Who Was Snow White? When Old Stories and Real Women Combine
One of the most famous fables of all, variations of Snow White appear in more than 400 versions of fairy tales around the world. The most well-known version is actually called “Snowdrop” and comes from Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales. It was later tweaked into a more familiar format by the folklorist Andrew Lang and eventually adapted by Walt Disney.
The Fairest Woman
In this version, the queen wished for a child and a baby girl was born; her hair was as dark as ebony and her skin was so fair and pure that her mother named her Snow White. After the queen died, her father married a woman who was vain and wicked, who would stand in front of a magic mirror asking who was the fairest woman in the land. The mirror always replied “My Queen, you are the fairest one of all”, until one day an answer came that threw her into a rage – Snow White was now the fairest woman in all the land.
A 1910 illustration of Schneewittchen (Snow White) by Franz Jüttner. Source: Public Domain
Snow White’s step-mother, furious at what the mirror had told her, ordered a huntsman to take her into the forest and kill her, taking the girl’s heart as a proof. But the huntsman felt sympathy for Snow White and let her free, bringing the Evil Queen a deer’s heart instead. Snow White came upon a small cottage and, feeling exhausted, collapsed into one of the beds and fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke, seven dwarfs were looking down upon her. They told Snow White she could stay with them as long as she cleaned and cooked.
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Late 19th century illustration of Snow White with the dwarfs, by Carl Offterdinger. (Public Domain)
Snow White and the dwarfs lived in contentment, until one day when the magic mirror told the Queen that Snow White was alive and was still the fairest of them all. The Queen disguised herself as an old woman and presented Snow White with a poisoned apple. After taking a bite of the apple, Snow White fell unconscious. The dwarfs, assuming she was dead, built a glass coffin and placed her inside.
One day, a handsome prince passed by and saw Snow White in the coffin. He fell instantly in love with her and convinced the dwarfs to let him take the coffin so he could give her a proper funeral. As he and some other men were carrying the coffin, they tripped over some tree roots causing the poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White’s throat. In the animated movie, the prince convinced the dwarfs to let him give her one last kiss - that became the most popular version. She awakened and the prince declared his love for her. They were married, and as all fairy tales go, they lived happily ever after.
‘They lived happily ever after.’ (Public Domain)
A Myriad of Other Tales
This tale is actually a myriad of other stories mixed together, the oldest of which being the story of “The Young Slave” by Giambattista Basile, which also spawned Sleeping Beauty, but the biggest influences were “ Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree” and “ Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers”.
In “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree” there was a king who had a wife, whose name was Silver-tree, and a daughter, whose name was Gold-tree. On a certain day, Gold-tree and Silver-tree went to a glen, where there was a well containing a magical trout. The queen asked the fish if she was the most beautiful queen in the world, to which the trout responded that she wasn’t, that it would be her daughter — Gold-Tree, instead. Silver-tree went home, blind with rage. She lay down in bed, and vowed she would never be well until she could eat the heart and the liver of Gold-tree. The king came back home upon hearing news of his wife being bed-ridden, and when she demanded their daughter’s liver and heart he married Gold-Tree to a prince who had just arrived to ask for the princess’ hand and sent her far away, giving his wife the organs of a goat instead.
Looking to talk with the magic trout. 1892 illustration from the fairy tale Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree by John D. Batten. (Public Domain)
The next part of Snow White’s fable came from the tale, “ Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers”. Upon being forced away from home by her evil stepmother, Maria wandered in the woods until coming upon a cottage in which lived seven robbers. Instead of hurting the young girl, they allowed her to live with them as their sister, cook, and housekeeper. When the step-mother found out that Maria was still alive, she gave the girl a cursed ring which would cause its wearer to fall down dead.
And finally the last portion of the story was based on the tale “The Crystal Coffin”, which pretty much is self-explanatory.
The prince sees Snow White in her glass coffin with the dwarfs. (Public Domain)
Other Inspirations for Snow White
The magic trout became a mirror, an object that only accumulated superstition about its proprieties over the centuries. A reflection was significant in many cultures, both in self-discovery and for foreseeing the future. It was also linked to a woman’s vanity – it’s not easy to acknowledge oncoming age and a girl who was once a small child blooming into a beautiful woman - surpassing the matriarch of the family, whose beauty isn’t as it used to be.
In the same vein, maybe the apple could be likened to old Greek legends in which the goddess of discord Eris acquired one of the legendary Golden Apples and wrote “ for the fairest” and tossed it in the midst of a feast of the gods at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis as a prize of beauty, sparking a vanity-fueled dispute among the other goddesses.
‘The Golden Apple of Discord’ (1633) by Jacob Jordaens. (Public Domain)
There were also not one, but two, real women that might have inspired the story as well. According to Eckhard Sander in his book “ Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit?” (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?) The inspiration for Grimms’ version was Margarete von Waldeck, a German countess born to Philip IV in 1533. At the age of 16, Margarete was forced by her stepmother, Katharina of Hatzfeld to move away to Wildungen in Brussels. There, Margarete fell in love with a prince who would later become Phillip II of Spain. However, her father and stepmother disapproved of her relationship as it was ‘politically inconvenient’ and the girl mysteriously died at the age of 21, apparently having been poisoned. Historical accounts point to the King of Spain, who opposing the romance, may have dispatched Spanish agents to murder Margarete.
Where did the imagery of dwarfs come in? Margarete’s father owned several copper mines that employed children as quasi-slaves. The poor conditions caused many to die at a young age, but those that survived had severely stunted growth and deformed limbs from malnutrition and the hard, physical labor. As a result, they were often referred to as ‘poor dwarfs’.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – note the tools with the dwarfs. (Public Domain)
Another possibility according to a study group in Lohr, Bavaria, is that Snow White is based on Maria Sophia von Erthal, born on June 15, 1729 in Lohr am Main, Bavaria. She was the daughter of an 18th century landowner, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife, Baroness von Bettendorff.
After the death of the Baroness, Prince Philipp went on to marry Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen, Countess of Reichenstein, who was said to dislike her stepchildren. The castle where they lived, now a museum, was home to a ‘talking mirror’, an acoustical toy that could speak (now housed in the Spessart Museum). The mirror, constructed in 1720 by the Mirror Manufacture of the Electorate of Mainz in Lohr, had been in the house during the time that Maria’s stepmother lived there. The dwarfs in Maria’s story are also linked to a mining town, Bieber, located just west of Lohr and set among seven mountains.
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The ‘talking mirror’ constructed in 1720 that furnished the home of Maria’s stepmother, the Countess of Reichenstein. Credit: Manfred Scherer / Spessart Museum
The name ‘Snow White’ was borrowed from another Grimms’ tale, ”Snow-White and Rose-Red“. In this fable, adapted from a story by Caroline Stahl, two sisters give a bear shelter in their home during the winter and become friends with him. They later find a dwarf and rescue him several times, although he is ungrateful. Eventually the sisters witness the bear killing the dwarf, who had stolen the bear’s treasure. It turned out that the bear was a handsome prince who had been cursed by the dwarf. The prince then marries Snow-White and his brother marries Rose-Red.
Snow-white and Rose-red with the bear. (Sofi/CC BY NC 2.0)
In 1937, Walt Disney Productions released an animated musical fantasy film based on the Snowdrop story, having Gustaf Tenggren as one of the concept artists. Tenggren was already a children’s book illustrator, especially of fairy tales and folklore. He drew influence from Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen, two of the most famous fairy tale illustrators at the time. Changes were made to the story, making it more child-friendly, introducing the kiss and removing most of the queen’s failed attempts at the girl’s life. The princess was also renamed as Snow White, and the tale’s popularity grew until the princess became part of popular culture.
Along with the modern revival of fairy tales in media such as movies, Snow White is one of the protagonists of the ABC’s Once Upon a Time, a live-action show featuring her and the huntsman as the main characters. Recently Disney also announced a live-action feature retelling Snow White’s tale from her sister’s perspective, Rose Red.
Disney - Snow White And Seven Dwarfs Mural. (Joe Penniston/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The story of a gentle princess forced to deal with the jealousy of an older woman while still hoping for a better future is a conflict that surpasses generations. Sometimes the hardest form of facing adversity is having patience without losing kindness - that may be what this story is all about. In all its incarnations, the girl always overcomes her attackers by being kind in a dark, oppressing world.
Top Image: Roland Risse (German, 1835) - "Snow White" (Sofi / flickr)
Holloway, A. (2015) Exploring the True Origins of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/exploring-true-origins-snow-white-and-seven-dwarfs-004150?nopaging=1
Nevins, J., Willingham, B., Buckingham, M. (2013) Fables Encyclopedia.
Tater, M. (2002). The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales.