Reminiscent of a monastic environment, the garden in Rapunzel has a mysterious aura and quietude. Tucked safely behind a garden wall, its cultivated beds are tended by a very secretive and forbidding caretaker, who follows ancient customs and shuns modernity. In this regard Mistress Gotel shares the traditions of many Christian monastic orders, who valued the tending of a garden as the perfect complement to the spiritual life.
According to Deutsche Mythologie, ancient pagan rules specified the way each herb was to be cultivated, harvested and used. Certain herbs were picked only with the right hand or only with the left hand, but never with a bare hand. Some plants were never cut, only dug up. The exact time of day for the harvest was specified. Most plants were cut in the early morning hours when they were believed to be most potent. For other plants strict rules were in force about when and how they could be harvested: many before sunrise, in the hour when neither sun nor star was shining. Only a specific part of the plant could be harvested and then the precise type of blade used for cutting was designated: no cold iron should touch the herb, only annealed iron or a golden blade. The cut branch or leaf must not touch the ground and certain incantations must be recited during the harvesting. In some places, the harvester must approach the plant naked and without wearing shoes. These rites express veneration and respect for nature and underscore the power the plants were believed to possess. One herb by the name of Jungfrauhaar was said to have a beautiful golden color and its properties supposedly included giving or taking away manhood. Most herbs were gathered by wise and experienced women, who were renowned herbarists. In Rapunzel it is interesting that the husband does not follow any of these ancient rules nor does he seem to care much about them and his wife eats the herb greedily. But when the sorceress cuts (the hair of) Rapunzel, the exact hand she uses is described.
Very Reverend Vegetables in the Fairy Tale Rapunzel
The earthy hag Mistress Gotel condemns Rapunzel in the severest manner and her accusation is telling: “Ach, you godless child,” she cries. Rapunzel’s crimes are apparently lying and godlessness, strange concerns we might think coming from a sorceress. Mistress Gotel seems to know that where God is not seen or even glimpsed, failure and misery follow. The fairy tale does not prescribe or explain a precise understanding of God. But rather it is the affront on faith itself that is so corrosive.
Here is how the poet Thomas Gray described the area where he lived: “Both vale and hill are covered with most venerable beeches and other very reverend vegetables…” Mistress Gotel would have certainly approved of this sentiment.
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