This story was so big, I had to break it up into two chunks.
Frankfurt is a rather industrial city, with a convenient airport but none of the historic charm I was looking for. I used it instead as a layover on my travels north. So from Frankfurt, I hopped a train north to continue on my path of German traditional folklore. I had already visited the Black Forest, but today I would be discovering a whole new forest. Not as well known by the outside world, this time I was going to Treysa, located in the forested Schwalm region of western Germany.
The Schwalm is an area of small half-timbered villages surrounded by thick woodlands. These small towns were a good distance apart, connected by a series of narrow roads through the surrounding forests – sound familiar? Yes, I was in the ‘hood of the original Little Red Riding Hood.
In German, the original tale of Little Red Riding Hood is actually known as “Rotkäppchen”, or Little Red Cap. The title is in reference to the local Schwälmer Tracht, the traditional costume of the Schwalm region dating back to the Protestant Reformation. This costume consisted of several above-the-knee skirts layered one on top of another, a blouse of hand-woven linen, a shoulder shawl, white gusseted stockings and the very distinctive “Schnatz”. The Schnatz was a top knot of hair, upon which a “Betzel”, or a small cap, would rest. Married women wore a green Betzel, women aged 40-50 wore a lilac one, women over 50 or in mourning wore a black one, while unmarried women wore – you guessed it – a red one. Mix the shoulder shawl and the red Betzel together and you have something that looks a little like the familiar cape of our beloved Little Red Riding Hood.
This local costume was highly valued by the female villagers, as it often formed most of their marriage trousseau, and many parts would have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. It wasn’t until shortly after World War II that the Schwälmer Tracht was put aside from daily wear, and is now only worn by the very elderly, or more often brought out for festivals and special occasions.
So now that we have Red’s namesake outfit, where do the forests fit in? A lot of German fairy tales have to do with the subject of naïve children inside dark and scary forests. Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White are three German tales based on this format. There was obviously a great concern of children straying from the trail and getting lost inside the vast forests. And the Schwalm forests really are the perfect spot for a wolf to hide in. Therefore the tale was told to children as a lesson – stray from the trail and you may very well get eaten by a wolf. The hope was that this would frighten the children enough to keep on the paths. The Grimm Brothers caught hold of the local tale and recorded it as the story many children still know today.
The bronze sculpture in Treysa of Rotkäppen and her wolf, as they originally imagined.