On Religious Motifs in Hans Christian Andersen's Tales
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On Religious Motifs in Hans Christian Andersen's Tales

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'Concordance' most often designates a list of all the words that appear in one or more texts, containing information about where and how often they appear. On this website we have made a literary concordance, which pinpoints religious motifs in Hans Christian Andersen's tales and stories.

The Hans Christian Andersen Centre's list of tales is more comprehensive than other lists. The entire list can be seen in our register of tales.

Editorial Principles

Finding religious motifs in the tales has entailed systematic reading. This has helped to localise many more details than relying on memory ('where was it that something religious was alluded to?') would have done. It has yielded a large body of material to read and investigate.

Almost all motifs have been described, and the intent is also to comment on Hans Christian Andersen's use of each individual motif. For this reason keywords have been added which increase the chance of finding the required material using the searching machine, and which in themselves comprise a commentary in keyword form.

Motifs have been exemplified by quotations from the tales. Particularly interesting or characteristic passages have been annotated, and keywords added to most.

Passages quoted are taken from Jean Hersholt's The Complete Andersen, I-VI, New York 1949, an excellent edition and available online.

The content is wide-ranging, and perhaps many people will contest the appropriateness of including this or that passage among Andersen's religious motifs. However, it is a gift for the curious to include as much as possible while still remaining within the confines of the relevant. The parameters used to determine relevance are discussed below.

Why Religious Motifs?

There are many ways of cross-referencing texts and many different kinds of motif to draw the reader's attention. Until now, very little material concerning Hans Christian Andersen's religious feelings has appeared on the web. The oeuvre is permeated with religiosity, and it is therefore clearly pertinent to identify and comment on religious motifs in the tales and stories.

On the Selection of Motifs

The selection criteria can best be described by answering two questions: what motifs are religious and what motifs are not?

What Are Religious Motifs?

Religious motifs describe or name religious phenomena, in other words, it is characteristic that something of a religious nature takes place in the story or is mentioned in the text.

Religious phenomena can be many things. In the final analysis, the idea as to what is religious sets the limits. In this connection a rather broad concept has been chosen deliberately in order not to rule out too much. For instance it would have been possible to limit the selection of motifs to such as can be recognised in Christian or even Protestant theology: however, this approach is too narrow.

Cosmology and Culture

The concept of cosmology or world order is central to the view of religion that forms the basis for this project. Cosmology is regarded as a basic concept by many people working within modern history of religion. This means that cosmology, that is, a way of subdividing and ordering the world, is seen as the common ground for religions and religious phenomena. Various cosmologies are thought to underlie the religious expression and forms of different cultures, religions, and/or peoples. Rituals and myths thus express, justify, and consolidate a world order that is preordained.

This perspective is central to French sociology, from Emile Durkheim (1858-1917, cf. Les formes élémentaires de la vie réligieuse, 1912), Henri Hubert (1872-1927), Marcel Mauss (1872-1950, cf. Hubert & Mauss: Introduction à l'analyse de quelques phénomènes religieux, 1906), Georges Dumézil (1898-1986), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-) etc. Within this tradition religion is seen as closely connected to culture and society. A leading function is assigned to religion; it is seen as underpinning and expressing the given order of a culture or society.

The theories and analyses of these scholars have had great importance for later times and are still completely topical. Michel Maffesoli, among others, has taken up Durkheim and Mauss's idea of the religious dimension in Le temps Des tribes, Paris 1988 (Eng.: The Time of the Tribes, Sage, London 1996). Maffesoli focuses on phenomena such as rituals and ecstasy in crowds and 'tribes', that is, all sorts of groupings in post-modern society, and in this sees an 'immanent transcendence', in the common feeling of this community, which is seen as a religious phenomenon – in fact as the religious phenomenon. 'Transcendental' here means: going beyond the individual. Compared to this way of looking at things, which is part of the above-mentioned, primarily French tradition, the point of view adopted in this Andersen project does not comprise religious feeling or religious moods in themselves – unless these are explicitly characterised as religious in the text. Instead, a point of view closer to 'common sense' and deliberate objectivity has been adopted. This primarily focuses on what can be 'seen' from the outside, and on what can be assigned to the category of the religious in terms of cosmology and history.

A long time has passed since religious history took a sociological turn, but it is still an essential fact to note. Formerly, learned people like Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) and James G. Frazer (1854-1941) had sought for the basis of religion. Their points of view implied that the religions of all 'primitive' peoples should be regarded as belonging to the past, while in our part of the world the highest stage of religion, modern European Christianity, had developed. It is easy to laugh indulgently at this Eurocentric evolutionism today, but it is still a potential pitfall to understand religion narrowly on the basis of the religious concepts of one's own culture.

The point of view taken here, one which reduces religion to simply culture, can give rise to objections. However, it is a reasonable counter-argument to turn the matter upside down: religion has fertilized the idea of culture and the field of sociology. The argument for using this view of religion here is, as noted above, its broadness, which makes it possible to recognise a wide range of motifs. And religious phenomena constitute an extremely heterogeneous mass.

Differences and Similarities

The religions of the worlds are so different that it is impossible to point to consistent and general features, such as for instance one or more gods.

What is the most essential element in one religious tradition can be quite accidental or even missing in another. Thus, on the basis of a Christian tradition, one might imagine that faith in one or more gods must be the basic ingredient in religion; but this has the difficulty that in many cultures gods are not central; in classical Buddhism they do not play any positive role at all. If on the basis of Indian tradition one placed inner spiritual life at the centre, it would be easy to point to other religious traditions in which such elements have no fixed place. Or where they are even seen as ungodly enthusiasm. It is as if any inclusion of specific ideas or acts restricts the validity of the definitions. (...) It looks as if religion can be used in and form a framework around the most different activities: suppression or liberation, togetherness or loneliness, orgies or asceticism, dance or philosophy, ecstasy or moral homilies. (...) It is as if history teaches us that elasticity is more necessary than precision in any concept of religion (...)

Translated from Tim Jensen, Mikael Rothstein & Jørgen Podemann Sørensen (eds.): Gyldendals religionshistorie, 1994, pp. 9f

In this Andersen concordance, these observations provide the justification for choosing criteria for registering anything as a religious phenomenon: religious phenomena have a place in an identifiable cosmology. If one can identify the cosmology, it and the phenomenon also have a history, and the history of a religious phenomenon is therefore also a criterion. This is true even if the phenomenon has developed into something seemingly not religious, today as well as at Hans Christian Andersen's time.

One example is nisser (domestic goblins). A 'nisse' is a house god from Danish and Norwegian folklore with roots back to the Roman house gods lares. Once the 'nisse' was a religious figure in popular belief. Therefore the motif 'nisse' has been included as well as for instance the river Lethe from old Greek mythology, which is probably easier to recognise as a religious motif for most people. Neither of these two motifs is central for an understanding of Hans Christian Andersen's religious views. Both have a tradition that is as much literary as religious, both today and in Hans Christian Andersen's time. However, this project will not postulate any final truth about the religion of the tales or Hans Christian Andersen the man. The purpose is just to show what motifs appear, in what tales they appear, and to cite the examples.

A narrower definition of what religion is, based on preconceptions of religion as such, the religion of Hans Christian Andersen, or the religious core of the tales, would impose a limitation on the material and rule out motifs which have now been included, among others those from popular belief and 'superstition'.

Superstitious elements and Christian religious motifs may exist side by side in Andersen's tales and stories. For instance in the dramatic story "The Marsh King's Daughter", where superstitious, heathen and Christian values and forces are found side by side in a most peculiar way that should not be disregarded. The figures of superstition indeed play a particular role in many places – a point which may be difficult to fathom.

Besides, witches, goblins, elves and trolls cannot just be dismissed as trivial, implying that they are just there for the sake of the children or tradition. The sea witch in The Little Mermaid plays an important role, the same is true of the elves in The Rose-Elf and Alferne paa Heden (The Elves on The Heath, from Rambles, 1831). In some tales elves, will-o-the-wisps, etc., animate nature for those who keep their eyes open, and as such they have a role to play in a sort of religious world picture which may be peculiarly Andersenian.

Of course we must be aware that witches, trolls, goblins, etc. are part of the tradition behind the folktale and the fantastic tale, and they should not necessarily be taken very seriously as a form of religious belief, not to say occultism, when these phenomena appear – or rather, they should be taken seriously, but one should not expect to find a single answer or a single kind of religion springing from an individual or a core, whether one thinks of Hans Christian Andersen the man or the texts themselves. The element of superstition plays a symbolic role, and often is just an element in a fairytale setting. It is true of those motifs, as of others, that one cannot deduce anything about the religious beliefs of the poet or of the 'tales' on the basis of the written text.

Many motifs, important and less important ones, have been registered. The list speaks for itself.

What Are Not Religious Motifs?

In addition to all that quite obviously has nothing to do with religion, there are a number of cases that might look as if they had, but which have been excluded for various reasons. It is this selection which proves the advantage of having a human editor rather than relying on computer-based searches. Thus the word 'God' has been left out where it does not carry any meaning, and conversely cases where 'God' does play a role, but is possibly not called 'God' but for instance 'Our Lord', or 'Creator', have been included.

On the other hand, the occurrence of the word 'God' or the like does not in itself imply that we have a religious context. For instance, the following quotation from 'The Emperor's New Clothes' is not listed:

So the honest old minister went to the room where the two swindlers sat working away at their empty looms.

"Heaven help me," he thought as his eyes flew wide open, "I can't see anything at all". But he did not say so.

Source: Jean Hersholt: The Complete Andersen, NY 1949, (in the following just The Complete Andersen) vol. 5, p. 80

Here the invocation of God (Heaven) is not really a prayer. It is a phrase, an exclamation, which true enough is derived from something religious, such as similar phrases like: "My goodness" (literally ‘oh God’), "oh, my!", etc. That kind of thing has been excluded because such exclamations do not have much substance in this connection. They are not 100 per cent free of religion, but the religious content is negligible.

Cases like the conclusion of The Wild Swans, which notes:

All the townsmen went flocking out through the town gates, for they wanted to see the witch burned.

The Complete Andersen vol. 5, p. 130f

are not registered for the motif 'witch', because the 'witch' is in fact the princess Elise, who – while being condemned to be burned as a witch, – is actually not one.

There are even more difficult cases. The tale about "The Little Mermaid" begins with the following words:

Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.

The Complete Andersen vol. 5, p. 57

'Steeples', in Danish 'Kirketaarne' ('Church towers') here appear as a standard of measurement for height. The relevance for a study of the religious element in Andersen's tales is, to put it mildly, minimal. Therefore, it has not been registered.

In some cases, graves have been included, but not in all. In the tale The Travelling Companion graves are important in several places, because the father of the hero is buried, and the hero acquires a special relation to graves. On several occasions he is present at graves in the story, he puts up crosses, and cleans a stranger's grave.

In 'The Little Mermaid' the old grandmother tells the little mermaid that:

"Yes," the old lady said, "they [humans] too must die, and their lifetimes are even shorter than ours. We can live to be three hundred years old, but when we perish we turn into mere foam on the sea, and haven't even a grave down here among our dear ones.

The Complete Andersen vol. 5, p. 67

As with the steeples, the phenomenon is just mentioned in passing here, it is not present. It is not registered in this context, which is noted for another motif, that is, the account of the Resurrection.

This example illustrates the fact that the distinction between relevant and irrelevant is not an easy one to draw. The choices have been made on the basis of an evaluation of relevance. In this case, where the story speaks of the lack of graves among the sea people, the reason that the motif has not been included is that it is weak in many places. Individual points that are relevant in this connection would not necessarily exclude a motif, but together they do in his case. The reasons are:

  1. The graves are only mentioned in passing.
  2. The graves mentioned do not exist.
  3. The motif 'graves' does not mean anything in itself; the lack of them only throws light on conditions surrounding the death of the mermaid, which is not in itself a religious motif - flies die, too - but points further to the central theme of immortality. The motif 'grave' is almost completely devoid of importance.

The last point, that the motif means very little in the context of the text, thematically, symbolically and from the point of view of motif, is the most important one. That it is not actually present in the context or is likely to be in the future is not in itself decisive. The same could be said about the grandmother-angel in The Little Match Girl: She is not really there, but her importance in the text and to the girl is great, like the Christmas tree the girl sees in her vision. Thus it is not the real existence in the universe of the story which is most important, but its semantic weight. How much is implied?

Hans Christian Andersen's Religiosity

What then were Andersen's religious feelings and beliefs? The answer is not simple and the concordance is meant as a collection of quotations and motifs which will allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Johan de Mylius gives a short introduction to the subject in his short Hans Christian Andersen biography on the website: see ; de Mylius has also discussed this topic in his book Forvandlingens pris (2004), cf. below.


A chronologically arranged selection:

  • H. St. Holbeck: H. C. Andersens Religion, 1947
  • Aage Bentzen: “Der böse Fürst. Beiträge zum Verständnis des religionsgeschichtlichen Hintergrundes eines Märchens von H. C. Andersen”. Studia theologica IV, 1950, pp. 109-19.
  • Christian Svanholm: H. C. Andersens ungdoms-tro. (Med henblikk på dens teologiske bakgrund), doctoral thesis, 1952.
  • Helge Topsøe-Jensen: "H. C. Andersens ungdomstro", opposition til Svanholms disputats, trykt i tidsskriftet Edda LIII 1953, pp. 394-423, og i festskriftet til Topsøe-Jensen H. C. Andersen og andre Studier, 1966.
  • Jes P. Asmussen: “Hans Christian Andersen and Jalālu'd-Din Rūmi's Whirling Dervishes”. Temenos. Studies in Comparative Religion (Helsinki), 16, 1980, pp. 5-9.
  • Marianne Homp: H. C. Andersen und die Religion . Nordisches Institut, Universität Kiel 1984. 102 pp. – an unpublished ”MA-Arbeit”.
  • Yokoyama, Reiko, Anderusen no dōwa to shinkō . Inochi no Kotoba Sha, Tokyo 1987. 143 pp. [H. C. Andersens eventyr og hans religion.] aaj2 1159
  • Kofoed, Niels, Grundtræk af en europæisk poetik. Religion og æstetik i romantik og modernisme . C. A. Reitzel, København 1994. Pp. 159-94 (”Livssynets formulering hos H. C. Andersen”).
  • Johan de Mylius: 'Hr. Digter Andersen' : Liv Digtning Meninger, Gad 1995. Especially the second chapter, pp. 141-213.
  • Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen: “Politics and Religion in the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen”, in Todd Burrelt & S. K. Kelly (eds.), Translation: Religion, Ideology, Politics. Translation Perspectives VIII . State University of New York, Binghampton, N.Y., 1995. Pp. 154-67.
  • Lauri Oikarinen: “Familiar and Unfamiliar in the Personal Faith History”, in Nils G. Holm (ed.): The Familiar and the Unfamiliar in the World Religions. Challenges for Religious Education Today.Åbo Akademi, Åbo 1997. Pp. 224-34. (Religionsvetenskapliga Skrifter, 34.) – among others on ”The Snow Queen.”.
  • Johan de Mylius: Forvandlingens pris. H.C. Andersen og hans eventyr, Aschehoug 2004. See the review.