When I was still a teeny tiny little critter a rain storm swept over the tundra where I lived in a village of only 300 people with no roads in or out. I ran into my friends house to escape the rain and soon we were were listening to his mother tell us the tale of two friends who went into the long grass near the river, there they smelled something delicious cooking. Lured by the smell they soon met an old lady… who as you can guess turned out to be a witch. Although in this version of the story one of the two friends dies the other manages to escape across a river with the help of a crane.
Like these two children Hansel and Gretel were also lured by food to into a witches trap and at the end of their story they needed to ride on the back of a bird to escape as well.
Sure we can easily just chalk these stories to the need for cautionary tales, and indeed the Yupik people I grew up with loved to scare their children into avoiding doing dangerous things. (Given how dangerous the tundra was if we hadn’t been at least a little afraid of it none of us would have survived). But I think that there’s a lot more to these stories than that.
A Spirit Journey through the land of the dead
When they are returning home Hansel and Gretel run into a river that they didn't have to cross to get to the witches house, but which they must cross to return. In order to get across this new river they must ride on a duck over some water to get out of the woods. It was common for the shamans, the witches and the cunning to need to ride on ducks, swans or geese to get into and out of the spirit world, especially the land of the dead. Just as it was common for them to be led in the spirit world by a spirit guide in the form of a white bird, just as Hansel and Gretel were lead through the to the the witches house. Forests themselves were often considered such spirit worlds, or used to represent them in old stories.
It seems extremely unlikely that it is simply coincidence that figures so similar to spirit guides in the land of the dead are present in this story about two children who are starving and on the cusp of death. Indeed it’s quite possible that the white bird and the duck represent the fact that Hansel and Gretel are dead, that like so many shamans before them they must enter the realm of the dead, and find their way back in order to get their powers. It's also possible, however, that only Hansel is dead, he is the one the witch captures and to get him back his sister must follow him into the land of the dead and free him from the witch. ,
Keep in mind, however, that almost no shaman, no person really enters the spirit world only once, rather they tend to go back into the spirit world over and over again, and Hansel and Gretel may go back into the spirit world to save the souls of other children who are on the cusp of death, may journey back to fight the evil spirits which are causing the famine, to negotiate with the rain spirits, etc.
Ghost of their Mother
In addition to the shamanistic elements it’s also interesting to note that when Hansel and Gretel return home their mother is already dead, given that she was starving it seems likely that she'd starved to death.
Two aspects of this are important; first birds often represented the spirits of the dead, so it's possible that the bird which lead Hansel and Gretel into the land of the dead was their mother. For example the spirit of a murdered boy in "The Juniper Tree" returns in the form of a bird to kill his murderer. When a man heard a supernaturally beautiful birds song he realized that his soul had left his body and he would die soon.
It's also possible, however, that the mother was present in the witch as the spirits of the dead which returned would at times be most likely to attack their families, this was especially true of vampires.
A mother becomes a spirit of the dead and lures their children into the land of the dead in order to try to devour them…
A girls brother dies and she must enter the realm of the dead to free him from the evil beings which now hold him in their clutches
Two children die, but manage to escape the land of the dead and so can now enter the land of the dead to free others.