“Little Red Riding Hood” is the world’s most popular fairy tale and a childhood favorite, but it was once a ribald, grisly tale, whose bawdy tone and course language is not the stuff of nursery tales.
In oral versions of the tale, such as “The Story of Grandmother,” a young girl, with no distinctive red cap or hood, generally meets a bzou” or werewolf en route to Granny’s. He poses a seemingly nonsensical question, asking the girl if she is taking the path of needles or the path of pins. It is now widely believed that the path of pins symbolizes a girl’s coming of age, while the path of needles implies sexual maturity, as threading the eye of a needle was a sexual symbol in the folklore of seamstresses. By choosing the path of needles, as the heroine does in some variants, the young girl appears to assume prematurely the sexuality of an older woman.
At the grandmother’s, the wolf offers the little girl the flesh and blood of the old lady, in a cannibalistic meal that becomes a rite of passage in this initiation tale. In many versions, an animal calls the girl a “slut” for her cannibalistic act. Whereas the wolf devours the grandmother raw, the girl generally eats her cooked. Sometimes the little girl drinks the blood as wine, but often it is added to the cut-up meat to create a grandmother fricassee.
The meal is followed by a lengthy, ritualistic striptease, in which the little girl removes her clothing one item at a time and throws them into the fire, before climbing into bed with the wolf. A more risqué climactic dialogue begins with the girl asking about the wolf’s hairy body, to which the wolf sometimes replies: “It’s from old age.” The confusion of granny with the wolf is explained by equating the postmenopausal woman with a hairy male.
Realizing her danger, the girl tricks the wolf by pretending she has to go outside to relieve herself, a scatological scene that has numerous variations. The wolf often ties a woolen thread to the girl’s foot, and when she doesn’t return, he asks her repeatedly if she is “making a load”. Unlike her helpless successors in the classic Perrault and Grimms’ tales, the heroine generally escapes by running away, seeking help, or courageously confronting the wolf.
This essay was originally posted at Wonders & Marvels in March 2009.