In the story of Hansel and Gretel I see two layers of meaning which are interrelated. The first meaning is a parable on the correct manner in which to proceed in life, as an alchemical adept. The second elaborates on this in terms associated with the final stages of Alchemical transformation, the processes of Distillation, Sublimation, and Coagulation.
To begin at the beginning, it is easy to see the story can be divided into two adventures. In the first one the children are taken into the forest (here meaning the human experience) and left, but quickly find their way home, by following the path of white stone. We note also in this part they return but little has changed, they do not bring home the treasure that will change everything, and the wicked step-mother still has it in for them. In the second they trust to the bread path, but it doesn't take them directly home. Birds, which should be understood as the spirit, partake of the bread; and then, in the form of a white bird, leads them to more. They find the witch's cottage and eat from that. She takes them captive, they defeat her, and return home this time with treasure, to find the step-mother is dead.
By the first part of the tale we are told that the purpose of life is not to abstain from it, returning to God as quickly as possible. That is the mistake of monks who wall themselves up in their cells, praying and fasting, and hoping to die before the material world pollutes them. It is the sort of thinking that condemns the eating of the apple as having been an error, when infact it was man's next step in making known all of God's kingdoms, by taking on a body and learning about the human experience. Given the white stone, the philosopher's stone, an adept might be prone to thinking like the monk, to quit the human experience as soon as possible. But to do so he will not have returned with the 'treasure'.
The point of human life is not to abstain from it, but to engage it. From the lacks and challenges inherent in this we cultivate the one treasure you can take home to God, mind. We want to cultivate a mind down here that is rich in experience and wisdom, one that can focus, one that is not addicted to polarity, emotion, people, places, things, times, and events. Ideally we want to create a mind that has gained all there is to be had from the human experience so that we may progress to greater adventures and never feel the need to reincarnate again, as we have been trapped in stagnating cycles of reincarnation for eons.
The thing that has kept us trapped in this cycle has many names and symbols, but it is the Body-Mind consciousness, symbolized here as both the step-mother and the witch. It is because of this mind, carried over from lifetime to lifetime, that we must return in a new life, as Hansel and Gretel do by going into the forest. Body-Mind consciousness is a problem unique to the human experience, and so must be addressed as an incarnate human. Thus the step-mother, the false mother, is the reason we are again in the 'forest'. We encounter her in that life as the witch, who seems to wish to nurture, but infact intends to imprison and consume. She derives from the body's instinct for survival. Survival is of course an important thing, but when we sacrifice our soul in order to survive we have lost our way yet again. For example, when a person stays with a job they long since mastered, or a relationship that no longer has love in it, and does so for the sake of enhanced survival. In survival we name all that is comfortable "good', and all that is uncomfortable "bad", and soon enough all that is unknown becomes a potential threat, and thus "bad". In this way we are trapped by our fears, and cease to evolve in terms of consuming life, making known the unknown, and we begin to die.
By facing the witch and reducing her, the children gain the wisdom of all the human experience, symbolized by the lunar pearls, and solar jewels, a treasure greater that the white stone. When they return to their father, the step-mother is dead, and they are so enriched they never have to be turned out again.
So, what is meant by the path of the bread? Apparently the Egyptians, and later the Israelites, mixed the Philosopher's Stone into a bread or cake. This was to feed the spirit. The stone could also be mixed into a drink that was milky, and a glass. The stone is much gentler in it's effects when it is diluted, as in a bread. There is a great deal written on the subject that makes for fascinating reading, so I won't get into it any more than this.
In taking a closer look at the other symbols in the story we see: the children weeping; birds: a white pigeon, birds who ate the bread crumbs, a white bird of unspecified species, and a white duck; a white cat; a chimney lit by the rising sun; the names Hansel and Gretel, who are likened to a mouse, and a wind; the witch's red eyes; a bone; and a body of water.
Tears/Salt - The three archetypal forces of Spirit, Soul, and Body are symbolized in alchemy as Sulfur, Mercury and Salt, respectively. Hansel and Gretel do allot of weeping, in this we see salt. Salt has a higher nature and a lower. As Body, it is in its lower aspect, and called ‘bitter’, because the human experience can be bitter, and painful. In its higher aspect salt is a name for the Philosopher's Stone and a Christ, which is God in a body. When the polarity of Solar and Lunar consciousness is united a third state of consciousness emerges Stellar or Christ Consciousness. This is symbolized by Salt, Gold, the King's son or heroic child, and the Philosopher's Stone, just to name some of the more common symbols. Christ is called ‘Sal sapientiae’, the Salt of Wisdom’, and the Emerald Tablet calls Salt "the Glory of the Whole Universe." Nefertem, whom I will speak of more later, is the Egyptian God of cosmetics, healing, and alchemy, who in one form is the child Ra, and whose tears produce the first humans. One could say that as we resolve our human addictions, a path called the dark night of the soul, we become what humans were intended to be... Christs. But we need to 'wash our garments', our souls and bodies, perhaps in a bath of tears, to become that.
Salt is also seen as a symbol for the second phase of the Great Work, The White Phase, or Albedo. The White Phase takes place during the alchemical process called Distillation.
Of Birds in general its said "Vulcan (the fire of Spirit) induces the birds to fly", which indicates that Sublimation is taking place.
At this point I'll offer a definition of Distillation, Sublimation and Coagulation. Distillation is a process most of us will recall from high school chemistry. It is the heating of a liquid into vapor form, at which point the various substances in the original liquid mixture may be separately condensed again into a more purified form. Thus a fermented mash may have the purified alcohol removed from it. Sublimation and Coagulation together are almost the same thing as distillation, except that one begins with a solid, and there is no intermediate liquid phase. The solid emits a vapor (Sublimation) which is collected on the 'chimney' of the flask (Coagulation) it is being heated in. Sublimation is the first stage of Coagulation, in which the vapors are released. In the second phase the vapors are solidified, or Coagulated. In spiritual terms this is the separation of wisdom, the finer form, from the ferment of human experience, and the creation of a greater self from what remains.
The dove, remembering that a pigeon is a dove, is a symbol of many things in many cultures. But in Alchemy, it signifies the change from the Black Phase to the White Phase of transformation. Additionally the Dove symbolizes Third Person of the Blessed Trinity (that would be us, the soul carriers and mirror consciousness of God), and is a symbol of renewed spirit. It is likely Hansel's white pigeon was a homing pigeon as well, given the context.
The White Chimney, shining in the early morning sun, tells us the alchemical process is about to begin. If it had already begun we would have seen it at a later time of day, and it would have been soiled, or colored. It is the beginning of a new adventure for our protagonists, and we wish them to do the great work this time around.
The Moon, and Silver are likewise indicative of Coagulation, because what we have left of the substance we started with is purified (sinless, spotless, virginal, innocent...).
The White Cat is related both to the lunar Diana, and the (very solar) Egyptian divine family of Alchemy, in this case Sekhmet or Bast whom, with Ptah are parents of Nefertem, the young Ra. Ra was believed to assume the form of a tomcat each night for his battle with the serpent of darkness. In the book of the Dead he is referred to and refers to himself as the great cat. Nefertem was portrayed either as a human with a lion head, a human standing upon a lion, or a human wearing a lotus blossom headdress. The lotus blossoms too obviously indicating enlightenment, the flowering of the pituitary, or crown chakra. The Lions head meaning virtually the same thing. Nefertem is called a god of cosmetics, healing, and alchemy. The white stone of alchemy could certainly be called both cosmetic, as it restores youth, and healing, as it restores health. Also important is that the solar Greek god, Apollo, was sometimes called by the epithet Smintheus ("mouse-catcher") from sminthos; the mouse-exterminator. Recalling that he is brother to the lunar Diana, who is also associated with cats. There is some disagreement as to the meaning though and some say Smintheus means 'mouse-like'. At any rate a white cat on a roof, in this context refers to the unity of lunar/female and solar/masculine polarities as a necessary stage in mastery. A stage that occurs prior to the final effort in which the 'witch' is distilled/sublimated.
"Nibble, nibble, little mouse..." says the witch in one version of the story, hearing the children as they dine on her house. Mouse was the creature of Apollo, whether because he caught them or was like them. Mouse told Apollo all the secrets of the earth. The mouse represented, and still does represent, the soul. A better symbol for the soul however is a book, because everything you have ever experienced, in any lifetime, and between lifetimes, is recorded in the soul as emotion. It is the log of our travels into God; and the guide through each life, because we set in the soul that which we desired to follow, as a path, before we incarnate, in each of our lifetimes. Mouse partakes of life and records the experiences. Mouse knows the secret way when we are incarnate on earth. The children are guided by their soul wisdom. Also, a mouse can so weaken a house as to cause it to collapse, a bit of foreshadowing for what is going to happen to the witch.
The wind, the wind, The heaven-born wind," the children answer her. I am certain this refers to winds of change. Change is what the altered-ego, Body-mind consciousness fears most, because change is venturing into the unknown. The unknown, and change are equated with a threat to survival.
The witch says, you shall not escape me again. How many lifetimes have we been her captive?
The witch has red eyes. Red is the only color, other than white, which is mentioned in this story. It marks the Purple Phase (or Iosis) of the Great Work. The third and final stage of transformation, which is marked by the reddening of the material, indicates successful Coagulation.
At first the witch feeds them milk and sugared pancakes, with apples and nuts. This is the soporific mother's milk and enchanted bread of comfort, and the These are Eve's apples, the apples of human experience, and, perhaps, the Hesperides apples of immortality; and nuts of wisdom, like the hazel nuts of the druids. In this we see that we are trapped by our weakness for comfort. But, also, that our opponents, and the difficulties of life, enrich us in the end. More so, often, than comfort and friends.
Later Gretel gets only crab shells to eat. But Crab was considered sacred to Apollo. In this we see that though the witch forces her into the traditional female role of drudge, she is still being nourished by a solar essence that is her connection to her animus/soulmate.
Like wise Hansel is being fattened for the slaughter, the traditional role for men being one of privilege... until it is time to go to war and die for king and country. But he keeps as a talisman a small slender bone, which symbolizes the feminine of his spirit. Thus the witch is confused.
The witch is then reduced to ash and smoke, leaving behind her pearls and jewels, which I have already discussed.
Gretel is a Northern European diminutive of Margaret, which means 'pearl' in Greek, and 'child of light' in Persian. Hansel is a form of John, which means 'mercy of God' or 'grace of God' in Hebrew; but in Saxon it means 'a society'. Like the society of enlightened people who preserved this knowledge?
Finally we see another white bird, in the Duck. It was believe that a pair of ducks remained together for life, so the symbolism of the duck is an enduring partnership and fidelity. As the master of polarity will never again allow his inner connection to his soulmate, or his God, to be lost to him. Duck ferries the children across the water - that wasn't there when they left home! It is a new water. It is the Aqua Vitae, the living water of the refined and cleansed soul (water being the element most indicative of emotion, and soul being our recorder of emotion). The White duck is emblematic of it's nature.
And, of course, they lived happily ever after. But then no one is happy long, unless they continue to evolve. That's what eternity was made for.