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An illustration from page 17 of Mjallhvít (Snow White) from an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm-version fairytale.

Exploring the True Origins of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the most famous fairy tales in the world, first related in 1812 when the Grimm brothers published their collection of tales that had been gathered from old European folk stories. Like many of the Grimm tales, it is believed that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been in existence since the Middle Ages, passed down through word-of-mouth over the centuries.  In 1937, Walt Disney’s animated feature film of Snow White popularized the story worldwide, and since then, it has generally been regarded as purely a tale of fiction. However, recent research suggests the famous fairy tale may not be so fictional after all.

Plot Summary

The story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tells the tale of a beautiful princess born with skin so fair and pure that her mother named her Snow White. After the Queen’s death, her father married a woman who was vain and wicked, and 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.

Snow White’s evil step-mother talking to her magic mirror

Snow White’s evil step-mother talking to her magic mirror ( Wikipedia).

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. But the huntsman felt sympathy for Snow White and let her free. 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.

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. She awakened and the Prince declared his love for her.  They were married, and as all fairy tales go, they lived happily ever after.

The Prince awakens Snow White

The Prince awakens Snow White ( Wikipedia)

Snow White is Margarete von Waldeck?

In 1994, a German historian named Eckhard Sander published Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?) , claiming he had uncovered an account that may have inspired the story that first appeared in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

According to Sander, the character of Snow White was based on the life of 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.

Margarete’s father and stepmother disapproved of the relationship as it was ‘politically inconvenient’.  Margarete 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.

So what about the seven dwarfs? 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 labour. As a result, they were often referred to as the ‘poor dwarfs’. 

As for the poison apple, Sanders believes this stems from an historical event in German history in which an old man was arrested for giving poison apples to children who he believed were stealing his fruit.

Historian Eckhard Sander’s maintains that the seven dwarfs represent the impoverished child labourers employed by Margarete von Waldeck’s father

Historian Eckhard Sander’s maintains that the seven dwarfs represent the impoverished child labourers employed by Margarete von Waldeck’s father ( Wikipedia)

An alternative account - Maria Sophia von Erthal

Not everyone is convinced by Sander’s claim that Snow White’s character stems from the life of Margarete von Waldeck. According to a study group in Lohr, Bavaria, Snow White is based on Maria Sophia von Erthal, born on 15 June, 1729 in Lohr am Main, Bavaria. She was the daughter of 18 th century landowner, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife, Baroness von Bettendorff.

After the death of the Baroness, Prince Philipp went onto 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 ‘talking mirror’ constructed in 1720 that furnished the home of Maria’s stepmother, the Countess of Reichenstein.

The ‘talking mirror’ constructed in 1720 that furnished the home of Maria’s stepmother, the Countess of Reichenstein. Credit: Manfred Scherer / Spessart Museum.

The dwarfs in Maria’s story are also linked to a mining town, Bieber, located just west of Lohr and set among seven mountains. The smallest tunnels could only be accessed by very short miners, who often wore bright hoods, as the dwarfs have frequently been depicted over the years.

The Lohr study group maintain that the glass coffin may be linked to the region’s famous glassworks, while the poisoned apple, may be associated with the deadly nightshade poison that grows in abundance in Lohr.

In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the dwarfs are depicted with colorful hoods, just as the miners wore near the town of Lohr.

In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the dwarfs are depicted with colorful hoods, just as the miners wore near the town of Lohr. ( Joe Penniston / flickr )

It may never be known where the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs truly originated as Grimm’s fairy tales were often an amalgamation of events that really occurred, mixed in with fantasy and imagination. Still, there is little doubt that there was at least some historical basis to the famous fairy tale.

Featured image: An illustration from page 17 of Mjallhvít (Snow White) from an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm-version fairytale. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Joanna Gillan

References

Abbink, W. (2012). German town brings Snow White to life . DW.com. Available from:  http://www.dw.com/en/german-town-brings-snow-white-to-life/a-15854753

DeNinno, N (2012). Is Snow White Real? A Look Back Into The Life Story Of Countess Margarete Von Waldeck. International Business Times. Available from: http://www.ibtimes.com/snow-white-real-look-back-life-story-countess-margarete-von-waldeck-701110

Eckhard, Sander (1994). Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit?

Hall, A. (2002). Once upon a time, Snow White lived in Bavaria. The Independent. Available from: http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/once-upon-a-time-snow-white-lived-in-bavaria-26058455.html

Hart, B. (2010). The True Origins and History of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . Available from: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/60644-the-true-origins-and-history-of-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs

Comments

According to "The Woman with the Alabaster Jar" by Margaret Starbird, The story of Snow White and Rose Red, and other similar fairy tales came out of Medieval Europe as allegories of the loss of the sacred marriage of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

Because in Medieval times, people didn't "just tell stories". Stories that got told and retold widely and survive down the ages were deliberate efforts to preserve coded knowledge about royal, spiritual, or political secrets, because they were dangerous ideas.

Why do we not consider, that legend of Snow White is a legend, and the dwarfs are just fantasy part of a fairy tale added to a tale of some real living dutchess or queen etc., and not any children working in mines or other creature like small people ? I personally not think that this legend had happened in reality and later was just told in fantasy manner with different characters instead of original !

E.B.
That's possible. Seven dwarves, like the seven demons Jesus drove out of Mary Magdalene, which people interpret as the seven deadly sins.

Another theory I'd heard and found interesting was that the story was an Alchemical allegory - that the dwarves represented various elements or chemicals, etc.

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