Exploring the True Origins of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
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 have an element of truth to it after all .
Plot Summary of the Fairy Tale
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.
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Representation of Snow White’s evil step-mother talking to her magic mirror. ( captblack76 /Adobe Stock)
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.
An illustration from page 17 of ‘Mjallhvít’ (Snow White) from an 1852 Icelandic translation of the Grimm-version fairytale. ( Public Domain )
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.
Was Snow White a Real Person?
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 opposed the romance and 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 labor. 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 laborers employed by Margarete von Waldeck’s father. ( Public Domain )
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 June 15, 1729 in Lohr am Main, Bavaria. She was the daughter of 18th 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.
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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 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. ( Joe Penniston / CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
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 .
Top Image: Fairy tale princess Snow White holding the iconic red apple. Was Snow White based on a real person? Source: Ulia Koltyrina /Adobe Stock
Updated on June 2, 2020.
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