The purpose of the women's existence also varies, depending on the combination of elements that are driving their legend and the time and place in which the story is being told. Some are looking to rescue or replace the children that have been lost to them. Some appear to herald the deaths of others. And some find themselves stuck in a recursive loop, repeating their deaths over and over again, never resting and affecting nothing.
One time Hans returned home at noon and found Trina sleeping again in their room. So he took his knife and cut off her dress at the knees. Trina awoke and thought: 'It’s time now to go to work.' However, when she went outside to work and saw that the dress was so short she became frightened and wondered whether she really was Trina and said to herself: 'Am I or am I not Trina?'
The general idea--which I think arises from the fact that so many poor women were accused of witchcraft--is that these women were often illiterate. As such, written spells and incantations would be useless.
A miller, who was so poor that he had nothing else but his mill and a large apple tree behind it, went into the forest to fetch wood. While there he met an old man who said: 'Why are you torturing yourself so much? I’ll make you rich if you promise to give me what’s behind your mill. In three years I’ll come and fetch what’s mine.'
This is not a story that I was super-familiar with but apparently the rest of everyone is VERY familiar with it! It's really long for a Grimm tale, it has multiple tale types, multiple variants in multiple countries, and it MAY have influenced Tolkien. It's like a little hidden folklore bomb!
Okay! So this is a relatively short story that has just an unbelievable number of variations and adaptations. I'll be using the Grimm story in this entry but we will discuss some of the variations because they are important to the conversation. Having said that, there are surprisingly few images of this variation so I included the entire story instead.
The basic theme of all of these stories, however, is that little girls that stray from the path will find themselves at the mercy of a Big Bad Wolf (or another vicious beastie). And no, in the Western versions we're not talking about actual wolves. IT'S A METAPHOR, PEOPLE!
this story has been told in a number of ways and the basic gist is pretty much always the same: a varying number of older brothers get turned into birds of some kind (usually swans, geese, ducks, or ravens) by a female family member that wants them to just go away and and so the clever and devoted little sister must search them out and break their curse. There are some variations that don't include the brothers turning into birds, like the North African story "Udea and Her Seven Brothers," but even that involves assistance from ravens and pigeons.
Mother Holle is a little like Baba Yaga in that she has a fearsome visage and she may offer help or hindrance, depending on how she feels about you. Unlike Baba Yaga, however, Mother Holle's motivations are much simpler: she really just wants someone to fluff her bed every morning.
The basic plot that is common to all of the stories is that a husband has been away from his wife for a long absence. Upon returning, he finds that she has mysteriously had a son. The length of the husband's absence makes it virtually impossible for him to be the father. When questioned, the wife gives a divine explanation for the boy, generally to the effect that she ingested frozen water in some form and thus became pregnant with a miraculous snow child. Other versions omitted the snow, had rather longer absences, and way wilder explanations for the bonus mystery child.