The character of the wicked or evil stepmother is common in the world’s folklore. Scholars and storytellers have long debated the reason for the existence of this character type.
Stepmothers were common in societies where women were likely to die in childbirth or shortly afterward. A man often would take a second wife to replace his children’s deceased biological mother. The motif continues today as a result of modern-day patterns of divorce and remarriage.
Stepmothers in folklore are almost always wicked. This is probably due to two issues: the psychology of the child, who sees the stepmother as an intruder who has done away with the birth mother, and inheritance laws.
A second wife rarely felt that the first wife’s child, rather than her own offspring, should inherit everything, and a first child would not wish to share an inheritance with interlopers, such as stepsisters.
Some of the most familiar wicked stepmothers appear in the many “Cinderella” variants, in which the wicked stepmother is often accompanied by wicked stepsisters.
In most of these stories, protection of the stepmother’s own children is the most common motivation for her wickedness. This is, perhaps, more understandable than the truly evil nature of the “Snow White” stories, in which the stepmother is consumed by jealousy of the heroine.
There are several odd variants to the wicked stepmother theme. In the English tale of “Kate Crackernuts,” the story’s heroine is not the ﬁrst daughter but the stepdaughter. The stepdaughter is a lively, active character, and the first daughter is more passive.
|The Juniper Tree|
In the German tale “The Juniper Tree,” the stepmother murders and eats her stepson. She is then slain by the stepson in the form of a bird-spirit, and he is restored to life.
In the Grimm Brothers’ version of “Hansel and Gretel,” it is the stepmother who cast the children away. In earlier versions, it was their own mother.