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Piercing the Veil: Meeting the Empress of Rot with “GRETEL AND HANSEL”

Sunday, May 5, 2024 | News


Hunger can drive us to do mad things. Hunger can contort and deform us, transforming us through desperation and frenzied rage. Hunger can lash and whip and brutalize us from the inside out. Hunger can make monsters of us all.

“My mother, she killed me. My mother, she ate me.”

In GRETEL AND HANSEL, Osgood Perkins’s ravenous 2020 reimagining of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the descent into degradation begins with dire immediacy. A family is starving, with the mother reeling from the death of her husband. She sends her daughter, Gretel (Sophia Lillis), to meet with a man in need of a housekeeper. After realizing the leering lord’s true intentions, Gretel returns with no job and no food. Her mother becomes unhinged, plunging an axe into the barren dinner table while threatening to hack her into pieces unless she takes her little brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey), and leaves their home. 

“This place is too crowded with ghosts. Hungry ghosts.”

Hungry ghosts, the hungry shells of those they left behind. The children flee with only the clothes on their backs and each other. Fires light the way in the dark of night – bonfires, hearth fires. The lure of warmth and shelter. The illusion of safety. When Gretel and Hansel enter a seemingly empty home and rest their heads, they soon come to learn that not all fires can be trusted…  and not all houses are welcoming. Chased by a groaning ghoul of a man, they’re rescued by a kind hunter, who just happens to arrive in their time of nearly fatal need.

“Is it safe to trust someone who appears exactly when you need them? Or does it feel too much like they’ve been lying in wait, coiled like a serpent?”

After a night of safe harbor and sustenance, the hunter points the children in the direction of foresters who, according to him, can provide them with work, money, food and all that they need. So their journey into the woods begins as they keep company amongst the trees, walking through the setting rays of the sun, following a path they know not, navigating the darkness and the endless possibility of what – or who – is lurking just beyond their terrified sense of time and space.

They walk; They hunger. Ancient trees reach towards the sky, seeming to loom as they witness the wayward travelers. Leaves cover the ground, a mist that has been trailing on their heels continues its approach, and there, just there… red-capped mushrooms appear. Gretel and Hansel each pluck this newfound bounty from the ground, cautiously chewing and processing what they hope is a friendly food. The two slip into a liminal space of intoxication, of inebriation, of fascination. The woods speak and howl and become an unfriendly host, as the mist surrounds them. A voice (follow me”) travels on the breeze. The forest giants sway and bend, parting for the children as they make their way further and further and further still into the realm that dances at the edge…

“She was hidden away, deep in the woods, all alone for no one to play with. But still, she had her own way of making friends. So children please, beware of gifts. Beware of those who offer them. And beware of those who are only too happy to take them.”

A house appears, a red hue glowing behind the windows and door of this miracle in the hedge, and beside it, a child’s slide, years and years unused. A table set with candles and glistening meats and sweet and savory treats. A fire stoked, inviting.

Gretel, what is there?”

“Only heaven.”

A crescent moon hangs over the cottage, overseeing the crossroads that the children have just traversed. An old woman emerges (Alice Krige), catching Hansel after he makes his way across the threshold, snatching scrumptious morsels from the table. She brings him outside to greet Gretel, who is desperately trying to break her way in to save him.

“Careful with that, dear. I’d hate for you to start something you can’t stop.”

The siblings enter, the aroma of cake and bacon and crackling flame obscuring any sense of caution, any indication of danger. The abundant feast strewn across the long wooden table is too much to refuse, their rumbling bellies too loud to ignore. The woman watches as the children descend upon the food, frenzied in their starvation like wild animals gnashing at the first kill of winter. They lose themselves in this moment – in the satiation, in the relief – and in this euphoric slice of time, it’s all too easy not to question, not to even see the scraps that they’re shoveling into their mouths. Where did all of this come from? How does this aged and withered woman summon such a spread? And what will she ask in return?

“You always say there aren’t any gifts in this world. That nothing is given without something taken away. So tell me this, what is she taking?”

Yes, what is she taking? She has so much, but how? From where does she derive such an ample, never-ending volume of provisional exquisiteness? 

“There’s too much, and it isn’t right. Where are the animals? From where does she draw milk? From where does she conjure up her endless parade of cakes?”

Milk, cakes, abundance that comes from well-tended, well-loved animals and land. Abundance that comes from honoring the cycles of nature, tuning into them, revering them.

Last week, many folks and cultures in the northern hemisphere celebrated Bealtainne (or Beltane) a cross-quarter day marking the halfway point between equinoxes and solstices. This day is celebrated with festivities revolving around fire and gratitude, fertility, play, the moving of cattle, renewing protections and recognizing that we share our world with those that we cannot – or just may not – see. In Ireland, the entire month of May is known as Bealtainne, a time when the veil is said to be thin, just like this holiday’s opposite and corresponding cross-quarter day, Samhain (Halloween). We find ourselves surrounded by flowers in bloom and the bounty of the earth rising up. It seems like life is swelling all around us, waiting to serve us the most delightful, desirable of natural gifts, including those that may be lying dormant within ourselves.

“Those like me and those like you, we commune with the Great Provider. She gives us the seeds of abundance, and we grow them in our garden.”

The Great Provider. But what does she ask for in return? What are her demands? What fills her belly to bursting, only to be renewed again and again and again with simply the wave of a hand?

“The air is swirling with abundance. One need only reach out and pluck it.”

The month of May is primarily spent in the earthly realms of Taurus, a sign associated with Venus, and of course, the third card in the major arcana of the tarot – The Empress. The Great Mother, from which all nurturing and love and bounty flow. She is the epitome of all things feminine, all things beauty, all things gentle and natural and yet, powerful. But not all mothers are nurturing and loving. Not all mothers offer support and care and love. What happens when the essence of The Empress becomes tainted, infected with the scourge of the world? Gnarled and twisted and blackened, her throne becomes not one of life but one of carnage, for her abundance bleeds and screams and gnaws and claws and… lingers. Staying with you for far longer than you’d like, its hooks plunged deep into your flesh, so deep that maggots find respite there. They feed and feast on any semblance of joy you have left. They suck you dry, ingesting the last whisps of your life force. This is the mother that takes and squanders and projects and devours. This is the toxic mother, and if you’re not careful, she’ll eat you whole. She’ll show you her version of abundance – rot and decay and putrid stinking death. It’s murder and compost. It’s her savage offering to herself.

“There are things here, bad things…There are souls trapped in this house, or under it.” 

Gretel dreams of children trapped behind the mirrors, their screams reverberating even into waking hours. She begins to lose her sense of reality, seeing visions during the day – an ability she’s always had that has become amplified since staying with the woman at the edge of the wood. She sees dirty sheets covering rigid bodies with dirty feet. Blood begins to swell and spread, secrets spilling through the secret shrouds. What do spirits sound like when they speak? What messages from the deep rise to preserve our keep? 

“Finders keepers.”

And then, Hansel disappears. The woman tells Gretel not to worry, that it might be a gift – a blessing. Hansel wasn’t her responsibility. He was just weighing her down, holding her back. She had her own gifts to tend to, to nurture and her own power to grow. For a few days, she teaches Gretel of the power that resides within her. She shows her how to manipulate, how to control. She shows her what she’s capable of – if she chooses to accept it.

It’s already inside of you. You can either stay asleep to it… or let it wake up.”

Gretel makes many choices in the house at the hedge. She flexes senses and abilities she’d only grazed before. She digs deep within her wellspring of power to decide which fires to feed and which to starve. She also decides how to feed them. And with whom. With these decisions come liberation and a new path forward, a sense of self and possibility and promise and… fear. Because we all fear the power within us. We fear our greatness. We fear our ability to take up space and establish sovereignty on this Earth. We fear what we’re capable of, what we’ll do with this force of nature we know we are, that we know we could become. As she commands the tallest trees to bend to her will, she feels her energy swell; Her abilities are limitless. As she gazes at her hands, she sees the growing black enveloping her fingers. Apprehension dances behind her eyes as she embarks on this next phase of her journey – the story she gets to craft, to edit, to continue – or to burn.

“I have my own power to nurture. I’ll help it to grow and trust that I’ll know what to do with it. I know that the choice is mine. I could feed it darkness, or give it plenty of light.”

Which Empress will you become? What will you choose? When reaching the crossroads, which path will call to you? Will you heed it? What would you give for what you desire? What does abundance mean to you, and how will you cultivate it? As you sit with your decks, keep these questions in mind. Let them inspire you to create your own tarot prompts for May, for Bealtainne, and draft your intentions for the upcoming New Moon in Taurus on May 7th. This time is extra potent for divination, communion and connection with the unseen but oh-so-present. Just remember, be respectful, bring offerings (which could just be you showing up) and give gratitude to the stable, sturdy ground beneath your feet. Know that you’re supported, and remember, you can ask for support at any time. Just don’t demand it because the good folk (the fae) really don’t like that, and they won’t hesitate to express their displeasure at the foolishness of us mere mortals. That being said, see you on the Full Moon!

Jillian Kristina
Jillian Kristina blends her love of horror and magic to facilitate healing from the real horrors in the world. Stephen King's movies and books raised her; magic and the occult molded and healed her. Find her on Instagram @root_down, on Twitter @RootDownTarot, and through her website