – Who doesn’t speak of Morgan le Fay when talking about witches? Seriously, she’s probably the epitome of them all. She’s an enchantress who has featured in numerous tales through Arthurian legends, and has not lost her popularity in later literature. She is seductive, dangerous, powerful, and seriously not an enchantress you want coming after you. There are many theories as to her origin, some tracing Morgan le Fay down Welsh mythology, others linking her to the Morrigan (an Irish goddess). Heck, she’s even considered a fairy queen, owing to the French bit of her name that ties her to the world of the fae. Whatever the case, the stories do not dispute the amount of magic she wields, whether for ill or good.

circeCirce – Greek mythology contains numerous witches, some of them goddesses and monsters (Hecate and Medusa, respectively). There are definitely so many of them in tales to pick from, but the one that does come to mind–and one that does feature in my favorite Greek tale of all–is Circe. Sometimes considered a goddess, other times a nymph, most times a sorceress or enchantress or witch. Regardless of her denomination, Circe is practically an Ancient Greek feminist; she is most often associated with her love for turning men into animals. Heck, it took two gods advising Odysseus to counteract against Circe, and even then, the Greek hero was not immune to her feminine wiles (even though he mentally fought her off for like, a day). Travelers beware, if you land on an island filled with animals, in all likelihood, try not to be too easily seduced by the woman zookeeper offering you sumptuous feasts.

lilithLilith – There are a few origin accounts of where Lilith came from (Jewish, Arabic, Mesopotamian), though it is the Hebrew Lilith that is most prolific of the tales. Still, I do have to give some credit to the Mesopotamians, since it’s the Sumerian mythos that first gave me an inkling as to what sort of demon witch Lilith was. Whether she is a female demon herself is prone to debate, and in the Hebrew literature, she is known to be Adam’s first wife. That said, the marriage didn’t last long, considering Lilith was having none of the inferiority business that masculine Adam expected of his feminine wife; so she evidently left him for someone better (like an archangel). In later depictions, Lilith’s even considered a sort of lust demon (most often termed a succubus), or the head witch in a coven.

yukionnaYuki Onna – You get very few mentions of Eastern mythologies in the Western world, but they are certainly rife with powerful figures. There are witches and enchantresses that fill the pages of Eastern folklore, some of them even take the form of female and male djinn (Arabic folklore). In Japan, Yuki Onna holds a special place, for she is often a figure of power, either as an elemental spirit or a succubus preying on travelers amid snowstorms. Sometimes she is likened to a vampire, feeding on folk in order to stay young. She is most often associated with winter and snowstorms, and she is almost always depicted as a beautiful woman who has no compunctions of killing people with a quick call to a blizzard. Also, judging from the amount of appearances she makes throughout Japanese popular culture, it’s clear that Yuki Onna is–if we’re going by the power and frequency of fairy tale retellings–going to be one very powerful witch.

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