“There she saw, seated in a circle on one of the largest tombstones, a group of hideous ghouls–horrid witches. They were taking off their rags as if about to bathe, but then they buried their long, gaunt fingers in the new graves, snatched the bodies out of them, and began to eat their flesh. Elisa had to pass right by them, and they fixed their evil eyes on her, but she recited a prayer while she was picking the nettles that were stinging her and carried them back home to the palace. ”
The flesh-eating witches in this excerpt from The Wild Swans are in reference to the witch hunts across the globe from the 1400s through 1600s. The reasons for these hunts and the resulting deaths of some 50,000 to 200,000 people are complicated but predominately due to the fear of evil and suspected occult practices.
As with most fairy tales, there are lessons in this terrifying passage. My perspective is that Andersen is teaching that evil and fear is to be countered with prayer. When we walk in faith, God protects us.
(Have you read my blog, Midwest Mary?)